An Outrageous Suggestion

I feel like I’ve been staring at a bit of an online train-wreck for the past few days.  It started with faint, digital whispers, “Have you heard that Starbucks has joined the war against Christmas? They’re getting rid of the Christmasy content from their coffee cups?” (Full disclosure: I couldn’t have previously named any feature of a Starbucks coffee cup other than the brown cardboard sleeve that’s supposed to keep me from scalding my fingers and the white lid that makes it impossible to get at the whipped cream).

My curiosity was piqued.  “What’s going on?” I wondered?  “Was it a true  war on Christmas?  Were people being forced to say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas?  Had someone outlawed a nativity scene in a public place?  Did someone do something to Santa? (err.. wait, forget that last one).  Judging by the pictures being slung around the internet, it seemed like it was just a red cup that people were arguing about.  Was I missing something?

Then I made the fatal error of scrolling through my social media feeds to get to the bottom of it.  It seemed like a lot of people were talking about it.  There were people mad at Christians for being so petty.  There were Christians lecturing other Christians for giving us all a bad name.  There were well-intentioned lists of real problems that ought to matter to us more than Starbucks cups.  Hashtags were spawned, memes were created, celebrities weighed in, and political talking heads breathlessly opined as urgent text scrolled beneath them.   Eventually it became enough of a cultural event that Stephen Colbert had to take time to mock it!

Everyone seemed so earnest, so outraged.  Every share, post, like, and retweet seemed to have a gravity to it.  Each one seemed motivated by an exasperated impatience that seemed to say: Come on people, what is wrong with you??

Except… it turns out that this isn’t really a “thing.”  I mean, it doesn’t seem like it’s an actual feature of people’s experiences in a way that would impact actual relationships.  As it happens, there are very few, you know, people who think that Starbucks is anti-Jesus or hates Christmas or whatever.  And I suspect that many of the sharers, likers, posters, and retweeters would be hard-pressed to name a single individual (I mean flesh and blood, not an online avatar) who was actually bothered about what Starbucks put on their coffee cups.

This ought to make us sit up and take notice.  We ought to ponder the fact that we live in a culture where it is (apparently) normal to say “I can’t believe Christians can get worked up about what’s on a coffee cup” when they haven’t encountered this in their actual lives (and it kind of seems like no one has, anywhere).  We ought to be at least a bit curious about how we can expend so many words talking about an issue that basically doesn’t exist.

This seems to be one of those places where the line between what is real and what is fake is a bit blurry.  Because this “conversation” seems to be nothing more than a product of our online echo-chambers.  It seems to be another example of “conspicuous outrage” where we share the stuff that we think will reflect well on us, whether or not we have any actual context for being upset (other than that we saw it online and it provoked a reaction).

But shouldn’t we be a little bit worried about how fast this Starbucks thing made it to the evening news?  Shouldn’t we be slightly concerned by the speed at which it was decided that this was worthy of our collective attention?  Should we be kind of unsettled by how the fact that something is “trending” gives it an instant gravity that is wildly out of proportion to its actual impact on the ground.   The fact that something is “trending” could, after all, be a reflection of what bored people find interesting enough to click on during the commercial breaks.

Because the really scary thing is that once these online feeding frenzies begin, they actually do create a new reality – the thing that wasn’t a real thing actually becomes a thing (the video that “started” it all apparently has 16 million views – a number I am sure it would never have even approached without the help of the outrage machine social media).  They actually do shape our opinions about people and frame future interactions.  They do inform our conversations and purchasing habits (I’m guessing Starbucks execs are thankful for this Christmas miracle).  In a creepy, disturbing way, we are actually formed by these “conversations” and this ought to make us take care with how we consume and “share” information in this brave new world.

So my outrageous suggestion is basically this: take time, periodically, to calibrate your online filter.  All of us are conduits now; only we can decide what gets through the pipeline and what gets ignored.  So take care out there.

