Athens is Fencing: Babylon is a Cage Fight

So why Babylon and not Athens?

That was a question raised by my last post. In other words, what is it about the present Christian experience (Apart from the biblical material?-Obvious Ed) that suggests Bully-boy Babylon rather than Agreeable Athens?

For those who like pictures:

Athens assumes public discourse looks like this:

It actually looks more like this:

That’s right folks, the current level of public discourse in the Western context is becoming so toxic, so polarised and polarising, that it feels more like the emotional biff and bang of being pressed hard against cyclone fencing than it does the incisive cut and thrust of an epee duel, with all of its “Don’t mind me’s” and “Take guard sir’s”.

Never mind the fencing foil, the gloves are off and it’s knuckle dusters at five paces. The zero-sum game toxins of modern politics and the media has poisoned the well.  Athenian fencing presupposes we can win an argument with a three point thesis: Babylonian cage fighting trumps us with a savvy, shallow viral Facebook meme that knocks the wind out of our intellectual sails.

Let’s be clear: If someone said to you that in six months time you will be contesting a duel, the first thing to ask should be, “Will the sign I am losing that duel be the frequent zapping of my fencing buzz box, or the sound of my ankle snapping as some oiled behemoth lands on it?”

For twenty years we have been yoga-stretching for what I call an Athenian fencing duel, an assumption ably assisted by our theological and other training centres. How do I know? Because if there has been one Bible passage preached and podcast as the apologetic fulcrum it is the Athens described in Acts 17:21.

Remember Acts17:21? There is Paul in the centre of Greek culture and learning with a gospel opportunity to proclaim the risen Jesus.  And why does he get his chance? Because…

All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas. (Acts 17:21).

Apologetics training has assumed a sympathetic hearing in the public square, and maybe, like Paul, the chance to be heard another time on this matter.  So we prepped as if this would be the case.  I have no problem per se with apologetic talks entitled “Did Jesus Rise From the Dead?” but today’s audiences are primarily Christians, who go home encouraged in their faith by the intellectual arguments presented by well-versed protagonists on both sides.  Maybe that’s the level of conversation being held in secularism’s rare air, I don’t know, but it’s certainly not in the lower reaches of the atmosphere. Down here, people are unfriending each other in virtual, and in real, life at a rate of knots over far more earthy matters.

Hence a friend of mine who is a chaplain at a respectable, private religious school here in Perth said that the most asked question by far, and the one with most vociferous push-back during open question time from students at school chapel is the Christian view of homosexuality. Did Jesus rise from the dead? Meh, who’s to say?  But what did he think of gay people?  Give an uncertain or unsatisfactory answer to that and it’s game over and game on. Now both of those questions are vitally important to answer, but the former  is firmly in the fencing duel category of public discourse, whilst the latter sets Christians up, if they are not careful, for a cage fight.

See what I did there? And I am going to write this following piece in red, just so no one can miss what I am saying here: I said “…IF THEY ARE NOT CAREFUL..”  While the cultural discourse requires us, if we are to “win”, to train for a cage fight, I believe that we as Christians MUST NOT respond in like manner simply because I don’t believe in the zero-sum game’s agenda. So if you are reading this, flexing your Facebook biceps, pulling on your sermon lycra, and knocking back the  culture war’s protein powders, ready to hand out a bruising, YOU ARE COMPLETELY MISUNDERSTANDING MY INTENT.

Many christians are feeling bruised by the cultural slap-down they are receiving over the public “conversations” (if they can be called that), regarding sexual, reproductive, and end-of-life ethics. Of course there are other ethical matters that Christians grapple with, and I will deal in a later post with what I consider to be a spurious accusation from many liberals, that evangelicals care less about the ethical use of money than they do the ethical use of sex. The generosity of Christians in terms of giving to both Christian and secular organisations far outstrips the average secular Australian (willing to tease this one out at a later date- Ed).

