This talk was delivered on November 20, 2021 in Denton, Texas at the EPS Apologetics Conference: Reasonable Faith in an Uncertain World. The conference program is available here. Biola University, the Evangelical Philosophical Society (EPS), and Denton Bible Church sponsored this event.
1 The Unfulfilled Promise of Christian Apologetics
I’ve been writing professionally in the field of Christian apologetics now for over 30 years. In fact, looking at my CV, I see that one of my very first publications in apologetics (an article titled “Inconvenient Facts: Miracles and the Skeptical Inquirer”) appeared in 1990 in the Bulletin of the Evangelical Philosophical Society. That journal subsequently was rechristened Philosophia Christi.
As a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, I helped revive the Princeton Theological Review as a student-run publication advancing Christian orthodoxy. It lasted for fifteen years after I graduated, disbanding in 2011. During my time at Princeton Seminary, I helped organize a weekly seminar to present papers on Christian apologetics, the presenters being students, faculty, and local scholars. The best of these papers were published by Intervarsity in 2001 in an anthology co-edited by me and Jay Richards. The anthology was titled Unapologetic Apologetics: Meeting the Challenges of Theological Studies.
A significant aspect of my work on intelligent design can be understood as falling under Christian apologetics, arguing that the science underlying design refutes atheism and agnosticism, and thus creates room for Christian theism. Moreover, as a professor at three seminaries, I often taught courses in apologetics, some even having that word “apologetics” in the course title. The non-apologetics courses that I taught were on the philosophy of religion, the relation between science and faith, rhetoric, logic, and critical thinking, all of which were also conducive to apologetics.
With this background, you might expect me to be an avid supporter of Christian apologetics, and so I am. But I give this talk as one who is also disappointed with the impact that apologetics has had to date and think that the discipline of apologetics needs to be expanded and upgraded if it is to fulfill its promise, which is to reclaim for Christ the life of the mind (compare 2 Corinthians 10:5).
I say Christian apologetics needs to be expanded and upgraded rather than reconceptualized or reimagined. What Christian apologists have accomplished in this and the last generation has been admirable and even crucially important. Except for a John Warwick Montgomery challenging the god-is-dead theology of the 1960s, except of a Norman Geisler articulating and defending biblical inerrancy, and except for subsequent vigorous challenges by Christian apologists against the nihilism, relativism, scientism, skepticism, materialism, and the other isms ravaging the intellectual world, where would we be? Fideism, with its intellectual bankruptcy, would rule the day.
Even so, apologetics, in my view, hasn’t gone nearly far enough. Often when apologetics as an enterprise is thrown into question, it is because of a crisis of confidence concerning its very nature, as though the task of apologetics in defending and confirming the faith ought to be thoroughly abjured by right-thinking Christians. According to this view, human reason is such an ineffective instrument for understanding God and advancing Christian faith that apologetics ought to be regarded as misconceived at best, impious at worst. That’s not me.
My disappointment with apologetics has nothing to do with questioning its use of reason and evidence to support faith. My disappointment, rather, is that we’ve failed to embed apologetics within a broader cultural engagement for advancing the Christian faith. Christian apologetics has, in my view, mainly been in the business of playing defense when it needs to be playing offense. Yes, I get it that the very word “apologetics” comes from the Greek, where it denotes a reasoned defense before a court of law. But I’ve never been a fan of holding words hostage to their etymology. Christian apologetics needs to do better, and I want in this talk to explore how it can do better.
2 Truth Is Never Enough
If I had to put my finger on where I see the greatest fault in Christian apologetics as it is currently practiced—and I point the finger here also at myself—it is the naïveté that thinks truth is enough. By this I mean the wishful complacency that says if we can just state the truth clearly, explain it adequately, and argue it rigorously with compelling evidence or logically sound reasoning (or preferably both), then we’ve done our job as apologists and we can wash our hands of further responsibility. If people still don’t see the truth and embrace it, especially after we’ve bent over backwards to make it clear to them, then it’s their problem. Perhaps they’re in the grip of faulty presuppositions. Perhaps they’re fearful of what others will think if they are seen as taking Christianity seriously. Perhaps they are simply blinded by the evil one.
