Christian Apologetics in a Post-Christian Culture

David Wilkinson

Is Christian apologetics a defensive activity? A few years ago I helped to update J. Young’s classic Christian paperback The Case against Christ (Hodder, 2006) where we responded to attacks upon the Christian faith like those from Richard Dawkins and The Da Vinci Code. This form of apologetics follows a well-worn track for seminaries and lay Christians wanting resources to defend the faith. Certainly it is still needed in response to Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Dan Brown.

However, the context of Western Europe, where I live and work, increasingly sees Christian faith not as a target to be attacked but a historic curiosity to be dismissed as irrelevant. In such a context, Christian apologetics has to move from a defensive stance to a way of engaging with the culture. Further, it has to move beyond the academic lecture hall to the marketplace. The following is a personal reflection on attempting to do apologetics in the post-Christian context of contemporary Britain. It may resonate with the experience of church leaders and theologians in the US in areas where a post-Christian context provides a difficult place for a traditional view of apologetics.

Finding God in Popular Places

“Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology” (“Lunging, Flailing and Mispunching,” London Review of Books [19 October 2006] 32). So wrote T. Eagleton, John Edward Taylor Professor of English Literature at Manchester University, in a now-famous review of The God Delusion. At least it is famous within circles of intellectuals. By contrast on the first British cover of the same book, is the quote, “This is my favorite book of all time…. It is a heroic and life-changing work” (Bantam, 2006). This comes not from an academic, but from television illusionist Derrin Brown. Dawkins, or at least his publisher, knows what will work in the market-place! Following up on his television series, The Root of All Evil, Dawkins has produced a book that has sold consistently well throughout the world. Although its intellectual argument may be derided by other academics and indeed other atheists, it has captured the public imagination. It is full of conflict, illustrations, and personal testimony. If the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University understands and is able to communicate in this kind of way, what challenges and opportunities does this give the church?

Meanwhile, alongside it on the bestseller lists of 2007, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, drew on Christian themes, images, and quotations in bringing this extraordinary series to its climax where “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” J.K. Rowling said that it had always been difficult to talk about this because divulging some of the book’s Christian motifs would give away too much of the end of the story (Church of England Newspaper [10 August 2007]). Although the church’s response to Harry Potter has spread from warnings about its occult connections to liturgies for all-age worship, how does the fact that Christian themes inform perhaps the most successful pop-culture phenomenon of our time change the way that we perceive the role of apologetics?

Harry Potter is not alone. In recent years a number of us have pointed to theological questions and themes in “The Simpsons” (M.I Pinsky, The Gospel according to the Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World’s Most Animated Family [John Knox, 2002]), “Star Wars” (D. Wilkinson, The Power of the Force: The Spirituality of the Star Wars Films [Lion, 2000]), and popular music (R. Beckford, Jesus Dub: Theology, Music and Social Change [Routledge, 2006]; R. Sylvan, Trance Formation: The Spiritual and Religious Dimensions of Rave Culture [Routledge, 2005]), as well as a deluge of studies on theology and film (e.g., C. Deacy, Faith in Film: Religious Themes in Contemporary Cinema [Ashgate, 2005]; Cinema divinite: Religion, Theology and the Bible in Film [ed. by E.S. Christianson et al.; SCM, 2005]; C.M. Barsotti and R.K. Johnston, Finding God in the Movies [Baker, 2004]; Explorations in Theology and Film [ed. C. Marsh et al.; Blackwell, 1998]). Although one may put this down to idle theologians trying to find something to do and reading God into pop culture, there seems to be much more to it than that. Church leaders are finding pop culture a source of spiritual conversation in mission and ministry. In my own work with undergraduate and postgraduate students, and also in the context of my local Methodist church, I find a hunger to engage with “Dr. Who” and “Battlestar Galactica.” People are fascinated by the questions they raise and the resonances with faith. Might this be a spiritual oasis in a culture that because of secularization, is a desert for God-talk?

