In an episode of the second season of the Netflix series Stranger Things, the four junior-high heroes of the hit series dress up as characters from Ghostbusters for Halloween. In their ghost-fighting jumpsuits with blasting packs on their back, they quickly realize they have, quite embarrassingly, failed to pick up on the unwritten rules of the middle school coming-of-age process. No one wears costumes to school anymore!
As the four friends become aware of their social blunder and the stares and snickers of their peers, one of the boys vents: “When do people make these decisions? Everyone dressed up last year. . . . It’s a conspiracy, I tell you!” His distress is palpable and, for some of us, relatable—consider this a parable for what it feels like to describe yourself as an apologist in today’s academic and theological guilds.
Have We Outgrown Apologetics?
In much of scholarship these days, apologetics is shunned as juvenile. Author and social critic Os Guinness describes mentioning apologetics to his tutor at Oxford, whom he described as an extraordinarily genial scholar. The man “noticeably stiffened. ‘Excuse my candor,’ he said, ‘but I would never use that word again if I were you. Apologetics is a dirty word in Oxford.’ ” In cases like this, it is often the perception of bias and the attempt to convert that is embarrassing.
For others in more confessional circles, apologetics can signal a childish attempt to play by the rules of secularism rather than boldly proclaiming the gospel—the power of God to save. Tacitly—and sometimes more directly—the lesson is clear: It is time to grow up.
“I am not sure that apologetics has not been the curse of evangelicalism for the last twenty to thirty years,” British minister, physician, and author Martyn Lloyd-Jones once lamented. And Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper claimed, “In this struggle [against Modernism] Apologetics have advanced us not one single step.”
While this embarrassment is certainly not universal among Christian theologians and scholars, it is common. And since most pastors are trained by academics—exemplars whose attitudes and tastes are absorbed by their students—a certain uneasiness toward apologetics has often been inherited by some of our most gifted pastors and church leaders. Who wants to be ostracized by their peers or, even worse, embarrassed by their theological heroes?
Yet what if coming of age means shedding the need to always have to fit in? What if we need leaders who—while aware of the possible stares and snickers—embrace the role of an apologist and come together to envision and practice a way forward in giving wise answers and making persuasive appeals (Col. 4:6; 1 Peter 3:15)?
As I get older, I’ve realized one thing doesn’t change much: All of us, whether middle-schoolers, pastors, or scholars, care what our peers think of us. And, of course, this is not always a bad thing. But perhaps we should care a little less. Then again, convincing others to re-embrace apologetics is more complicated than just citing a few Scripture passages and telling everyone to get on board or cease to be faithful. We should be embarrassed by what “apologetics” has sometimes come to look like.
Part of growing up means admitting our immaturities. Apologetics has too often been practiced in a way that ignores complexity in favor of easy answers, functionally assumes an outdated epistemology, or turns even the smallest disagreements into hostile conflicts. If our memories of poorly executed apologetics constitute the entire essence of our apologia, it makes sense to think we should come of age and walk away. But none of these adolescent gaffes need to characterize apologetics. Besides, even if Christians would like to give up on apologetics, we have a fundamental problem: We can’t. Not really. Not in a secular age. An age, as Charles Taylor explains, in which religious belief is “understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.”
In our present situation—where faith is no longer the default position—the church is going to be compelled to practice apologetics, even if we call it something else. The question shouldn’t be if we will do apologetics (or whatever you want to call it); the question is if we will do it with the wisdom brought by maturity. There are different ways to grow old. But not all the paths lead to maturity.
Moving beyond youthful naivety and brashness is one thing. But confronting the parts of us made jaded and cynical by the complexities we experience as we age is something else entirely. Aging well means returning to the hopefulness and vigor of our youth with a prudent realism that is learned through walking with God for many seasons. Apologetic maturity for the church will mean looking back as we step into the future.
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Source: Christianity Today