How “trendy” was St. Paul? An analysis of his life and letters shows us a very culturally-aware and culturally-engaged apostle who was well-traveled, conversant in the idioms and ideas of various cultures, able to interact with popular poetry and philosophy, and eager to use symbolism from sports, war, and theater.
And yet, and this is perhaps the most important thing to know about Paul as apostle at large, he was remarkably un-trendy in his perspective on honor and power. You see, in Paul’s world, the hottest commodity was honor or reputation. It wasn’t dying with the most toys that mattered – it was dying with the highest number of honors recognized by the most number of people, popularity through status and virtue. Sometimes a concern with honor can be a very good thing, like a business “priding itself” on fine craftsmanship or excellent, trustworthy service. However, good “pride” can all-too-easily turn into greed and self-absorption wrapped up in the paper of “reputation.” While many first century people tried to position themselves as superior in the great race for honors in culture, Paul was far too busy being untrendy in the work of the gospel. Here are four ways Paul was noticeably “untrendy.”
Paul promoted hard work, not high positions.
One of the funny things about the earliest Christian leadership positions is that we have very few descriptions of them. Part of the reason for this, I think, is that leaders like Paul focused less on the “office” of the elder or pastor and more on the work and character of leaders. In 1 Thessalonains 5:12, Paul tells the church to respect those who “labor among you.” They are not told to respect these as “bosses,” but to acknowledge and honor the work and the workers who serve the people. This would have been noticeably untrendy in a world where you worked your way up to less labor-intensive positions. Is there not a message in here for us today? I am afraid too many Christians (pastors included) think that being a grace-filled community and people means that we can let hard work slide, especially when we can rest on our position’s “privileges.” Paul does not recognize “high” and “low” jobs, but he does differentiate between the hard working and the lazy (2 Thess 3:10-12).
Paul valued transparency and integrity, not bright lights and entertainment.
Paul’s ministry was not attractive because of his showiness. He did not fill a stadium or make headlines (at least not in a good way!). His messages weren’t heart-warming in the “chicken soup for the soul” way. He was given a hearing because he spoke words of truth, words that pierced the soul. He was a “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” kind of guy.
It is all the rage to be a polished communicator in our culture (just as it was in Paul’s), to look and act the part of the super-pastor – impervious to doubt, pain, problems, weakness. By contrast, Paul shows surprising intimacy and warmth that can be nothing but genuine. He shows meekness and vulnerability. He tells the Thessalonians – we felt so strongly about you – how could we not hand over to you, not just the good-news message about God, but even our deepest, most vulnerable and sensitive selves. Why? Because you became a community we fell in love with and cared for like family (paraphrase of 1 Thess 2:8).
It is one thing for a pastor to say, from a stage looking out onto a dark auditorium with the undifferentiated faces of the masses, “I care about you.” It is another thing for him or her to really get to know them and say it, that this is real affection borne out of intimate and vital communion. That happens to be untrendy (because leaders might appear too needy and broken, rather than independent and perfect), but, in the end, extremely gratifying when you catch a glimpse of real “wounded healers.”
Paul taught enrichment through Christian simplicity, not accumulation.
It is trendy, in both the Christian and secular world, to buy, buy buy! More Christian books. More Christian Bibles. More Christian devotionals. More, more, more! We think, more is the answer, we just have to decide what the right product is. It is trendy to have the “stuff” that other people want. But, yes, Paul was untrendy in this too. He knew what it was like to have plenty, but he knew there was no end to wanting. He learned the secret of contentment and simplicity (Philippians 4:12), recognizing the presence and abundance of Christ (4:13). I imagine St. Paul in prison while he wrote Philippians – what did he have with him? A pen. Some paper. Maybe a Bible? A keepsake or two that he could hide? No doubt he lived light. He had to. But apparently he was also very happy, not least because of his deep friendships.
Paul measured success by the cross, not by numbers, ratings, or celebrity status.
There ought not to be anything trendy about the cross. It was the single most powerful tool of the Roman world to make someone unimportant, even despised.
Miracles were trendy. Building “community” was trendy. But talking about the cross, praising a crucified messiah – that was a conversation killer. And yet Paul did not shy away from talking about the cross of Christ – in fact in Corinth he couldn’t talk about anything else (1 Cor 2:2). Why? He needed to push the status-obsessed Corinthians to a breaking point: “God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important” (1 Cor 1:28). Those called to ministry must be “nothings” in order to finally accomplish something substantial for the kingdom of God. This is not penance or self-loathing, but it is part of the way of Christ, a path that was not meant to lead to stardom, book contracts, and bigger and better buildings.
So, again, St Paul was clearly not trendy. He wanted to be engaging and knew how to speak to the real lives of the people he came into contact with, but there is a core element of the gospel that will always resist the cultural obsession with what glitters. The church today must continue to wrestle with this challenge, that somehow the seekers must be welcomed into a community with something attractive and amazing, and yet this people makes space for the “nothings.”
And “nothing” is never trendy.
—[Image by RobertG NL, CC via Flickr]