The constant refrain from the world, and from some within the Christian camp, is that it is poor form for Christians to portray themselves as the victims now. With progressive policies sweeping all in their path, aided and abetted by full page ads in our national newspapers and legal precedents, the strong sense is “Now it’s our turn.”.

I get that.  We’re being told, on the basis of holding cultural hegemony for so long, to take our medicine and fight the cage fight with one hand tied behind our backs.  Besides why should we ever play the modern cultural narrative of victimhood anyway?  Why appropriate secularism’s weapons of war? We’ve spent years – decades -convincing people that they are not primarily victims in God’s eyes, so why drape ourselves in that smallpox ridden blanket?  While many people, sadly, are indeed rendered victims due to the evil and sin of others, the Bible is clear: it was while were were still sinners/perpetrators that Christ died for us, not while  we were victims/calling out for mercy. So evangelicals need to heed that and not whine when we don’t get a “fair” hearing.

But there’s another reason behind this for me.  You see, Acts 17:21 is not the fundamental, underlying framework of the Athenians. Never was, if you read the text properly.  Read v17 alone and you read an open-minded reasoning into the Athenians – and by applicatry extension into our Western context – that is simply not there.  In order to understand Athens true nature, we must wind back from verse 21 to the start of Paul’s Athenian adventure, Acts 17:16.  Read that, and we start to get a very different picture of the cultural milieu of Athens:

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. (Acts 17:16)

See that? Paul’s initial response in Athens was sorrow at their false worship, which he did indeed try to correct. A false worship that, for all Athens’ cultural sophistication, was merely a souped up version of old-fashioned, uncouth Babylon with new tyres and a paint job. That Athenians thought it cute to hold slightly disinterested, playful intellectual discourses, was simply something Paul used to his advantage while he could.

The Western discourse is far different today. The manner of public discourse in our modern context is not fundamentally fuelled by playful intellectual arguments, but by reductionist polemic.  Paul got a hall pass in his day to address Athenian idolatry because the accepted discourse permitted it.  But Babylonian idolatry does not play the game according to those rules.  The idolatry of the individual self whose primary goal in life is to self-actualise is off-limits. Believe and say what you like in private, but when the Oompah band strikes up, you’d better prostrate yourself before the gold statue in the public square.

Most of our culture’s taboos have been broken (sigh- Game of Thrones AGAIN anyone? – Ed) but new taboos, forged and fashioned in the furnaces of our idolatry, have filled their place. These taboos include a new, formidable trio that Dale Kuhne highlights in his book Sex and the iWorld: Rethinking Relationship beyond an Age of Individualism:

1. One may not criticise someone else’s life choices and behaviour

2. One may not behave in a manner that coerces or causes harm to others

3. One may not engage in a sexual relationship with someone  without his or her consent.

That’s the western world today for good and for ill (and not all of it is ill if we are to value human freedom beyond our own belief frameworks in a pluralistic society). But that aside, these are not intellectually driven matters, they are more deep seated than that. And they are not even about sex at all, if truth be told.  They are about the foundational commitment to the individual as autonomous self.  Challenge someone at an intellectual level and, if the matter is indeed intellectually driven, they will parry and thrust intellectually with you with all of the enthusiasm of a fencing master. But challenge someone at the level of these foundational, and idolatrous, assumptions and you may well be body-slammed.

Babylonian idolatry devoid of  an Athenian rule-book means simply that there are no rules apart from the rule of power. Christians are often coming out of bruising encounters with their non-Christian friends confused and dazed about what just happened.  This new-found hostility they experience from people whom they simply assumed would “agree to disagree” with them is a shock to those brought up in the gentle art of fencing.   It’s happened to me. It’s happened to friends of mine.  We went in to parry and thrust with an intellectual opponent and got beaten up by an idol in tight shorts, full sleeve tattoos, a war cry and a six pack.