The Decline of God in Public Places

I am convinced that we must take secularization seriously within contemporary culture, even if we qualify it and do not give in to the prophets of doom. From Bryan Wilson’s contention that religious thinking, religious practice, and religious institutions are losing social significance (Religion in Secular Society [C.A. Watts, 1966] 14), to Steve Bruce’s God is Dead (Blackwell, 2002) and Callum Brown’s The Death of Christian Britain (Routledge, 2000), the evidence is abundantly clear in Western Europe of long-term church decline in belief, attendance, and influence. Although some have tried to disguise this decline, this argument can be easily dismissed (C. Brown, Religion and Society in Twentieth-Century Britain [Longman, 2006]; R. Gill, “Measuring Church Trends over Time,” in Public Faith? The State of Religious Belief and Practice in Britain [ed. P. Avis; SPCK, 2003] 19-27; B. Jackson, Hope for the Church: Contemporary Strategies for Growth [Church House, 2002]; R. Gill, The “Empty Church” Revisited [Ashgate, 2003]). The most recent publication from Christian Research headlines the data that the number of British people saying they have no religion has increased from 31 per cent in 1983 to 40 per cent in 2005 (P. Brierley, Religious Trends 7 [Christian Research, 2007/8]).

Of course, the story is more complicated than some of the proponents of secularization would have us believe. In a series of studies, G. Davie has pointed to a movement to believing without belonging (Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging [Blackwell, 1994]), noted the persistence of vicarious religion (that is, the reality that many people want religion maintained and done for them even if they do not want to be committed to it themselves) (Religion in Modern Europe [Oxford University Press, 2000]), and urged that secularization is not the inevitable child of science and technology, with Europe being the exceptional case (Europe the Exceptional Case: Parameters of Faith in the Modern World [Darton, Longman, and Todd, 2002]). Although Davie warns that Bruce and Brown are taking their argument too far, we might want to show the same hesitation towards her own arguments. For example, we might note that in believing without belonging and vicarious religion, the position may be bleaker for those ministering in urban rather than rural setting, ministering outside the established Church of England, and ministering among younger rather than older people.

However, Davie is right in characterizing a post-Christian culture of declining churches but residual spiritual hunger that can surface in new religious movements (cf. G. Harvey, Listening People, Speaking Earth: Contemporary Paganism [Hurst, 1997]) or at times of national crisis (cf. J. Drane, “The Death of Diana, Princess of Wales,” in Cultural Change and Biblical Faith [Paternoster, 2000] 78). Indeed, this spiritual hunger can surface in many confusing ways. Look, for example, at the number of British cable channels that broadcast psychics or “Most Haunted—Live!” In all of this, nevertheless, we need to remember that, even if there may be genuine spiritual hunger out there, there is very little inclination to go to the church for a meal.

That British contemporary culture is post-Christian due to the unique historical, sociological, and spiritual dynamics of Europe is important in a number of ways. First, the decline in church attendance and influence is not entirely the fault of churches and church leaders. Numerous books and conferences give the impression that if only the church did this or that, or if Christians were more prayerful, more faithful, or more creative in their witness, then the decline would be reversed. I am passionate about British Christians being more prayerful, more faithful, and more creative, but that will not sweep away decades of secularization overnight. Martin Robinson quotes L. Mead to make the same point: “the most important factor in the drop-out (in church attendance) is not something that the churches are doing or not doing; it is the character of the culture surrounding the congregations” (The Bible in Transmission [Summer 2001; Swindon: Bible Society, 2001]).

Second, we need to recognize that post-Christian culture means that we are now engaged in mission and ministry in a “half-believing society,” where biblical illiteracy is widespread, Christian authority is resented, and postmodernity subverts truth. It is not a matter of saying that we are now back in a cultural period similar to that of the early missionary church. Though there may be similar ignorance of the gospel, this is a culture that has gone through a Christian period and now chooses to look elsewhere. This sets up completely new dynamics. As I have recently suggested, this means that we need not only new expressions of church but we need new expressions of evangelism and apologetics (“What are the Lessons from Evangelism and Apologetics for New Communities,” in Mission-shaped Questions: Defining Issues for Today’s Church [ed. S. Croft; Church House, 2008] 102-13).

The question is not primarily about defending the Christian faith but about showing its relevance. There will of course continue to be attacks on the Christian faith and pop culture may convey these. However, apologetics in the 21st century cannot be a purely defensive activity. McGrath helpfully suggests, “The chief goal of Christian apologetics is to create an intellectual and imaginative climate conducive to the birth and nurture of faith” (Bridge-Building: Effective Christian Apologetics [Inter-Varsity, 2002] 9). His image is one of bridge-building, where Christians need to take the initiative. Developing this theme, I suggest that apologetics in the 21st century will be characterized by demonstrating the relevance of the Christian faith, stimulating the imagination, maintaining our humanity, and being sensitive to the medium as well as the message (“The Art of Apologetics in the 21st Century,” Anvil 19 [2002] 5-17). My own work in recent years has been a modest attempt to build bridges using the openness of physical scientists such as S. Hawking and P. Davies to engage in questions of God. It seems that pop culture may also provide such openness where a genuine conversation about God can be pursued.

