People tell a multitude of stories about themselves: who they are, what they believe in, what they imagine life is all about. As theologian Joshua D. Chatraw sees it, the core task of Christian apologetics today is helping nonbelievers recognize themselves in the story God tells in Scripture. Chatraw, executive director of the Center for Public Christianity and theologian-in-residence at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, is the author of Telling a Better Story: How to Talk About God in a Skeptical Age. Kristi Mair, a research fellow at Oak Hill College in London and the author of More Truth: Searching for Certainty in an Uncertain World, spoke with Chatraw about the role of imagination in gospel persuasion.
Why do you focus on the role of story in apologetics?
Reason and logic are important. However, all our reason and logic happen within a certain framework—in the book, I call it the “grand story,” the true story that Christianity tells. Story is our lingua franca. Everyone has a story. People think in stories. Rather than relying on syllogistic reasoning, we can let story serve as the common ground.
Apologetics can quickly become a monologue rather than a dialogue. When we ask people about their stories, we get some appreciation of their values, their aspirations, and their sense of what makes for a good life. And we can see where their ideals might conflict—or overlap—with the Christian story.
So rather than starting the conversation on our turf, we start it on theirs. Theologically, I know their deepest longings will never be satisfied as long as they are looking in all the wrong places. They were made to worship God, but because of sin, they are worshiping alternatives that will eventually let them down. I want to tap into their aspirations by showing how only the Christian story can fulfill them.
Closely related to the importance of story is the importance of appealing to the imagination. How can doing this help us better share and defend the Christian faith?
All human beings live within some kind of “social imaginary,” as the philosopher Charles Taylor would describe it. This means we’ve inherited social norms and moral beliefs we would hardly think to question because we haven’t really reasoned our way into them in the first place.
Persuasion is hard work, especially in our polarized age. If our approach to persuasion is just breaking things down to their smallest logical bits, we miss the way people make the biggest decisions. To persuade someone of something important, you need to give them the big picture and go for their heart. It’s through our imaginations that we put things together in a comprehensive way, realizing how we long for something more—a “home” we’ve never seen. C.S. Lewis was getting at this idea when he wrote about believing in Christianity not only because he could understand it but because through it he could understand everything else.
All of us have existential pressure points concerning questions of meaning, hope, beauty, love, and morality. If we aren’t getting our coordinates from the Christian story, we will get them somewhere else. Our role in speaking to nonbelievers is to ask which story best makes sense of all the existential realities they experience. We can communicate how the Christian story actually out-narrates the story they are assuming or subconsciously living out.
Beyond appealing to the imaginations of non-believers, you also emphasize paying close attention to the stories forming in our own imaginations. Why is that?
In our culture, the phenomenon of “deconversion stories” seems to be gaining steam. At least part of the blame belongs to popular forms of apologetics that give the impression of having all the answers.
Christianity is often presented as a rational trail of evidence which, when followed, will naturally make you a Christian. This may be a bit of a caricature, but I’ve sat in on those youth talks. People grow up and discover that things are more complicated. If they’ve grown up with a binary view of Christians as smart and atheists as stupid, then eventually they’ll realize this isn’t fair or true.
As Christians, we have our own mysteries or pressure points that we’re not sure how to resolve. But in our concern to reassure younger believers, we’ve at times built a culture of hard, rationalistic Christianity. And when that happens, don’t be surprised if they sometimes end up walking away. Christianity does offer explanations, but it can’t be reduced to that. Christianity is about meeting our Creator God in the person of Christ and living in relationship with him through the power of the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t answer every question you might have, even if it has greater explanatory power than any of its rivals. We need to teach young believers that these mysteries themselves are glorious. If we aren’t clear about the limits of rational argument alone, we do them a great disservice.
What would it look like for this kind of apologetic vision to take root in the church?
In a post-Christendom context, we need to think more carefully about what goes into a church’s apologetics curriculum. I see apologetics as a culminating discipline. It has to be a team sport, in which we’re drawing from disciplines like history, philosophy, and theology in both our preaching and our larger apologetic witness. This means pastors need a different sort of training. If this approach took root, we would have a growing movement of pastor-apologists. In fact, this is what happened in the first three centuries of the church as it ministered in a pluralistic culture. Most of the early church fathers were pastors who wrote apologetic works.
Apart from pastor-apologists, how else can the church reach skeptical outsiders?
It helps to consider Augustine’s account in his Confessions of meeting Ambrose, then the bishop of Milan. When Augustine appeared in Milan, he wasn’t yet a Christian. He heard Ambrose preach, and some of that was beginning to make a difference. But there was something about the kindness Ambrose demonstrated that left a greater impression than any of his arguments.
My point is that the strongest apologetic impact often happens when the people of God embody the gospel. When outsiders see a community that loves one another, cares for the world, and models grace, this is enticing—and it brings credibility. Apologetic arguments always happen within an embodied context. Unless we demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit, it’s probable our arguments will fall on deaf ears, even if they are good arguments.
In a world scarred by COVID-19, where face-to-contact is limited, how can we put the principles of your book into action?
In the book, I talk about how Christianity is seen as irrelevant. There is a lethargy toward religion. In part, that’s because we are such a distracted people. As Pascal might have put it, we have all these diversions in our lives, but on some level we know they’re making us miserable. With COVID-19, however, we’re missing at least some of these diversions. We’re having to sit quietly, but we can’t.
For many people, this is a moment of intense anxiety and loneliness. Reaching out to our neighbors and asking meaningful questions about their lives seems like an obvious way of opening doors. When we discuss the angst we feel, it creates momentum for exploring whether something deeper is going on—whether there really is something the matter with the world, both “out there” and “in here.”
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