Now don’t make me write it in red again, but a sanctified (aka “righteous” anger) version of the body slam is neither sanctified, nor, indeed, sanctifying. The fruit of the Spirit in the life of the Christian community simply leaves no room for cage fighting:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Gal 5:22-23).

How would that work itself out in a cage-fighting culture?:

Hey Bruiser, how come you never made it to the final of the World UFC Championships?

Well, glad you asked. When my opponent crushed my leg, I exhibited plenty of forbearance.  Then when I had the opportunity to slam his nose into a metal door bracket I was gentle with him and just gave it a good rub on the mat, and finally when he kicked me in the groin I exercised self-control and didn’t swear.

Not exactly a winning strategy given cage fighting’s rules of engagement is it? And what that tells us is that Christians need to emotionally prepare themselves to be the losers for a while, simply because they will refuse to play by cage fighting rules.

Let’s remember that Paul did not finish his days with tenure at the Athenian Aeropagus lecturing in ethics and the philosophy of religion.  He ended it on the chopping block in Rome, suffering for the sake of the gospel. He challenged the assumptions of progressive, intellectual Athens, brutally civic Rome, and moral Jerusalem with a gospel message that cut progressive intellectualism, civic brutality and self-righteous moralism to the ground with one devastating flourish of the Sword of the Spirit.  Their  collective response?  To drag him into the wire cage and tag team him to death.

To conclude, a good friend of mine has pointed out that the text that could govern us in these Second Stage Exile days in Babylon is the letter of Paul to the Philippians.  Why?  Because it is full of joy! Full of love, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. It is full of what I believe is the antidote to the toxic poison of the zero-sum game Babylon culture that we are steeped in, and which is, if the trajectory continues, more than happy to silence dissent as it rolls along.

You see, our culture has a burr in the saddle.  A lack of true joy. I well remember Boris Becker saying that at the age of 17, having won Wimbledon for the first time, he stood on his hotel balcony contemplating jumping to his death. I caught it!  I realised my dream! But is this it?  What now?  Those were his questions.  It’s fair to say the rest of his chequered life, especially after tennis, has never recaptured that fleeting joy, and has indeed held its fair share of sorrows due to his human frailty.

As exiles, we must with confidence and sorrow, assume that the culture will keep grasping at what it thinks will satisfy, whilst never attaining it, always finding true joy out of reach, whether it recognises this or not. By contrast, the joy at having found a pearl of great price, and selling all to acquire it, simply doesn’t dim, even in the face of a turning culture! As a wise colleague reminds me in ministry, for Christians joy is the canary in the cage at the bottom of the mine shaft. Its death is a warning sign to the Christian that something toxic is nearby. We need to recover our joy in the Lord.

I feel at the end of these sobering posts that I have nothing to offer us but God’s Words, hence here we go again.  What was Paul’s response to a Philippians church under duress from the culture whilst he mouldered away under arrest? Pure joy:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  (Phil 4:4-7).


  1. Interesting observations Stephen, thanks for all the thought-provoking posts! I do feel though both in this and the previous post that you’re maybe over-stating the issues and threat a tad, the world has always been the world and always been opposed to the gospel, now people are just more honest about it and there’s more opposition ‘out in the open’, but there’s no surprises here, is there? Haven’t we always been in exile (1 Ptr 2:11, etc)?

    What I agree with in your post is that Christians certainly need to change the way we engage with people, along 1 Peter 3:15 sort of lines, with gentleness and respect, but again, hasn’t that always been the case? So totally agree with everything you’re saying in that regard.

    I’m finding conversations based around the theme of identity, and finding identity in being made in God’s image rather than in our sexuality can be really helpful. Also talking about patterns of Christian meditation (ie. prayer) have opened up good conversations, because hey, who doesn’t meditate today? So, like you said in the first post, let’s start using again and win back some of our own language! I don’t want to cage fight but I certainly want them to know that my meditation is better than their meditation and I don’t need a yoga mat and lulu-lemon pants to meet with my God.

