Modern Day Pagans

Delivered August 11, 2002 by Mike Metzger,
immediate past Director of the Osprey Center
and founding Senior Pastor of Bay Area Community Church.

Sermon Text:
1 Cor. 1:26-29
and 1 Chron. 12:32

The New Testament lesson this morning is from 1 Corinthians, Chapter 1, Verses 26-29. I believe it is found on page 809 or 807, 807.This is a description, a commonly held description of the church in Corinth and those who made up its constituency and I would like you as I read it, to see if you can get a mental image in your mind as to who might have comprised this church because I am going to challenge some basically, culturally held notions about who made up the Corinthian church. But first let’s listen to the passage and see in your mind’s eye if you can think of it, who would comprise the church in Corinth? This is Paul’s writing and he says to them.

Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things-and the things that are not-to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.

This morning we are going to look at an idea that probably wasn’t on the frontal lobe of your mind when you woke up this morning. We are going to think about what’s called what I have entitled here “Modern Day Pagans.” I want to launch with this question. Do you know what the word pagan means? You probably have some hunches, but it’s not typically dinnertime conversation. Let me ask you this, this is another way to approach the question. When I say the word pagan, does a certain individual or a certain group of people or a certain type of person come to mind? Hopefully not your neighbor. Can you imagine right now in your mind’s eye, who is it that thinks or acts like a pagan today? Now I am going to ask you to take that idea in your mind right now and suspend it. Hold it right there. I am going to circle around and a few minutes later revisit your notion about who might be a modern day pagan. Because I think we are going to surprise you a little bit as to who in fact might be the pagans in our culture. But to get there you have to first revisit the first century church. I read that passage from Corinth because the commonly help view of the church when you hear that not many wise, not many noble, not many so on and so forth, probably in your minds eye you were thinking, the early church was probably made up of those who were slaves, disenfranchised, the illiterate, the uneducated and frankly when you read what Paul says here, not many of you were wise, not many were of noble birth, so on and so forth, it is easy to believe that. But I happen to think that if we take a quick cursory jaunt through history, we will see that the church is actually comprised of a very different type of constituency. And once you see what the early church was like, then you will understand how they viewed pagans in that time and then I am going to take and walk you through the 19th century and 20th and bring you up to the 21st century to ask this question again. Who might be a modern day pagan? Now I realize that I am taking a major, major gamble in doing this, because I am taking you on sort of a trip through history and today as Daniel Borestein says, “Most Americans are historically illiterate.” We can’t remember what happened 30 minutes ago, we could care less about 30 days ago, and 30 weeks ago don’t even mention it.

As an undergrad unfortunately I was a history major. I have a deep love for history. Are there any history majors still out there? One, two. Frankly, an awakening breaking out here. It is important that we be able to wrestle with this question for this reason. As I asked Jim to read that passage out of 1st Chronicles, the epitaph or what was written on that tombstone for these 200 leaders, the men of Issachar, is that they understood the times, therefore they knew what to do. I happen to believe that church is in desperate need of some people like those from Issachar, who understand the cultural setting in which we are in today, therefore they can know what we are to do. Now the only way that I can give you a cultural context for the 21st century is to take you back to the first. And so here we go. This won’t take long. Fasten your seatbelts. We are under way.

If I take you back to the Book of Acts for example. In Acts it describes the actions that were taken in the early church. Paul and his missionary journeys and we go to Acts 17:19. You don’t need to turn there, just listen to a very brief description of Paul as he comes in the town of Athens, where did he go? He went to the Areopagus. Again, a very common word. I am sure you use it all of the time. The text says, “Then they took him, Paul, and they brought him to a meeting at the Areopagus, where they said to him” now this was the civic leaders, the city leaders, business, banking, politics. They said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are pressing?” Now when Paul went to the Areopagus, anyone know what Areopagus means? What that word means. Well it actually comes from the Greek. And just last night I happen to see for the very first time, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”, has anyone seen that movie? As he says, “Everything comes from the Greek”, well as a matter of fact this does come from the Greeks. Areopagus is made up of two Greek words. Aero, A E R O, where we get words like aerodynamics, aeroplane and pagus. Sounds similar to pagan doesn’t it? Hang on, we will get there. Aero-pagus. Now aero simply means elevated. So if you have an aeroplane, that’s something that transports itself on an elevated plane. Pagus means what? Does anyone know? It means land, land. Dirt. Ground. So when Paul went to the Areopagus, where did he go? To an elevated land. He went to a hill. Now some people know this passage is mars hill. How many of you have ever heard it described as mars hill? But it was a high point in the City of Athens where the cultural elite’s, those who shape the cultural of Athens would gather and Paul wecnt there to tell them about the Gospel of Christ. In fact, if you look at the influence of Paul in his three missionary journeys, something that stands out is that Paul always went to urban centers and went to cultural leadership. In fact, Rodney Stark and his book, “The Rise of Christianity”, Stark is a University of Washington sociology professor; He says that the early church, even though the cultural view today, the predominant view of the church, is that not many wives, slaves, the disenfranchised, the dispossessed, he says this. “No, far from being a socially depressed group, the early church was dominated by a socially pretentious section of the population of big cities.” Now how many of you when you heard that Corinthian passage sort of in your mind’s eye dreamt of the Corinthian Church being made up of the mayor perhaps, the city treasurer, leaders in education, government, lawyers, artists. Stark says it was. In fact, he goes on to say that peasantry and the persons in slavery were the most underprivileged class. Listen to this, Christianity left them largely untouched.

