A new way of defending the Christian faith has arisen in recent years, or better said, a new take on an old way: “cultural apologetics.” My friend Collin Hansen recently taught a course on this topic at Beeson Divinity School. Paul Gould has written a book with this title, in which he offers this definition:

The work of establishing the Christian voice, conscience, and imagination within a culture so that Christianity is seen as true and satisfying.” 

This broadens the definition given by Ken Myers of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, who distinguishes traditional from cultural apologetics:

Traditional apologetics is concerned with making arguments to defend Christian truth claims, and has often addressed challenges to Christian belief coming from philosophical and other more intellectual sources. The term “cultural apologetics” has been used to refer to systematic efforts to advance the plausibility of Christian claims in light of the messages communicated through dominant cultural institutions, including films, popular music, literature, art, and the mass media. So while traditional apologists would critique the challenges to the Christian faith advanced in the writings of certain philosophers, cultural apologists might look instead at the sound bite philosophies embedded in the lyrics of popular songs, the plots of popular movies, or even the slogans in advertising.”

Engaging in cultural apologetics begins with a particular posture toward the world. The missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin urged Christians toward a “missionary encounter” between the gospel and whatever culture we’re trying to reach.

To make inroads in a culture, we must be comprehensible. We must understand the ways in which the gospel fulfills the deepest longings of people and the ways in which the gospel exposes the lies people believe. Often, these two aspects are connected. For example, when the longing for transcendence—for a relationship with God—gets misdirected, we are most prone to fall for falsehoods.

Cultural apologetics is about discovering what makes people in a culture “tick.” Why do they believe what they believe? What is plausible in this society? What is their view of the good life? You discern these sensibilities in films, in TV series, in books, songs, musicals, even YouTube tutorials. This manner of apologetics examines the culture and then looks for ways to bring the truth of the gospel to bear, into a missionary encounter with that culture.

If apologetics is about making arguments to defend Christian truth, cultural apologetics is about making arguments that showcase the beauty and goodness of Christianity, using cultural touchpoints as an opportunity for gospel witness. It’s a precursor to evangelism. It sets the stage so that the beauty of the gospel can be accentuated.

Tim Keller: Cultural Apologist

Tim Keller engages in both traditional and cultural apologetics. His work brings together pastoral experience and serious and sustained reflection on culture—on the trends and currents of thoughts that influence how people in a society think, feel, and behave.

Throughout church history, you can find apologists trained to answer rational arguments raised against Christianity, men like Justin Martyr. You also find pastors who knew the Scriptures and the people they shepherded, men like Richard Baxter or Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

Tim Keller combines both pastoral sensibility and cultural awareness. With Keller, you see what it means to be an exegete of the culture, not just the Scriptures. But that exegesis of the culture is always in service of explaining the Scriptures, of making the application of Christian teaching more incisive, more compelling, more carefully tuned to the idols of our time.

This approach of combining pastoral sensibility with cultural awareness reminds me of Ambrose of Milan and other pastor-apologists through the ages, whose sermons and writings shed the light of the gospel on the concerns of the times.

Risks for Cultural Apologists

No form of apologetics comes without dangers. The risk in prioritizing cultural apologetics is that the culture part can dwarf the apologetic part. By so emphasizing study of the culture or the society you’re called to reach, you find yourself underdeveloped in studying the Scriptures. You can lose sight of the reason you’re engaging in the task in the first place: to foster a missionary encounter with others. And not just an encounter or dialogue, but a gospel-shaped missionary moment where, yes, you find areas of common ground on which to build, but then tackle the areas of conflict, where the offense of the gospel must remain.

Another risk in prioritizing cultural apologetics is that you so focus on understanding the people you’re trying to reach that you tailor the presentation of Christianity only to the needs and questions they already have. You try to fit Christianity into another framework of thought, showing how it answers and fulfills the longings people have.

As a starting point, this is fine. I’ve heard it said that we’re to listen carefully for the questions being asked in each generation and then show how the gospel answers those questions. That’s good, but it doesn’t go far enough. Faithfulness to the gospel means that we don’t merely answer the questions people in the culture are asking, but that we also raise questions that people in the culture should be asking, but aren’t. The gospel upends all earthly and cultural scripts and frameworks, at least at some level. The gospel presses different questions. The risk with cultural apologetics could be that the cultural trends and questions drive everything, and the challenge that Christianity poses to the world gets muted.

Hope for the Future

I’m heartened by the rise of cultural apologetics as a supplement to more traditional methods of making a case for Christianity. Showcasing both the truth of Christian teaching and its goodness helps demonstrate the relevance of our faith in answering universal human longings.

With eyes open to the strengths and weaknesses of this approach, I pray God raises up a generation who knows how to apply the truth of the gospel to the longings of the human heart.

If you would like my future articles sent to your email, as well as a curated list of books, podcasts, and helpful links I find online, enter your address.