    If anything, in this ‘re-constructionist’ climate everything simply needs to be (re)defined and that opens heaps of opportunities if we’re also discerning and look for ‘who’s biting’. I’m finding younger people are more open to gospel conversations than ever before, they simply need to be engaged in face-to-face conversation, we need to go back to a Creation-Fall-Redemption-Recreation narrative in explaining what we believe and we need to take the time to listen, listen, listen and have on-going conversations and friendships with unbelievers in order to do this. So Col 4:2-5, game on, business as usual.

  2. Hi Dan
    Love your work btw!

    Thanks for the thoughts. Yep you are right, I believe that the 1 Peter conversation is the one to have. I guess what I would say is that my post is talking about the level of “public discourse” that does, over time, shape the private discourse. If we listen to Keller last year even he was saying that the apologetic methodology they are employing at Redeemer is starting to lose traction and that they are starting to just about hold their own.
    And I am not finding that people are more open to gospel conversations than ever before. Maybe I am a poor evangelist at this level, but as I look around I don’t see that. Maybe that is Perth though, I don’t know. And perhaps it is western culture. We have certainly found new migrants more open to talking about the Bible out of sheer interest in the story.
    What I would say, in line with my latest reading of Scott McKnight is that the CRFR pattern is missing one vital ingredient – the church. It still places the story within the individual narrative and makes it us focussed. Now I am pretty familiar with The World We All Want material, which taps into CRFR strongly, but the world that God wants is a more challenging presentation at one level. I think the one thing that the world has a real problem with – the church – is the one thing we are constantly at risk of jettisoning because it embarrasses us. McKnight pushes back on that hard.

    I also would say that as those involved in “professional” ministry we don’t feel the sting of this anywhere near those do who are in the city or the factory, or the mums’ playgroup. Let me know what you think on that.

    1. I suppose my push-back to McKnight’s push-back (even though as bros we’re definitely not cage fighting!) is that I’m not trying to convince people to love the church if they’re not already loving Jesus! It’s an ‘order of discipleship’ issue, if I can use that phrase, if I’m engaging a ‘positive un-churched’ (as Ed Stetzer calls them) who wants to talk spiritual then I’m wanting them to engage with the gospel not my doctrine of church, and the gospel presented today has to first set out the purpose and plan (creation) and the problem (fall) before they’re going to get the solution (Jesus), it’s really just giving the gospel it’s proper context, so it’s clear and makes sense, again Col 4.

      In a post-christian, neo-babylonian reconstruction society there’s complete ignorance and naivety of the Christian story, but I don’t believe it’s as bad ‘out there’ as some would have us believe, but if our people are also biblically illiterate we’re in trouble, so training in gospel story telling (biblical theology) and listening and formation so people will want to live with gospel intentionality has to be the way forward for those working in the city, factory, etc

  3. I think the world has much to blame the “Christian church” for when you consider the past history of abuse / cultural incompetence / arrogance etc; etc. Why shouldn’t people blame us, be upset with us Christians?? I think this cultural period is an opportunity to shine as true Jesus followers. It’s up to us to show who we are as true believers by our behaviour (sexual ethics, work ethic, financial ethic, family ethics, behaviour towards the poor and the oppressed) ……. and not necessarily our words so that people question “What’s different about that person?”. Perhaps, I’m not so despairing of these coming times because in my junior psychiatry training career I was both derided and challenged about my belief system. I survived. We can all survive even though it might be hurtful, disappointing, confronting, threatening at times. “They will know we are Christians by our love……”
    And by the way “But what did Jesus think of gay people?” He loved them……..

