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A New Apologetics

 

But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.  1 Peter 3:15

Christian apologetics has its justification in this verse from 1 Peter.  Be prepared to make a defense of your faith.    How one defends the faith has changed from the early centuries of the church.  In the last few hundred years, with its appeals to reason, Christian apologetics has been distinctly Modern.  But, it seems the times are changing again.  Apologetics as we know it will be changing.  Interestingly, it may be changing toward something similar to an ancient apologetic.

Modern apologetics developed in the context of Modernism, a worldview that came to full flowering in the latter half of the 19th century.  If you need a refresher on the basic ideas of Modernism, here is a short video.

In this battle of ideas, Christians used the weapons of Modernism against it.  We used appeals to autonomous, objective, supposedly neutral, Reason.  But it wasn’t just using Modern weapons against Modernism.  The Church itself was greatly influenced by Modernism.  We came to accept the primacy of Reason as the arbiter of Truth–we sometimes lost sight of the fact that human reason is fallen, like every other good thing that God has made.

So now we find ourselves in the transition from Modern society to a postmodern one.  Christian apologetics will need to change as well.   But, it seems to me, on the popular level, it still leans into a more Modern flavour of apologetics.  Logical, historical, scientific evidence is offered to argue the existence of God, the reliability of the Gospels and the historical Resurrection of Jesus.  The problem is that the old Modern approach is becoming less and less convincing to a growing segment of our culture.  The one that doesn’t put too much stock into any truth claims, let alone those of religion.  Because we are in this transition to a more postmodern society, we have now an opportunity for Christian apologetics to recover a more ancient apologetic–one that will resonate more with our culture.

So what is the difference between the Modern and the postmodern approaches to apologetics?

The truth of the Resurrection is central to the Faith.  The modern apologist will defend by demonstrating that the Biblical account of the resurrection is historical using the accepted rational principles for investigating historical events.  It will point to the four gospels which include eyewitness testimonies of the resurrected Christ.  It will point to the works of pagan and Jewish writers who confirm that the early Christians believed that Jesus has risen from the dead.  They will point to the martyrs who willingly died rather than deny they had seen the risen Lord.  They will point to the empty grave and the behaviour of the Jewish authorities who would have been very eager to produce the body.  The explosive growth of believers in Jerusalem is another piece of historical evidence, as is that Jesus predicted his death and resurrection in advance.  I recently heard a very interesting sermon on the arrangement of the grave clothes in the empty tomb that were evidence not only of the Resurrections, but of the characteristics of the resurrected body.  It was a great sermon.  Using these, and other rational arguments, the modern apologist will demonstrate the truth of the Biblical account of the resurrection.

What apologetic approach will resonate with a postmodern audience?

Stories, habits, routines, patterns of living will speak more loudly to a postmodern audience than argument.

Integrity is key.  We tell the same story that we live.  Then shape of our lives will be the new apologetic.

And I am not talking about individuals here.  This is about communities–Christian communities that are conformed to Christ by his Spirit This is the new apologetic.

We are talking about the Church here.  It is The body of Christ.  The Church, then, is the foundation of our apologetic.

The new apologetic is the Christian life.  Being sanctified through living in community.  Our sanctification will be seen in how we live, day to day; it will show the fruit of our core commitments to the life into which Jesus calls us.

 

* * *

Postmodernism is a challenge to the idols of Modernism.  It sometimes feels like it is the new enemy of the faith, but it’s often just the enemy of the modern ideas that have been syncretized into our Christian expression.  In some very important ways, postmodernism is a means by which we can reconnect with an ancient apologetic.

The Modern worldview is still out there, and it is still appropriate to engage this view with rational arguments, understanding that reason is not neutral, nor objective.  But our culture is in transition.  Who knows where it will end up, but in the meantime, we are going to be encountering postmodernism as well.

So we will need to have two apologetics.

Zombie Jesus Day

In recent years, some have taken to calling Easter, Zombie Jesus Day. That’s not cool. But what is cool is that the zombie horde is a picture or the resurrection if materialism is correct.

The ubiquitous zombie monster is questioning, by its very presence and form, some of our culture’s foundational assumptions.

The Apostle Paul faced a similar problem in his day–many Greeks also had an inaccurate anthropology. They too saw a zombie when Christians told of a bodily resurrection. His challenge to that culture if just as fitting for ours.

