Being raised in India while my wife, Margie, was raised in Canada, I have learned that sometimes words and ideas can get lost in translation, even with those closest to you. Often when I am with Indian friends or colleagues, one of them will make a remark in Hindi that elicits fits of laughter among those of us who understand the language.
Margie will invariably ask, “What did he say?” I attempt to translate the humor, knowing very well her predictable reaction: a blank stare followed by, “But what was so funny?”
Language and culture have that unique capacity to open a world of imagination and a wealth of memory. Even though I left India several decades ago, there are some concepts the Hindi language captures for me that English cannot.
Similarly, the same word may mean different ideas to different people. To a professor of philosophy, “reason” may mean a sound argument. To a high school teacher in India, “reason” may mean cultural respect for one’s own ancestral beliefs.
So, whether we are expressing humor or discussing ultimate issues, we are wise to heed the psalmist’s injunction: “Set a guard over my mouth, LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3). “The tongue has the power of life and death,” wrote Solomon (Proverbs 18:21). A few verses earlier he cautions, “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame” (verse 13).
With this biblical wisdom, we must keep in mind that behind every belief is a believer and behind every question is a questioner. The belief is part of the worldview, and the worldview is not always well scrutinized by reason. Cultures carry huge connections to the past. Respect must be given.
As I observe the apostle Paul, who was cradled within three cultures (Jewish, Greek, and Roman), I marvel at how he approached his mixed audience. A look at his assumptions and his method at Mars Hill, recorded in Acts 17, is very instructive. We are told, for starters, how he was “greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (verse 16).
I have said it before and it bears repeating, even to myself: holy anxiety is an indispensable prerequisite to significant communication and crossing bridges.
You see, Paul recognized that you will never lighten any load until you feel the pressure in your own soul. That distress led him to observe and listen, to dialogue, reason, discuss, and persuade many through the power of the Holy Spirit. Listening is a vital part of responding. The more and the better we hear others, the more and the better others will hear us. This is especially true today when sensitivities run so deep.
Holy anxiety is an indispensable prerequisite to significant communication and crossing bridges.
Moreover, Paul communicated that the Athenians’ yearning for the divine was a positive trait, but their systems of worship were not good enough if their truths were not tested. He applauded their search for God while also gently challenging them:
People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. . . . As some of your own poets have said, “We are his offspring.” Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. (Acts 17:22, 28–29)
His positive lead-in is very instructive. It is self-defeating to trample underfoot everything others hold dear before giving them the message of Christ. My mother used to say, “There is no point cutting off a person’s nose and then giving them a rose to smell.” Again, cultures carry huge connections to the past and respect must be given, even as the driving point is toward the truth. Like Paul, we must gently present the gap between what is believed and what is true.
Maintaining sensitivity, Paul also capitalized on his listeners’ lack of understanding of their own beliefs. One of the most surprising lessons one learns in countries where culture is interwoven with religion is that living within a certain framework all the time is, in a sense, the surest way to be detached from it. A Chinese proverb says, “If you want to know what water is, don’t ask the fish.”
Most Hindus know little about Hinduism’s scriptures or its development in dogma. Most Buddhists know little about Buddhism. Religion is much more a culture to most people than it is a carefully thought-through system of truth. Dare I say most Christians know very little about the teaching and history of their own beliefs. So again, to “answer before listening” and assume a person holds certain beliefs because they say they are Hindu or an atheist is both unwise and unkind.
When we seek to share the gospel with others, we want to listen carefully to their own unique assumptions and then move them from what they know and believe to what they don’t know and what they disbelieve. Then the conclusion is inescapable: What I now believe may be good, but it’s not good enough. There always has to be a persuasive element, and that comes from their familiarity with some authority and the ability to identify with that.
Paul had before him at Mars Hill seekers after God who were “very religious,” but they were scanty in their understanding of truth. How did he meet the challenge? It was his allusion to one of their poets that struck and helped him find that soft reach and a legitimate bridge.
Christianity is not a religion or perspective; it is God’s self-disclosure in Christ. It is built on and built through a relationship with our creator. Paul strove ardently to drive this point home. The crowd had gathered to hear what this “babbler” was saying (verse 18), but his message pointed—as ours must—to the person and work of Jesus Christ. The ultimate question is not “What is the answer?” It is “Who will answer?” The cry of everyone’s heart is for a Savior, a Champion, a personal Redeemer. It was this Redeemer whom Paul presented.
At great personal cost, Paul took the gospel to Athens. His sensitivities, his knowledge, his finding common ground, and his presentation of the unique answers of Jesus built the framework of his message. It is little wonder that he changed history by crossing bridges with such effectiveness to the known world. It is literally and figuratively true that he used the Greek language and the Roman road. We cannot do any less.
Ultimately, the change of a person’s heart is God’s work. And in doing our part, we must ever rest in that conviction.