But the tacit assumption underlying much of Christian apologetics is that by uttering the right words in the right order, we’ll have done our job as apologists. And so, in the last decades, we’ve articulated terrific defenses of key Christian doctrines, such as Jesus’ resurrection (take the work of Gary Habermas and Mike Licona). We’ve thoroughly deconstructed non-teleological forms of cosmological and biological evolution (take the work of Guillermo Gonzalez and Douglas Axe). We’ve shown how information theory destroys materialism and entails an ultimate information source that is readily identified with God (take the work of Bob Marks and myself). And we’ve done outstanding work on the rational underpinnings of the Christian faith (take the work of Bill Craig and Al Plantinga). And yet, and yet, …
Reflections like this always call to mind for me a famous New Yorker cartoon (by J. B. Handelsman). In the cartoon, a client sits across the desk of an attorney. The attorney says, “You have a pretty good case Mr. Pitkin. How much justice can you afford?” Truth is great, but the mere utterance of truth by humans won’t get you across any finish line. Over and over I have felt that Christian apologists have the better argument. And yet, over and over, when it comes to convincing the culture, reversing negative trend lines, and bringing Christian ideas and ideals into the mainstream, it seems that we’re moving backwards rather than forwards. If you don’t believe me, think back to 2010 when the political mainstream on both sides of the aisle still regarded marriage in traditional terms as between one man and one woman — they may not have believed it, but at least they felt compelled to say it. And then ask yourself where we are now, on this and a host of other hot-button issues.
3 Giving Culture Its Due
We inhabit not merely a physical environment but also a cultural environment. Our cultural environment sets boundaries for what we may think, what we can say, and how we should live. Stray beyond these boundaries, and you’ll face a cultural backlash. Our cultural environment includes our ideas about what exists, what can be known, and what counts as evidence for our beliefs. It assigns value to our life and work. It describes what’s within and beyond the moral pale. Above all, it determines our plausibility structures — what we find reasonable or unreasonable, credible or incredible, thinkable or unthinkable.
Christian apologetics lives and moves within such a cultural environment. To be effective, Christian apologetics therefore needs to work effectively within its cultural environment. That’s not to say that it should bow to the cultural environment. Quite the contrary: in a fallen world like ours, cultural environments will always to varying degrees be corrupt, and it is the task of Christian apologists to speak truth to and transform for the better any cultural environment in which they find themselves.
Still, some cultural environments are more friendly to Christian faith than others, and a worthy task of Christian apologetics is to make our cultural environment ever more open to Christian faith. As Christian apologists, we want our cultural environment to accommodate Christian faith, though to the degree that our cultural environment eschews Christian faith, the reverse must not be true. Indeed, as Christians, we don’t want our Christian faith accommodating a corrupt cultural environment.
As a convenient gauge of how readily our cultural environment accommodates Christianity, consider its attitude toward Christ’s resurrection. As Christians, we believe that Jesus died on a Roman cross, that his dead body was put in a tomb, and that three days later he rose bodily from the dead. If we go back to the America of the 19th century, and even factoring in the Enlightenment, Darwin, Marx, and other skeptics, it was culturally acceptable to treat the resurrection of Jesus as much a part of history as anything else in antiquity (such as Alexander conquering the world, Caesar wooing Cleopatra, and Cicero giving his orations).
Of course, there have always been skeptics denying the resurrection. The apostle Paul encountered them at the Areopagus. But Christians, even in the 19th century, didn’t feel cowed by the culture. If anything, their cultural environment gave them free rein to proclaim the resurrection as a fact of history — indeed boldly, or dare I say, unapologetically.
But something changed. The cultural environment changed. The seeds of the Enlightenment continued to bear fruit in ever greater quantities. The seeds further planted by Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, etc. were also rapidly reproducing. So much so that by the 1930s, J. Gresham Machen would write: “False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the Gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion.”
I hesitated to give this quote just now because it is so overused. I’ve used it for three decades. I keep seeing it in books and articles on apologetics. Usually, it is quoted as a rallying cry, to urge that we double down on the apologetic enterprise to ensure that false ideas lose their ascendancy and that the Gospel may advance. But I suspect the real reason we quote it so much is that the cultural environment of our day has so transformed that it has become culturally acceptable to think of Christianity as a delusion, harmless or otherwise. And so, we win a straggler here and there, but the culture as a whole continues to descend into oblivion.