Happy Easter!

A Textbook Talks Religion, and Fails

Textbooks are supposed to be neutral when it comes to religion.

What textbook authors fail to realize is that this is impossible. We all start with beliefs and assumptions that are unprovable. In this video, I have a conversation with a textbook, The words of the textbook are taken verbatim from the introductory section called “Religion and Civilization (xii).

My essential critique is that the textbook presents a very Modern view of religion. This is not a religiously neutral position from which to understand religion, because it takes its foundational and unprovable beliefs and sets these up as the way by which we will understand all other beliefs.

Are We Worshiping the Idols of Modernism?

Why do we fight about Creation? Why do we avoid secular music? Why do we hesitate to talk about Jesus at work? Why is Jesus passive in Communion?

It’s often because we are heavily influenced by the Modern worldview.   So much so that we see reality from, not only a Christian perspective, but a Modern one as well.

Modernism might be in our church!

Modernism has gotten into the Western Church and has shaped how we think about God, how we read the Bible and how we worship. It’s a big deal and we need to understand it.

 

Willful Destruction of Poetry!

I was teaching away and as often happens, I needed to quickly pull up something on the computer to make a point, or give an example of something for the edification of my students.  I needed to project Robert Frost’s “Nature’s First Green is Gold.”  I just typed the first few words into to search bar and hit enter.

I immediately notices the images that the search brought up.

I couldn’t believe what I saw!

Compare that travesty to this:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
                                                                     Robert Frost

When he wrote it, Robert Frost composed a poem.  He didn’t write a paragraph.  And if he were to write a paragraph, you can be sure he wouldn’t have justified, both right and left.

You don’t get poetry?

Well, this re-presenting of Frost’s original, is analogous to any of the following: (you choose)

  • Putting the front of a Volkswagon Bug on a Rolls-Royce
  • Mixing a can on Sprite with a glass  of Espetacle del Montsant 2017 because it’s not sweet enough
  • Ordering Lobster with a side of Kraft Dinner
  • Listening to your Aunt Edna doing Kareoke–Bonnie Tyler’s “Turn Around” (with your High School PE teacher doing the second voice)
  • Adding a cheesy chorus to Amazing Grace–with a mixed metaphor to boot

Suffice it to say that everything in a poem contributes to its meaning.   In this violent restructuring of the poem, the rhyme is lost.  The correspondence of the alliteration in lines 2 and lines 7 is lost, as is the correlation between “Nature” and “Nothing”–the first words of the first and last lines.  Not to mention the first words of each line (“Nature’s . . . Her . . . Her . . . But . . . So . . . Then . . . So . . . So . . . Nothing”).

And what’s the deal with the background picture?  Grand mountainous cliffs that have grass on them!?  That might be a poem, but it ain’t this poem!  Sure it’s green.  Big deal.  It’s the green of the second leaf in line 5.  This poem is about the “first green,” a green so fleeting it needed a profound poem to hint at its beauty and significance and value and fragility.  You can’t capture that by slapping a green mountain on the background.  If a picture was possible, Frost wouldn’t have needed to write the poem!

As Bugs Bunny would say: “What a maroon.”

And you shouldn’t do this to Bible verses either!

Worldview and the Idols We Worship: Dumb as the Ancient Israelites

Christians want to have a Christian worldview, but we are actually just like the ancient Israelites–we worship idols. No matter how much we want to live a life around what the Bible teaches, we fall into idolatry. We get our idols from our culture, and we also make up our own idols for worship in the Church.

Our worldviews can often be hiding idolatries, which are hiding in our closets with our cheap shirts and even in the soup over at grandma’s house. It’s a good thing we are saved by Grace, because we’d never make it otherwise.

I thought I saw reality the way it was. I thought I was viewing the world as a Christian should. But I came to realize that I was looking at the world through some very thick and tinted lenses that I didn’t even know were there. This began a bit of a quest to sort out my worldview.

The Movie that Shaped My View of the World

Image from iMDb

The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, is a book that changed the way I viewed the world.

First Monday in October (1981) is a movie that shaped, if not my view of the world, at least my position on all issues surrounding Freedom of Speech.

Apparently, it isn’t a very good movie.  The Rotten Tomatoes Audience Score for First Monday in October is 46% (there is no Critics Consensus).

