1. Paul, what is the problem you are addressing in your book Cultural Apologetics?
I want the gospel to get a fair hearing. The problem is that for many today the gospel is viewed as either implausible or undesirable or both. So, Christianity suffers from an image problem. Because many today no longer see the relevance of Jesus to all aspects of life, the Christian voice has become muted. We can add to this the fact that many of us are just as fragmented as our nonbelieving neighbors, and so the Christian conscience is muted. Moreover, many today fail to see the world in its proper light. Instead of perceiving the world as created and sustained by a loving God, we think that the world is ordinary and mundane. As a result, the Christian imagination is muted too. Add all of these factors together and the prospect for a genuine missionary encounter is significantly diminished.
2. How would you characterize cultural apologetics?
In the book, I defined cultural apologetics as the work of renewing the Christian voice, conscience, and imagination so that Christianity will be seen as true and satisfying. There is a global and local component to cultural apologetics. Globally, the cultural apologist works “upstream,” within the culture-shaping institutions of the world (the university regarding truth, the arts regarding beauty, and the city and cultural innovators regarding goodness) so that Christianity is seen as reasonable and desirable. Locally, the cultural apologist works “downstream” and is concerned with how the gospel is being received and understood at the level of individual lives. In all cases, the cultural apologist’s posture toward culture is one of creating and cultivating the good, true, and beautiful.
3. Any surprises for you as you did research for this book?
One of the biggest surprises was the realization that we live in an unprecedented time. Every other culture in the history of the world prior to modernity believed there was a tight connection between the social order and the sacred order. Reading Philip Rieff’s book, My Life Among the Deathworks, helped me understand how urgent the need for cultural apologetics is today. Reading C. S. Lewis’s essay “Talking about Bicycles” was also a fun surprise. In many ways, that essay, which is not well-known, unlocked Lewis for me. He talks about four stages we go through regarding just about anything, and he illustrates using a bicycle. Those four stages—unenchanted, enchanted, disenchanted, and re-enchanted—organized a major theme in my book—the idea that re-enchantment is possible if we join with God and others. This shouldn’t have been such a surprise, but I was also blown away at the Apostle Paul’s brilliant speech in Athens. My whole approach to cultural apologetics is built out of Paul’s example on Mars Hill.
4. Any suggestions about ways that apologists can expand on some of the suggestions you make in your book?
I’d love to see apologists pick up some of the themes of the book and fill in the details. We’ve done a ton of work establishing the reasonableness of Christianity, and that work must continue. I’d love to see apologists grow in two areas (at least), however. First, as we develop our arguments for God (in general) or Christian theism (in particular), I’d like to see more “imaginative reasoning.” In other words, let’s make our arguments, but do in such a way that those in our culture can understand. That will require us understanding culture and imaginatively helping others understand the gospel. Second, I’d like to see more work done on how we can walk the “planks” of the conscience and the imagination in our case-making (I see the work you are doing at MoralApologetics.com as helping us learn to walk the “plank” of the conscience in our quest for goodness). The means that we need to learn to use the aesthetic currency of our lives (music, story, dance, painting, cooking, tweeting (!!), and so on) in our apologetic efforts. There are a daily million signposts for God—all we need to do is learn to see them ourselves and then point them out in creative ways to others.
5. Why do suggest that we need to cultivate a long-term mentality in apologetics?
We tend to focus on the short-term as evangelicals. And we tend to be very pragmatic. If we don’t see an immediate pay-off in terms of well-known metrics (such as gospel conversions or baptisms), we are quick to judge something as a failure. But when we incorporate a long-term vision and begin to think about the conditions of the soil (the culture) in which we hope to plant the seed of the gospel, our metrics shift to a more long-term horizon. The work of establishing the reasonableness and desirability of Jesus and the gospel in a disenchanted culture is going to take time. It is going to take fully committed believers faithfully present within all spheres of culture for the gospel to be viewed as viable. As I describe in the book, we must begin to think of ministry four-dimensionally instead of two-dimensionally. The idea, which I learned from my friend Greg Ganssle, is this. We typically think of ministry in two-dimensions. We look at a map and say, “how can we get the gospel to every point on the map—length and height?” But, there are other dimensions. There is the third dimension, depth, and the fourth dimension, time. I write this book because I’m not just concerned with the state of the gospel today, but I’m concerned with where our culture is heading and the state of the gospel in the future.
