How Does a Living God Relate to a Pagan World?

We have our gods, though we don’t give them names or ascribe human personalities to them.

My thoughts today are based on the story of Paul and Barnabas while they were in Lystra, a city in central Anatolia, part of present-day Turkey. While Paul was speaking, his gaze came to rest on a man listening to him speak who was “crippled at birth”.

Paul saw the man had faith, so he loudly told the man to stand up. (Acts 14:8-10) The man sprang up, and the crowd was awed, saying, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” (Acts 14:11)

The people in Lystra were pagans. They worshiped Roman gods and, perhaps, other gods as well. They started calling Barnabas Zeus and Paul Hermes and began making preparations to worship them.

When Paul and Barnabas realized what was happening, they were appalled! They rushed into crowd, saying, “Don’t do that! We are just men like you!” (Acts 14:14-15 (paraphrasing)). Then, Paul addressed his pagan audience like this:

“[W]e bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things[i] to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”

Acts 14:15-18

This is, perhaps, the first sermon preached in the early church to people who are not Jews. The pagans did not believe one God. They didn’t understand Mosaic Law, the concept of sin or the prohibition against worshiping idols considered to be false gods.

Thus, Paul didn’t address them as he did his Jewish audiences. He didn’t appeal to Mosaic Law, or accuse them of sin, or call them to repent.

Just as the Gospel is good news to the Jews, it is good news to the pagan Gentiles. The message, however, is different. Paul urged them merely to “turn from vain things to a living God”!

By “vain things” Paul meant their gods, the idols that the pagans worshiped. Instead of calling them idols, as he would have done to a Jewish audience, he referred to them descriptively by their character – their worthlessness, emptiness and utter inability to accomplish anything.

We have a hard time relating to idol worship in the 21st Century. Idol worship is so Bronze Age! Our ancestors long ago stopped believing in gods and sacrificing to them, right?

Tim Keller, in his sermon, The Gospel for the Pagan, paints a different story. These pagans were not so different from us.

In a polytheistic society, of course, people worshiped and sacrificed to a variety of gods. There was no supreme god. People had to decide what gods to worship. Thus, people chose gods to worship based on how those gods could help them.


A a merchant might sacrifice to the god of commerce. A farmer might sacrifice to the god of agriculture. Other people might sacrifice to the god of art and music, or love and beauty, or a combination of gods, depending on what was most important to them.

Keller says that sacrificing to the god(s) of choice was, in effect, worshiping the things people valued most. By sacrificing to the gods of commerce, agriculture, art and music, love and beauty, etc., they were worshiping whatever it was the god represented.  Whatever a person sought help for was the thing from which they sought meaning in life, hope and fulfillment.

Thus, says Keller, “vain things” (idols) are things that “promise fulfillment, but leave you empty”.

We may think of ancient pagans as a brutish and unsophisticated lot, but we are no different than they in the sense that we sacrifice for the things we think will fulfill and satisfy us. The only difference is that we have dispensed with the representative gods.

The person who values career, or accomplishment or being respected by peers as a matter of first priority will sacrifice for those things. The person who thinks that love, romance and family are the highest forms of meaning will devout primary attention to those things. The person who loves art and music will sacrifice for those things and from them seek meaning and fulfillment.

We aren’t that different, really from our pagan ancestors, though we might scoff at the idea of gods, as in idols. We have our gods, though. We just don’t call them names or ascribe human personalities to them.

Paul’s message to the pagans in Lystra was, “These are worthless things!” They can’t fulfill you. Only the Living God can do that. His message has more application to us in the 21st Century than we might think at first glance.

Continue reading “How Does a Living God Relate to a Pagan World?”

Evidence of a Beautiful Mind

Beauty is hard to explain on the basis of naturalism.

Sunrise over Hawaii by Miriam Higgs

Everyone recognizes beauty. That is undeniable. Everyone recognizes beauty in nature. Nature is virtually saturated in beauty from mountain peaks, to ocean shores, to barren Antarctica and the desert landscapes, to the starry host and the living cell. We recognize beauty in things we see, in things we hear, words that are spoken and in the personalities of exceptional people.

We see beauty in human art, and that beauty is usually produced by effort and design. The beauty in art is rarely produced unintentionally. Art, itself, is an intentional activity. If “art imitates nature” (Aristotle), then our proclivity toward art suggests that nature is also the product of intentionality.

Just as human art reveals something of the personality and character of the artist, nature reveals something of the personality and character of its Creator.

