What You Can’t Learn From Studying Apologetics
“Welcome to the party, pal.” That iconic line from the first Die Hard (1988) came to me recently. It epitomizes the seemingly overwhelming challenges that await me, should I be stubborn enough, as I attempt to be an ambassador for Christ as a Christian apologist in Boulder, Colorado.
Over the past year I have had several opportunities to discuss various topics with a broad range of Christians in my area. These self-described believers ranged widely in age and theological commitments. There were, however, common themes, obstacles if you will, in these discussions that have forced me to realize just how difficult apologetics is in practice.
Apologetics as a discipline is epitomized in 1 Peter 3:
13 Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, 15 but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; 16 and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame.
For me the process of studying, as I have been for three years now, is part of my worship of God. It glorifies God and draws me closer to Him. Merely studying, while it does prepare me with a defense of the Gospel, is not enough. I must also learn how to present that defense in a variety of contexts. (Which is why I have been open to any context in which I can engage with others regarding their beliefs.)
Those varied contexts, especially a recent 2-hour conversation with some postmodern “Christians” on “what does it mean to be a Christian” inspired this post. As I drove home that evening, evaluating and replaying the discussion in my mind, that unpleasant greeting (“Welcome to the party, pal”) repeatedly intruded into my thinking.
For those who are not familiar with the film, let me put the line in context. John McClane (Bruce Willis) is a New York police detective visiting his estranged wife in Los Angeles for Christmas. His first stop from the airport is her company’s Christmas party at the 35-story “Nakatomi Building,” brilliantly portrayed by the Fox Plaza in Century City, California. When a group of “terrorists” take over the building in an effort to steal 640 million dollars in bearer bonds, McClane slips away from the party and proceeds to wage a guerilla campaign against the terrorists/bank robbers. After McClane attempts to contact the local authorities with a CB radio acquired from one of the terrorists, a single officer arrives at the building and speaks to a security guard (actually one of the terrorists) in the lobby of the building. The officer is about to drive away, believing the radio call was bogus, when McClane launches the body of a dead terrorist from a 3rd floor conference room onto the hood of the patrol car. Automatic gunfire and crazed driving ensue as the officer retreats, literally, away from the building. McClane, looking down at the wreckage of the patrol car shouts his ominous greeting.
Recalling this quote from a favorite movie is my own way of processing an unpleasant realization, how much work I have ahead of me in learning how to become a “winsome” apologist (the wisdom and character legs of the Stand To Reason’s ambassador model which I have discussed here, here, and here).
There are many ways to practice Christian apologetics. Different types of apologetics have different audiences and techniques. My own priorities are driven by two things: a desire to do ministry with people (as opposed to exclusively on the Internet) and obeying the wisdom to “bloom where you are planted.” Ultimately, I believe nurturing the life of the Christian mind through apologetics is an essential task in the Church today. Writing for Hieropraxis and meeting with Christians to discuss the faith (whatever that terms means to them) are the two outlets available to me at the moment. In order to make the most of those opportunities I have to face some harsh realities about the people I am interacting with inside the Church in my area.
Here are four observations of obstacles I’ve encountered in discussions this past year.
- Apologetics, as a rule, is completely unknown. It must always be explained and the term itself should rarely be brought up unless it can be clearly defined.
- Myths and misunderstandings abound. Inside and outside of the Church there are numerous myths, misunderstandings, and simple ignorance about many things within Christianity.
- Emotions and rhetoric are far more powerful than logic and argument. Making a case for anything usually begins with trying to make a distinction between what is true vs. what is desirable.
- Postmodernism has polluted the thinking of many, especially the millennial generation.
My most recent discussion, where postmodernism seemed to be the predominant air I was breathing, left me so flustered that I took to Facebook seeking the comments and advice of more experienced apologists and neighbors who know the culture of my area. Several people offered advice and penetrating insights. I would like to close this post with my own synthesis of a plan or set of principles I want to follow.
- Assume nothing! I have been called a Christian intellectual. I chafe at such a term because those are the people I read. However, the number of times I have had to define words I use almost without thinking is a sober reminder to assume nothing about the knowledge of my audience. Stay away from theological and philosophical terms.
- As a critical thinker and follower of Christ, I see a clear difference between loving the person even while I am rejecting the false ideas that person may believe. That distinction is easily lost on others who are not used to considering reasons and arguments. How you show an idea is false cannot be divorced from the person that holds that idea. Using questions (as outlined in Tactics) is an effective and non-threatening way to expose the potential flaws in someone’s thinking.
- User your background knowledge as a guide for your questions, not as a cudgel to defeat an opponent.
- Make getting to know the person a higher priority then knowing their views. I emphasize it because hot button issues like homosexuality or the problem of evil are full of different landmines depending on a person’s connection to those topics.
This post has highlighted my realization that all my knowledge is ultimately pointless until I develop the character to be a winsome apologist to whomever I encounter. The metric for whatever progress I make on that front will ultimately be demonstrated by the reactions I elicit from others. If groups invite me back, if I am able to develop relationships, if my blog posts are effective, then perhaps I am making progress.
Ken Mann is a graduate student in Biola’s Science and Religion program. Ken is a software engineer by way of vocation, a physicist by way of education, and a devout follower of Jesus Christ, in his words, by necessity. Ken is the Chapter Director of Ratio Christi at the University of Colorado, Boulder. You can also connect with Ratio Christi at CU on Facebook and follow him on Twitter at @gadgetmann.