6. Can you say more about the way moral apologetics, in particular, occupies an important role in cultural apologetics as you envision it?
I think that the work you are doing at moralapologetics.com is crucial to a more robust case for Christianity in at least two ways. First, by helping others see how impressive the moral argument for God is, we awaken others’ rational faculties and set them on a journey that if faithfully followed culminates with Christ. As C. S. Lewis colorfully put it in the opening chapters of Mere Christianity, every human, if they think about it, is aware of two uncomfortable facts: there is a moral law and we fall woefully short of it. By helping others attend to the rich contours of the human experience of morality, the moral apologist can set others on the path toward Jesus. Second, as we work to right wrongs, live for a story bigger than self, and become whole, we help others see and understand the good life. We make the world a little bit better, and that is no small thing, and we encourage others to follow our example. This is especially important today. If we know anything at all, we know that the world is not right. We are outraged at injustice. This presents us with a genuine opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus to others.
7. Do you see any indications that there’s forming a recognition in the apologetic community for a broader approach of the type you’re endorsing?
I do. For one thing, I’m encouraged by the initial positive reception to my book. I think that many are looking for an approach that is more faithful to the actual contours of the human heart and the actual objections to the faith that people might have. I’m encouraged by those such as Holly Ordway and Michael Ward who are helping us understand the importance of beauty and the imagination for faith, and those such as Baggett and Walls, who are helping us see the strength of the moral argument. I’m encouraged by those who are wanting to utilize all the good gifts from God to show others the brilliance and beauty of the gospel (including many artists, storytellers, and filmmakers). Just to be clear, none of this minimizes the need for traditional apologetics—arguments for God, the deity of Christ, etc. But, importantly, I want us to continue to develop these arguments and do so in a way that might be understood or found appealing to those who might not have a PhD in philosophy. I think this is one way we can show love to our neighbor (I say this as someone who does have a PhD in philosophy and loves to give formal arguments for the faith).
8. I know you enjoyed Eleonore Stump’s Wandering in Darkness, in which she uses a lot of insights from the field of literature. Would you say more about how and why literature, which you adduce quite a bit in your book, can be used in evangelism and apologetics?
One of Stump’s central insights in Wandering in Darkness is the idea that stories can provide for us a kind of lived-experience of others which in turn helps us to see and understand the world better. Her book explores key biblical narratives (of Abraham, Job, Samson, and Mary of Bethany) and applies them to the question of suffering. As we walk along the lived-experience of Job or Abraham, we begin to see and understand God’s loving care even in the face of suffering. More generally, as we read about the hero—or the villain—of a story, we learn from the inside what it feels like to be the hero or villain of a story. Moreover, stories awaken us. They remind us that we were created to live a dramatic life. Stories move us and invite our participation. This is important too because the gospel is a story—the true story of the world. Not only is it the true story of the world, but it is the best story, the best possible story in the world. It is a story that is alive and inviting and that understands us. So, as we awaken others—through stories—I believe we set them on a path that can lead, with some help along the way, to the true story of the world (the gospel).
9. Do you think that a cultural apologetic approach can break through the darkest and hardest of hearts—Mike Austin’s, for example?
Ha! Just as your question—and your friendly feud on Facebook—makes me and many of us who know you both laugh, it reminds us that there is comedy in the gospel story too. The truly comic is unforeseen. Who would have foreseen that God’s answer to man’s tragedy of sin is Jesus? And who would have foreseen that God’s answer to the tragedy of the Cross is the Resurrection? Yes, the beauty of the gospel story is that it’s freely offered to all and can break through the hardest of hearts—even Austin’s.