Apologetics—the discipline of making a case intended to persuade people to put their faith in Christ—is undergoing something of a shift in recent years. We see a turn from reliance on evidence-based arguments toward methods that focus on the emotional resonance of Christianity. Shifts in apologetic strategies are not new. The History of Apologetics, a textbook edited by Alister McGrath, Benjamin Forrest, and Josh Chatraw, demonstrates how apologists have always adapted their approaches and methods in different eras and cultures, from the time of Justin Martyr to the ministry of Tim Keller.
What form will apologetics take in our secular age? A number of recent books focus on society’s plausibility structures, the cultural conditions for belief, and the need for an approach that engages the emotions.
- Josh Chatraw and Mark Allen’s Apologetics at the Cross widens the horizon of apologetics in order to offer a greater number of ways of presenting the Christian faith.
- Holly Ordway’s Apologetics and the Christian Imagination proposes an integrated approach to defending the faith.
- Chris Brooks’s Urban Apologetics tackles particular issues and challenges to Christianity faced in urban contexts, bringing the wider tradition into conversation with theological and biblical controversies that arise in the inner city.
- Paul Gould’s Cultural Apologetics recommends we “reignite the imagination” in order to present the gospel in a disenchanted world.
- Several essays in Sean McDowell’s A New Kind of Apologist explore cultural trends that point us toward fresh strategies for communicating Christian truth.
We can now add to this list Justin Ariel Bailey’s Reimagining Apologetics: The Beauty of Faith in a Secular Age.
Fresh Infusion of Imagination
Bailey believes apologetic methods and strategies remain indispensable in a secular age, but the discipline needs “a fresh infusion of imagination. . . . Doubters require more than good arguments. They require an aesthetic sense, an imaginative vision, and a poetic embodiment of Christianity.” Here is how he sums up his approach:
“By reimagining apologetics, I mean simply an approach that takes the imaginative context of belief seriously. Such an approach prepares the way for Christian faith by provoking desire, exploring possibility, and casting an inhabitable Christian vision. When successful, it enables outsiders to inhabit the Christian faith as if from the inside, feeling their way in before attempting to criticize it by foreign standards.” (4)
Bailey does not replace or minimize traditional apologetic strategies. He differentiates between Uppercase Apologetics (approaches that focus on evidences for faith) and lowercase apologetics (approaches concerned with the questions being asked in our context so that Christianity becomes intelligible and plausible). One might see lowercase apologetic approaches as a first step before moving on to more traditional methods. Traditional apologetics have often been labeled “pre-evangelism.” Bailey’s imaginative approach to apologetics could be labeled “pre-apologetics.”
Bailey is wise to not pit the imagination against the intellect. His goal is to correct what he perceives to be an imbalance toward the over-reliance on reason in some apologetic strategies. He wants to show how “the imagination already plays a substantial role in the way that beliefs are formed” (9).
Apologetics of Hope
Bailey finds common ground with Blaise Pascal’s strategy of presenting Christianity in such a way that makes people wish it were true, and yet he believes we should not rely primarily on a method of exposing how other ways of life don’t work—“the apologetics of despair”—but instead should adopt an “apologetics of hope.” That is, we are to recognize God is already at work in someone’s life and then give voice to their hopes by “appealing to the gospel’s resonance, beauty, and generativity” (12).
Imagination—Beautiful and Fallen
Much of Bailey’s book focuses on the writing of George MacDonald and Marilynne Robinson, whose work he characterizes as having “an implicitly apologetic thrust, especially in novels that utilize ministers as their main characters” (15). Here Bailey’s approach raises a number of questions for me. It’s not that I can’t see Robinson and MacDonald’s work having value for the apologetic task—they are both excellent in their craft and powerful in their imaginative resonance. The problem is that neither Robinson nor MacDonald can be considered orthodox from a Christian perspective.
To see their work as prime examples of imaginative apologetics is to raise a question that Bailey himself asks: Can the imaginative work of these artists lead to orthodox Christian faith? He wisely considers their theological perspectives, showing where they align with and depart from traditional Christianity. But in the end, he remains more optimistic than I am in their overall value to apologetics.
At best, the good work of these writers may aid us in providing a starting point for spiritual conversations that can lead to a more robust presentation of Christianity, but when Robinson’s central apologetic is “the miracle and mystery of human consciousness” and when the center and substance of her theological project is “sacred inwardness” (“the conviction that every human being is engaged in an individual encounter with God that plays itself out in human consciousness”), and when she declares her “openness to all varieties of religious experience,” it’s clear that her tradition is as much Schleiermacher’s as Calvin’s. In the end, this is liberalism with Calvinist seasoning.
Bailey himself takes a positive posture to Schleiermacher, but he urges us to consider the theologian’s “starting point (‘deeply felt personal insight’) rather than his decision to take such insight as theology’s primary source.” Bailey seeks to distinguish between “taking authenticity as a fact on the ground of our current situation and taking it as the ground of Christian faith” (64). Along with Bailey, I recognize this distinction, and I agree that one’s deep longings may prove to be the best starting point for the apologetics task today. Still, I wonder how in practice we can keep the starting point from becoming the source, especially when Bailey’s exemplars clearly revert to experience as authoritative.
Bailey is careful to differentiate his views from those he is examining, and he is right to wonder about the ways we underestimate the profundity of human depravity. He realizes that just as the intellect bears the marks of our fallen condition, so also does the imagination. But he writes as if more convinced of the intellect’s fallenness than the imagination’s, and I’m afraid his assessment of the imagination’s power (especially in regards to MacDonald, Robinson, and in my view an overly generous interpretation of Schleiermacher and his emphasis on experience) leaves him (and us) vulnerable to older liberalism’s focus on interiority and experience, which, in the end, leads to a loss of scriptural authority.
Apologetics as Culture Care
Toward the end of the book, Bailey recommends we move away from the defensiveness of traditional apologetics and no longer use military metaphors (fight, war, battle) to describe the church’s engagement with culture. The problem, of course, is that the New Testament itself employs these metaphors when considering the Christian life and the church’s presence in society.
These are not the only pictures we find in the Scriptures, and Bailey’s recommendation that we return to the image of culture as a garden to be cultivated is important, and yet such cultivation only can happen when we “fight” or “war” against thorns and thistles that threaten the integrity and health of the garden. To lose one side of the metaphor, or to choose an apologetics of “culture care” instead of “defending the faith” is to impoverish our imagination regarding our paradoxical task instead of strengthen it.
Reimagining Apologetics is a thoughtful and provocative book that refocuses our attention on the importance of our social imaginary as we seek to make a case for Christianity’s truth and beauty. Bailey’s work here spurred me on to pick up George MacDonald’s trilogy about the curate of Glaston, and I will likely read more of Marilynne Robinson’s essays.
I agree that we do need a fresh infusion of the imagination in our apologetics, but I’d caution readers (and I think Bailey would as well) to not minimize the effects of the fall on our imagination as well as our intellect, so that we don’t unintentionally start down a road that leads us to liberalism’s dead end.
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