Well as a matter of fact, if you continue through not only the Book of Acts, but look through archeology, for example when you see when Paul came to the Island of Cyprus. Who is the first reported convert on the Island of Cypress? The governor. What would it be like if the governor of this state or other states came to faith? That’s where Paul went. So he had to have gone to the capital. If you look through the roles of the Corinthian Church, you will see that one of the members was Erastus. He was known as the city treasurer. Christians were known to be amongst the aristocracy in Rome. In fact, there were even senators. Here is Stark’s point. The 1st Corinthian passage that I read, it has actually been over-interpreted. Paul didn’t say there were not any wise, or any noble. He said there were not many. But in fact, the church was so successful in cities and with leadership, that those who lived on the land, those who were culturally and socially isolated were outside the realm of the gospel in the first several hundred years. Now listen carefully. If Paul went to the Areopagus, elevated land, pagus, what does pagan mean? Pagan simply means land dweller or someone who lives out on the land. Now be honest. When I asked in the beginning what does the word pagan mean? How many of you said yourself, well it means land dweller? A pagan in the time of Christ and the time of Paul was simply someone who was socially and culturally isolated and didn’t want to live in the complexity and the commerce of urban life, in the shaping of society, so they lived out away from there. Paul’s target was so much in the cities, that over the next couple of hundred years those who were isolated culturally sort of in their own privatized worlds were outside the gospel, those pagans. The word also gathered a sort of cultural nuance to it. And the men who were resistant to the gospel and those who had never heard the gospel are those who are close to the gospel. Now when I asked you what the word pagan meant, most of you probably thought that, didn’t you? But it didn’t mean that in the beginning. It simply meant land dweller. It only took on that meaning because the church was so influential amongst leadership, amongst the aristocracy, amongst writers, educators, and lawyers. Now how many of you really view the early church in that way?

You see that’s important because now I am going to fast-forward out of the third century and take you up to the 19th century, because in the 19th century there was two remarkable legacies very different in the Christian Church in England and America. England saw the influence of some key leaders who saw Paul’s early influence amongst leadership and followed that pattern. America was very different. America saw the early church, not many wise, not many noble and headed in a different direction. Almost the same gospel, but remarkably different legacies. Let me just trace those for you real quickly.

Let me first just take you to England. How many of you have been to England? To this day you can still go to the Holy Trinity Church in the little town of Clapham, which is now absorbed inside of London and the Holy Trinity Church between roughly 1790 to 1830, a group of 40-50 influential leaders in English society who had come to faith met. They were called the Clapham Sect. We don’t use the word sect anymore. We would say the Clapham group. They were spearheaded by such men as Henry Thornton, who was a banker, John Ben who was a Anglican clergyman, William Wilberforce who in 1787 came to faith and 1790 became part of this Clapham group. Now from 1790 to 1830 what did they achieve? The never achieved great numbers. They didn’t have stadiums filled with millions and millions of people who came to faith, but they saw over 70 societal reforms take place, chief of which was what? The abolition of slavery. Now hold that in your mind because they set the stage for the blasphemy of the Victorian era in England, in which faith was a central component of the public conversation to the shaping of policy, education, so on and so forth. Keep that in mind. There is the 19th century and I know it’s a very broad brush I just painted with, but faith grew. What happened in America? From roughly 1800 to 1860 we have what was considered the awakening. The awakenings were entirely different in two ways. First of all, they saw millions of people come to faith, but where did they primarily take place? They took place in what would have been called at that time, the frontier or the Hinterlands, Kentucky, Tennessee, or in the south. My family and I for example, we vacation near Myrtle Beach. You can still go down on your way around a little town I think is called Little River, and there is a highway marker, have you ever seen those highway markers. Who designed those? We are going way to fast to read them. But if you go by one you will see there is a marker, George Winfield when awakening took place there, 20,000 people came. Ask yourself this question. What was the Little River in South Carolina in 1820? Now ask yourself this other question. What was happening in New York and in Washington and in Boston all during this time? Well as a matter of fact, Harvard went Unitarian in 1801. The difference in America is this. Millions of people came to faith, church attendance rose, the structure society were unchanged, largely unchanged. Slavery was never abolished in this country. We saw massive amounts of numbers, but it largely did not affect cities and it did not affect leaders.

