Why I Think Apostle Paul Would Keep Up With The Kardashians
(*This is the conclusion of a series that began here).
One of my favorite Biblical passages about Apostle Paul is in the book of Acts—Acts 17 to be precise. In this scripture, Paul was visiting Athens, and was very disturbed by the prevalence of idol worship in the Greek city (the New King James Version says “his spirit was provoked within him”). How did Paul handle this? At first:
Already, there are three things I appreciate about Paul’s approach here, that cut across his work throughout the New Testament:
1. He reasoned. Have you ever been to a church service where the Pastor does a lot of shouting/whooping/hollering, but you leave without any tangible message?
What I like about Paul is: his emotional appeals were consistently balanced with intellectual prowess. Sometimes, modern day Christians think a life of faith means checking one’s intellect at the church door, but Paul said the opposite: “Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.” (1 Corinthians 14: 20).
2. He reasoned with both Jews and Gentiles. Paul was a Jew and studied to be a Pharisee. However, when it came to the gospel of Christ, Paul did not limit his message to the Jews. He consistently engaged with people who were different from him. For example, Paul went on missions across the Mediterranean world: from Antioch, to Turkey, to Greece to Cyprus. He also established several churches in Asia Minor and at least three in Europe, including the church at Corinth.
3. He reasoned in the marketplace daily. Now, the marketplace in Athens was no regular marketplace. Athens was filled with all kinds of philosophers and intellectuals. Athens was the home of Socrates, Aristotle, Plato and the birthplace of democracy after all. But Paul didn’t confine his arguments within the walls of synagogues where he was more sure-footed: he went toe-to-toe with other smart people in public spaces where his belief was the minority belief. In fact, the next verse (Acts 17:18) says when certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered Paul, their first response was: “What does this babbler want to say?” Paul was consistently unbothered, unashamed, and unafraid though. He boldly told the Romans, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ” (Romans 1:16), and he advised Timothy: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). Paul was so sure of his beliefs he was willing to shed blood for them. Before his conversion, Paul was so eager to kill Christians that God had to get his attention by making him temporarily blind. When Paul became a Christian? He remained grave ready, declaring: “to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). The man was basically an intellectual gangster.
When Paul was unable to steer the people of Athens away from idolatry by just reasoning and debating with them, he did something different. Paul studied their shrines and observed there was an altar that had an inscription on it: ‘To an Unknown God.’ Standing before the high council of Athens, Paul told the people this unknown God they had been worshipping without knowing was the God he had been trying to tell them about. He then waxed on about the gospel of Christ. That day, some people joined him and became believers, including a woman named Damaris.
Truth be told, Paul could have probably cared less about that altar since he didn’t believe in idols. But he did something clever: he used a prop his audience could relate to, to explain his message. By being culturally relevant, Paul was able to win some people over. Given the current global obsession with celebrities, I truly believe if he were alive today, Paul would keep up with the Kardashians. Paul once told the church at Corinth: “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9: 22b).
My views on Paul have definitely evolved over the years. In my Troubles With God series, I wrote about how when I was 11 years old I prayed: “Dear God, I can’t wait to come to heaven and meet Paul. I have words for him!” I was incensed by some of writings about women, some of which I’ve addressed during this series. To this very day, many churches use Paul’s writings to hinder women from: church leadership, preaching, voting on church boards, missionary opportunities, and other aspects of Christian ministry. Nonetheless, throughout this series I’ve asked that we consider Paul’s writings in context. Now, here’s another thought: maybe we need to consider Paul, the man, in context too. Paul was brilliant and bold, but he was also a man that lived in the Greco-Roman world of over 1,000 years ago. I think judging a first-century man by twenty-first-century standards leads to gaps in understanding and interpretation. Paul’s writings were inspired by God yes, but influenced by culture still…that’s my story anyways.
His writings were also correspondence to specific recipients: the church of Corinth, the people in Ephesus, Timothy, Philemon…and so on and so forth. Like Biblical scholar F.F. Bruce wrote: “I think Paul would roll over in his grave if he knew we were turning his letters into Torah [law].” The challenge for students of biblical scripture today then, in my opinion, is to do the hard work of sorting through Paul’s writings that should continue to guide the modern Church, and those that are context-specific.
And you know: if I could have a conversation with Biblical characters of my choice, Paul would still be in my top three. But first, Jesus (because, duh…), and second Eve (because man, she really screwed women-kind over). Speaking of which: Stay tuned for my next theology post on Eve.