Machen’s point about the “resistless force of logic” is worth considering more closely. He is not here talking about the deductive form of inference that one learns in a course on formal logic, where the truth of the premises guarantees the truth of the conclusion. He is talking, rather, about the logic of a cultural environment, which is less a form of rule-governed inference than a kind of rushing flow that moves hearts and minds on the basis of ideas, intuitions, and images that hold sway in the culture at large (these are the “false ideas” with which Machen begins the quote).
Mark 12 describes an exchange between a Jewish rabbi and Jesus. The two discuss what are the greatest of God’s commandments. In the exchange, the rabbi underscores the primacy of love in God’s commandments. As he puts it in Mark 12:33: “To love [God] with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Pleased with the rabbi’s insight, Jesus responds, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
Jesus here approves of someone as being close to God’s kingdom. Such approval, it seems to me, should also apply to someone who accepts that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, namely, that such a person is not far from the kingdom of God. Of course, it’s possible to accept the resurrection and still not be a Christian. But other things being equal, it’s better to believe than disbelieve that Jesus resurrected. It seems, therefore, that one way (though hardly the only way) for an apologist to approach non-Christians with the aim of moving them closer to the kingdom would be by providing a convincing argument for the resurrection (assuming the non-Christians don’t accept the resurrection as historical fact).
Accordingly, one could then recap the arguments of Gary Habermas, Mike Licona, N. T. Wright and others about how the New Testament and history provide solid grounds for thinking that the bodily resurrection of Jesus really did happen. They are good arguments, and to a mind uninfected by Machen’s “false ideas,” they would be compelling. But they’re not compelling precisely because our cultural environment is so overrun with false ideas. A cultural environment infested with false ideas leads to minds infected with false ideas. And ideas, whether false or true, have consequences. Or as my friend Jeremy LaBorde used to say, “What you believe to be true will control you, whether it’s true or not.”
Our cultural environment is imbued with many false ideas. Especially burdened with them is our intellectual high culture. They’ve overwhelmingly embraced a materialistic or naturalistic outlook that sees the natural order, at its most basic, as simply an outworking of blind physical forces. Life, consciousness, and language, to say nothing of truth, beauty, and goodness are thus seen simply as by-products of a material world that at base knows no God, no moral structure, no telos. In such a world, what room for miracles? And in a world of no miracles, what room for Christ’s resurrection? In such a world, Machen’s “resistless force of logic” leaves no room for the resurrection. All the arguments for the resurrection, however excellent on their own terms, will thus cut no ice.
4 The Worldview Audit and Its Limitations
It’s at this point that Christian apologists are likely to suggest a worldview audit. Someone who disbelieves Christ’s resurrection is likely to believe a whole bunch of other false ideas that conflict with believing Christ’s resurrection. The task then is to burrow into that worldview and refute its false ideas, focusing especially on those that are pervasive, pernicious, and render belief in the resurrection impossible. For example, someone’s refusal to accept the resurrection might stem from accepting a materialistic worldview, and so the apologist’s task becomes first to refute materialism before making a positive case for the resurrection.
Accordingly, a different apologetic argument needs next to be recapped, this one not arguing for the resurrection directly but arguing for it indirectly by first challenging materialism. Thus the apologist might advance a cosmological or teleological argument for the existence of God, perhaps an argument for the impossibility of morality without a transcendent reference point, perhaps a design argument based on the fine-tuning of the universe or the complexity of living forms. All such arguments will attempt to show that a purely material world operating by purely physical forces makes for an incoherent worldview.
But what of the charge of incoherence? How does showing that someone’s worldview is incoherent cause them to change their worldview? Let me let you in on a secret: most people readily make their peace with incoherence. A person’s mental space is a house of many rooms, and who needs every room to be clean and organized? Indeed, people can live happy, unflustered lives even if their web of belief (to use Willard Quine’s metaphor) doesn’t hang together nicely and neatly. They can accommodate incoherence, inconsistency, and things that would otherwise make for cognitive dissonance, and do so with equanimity, provided their mental environment doesn’t challenge them too keenly.