What happened after the Civil War? From 1865 until the turn of the century you saw in America the collapse of faith. In fact, I recommend you an astounding book by Louis Menand called, The Metaphysical Club. It’s on the New York Times bestseller list right now. He traces out what happened after all of these awakenings in terms of the way Americans thought. And faith essentially in America became a privatized, peripheral weekend thing. Facts drove the world, values is something you play with on the weekend. England faith flowering, American pushed off to the suburbs.

Let me bring you into the 20th century then. And then we will ask the question, who might be those who most think like modern day pagans? In the 20th century, the only person I want to sight right now is a man called Antonio Gramsci. I am sure none of you have ever heard of him. Gramsci. Gramsci was a committed Marxist, an Italian, imprisoned for his beliefs and there in the 1930’s he writes a very impressive work, predicting the fall of communism and Marxist etiology. That’s not what is remarkable about his work. What’s remarkable is why he predicts that one day communism will fall and he said this, and this is the 1930’s, long before 1989 and the Berlin Wall. He said, “Marxism communist thinking can influence the masses. We can fill a stadium. We can see millions come to our belief.” But he said, “We have not been able to change leaders. We have not been able to persuade and change the minds of what he called our leading cultural opponents.” In the arts, in education, in the media. He said everyone who is a thinking person knows that communism is intellectually vacuous. And these leading cultural opponents, he said a movement cannot be sustained unless it can change leaders. And those leaders, those leading cultural opponents, he claimed a new term and you have probably heard of this term, he called them gatekeepers. Have you every heard that term? Gramsci is the one who coined that term and said a movement cannot sustain itself unless it changes the lives of gatekeepers. In America that did not happen. In England it did. Let me fast forward to where we are today.

Peter Berger has described America several years ago; he said America is a nation of Indians that’s ruled by Swedes. What does he mean by that? Well India is considered to be the most religiously inclined nation in the world. Sweden is considered to be the most irreligiously inclined nation in the world. His point is that America now has millions of people now who are religiously inclined, but her leaders are religiously disinclined. It’s why Theodore Rosac said several years ago the Christian faith in American he says is privately engaging but is publically irrelevant. It is something you play with on an evening in a small group, play with on the weekends, but it has nothing to do with the shape and structures and the rhythms of society. That’s why one man said that Christianity in America has largely become a white, middle class suburban experience.

So who might be the people who think the most like modern day pagans? Remember pagans are simply land dwellers who seek to live outside the commerce, complexity and confusion of urban life. They are often indifferent towards influencing culture and leaders, they are basically people who have created their own ghettos, their own clubs, their own privatized set of beliefs, who largely want to live inside the cocoon and get through life in this manner. Webster says a ghetto is simply an area occupied by a group who lives there especially because of either social economic or religious pressure, something that resembles isolation. In Paul’s time pagans were those who were isolated. Who might be the modern day pagans? The New York post discussing Time Magazines July 1, 2002 cover story about apocalyptism after 911 said this and listen to this quote, “Here in New York we don’t encounter too many Christians, but out there in the hinterlands they are everywhere.” Christianity in America is often relegated to something we just play with on the weekends. So who might be the modern day pagans?

