John G. Stackhouse Jr. is the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. A Christianity Today contributing editor, the father of three has written more than 400 articles and reviews and edited four books on Christian theology. He is also the author of five volumes, including Humble Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today (Oxford University Press), which was recently excerpted in Christianity Today.
More recently, he is the author of Evangelical Landscapes: Facing Critical Issues of the Day and Church: An Insider's Look at How We Do It (both published this year by Baker). Dick Staub recently interviewed Stackhouse on Humble Apologetics.
How did you get interested in apologetics?
I grew up in a pretty conservative, faithful, Christian home. In high school, I met an English teacher named Mr. Eikenberg. And he was very cool, really "where it was at," as we said back then. Mr. Eikenberg was an ex-Roman Catholic, and I think part of his mission was to help other people become ex-Christians as well. He thought he'd maybe scuff up my faith a little bit, not to put me down but to help me grow up. And I was sufficiently challenged by him. My long years in the church did not prepare me to speak his language and to answer his questions. So I went to my parents and asked, What should I do? If they had been fundamentalist parents, they would have gone down to the school and complained. But being Anglo-Canadian parents, they said, "Now, this is what your teacher tells you to do, so we better prepare you for that." Dad brought me to his library, and I began to read and engage in this adult conversation about matters of faith. That really turned me on to the whole idea of defending your faith with your mind and your mouth and apologetics.
So why "humble" apologetics?
By the time I reached university, I'm thinking this apologetics thing is pretty cool, and I enjoyed engaging in the bull sessions that go on in the dormitories. But my friend Bob, when he was an embattled graduate student at a prestigious American university, he was really afraid that the faith couldn't stand up in that kind of hostile environment. One day he found out that his campus Christian group was going to bring a professional apologist to campus and take on all comers. My friend was nervous about this, because he felt his faith couldn't stand up, and he wondered if even a professional apologist could handle it.
But the night came for this public meeting and hundreds of students showed up to hear this guy. And he was very smooth, very polished, very together. And my friend was very pleased at this knight of the Christian faith doing such successful battle. As the questions came from the floor, [the apologist] was able to handle them with ease until the very last questioner asked what my friend Bob thought was just an impossible question. But [the apologist] was unruffled. He boxed the questioner into a corner, and then collapsed the box around this grad student, who then slumped into his chair. The audience applauded, and the session was over.
So my friend Bob talks about walking out thinking, "This is just great! The Lord has given us great victory." This, for him, was just a wonderful example of Christian apologetics. And in front of him were two other students from the university whom he didn't know. One said to the other, "I don't care if that son of a gun is right, I still hate his guts." It's 25 years now since I heard that story, and every time I tell it I get a chill. Because there, but for the grace of God, go I—and most Christian apologists.
Where did we get the idea that apologetics is about winning?
There's a couple of deep ironies here. If apologetics, as we usually see it, is a kind of interaction of ideas in order to commend the faith to other people, it's about ideas and people. Most Christian apologetics, I'm afraid, is really actually uninterested in both ideas and people. It really doesn't engage the ideas of the other, it just sees them as threats to fend off or as opportunities to exploit. It really doesn't care how the other person feels or what they do unless they simply capitulate and then become like us. So it's actually both unintellectual and uncharitable.
But if it's not successful in bringing people to Christ, why take this approach?
It's actually quite self-centered. In my experience, a lot of people who are interested in apologetics get interested in it the way I did, as a nervous person trying to protect myself. And what's maybe okay for a 13–year-old doesn't look pretty good at 33 or 53. There's not a lot in Christianity that commends us for strutting our stuff.
What's your definition of apologetics?
It sounds like apologetics is telling somebody why you're sorry you're a Christian. [Others seem to think] apologetics is the art of making someone sorry he asked why you're a Christian. There's too much of that.
Apologetics is, fundamentally, anything we do to help someone feel a little more attracted to and a little better informed about Christianity than they did before. It helps add plausibility.
I think that one of the most important questions that North Americans face when it comes to commending the gospel is that no matter how shiny our arguments are, and how well spoken we may be, and how high-powered our media might be, most people don't want to listen. Why is that? Part of it is that most people think they're Christians already. So why do they need to hear a Christian talk about Christianity?
In your book, you also say that part of the other issue is postmodernism—a shift toward tentativeness.
There are some gurus who talk about postmodernity as if it's a tide that swept everything away. That's not true. Lots in our society is still very much modern, and some parts of it premodern. So I don't think you have to necessarily get with the postmodern bandwagon. But what I think we do find, particularly in the university world and in popular culture, is an attitude of doubt—a deep cultural doubt about anyone or anything that presumes to have the big story, the answer to all of our problems.
I think that the way a lot of Christian apologists are responding to postmodernity nowadays is to just talk louder. Showing that we're even more certain than we used to be is not going to compensate for the doubt in the other person's mind. It's psychologically just completely backwards.
What we want to have is not certainty, but confidence. Only God couldn't possibly be wrong. We're just human beings. We have been given faith in God, we have good reason to believe, we have good reason to be enthusiastic. And we offer those reasons to our friends hoping that they'll find them attractive, too.
Some of this unhealthy apologetics, you argue in your book, comes from an unhealthy view of conversion.
Well, in the 20th century, two forms of traditional Christian faith became split off from each other. On the one side, there was the motif of death to life, zero to one binary kind of thing. I used to be dead in trespasses and sins, now I'm alive in Christ. And that's biblical. But the other side, which is identified more with mainline and to some extent Roman Catholic Christianity, is also a biblical motif: the seed growing into the full plant, or the baby growing into an adult.
Conversion has to be seen as both of these together. All of us are mortally wounded, we all are in effect dead in trespasses and sins, we need to be born again. But then having been born again, we need to grow up. Conversion has to be about helping people to become mature in Christ, and apologetics can help people at any stage along the way. It's not about "Is somebody in or out? Are they alive or dead?"
So apologetics has been reduced to a sales pitch.
Apologetics is a Christian activity, and every Christian activity falls under a higher commandment, the commandment to love God with everything we are and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Apologetics is never about me. Apologetics, unless it's about strengthening my faith and about growing in my love for God, is equipping me to serve in the world. But once we're secure in Christ, it should be about honoring God and loving the neighbor. I don't want to win the argument; I want to win the friend.
What do you think about apologetics that compares Christianity to other religions?
I think the most difficult questions of our day is this: Why is Christianity better than every other religion? Nobody can answer that except God, because nobody actually is an expert on every other religion. What we're called upon to do is not to say, "Oh yes, I have examined Buddhism and Confucianism. I know better." What we're called upon instead is to testify to Jesus Christ.
The appeal has to be to the Christian worldview, the Christian way of being in the world. We say, "Here's what it means to be a Christian, and let's see how it means to be a Buddhist. (Or a secular humanist, or whoever it is we're speaking to.) Let's see which one makes the most sense, not just intellectually, but in the sense of living out life." Now here's where I think we need to understand something that not all apologetics books make clear: Even when you get to that level, it's not as if you're going to win the day, because Christianity offers people certain kinds of good things, but some people don't want those good things. They don't want to be reconciled to God and Jesus. They don't want to live the Christian moral life. At that point, there's nothing Christian apologetics can do. You can't argue somebody into wanting something else.
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