If you decided to cancel your Netflix subscription because of their comments about abortion laws, good for you for taking a stand. But now you don’t have access to some of the most watched media content in the world. In the spirit of John 15:19 you may be thinking, “Good, because I am in the world not of the world.”
A lesson from Athens
In Philippians 4:8, St Paul said we should think about good things. We must guard ourselves against evil. However, in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul preached to the Athenians in the town square, the Areopagus, in their language, Greek, using concepts they were familiar with, Epicurean and Stoic philosophy (Acts 17:22-31).
Not only that but Paul complimented the Athenians on their idol to an unknown god. He didn’t tell them how stupid they were for believing in false gods, though he did call the Galatians stupid for other reasons (Galatians 3:1). Instead, Paul recognized the Athenians’ devotion to something greater than themselves, even though they did not yet know Christ.
By the time Paul was done speaking, most of the Athenians left (most of the disciples left Jesus in John 6:60-70). Only a few became Christians, but that seems to have been enough for the Holy Spirit.
The handmaiden of theology
Paul’s knowledge of pagan philosophy may have been one of the reasons why God chose him. Recall also that St Thomas Aquinas used the work of Aristotle, a pagan philosopher, to develop his understanding of theology. In fact, Aquinas called philosophy the handmaiden of theology, believing philosophical discussion could help evangelize people, especially non-believers, on matters of faith.
The point is that Paul did whatever he could to connect with his audience. If he spoke to the Athenians in Hebrew about Old Testament stories, then no one would have understood him. If he had insulted the Athenians about their gods, they would not have listened to him. And if he had simply avoided the Athenians altogether, then he would have had no opportunity to lead any of them to Christ.
All things to all
Paul knew if he wanted to bring the Gospel to the masses, he had to be able to relate to them by adopting parts of their culture.
“Although I am free in regard to all, I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew to win over Jews; to those under the law I became like one under the law—though I myself am not under the law—to win over those under the law. To those outside the law I became like one outside the law—though I am not outside God’s law but within the law of Christ—to win over those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, to win over the weak. I have become all things to all, to save at least some. All this I do for the sake of the gospel, so that I too may have a share in it.”1 Corinthians 9:19-23
Leave the world?
In John 17:15-18, Jesus said,
“I do not ask that you take them out of the world but that you keep them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world. Consecrate them in the truth. Your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world.”John 17:15-18
In 1 Corinthians 5:9-10, Paul clarified what he said earlier about avoiding immoral people:
“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world.”1 Corinthians 5:9-10
Jesus spent time with Pharisees, prostitutes and tax collectors. He did not adopt their immoral ways, but he was with them. St Paul understood that to evangelize successfully meant one had to be in the world, not avoid it.
If St Paul was living among us today, I do not believe he would cancel his Netflix subscription or otherwise withdraw from the culture. He would do his best to learn about the culture he found himself in. He would learn their stories and understand what occupies their thoughts. He would find whatever is good, true and beautiful in all of these things. And then he would go to the town square and talk to the people, always in service to them and with the hope of leading them to Christ. He would be in the world, but not of the world because he would know the limitations of the world and the perfection of the Holy Trinity.
Engage to evangelize
St Paul went where the Athenians were, complimented them on what was good about them and used their language and the concepts they were familiar with to connect with them, all while knowing Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.
I am not saying you were wrong to cancel your Netflix subscription if you did so. I am also not telling you to consume immoral media content or immerse yourself in sinful circumstances. If Netflix causes you to sin, then absolutely cancel it. However, I encourage you not to completely disengage from the culture you live in, but instead to do what Jesus and St Paul did as best as you can because through your baptism you are called to bring the Gospel to the world and you can’t do that if you are totally disconnected from people.
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