In an episode of the second season of the Netflix series Stranger Things, the four junior-high heroes of the hit series dress up as characters from Ghostbusters for Halloween. In their ghost-fighting jumpsuits with blasting packs on their back, they quickly realize they have, quite embarrassingly, failed to pick up on the unwritten rules of the middle school coming-of-age process. No one wears costumes to school anymore!
As the four friends become aware of their social blunder and the stares and snickers of their peers, one of the boys vents: “When do people make these decisions? Everyone dressed up last year. . . . It’s a conspiracy, I tell you!” His distress is palpable and, for some of us, relatable—consider this a parable for what it feels like to describe yourself as an apologist in today’s academic and theological guilds.
Have We Outgrown Apologetics?
In much of scholarship these days, apologetics is shunned as juvenile. Author and social critic Os Guinness describes mentioning apologetics to his tutor at Oxford, whom he described as an extraordinarily genial scholar. The man “noticeably stiffened. ‘Excuse my candor,’ he said, ‘but I would never use that word again if I were you. Apologetics is a dirty word in Oxford.’ ” In cases like this, it is often the perception of bias and the attempt to convert that is embarrassing.
For others in more confessional circles, apologetics can signal a childish attempt to play by the rules of secularism rather than boldly proclaiming the gospel—the power of God to save. Tacitly—and sometimes more directly—the lesson is clear: It is time to grow up.
“I am not sure that apologetics has not been the curse of evangelicalism for the last twenty to thirty years,” British minister, physician, and author Martyn Lloyd-Jones once lamented. And Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper claimed, “In this struggle [against Modernism] Apologetics have advanced us not one single step.”
While this embarrassment is certainly not universal among Christian theologians and scholars, it is common. And since most pastors are trained by academics—exemplars whose attitudes and tastes are absorbed by their students—a certain uneasiness toward apologetics has often been inherited by some of our most gifted pastors and church leaders. Who wants to be ostracized by their peers or, even worse, embarrassed by their theological heroes?
Yet what if coming of age means shedding the need to always have to fit in? What if we need leaders who—while aware of the possible stares and snickers—embrace the role of an apologist and come together to envision and practice a way forward in giving wise answers and making persuasive appeals (Col. 4:6; 1 Peter 3:15)?
As I get older, I’ve realized one thing doesn’t change much: All of us, whether middle-schoolers, pastors, or scholars, care what our peers think of us. And, of course, this is not always a bad thing. But perhaps we should care a little less. Then again, convincing others to re-embrace apologetics is more complicated than just citing a few Scripture passages and telling everyone to get on board or cease to be faithful. We should be embarrassed by what “apologetics” has sometimes come to look like.
Part of growing up means admitting our immaturities. Apologetics has too often been practiced in a way that ignores complexity in favor of easy answers, functionally assumes an outdated epistemology, or turns even the smallest disagreements into hostile conflicts. If our memories of poorly executed apologetics constitute the entire essence of our apologia, it makes sense to think we should come of age and walk away. But none of these adolescent gaffes need to characterize apologetics. Besides, even if Christians would like to give up on apologetics, we have a fundamental problem: We can’t. Not really. Not in a secular age. An age, as Charles Taylor explains, in which religious belief is “understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.”
In our present situation—where faith is no longer the default position—the church is going to be compelled to practice apologetics, even if we call it something else. The question shouldn’t be if we will do apologetics (or whatever you want to call it); the question is if we will do it with the wisdom brought by maturity. There are different ways to grow old. But not all the paths lead to maturity.
Moving beyond youthful naivety and brashness is one thing. But confronting the parts of us made jaded and cynical by the complexities we experience as we age is something else entirely. Aging well means returning to the hopefulness and vigor of our youth with a prudent realism that is learned through walking with God for many seasons. Apologetic maturity for the church will mean looking back as we step into the future.
Back to the Future
Coming-of-age accounts are powerful stories. They remind us of our insecurities and failures while also connecting with our drive for something greater. But they can also short circuit into what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery”—the sense that we have finally moved beyond our childish ways.
Part of actually emerging from our adolescent immaturity involves a healthy appreciation of those we have been dependent on and a growing awareness of the temporal natures of our present cultural moment. As I was told growing up, “This too shall pass.” True maturity means a certain historical rootedness that will not allow bad experiences or current sociological pressures (i.e., peer pressure) to toss us to and fro.
