Cultural Apologetics
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Cultural Apologetics

Paul M. Gould

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eBook - ePub

Cultural Apologetics

Paul M. Gould

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Renewing the Christian voice, conscience, and imagination so that we can become compelling witnesses of the Gospel in today's culture.

Christianity has an image problem. While the culture we inhabit presents us with an increasingly anti-Christian and disenchanted position, the church in the West has not helped its case by becoming anti-intellectual, fragmented, and out of touch with the relevancy of Jesus to all aspects of contemporary life.

The muting of the Christian voice, its imagination, and its collective conscience have diminished the prospect of having a genuine missionary encounter with others today.

Cultural apologetics attempts to demonstrate not only the truth of the Gospel but also its desirability by reestablishing Christianity as the answer that satisfies our three universal human longings—truth, goodness, and beauty.

In Cultural Apologetics, philosopher and professor Paul Gould sets forth a fresh and uplifting model for cultural engagement—rooted in the biblical account of Paul's speech in Athens—which details practical steps for establishing Christianity as both true and beautiful, reasonable and satisfying.

You'll be introduced to:

  • The idea of cultural apologetics as distinct from traditional apologetics.
  • The path from disenchantment with how we understand reality to re-enchantment with the reality of the spiritual nature of things.
  • The practical tools of good cultural engagement: conscience, reason, and imagination.

Equip yourself to see, and help others see, the world as it is through the lens of the Spirit—deeply beautiful, mysterious, and sacred. With creative insights, Cultural Apologetics prepares readers to share a vision of the Christian faith that is both plausible and desirable, offering clarity for those who have become disoriented in the haze of modern Western culture.

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From a humble beginning, its presence is now worldwide. It impacts all aspects of daily life, shapes life’s rhythm, expands our possibilities, and creates even as it fulfills desire. Its banner is instantly recognizable; its reach is nearly universal. Am I describing the church or the cross of Christ? No, I’m talking about the fast-food giant McDonald’s. A visit to the company’s home page reveals its sense of manifest destiny: “Can you imagine a world without the Big Mac? Or Chicken McNuggets? Or Happy Meals? Luckily, back in 1954, a man named Ray Kroc discovered a small burger restaurant in California, and wrote the first page of our history.”1
Yet even such an iconic American (and now worldwide) staple as McDonald’s is not immune to difficulty. As concerns over the rise of obesity and obesity-related illnesses increase, the McDonald’s image has become tarnished. McDonald’s is now viewed as a part of the problem. Documentaries such as Super Size Me, in which Morgan Spurlock eats only Big Macs, Double Quarter Pounders, Egg McMuffins, and other McDonald’s offerings for thirty days with devastating results, don’t help.2 Attempts to rebrand the fast-food chain as a healthy option have largely fallen on deaf ears. Silver bullet fixes (such as the 1991 introduction of the McLean Deluxe) have failed. Now McDonald’s seems to be settling in for the long haul, attempting to refurbish its image through a multitude of little changes. In the meantime, however, sales and profits have plummeted worldwide as upscale fast-casual restaurants such as Chipotle and Smashburger eat away at their market share.3
At a superficial level, Christianity and McDonald’s have much in common. Christianity too had a humble beginning and now exerts worldwide influence. Christianity, like McDonald’s, affects all aspects of daily life. Its banner—the cross—is as universally recognizable as the golden arches. Yet like McDonald’s, Christianity suffers from an image problem. Scandals, affairs, and inflated egos in pulpits across America have diminished the church’s credibility as a beacon of moral authority. Division within the church on issues such as abortion, race, same-sex marriage, how to help the poor and the immigrant, and gun control give the impression that the church is beholden more to the spirit of the age than the eternal Word of God. Alarmingly, youth are leaving the church in record numbers.
Our comparison between McDonald’s and Christianity only goes so far. Christianity is often maligned and misunderstood, but the truth is that it has unequivocally been good for the world. For McDonald’s food, the verdict is less conclusive.4
Around the world, interest in religion has increased in the twenty-first century. Yet our culture in the West is becoming increasingly post-, sub-, and anti-Christian. If these trends continue, people will grow more hostile to the gospel, incapable of understanding and embracing the good news. The problem is not simply “out there” in the culture. The church has grown anti-intellectual and sensate, out of touch with the relevancy of Jesus and the gospel to contemporary life. Marred by scandal, infighting, and a lack of conviction, the church’s prophetic voice, once resounding with power on issues of slavery and human rights, is now but a whimper. The gospel no longer receives a fair hearing (the Christian voice is muted). Christians find themselves as morally fragmented as their non-Christian neighbors (the Christian conscience is muted). The collective imagination of Christian culture is focused on the mundane (the Christian imagination is muted). And the prospect of a genuine missionary encounter is diminished. All too often, Christianity is relegated to the margins of culture, viewed as implausible, undesirable, or both. Like the struggling fast-food giant, the church today has an image problem.