Richard Rorty described such an easy-going attitude toward incoherence by characterizing truth as what your peers will let you get away with saying. To this, Al Plantinga astutely replied that he, as Rorty’s peer, would not let him get away with saying that. Now Plantinga was certainly right that Rorty, in asserting such a view of truth, was being incoherent (indeed, self-referentially incoherent), because Rorty’s view of truth allowed Plantinga to refute it by the mere act of verbally challenging it.
But Rorty’s larger point, it seems to me, captures an essential fact about humans as they navigate their cultural environment (or what Rorty characterized as one’s contemporaries or peers). Namely, we can allow ourselves to indulge in all sorts of absurd thinking provided the people who hold sway in our cultural environment don’t call us on it. If the marginalized or demonized call us on it, they can be safely ignored. We indulge ourselves in this way all the time, and our cultural environment often makes it easy for us to do so. The public’s easy acceptance of fake news by the mainstream media is a case in point.
Sure, by any rigorous logical standards, people should revise their thinking when incoherence in their worldview is pointed out to them. If sound logical thinking were the norm, people would reflexively restructure their worldview in the face of incoherence. But people are social creatures who inhabit a cultural environment. If they see others in their cultural environment, especially those whom they respect, continue to hold onto positions shown to be incoherent, it’s in fact easy for them to remain unmoved.
So long as challengers to some dominant view within our cultural environment can be suitably discredited, or as we would now say, “cancelled,” then it becomes easy to think of the challengers as idiots who in challenging the “consensus” or “settled” views of the culture have simply missed something (what exactly they’ve missed need concern no one). The conclusion, irrationally but convincingly drawn, is that the “smart” people who are the shining representatives of our cultural environment are probably right after all in maintaining their views and refusing to revise them (the inherent merit of the arguments presented by the challengers be damned).
This tendency of people to side with the dominant views of the cultural environment is why, for instance, intelligent design has such a hard time of it. By any objective standards, intelligent design proponents have the better argument. Intelligent design convincingly refutes Darwinism. For instance, sound information-theoretic arguments show that it cannot be the whole truth, and that it probably is not a truth at all. And yet Darwinism continues to rule the day and the culture at large regards intelligent design as intellectually substandard.
5 Worldview vs. Cultural Environment
By now it will be apparent that a cultural environment differs from a worldview. Let’s say a bit more about that difference, because it is important. A cultural environment applies corporately to the group or community in which one resides. On the other hand, a worldview is, in the first instance, held individually, though it can be shared and therefore held corporately. Thus we may speak of “the Christian worldview.” One’s worldview is the set of beliefs that one holds about what the world is like. As such, it doesn’t distinguish between beliefs that are held intensely and those that are held more lightly. It doesn’t distinguish between beliefs that are non-negotiable and those to which we pay lip service.
A cultural environment, by contrast, emphasizes the deeply entrenched cognitive and moral commitments by which we make sense of life because of our shared life with others. Much of the ideational content of a cultural environment is tacit, though careful inquiry can help make it explicit. In any case, a cultural environment tends to be far more influential than a worldview. We see this when words and actions collide. Born again Christians, for example, hold, as part of their worldview, that marriage is sacred. Yet divorce among them is as prevalent as elsewhere in the culture. Nor do they attach to it much of a stigma. The prevalence and widespread acceptance of divorce among Christians reflects less on their worldview than on their cultural environment.
Confusion about the difference between worldview and cultural environment has been a stumbling block for Christian apologetics. A worldview is essentially a set of propositions, and propositions are properly dealt with by placing them in contradistinction to other propositions and arranging them in arguments. A cultural environment, by contrast, is much more organic. It lives and breathes. Propositions and arguments play some role in them, but imagination and narrative play an even stronger role in them.
Ask yourself about the increasing opposition to abortion over the past years, which is perhaps one of the few issues where we’ve seen positive progress of late. Apologetic arguments about life beginning at conception and humans being made in the image of God have, I submit, played a minimal role here. Much more powerful has been the use of ultrasounds and other imaging techniques to show the fetus’s human characteristics, its ability very early on to experience pain, and the horrendous violence that abortions produce. Apologetics, to be effective, needs to focus less on logical analysis and more on retraining the imagination of the culture. I’ll return to this point.
