As a parish priest in North London in one of the most multicultural boroughs in England—and as someone who spent a year studying at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics (run by RZIM) and interviewed Zacharias for a Christianity Magazine cover story—I have plenty of theories.
So I tested them out on one of the best British apologists: Alister McGrath, the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University.
Interested in apologetics since his own conversion to Christianity back in 1971 (and last interviewed by CT in 2019), McGrath offers a measured yet devastating critique of the field in the UK and beyond. Yet he also inspires, arguing for the end of “big ministry” and the birth of local and heartwarming efforts where one doesn’t need a first-class degree to get going.
Below is our conversation:
SM: Is the implosion of RZIM just the start of a major change for apologetics in the UK? The way we do apologetics, the people we recruit, and the places we do it all need to change fundamentally, don’t they?
AM: What’s happened is that people have been made aware of the problems with big apologetics ministries. The personality and specific apologetic approach of a single individual becomes normative, not just one option. It then becomes a brand that is only accessed by a particular group of people.
Apologetics should be a very rich field of study, and we need to allow multiple approaches. The problem with the “brand” approach to apologetics is that it becomes entangled with organizational concerns: building a reputation, building an institution, and then defending the institution when you should really be defending Christianity. In effect, RZIM ended up defending itself. It became an apologetics factory.
SM: My view is, in the UK, apologetics often takes place in entirely the wrong places: in Christian bubbles, in hired halls at top universities, in elite schools. Why isn’t apologetics taking place in the pub and the workplace? It must be less elitist.
AM: Basically, apologetics is needed everywhere and not just in the bubble—in pubs and in schools, and I don’t mean Eton College (although I am glad someone is doing it there). My concern is that in the past we have focused on certain groups of people, like public schoolboys. The rationale is that they are potential leaders; however, that assumption has gotten these ministries into all sorts of trouble.
The secret is to encourage apologetic vocations. We need some way of resourcing this ministry, but we need people called to do apologetics in regular ordinary schools and regular ordinary places. Apologetics in the future in the UK and elsewhere must be local, done by people who know and understand the people they are with and the problems they face. Big organizations are too cumbersome to do this.
SM: So apologetics should become an informal rather than an elite vocation. It should be almost homespun? But people will always want to control it, gather it up under a big umbrella, to own it. It has to be taken out of the hands of the experts. It has to be more egalitarian. It must be more “amateur,” more independent—unrecognizable from what we have already had.
AM: There is a real danger in the cult of the “expert.” Experts tend to determine what apologetics is and how it should be done. We must move away from this quite urgently.
The issue is: How do we enable people without controlling them? The future of apologetics is helping people to do apologetics, and then off they go and do it. Bring to mind all the best British apologists you can think of: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, and today’s best. Are any of them entangled with apologetics organizations? No. They are just individuals who do it their own way.
And with podcasts and the internet, you can gain a following not because of your institution but because people like what you are saying. We have to find a way to empower people, with really practical guidance and encouragement, and then let them get on with it.
SM: Perhaps our concentration in apologetics on science and philosophy is leading us completely down the wrong path. We must be creative and use the creative arts: film, music, poetry, and storytelling. Apologetics is way too logical and boring.
AM: Yes, I agree it is too cerebral, dry, and rationalist, and it doesn’t have to be. Apologetics in the UK still takes the Enlightenment seriously. You also find this in American evangelical organizations. There is a growing understanding of the importance of the imagination in apologetics. You could do apologetics based on art, for instance. We need a more narrative apologetics. J. R. R. Tolkien knew how to almost entrance people with storytelling.
We need a new vision for apologetics, and the best people to do that are not technocratic organizers. There is a great deal of creativity out there, but people need supporting and encouraging. The older generation like me could mentor these creatives, and we’d learn too. It is about people doing it their way, not feeling coerced to do it someone else’s way. Many established UK apologists would jump at the chance to gently mentor others.
SM: I long to see the end of globetrotting super-apologists (and preachers and ministers). It is deeply unhealthy. Any apologist should have to be rooted in a church and/or be working voluntarily in their community in something like a soup kitchen. Apologetics that is convincing is rooted in the questions, suffering, and experiences of everyday people—otherwise it is just a set of theories. It was ministry to Royal Air Force crews during World War II that helped Lewis find his apologetics voice and content.
AM: Yes. The problem is that if you are an apologist who is grounded in an organization, then that is your community and it means you never hear the stories that can ground your ministry and inspire you. My view is that the very best apologists are those who are rooted locally, who know an audience very well and can address that audience credibly.
If you are an international apologist, you are going around the world and, to be crude, you tend to give the same message all the time—not being sensitive to cultural variations, or specific localities. So often this creates the impression that Christianity is Western. People have said this to me time and time again, and it is clearly a real problem.
So the future UK apologist must be grounded in a community and to learn the “language” of that community so that they can engage them.
SM: Apologists are answering the wrong questions and need to listen urgently to the real questions people have. They are stuck in time and need to spend much more time finding out the issues that people really care about. But what are the questions people have?
AM: One of the big questions people really have is: Does this faith stuff make any difference? Rational proofs of God’s existence—I mean, who is asking that question anymore? Logical proofs of the resurrection? Who’s asking? People ask things like: What difference has our faith made during COVID-19 to the way we think and live?
We must move away from truth in the Enlightenment sense. People are interested in hearing about the difference faith makes to real life rather than bald statements about truth.
We need to talk more about how our faith has captivated us and given us a reason to live. My faith brings me hope, and yet I hardly ever hear an apologist talk about hope. I hear a lot about rationality, but that is old white male thinking. If you think of all the leading apologists, they are old white men. And yes, I am one too. We need a more diverse and younger group of apologists. Older apologists like me can make ourselves available to be mentors. The aim is to help them find a way they can be themselves as apologists.
SM: Some apologists must change the way they say things—their manner—and get rid of the swagger. They need to ditch the adversarial approach and develop some deep humility. When debating, don’t nitpick small details to score points. Never humiliate anyone. Honor them by actually answering their question and acknowledging the strengths of others’ arguments.
AM: Yes, people switch off if you aren’t gracious. The trouble is that in certain cultural sectors, graciousness is mistaken for weakness. I think that graciousness is a virtue, and I shall be continuing to do that.
Ravi used to get those who were asking questions to say a lot, and then he would home in on a weakness and ignore the bigger, more difficult questions. People noticed that.
SM: Any final thoughts?
AM: I looked through all the leading apologists in the UK whom I am in touch with. I noticed that none of them are institutionally connected. They are all individuals, who want to do apologetics and do it in their own way. They felt, at some point, “Well I can do this, and it needs to be done.” That’s where we are heading. Anyone can do apologetics with a bit of help. You don’t need a degree.
Steve Morris is vicar of St. Cuthbert Church, North Wembley, United Kingdom, and author of Our Precious Lives: Why Telling and Hearing Stories Can Save the Church.
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