Telling a Better Story: How to Talk About God in a Skeptical AgeWritten by Joshua D. Chatraw Reviewed By David Robertson
Having greatly enjoyed Joshua D. Chatraw’s own contribution to his and Karen Swallow Prior’s Cultural Engagement (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019), I looked forward to what his latest work, Telling a Better Story: How to Talk About God in a Skeptical Age, would bring to the apologetics/evangelism table.
The answer is—a great deal! The structure of the book is clear. Part 1 suggests that there is a better story about apologetics. Part 2 shows us how to offer a better story. And part 3 deals with objections to the story.
There is a depth and intensity to the book, but it is not at all inaccessible, largely because of the quality of Chatraw’s writing, which at times is quite beautiful. For example, in reflecting on the story of a young woman who challenged a pastor’s right to criticize her behavior, we find this in chapter 3:
Rather than a sparring partner who masterfully presents syllogisms and embarrasses her by simply pointing out her inconsistencies, she needed a spiritual doctor with a bedside manner. She needed a hospital for her soul, a community willing to show her their own wounds while introducing her to the Physician who can mend hers. (p. 38)
Chatraw argues that the cultural narratives have changed so much that “the basic categories assumed in the Christian story are no longer taken for granted. And in many cases, this gospel story is presumed to not only be false, but an oppressive leftover from the past” (p. 1). Consequently, he suggests that we need to be able to tell a better story.
In order to be able to tell a better story we need to listen well to other people’s stories first. As Chatraw writes:
Though you will often hear many of the same objections—such as ones that raise the question of evil or point to the restrictive nature of Christian morality—remember that everyone you speak with possesses a distinct, personal story. Be careful not to assume you know what is at the heart of their objection. Listening well is the first step in an apologetics of love. (p. 170)
At a time when it is becoming fashionable in some evangelical circles to question apologetics, he offers this robust apologetic: “Making persuasive appeals for and answering objections to Christianity is not only modelled and commanded in the Scriptures (Colossians 4:6; 1 Peter 3:15), but it is on display as a key feature in the writings of early church leaders (long before the Enlightenment)” (p. 19).
A welcome emphasis is his stress on “communal apologetics”—in which the church seeks to embody both the beauty and truth of the gospel. This is what we might term wholistic, or total, apologetics. “A healthy apologetics uses logic and provides evidences, but it also grounds logic and evidence in genuine human connection that gives credence to and resonates with people’s deeply held aspirations and affections” (p. 45).
It is also essential that those who seek to communicate the good news “seek to understand the context we now find ourselves in” (p. 25). In this regard he points out that many of secularism’s values come from Christianity (see also Tom Holland in Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World [New York: Basic, 2019] and Glen Scrivener in The Air We Breathe: How We All Came to Believe in Freedom, Kindness, Progress, and Equality [London: Good Book, 2022]).
The key chapter of the book is chapter 5, where Chatraw seeks to develop his “inside out” apologetic methodology. Instead of asking, “What is your worldview?,” it’s better to ask, “What is your story?” After all, the story embodies the worldview. He helpfully divides proposed secular stories into three main categories: the pessimistic secular story; the optimistic secular story; and the story of pluralistic and moral therapeutic spirituality. He then goes on to give three micro examples—the stories of consumerism, achievement, and romance—and suggests that we need constantly to compare these stories with God’s story.
The whole idea of “inside out begins by entering a person’s social imagination and engaging their ideas from within it” (p. 63). Offering the better story starts with looking inside the story and then going out to a better story. Chatraw suggests how to do this in terms of identity, morality, beauty, death, justice, happiness, dignity, disappointment, guilt, and love. (I found this the most helpful part of the book—the last paragraph of chapter 7 on love is worth the price of the book alone!)
Alongside its many strengths, Telling a Better Story also has a few weaknesses. Sometimes things are stated in overly black and white terms. For example, he talks about Christianity now being perceived as oppressive (p. 11). True enough. But this is hardly a new phenomenon and there is much we can learn from church history in this regard.
Is it just in the premodern era that people assumed there was a higher meaning to life—a sense of transcendence (p. 27)? Is that not also true today of many communities especially among the working class? Indeed, is that not what the world’s many religions (and even “wokeness”!) attempt to provide?
In chapter 4, “When Talking to Humans,” in responding to the question, “What is your best argument for Christianity?,” Chatraw argues that there is no such thing as a “universal best argument” (p. 40). Strategically, I understand his point. But I trust he would agree that the universal best argument for Christianity is Christ himself. Persuasion through narrative is not just something that Jesus did, but that he embodied. The story of Christ is always the best apologetic.
But these are minor blemishes in what is a stimulating, encouraging and helpful addition to the ever more important discussion of how we communicate the good news today. In that regard, Telling a Better Story should be added to the list of go-to apologetic resources—e.g., Paul M. Gould’s Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019), Daniel Strange’s Making Faith Magnetic: Five Hidden Themes Our Culture Can’t Stop Talking About … And How to Connect Them to Christ (London: Good Book, 2021); Glynn Harrison’s A Better Story: God, Sex and Human Flourishing (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 2017), and Peter Kreeft’s Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées Edited, Outlined, and Explained (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993).
Chatraw states that his aim “is not to help you tell stories in general but rather to help you be a better communicator of God’s story in a world that no longer takes our plotline too seriously” (p. 73). He succeeds.
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