And please share this post.


A Word into the Void

Yesterday was an ordinary day.  I was getting into the rhythm of studies again, trying to re-train my stubborn brain how to research and write, trying understand semi-coherent notes from the past few years, trying to remember the arguments of three-year old chapters and – critically – trying to avoid unhealthy quantities of coffee after lunch.

I was re-reading James Loder’s challenging book The Transforming Moment and gradually re-discovering why I think it’s so important.  He argues that one of the defining features of human identity is something he calls the void.  By this he means that all of us live with a dark and terrifying cloud on the horizon, namely, the threat that everything that we love might come to nothing.  All of human development, he suggests, is a negotiation with the void.  It’s an attempt to either repress our knowledge of it or to make enough sense of it to carry on.

The void… has many faces, such as absence, loss, shame, guilt,  hatred, loneliness and the demonic.  The void is more vast than death, but death is the definitive metaphor; ‘nothing’ in itself is ultimately unthinkable, but death, shrouding all our lived ‘worlds,’ gives us our clearest picture of nothing.

This is not exactly sunny reading.  Most of us don’t spend our time pondering the void and even if we did, we wouldn’t call it by this strange name.  But it’s always lurking, threatening to steal what matters most.   It’s not only the inevitability of death but all of the “losses” that Loder describes.  Some of them are large and some are comparatively small.  Some of them are our contributions to the void.  Others come our way from the hands of others.  Still others we experience as observers, members of a broken world with its constantly-accumulating pain and guilt and sorrow.

And as I was pondering how this concept related to my thesis, a horrifying picture of the void intruded.  It was the image of a two year-old boy – Aylan Kurdi – washed up on a Turkish beach.  Aylan was the smallest and most vulnerable member of a family that had already endured much fleeing the devastation of the Syrian civil war.  They hoped for what I casually take for granted – safety, stability, opportunity, home, peace.  That hope, like the bodies of too many nameless people, was washed away.

This is the kind of image that threatens everything.  It’s the kind of image that unsettles all of our notions of stability, goodness, justice, peace and God.  We see in this broken, forgotten and lifeless little body a loss too great for words.  Even if we only know his name as spectators, Aylan invokes the void.

Aylan’s father Abdullah’s words ought to shake us all,

Everything I was dreaming of is gone. I want to bury my children and sit beside them until I die.

We scroll through the void from a safe, digital distance.  We encounter this catastrophe as one more headline meandering across the bottom of the screen that mediates our world.  Abdullah Kurdi – God have mercy – sees it.  He sees the nothingness that terrorizes us, that tells us that all of our “somethings” will be taken from us and we will be left alone in the void.

In the face of such tragedy and loss, we long for hope, real hope.  Even if we feel like hopeful words are an irreverent intrusion into such a monstrous pain – we have to speak.  Because silence feels something like complicity.

Christians offer the word Jesus.  We point to Jesus, misunderstood by his people; Jesus, a threat to the powerful; Jesus, seeing death on the horizon; Jesus, begging for a way out; Jesus, betrayed by those closest to him; Jesus, silent before his accusers; Jesus, carrying the cross; Jesus, mocked by his killers; Jesus, gasping for air; Jesus, scanning the heavens; Jesus, hearing nothing; Jesus, giving up his spirit – and Jesus, entering the void – alone.

And, beautifully, shockingly, triumphantly – Jesus, raised to life.

Loder puts it beautifully and hopefully.

Christian conviction claims that Jesus has plunged into the abyss and filled it with his nature.  His Spiritual Presence has transformed the void.  Therefore we do not have to be afraid of plunging in ourselves; we will be greeted, not by empty silence but by relief, joy and the recognition that he is there.