6 The Temptation of the Ghetto
When I taught apologetics at seminary, I would stress to my students that in doing apologetics, they needed to get out of the ghetto. Granted, the very term “ghetto” is deeply offensive. But I was trying to make a point and focus my students’ attention. There are less objectionable terms that make the same point. But the less objectionable terms merely soft-pedal the point at issue, and that point is sufficiently grave that it needs to be made starkly. In any case, I’ll stick with the term “ghetto” because the day is far spent, the night is approaching, and there’s no point in mincing words.
The fact is, we as Christians are easily tempted to get comfortable in a ghetto. But a ghetto is not the actual cultural environment where all the real apologetic work needs to take place, and at some level we always recognize this fact. The ghetto is a cozy little enclave within a larger cultural environment (hence we also refer to it as a subculture). In a ghetto, we can all get comfortable, we can all speak the same language, and, provided the cultural environment doesn’t challenge us too harshly, to say nothing of actively persecuting us, we can all go about our business and live reasonably contented lives, convinced that we’re all good Christians doing the work of God.
Unfortunately, if the broader cultural environment that includes our ghetto is going to hell in a handbasket, as it often is, we are fooling ourselves if we content ourselves with simply living in the ghetto. Some Christian denominations are so large that people can live their entire professional lives in it, and largely sidestep the broader issues of their broader cultural environment. But a large ghetto is still a ghetto, and redemption never happens inside a ghetto but only by going outside it and reclaiming the larger cultural environment for Christ. This is God’s world. The cultural environment ultimately belongs to God. And our task as Christians is to redeem as much of it as we can, subject of course to the fallenness of the world.
Once we realize that we are not called to live in a ghetto, certain misconceptions that hamper Christian apologetics lose their hold. If we mistake a ghetto for our larger cultural environment, then we are likely to draw invidious comparisons between the structures and institutions within the ghetto versus those of the wider culture. Consider, for instance, the inferiority complex of many Christian colleges and universities, and the consequent diffidence with which they pursue Christian apologetics. These schools know that our culture does not put them in the same league as the elite schools such as Harvard, Stanford, and MIT. But by being content to reside in a Christian ghetto, they aspire for at least some grudging recognition from these elite schools, and any such recognition requires playing by their standards, and these standards are invariably corrupt. In particular, these standards will give short shrift to a robust Christian apologetics.
Yet rather than seek the approval of these elite institutions, Christian colleges and universities, if their claim to be Christian amounts to anything, should strive to boldly assert and justify Christian truths and to attain a level of scholarship that matches or exceeds the best that is available among the elite schools. Our work as Christians, and especially as Christian apologists, should be so good that it deserves to be called excellent by our cultural environment even if that environment is hostile and in the end denies us that approbation. The Christian academy is called to be excellent not by aping the secular academy but by setting an intellectual agenda that combines outstanding scholarship with distinctives that clearly advance Christian truth in the cultural environment.
I said earlier that truth is never enough. That’s right if we think of truth as simply stringing words together to form true propositions, and thus think of truth in the abstract with little connection to life as it is actually lived. But there’s another sense in which truth is enough and apologetics is all about truth provided we are talking about truth as residing not just in the mind but also in the heart, as challenging a corrupt cultural environment with boldness and courage, and as delivering that truth in a way that the corrupt cultural environment cannot ignore. In Luke 21:15 Jesus describes giving his followers wisdom that none of their adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. Such practical wisdom needs to be part of apologetics. It’s not just about uttering the right words in the right order, but about implanting them in a cultural conversation where they cannot be ignored and where they make a difference. Christian apologetics, if it is to rise above idle chitchat, needs to persuade and influence.
7 From Apologetics to Rhetoric
During my years as a seminary professor, every course I taught had some connection with apologetics. One of the courses I taught that I liked best was rhetoric. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. Unfortunately, it is an art that Christian apologetics has failed to fully appropriate. Aristotle rightly distinguished three appeals of persuasion. These were logos, ethos, and pathos.