I don’t remember if Walter Matthau was brilliant as Supreme Court Justice Daniel Snow.   Nor do I if Jill Clayburn was any good at her portrayal of the presidential appointee to the Supreme court.

I just remember one scene.

And it has stuck with me for almost 40 years.  And, given the way the world has changed in the last few years, I think about it almost daily.

It was a single conversation that makes this movie memorable for me.

But here is what I remember:

The Supreme Court needs to decide what the law says about an obscene movie.  Liberal Justice Daniel Snow (Matthau) refuses to go to a screening of the movie.  He says it is immaterial to how he intends to vote.  Newly appointed, conservative, justice Ruth Loomis (Clayburn), insists that Snow must watch the film in order to decide if it ought to be protected under the tenets of Freedom of Speech.

Snow knows how he will vote regardless of how bad the content is–he will not limit Freedom of Speech.

Going into the film, I think my view would have been similar to that of Loomis; I came out agreeing with Snow.  And I still do.  I think Freedom of Speech is foundational to our culture.  If pornographers are free to express their material, then I am allowed to express my opinions too.

It’s another world today.  The roles seem to have been reversed.  It’s not just conservatives who want to limit free speech.  People on the extreme liberal end of the spectrum seem to be quite willing to silence the speech of any who disagree with them–even fellow liberal extremists who express a different flavour of liberal extremism.  And it feels as if the willingness to suppress, not just voice, but thought itself is moving in from the extreme.

Interestingly, conservative are now joining moderate liberals in the defense of free speech, but this support seems to be quite selective.

What disturbs me is that dialogue is being stifled–quite unapologetically.

I don’t know if we will ever go back to having conversations and arguments about what we believe, all the while allowing that the other has the right to say what they will.  I hope so.

 

 

 

 

 

Why Pastors Must Read Fiction

Trixieliko / Pixabay

Recently, I heard a pastor admit from the pulpit that he didn’t read fiction–I’ve heard this before.  These confessions are not usually necessary for it is usually apparent from their sermons.

I have heard the reasons.  Some don’t read because they see reading fiction was a frivolous endeavor, even a dangerous one.  Others, because they have no time.  After you read the Bible and the theology texts, blogs, and all those books on Christian living, there isn’t any time for fiction.  Some don’t read fiction because, “Well, it just isn’t my thing.”

I perused several articles in which other pastors exhort their colleagues to read fiction.  These articles offer some very good reasons for pastors to read fiction, but they didn’t give the most important reasons, which I will save for last.

It’s Relaxing

Reading a novel is relaxing, and pastors should find time to relax.  Reading The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo by Stieg Larsson is a great read, but it’s a book for the beach.  I’m not arguing that pastors read more beach books, although it couldn’t hurt.

Get Out of Yourself

We all live narrow lives and look at the world with a fairly limited vision.  I am a white, North American male who was born in the early 1960s.  I look at the world through these lenses.  I was never sexually abused.  I don’t know what it is like to be an immigrant or a tanner in India. I don’t have autism or a brother with schizophrenia.

When you read good fiction, you are immersed in the reality of these things.  Can you see how imaginatively understanding these things would make one a better pastor?

Experience the Beauty and the Power of Language

Good art, be it visual arts, music, or fiction, is good because it is rooted in an endlessly creative God who has chosen to be imaged by creative human beings. Art isn’t irrelevant. It’s part of what God commanded us to do in the beginning, and what he initially declared.  When you enjoy truth and beauty, when you are blessed by gifts God has given to other human beings, you are enjoying a universe that, though fallen, God delights in as “very good.”

Good Fiction is True

Good fiction challenges us where we need challenging: In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner says fiction “helps us to know what we believe, reinforces those qualities that are noblest to us, leads us to feel uneasy about our faults and limitations.”  If Gardner is right, and I think he is, what human being, let alone pastor, wouldn’t benefit from the reading of good fiction.

As poetry is “the art of saying what cannot be said” (Alan Watts), narrative attempts to explain the inexplicable.  You can’t deal with ideas like Good, Sin, Death, Sacrifice, Grace, Love, Redemption, etc. propositionally.  Only narrative is up to the task.  A sermon delving into topics like these needs the support of a mind that has been broadened and deepened by fiction, which has taken the preacher to an understanding beyond personal experience and theology.

If you can't read fiction, then you can't read the Bible. Click To Tweet

You can’t read the Bible if you can’t read fiction.