I can’t claim that I always feel this hope, at least not with an unwavering strength.  But today I imagine Aylan and Jesus together.  I imagine a joyful meeting, but not only that.  I imagine something like a healing.

church, identity

Thoughts on a Hyphen #MB

I spent some time this past Sunday morning in a local Mennonite Brethren church as part of a panel discussion around our Confession of Faith (see here).  The questions were, to put it mildly, challenging.  How do we talk about sin?  Which parts of the Confession do you have trouble with? What are the costs and benefits of committing oneself to a church?

But one of the most intriguing questions on the list was this: In one word, can you summarize what it means to be “Mennonite Brethren?”

One word?  I don’t know if I can explain anything in one word, much less something as complex as a denominational identity.  But, as they say, if you can’t explain something briefly, you probably don’t know what you’re talking about.  This is especially important on a topic where two assumptions can safely be made :

  1. Denominational loyalty (and identity) is on the wane;
  2. Any title with the word “brethren” will struggle to fire the imagination.

So I’ve puzzled over this one a fair bit over the past few weeks.  This is a tribe I’ve belonged to for my entire life.   I grew up in an MB church, went to an MB camp, an MB Bible college, an MB seminary.  To say that I am a product of MB institutions would be an understatement – I’m a walking MB cliché.  Surely I should be able to explain what makes us us.

But as is the case with families, being immersed in one doesn’t always make for a clear understanding of how weird it is.  “Family” might describe the sense of belonging I have felt within the church but it doesn’t describe the uniqueness very well.  The church is a voluntary association – we choose to be a part of one (or, in my case, to stay within one).   So to use the word “family” just begs the question of what it is that holds the family together.

All that to say, I don’t think you can define MB (or any denomination) without talking about theology (and history, but that’s probably better left for another time).  Any church is defined by its convictions – it wouldn’t be a church without them.   With that in mind, the term I tried to unpack for my part of the panel discussion was evangelical-Anabaptist.

I realize that these two terms might not initially help that much because they both require further explanation and are themselves somewhat contested.  But together they point toward the convictions we (officially) share as a family (I make no claim to novelty here, this term has a long history of conversation within the denomination and is prominently cited in our official self-descriptions). As one who has grown up in the MB world, I have felt myself pulled by these two theological “magnets.”

Evangelical, of course, is a risky term to use because plenty of people don’t think too highly of evangelicals (sometimes for good reason).  But more charitably, this term refers to things like a high view of the Bible and the necessity of a personal response to the gospel. It insists that God has addressed the individual in a way that is “personal” (though I would want to define that word carefully).  My debt to evangelicalism is deep because it taught me that God was redemptively oriented toward me and that this demanded a response.  

Anabaptist is a term that emphasizes how the gospel includes the things that Jesus taught – things like care for the poor, and reconciliation between people (including enemies).  It insists that the peace that God has made through Jesus is meant to be extended here on earth (and not just to be exulted in privately until we die).  It points out that the church is a witness to this peace and not just an aggregation of similarly-interested individuals.  My debt to Anabaptism is deep because it helped me to see that God was redemptively oriented toward the world through the church (and that I was only a small part of that story).    

The hyphen creates a space between these words.  More than that, I believe that each of these words needs the other to avoid persistent problems or errors. This is not, of course, a defense of the MB denomination, nor is it a suggestion that the themes mentioned above are absent in other Christian traditions.  It is simply a brief insider perspective on the identity of this church body.  Others would undoubtedly want to place the accents in different places and fill in the gaps.

For myself, I can’t answer the question without the hyphen (and an additional 900 words of clarification).  And even this is just to scratch the surface.  But after mulling over how to explain this curious term, and after reflecting on my own journey within this church, I can start by saying that I’m grateful for the hyphen.

culture, family, marriage

The Summer That Love Died?

In our current cultural climate, saying anything about sex and marriage is risky to put it mildly (unless you’re after click bait).   I suspect future generations of historians who read our cultural mail will marvel at our preoccupation with sex but there’s no doubt that these three combustible letters embed all kinds of other important themes – family, community, identity, freedom, belonging, autonomy, authority and, yes, even love.