In the year 1936, a twenty-seven-year-old man named Lesslie Newbigin set out from England for India to share Christ among the Hindus. Newbigin faithfully ministered in India for the next thirty-eight years. When he returned to his home country in 1974, he found it had become a drastically different country from the one he left. It was becoming increasingly a post-Christian nation, one in need of a fresh missionary encounter.
It was during this time that Newbigin wrote what is now considered a modern classic on mission, Foolishness to the Greeks. In his book, he explores the most crucial question of our time. He asks:
What would be involved in a missionary encounter between the gospel and this whole way of perceiving, thinking, and living that we call “modern Western culture”?5
This is the question to be asked of any post-Christian culture. Newbigin is interested in how we can talk to others about Jesus in a way that is understood by those becoming further and further removed from Christianity’s language and worldview. This is the “missionary encounter” Newbigin has in mind. And while Newbigin’s question is essential for us to answer today, it also leads us to an even bigger question: What do you make of Jesus Christ? Newbigin understood that every person in every culture is shaped by what sociologist Peter Berger calls “plausibility structures.” Berger says every culture has a collective mind-set, a collective imagination, and a collective conscience. This combined outlook shapes the culture’s view of the world and what is judged within the culture as plausible or implausible. Is this a genuine possibility . . . or just an outrageous idea?
Newbigin knew that we fail to have genuine missionary encounters if we fail to understand those we seek to reach with the gospel. Our words and our message must be understandable. In a post-Christian society, talk about Jesus is no different from talk about Zeus or Hermes. We sound foolish, and our beliefs appear implausible and meaningless.
How can we have a genuine missionary encounter in our culture? This is the question that drives the work of cultural apologetics. The term “cultural apologetics” itself has not been widely used until recently, but little has been written on how we are to understand this new kind of cultural engagement. Ken Myers, the producer and host of Mars Hill Audio Journal, offers the following definition:
Traditional apologetics is concerned with making arguments to defend Christian truth claims, and has often addressed challenges to Christian belief coming from philosophical and other more intellectual sources. The term “cultural apologetics” has been used to refer to systematic efforts to advance the plausibility of Christian claims in light of the messages communicated through dominant cultural institutions, including films, popular music, literature, art, and the mass media. So while traditional apologists would critique the challenges to the Christian faith advanced in the writings of certain philosophers, cultural apologists might look instead at the sound bite philosophies embedded in the lyrics of popular songs, the plots of popular movies, or even the slogans in advertising (“Have It Your Way,” “You Deserve a Break Today,” “Just Do It”).6
Notice that, according to Myers, the cultural apologist is concerned with truth, argument, and the plausibility of Christianity. The main point of contrast between the traditional apologist and the cultural apologist has to do with the kinds of evidence utilized in making a case for Christianity. For the traditional apologist, academic sources, such as philosophy, science, and history, are prioritized in providing evidence for arguments. But for the cultural apologist, cultural artifacts—illustrations from the world of music, art, sports, entertainment, social relations, and politics—are paramount.
Some are less enthusiastic about the emergence of cultural apologetics. William Lane Craig, a traditional apologist par excellence, claims cultural apologetics
constitutes an entirely different sort of apologetics than the traditional model, since it is not concerned with epistemological issues of justification and warrant. Indeed it does not even attempt to show in any positive sense that Christianity is true; it simply explores the disastrous consequences for human existence, society and culture if Christianity should be false.7
According to Craig, the cultural apologist is not concerned with the truth, plausibility, or justification of Christianity, but merely with showing the disastrous consequences of a godless world. I disagree.
My proposed definition for the task of cultural apologetics is broader than, though still inclusive of, Myers’s and far more positive than Craig’s. I define cultural apologetics as the work of establishing the Christian voice, conscience, and imagination within a culture so that Christianity is seen as true and satisfying. How does this conception of cultural apologetics fit into the discipline of apologetics and relate to the debates over apologetic method, cultural engagement, and worldview analysis?
Regarding the question of apologetic method, my proposed definition of cultural apologetics is neutral, and I believe compatible, with many of the prominent approaches. One can be, for example, a classical apologist, an evidentialist, a cumulative case apologist, a presuppositionalist, or a Reformed Epistemologist and still employ the approach suggested in this book.8 The method suggested here is more general and inclusive than the oft-debated question of which epistemology best fits apologetics.
Since the Enlightenment, apologetics has primarily been conceived as a defense of the reasonableness of Christianity.9 With the demise of Enlightenment rationality in the twentieth century, alternative models of apologetics have been proposed. Many of these newer proposals resist the reductionistic impulse of modernity, seeking a return to an integrated, and more ancient, way of conceiving the task of bearing witness. We now read of apologetics beyond reason, joy-based apologetics, imaginative apologetics, moral apologetics, sapiential apologetics, popologetics, and more.10 With the flourishing of new ways of conceiving apologetics, it will be helpful to provide a taxonomy of the discipline in order to locate my proposal.
Approaches to apologetics that begin with (or focus primarily on) reason or the imagination or the human conscience are classified, accordingly, as rational, imaginative, or moral apologetics. Cultural apologetics acknowledges all of these approaches and integrates them into a vision of what it means to be an embodied human that shapes and is shaped by culture, offering what I think is a more realistic and compassionate approach to apologetics. The cultural apologist affirms man’s rational nature, but situates it within a more comprehensive account of what it means to be human. I claim a new lane then for cultural apologetics as I conceive it (see figure 1.1).
In addition, a cultural apologist operates at two levels. First, she operates globally by paying attention to how those within a culture perceive, think, and live, and then she works to create a world that is more welcoming and thrilling and beautiful and enchanted.11 Secondly, she operates locally, removing obstacles to, and providing positive reasons for, faith so individuals or groups will see Christianity as true and satisfying, plausible and desirable.
FIGURE 1.1: Cultural Apologetics and the Discipline of Apologetics
FIGURE 1.1: Cultural Apologetics and the Discipline of Apologetics
The global component to cultural apologetics needs to be distinguished, on the one hand, from the debate over Christ’s relationship to culture, a debate framed largely by H. Richard Niebuhr’s 1951 book Christ and Culture, and, on the other hand, the activity of worldview analysis championed by Francis Schaeffer, Nancy Pearcey, and James Sire.12...

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