Mansplaining Jesus: Why Religion Cannot Be Merely Explained (Acts 17:22-31)
By David Lewicki
Paul, Paul, Paul.
Stop. Hold your tongue. Sit down. Shut up. And for a change, listen.
This scene from Acts doesn't sit well with me. A dude (the apostle Paul) stands up, provoked by anger, believing he has something important to say. And he says it, with force.
I'm not here to argue about whether Paul's point is a good one-by all accounts, he does a fine job telling the Biblical story in a way his Gentile listeners can understand. I, like Paul, am a Christ-follower. I've already bought what he's selling. I am also a preacher, which means I am susceptible to the same traps Paul is. So I'm asking about the way he makes his point-I'm pushing back against the notion that Christianity is an idea that can and should be argued in the public square.
Maybe you are burned out, as I am, by our culture of authoritative male explainers. This week, former acting Attorney General Sally Yates became a social media hero and (some say) possible presidential candidate because of the way she faced down mansplainers at a congressional hearing. But Congress isn't the only place where men dominate the conversation. Bill O'Reilly's bluster, or Keith Olberman's. It happens in college classrooms and high school hallways. It was Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting who epitomized the form of the "heroic male arguer" when he upbraided a pony-tailed grad student in a bar to impress Minnie Driver. But it was life-following-art when Damon himself was caught on film mansplaining the lack of diversity in Hollywood to black female producer, Effie Brown. There's a cultural narrative that lionizes the guy who stands up and makes a rhetorical flourish that is so real, so true, and so deep, it rocks the world of everyone in earshot.
Christianity bought this heroic archetype, hook, line, and sinker. We love our men proclaimers: our John Wesleys and Jonathan Edwards, our Henry Ward Beechers and Charles Finneys, our Norman Vincent Peales and Billy Grahams, our Tim Kellers and Rob Bells. We love the guy who gets up and throws the rhetorical knockout punch, making the charming, winsome, witty, smart-but-appropriately-humble case for the supremacy of Christianity. Mic drop.
The problem is this: Christianity is a way of life, not an idea. It's neither a philosophical system, nor a coherent constellation of abstract beliefs. Christianity is a pattern of daily actions, a network of vital relationships, a set of practices, an expression of daily desire that mirrors God's own. Christianity is not theology. It is not words. It cannot be spoken. It's agape, in human flesh. The "case" for Christianity can't be made in the Areopagus, or the pulpit. It can only be made on the street corner, in the hospital room, around a table.
I went, once upon a time, to a wise mentor of mine and asked for her recommendation about the best book to give someone who is new to the faith and wants to learn about Christianity. "Don't bother with books," she said. "If what you want is to teach someone about Christianity, introduce them to a Christian."
True. Yet our faith is consistently portrayed in the culture as a way of thinking. We list "beliefs" on church websites, not core practices. We expend energy training young ministers in theology, instead of pairing them with mentors with whom to apprentice (think Mr. Miyagi's "wax on, wax off"). Ask someone what he thinks a Christian is, he's likely to tell you it's someone who believes that Jesus Christ is Lord. How many people will you ask before someone suggests that a Christian is someone who acts like Jesus, their life aligned by compassionate care with those who are poor?
Paul at the Areopagus is a flawed leadership paradigm for American Protestant Christianity. Liberal, conservative-we clergy have all internalized that our job is to engage the prevailing philosophies of the day with rigorous thinking and morally superior ideas. The modern-day equivalents of yesteryear's Stoics and Epicureans-the "nones," the "dones," the "spiritual-but-not-religious"... if only we can reach them, we could tell them that their meaningless lives will be saved when they hear our ideas about God! Paul is our hero: a man who can't keep his mouth shut as he wanders from city to city, going toe-to-toe with the Godless culture.
Did anyone notice, while we focused on Paul's elocutionary antics, that it was the Greek philosophers-not Paul-who "won" the argument? They invite Paul to play their game. They draw him out of the synagogue, where Jesus's way can be considered in the midst of close-knit relationships and deeply-rooted practices of piety. They move him out of the marketplace where merchants, farmers, tradespeople and panhandlers interact, a place ripe for an embodied enactment of the social reversals that come with the Kingdom of God.
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace[h] every day with those who happened to be there. 18 Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, "What does this babbler want to say?" Others said, "He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities." (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19 So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, "May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means." 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new. (Acts 17:17-21)
The Greeks take him to the Areopagus, the place of argument. They invite him to see the world as they did-as something that can be divided and compartmentalized by language into real and ideal forms. They tempt him into believing that understanding can be achieved in a forum of ideas, separated from lived experience. The Areopagus, the life of the mind, where the complexities of our bodies, individual and corporate, can be tamed, their unruliness minimized, and their role in our religious life ignored and forgotten.
In the passage, the outcome of the rhetorical smack-down in Athens is ambiguous, But the outcome of the rumble between Greek philosophy and the Way of Jesus is not ambiguous when you look at the larger arc of history. The Greeks won; the Way of Jesus lost. Greek philosophy altered-perhaps obscured-the course of Christianity. Paul himself was Hellenized, translating and spreading the message of Jesus through Hellenistic cultural categories. John, the evangelist, did the same with his "logos." The Hellenization of the Gospel increased in the early centuries of the church: Justin Martyr, Plotinus, and Augustine were brilliant minds, whose facility with philosophy altered forever how the Way of Jesus is spoken of, conceived, and ultimately practiced. Christianity adopted the Greek form-it became a systematized way of thinking. And in doing so, it became something other than the Way of Jesus.
I'm not against philosophy, theology, or other kinds of "book learning." I'm not against preaching, either. But all of these things are the trailing edges of Christian faith. They follow behind to pick up the beautiful fragments of thought that shadow our distinctive practices. The integrity of our thinking is important-it is what makes the Christian faith a holistic way of life. But it is distinctively Christian practices-not our thinking and our speaking about our thinking-that are the leading edge of the faith:
The greatest among you is the one who serves.
You must lose your life to save it.
Wash one another's feet.
You feed them.
As you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me.
Paul, my brother, if you must tell the Athenians about your faith, tell them first with your body. Break bread with slaves. Wash feet in the marketplace. Show them the way of Jesus. And Church, if you feel the Spirit calling you to proclaim to this secular age your faith, show them. Put your body in close, discomfiting proximity with people who are poor, or hungry, sick or scared. Sacrifice something of yours that is of great value. Give up your security. Embrace vulnerability for the sake of someone you love... maybe even an enemy.
The age of explanations-and explainers-is over. Paul, shut up. No one is listening. But out of the corner of their eye, they might be watching. Show them something through your own life. Show to them your passion for this unknown God-the one with the life that never ends, the mercy that saves you, and the love that has conquered death forever.
Think of a mentor or role model in your life who influenced you as you became a Christian. What did they do to show you the faith?
What is the ideal relationship between preaching and the practices of the Christian life? What changes could be made in your congregation's life and worship to bring them into a better balance?
Dialogue has widely replaced debate as a means of engaging non-Christian traditions. What do you and your congregation do to engage people who identify with another tradition or no traditional at all?
For Further Reading:
Resources: How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James K.A. Smith. (Review for Christian Century by Ted A. Smith)
"Am I a Christian?" by David Lewicki
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