On that note, I was listening to CBC q the other day as I ran some errands and found myself intrigued by the question of whether we are witnessing the summer when love died.  The catalyst for this grave discussion was the (ahem) “news” that some famous people were splitting up – Ben and Jen, some country singer couple, Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy.  To help us make sense of all of this, enter the q pop culture panel (columnists from the National Post, Flare and Esquire).

The starting point for this conversation was that it’s been a “rough week” for those of us who believe in love.  Not only do we have this string of celebrity breakups to cope with, there is growing anxiety about how our porn-fuelled, app-enabled “hookup culture” is making it more and more difficult to expect any connection between emotional intimacy, relational fidelity and sex.  Maybe love is dead.

The consensus, according to the wisdom of the panel, is that when celebrity relationships fall apart, a piece of our fantasy world crumbles.  A small part of us wants to believe that love can be permanent.  So we invest these hopes in larger-than-life couples who then unwittingly carry the burden of our unrealistic expectations.  According to one mildly paternalistic panelist, we are drawn to the “sweetness” of these “symbols of togetherness” (kind of like the sweetness of seeing a little child sitting plaintively behind a lemonade stand).

But even if we think monogamy is sweet, we know that it doesn’t work for everyone.  So celebrity breakups can be a reassuring pat on the back for us as we navigate our own relational ups and downs.  “I mean, if 50% of planes crashed,” mused one panelist, “we’d ask some questions about the airline industry right?” (We might wonder about the mechanics of airplanes instead of questioning the legitimacy of flight, but I probably shouldn’t overanalyze the metaphor).

I’ve recently come across a book called Divine Sex by New Zealand pastor Jonathan Grant and in it he describes our “modern sexual imaginary” (a riff on Charles Taylor’s famous term).  Grant uses this term to describe the kind of “world” we imagine ourselves living in when it comes to sex and marriage.  How do our cultural “scripts” reinforce a certain vision of what we should be aiming for?  What kind of story do sex and marriage belong within?

Grant’s description of our cultural sexual imaginary was reinforced by the q panel.  The story has a fairly clear, if predictable outline.  It has a protagonist – the autonomous individual, and two key plot-lines – personal authenticity and the pursuit of happiness (broadly understood).  Sex is one of the key ways that free people express themselves (rendering self-denial nonsensical).  Romantic relationships exist for the purpose of happiness and emotional fulfillment (if either dry up, it’s probably time to look for a better “fit”).

We hope that these two plot-lines can converge in one super-relationship that will stand the test of time.  (Witness the multi-billion dollar wedding industry that cashes in spectacularly on the hope of “forever”).  But if that relationship eludes us, we can take solace in the fact that even Homer and Marge couldn’t make it work.

In the end I was struck by two elements of the panel’s commentary: 1) the aspiration for lasting love (we’re still sad when celebs break up); 2) the barely-concealed assertion that this is a childish fantasy.

But I think most of us know intuitively that the real fantasy is that any one relationship can bear the kind of weight that the modern sexual imaginary demands.  We know that there is no one person that can possibly “compete” in the modern sexual marketplace with its devastating emphasis on anonymity and novelty.  We know that one person can’t meet all of our emotional needs and guarantee that we’ll never be lonely.  We know that the “feeling” marketed to us in romantic comedies is an episode in a healthy relationship, it’s not a claim that we’re meant to hold over our spouses in perpetuity, as a form of unspoken emotional blackmail.  We know that we want the impossible and we’re still brought up short when it doesn’t work out.

Grant tries to affirm what some would call a “traditional” story.  Sex belongs within a story in which difference is brought together into a creative and intimate union (that is itself sustained by a network of other relationships).  That intimacy is launched and fuelled by the promise of faithfulness.  Marriages produce happiness but only as a by-product of the prior commitment to the well-being of the other.  In other words, we find ourselves as we give ourselves away (which is much easier to say than to do, as approximately 100% of married couples would attest).  Love changes, grows, suffers, forgives, deepens, and hopes over time and all of this is nourished by the security of a dependable commitment.

