A Widening of the Apologetic Enterprise

Today’s post is written by Joshua D. Chatraw and Mark D. Allen and is sponsored by Zondervan Academic.

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When I (Josh) was growing up in the southeastern part of the United States, there were two dominant religions: Baptist and football. It would take a visitor little time to realize which faith had captured my community’s heart and elicited their deepest devotion.

The work of James K. A. Smith has helped us reflect more deeply on the religious nature of these Saturday afternoon spectacles. Go to a SEC (Southeastern Conference) college campus on a Saturday in the fall, and you will witness devoted worshipers of all ages citing liturgy (cheers), singing praises (fight songs), and participating in ordinances (tailgates and other pregame rituals) that have been passed down through the generations. You need only view the reactions of the losing and winning teams’ fans after the game to realize how many of them wrap up their identities in their team’s success. I have witnessed highly educated and respected church leaders almost physically fight over a game. The hostility and resentment between different fan groups still amaze me. Idols are powerful forces; they appeal to us in profound ways and at multiple levels.

Our point is not that college football is evil—anything can become an idol. But if you spend a few weeks around this football culture as an outsider or take a step back as a devoted fan, it may seem bizarre to you. Why are so many people so intensely devoted to a group of twenty-year-olds throwing a leather ball around?

College football followers would rarely think to make an appeal to the “skeptical” by simply listing player stats or reasons you should become a fan. Instead, they would tell hero stories of legendary players from yesteryear or perhaps some human-interest stories about current players. They would explain the long-standing traditions associated with game day, or they would just invite the unconvinced to a game. As the newcomer joins the faithful fans for a ritual-filled and boisterous pep rally the night before the game, the communal tailgate in the morning, and the sing-along with the band as game time nears, they start to feel a twinge of excitement. Then, after they’re ushered into the stadium with an electric atmosphere of 90,000 fans hanging on every play, it isn’t long before they find themselves high-fiving the random woman in front of them and hugging the stranger beside them. For most fans, it was these kinds of experiences that led to their conversion. True conversion is never simply an intellectual experience.

Christian persuasion should be holistic. Neither responses to objections nor any of the arguments for Christianity should be abstracted from the genuine discipleship and worship of the church. The church is both a living apologetic appeal and the formative context out of which apologetic arguments are supported as plausible.

To use another analogy, imagine trying to convince someone to enlist in a war on behalf of a distant nation they are antagonistic toward. You approach them and say, “I have five airtight arguments for you to leave your current way of life—all the things you love—and join us in battle.” They would probably say something like, “I don’t care how good you think your arguments are; I have absolutely no interest in them!” It’s not even plausible for them to imagine doing what you are asking of them, so they are not interested in hearing whatever supposed “rational” reasons you might be able to produce for taking such actions. Logic alone is incapable of inspiring us to risk our lives for a cause. In a similar way, people find Christianity implausible for a variety of reasons that we cannot adequately address by simply giving them what seems to some Christians to be “five airtight reasons.”

As Christians living in the late modern era, we should not simply give an unbeliever logical arguments and then walk away, imagining we’ve done our apologetic job. For as philosopher Charles Taylor reminds us, “We are in fact all acting, thinking, and feeling out of backgrounds and frameworks which we do not fully understand.” It is these frameworks that we must learn to interact with, even when they are difficult for us to understand and—as is normally the case—have not been given much thought by the person we are trying to lead to the gospel.

In light of a holistic understanding of how humans make decisions and the importance of unarticulated frameworks, our book, Apologetics at the Cross, charts a vision for a multidimensional approach to apologetics. It calls the church to (1) live out an apologetic that undermines misconceptions of Christianity and embodies a more compelling and beatific vision of life; (2) help others see the problems with their own backgrounds and frameworks that cause them to approach Christianity as implausible; and (3) offer intelligent responses to objections and reasons for committing to Christ. Rather than a narrowing of the apologetic task, Apologetics at the Cross broadens the enterprise, developing the multiple kinds of apologetic seeds within the Bible and retrieving the insights from the rich sources within Christian tradition to engage effectively in our present secular age.

This post is adapted from Apologetics at the Cross. Order the book or learn more about the course. Take a look at the FREE introductory videos: