Acts 17 - Paul's Seeker Sensitivity: Rebuttal

So one of my friends gave me some good-natured push-back about my line of reasoning that Paul was "seeker sensitive" and "culturally relevant" (see the post on 20080708). My friend poked specifically at the Mars Hill discourse at Athens. The line of reasoning goes like this: Paul's attempt to be culturally relevant was ineffective: not many converts, no recorded church in Athens, and The Bible tells us so - look at the text! Therefore, we should jettison all this "culturally relevant" garbage and Preach The Word!

OK - certainly we should preach the Word. I'm not in any disagreement with that. But let's take another look at the text.

First, the evidence actually in the text doesn't support the proposition that Paul's cultural engagement was ineffective. Some people in Athens were converted, there were requests to hear more from Paul, and it's not surprizing that no church was recorded planted as Paul's mission wasn't to plant in Athens - he was on his way and Athens was a lay-over while he waited for Silas and Timothy. Finally, the scripture doesn't signal or otherwise indicate that Paul's work on Mars Hill was bad, ineffective, or inappropriate.

The real, larger, question that my friend is raising (of course) is one of 'cultural engagement.' Is Christ against culture, above culture, accomodated to culture, or in culture? Several of you will recognize those phrases as the premise of the book, "Christ In Culture" by R. Niebuhr - a very important work. His answer is that the best - and especially the most Biblical - answer is Christ in culture: the church engaged in society.

So, my friend's arguement - seems to me - is not as compelling as advertised and the larger issue (as well as the best Biblical answer) is that Paul was right to do what he did. By the way, my friend doesn't really hold his argument, he'd heard it from a mis-guided fundamentalist.

Those are my thoughts.


Eric said...

How about this? Travel to Saudi Arabia. Then just preach the word with no regard to the culture, i.e. no "seeker" sensitivity. See how well it works. For fun you could also try it in Syria or India or China.

Arguments against cultural sensitivity are like arguments for so-called "literal" Bible translations. They only kind-of work in our very "biblicized" culture. Move to a much more non or anti-Christian culture and they make no sense at all.

emesselt said...


Your point is very well made. Many of our thoughts about what is "good Christianity" evaporate away if we think about how that would play in a profoundly different culture.

It's my contention that the gospel will play in *any* culture if prayerfully, thoughtfully, and and engagingly presented.