This story, of course, strikes many as a hopelessly outdated relic from the past.  And there’s no doubting that our norms when it comes to sex and marriage are fluid, adapting quickly to new cultural realities and pressures.  But it would take a brave person to look at the contemporary sexual/relational/marital landscape and call it an unqualified success story.  Maybe we are witnessing the death of love.  Maybe we just need a better story.

apologetics, culture, secularism

Arian Foster and the Anatomy of a Confession

Houston Texans running back Arian Foster has been making headlines over the weekend, and the NFL preseason hasn’t even started yet.  The reason?  Foster has “come out” as an atheist.  This is a big deal (apparently) in NFL culture; it’s so noteworthy that ESPN ran a feature article to unpack it.  It makes for really interesting reading.

Admittedly, my first reaction to the headline was something along the lines of, “Only in America could this make the news” but the more I read, the more I was fascinated not only by Foster’s story but by the way it was told (and what that says about our cultural moment).

What seems beyond question is that it’s a big deal.  Foster is a legitimate superstar who plays in the heart of the American Bible Belt.  He’s a role model for countless young children and a hero for their fantasty-football-playing parents.  “This is unprecedented,” gushes Todd Stiefel, chair of Openly Secular , “[Foster] is the first active professional athlete, let alone star, to ever stand up in support of gaining respect for secular Americans.”

Really?  Foster is the first active professional athlete to take a stand for secularism?  I’m obviously not an insider when it comes to the world of professional sports but I’m a pretty avid fan.  And in my uneducated and entirely second-hand opinion, it seems like pro sports would not necessarily be a religion-drenched enterprise where it would be a massive risk to say “I don’t believe in God.”

It could be that American football culture is just too strange for a hockey and soccer loving Canadian boy to understand.  And I have certainly been brought up short by the overt references to God giving this or that team the win that characterize a lot of post-game NFL interviews.  Likewise, I’ve been struck by the common-place post-game meetings where both sets of players congregate in the endzone for prayer.  If I try to imagine something like that happening at centre ice after an NHL game it stretches the limits of my imagination.

What’s more interesting to me is the way Foster’s story is told, specifically the way it invokes the language of confession.  The tone of the article follows the familiar narrative of “coming out.”  There is something unusual or shameful that used to be concealed, but now someone has mustered the courage to stand in the light, without fear.  As author Tim Keown puts it,

The language of the unburdening, of the coming-out, is telling. The politicization of religion, and the religionization of politics, has created a feeling of marginalization among those who don’t believe.

This, to me, offers a very unique window into this cultural conversation.  It seems that we no longer feel able to talk about substance when it comes to matters of faith.  Very few of us want to debate the relative merits of arguments for God’s existence.  We don’t want to compare the foundations for morality that are offered by various religious or nonreligious perspectives.  We don’t want to open up the Bible or the Qur’an or The God Delusion or whatever else we take as authoritative and talk about what’s in there.  And we’re very reluctant to to name with any kind of precision what we actually believe, preferring to give each other the freedom of “whatever we’re into” as a way to avoid awkward silences and maintain healthy relationships.

And when you read the ESPN piece, you realize quickly that there’s nothing really new  that’s animating Foster’s unbelief.  That’s not to suggest that Foster is anything but sincere in his convictions.  He gives every indication of being a serious and intelligent person who craves thoughtful conversation about significant questions.  When I read the article I found myself thinking “I could hang out with this guy” (Arian… if you’re reading this, I’m free on Wednesday!).

But the issues themselves cover fairly well-worn territory.  Should we look to science or God in order to explain the stuff that happens in life?  If God is good, why do bad things happen?  Why do prayers seem to go unanswered?  Isn’t religion just a crutch for people who can’t cope with hard-edged reality?  These are heavy questions, certainly, and they make for fascinating (and demanding) conversation. But in and of themselves, they’re not taking things in a dramatically new direction.

