The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas: Paul’s Mars Hill Experience for Our Pluralistic World
Review by Chris Battle
As we stand and gaze at the sheer multitude of worldviews that diversify the context of our lives, day to day communication can be discouraging, but even more so the gospel. For example, I currently live in Québec City, one of the few Anglophones. The other day I tried to speak French, with my fledgeling ability, in what has become the litmus test for language proficiency: the drive-through. Friends, I must admit that I failed. Evidently my ability to pronounce un so that it doesn’t sound like deux hasn’t arrived. In other words, I wasn’t able to communicate so that the cashier could understand. Although obviously not a perfect illustration, I hope you see the point: as we navigate in our complex cultural milieu, having our own “drive-through” experiences, we must recognize that if we want to be understood we need to learn to speak in such a way that jives with our hearers.
In The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas by Paul Copan and Kenneth D. Litwak, the authors seek to answer the question, “How can we communicate to them [non-Christians] the truth of the gospel in ways that they can understand?” To accomplish this, they use the Apostle Paul’s speech to the Athenians on Mars Hill, found in Acts 17. This is a particularly relevant encounter due to the “translation problem” we see in today’s society, where many people are mostly biblically illiterate, often making it difficult to converse with them regarding ultimate reality using Bible verses and Christian terms.
The book can be divided into roughly three sections. In the first part, the authors begin in good apologetic fashion with reasons to support how this book pertains to today’s culture. Then they follow up by defending Paul’s speech as an overall success. Others have found Paul’s lack of a bountiful harvest of converts a reason to disparage his tactics of using culture and philosophy as evangelism tools.
In the second section, the authors provide context. They do this by taking a look at the Athens of Paul’s time, and then the figurative Athens we live in today. They contend that contextualization is tremendously important; without this background it is difficult to comprehend both the text and our situation today. Some aspects they cover include the philosophical ideas of then and now, providing a rich backdrop for promoting this method of engagement today. Moreover, they refer to the various other speeches Paul gives to show how purposefully nuanced were his choice of words. The authors are careful to show how well Paul understood his audience in order to be able to reach them.
After taking care of context, they move on to content. As a disclaimer, if you are looking for an in-depth commentary on Paul’s speeches, this book is not for you, as this was not the authors’ purpose. That being said, the authors do an excellent job of revealing the fact that Paul’s speech is indeed undergirded with a strong Biblical foundation. For instance, they show how Paul’s strong monotheistic theology gave him impetus to challenge the Athenians’ idolatry. They also point out that Paul’s ideas mirror those of some Old Testament writers, such as Isaiah, only spoken in a more common way. Finally, the authors take what they have prepared and illustrate how it can positively impact encounters with todays “Athenians.”
As would be expected from two excellent academics such as these, I found this book to be well-reasoned and their argumentation easy to follow. At the same time, they made it accessible to both the philosopher and layperson by using a mixture of technical and popular speech. Nevertheless, be prepared to do some thinking as they intentionally challenge their readers to exercise their mental faculties.
What I appreciated most about the book was how they rooted our experience today in a Biblical context. In contrast to the often futile attempts of “one size fits all” evangelism, I found it refreshing to have the issues broached in such a way that is neither condemning nor forgiving. By showing how Paul intentionally became all things to all people in order to introduce them to the gospel of Jesus Christ, Copan and Litwak encourage us to critically think about our current society using words fashioned expressly to engage and challenge.
This book is not a “can’t miss” blueprint for how to communicate the gospel, effective to bat 1.000 with every would-be convert. However, it does provide an adaptable model for various cultural scenarios, delivering practical ways to apply Biblical truths in understandable language. This book will be useful for anyone living in a pluralistic environment, desiring to help others meet Christ by identifying the “Unknown God.”
Copan, Paul, and Kenneth D. Litwak. The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas: Paul’s Mars Hill Experience for Our Pluralistic Culture. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.