You can try to persuade by logical argument. That’s logos, and Christian apologetics is hypertrophied in that department. But you can also try to persuade by the force of your personality, or by your reputation for moral probity, or by your demonstrated expertise and qualifications. That’s ethos, and it speaks to your standing and credibility in the act of persuasion. And finally, you can try to persuade by exploiting people’s emotions. That’s pathos, and it can be wildly effective, especially when it taps into such visceral emotions as fear and greed.
Christian apologetics has done very well with logos. As I noted earlier, in area after area, Christian apologists have advanced the stronger argument. But Christian apologists have been notoriously unsuccessful at advancing their ethos. A partial exception is Christian philosophers, who through the efforts of George Mavrodes, William Alston, Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, John Hare, Richard Swinburne, Peter van Inwagen, William Lane Craig, and others have come to command the respect, often grudging, of the philosophical world.
Nonetheless, even this shining star of Christian apologetics has failed to attain the respect it deserves. It’s great that Al Plantinga could flourish at Notre Dame, but why weren’t Harvard and Cambridge beating a path to his door? And why is Bill Craig at Biola rather than at Yale or Oxford? Nothing against Biola, but academic affiliation in our cultural environment goes directly to ethos, and Bill Craig would command a stronger ethos, thereby enhancing his apologetic impact, if he had Yale or Oxford as a platform.
Outside philosophy, however, the ethos of Christian apologists is lamentable. Mike Licona’s historiographical work supporting the bodily resurrection of Christ is, in my view, far superior to Bart Ehrman’s skeptical assaults on the resurrection. I should know since I helped organize a focused civil dialogue between the two, and saw their exchange unfold in real time. Unfortunately, link rot being what it is on the web, that dialogue has disappeared from the original website, though it remains available on the Web Archive.
But here’s the question: Why does Ehrman command a prestigious professorship at UNC, where he can teach hundreds of students in an introductory New Testament course, with the avowed aim of derailing their Christian faith? Ehrman is explicit about this aim with his students. And why does Licona have to make ends meet by running a speaking ministry while teaching as a visiting professor at Houston Baptist University? The inequity here is palpable. Clearly, Licona’s impact as a Christian apologist would be greater if he had a platform like Ehrman’s.
Jesus in Luke 16:8 described the children of this age being shrewder than the children of light. The children of this age, who set the agenda for our cultural environment, have arranged for themselves plum academic jobs where they can promulgate ideas contrary to Christian faith and thus contrary to the work of orthodox Christian apologists. Now we can simply wring our hand and complain how unfortunate it is that our cultural environment treats apologists like Licona so shabbily. And he’s hardly alone in this mistreatment.
But let me instead suggest that any fault here is at least in part on Christian apologists and their supporters. Yes, we’ve got logos down pat. But why aren’t Christian apologists, and especially their fans with deep pockets, making it clear how important it is to get Christian apologetics into the commanding heights (the phrase is Lenin’s) of our cultural environment? To be clear, I’m supremely grateful for schools like Biola and Houston Baptist University that at least provide a livelihood Christian apologists. But Christian apologists who deserve to be at a Harvard or Stanford should be at a Harvard or Stanford. What needs to change in our cultural environment to make that happen?
Many of the schools in the CCCU (Council for Christian Colleges and Universities) are, in my view, thoroughly compromised, happy to live in the Christian ghetto, and resistant to Christian apologetics because it would make them look bad to the mainstream academy that they are trying to impress. Instead, they should be making the mainstream academy uncomfortable through their positive case for Christian truth. Even if doing so made them unrespectable, it would at least make them worthy of respect. “Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,” says Jesus in Luke 6:26, “for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.” Those words, mutatis mutandis, apply to false Christian academics.
(I’m painting here with a broad brush. I don’t mean to suggest that any particular CCCU school is bereft of faithful Christian faculty. Indeed, there are many faithful Christian faculty at these schools, faculty who are doing their best to serve Christ and their students, and who refuse to bow to the prevailing currents of the secular academy. Moreover, as I run my eyes over the list of CCCU schools, I see several that are exemplary in their institutional commitment to advance a solid and sound Christian education, not least Biola, one of the sponsors of this conference. That said, painting with a broad brush can reveal broad patterns that require attention, and the pull on Christian higher education to live in the ghetto is a real temptation.)
