Is the Age of Apologetics over?
Michael Jensen says we need to play a very long game
Apologetics is the word given to the art of defending the Christian faith from its critics. Apologists have been hard at it since the 2nd century AD, when a bloke called Justin Martyr wrote his First Apology – a work addressed to the Emperor in Rome. Justin wanted to explain that Christians were not fanatical evildoers deserving of persecution but loyal and reasonable citizens.
The practice of explaining the Christian faith – and living it out – is cast by Peter as simply the right thing to do in the face of all-out attack.
Apologists have usually cited Peter’s words in 1 Peter 3:15-16 in defence of apologetics:
Always be prepared to give an answer (“apologia” in Greek) to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.
Apologetics is an activity which explains the Christian hope and defends Christian behaviour. It has a particular content – the Christian hope – and it has a very definite mode – “gentleness and respect.” The goal is not simply evangelisation, though the prayer is that people will turn and glorify God of course. The practice of explaining the Christian faith – and living it out – is cast by Peter as simply the right thing to do in the face of all-out attack.
But the practice of apologetics has come under attack recently. In my denominational sub-culture, I often hear church leaders saying “just preach the gospel,” with the subtext being “don’t bother with all this mealy-mouthed apologetics.” Western Australian blogger and pastor Steve McAlpine recently put this point of view very forcefully in a piece entitled “The Age of Apologetics is Over.”
McAlpine’s take on the current state of Christianity is always worth reading, and this article is no exception.
“Robust proclamation is the future. Artful persuasion is the past.” — Steve McAlpine
McAlpine argues that, while apologetics is still useful to encourage Christians, it is simply not effective in commending the faith in the public square any more. He says: “Robust proclamation is the future. Artful persuasion is the past.”
McAlpine describes Christian apologists as making an appeal to a shared vision of the good life that no longer exists. What has in fact occurred is that Christians and secularists now fundamentally disagree about what human flourishing looks like. By sounding like we are interested in the same vision of social justice as our friends (for example), we are just stringing them along. We are masking the deep difference.
That difference is most apparent when it comes to sexual ethics. We may agree with our progressive neighbours on refugees and the environment, but when they finally ask us about sexuality, the jig will be up: we’ll be exposed as the religious nutjobs we actually are.
The Israel Folau incident is, for McAlpine, highly instructive. In his unsophisticated way, Folau has just cut to the chase and tweeted what orthodox Christians all actually think. As uncool as it is, we believe in hell. We may drink a tumeric latte with almond milk every day, but we still believe things that bewilder and appal many of our neighbours. So why hide it? The appeal to common ground is, as McAlpine reads it, nearly deceitful. Far better to just state it up front and be done with, instead of trying to delay the confrontation.
The delay tactic, he says, isn’t working. As McAlpine writes:
The secular frame hostile to the Christian belief wades through all of the facades, swats away the niceties and the attempts to unite around a vision of the good life, and demands a sign up to our vision of the good life – and now!
I once asked John Dickson for his advice about going on Q&A, and he said “try not to be mean or dumb.” I don’t think McAlpine is saying we should be dumb, but should we be a bit more mean – or at least, a bit more pugilistic?
We should instead pursue the approach that McAlpine calls “kategoria.” He characterises this as “robust proclamation.” Though he doesn’t go into much detail, he seems to be calling for Christians to eschew cultural and intellectual respectability, and instead say what we really think in bold terms – and to offer this as a challenge to those who do not share our perspective: “can you do better?”
I would like to hear more from McAlpine on what he actually has in mind. But as one who has endeavoured to do public square apologetics, his piece certainly made me think. Is it worth doing? Has my approach been too nice? I once asked John Dickson for his advice about going on Q&A, and he said “try not to be mean or dumb.” I don’t think McAlpine is saying we should be dumb, but should we be a bit more mean – or at least, a bit more pugilistic?
I do think there is a case for Christians being happier to accept that we are culturally passé.
After all, it became clear in the same-sex marriage ballot last year that there’s no point trying to convince some people that you are not homophobic if you oppose it. They simply moved the definition of homophobic to include “anyone who opposes same-sex marriage.” I might as well wear a badge which says “homophobe” and be done with, right?
I do think there is a case for Christians being happier to accept that we are culturally passé. One of the best moments in recent public Christianity was when the British journalist Peter Hitchens went on Q&A to talk about “radical ideas” and said that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead was the most radical idea ever. It was terrifically clarifying, and what’s more, true.
But at the same time, I have deep misgivings about McAlpine’s piece. Yes, there are Christians who are pathetically pandering to cultural hipness, and it simply won’t work, because post-Christian culture will not compromise with them. The compromise will only go one way.
We could be more zesty, more thoughtful, more funny, and more direct. We could be less interested in relevance and more interested in telling it how it is. But never without the gentleness and respect, and never without an eye to our reputation with outsiders.
But there are two aspects to the Biblical approach to dealing with outsiders and in particular the surrounding culture that aren’t sufficiently catered for in McAlpine’s analysis. The first of these is the tone of Christian speech.
Notice that Peter speaks of gentleness and respect, and of winning a good reputation with outsiders. Paul tells us that our lives must win the respect of outsiders in 1 Thessalonians 4:12. It is true that Jesus and Paul sometimes had some very confrontational things to say. But nearly all of the time this was to people inside the circle of faith – to the people of Israel, and then to the churches.
Is speaking with gentleness and respect effective as an evangelistic strategy? Perhaps not in the short term. Perhaps they’ll persecute us anyhow, no matter how nice we are. But it doesn’t matter – it isn’t a matter of effectiveness at this point. It’s just the right thing to do. We could be more zesty, more thoughtful, more funny, and more direct. We could be less interested in relevance and more interested in telling it how it is. But never without the gentleness and respect, and never without an eye to our reputation with outsiders.
To take an example from the opponents of Christianity: I know many atheist and agnostics who are repelled by Richard Dawkins’ proclamation of his “faith.” His blunt speech is a great favour to belief in God. Would we want to mirror that?
I would also question whether apologetics are as ineffective as McAlpine suggests. I have had multiple second conversations with people who were surprised that the reality of the Christian voice in person was nothing like the Christian voice they had pictured. I’ve had people join our church and come to Christ through this kind of conversation.
We should “seek the welfare of the city,” not because it works evangelistically but because it is the right thing to do.
The second aspect is that seeking human flourishing and the common good are not subjective matters. It really is the case that the world is made and ordered by a good God, and that his goodness, beauty and truth shine through the creation. Secularist ideologues seek to promote a new version of human flourishing that is at odds with the way the world actually is. This isn’t just a matter of opinion. They are wrong, and their version of the good life won’t work. And people will see that it won’t work.
We’ve too easily conceded that you can’t prove God, or that the evidence for Jesus is dubious at best, or that the church is unremittingly evil. We’ve not politely challenged those who have promoted different views
This is where we have to play a long game. We should “seek the welfare of the city,” not because it works evangelistically but because it is the right thing to do. And because, while in the short term people may be blind to the good of which we speak, and we may be hated for it, in the long run following God’s word will be vindicated.
There is still a massive place for defending the faith – not by being hip or relevant and progressive, but just by speaking the truth, pursuing the good and pointing to the beautiful. If we feel defeated in the apologetic task, it is because we haven’t really tried to kick back against the critics of the gospel. We’ve too easily conceded that you can’t prove God, or that the evidence for Jesus is dubious at best, or that the church is unremittingly evil. We’ve not politely challenged those who have promoted different views.
Are we now to resort to shouting the gospel at them? I think this would be ineffective, and also disobedient.
Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church in Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of several books.