I wish I could share every unforgettable moment that Diane and I experienced during our time in the Holy Land earlier this year. Unfortunately, I can’t do that, but today I’d like to highlight some thoughts that emerged during one of them. We were sitting on the stone seats of a theater in Caesarea Maritima that was built by Herod the Great over 2,000 years ago. That was unforgettable enough by itself, but listening to the richly detailed accounts of life in that culture made it even more so. It was impossible to imagine the world at that time and not compare it to our own. Even though the ruins of that Greco-Roman theater may have looked vastly different from the ones we see today, beneath the surface there was an eerie similarity between what went on then and what we’re seeing here and now. The physical architecture was vastly different from ours, but the spiritual forces at work haven’t changed. An observation about the region’s history was tucked into the presentation that day and led to some compelling realizations.
A Different Kind of Conquest ~
We learned that before Rome ever conquered the world’s armies, the Greeks had already begun to conquer the world’s prevailing culture. Alexander the Great accomplished more than military conquest. He planted Hellenistic thinking throughout the world. Long before Rome’s legions ever arrived, Alexander had exported Greek philosophies, Greek literature, Greek athletics, and a collection of gods that were different. The fictitious gods of Mount Olympus were more human in appearance and conduct, and worshipping in their temples not only allowed, but promoted, every kind of sensual pleasure imaginable. Israel may have been subdued and occupied by Roman armies, but the seductive allure of ideas introduced by the Greeks proved to be an enemy that would outlast Rome.
Presenting ideas and behaviors that are radically different, socially toxic, and that contradict a nation’s prevailing traditions and customs is not an easy task. They would be soundly rejected if their destructive implication were displayed openly and honestly. The alternative approach, and the strategy Satan has perfected, is to insert them in small doses in pleasing circumstances. There were two familiar facilities that the devil used to enable that process, and we were sitting in one of them at Caesarea Maritima.
Two Primary Requisites ~
Every Roman city was required to have a theater and a sports arena, and they were universally the most frequently attended facilities. Radical ideas and behaviors that would never have been allowed in people’s homes were introduced there a little at a time under the guise of art, entertainment, and athletic competition. In a relatively short time, things that would have been considered not only personally dishonoring and morally unacceptable, but disgusting and repulsive, came to be considered normal and were hardly noticed. Eventually, the pursuit of personal pleasure and sensual fulfillment trampled moral restraints, religious convictions, traditional values and relational commitments. Sound familiar?
So consider this. Are we repeating another pattern that history is screaming for us to notice and learn from? How is it that this strategy has continued to work so well in so many cultures for so long? What do the theater and the sports arena offer that is so compelling? All the theater can offer is a bunch of people pretending to be something they’re not. On the sports side, all we have is another bunch of people running and jumping and throwing things in ways that most others can’t do. Why would we even care?
Familiar Motivations ~
The answer is simple. We want to experience vicariously what we can’t seem to find otherwise. We want to feel what it’s like to be the irresistible lover, or to be the one receiving that love. We want to see evil villains get what they deserve and perhaps to be the hero who brings them down. We want to feel what it’s like to be the best, to finish first and claim the victor’s crown. We want to watch tears spawned by overwhelming joy to help us forget our own. We want someone to make us laugh like our heart’s been set free. We’re dying to know what it looks like when broken hearts are healed, and broken bodies are made whole. We want to see and feel what it’s like to be a hopeless and helpless slave who finds deliverance. We want pain and death to be vanquished and to feel for a few minutes what it would be like to live happily ever after. No wonder the theater was such a popular place. But unfortunately, the actors can only pretend and the theater can’t actually grant any of the things our hearts crave.
And neither can athletes in the arena make us victorious over anything . . . but Jesus can:
But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:57 NKJV)
The theater can’t offer enduring joy or pleasure that fulfills but Jesus can:
You will show me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; At Your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16:11 NKJV)
The theater can’t lift us above the hard things. The performers on stage don’t even know us, much less love us, but Jesus does, and He always will:
Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. 38 For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, 39 nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37–39 NKJV)
The theater can portray life, but it can’t create it, preserve it, or make it better. Jesus can do all of that:
The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. (John 10:10 NKJV)
Clarifying the Point ~
Let me say very clearly that the point here is not to cast a blanket condemnation over theaters and sports arenas. But we shouldn’t be naive about how the devil still loves to use them to desensitize us to evil, then to gradually seduce us into accepting that evil as normal, and finally into embracing it. There’s no doubt that evil was on display at the theater there in Caesarea Maritima, but it couldn’t creep off the stage and out into the community on its own. Evil couldn’t do that then, and it can’t do that now. Evil can never leave the stage or the screen or the concert hall except in the hearts, minds, and bodies of those who come to observe it. God didn’t tell us to live like antisocial hermits and avoid every mechanism the world and the devil might choose to employ. He sent us into the world to live out a redemption drama that’s real and His directive about evil was pretty simple. He said,
Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:21–22 NKJV)
Though magnificent in its heyday, most of Herod’s theater and the surrounding city eventually crumbled. Internal corruption at the highest levels allowed invading barbarians to reduce the most powerful nation on earth to chaos. But the lesson we must not forget is that the Church of Jesus Christ marched out of that rubble and transformed the world. The challenge for us today is not just to remember that, but to believe that that same transforming power is still alive today and available to us here and now. It wasn’t granted by actors, politicians, athletes, oligarchs, or social activists back then, and it won’t be now. We may not be able to keep evil off the stage, but we can refuse to give it a ride home.
“TWEETABLES” ~ Click to tweet and share from the pull quotes below. Each one links directly back to this article through Twitter . . .
- “Every Roman city was required to have a theater and sports arena. Radical ideas & behaviors that would never have been allowed in people’s homes were gradually introduced there under the guise of art, entertainment & athletic competition.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
- “We shouldn’t be naive about how the devil still loves to use theaters and sports arenas to desensitize us to evil, then to gradually seduce us into accepting that evil as normal, and finally into embracing it.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
- “There’s no doubt that evil was on display at the theater there in Caesarea Maritima, but it couldn’t creep off the stage and out into the community on its own. Evil couldn’t do that then, and it can’t do that now.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
- “Evil can never leave the stage or the screen or the concert hall except in the hearts, minds, and bodies of those who come to observe it.” @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
- “God didn’t tell us to live like antisocial hermits and avoid every mechanism the devil might choose to employ. He sent us into the world to live out a redemption drama that’s real, and His directive about evil was pretty simple (1 Thess. 5:21-22). @GallaghersPen (Click here to Tweet)
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