We need better apologetics strategy.
When I led the True Reason project earlier this year, I did it because I thought it would do good to show how weak New Atheist leaders are in reasoning, even as they try to feature it as their great strength. I think the book has probably done a lot of good. I hope so, anyway.
But I am coming to see that it’s a skirmish being fought on an old battlefield. It’s last year’s war. Probably last decade’s. That fight isn’t over, and it still needs to be pursued, but there’s a much more strategic field of battle, to which we apologists must devote much more of our resources.
I offer you this in illustration:
Do you feel the power of those images? How are we going to answer that?
Here’s the problem: the rhetorical landscape is asymmetrical, off balance, skewed. Every one of these images conveys a false message—yet with lightning speed and superb effectiveness. Everyone who looks at them knows exactly what they’re about. No background needs filling in; no explanation is necessary. Viewers get it emotionally more than they know it mentally. It’s blazingly fast: the message slips almost past their brain into their gut, where the effect is strong and lasting, regardless of its not being true.
The truth, on the other hand, takes a good while to explain. That’s what I mean by asymmetry: our message is true; and when fully understood it’s a far better message than theirs, but there are so many gaps to be filled in, how are we going to get it across? How will we even get people’s attention? If Christianity is intolerant, and anti-woman, and pro-slavery, and hateful, and anti-equality, who’s going to sit and listen long enough to learn that it passes the tests of historicity and rationality?
Last year’s battle was over whether Christianity is true. This year’s battle is over whether it’s ethical to entertain the possibility that it’s true.
We can’t just quickly turn around the rhetorical asymmetry, so we’re going to have to do it the old-fashioned slow way. We still have to catch our listeners’ attention, just as these slogans do. We still have to get to the gut, as these messages do. Obviously we have to do it honestly and legitimately, or else we contradict our own position.
Strategically speaking, the answer is not in philosophy, which for too many listeners is boring, and which takes only a very indirect route to the heart. I’ve made the mistake of thinking that was the right way to go. It’s certainly a right way to go, and I’m not interested in slowing down anyone’s philosophical researches. I’ll come back to that in a minute.
If, however, our purpose is to persuade, philosophy isn’t doing it. It may win rationally, but strategically it fails far more often than it succeeds. Historical apologetics may be more effective in some ways. Neither approach, however, is oriented primarily toward reaching the heart.
What is, then? Story.
Story grabs people’s attention. Great story reaches the heart. Great story that tells truth changes lives forever.
The reason I became involved in apologetics was to see lives changed while proclaiming God’s truth and goodness. I think I have done some of that: I have proclaimed God’s truth and goodness. The evidence of lives changed, however, has not been what I had hoped for. Actually sometimes I have fallen into the error of doing apologetics for the sake of winning the contest. It’s not pretty when a Christian does that.
I realize now that in order to be faithful, true, and strategically effective in today’s rhetorical environment, I’m going to need to get a lot better at sharing stories. There’s no shortage of them to be told. The Bible itself is much more narrative than it is essay, and church history offers libraries full of opportunities. And which is more likely to change a distrusting skeptic’s mind: an accurate exegesis of Colossians 3:22, or the true historical story of how Christianity has repeatedly led to the demise of slavery? It’s a trick question, actually. Col. 3:22 can only be properly interpreted with and through story: the historical context in which it was written. The whole Bible is like that.
What then about apologetical theology and philosophy? A true apologist will study hard and learn well in those disciplines, which will always be crucial in the life of any Christian who cares about thinking. Strategically they’re also essential in the background, to ensure that we have a solid and proper understanding of the truths we’re telling. And they’re still crucial as foreground messages for those who are ready to listen on those terms, who have made it past the emotional barriers created by today’s distorted rhetoric. They’re the right way to go in those academic settings where they answer the questions that are actually being asked.
I am in no way dismissing the value of these disciplines. The point is that our message must always be legitimately suited to the audience and the purpose, and there are times when strategy calls for other approaches. Our age is one in which it’s time for a new strategy to come to the fore. Apologetics has been very strong on philosophy and theology in recent decades. I’ve ridden along with that trend. For the sake of effective communication, though, I intend to pick up my church history and biography books again, like I haven’t done in many years. If I could write imaginative stories I would; instead I hope at least to re-tell actual ones.
I said recently there would be changes coming to this blog around the first of the year. This will be one of them: more telling of the Christian story from the Bible, from history, and from around the world. We can’t overturn the rhetorical situation overnight, but we can chip away at it by getting our audience’s attention one story at a time.
Related: Arguing With Friends, Of Theatre and Reason
Recommended: Holly Ordway, today’s leading voice in literary apologetics