On the pathos front, Christian apologists have also been less than totally effective. As I noted earlier, the abortion debate has seen a promising shift to the pro-life side not because of arguments for the sanctity of human life or for its reality at the moment of conception, but because of images, such as from ultrasound and other imaging technologies, that make the reality of human life in the womb clear and its violation through abortion repellent.
Christian apologetics needs to keep making its reasoned arguments against abortion, demonstrating it to be a heinous evil. But it also needs to make full use of pathos to advance its case. Of course, it’s already doing that to some degree, especially in the abortion controversy. But it needs to go at pathos much more deliberately. Activating people’s imagination through pictures, intuitions, and stories will be crucial here, and Christian apologists need to incorporate such tools into their tool chests.
In sum, if apologetics is going to be an effective instrument for moving our cultural environment closer to the kingdom of God, it needs to take full advantage of the three appeals of persuasion: logos, ethos, and pathos. Moreover, it needs to do so systematically rather than just occasionally.
8 From Rhetoric to Influence
Rhetoric, as we’ve noted, is the art of persuasion. But how does rhetoric look in practice? The picture is of two parties, one doing the persuading, the other being persuaded. The goal is to get the party being persuaded to believe or act in a desired way. The classic case of rhetoric is the court of law, in which an attorney, by speaking (that is, by arranging words and giving them voice — hence the emphasis on logic and eloquence in classical rhetoric), attempts to convince a judge or jury to reach a certain decision. Once the decision is reached, the attorney’s job is done, the job being successful if the decision reached is the one desired. In this light, it bears repeating that the very word “apologetics” originally denoted a legal defense.
This view of rhetoric as doing persuasive things with words is fine as far as it goes, but as we’ve seen, it hardly goes far enough. Certainly, insofar as rhetoric is a tool of the legal profession, it emphasizes the power of words over other forms of persuasion. By contrast, consider an act of violence that persuades a hapless shop owner to hand over protection money. Or consider an encouraging glance that persuades an unconfident child to attempt greater things. In much of persuasion, words take a back seat.
Such a wider conception of persuasion, where the goal is to instill a desired belief or behavior by whatever the means (not just words), is, however, still unduly limited. Persuasion, with or without the use of words, means getting someone to comply, to say yes. The connotation of the word “comply” is perhaps unfortunate because it often suggests getting to yes at the expense of the individual giving the yes, but compliance need not be unhappy, and in fact can be happy (as in “I’m happy to comply”). The point of persuasion is to get a yes response, and compliance is therefore its first goal.
But not all yeses are created equal. There’s yes and there’s yes. There’s yes, as in I agree with you simply to get you off my back. There’s yes, as in I agree with you because I’m all in with your program. And there are many other yeses as well with varying degrees of buy-in. An attorney may have no stake in the quality of the yes obtained (a verdict is a verdict), but many of us, depending on context, prefer an enthusiastic yes over a grudging yes. Certainly, we want an enthusiastic yes when we, as Christian apologists, persuade someone that God exists, that God created the world, and that God redeemed the world through the death and resurrection of Christ.
Persuasion, in its most general sense, is therefore best understood as influence, and rhetoric, in its most general sense, is accordingly to be understood as the study of influence, and especially the ways to augment and diminish influence. Influence takes the form of humans acting to elicit a response from other humans, the underlying motivation for the response being potentially as important as the response itself.
In academic discussions of influence (especially in business marketing), an act of influence is often treated as a linear, one-way relation between the agent doing the influencing (the influencer) and the agent being influenced (the target), with some form of communication or directed energy flowing from the influencer to the target.
But this picture misses much. Any influencer is in turn influenced via the target’s response to the influencer’s act of influence, making the target’s response itself an act of influence. Thus an influencer is always a target and a target is always an influencer. Moreover, untargeted bystanders may likewise be influenced, and in turn influence their unsuspecting influencers.
Whereas rhetoric, by that name, is traditionally taught under philosophy, communications, and legal studies, influence, by that name, tends to be taught under psychology and business. Thus a social psychologist or marketing analyst might ask what foibles of the human mind allow a certain persuasive appeal to succeed even though by any standards of philosophical rigor the appeal ought to be rejected. In consequence, any discipline that bears on influence, whatever the words we use to describe it, may legitimately be folded into this generalized conception of rhetoric.
