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The theme of this essay is less popular today than three months ago, and it will be less so in the foreseeable future. I offer a theological reason for studying Western literature. Christianity had a deep impact on Western culture. Hence, by studying the literature of the West, we gain the fruits of Christian meditation and wisdom. We also gain insights into what hypocrisy and compromise can look like. Both are necessary.
I am not suggesting that other parts of the world did not have early attestations of Christianity (which is historically wrong) or that Christianity did not influence non-Western regions (which also is wrong), or that Christianity has always produced something beneficial (examples of distorted Christianity exist). I am saying that Christianity found a robust and mature reflection in Europe starting with the labors of Paul, who was a pioneer of inclusion with his Gentile mission. To neglect this development is to miss a means of grace for the church.
Troas to Rome
Acts 16 contains a key moment of history. After Paul meets Timothy in Lystra, he begins to preach the paradigm-shifting resolution of the Jerusalem council, namely that salvation is by faith, to Jews and Gentiles. Paul and his companions travel through Phrygia and Galatia (modern-day Turkey), but they do not step into the province of Asia.
The reason for not entering Asia is the Holy Spirit. According to the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit prevented Paul from preaching in the province of Asia (Acts 16:6). To show the nature of God’s geographical leading, the same chapter states that the Spirit of Jesus did not allow Paul and his companions to enter Bithynia (Acts 16:7). So Paul finds himself in Troas (Troy). In the very next verse, Paul has a vision of a Macedonian man begging him to come (Acts 16:9). He concludes that God is calling him. A rough trinitarian picture emerges in Paul’s leading; the Holy Spirit (16:6), the Spirit of Jesus (16:7), and God (16:10), onward to European soil.
Paul sets sail for Samothrace and the next day lands in Neapolis. From there he travels to Philippi where he has his first European convert, Lydia. From here we see Paul’s missionary journeys; by the end of Acts, Paul is in Rome.
What do we make of these five short verses in Acts 16? If we have a critical view of the book of Acts, we might conclude that the author wrote these details to give a supernatural basis for Paul’s movement. If we have a less cynical view of the book, we might conclude that Paul sincerely believed he was following God even if he was following his own intuitions or biases. Still others might view that God did, indeed, lead Paul to Europe.
No matter what one believes about Acts 16, Paul traveled and left an indelible mark. House churches were established in major cities from Philippi to Rome, communities continued this mission with their own outreaches, and theological reflection deepened and shaped the culture for the next 2,000 years.
In Paul’s day, no one could have imagined the impact of this work. But if we fast-forward, no other person in history shaped Europe more than Paul. Christianity took root in Europe and grew for the next two millennia and affected the culture, literature, and sensibilities. A movement that started in Hellenistic Jerusalem migrated to Europe and grew into young adulthood before moving again.
To put it more theologically, all nations have the benefit of natural revelation and common grace. But not all nations have the same exposure to the extent and breadth of special revelation. This point is not to say that other nations do not have profound insights and that European nations do not have profound blind spots. Consider the legacy of colonialism, radical individualism, and its offspring, the philosophy of emotivism, and the commodification of everything. My point is simpler: we should not discard Western tradition as is the trend today in many quarters of public discourse.
Jews and Gentile Christians
An analogous case can be made between the relationship between Jews and Gentile Christians. The Jews received special revelation before any Gentile group. If we follow Kenneth Kitchen’s dating, Abraham and the patriarchs lived around 1900-1600 BCE, and Moses dates to the Bronze Age (1300-1250). By the time of Paul, the Jews had 2,000 years of theological reflection.
Paul mentions this point to keep Gentiles in Asia Minor humble. He states in Ephesians 2:11-13:
Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)—remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
Paul’s goal is to argue for reconciliation, but he does so by pointing out that Gentiles were once outsiders who are now insiders by grace. He even goes as far as to say that they were without hope and God.