Third, any moments, stories, conversations, or images of God in the public arena become crucial in reconnecting gospel and culture. The missiologist H. Kraemer once wrote that “communication involves the communicator having somehow discerned that are the obstacles to the receipt of the message, in such a way as to be able to meet the listener on her or his own ground” (The Communication of the Christian Faith [Lutterworth, 1957]). We might want to broaden that definition to say that the communicator must discern not only the obstacles but also the opportunities. Pop culture can provide such opportunities. It can provide the bridges or points of connection to demonstrate that faith is relevant in the contemporary world. If pop culture gives these moments, stories, conversations, and images of God, then it is a key arena for apologetics.

We have long explored the role of theology as it relates both to the church and to the academy. However, as D.B. Forrester suggests, the danger in church theology is “that of becoming the in-house language of the ghetto…. When this happens…outsiders look to the church as a quaint and irrelevant survival, a fascinating museum piece without broader relevance, whose language and gospel are unintelligible outside” (Truthful Action: Explorations in Practical Theology [T&T Clark, 2000] 110).

Some might argue that this is the danger of the strategy of S. Hauerwas. Hauerwas and J.H. Yoder have become extremely influential in arguing that the church’s mission is not to transform culture but to witness through its theology and life to its own vision of the kingdom of God. In the attempt to represent and embody something distinctive to the world, Hauerwas has been characterized as sectarian (cf. J. Gustafson, “The Sectarian Temptation: Reflections of Theology, the Church and the University,” in Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society 40 [1985] 83-94), a charge that Hauerwas strongly resists (cf. Christian Existence Today: Essays on Church, World and Living In Between [Brazos, 2001] 3-21). It is, of course, interesting to note that not many sectarian theologians are lauded “America’s Best Theologian” by Time magazine! Yet, it seems to me that Hauerwas works in and because of the North American cultural context. In the U.S., theology is still part of the public discourse, in a way that it is no longer true in post-Christian Britain. Being “sectarian” in North America is a little different to being sectarian in secularization.

David Tracey suggests that theologians should seek to address “the public of society” through engaging questions concerning the distribution of good and services, the deployment of power, and also symbolic expression in the sphere of culture (The Analogical Imagination [Crossroad, 1981] 6-7). Of the first two of these, Christian theologians have a distinguished track record. However, our tendency has been to see an ethical, rather than apologetic engagement, as the primary way to do public theology in the sphere of culture. Yet fundamental to the NT was the conviction that culture had to be engaged through both ethics and evangelism. Serving the kingdom of God meant that one had to make judgments as a Christian on what was right and wrong, but also that one had to understand and use culture to make the gospel intelligible and relevant. Thus, a letter such as Colossians speaks into the culture through ethical teaching (e.g., Col 2:16; 2:20-23, 3:5-11), but also uses images within the culture such as intermediary heavenly powers to speak of the supremacy of Christ in a new way (Col 1:15-16).

As L. Sanneh has pointed out, the Christian faith has given priority to translate the Bible into the language of the peoples—indeed, for many groups the Bible was often the first written text (cf. Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture [Orbis, 1989]). This stemmed from the theological foundation of the incarnation, where the Word became flesh and lived among us. The culture of first century Palestine was taken seriously enough by God as a vehicle both for the demonstration of the kingdom and the communication of the gospel. How then can we do apologetics by engaging questions of symbolic expression in the sphere of culture, and specifically pop culture? How can we translate the gospel into the language, images, stories, and ideas of today?

Such a project can be described in detail both in theological foundations and its practice, but such a description lies beyond the scope of this essay. It involves a commitment to take pop culture seriously, a commitment to do the hard work of understanding pop culture, a commitment to learn from pop culture in the use of story, imagination, sound-bites, the visual and entertainment, and a commitment to engage in a missiological way with pop culture seeking to affirm, critique, and subvert it. Such an essay is for another occasion. Here the plea is for a view of apologetics that takes the initiative and builds bridges with pop culture. Even in post-Christian culture there are willing conversation partners.

B. Taylor comments on the movie industry that “there is a very, very serious conversation going on in our culture, in Western culture…about God. And the church is not part of it. We are not invited to the conversation most of the time …and we are not aware of it” (quoted in R.K. Johnston’s Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue [Baker Academic, 2001] 14).

Posted Feb 01, 2009