9 The Lesson for Christian Apologetics
There’s a lesson in these musings about rhetoric and influence for Christian apologetics. It is this: Christian apologetics misses the boat when it focuses on fashioning apologetic arguments to the exclusion of having a clear actionable plan for injecting those arguments into the wider cultural environment and to the exclusion of having a clear attainable goal for how those arguments are to influence the wider cultural environment. In short, influence needs to be an inherent feature of Christian apologetics rather than an accidental by-product, as it tends to be at present.
One reason the field of apologetics hasn’t seen much of me over the past decade is that I left seminary teaching to become an entrepreneur who develops educational websites and educational technologies. That’s now my day job. The business world, as I’ve discovered, differs radically from the academic world in one main point: any item a business produces needs a clear path to influence. Note that monetization is downstream of influence. If I build an influential website that attracts a lot of traffic, I’ll be able to monetize it. But if my website is uninfluential, generating little interest and traffic, monetization will falter regardless.
By contrast, consider your average Christian apologist, who works in the academy. It’s enough to write your latest apologetic tract and get it published in some academically respectable forum. If it gets widely discussed and cited, so much the better. But in writing your latest apologetic tract, you are simply of putting it out there and hoping that it has an impact. What I’ve just said about Christian apologetics holds for academic scholarship in general. Academics typically just put their work out there and hope for the best.
In the business world, on the other hand, the influence that you desire for an item that you are building needs to be baked into the development of that item from the start. In business, you don’t just create and hope for the best. Indeed, you can’t just hope for the best because in that case you’ll be out of business before you know it. Instead, the creation, prototyping, production, distribution, and marketing of the item in question needs to be carefully understood and articulated from the start.
The lesson for Christian apologetics can therefore be restated thus: for apologetics to be an effective instrument for cultural engagement, there needs to be a feedback loop between the apologetic work being created and its intended influence. Precisely because our cultural environment is hostile to Christian orthodoxy in general and Christian apologetics in particular, we cannot do business as usual and simply put our apologetic work out there without a clear actionable plan for making it influential. It’s not enough that we create the apologetic work and then figure out how to make it influential. We must instead adapt the apologetic work from its very creation so that it will be influential.
Suppose I’m writing an online article that I want to see rank highly with the search engines (ideally, so that it is listed in the first place on the first SERP, or search engine results page). I better do a competitor analysis and have a good sense of what keywords people are searching relevant to the article, and I better adapt the article so that the search engines find it and rank it highly. If the search engines don’t find it and don’t rank it highly, I may just as well not have written it.
This mutual adaptation of content and influence holds just as much in apologetics as in business. Apologetic work needs to be developed in ways that will give it the best chance to achieve maximal influence. That can mean collaborating with someone at an elite institution to improve the work’s ethos and therefore its influence. That can mean incorporating an infographic or video that will stir people’s imagination and thereby increase its influence. That can mean getting the work featured in prime cultural real estate such as The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal to increase its authority and influence.
Once we recognize the importance of developing apologetic content in tandem with an actionable plan for making it influential, we need to ask ourselves where we should be focusing our energies as Christian apologists. Certain apologetic efforts are likely to be much less effective and much less scalable than others. Certain topics have been overworked. Certain topics have hit their highwater mark (you can use Google trends to see how a topic’s popularity has waxed and waned over time). Certain topics are just ripe for the picking — that’s where Christian apologists need to focus their energies. Indeed, questions that were burning a generation ago may no longer be burning, and new questions may be burning in their stead, questions to which people desperately need the answers that Christian apologetics can provide.
Habit 2 of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People reads “begin with the end in mind.” What is the end of Christian apologetics? It can’t just be to develop sound arguments that demonstrate the truth of Christianity. If those arguments just sit on a shelf, they are useless. If they just circulate in a ghetto, they merely preach to the choir. The end of Christian apologetics must therefore be to take sound arguments that demonstrate the truth of Christianity and to make them influential in the cultural environment, moving the cultural environment closer to the kingdom of God, thereby constituting at least a partial answer to the prayer “thy kingdom come.”
Bottom line: By baking influence into Christian apologetics not as an afterthought but as an essential feature of the apologetic enterprise, we make apologetics an effective instrument for cultural engagement.