Beauty has a certain objectivity to it. While people disagree may differ on whether certain things are beautiful, no one denies that beauty exists and that some things are beautiful. Further, there are some things that nearly all people agree are beautiful.

If beauty wasn’t, to some degree, objective it could not be taught by experts in universities. The study of beauty includes principles of symmetry and asymmetry, color palate, texture and many other things that these experts agree make good art. A principle that is not the least important is the meaning behind the art, not just for the artist, but for the viewer of the art.

Virtually no one disagrees that these are objective truths, self-evident in quality and character. The fact that people will disagree over what is beauty, or what is most beautiful, doesn’t negate the universality of the idea of beauty – beauty does exist, we can recognize it and we can replicate it.

Beauty is hard to explain on the basis of naturalism. What sort of function does beauty supply? And why does it persist? The more advanced human civilization becomes, the more we insist that beauty be incorporated into our world, the more we desire it and the more we seek to make things beautiful. The best explanation for the source of beauty is a Beautiful Mind of which we are but images.

Myth, Appearance and Reality

What other appearances (like the sun orbits the earth) and corresponding realities (like the earth orbits the sun) exist that we have yet to debunk or lay hold of?

 (c) Can Stock Photo

(c) Can Stock Photo

Some of the great breakthrough realizations in human history are that the earth is not flat, that the earth is round and rotating, that the Sun does not revolve around the earth, that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and the earth along with other round bodies in space rotate around each other kept in correlation with each other by gravitational pull. These realities are different than the appearances.

We appear to be standing on a stationary earth that, for all we can see, is flat. The Sun appears to rise, cross the sky and set every day. It is no great leap to understand that the sun might move around the earth, though the perception of a flat earth persisted into modern times. The moon seems to move around the earth in the same way the sun seems to move around the earth, but one does move around the earth and the other doesn’t.

Although we have known the realities for centuries, we still talk in terms of the appearances. We talk about the Sun rising and setting. We describe the phenomena as sunrise and sunset. Someone unfamiliar with our colloquialisms might hear us speak and think that we are ignorant of the truth.

The appearances have a strong hold on us. So strong that they persist in our language and how we describe things on a day to day basis. Those appearances stubbornly refuse to leave our everyday speaking patterns.

What other appearances and corresponding realities exist that we have yet to debunk or lay hold of? Continue reading “Myth, Appearance and Reality”

Do We Stand in the Way of the Prodigal

A look at the prodigal son parable through the medium of music.


I am compelled by a phenomenon that I see in modern culture. Maybe it is not a new phenomenon, but the current expression of it is new (because it is happening now). The video above is an example: Jesus, Jesus, is a haunting ballad of the unbeliever by Noah Gunderson. Continue reading “Do We Stand in the Way of the Prodigal”

Devotional Artifice and Didactic Crap Reprise

Devotional Artifice and Didactic Crap. I wrote this article in response to statements made by Sufjan Stevens and the fodder they were for an uninformed, shallow critique of music that more overt Christians make couched in a fawning review of Carrie and Lowell, Stevens new album.

Maybe there is something to fawn over, as this article in Christianity Today suggests. The article suggests the following options: 1) accept him as “one of our own” who has found the key to the inside of popular art culture (a response that Stevens would pointedly protest); 2) reject him as one who does not want to be associated with “us”; 3 or) worship at the feet of the altar of his art. I do not claim these are the only options, but they seem the most obvious.

Is there another way to look at this? For the Christ follower who cannot easily dismiss the invitation to pick up the cross and follow, is there a compromise? Is there a way to honor God above all else without compromising the art? Is there a way of making uncompromising art without making an idol of it?

Sufjan Stevens has written:

To objectify art is to measure its commercial value and squander its transcendental powers of benevolence. Reciprocity demeans art; or, rather, it functions to incarcerate its powers, to judge it for its charity. Like putting Mother Teresa on trial, or in prison, for the crime of compassion. On the contrary, perfect art, as a perfect gift (without ulterior motive, without gain, without compensation) courageously gives itself over to the world asking nothing in return.

Do I engage with my work as a father cultivates his child, with loving-kindness, with fierce enrichment, with awe and wonder, with unconditional love, with absolute sacrifice? I make this my impossible objective.

Is art transcendental in and of itself? Must art be without ulterior motive to be pure? Should art demand the unconditional love and absolute sacrifice of the artist? I am having difficulty finding the harmony with faith in a Holy God. I have not head the album yet, but I assume it is everything I have read.

For another take, here is an interview with Bono.