These are all great reasons for pastors to read fiction, but there are still more compelling reasons.

The Bible is a collection of all sorts of literary genres, and all of these are ancient expressions of these genres.  Ideally, you’d need to read all sorts of ancient texts, in their original languages, just to begin to get a sense of how to read the biblical text.  There are people who can read these texts this way, and we can read their books and articles, but our access to the original texts is indirect.  We need direct engagement with texts in general in order to understand the role of the reader–a role that involves far more than our mind, but our heart and soul and imagination as well.

The Bible doesn’t simply address man as a cognitive process but as a complex image-bearer who recognizes truth not only through categorizing syllogisms but through imagination, beauty, wonder, awe.

Russell Moore

The Bible is not simply a text that we mine in order to extract nuggets of truth.

It’s not an encyclopedia, and it shouldn’t be read as one.

The skills one needs to read the Bible are the same skills one develops when one reads good fiction.

The skills one must develop in order to read the Bible are the same skills one develops when one reads good fiction.Click To Tweet

Many North American Christians are still under the influence of Modernism.   We tend to equate truth with fact.  We think that for the Bible to be true, it must be factual.  This gets us into all sorts of problems with our interpretation of the Bible.  We will reject the intended meaning of a text when we reject the very mode in which the text was intended to be read.

Most pastors know that the Bible is not anything like an encyclopedia, but we have been so steeped in Modern thinking for so long that it is sometimes a struggle to step out of a rationalist reading of the Bible, and reading a steady diet of theology reinforces this error.

The pastor who reads theology, but not fiction, is like a biology lecturer, who has dissected a thousand of frogs, and keeps dozens in his lab, but hasn’t studied them in the field.  He knows so much, but his understanding of frogs is incomplete.

How can we reset our default settings–our idolatrous, Modern settings–so we can better read the Bible?

Read good fiction.

Reading fiction will develop the understanding that the opposite of fiction is fact, not truth.

The opposite of fiction is fact, not truth.Click To Tweet

Many sermons can be preached effectively by a pastor who doesn’t read fiction, but there certain times when a broader reading list would greatly improve what we hear from the pulpit.  And occasionally, it will protect the speaker from coming off sounding silly.

Recommendations:

What should I read?

Read from the “top 100 books you must read before you die” list.  Read from the best books of 2020, or 2019.  And read old books.  C. S. Lewis explains why.

OK, so here are some recommendations.

My favourite book of all-time is A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.  It’s funny and profound.  I’ve written about why this book is so essential for Christians to read in a series of posts.  But read the book before you read the posts.  It’s far better, and less propositional.

Any and all of the short stories of Flannery O’Connor.  Pick up one of her collections like Everything that Rises Must Converge.  O’Connor takes a hard and critical look at Christianity in a Modern context, and she also reintroduces readers to God’s Grace despite ourselves.

If I were ever stranded on a desert island, and I couldn’t take the Bible, I would take The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien.  It doesn’t replace the Bible, because it isn’t the inspired word of God, but it contains so many of the essential Biblical themes and truths, that it might sustain me until I get rescued.

1984 by George Orwell is one of the best books of the 20th Century.  Everyone should read it.  It’s brilliantly written is is as relevant today as it was in 1984, and 1949 when it when it was published.

Watership Down by Richard Adams is about rabbits, but it’s also about human nature, faith, trust, and leadership.  And another thousand things.  This one is great on Audible, read by Ralph Cosham.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry takes the reader to India in the 1950s.  You might not be interested in India in the 1950s.  It doesn’t matter.  The book is very well written and you become invested very quickly.  If nothing else, it exercises our empathy, helping us to step in the shoes of others who live in very different circumstances.

You’ve heard of the problem of evil, the strongest challenge to the Christian God.  Like all of his work, The Road by Cormac McCarthy is about the problem of good.  This is a dark novel, but the distant glimmer of light and hope argues that life must be about more than suffering and death.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.  This one is a doozy.  It’s monstrous.  (Read this hilarious article about “How to Read Infinite Jest.“).  This book rivals A Prayer for Owen Meany for my all-time favourite book.    But if you are not a fan of fiction just yet, hold off for a year or 10.

The good news is there are thousands more.  You’d find a lot more recommendations in the comment section if this blog had a huge following, but there might be one or two there as well.

Happy Reading!

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