ELF08 – some apologetic reflections: clearing the static and sharpening our vocabulary
I’ve never studied apologetics properly. We don’t really seem to do that in the UK, unfortunately, unlike our American cousins. So I suppose that it has been more like a hobby, or rather, more an enthusiasm, than anything else. So to have a week at the ELF where apologetics has been central has been very refreshing (after all, it started out small as an apologetics conference, and has only since grown to include a whole range of other networks). There is a lot to learn. But I wonder whether we constantly need to re-evaluate and clarify how we understand its purpose because many of my friends are sceptical (if not downright hostile) about the importance of an apologetic approach. If you like this pic, there are plenty more where this came from – check out these fantastic ‘po-motivators’ from the folks at TeamPyro!
A caricature of the old way
I suppose in the old, more modernist days, there was a confidence that we could reason people into belief. It is a caricature, of course, but the idea was that one could wheel out the evidence for the resurrection, say, and thus crank the intellectual handle of reason… and hey presto, out would pop a convert. Nice and neat – and the preparation for such a result was merely down to learning the right script. But it is a woefully inadequate view and one which is doomed to disappointment. For a start, people are far more than their reason (we’re a complex web of body and soul, mind and emotions, experience and presuppositions etc etc) – so for instance, someone asking penetrating questions about God and human suffering, may not be after intellectual answers so much as emotional assurance and comfort. What’s more, it entirely omits the assertion that spiritual blindness and confusion ultimately require spiritual solutions – it is the Spirit alone that can open blind eyes.
Persuasive not unpersuasive – obviously!
I didn’t hear the seminars in which this helpful observation/distinction was made, but a number of people talked about it – the idea is not so much that apologetics will convert people by itself, but it will make our explanation of the Christian message more persuasive, rather than less (which is frankly the problem with a lot of presentations that do without the approach). But there is a danger of going too far with this fascination (isn’t there with everything?). Apologetics without gospel content or goals is merely an intellectual, philosophical game, played, from time to time, in the sandpit of people’s worldviews and assumptions. Anyone can play it, and it can become an absorbing and fascinating means by which to avoid having to get to some of the points of the Christian message. Of course, this too is grossly unfair and caricatured. But I do remember meeting a group of believers who were very well-versed in postmodernism… but who struggled to give a clear explanation of who Jesus is and why he matters. I’m not saying this was the problem at the ELF, but it is a potential problem with apologists’ acolytes. And i think that this is one thing that puts a lot of Christians off the whole business – this i think is in part behind the rallying cry for people “to preach the simple old, old story”.
Another angle – which perhaps gets us to the same point in the end…
So how do we convince such Christian of the importance of thinking through our apologetics, without them falling into various modernist or selling-out traps? Well, I just wonder whether or not we simply need to remind ourselves what working in a cross-cultural context is like, where learning to communicate is the essence. Having spent a number of years working in East Africa, this came as second nature – simply because as white Brits, we looked, sounded, thought and acted differently. It was immediately obvious that we didn’t quite fit or belong, and so we had to make every effort to understand and be understood. Being a clear ethnic minority was a healthy experience from that point of view. That’s not rocket science (grghh, cliché alert!).
Our problem is that we prematurely presume this is unnecessary when we’re at home. We might have lived in the same town or region all our lives – but if we’re Christian, there is inevitably going to be a fundamental difference in worldviews between us and our neighbours (whether they be Islamic, secular, postmodernist new age, Buddhist, or plain old materialist). The result is that we will find it hard to be understood, or to understand what lies behind their objections. I often discuss this when teaching study days on postmodernism and use this table to illustrate. On the left, what we think we’re doing; on the right, what we’re heard/seen to be doing:
It is important to stress here that the objections people have to Christianity (and Christians in particular) are not always groundless – for many Christians ARE intolerant, self-righteous or hateful! But the problem is that these days, orthodox Christianity has become regarded as NECESSARILY intolerant etc, even if those who espouse it have the graciousness of a saint. So what do we do?
Tuning out the static, learning the vocabulary
This miscommunication seems to me to be a bit like the static on an old radio – we tune the dial to improve the signal but find that every now and then we still lose some of the important words. It seems to me that proclamation without apologetics is like that.
The broadcaster back in BBC-Radio4-land is speaking with crystal clarity but by the time his or her pearls of wisdom have reached me, I’m only getting half of it, which results in me sometimes missing the point completely. So to stretch the analogy beyond its logical bounds, if I am the broadcaster, i need to do what I can to remove the static as I broadcast. I need to use vocabulary that doesn’t sell out but doesn’t unnecessarily offend or obscure. Of course the cross in the end will ALWAYS be a stumbling block (hence the need for spiritual sight) – but too often we lack persuasive power or clarity in our presentation simply because haven’t done our homework. We don’t know where people are coming from or why they say what they do, and so find ourselves needlessly making cultural howlers. We’ve allowed the static to muddy the waters.** And that, I’d say, is irresponsible.
So perhaps a lot of the heat would be taken out of the debate if we simply saw apologetics as the primary means to cross-cultural mission on our own patch. If it is a matter of using the right vocabulary, then it becomes clear why ALL proclaimers should be well-versed in it. Learning the language of the culture we’re working in, even if that is our own culture, is one of those completely obvious but frequently omitted foundations for all Christian ministry. What’s not to like?
**PS I’m a big fan of mixing metaphors, in case you’ve never previously noticed – i think that objecting to them is pure intellectual snobbery. Surely mixed metaphors form the fount of poetry.