Paul M. Gould: Effective Cultural Apologetics Requires a Genuine Missionary Encounter

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In 1936, a 27-year-old man named Lesslie Newbigin set out from England for India to share Christ among the Hindus. Newbigin faithfully ministered in India for the next 38 years. When he returned to his home country in 1974, he found it had become a drastically different country from the one he left. It was becoming increasingly a post-Christian nation, one in need of a fresh missionary encounter.

It was during this time that Newbigin wrote what is now considered a modern classic on mission, Foolishness to the Greeks. In his book, he explores the most crucial question of our time. He asks:

What would be involved in a missionary encounter between the gospel and this whole way of perceiving, thinking, and living that we call “modern Western culture”?

This is the question to be asked of any post-Christian culture. Newbigin is interested in how we can talk to others about Jesus in a way that is understood by those becoming further and further removed from Christianity’s language and worldview. This is the “missionary encounter” Newbigin has in mind. And while Newbigin’s question is essential for us to answer today, it also leads us to an even bigger question: What do you make of Jesus Christ?

Newbigin understood that every person in every culture is shaped by what sociologist Peter Berger calls “plausibility structures.” Berger says every culture has a collective mindset, a collective imagination, and a collective conscience. This combined outlook shapes the culture’s view of the world and what is judged within the culture as plausible or implausible. Is something a genuine possibility … or just an outrageous idea?

Newbigin knew that we fail to have genuine missionary encounters if we fail to understand those we seek to reach with the gospel. Our words and our message must be understandable. In a post-Christian society, talk about Jesus is no different from talk about Zeus or Hermes. We sound foolish, and our beliefs appear implausible and meaningless.

Engaging culture

How can we have a genuine missionary encounter in our culture? This is the question that drives the work of cultural apologetics. The term “cultural apologetics” itself has not been widely used until recently, but little has been written on how we are to understand this new kind of cultural engagement. Ken Myers, the producer and host of Mars Hill Audio Journal, offers the following definition:

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 (Have It Your Way,” “You Deserve a Break Today,” “Just Do It”).

Notice that, according to Myers, the cultural apologist is concerned with truth, argument, and the plausibility of Christianity. The main point of contrast between the traditional apologist and the cultural apologist has to do with the kinds of evidence utilized in making a case for Christianity. For the traditional apologist, academic sources—such as philosophy, science, and history—are prioritized in providing evidence for arguments. But for the cultural apologist, cultural artifacts—illustrations from the world of music, art, sports, entertainment, social relations, and politics—are paramount.

Some are less enthusiastic about the emergence of cultural apologetics. William Lane Craig, a traditional apologist par excellence, claims cultural apologetics constitutes an entirely different sort of apologetics than the traditional model, since it is not concerned with epistemological issues of justification and warrant. Indeed it does not even attempt to show in any positive sense that Christianity is true; it simply explores the disastrous consequences for human existence, society, and culture if Christianity should be false.

According to Craig, the cultural apologist is not concerned with the truth, plausibility, or justification of Christianity, but merely with showing the disastrous consequences of a godless world. I disagree.

My proposed definition for the task of cultural apologetics is broader than, though still inclusive of, Myers’s and far more positive than Craig’s. I define cultural apologetics as thework of establishing the Christian voice, conscience, and imagination within a culture so that Christianity is seen as true and satisfying. How does this conception of cultural apologetics fit into the discipline of apologetics and relate to the debates over apologetic method, cultural engagement, and worldview analysis?

Regarding the question of apologetic method, my proposed definition of cultural apologetics is neutral, and I believe compatible, with many of the prominent approaches. One can be, for example, a classical apologist, an evidentialist, a cumulative case apologist, a presuppositionalist, or a Reformed Epistemologist and still employ the approach suggested in my book. The method suggested here is more general and inclusive than the oft-debated question of which epistemology best fits apologetics.

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Source: Christianity Today