Luke’s account of the apostle Paul’s engagement with the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers of Athens in Acts 17 is frequently referenced in debates about apologetics. Much attention is given to how (or whether) the apostle finds common ground with his pagan audience, referring to them as “very religious” (v. 22) and calling attention to their practice of worship not only of a multitude of gods but to one of whom they were ignorant (v. 23). In the course of declaring the Christ-focused storyline of the Bible, the apostle both commends and confronts elements of the cultural narratives his hearers took for granted, skillfully demonstrating how even their own sources inadvertently bore witness to the God whom he proclaimed. Without question, there is much to be gained from reflecting on the manner in which Paul addressed unbelief.
Instead of focusing on the content and style of Paul’s encounter, I’d like to consider the seemingly parenthetical description the beloved physician gives of the Athenian ethos—one that is equally if not more so descriptive of our times: “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21)The residents of this great city trafficked in ideas—especially those hot off the mental press. This reputation for being a city populated by people with a craving for novelty was long-standing. Richard Longenecker cites Cleon, a fifth-century BC politician and general, as telling his fellow Athenians: “You are the best people at being deceived by something new that is said.”
It’s evident from these instances that the thirst for what is new is by no means a modern phenomenon. However, that thirst is intensified by our immersion in digital life with its practices and norms. Far from being a merely neutral tool, the internet is, as Samuel D. James observes in Digital Liturgies: Rediscovering Wisdom in an Online Age, “an epistemological environment—a spiritual and intellectual habitat—that creates in its members particular ways of thinking, feeling, and believing.” The Athenians would have loved the internet for it both feeds and foments our desires and expectations for what is new and different. Notifications, emails, and texts alert us of us new trends, followers, likes, and goings on in the world. Content producers vie for our limited attention by trying to outdo each other in offering novelty at a faster rate than their competitors.
Immersion in digital life makes that which is old not only uncool and undesirable, but irrelevant and implausible. It also fosters within us an impatience with that which does not entertain, stimulate, or which cannot be immediately understood with minimal time and effort. Alan Noble identifies “the practice of continuous engagement in immediately gratifying activities that resist reflection and meditation” as one of two major trends (the other being the growth of secularism) that stand as obstacles to the church’s witness in the present day, adding that one of the major goals of modern media technology is to capture our attention. Appealing to our incessant hunger for novelty is a primary means of accomplishing that aim. And with the feeding of that hunger, our mindsbecome accustomed to interruption—an interruption that Nicholas Carr claims is desirable because of the accompanying promise of stimulating, newness. “And so we ask the Internet to keep interrupting us,” he writes, “in ever more and different ways. We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive.”
It was the Athenians’ taste for novelty that led them to inquire about the content of Paul’s preaching for it was new to their ears (see Acts 17:19-20). But Paul was not seeking to scratch that itch. He was faithfully declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ as opportunity arose. Based upon his knowledge of his hearers, he skillfully contextualized his message but he neither altered his message nor the manner in which he delivered it to cater to their yearning for the most recent. Testimonies abound of non-Christians whose surfing and scrolling led them to stumble across the gospel, eventually leading them to consider the claims of Christ and in many cases, convert. For this we should be praise God. However, we must differentiate between these acts of providence and an intentional catering to an incessant craving for new stimuli. The ethos of digital communication entices us to play to that urge. The pressure to create a steady, rapidly changing stream of content so as to attract and keep the attention of impatient scanners and skimmers is real. Succumbing to it, for the sake of outreach, can have deleterious effects, leading us to dispense content that is poorly articulate, reasoned, and/or crafted. Even more importantly, conformity to the values of the digital world is contrary to biblical wisdom which expresses itself in a slowness to speak and a readiness to hear (James 1:19).
Despite my concerns about the adverse formative powers of the Internet and digital technologies, I believe they can be a valuable means of communicating and contending for the faith and can think of numerous individuals and ministries that are illustrative of such. That said, we must avoid committing the error that evangelicalism has for too long —that of thinking of digital technologies only as carriers of content, oblivious to the values embedded in them and their effects on users and the messages communicated by means of them. I urge those desirous of utilizing the internet and other information technologies for apologetic purposes to become conversant with media ecology and spiritual formation. In addition to those authors already mentioned, I recommend, among others, the following: John Dyer (From the Garden to the City: The Place of Technology in the Story of God), Jay Kim (Analog Christian), Chris Martin (The Wolf in Their Pockets: 13 Ways the Social Internet Threatens the People You Lead), and Felicia Wu Song (Restless Devices: Recovering Personhood, Presence, and Place in the Digital Age).
 Joshua Chatraw and Mark Allen are helpful guides toward this end in their Apologetics at the Cross: An Introduction for Christian Witness (Zondervan, 2018). They claim that Paul employed three major strategies to build a bridge with his non-Christian hearers: (1) relating to the culture, (2) challenging the culture, and (3) connecting his audience to Jesus. (pp. 191-192)
 Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (p. 134). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition
Published December 18, 2023