Fuller revelation has come through Christ, but it would be a grave mistake to discard God’s dealings with Israel as some in the history of the church have advocated such as Marcion, an early teacher in the church who was deemed heretical. The church judged such a tendency wrong because it understood that the New Testament does not replace the Hebrew Bible but brings it to a climax in Christ. Such a framework reveres God’s dealings with his people and learns from it—the high points of faith and the low ones of idolatry. The church should do the same with the literature of the West.
When studying the West, a surgeon’s scalpel must be the instrument of choice, not a sledgehammer. Students of the West must develop an eye for detail, sharpen their discernment, and create a theological framework that knows how to parse good from evil. Such a conviction has fallen on difficult times. The current intellectual milieu is reductionistic—something is either all bad or all good. The works of dead white men are bad, so the discourse goes. Recently, Cornel West in an interview called this impulse Manichean because of Manicheism’s simple dualistic view of the world, an artificial and false binary. West vigorously defends the study of Western literature because the best of this tradition grapples with life’s most pressing issues. All of this is to say that this literature is deeply humane and belongs to all. Progress will never be made within and through a Manichean framework in a fallen world. Why? Fallenness is thoroughgoing.
Within Christianity lies the resources to study the legacy of the West with integrity and humility. Why did Paul land on Neapolis? The only answer is God’s inscrutable will. There was nothing about the Philippians or Thessalonians that was superior—all fallen, all sinners, and all are in need of grace. Therefore, the proper responses are ones of humble thankfulness and grateful awe. Cultural elitism has no place in God’s economy. Moreover, if we see with historical eyes, then cultural hybridity is deeply woven into the story of the West. Paul lived in a cosmopolitan and complex world where Greeks, Romans, Jews, Africans, and Asians bumped into each other. The alphabet he used, Greek, was from a northern Semitic people, the Phoenicians. Many myths and stories that were popular in Hellenistic culture were borrowed from Egyptian priests and intellectuals (Plato, Timaeus. 21e-22b). And the cultural interchange through trade routes brought the world together from India to England. At one point in the Roman empire, the emperors came from North Africa (four of them).
Second, Christianity possesses the resources of self-criticism to point out the exploitive episodes in Western history. In particular, the prophetic strand within Christianity is an insider’s critique. The prophet points out the dirt, exposes it, and calls for repentance. The spirit of the prophet is what all traditions need, and when that voice is silenced, the church becomes complicit with evil. Nietzsche made this point in the sharpest possible way. Christianity’s emphasis on truth telling will lead it to criticize itself. In time, this impulse will be sublimated into a deeper drive, and the culmination will be the destruction of Christianity. He writes:
You see what it was that really triumphed over the Christian god: Christian morality itself, the concept of truthfulness that was understood ever more rigorously, the father confessor's refinement of the Christian conscience, translated and sublimated into a scientific conscience, into intellectual cleanliness at any price (Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 357).
Nietzsche might be right if the church does not heed the prophetic tradition. If, however, the church learns to listen, then repentance and refinement will be the outcome.
My hope is that the church will hold onto what is good, true, and beautiful while calling out what is base, false, and ugly in any and all traditions. The study of the West should be an important part of our education, not as the ideal, but as a mirror that reflects biblical insight and the tendencies of our hearts, both good and evil. And as time progresses because no one has a monopoly on the knowledge of God, our field of study and inquiry will naturally expand, mature, and change.
If our current cultural trajectory continues, the study of Western literature will diminish further. The immigrant church in particular is in a strategic position to preserve it precisely because it is not white. The optics are disarming, and so more intelligent conversations can be had with those who have been hurt by Western culture or look at it askance or even embrace it with great admiration. Last week, after I preached on the dangers of disordered love, in which I quoted Augustine and Cicero, two retirees, who happen to be of Chinese ancestry, joined the post-sermon discussion. They were eager to discuss the sermon, but they were most interested in talking about Cicero’s philosophical writings. They were sharp, knowledgeable, and engaging. If we had more time, I am sure we would have hit upon Dante.
Even though they did not say it, they know that all truth, no matter in what tradition, points to God. So, they learn from all tributaries of wisdom—the Tao, Vergil, and even Nietzsche. We have something to learn from their hearts, humanity, and humility.