So if we don’t want to talk about substance, what’s left to talk about?  Well, we talk about who’s included and who’s excluded.  Christians feel excluded by the aggressive secularism they feel is propagated by Hollywood and the mainstream media.  Atheists feel shut out by the ubiquitous (and oppressive) civic religion that still persists in residually Christian cultures.  Both sides feel marginalized and both feel like they are on the defensive.

And since all of us have been taught since infancy to be true to ourselves, our only available vocabulary to talk about this is the language of inclusion (because what’s inside of us is sacred – it has to be validated).  We are quick to see ourselves as the aggrieved ones, quick to position ourselves as the heroes, quick to envision ourselves swimming courageously upstream against a powerful current of consensus that wants to swallow us up.

On the question of God, Arian Foster and I would disagree.  But I am happy that he feels free to speak thoughtfully, even forcefully, on what are profound and meaningful questions.  I don’t see him as some kind of heroic, rational, resistance fighter but I admire his willingness to plant a flag in the sand and to speak his mind.

But the most encouraging part of the article, for me, was the glimpse of Foster’s friendship with Baltimore Ravens running back Justin Forsett, who happens to be an evangelical Christian.  The two share a friendship that seems to include some fairly vigorous inter-religious dialogue.  Forsett knows that he can’t get away with sloppy or lazy thinking; Foster knows that Forsett won’t be shy about his convictions and will continue to pray for him.  And somehow this hasn’t been a deal-breaker in terms of their friendship.

According to Foster,

[Forsett] was like, ‘This is what I believe is the right way, and I’ll pray for you.’ I never feel arrogance or judgment. He never acted like he had something I don’t have. He said, ‘I would love for you to experience this,’ which is more divine than anything I’ve ever come across.”

This seems like a healthy alternative to a cultural default setting that says, “believe whatever you want, just don’t take it too seriously and make sure everyone’s views get equal air-time.”  I don’t relish a future where the terms “Christian” or “atheist” become nothing more than identity badges that we wear in order to gauge the quality of our inclusion.  I’m still hopeful that we can talk to one another and even, after a while, raise the questions that get to the heart of who we are and what (or who) it’s all about.


On Self-Feeding

I’ve been mulling over this piece from Jared Wilson at the Gospel Coalition for the past week or so.  The title grabbed me when I first saw it, probably because “self-feeding” is something that I have advocated over the years and the tone in the article is generally critical.  Somewhat in line with my previous post, it has always seemed obvious to me that in a contested public space, Christians are going to need to be able to think for themselves.  But maybe self-feeding isn’t such a noble goal…

I think most of my students would have heard a some version of the following message from me over the years: “You’re entering adulthood, you’re entering a world where your convictions aren’t always going to be shared by those around you, here are some of the critical choices you’re going to need to make, here are some of the key points at which people disagree, here’s what I think, but ultimately you’re going to need to embrace the responsibility, under God, that you’ve been given you for your own life.

Wilson’s point, in a nutshell, is that “self-feeding” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  Jesus didn’t tell Peter to train the sheep to self-feed, he told Peter to feed them.  The key point, for Wilson, is that “self-feeding” embeds a narrative of optimism – if we just structure the right program, we’ll get the right results.  What this overlooks, he says, is that our basic problem isn’t our skill-set, it’s the state of our hearts.

What any Christian enterprise ought to assume is that, beneath all our confusion and ignorance, what people really lack is a heart for God and neighbor. Underneath our felt needs is an entire industry of idols emerging from a foundation of sin and longing for glory.

This, for Wilson, leads to a distinction between teaching and feeding.  “Teaching” seems to be something that you do for people who just need some tips or programming in order to improve their lives.  “Feeding” is what addresses what they really need – which is a change of heart.

