Ever since I was a teenager, I have benefited from the work of thinkers like Chuck Colson and Nancy Pearcey. Their book How Now Shall We Live? forced me to examine assumptions and answer the question of why I believed Christianity to be true. Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth was also an important book in my spiritual development. It pointed me in the direction of Francis Schaeffer and led me to a deeper consideration of philosophy and worldview analysis.
Nancy Pearcey is a professor and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University, and she has recently released a new book, Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes. Today and tomorrow, she joins me on the blog for a conversation about evangelism, apologetics, and worldview training.
Trevin Wax: Nancy, It’s been more than ten years since Total Truth came out. How has the landscape in North America changed, and how have recent trends shaped your work in Finding Truth?
Nancy Pearcey: Total Truth makes the case that Christianity is a worldview that is meant to be applied not just to religious life but to all of life. Finding Truth gives people the tools to do it.
Christians are often stymied because they simply don’t know how to apply biblical truth to all of life. As a result, they are continually in retreat before competing ideas. The dominant theories in virtually all fields are secular, and sometimes explicitly anti-Christianity. In order to obey the cultural mandate, we need a strategy that empowers us to show where those theories are mistaken, and then to craft positive biblical alternatives.
Finding Truth offers a 5-part strategy that equips us to penetrate to the core of any worldview and weigh its claims. As one of my students said, “Your book is different from any other book I’ve read on apologetics. Other books are informational; they tell us about various worldviews. Your book teaches us how to actually do apologetics.”
Trevin Wax: You write: “Churches have an obligation to equip their congregations to answer the questions that inevitably arise from living in a post-Christian society.” What are some of the common questions you find churches have a difficult time answering?
Nancy Pearcey: The core question is the same one that I wrestled with as a teenager: How do we know that Christianity is true? We should be Christians only because we are persuaded that the gospel is true.
When I stumbled upon L’Abri in the early 1970s, I was a young adult steeped in relativism and skepticism. I had to be persuaded that there is such a thing as truth before I could even consider whether Christianity might be that truth. Today relativism is far more widespread. Polls show that even in the church, teens are likely to say that there are many ways to God, or to say that statements about God’s existence are subjective, based on emotional experience.
Yet church youth groups rarely teach apologetics, majoring instead on games and goodies. The goal seems to be to engineer events that ratchet up emotional commitment, as though sheer intensity of experience will compensate for intellectual doubts. But emotional intensity is not enough to block out teens’ questions. If anything, it leads them to redefine Christianity in purely emotional terms —which leaves them even more vulnerable when they finally do face their questions.
Finding Truth equips young people — and their parents, pastors, and teachers — to craft answers to the many competing worldviews they encounter, whether secular or religious.
Trevin Wax: Many people, especially in the Reformed world, are questioning the role that worldview training plays in discipleship. How do you respond?
Nancy Pearcey: There are many levels of Christian discipleship, but clearly the first one is to stay Christian.
Many Christian homes, schools, and churches are not equipping young people to maintain even the basic conviction that Christianity is true. Sociologist Bradley Wright at the University of Connecticut asked former Christians why they de-converted. The researchers expected to hear stories about people leaving the church because they had been hurt or emotionally wounded — relationship issues. To their surprise, the reason given most frequently by former Christians was that they could not get answers to their doubts and questions. In fact, they could not even get the church to treat their questions seriously. A former Southern Baptist (obviously still angry) said, “Christians always use the word ‘faith’ as their last word when they are too stupid to answer a question.”
Christian Smith, a sociologist at Notre Dame, reports similar results. In Soul Searching, he found that the reason given most often by teens who left their religion was that they had unanswered doubts and questions. I hear the same story far too often myself.
Recently a mother told me with tears in her eyes that her son had lost his faith at a state university. Her son was a psychology major, and ever since Freud, most psychological theories have treated Christianity as a symptom of neurosis, an infantile regression, the projection of an imaginary father figure in the sky. The young man came from a strong, warm Christian family and church, but he was completely unprepared to critically evaluate the theories he was learning in the classroom. Within a semester, he had abandoned his religious upbringing altogether.
How can we help a psychology student respond to Freud’s charge that religion is a symptom of emotional immaturity? An English student seeking to answer Foucault’s charge that truth claims are merely power plays? A law student whose professor insists that law has no relation to morality? A unique feature of Finding Truth is that it teaches a strategy that can be applied universally. No more memorizing specific arguments for each theory. We can be confident that Romans 1 applies to all of them.
Trevin Wax: Your book is primarily focused on the flaws in prevailing philosophies. But you also recognize that most people don’t think, “I need a personal philosophy” for life and then sign up for a course. Much of our outlook on life is absorbed through books and movies and music.
Nancy Pearcey: You’re alluding here to cultural apologetics. It was Francis Schaeffer who first taught evangelicals the value of cultural apologetics — of tracing ideas as they permeate society through the arts, literature, and pop culture. This is where most people pick up their ideas about life. My earlier book, Saving Leonardo, interacts deeply with the arts: I argue that it is imperative for Christians to learn the skill of deciphering worldviews when they come to us not in words, where they are easier to recognize, but in the idiom of image, plot line, composition, and characterization.
Yet to recognize worldviews embedded in art forms, obviously we must first be familiar with those worldviews. And we must have the skills to critically assess them.
Those competencies are what Finding Truth teaches. Since the proof of the pudding is in the eating, I offer what my students have said. An undergraduate wrote, “The method of critique you taught in this class has been incredibly helpful to me, not just in class but in my life — reading books and watching movies.” A master’s student wrote, “When watching television or movies with my family, I used to be afraid of secular ideas seeping into my psyche, but now I finally have the skills to identify and critique them. My kids are intrigued and delighted.”
Once you master the five principles from Romans 1, you will be equipped to think critically and creatively about any theory in any field.
Trevin Wax: Tomorrow, my interview with Nancy Pearcey will continue. We will discuss James K. A. Smith’s critique of “worldview training,” and how we engage in apologetics in a postmodern age.