I would like to suggest to you that maybe we are. Maybe we are the modern rendition of pagans. We might be the people who have decided to draw the cocoon in over our head and just sort of get through life, but are not dramatically or very effectively involved in the transformation or renewal of society. I remember years ago reading Michael Medved’s book, I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Michael Medved, PBS film critic, Orthodox Jew, great friend of the Christian faith? When he wrote his book, “Hollywood versus America” I especially remember this one interview with a Hollywood producer and the name is not important, but had done films which were clearly antagonistic toward the Christian faith and Medved asked this question, he said, “Why do you make these films that continue to antagonize Christians?” And the producer said back to him and this is not done with any sarcasm, no sneering and it was done in utter sincerity, he said, “I have never met a Christian.” I don’t know a Christian. Now somewhere along the way I thought I had read there was 20, 30 or 40 million of us out there. Where are we? Of course the big joke in New York, Washington and Hollywood and LA is that all of us live in the flyover land. Anyone know what that means, the flyover land? Well if you live in LA or New York or Washington all you do is, you never actually travel through the country you fly over it. You are not that much in touch with what people are thinking. That may or may not be the case. But I happen to think in a way that many of think today and act; we have become inadvertently the modern day pagan.

In that in any way sort of bothers you, let me give you three suggestions in closing here on how you might stop thinking and acting like a pagan. Here they are. Just three suggestions. Here’s the first one. Consider whether or not God cares about transforming renewing people along with transforming and renewing culture and society. Ask yourself if you believe God has a heart for people and for creation. I was noticing when I heard Jill and I have heard her twice now, probably hear a third time that we were talking about missionaries and she listed that they are there for the redemption of people and she mentions societies. Do you buy that? I mean that is tough work. It’s very complex and very icky, but ask yourself if God created it, does God care about it? If you buy that, here is my second suggestion. If you think that God wants to renew both people and creation, consider to what degree your faith addresses the wider world. Ask yourself to what degree your faith engages the wider world. In my experience, most Christians their faith has very little to say about what they see on television, the movies they go to, what they read in the paper, the PTA, the public schools, law and business. Look at this gaping hole we have in our social fabric today in ethics. Where are the Christian leaders who were stepping into that in the business community and saying, “I think we have something to say to that.” The Puritans had a lot to say about it, but again we are historically ignorant, illiterate. Ask yourself to what degree does you end faith engage the wider world or is it simply a privatized faith. Jesus died for me, I go to heaven. Like an airshaft. Up. I have some suggestions for you, if you want, on how faith engages the wider world. Most of you live in a neighborhood, why don’t you become part of the neighborhood association? Many of you have kids in public schools, we do. Why don’t you get involved in the public schools? There is no conspiracy out there. I suggest for example, how many of you watch the news at night or during the day or whenever? I get cable and I think 99% of us do these days. I am part of Comcast, this giant conspiracy to take over the world and I suggest that if you get Comcast, I suggest why don’t you broaden your coverage and understanding of the world news. Why don’t you watch the BBC some night? Now what’s different about the BBC verses ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and MSNBC? The BBC cares about the world and engages the wider world. Most of our media here only does it through an entertainment mentality and you will never come to grips with what is happening in the wider world.

So think about whether or not God cares about transforming or renewing people. Think about to what degree your faith engages the wider world and then finally if you think God does want to renew both people and creation, consider how you might encourage, pray and contribute to those who are engaging culture in this country. There are people who are working in education and people that are working in the White House office on faith based and community issues and they would love to have your prayer, they would love to have your encouragement, there are people working in media, entertainment in New York and in Washington and LA and there are people working in the Arts and I am going to close with this because I would love to give a little boost to the Arts. If any of you are interested in the Arts and Humanities, (Christians in the Visual Arts). Roughly 5,500 starving artist and I know a couple of them, they are pretty close to starving, who are serious about their faith and transforming and renewing the world of the Arts. Now they need your prayers, they need your support; they need your encouragement for two reasons. Number one, God created the Arts. The creation is magnificently artistic and it needs to be redeemed. Second, most Christians who are serious about Arts from the aesthetics find that most Christians they talk to are tone deaf on this. In fact, I am sorry to say the number one Christian artist in this country name withheld; inside the art world is considered junk. But inside our ghetto we think he is fantastic. But inside the world of serious art, aesthetics is always at the core, not marketing. That is why we don’t have great Christians writers today, because inside of our ghetto, inside our pagan mindset the number one Christian best seller out there in terms of writing is in the world of literature considered to be ridiculous. So if you want to start somewhere, and you could get a hold of fine artists in your area, call them up and say I don’t want to be a pagan anymore, what are you doing and how can I encourage you? Enough for today. Next week we are going to think about the world after 911 and the church specifically. Can I pray for you? Pray for me.

Let’s pray. Our Father in the heaven, because of your love for all of creation including people, give us a mindset that would engage both people and culture, they would see a way of redemption of societies and the people with whom they live and in these things we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.