I don’t believe the right response to “our goods and services aren’t having their desired effect” is to work on creating more independent Christians, trusting them to get it right somehow all by themselves. Whatever our programs, our churches’ leaders need to take seriously the command of Christ—in as many ways as possible—to feed his sheep.

I can affirm some of the basics of Wilson’s point here.  We are undoubtedly sinful and fall into all kinds of misguided optimism about ourselves.  We are prone to the demonstrably false notion that “if people just knew better, they wouldn’t behave so badly.”  History and personal experience, it seems to me, are both pretty plain teachers on this point.

And yet, it seems to me that Wilson’s thesis embeds a kind of subtle authoritarianism.  The message seems to be: “don’t tell your sheep to feed themselves, feed them.”   Clearly there are leaders and followers in all spheres of life, and sometimes people just need to be led rather than facilitated into some kind of (Lord help us) “self-directed process.” But presumably the feeders are as human as the sheep, right?  And leadership, especially religious leadership, seems to embed unique temptations toward idolatry so it might just be worthwhile for the sheep to have some discernment skills.

I also wonder whether this view might set the bar too low in terms of what the average Christian can manage?  Being “fed” is certainly part of the journey but, if that’s all we aspire to, we could become a fairly compliant, passive bunch that just looks to our “feeders” whenever we’re confronted with a challenge.

I don’t want to overstate this point.  I have encountered people who are eager to learn, who want to engage big questions and who relish the task of discernment and who wouldn’t be content to be “fed” their whole lives.  I have also encountered people who don’t want to enter that world of complexity, who aren’t wired to wonder in the same way, who shine in the practical, daily tasks of life and who just want to have the confidence that those who lead them are worth trusting.

I think at one point I might have been slightly frustrated with the second group but that frustration has faded over time.  The world is a busy and frantic place with lots of things competing for our time, money and attention.  I don’t begrudge the person who says, “I just can’t engage everything, I need someone to tell me.”  (We all do this all the time anyways – I cringe to think of a world where we needed to “self-feed” in every domain of life, especially auto-mechanics).

The challenge is to create a church culture where both groups of people can find their way.  There has to be enough space for the wonderers to develop their capacity.  There has to be a focus on developing the “muscles” that are necessary to navigate the joys and trials of life.  And there has to be enough security for the times when we simply need to trust and follow.  Some need to be taught to self-feed, others need to know the trustworthiness of those who feed them.  And we will likely find ourselves in both categories at various points in our lives.

I think Wilson’s words are worth listening to and worth pushing against.  We live in a time that glorifies the autonomous individual, a time where the image of “sheep” does not fire our imaginations.  It is a radical thing to say “I’m not as smart or as good as I think I am.”  It’s a radical thing to admit that I need a Shepherd.  But the Bible also tells a story in which humans bear the image and likeness of God, are created “just a little lower than the angels” and are called to rule and care for creation.

So, in the end, we are less than we think we are and we are far more than we can imagine.  The challenge, at least for now, is to live as if both were true.

apologetics, culture, discipleship

Is Apologetics a Waste of Time?

One of the most enjoyable courses I taught over my time at Bethany was an introduction to Christian apologetics.  This involved a basic overview of some persistent objections to the Christian faith and discussion around what could be offered in response.  It was always a privilege to get into these conversations – partially because many students were considering the issues for the first time and partially because there is something invigorating about opening up big questions with big implications.

I think I’ve always been wired to think along “apologetic” kinds of pathways.  It’s not because I consider myself to be overly combative (I actually have a fairly pronounced discomfort with conflict – except when it comes to trivial things like sports 🙂 ).  But I’ve always been fairly curious and had an interest in how some of the things churchy people talk about sound to others.  Who knows, maybe this is enough to make me an apologist.