    1. I agree with your last lines there Pauline (and I agree with much of your comment too). I guess the tone of my article is confronting, but the solution is pretty much what you state – how we live is crucial. I think the difficult position is for the church to publicly hold to an ethical line on issues as a faith community with a freedom that may no longer be granted to it from the public square. I do think that in your junior psychiatry time things were pretty confronting too, and not necessarily easier or harder than today. But the level of public discourse has sunk a lot lower since then and the temptation will be to fight fire with fire, which I would hope to avoid. I don’t see SSM as the end of the world as we know it – far from it. There are plenty of things that I am more concerned about in our culture. The message that is being shouted down for many evangelicals however, is that they would wish to affirm their love for people whose lifestyles they don’t necessarily agree with without being labelled the equivalent of a 1960s KKK racist. That’s where our culture is coming undone because it is proving itself unable at living with deep differences. I guess my sermon yesterday was a call for us to not be too jolted by any of it. But appreciate your thoughts on this as an ongoing conversation.

  4. Thanks again Steve. We’ve been looking at Habakkuk at St John’s over the last six weeks and it’s all about Babylon. ‘Though the fig tree does not blossom’ isn’t the cheery ditty Scripture in Song would have us think!!! I think your connection to Philippians is on the right track for life in Babylon.

  5. Thank you so much, Steve, for these two brilliant and sobering articles. I am very much engaged in apologetics, and what you say here gives me much to think about. The church in the West is entering into uncharted territory where the challenges, as you so well demonstrate, will now cost something more than just not being liked.

    But I have a couple of questions for you. In the first article, you write:

    “Unlike Athens, Babylon is not interested in trying to out-think us, merely overpower us. Apologetics and new ways of doing church don’t cut it in Babylon. Only courage under fire will.”

    I assume you don’t mean to say that apologetics is no longer necessary, right? Do we not need something to be courageous about, i.e., sticking with what we know to be true and proclaiming it even in the face of opposition (as the four young men in Babylon did)?

    Also, isn’t part of the reason Babylon isn’t interested in outthinking us precisely because it thinks it has won the battle for the mind? In my philosophy department at a major secular university here in the US, they are still willing to listen to reasonable arguments made in defense of positions they find totally outdated and wrongheaded.

    Again, thank you for your prophetic voice in these matters. I hope these thoughts receive wide readership in the church.

    1. Great points you make there, and grist for the mill (and I have a good young friend here in Perth closely linked to RZIM who is a wonderful apologist/evangelist). Perhaps the position I am coming to (and am thinking of writing about) is that apologetics is still useful for those who are tapping into that frequency. Here in Australia when we made the move to digital TV from analogue there was a cross over period in which both were possible. However if you wanted any of the new digital network you had to buy a set-top box. Finally there was a day when analogue was not simply eclipsed, but ended. I do think that the battle for the mind is still able to be dealt with at analogue level, but as you noted, your primary place of sparring with the mind (on the surface at least) is the university. The overwhelming location of sparring for the vast majority of the culture is the heart – not the mind, and at that level the debate has shifted decisively from analogue to digital. The fact that a larger percentage of the population now attends university should not fool us in to thinking that they are thinkers. My experience is that that they are not even readers let alone thinkers about these things. University (here in Oz at least) is a deeply pragmatic experience for most people (apart from reservoirs of thinkers in the Humanities). Still I would argue that the head battle is actually a heart battle first and foremost. A few years out of uni and the average graduate is battling a job, traffic, new family, mortgage etc, etc, and thinking is left behind for a while (sadly). Simply put – the cultural narrative is operating at the level of the digital (battle of the heart), whilst few – and fewer by the decade – are still operating at the level of the analogue (battle of the mind). Will we need the mind battle? Certainly, but philosophy departments have to make a pretence of listening in the way that the popular on-the-street cultural narrative does not. And that’s where most Christians live, move and have their being. But this is worth an ongoing conversation I reckon.

