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Taking on Mars Hill, again

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As a climbing challenge, Mars Hill doesn’t look like much. It’s a rough stone bump in Athens and even has an ancient set of stairs carved into its side.

In the history of ancient Greece, it’s mentioned on a couple of occasions, but it’s definitely not Mount Olympus or the Acropolis.

In the book of Acts, it’s the scene of a frustrating encounter between Paul and some pagan philosophers. In the story of the early church, it’s a brief detour.

But Mars Hill is being revisited. Two highly visible churches have made it their ministry signature.
In the heart of the U.S. Bible belt, in Grand Rapids, Mich., Mars Hill Bible Church is led by Rob Bell. Bell is famous for his creative preaching and evocative imagery.

At the other end of the U.S. religious spectrum, in the heart of secular Seattle, is Mars Hill Church, led by Mark Driscoll. Driscoll is equally famous as a passionate Calvinist.

By their names, both are declaring they want to conquer this “mountain.”

These churches are united by more than their names. Both grew out of the early emerging church movement and focused their attention on what was called Generation X and postmodernism. They’ve succeeded where others have failed.

But the Mars Hill revisit that they represent is both interesting and curious.

It’s interesting because Paul’s Mars Hill encounter gives us a rare snapshot into the philosophical world of the New Testament. Here, the whole potpourri of Hellenistic intellectualism is rolled into one ignominious bundle of those who “spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas” (Acts 17:21).

It’s interesting because we are introduced to two of the most dominant philosophical schools of the New Testament period: the Stoics and Epicureans. Missing in this particular encounter was a third, the skeptics.

It’s interesting because while we don’t speak that much about Stoics, Epicureans, and skeptics, their main tenets are alive and well today.

Most people have heard about Epicureanism. Its motto is simple – if it feels good, do it. The purpose of life is to maximize happiness. Playboy’s Hugh Hefner is the consummate Epicurean. The U.S. constitution enshrines it as a fundamental right.

The problem with Epicureans, however, is that they’re not very heroic. In the end, an 84-year-old playboy in a bathrobe, inflamed by Viagra, is just pathetic. Like today, the Greeks of Paul’s time also wanted heroes, and Epicureans don’t deliver.

But the Stoics do. The whole purpose of this philosophy is the formation of men who are prepared to nobly die for a cause. A true Stoic does not die for a reward – either earthly or heavenly. He’s prepared to die for the sheer honour of the assignment. Not surprisingly, it was a good religion for those who admired gladiators.

Today Stoicism is a very practical religion for extreme athletes or hockey players during the play-offs. It generates heroes.

The Stoics and Epicureans were bitter philosophical opponents, but on Mars Hill they both turned their attention to Paul.

Revisiting Mars Hill is a good thing because, as kingdom people, our obligation is to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). The Stoics and Epicureans among us need us to give “the reason for our hope.”

And don’t forget the skeptics.

But I still find naming churches “Mars Hill” curious.

It’s curious because Mars Hill was not a successful mission. The idea that we will succeed where Paul failed seems more than a little arrogant. Mars Hill is a symbol of frustration, not triumph.

After listening to sermons and reading books coming from the Mars Hills of Seattle and Grand Rapids, it occurred to me that it is probably worth rereading the Acts story and asking, “Why did Paul leave the Mars Hill Council even though he was invited to return?”

Paul was the New Testament church’s most celebrated polemicist and theologian. There were very few things that he enjoyed as much as a good argument. Yet this time he just walked away.

We don’t have many direct clues, but we do know that Paul was very aware of a subtle shift that moves dialogue from genuinely wrestling with difficult questions to playing word games. In his epistles, he repeatedly warns about the danger of argumentative leaders exploiting this shift to their own ends.

The New Testament story of Mars Hill has many faces, but in the end it seems like a cautionary tale.

James Toews is pastor at Neighbourhood Church, Nanaimo, B.C.

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