God in the Gallery by Daniel A. Siedell is another one of my required reading books this semester. The cover of the book states that this is “cultural exegesis” – a phrase that obviously piqued my interest – but within the first five sentences of the introduction, I am already questioning the author’s Biblical exegesis.
Siedell uses Acts 17:23 to argue that Paul embraced the “altar to the unknown god” rather than condemning the Athenians for their paganism. He also states that elsewhere, Paul quotes pagan poets, “thereby baptizing pagan poetry in the Scriptures.” And this is the foundation of his argument that Christians should, like Paul, embrace present-day “altars to the unknown” in the form of modern art.
But that’s not what Paul is teaching. Paul isn’t giving his stamp of approval to their worship; he’s pointing out their ignorance. Siedell completely ignores the context of Acts 17:23. Paul isn’t commending the faith of the Athenians. Verse 16 tells us that when Paul saw the idolatry of the city, his “spirit was provoked within him” (NASB). The Amplified says he was “grieved and roused to anger.” Paul had already been preaching, and his message was not familiar and soothing to the Athenians; that’s why he was asked to speak on Mars Hill in the first place. Paul was clearly not admiring nor endorsing the altar to the unknown god, but he used it to point out that the Athenians were admitting (in stone, no less) that they did not know everything. Siedell interprets Paul as saying basically “Hey, look here, you’re already worshiping the one true God by building this idol altar, so let me tell you more about this unknown God.” What Paul is really saying is “You’re obviously very religious, but you’re ignorant. Look, you’ve even built a monument to your ignorance. Let me clarify some things for you.”
The verses that follow make Paul’s intentions obvious:
“The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things;” (Acts 17:24-25 NASB)
Paul is clearly not endorsing the Athenian altars – their temples made with hands. He is also coming against their elaborate temple rituals — something that was quite beneficial to their economy. If we need further evidence that Paul is not patting the Athenians on the back for a job well done, just look at the people’s response in verse 32. They certainly didn’t feel all warm and fuzzy and embraced by Paul.
Siedell’s second point — that Paul somehow “baptized pagan poetry” — also seems far from the truth. To use the example within this same passage:
“for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’ Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man.” (Acts 17:28-29 NASB)
Paul isn’t “baptizing” this quote; again, he is using it to make a point. If they really WERE children of God, they wouldn’t be worshiping images formed by the art and thought of man. Hrmm… ART and thought of man? Nah, that’s too easy. I’ll leave that one alone for now
This shaky ground is the Scriptural foundation on which Siedell wants the church to embrace modern art.
I’m not arguing that modern art is inherently evil and idolatrous; ironically, it is Siedell himself who eagerly places modern art on par with idols. But I will argue that using proofs that don’t prove your point doesn’t advance your position. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve heard a Christian leader make exaggerated statements and quote statistics *from the pulpit* that were obviously incorrect. I’ve seen more than my share of silly youtube videos and viral facebook posts that misrepresented truth in a supposed effort to promote truth. But any time we use false or misleading information, we’re only proving our own ignorance and doing a disservice to the God we claim to serve.