Study the Culture to Better Share the Gospel

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Is cultural analysis a distraction from the real work of apologetics? “We’re better off sticking with evidence and arguments,” some apologists say.

The problem with this strategy is that it deals with a world that doesn’t exist. All arguments inhabit a particular context. What resonates with one culture can be unbelievable to another.

We never engage with someone who’s abstracted from culture, because humans are cultural beings, shaped by the contingencies of history, institutions, languages, and local norms. A quick way to become ineffective in our witness is to think we don’t need to contextualize. We’re already contextualizing. If we imagine we’re not, we’re probably just doing it poorly.

In our recent book, Apologetics at the Cross, Mark Allen and I cover some of the key cultural trends in the West that Christians today need to understand: modern pluralism, the age of authenticity, the therapeutic turn, and religious lethargy. In what follows I will briefly survey this last trend, and explain how we might talk to someone who has embraced it.

‘I Don’t Need Religion’

The prevailing cultural assumptions in the West no longer assume a God-ordered world with God-given ways to live. As James K. A. Smith explains, many people have “constructed webs of meaning that provide almost all the significance they need” (vii). For this reason, many late moderns don’t have a sense of needing “some bit of missing information,” nor are they waiting for someone—least of all a Christian—to come and answer all their questions.

We’re already contextualizing. If we imagine we’re not, we’re probably just doing it poorly.

Because our neighbors see life from a different framework than we do, the “nagging questions about God and the afterlife” don’t drive them. Rather, Smith explains, non-religious longings, goals, and “quests for significance” fill their lives to such an extent “there doesn’t seem to be anything ‘missing'” (vii). And even if they do wonder whether there’s a hole in their lives, they don’t normally assume it’s “God-shaped”; they suspect they’re missing wealth, achievement, comfort, thriving relationships, or even something they haven’t encountered.

If you attempt to engage secular unbelievers with traditional apologetic arguments for the resurrection or from design, don’t be surprised if they just shrug their shoulders and walk away.

Opportunities

Such apathy toward Christianity presents obvious challenges. Yet hidden behind the apathy are cracks running through the late-modern psyche. While ensconced in their own secular webs of meaning, many still sense their vulnerability at certain pressure points (Taylor, 594–617). Even as late moderns live in abundance and comfort, they’re haunted by the sense that “somewhere there is a fullness or richness which transcends the ordinary” (Taylor, 677).

Below are two examples of existential cracks in our age’s quest for meaning and significance. The apologetic approach to these cracks follows a pattern we call “inside out.”

Start on the inside of their position, attempting to show what’s lacking in their own view. Then guide them to see that while Christianity might look strange and off-putting, if one steps into the Christian vision and “tries it on,” it offers (perhaps surprisingly) a more compelling vision of reality.

1. Beauty

Inside

The sense of awe we feel when we hear and see beautiful things, which sometimes even brings us to tears, has a way of challenging spiritual lethargy. Many of us know what it feels like to be moved by a summer’s sunset, or a masterful painting, or the smile of a spouse. Most people simply assume the category of beauty without ever considering where it comes from.

Most people simply assume the category of beauty without ever considering where it comes from.

But if we’re all simply a product of time and chance, a collection of atoms with no Designer, then what is beauty? And if we say something is beautiful—say, our child or our lover—what do we really mean? Yes, there are many ways to explain the category of beauty intrinsic to humans, and even materialists have their own, but the question remains: Which explanation is most powerful and convincing?

If you tell your fiancée you find her beautiful, do you mean you prefer her conglomeration of atoms to other beings’ conglomeration of atoms, while admitting your preference is a product of neurons firing in your body that you have little to no control over? Consistently embracing this perspective seems almost unthinkable to most humans: when we look at a gorgeous sunset, or our child, or hear a breathtaking story, we intuitively assume a deeper and fuller significance than a purely secular framework provides.

Out

Christians believe true beauty exists because God exists; all that’s good, true, and beautiful manifests God himself. God created the world for people to enjoy and delight in, and though its beauty exists in a fallen state, marred by the effects of sin, it witnesses to himself, pointing us to his lovingkindness.

Moreover, the fallen beauty we see in this world is but a shadow of what’s to come; it makes us long for the day when beauty will be fully restored to its perfect state. One of C. S. Lewis’s central characters in Till We Have Faces expresses this yearning: “It was when I was the happiest that I longed the most. . . . And because it was beautiful, it set me longing, always longing. Somewhere else, there must be more of it.”

The Christian explanation of beauty also provides a reason for Christians to create and admire beautiful things, such as music, plays, paintings, sculptures, novels, and films. Because beauty and design point beyond the creation to the ultimate Creator of beauty, there’s a higher reason to create. While a committed materialist might experience the same impulse to create, he cannot provide such a powerful justification and meaning for his work.

2. Death

Inside

The terror of death seems to haunt us all—so much so, according to cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, that we try our best to ignore our own mortality. But it’s there, underlying everything. A popular secular sentiment is to dismiss death by saying we merely cease to exist. While this might be easy for some to say, it’s a view far more difficult, if not impossible, to maintain consistently.

Atheist philosopher Luc Ferry asserts that the question of death, far from being something we can easily dismiss, lies at the heart of our distinctiveness as humans:

As distinct from animals . . . a human being is the only creature who is aware of his limits. He knows that he will die, and that his near ones, those he loves, will also die. Consequently, he cannot prevent himself from thinking about this state of affairs, which is disturbing and absurd, almost unimaginable. (2–3)

When people truly consider what it means that they’ll die, they can’t help but be disturbed by the question. Through sympathetically getting someone to seriously consider what will happen to them after they die, we can place an existential weight on their shoulders that’s difficult for them to bear, let alone shrug off.

Out

In an age when people assume they can create their own webs of meanings and significance, death serves as “God’s dismantling tool” (Gibson, 131). When late-modern people are forced to face the thought of death, they are often sobered, humbled, even confused. As Old Testament wisdom reminds us:

It is better to go to a house of mourning
than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of everyone;
the living should take this to heart. (Eccl. 7:2)

Yet while death alerts us to important realities, the story doesn’t end there. If Jesus rose from the dead, then we need not die either: Death has lost its sting and life has new meaning. As Ferry explains, our greatest desire as human beings is “to be understood, to be loved, not to be alone, and not to be separated from our loved ones—in short, not to die and not to have them die on us” (4).

Christianity is something the unbeliever should at least want to be true.

Christianity’s response to this universal human desire not to die is that in Christ, death isn’t the end of life, love, and community, but the door to a deeper experience of all these things. For this reason, Christianity is something the unbeliever should at least want to be true.

The beauty of the Christian story certainly doesn’t prove that it’s true; still, the fear of death and the Christian view of resurrection can awaken the spiritually lethargic to the relevance of religion and the possibility of believing.

Look for the ‘Cracks’ in Culture

More examples of pressure points can be explored (for example, meaning, purpose, and morality). The key is starting with the unavoidable parts of someone’s life. Your ambivalent neighbor can easily write off arguments that aren’t essential to her everyday experience, but it won’t be so easy to write off the categories and experiences she lives each day.

Of course, arguments and evidence are important, but the more decisive issue is which arguments and evidence are most compelling to the people you’re actually engaging. What might awaken them from stupor? Understanding the cracks in a culture opens doors for apologetic conversations—and more importantly, conversations about the gospel—which is reason enough to learn to exegete culture.


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