Given all of that, I was interested in a few things that have popped up over the past week or so that raised the question of whether apologetics has a future.  Three pieces in particular caught my attention:

  1. Os Guinness  suggesting that we are entering the “grand age of apologetics” because our post-Christian context has opened a “magnificent moment of clarification.”
  2. David Fitch arguing that apologetics hurts our witness because it trains us to formulate answers without actually listening to people (though he does say that it may have value for building up one’s own faith).
  3. Peter Enns arguing that apologetics wrongly teaches us that the intellect is our primary means  by which we formulate our convictions. (for further reading along similar lines, see Myron Penner’s The End of Apologetics).

So what to make of all this?  Is apologetics entering a golden age or a pursuit best discarded?  A few quick thoughts:

Guinness seems on to something important about the place of apologetics in a “contested space” like post-Christian North America.  I don’t think this requires subscribing to a culture war narrative that sees enemies around every corner, though it wouldn’t be hard to find examples of Christians who take this approach.  I think it’s possible, in a non-paranoid way, to say “we’re not living in a place where everyone’s a Christian anymore so maybe that means we should all clarify what we’re talking about from time to time.”

Fitch is right to critique many apologetic approaches for being tone-deaf to any topics that don’t align with pre-selected “answers.”  Most of us have been in unpleasant conversations with people who are much more interested in talking about themselves than listening to anything we might have to say.  And there are, no doubt, plenty of “warrior-apologists” who are righteously convinced that their answers are just the tonic for whatever’s ailing us (and willing to force-feed if necessary).  But this is certainly not the only approach.

Fitch is also right to caution us to be slow to speak and quick to listen to the different questions that arise in different contexts.  But I also think there some fairly persistent questions that tend to pop up, particularly in media-saturated contexts where many of us end up reacting to the same things at the same time. In addition his suggestion that apologetics turns us into “defended Christians unable to listen and open up space for witness” seems a bit overcooked to me.  Christianity makes claims about reality and history and it seems reasonable to expect that being able to articulate some of those claims will be an ongoing need.

Enns puts his finger on something important by raising the question of how our convictions are actually formed.  Does our heart take dictation from our minds?  Does accepting that something is “reasonable” mean that we will embrace it?  All of us can probably think of a bunch of things that we “accept” that don’t actually change much about our lives (on this, I have found the work of James K.A. Smith particularly helpful, particularly his 2011 Desiring the Kingdom).  Enns is also right to point out that our actions are a far better indicator of what we believe than our “arguments.”

I would have a few lingering questions about what this means for the relationship between our intellect and our convictions.  Yes, we are far more than our ideas.  Yes, there is more to conviction than rational persuasion.  But there is still an important relationship between what we think and what we believe and how we live.  Enns is right to wonder if there is more to the story than traditional apologetics offers.  But I wonder if he gives away too much and sidelines a fairly important element of Christian witness.

What is underemphasized in each of these reflections is the extent to which apologetics is a practice that exists for the benefit of the church (even more so in a post-Christian context).  Each tends to assume that there is this stable group of Christians with well-understood and agreed upon convictions that is strategizing over how to best engage with some other group of people.

But in my experience, apologetics has a value for us because we wonder about the same things as everyone else if we’re honest and if we’re given the opportunity to talk about it.  We shouldn’t engage with questions for the sake of “arming ourselves,” we should engage them because we’re alive (and, I would argue, part of the task of apologetics is to teach us how to ask questions properly).  We can’t assume that we’re all uniformly convinced inside the fold and the main task is how we package our certainty for outsiders.  If that’s what apologetics is about then we’re basically talking about marketing and risking nothing in the process.

So does apologetics have a future?  I certainly hope so.  I think it is very possible to be committed to listening, to be aware of the complexity of how beliefs are formed and to recognize that we cannot speak and act as if the term “Christian” was stable and well-understood.  I think it’s possible to be aware of how our identity and security is tied to our convictions without becoming aggressive and defensive.  I think it’s possible to do all of this with gentleness and respect.

We owe this to our neighbours.  We owe this to our children and youth.  We owe this to ourselves.