If apologetics is a childish, modernistic response that we can now embarrassingly shrug off, someone forgot to explain that to the church fathers. As Cardinal Avery Dulles points out, “After the first quarter of the second century . . . apologetics became the most characteristic form of Christian writing.” Among the leaders in the early church, it is difficult to find many whose collection of works did not include contributions in apologetics.
And yet apologetics cannot simply return to the past, imagining that nothing has changed. While in some ways our pluralistic context mirrors the situation in the early church, in other ways our present situation is very different.
To name just one significant difference, we are no longer the new kids on the block. In the early church, we were strange, misunderstood, and a potential threat, but we had yet to wield power—or abuse it. In the West today, Christianity is increasingly seen as authoritarian and coercive. The resistance against Christianity is no longer simply that it is wrong, but that it’s also dangerously oppressive—and opponents claim to now have the evidence to prove it.
The history of the past wrongs of Christendom, the present-day Christian resistance to marriage equality, and the commitment to the (allegedly) repressive notion of divine judgment all fall outside the bounds of the plausibility structures assumed by the prevailing secular humanism. These kinds of moral issues are probably the chief apologetic challenges of late modernism; the beauty and the good of our truth claims are at stake.
The need of the hour is apologetic maturity—historically informed and theologically rooted in the gospel itself—which knows how to not only give reasons but also how to stoke imaginations, model cruciform lives, and even publicly confess. (We do, after all, have some planks to remove from our own eyes.) These are not the typical things most think of when they hear of apologetics, but this is only because we have not fully come to grips with our past—both the good and the bad. An apologetic approach for a secular age needs to utilize appeals to the essential features of personhood (such as the need for meaning, hope, forgiveness, and morality) along with arguments for the faith’s rationality.
“This is all well and good,” you might be thinking, “but what does this actually look like in practice?” While a full survey is outside the scope of this article, I suggest an approach called “inside out,” which Mark Allen, my colleague at Liberty University, and I explain more fully in our book, Apologetics at the Cross. The approach is flexible enough that it can appropriate different kinds of arguments and, at the same time, offers an overarching structure that provides guardrails for dialogue with unbelievers. Several diagnostic questions help explain the approach and provide mental scaffolding for conversations.
First, starting on the inside of the other person’s framework, we ask: What can we affirm and what do we need to challenge in this worldview? Where does this worldview lead? And in particular, how is the view unlivable and how is it inconsistent?
Second, we contrast their view with Christianity, asking where competing worldviews have to borrow from Christianity. And how does Christianity better address our experiences, observations, and history?
“Inside out” guides us into apologetic conversations, tracing out points of agreement and points of disagreement, challenging other worldviews on their own terms, and showing how their view fails to live up to their own deepest aspirations.
By comparing alternative worldviews through this “inside out” method, we are not forced to play by the lowest common denominator and reason on the terms set by skeptics. Instead of hiding our theological convictions, we ask the person to consider how Christianity’s meta-story, along with all the Bible’s little stories (and other genres) as well as the gospel itself, better explains the world around us.
Accordingly, we don’t have to wait until we have built a long and arduous apologetic chain of arguments to finally arrive (if we ever get there) at a closing gospel presentation. The gospel and its implications can be woven into our apologetics throughout. After all, shouldn’t the gospel be central to Christian apologetics? In persuasion, gospel-embedded stories and exemplars—evident in such narratives as Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son and Augustine’s own prodigal story in Confessions—so often appeal to the deep existential crevices of our souls, calling us to come home.
Nevertheless, while both the biblical authors and Augustine recognize we are much more than rational creatures waiting for enough evidence, their writings are filled with different types of appeals made through logic and reason. Similarly, “inside out” incorporates arguments examining scientific and historical data as well as utilizing inescapable aspects of personhood to compare worldviews in order to ask, “What story about the world best fits what we see around us?”
We aren’t suggesting that “inside out” is the final word. After all, coming to imagine that we’ve finally arrived, that we have nothing left to learn, is itself a mark of immaturity. But “inside out” is seeking apologetic maturity through the integration of disciplines, an appreciation of the past, and a hopefulness about meeting the challenges of the present cultural situation, aiming—for the sake of the gospel—not only to persuade the head but also to reach the heart. And if this is your apologetic goal, you have nothing to be embarrassed about.
Joshua Chatraw is executive director of the Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement at Liberty University and an associate professor of apologetics and theology. His upcoming book is Apologetics at the Cross: An Introduction for Christian Witness (Zondervan, 2018), written with Mark Allen.
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