Recovering Apologetics

I want to highlight three things that have stood out about the current apologetics movement recently.  The first is well publicised, which is the fall from grace of prominent apologist Ravi Zacharias.  The fall started when it was discovered that he had misled about his academic qualifications and when information began to come out about alleged sexual abuse and Non Disclosure Agreements.  However, even at his death, with that information available he was still being lauded. It was only later that RZIM confirmed that the allegations were true.   Now, decisions are being made about the future of his vast empire that pays Apologists in different countries.  There still seems to be a desire to keep the organisation going in some format.

Secondly, there has been a conversation emerging over a number of years about whether the focus of Apologetics on things like evidence for God, science and faith and philosophical answers to the problem of suffering are actually the questions people are asking.  I observed recently the title of a book which said that it would introduce the questions that its target audience SHOULD be asking. I’m sure that the author will engage brilliantly with the questions but when we talk about what we think people should ask rather than start with what they are asking beyond the one question “What must I do to be saved?” then that should give us pause to think.  My concern is that we created a whole industry during the 20th century that stood alone from the local church and to some extent needs to be self-perpetuating.   

Contemporary apologetics is designed to engage with questions set up for lectures and debates. However, we often find that the real challenge is not in answering questions about “Is it True?” when we talk to people on the doorstep or in the street if we engage in cold contact evangelism, respond pastorally in the context of church life and get to know friends and neighbours in our communities. Rather, people are asking “Is it real” and “does it work”? It’s not that the evidence questions are unasked, its that they come at a different stage and within the context of people needing to find hope and life in relationship with the living God who clearly and undeniably reveals himself to us.

Thirdly, and this links to the second point, I want to mention another specific example. A couple of years ago, there was a sudden wave of excitement about a guy called Jordan Peterson, who was getting attention for a book he had written with rules for life.  Peterson’s books were selling well and he was attracting large audiences, predominantly of men to his talks and seminars. He also managed to outwit a Channel 4 journalist known for her aggressive interviewing style. Suddenly, evangelicals were raving about him.  My response at the time was to argue that he might be arguing against much of the current status quo in psychological thinking. He was encouraging men and boys to be more robust, to observe rules and this seemed a world away from fluffy views about raising children and subjective approaches to truth.  However, what he offered was in my opinion a dose of legalism. It was still about pulling yourself up by the bootstraps -or self help and he saw the Bible as primarily a human book not to be read literally.

Recently, his star is on the wain and people are beginning to criticise his work. So, now Christians are questioning what the fuss was about. I’ve seen a couple of responses to the effect that JP is the best around in “pre-apologetics.”  Others have talked about his ability to communicate to young men, those who we struggle to reach.  I want to make three responses to that.

  • If we see Peterson as useful for pre-apologetics then we may have missed how far apart his message is from the Gospel.
  • We would give short shrift to anyone leaping on any other celebrity who seemed to have a following as the silver bullet to evangelism with young people. 
  • We confuse “he is reaching mainly young men” with “he is reaching more young men.” Just because a person has mainly young people or predominantly men in their audience does not mean that they’ve broken through, just that they can draw a crowd but also that their draw is biased to one sector.  I’m sorry folks, but when you actually start talking to your neighbours, friends, people you meet doing door to door, they are not all talking about and reading Jordan Peterson. But there again, they weren’t all into Richard Dawkins when we were worrying about him either.

I want to suggest that the problem with contemporary apologetics is that it is separated out both from the church and the world around us. It has become a celebrity culture and it is mainly concerned with keeping itself going, not in serving the church and the Gospel.

The collapse of the House of Zacharias is an opportunity not just for rebranding and tweeking but to flatten the structures and start again, to recover apologetics.  Remember that the word “Apologetics” comes from 1 Peter 3:15

15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 

We are to be ready to give a reason or an apology for the hope we have and that is something asked of every believer as part of their daily life as people who honour and worship Christ. So, let’s get apologetics back to the ordinary church members. How do we do this. Well, first of all, we need to state the honest hard truth.  We don’t need all of these specialists.  You see, most of the questions that people are likely to ask are questions that most Christians can answer for themselves. And inviting people along to some special event, unless we are specifically bringing to see someone who has an area of interest say in history, science or medicine then that isn’t as impressive to them as we think it is. 

So, we need to build up our ability and preparedness to give an answer, to give a reason for our hope.  This also means that we need to work harder at listening. Do we really know the objections that our friends and family have.? Have we asked them? Have we listened. Secondly, it means that those of us who preach God’s Word need to model dealing with the actual objections that people may have to God’s Word as it is revealed to them.

The best apologetic therefore is not a person on a church but the witness of a local church in its community.

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