  6. Thanks again for your response, Steve. I am curious as to what ministry to the heart, sans apologetics, would look like. It seems to me that any proclamation of the Gospel will necessarily include proclamation of what one takes to be true about all of reality (unless one opts for versions of postmodernism that deny the objectivity of truth). So a sketch of what the battle for the mind in the “digital” age, again sans apologetics, would look like is helpful. (Incidentally, we made the same switch from analogue TV to digital TV back home in Kenya quite recently, so the analogy is timely for me as well.)

    Or could it be that you are working with too narrow a concept of “apologetics”? At RZIM, we do not make such a neat distinction between the heart and the mind. We have a few principles that we strive to adhere to in our work in apologetics:

    (1) “Evangelism undergirded by apologetics”. Our focus is always to present the Gospel. Evangelism always comes first, and then we use apologetics when questions arise. There are times, of course, when pre-evangelism cannot be avoided, but even then we make it the goal by challenging assumptions contrary to the Gospel.

    (2) “Behind every question is a questioner.” You always answer a questioner, not merely a question. That’s one reason we favor open forums where we interact with individuals one on one. It is often the case that individuals will ask questions others have, and by going back and forth with the individual on the floor, we try to ensure that we aren’t just giving prepackaged answers and we aren’t answering questions nobody is asking.

    Such an approach makes it possible for us to deal not just with intellectual questions but also heart issues. But in both, apologetics is indispensable since you always end up addressing the nature of truth.

    Again, a brief description of what addressing the heart (without addressing the mind) would look like would be helpful.

    1. Hi John – thanks for that. Perhaps I wouldn’t want to make too sharp a distinction between heart and mind other than to say getting to the mind through the heart rather than the heart through the mind is the apologetic approach that works best and I have indeed heard podcasts of Ravi doing this. But I do find that much of apologetic debate these days – esp the big hitters – is more like theatre, where you come and champion your side rather than be open to be persuaded. But again, and perhaps this is my own lower middle/working class ministry context, such debates are attended by only by a small percentage of people. The primary factor for me is just the sheer lack of time for engagement that people have. We almost need a quick-fire, subversive, humorous approach that is abductive in its approach. Yes and you nail the issue I see as crucial that gospel preaching is apologetic. Tim Keller’s preaching seeks to weave an apologetic framework into it. Mind you even he said last year whilst here in Oz that the window is closing for their approach. Still churning this one in my mind, so I need the thesis/antithesis/synthesis thing to happen! Cheers

  7. I strongly recall hearing Josh Mc Dowell telling radio and book audiences in the 1990’s that the cultural shift from Athens to Babylon was present on every college campus he visited in the West as the pushback to apologetics went from: “How do you know?” to “How dare you think you know or how dare you suggest that anyone can ever know?” With tolerance for all and malice toward none is where it started in my experience of that time period with the first attempt to introduce “Heather Has Two Mommies” in the kindergartens of NYC public schools.That has been the prelude to what I think you are describing which is,”What you think is hateful, harmful and must be driven from the marketplace of ideas.” My children’s generation (25-30) is open to mono, bi, tri or whatever because of the fear of being accused of being a hater for holding to the idea that there are any norms that aren’t steeped in bigoted, dead-white-male cultural imperialism or (god-forbid) biblical faith. Nothing is new under the sun, but keep on sounding the alarm for this generation…they need to hear it loud and clear.

  8. Hi Steve – very helpful and insightful commentary and discussion on the ever more pressings issue of church and culture. As someone involved in a Christian advocacy ministry – somewhat in the public square – your observations are spot on. The world has changed – even in recent years. I’m sure the events and experiences for some in our native UK haven’t escaped your notice.
    John Lennox has recently penned an excellent book ‘Against the Flow’ describing the neo-Babylonian context we now find ourselves in:
    Any other books you’ve found helpful in this conversation?
    Blessings. JimC

    1. I’ll think about specific books Jim. Thanks for the comments. I have seen how things have flowed in the UK. I well remember a friend some 20 years ago (or maybe a less?) involved in the Keep Sunday Special movement. That seems like a universe away in its common aims and assumed understandings.

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