Popologetics and Christians Needing Not To Embarrass Ourselves

popologetics

This book was wayyyyy better than I expected. For at least three reasons, I wasn’t expecting too much insightful substance. For one, I hadn’t heard of the author before I bought the book (which isn’t unheard of for me by any means, but it doesn’t happen as often anymore). Two: The book had a cool looking cover – therefore warning bells instinctively began ringing in my ears. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to be an unwritten rule in the field of Christian theology: The prettier the cover, the more useless and superficial the information. Three, and to make things even worse, it had a coolish sounding title: “Popologetics”. Really, I thought? They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but really, what do they know? Even though a respected professor recommended I read it, I saw the cover and figured I had better things to read.

So, I purposefully stalled. I bought this book three years ago but hadn’t picked it up until now because I figured I should get to the weightier ones first. By that I mean, the other books on the “to read” list which didn’t have trendy titles or cool looking covers (thank God!), and were written by authors who I already knew were respected. As far as I can tell, I don’t have time for riffraff these days. But what a pleasant surprise! This book functions as a Christian primer for popular cultural exegesis – and while I’ve read quite a few on similar topics, I’ve never encountered another work better suited for this task than this one. At over 300 pages the attention to nuance and detail is crucial and extraordinary. This topic is what the author Ted Turnau does for a living, and it shows.

Turnau’s section on pages 7-18 titled, “Seeing the Tree for the Forest: What is a Worldview?” is the most helpful definition and explanation of “worldview” I have ever encountered. “Worldview” is a favorite topic for evangelicals and has been written about ad neauseum with only recent balances to the pendulum from people such as James KA Smith and others. I was both surprised and delighted to find such fresh delineations and insight on “worldview” so late in the game. In these pages Turneau shows the multiple layers within a worldview: including our presuppositions, the world-story, life-philosophy, applied beliefs, and of course, lived behaviors. Then in the next chapter he shows how popular culture influences that same complex, always in-process “worldview.” Again, just really well done. Turnau is a thoughtful writer. He is easy to read, and his examples are constantly engaging and illuminating.

My favorite chapter of the book was Chapter 10, where Turnau puts forward his recommendations for how Christians can and should engage popular culture Christianly. And more importantly, how to cultivate in his words, a “Christian-critical imagination” (214). This chapter should be required reading for every youth pastor on the planet. Part of the reason it’s so good is because he offers good questions to ask of popular culture pieces, including (from page 215):

  1. What’s the story?
  2. Where am I (the world of the text)?
  3. What’s good and true and beautiful about it?
  4. What’s false and ugly and perverse about it (and how do I subvert that)?
  5. How does the Gospel apply here?

Additional questions we can ask of popular culture pieces as we seek to exegete them Christianly would be (From pages 229-230):

  1. What counts as “good” in this world? What counts as “evil”? Is evil real, or only apparent?
  2. What is beautiful in this world?
  3. What makes relationships work or fail here?
  4. Where is God? Or is this even an important question? What is worshipped in this world?
  5. What makes life worth living in this world?

Turnau’s review in Chapter 10 of what it means to thoroughly ask these questions of a popular culture work proves his expertise and passion. What a helpful model for what it can look like for Christians to engage with the world as salt and light. Of course, all this work is a lot of work. But Turnau would remind us that we are already doing the work of watching the shows and seeing the art. Why not do it in a consciously Christian way? And what is the alternative? When we Christians engage culture in unchristian ways, we do a disservice to the name of Christ (see Turnau’s part two, Chapters 5-9). Speaking of disservice…

I was recently reminded of why it’s so important for Christians to learn how to engage popular culture well. And thus why a book like Turnau’s is so valuable. Because when we Christians don’t engage culture Christianly, it’s embarrassing! Case in point. On August 8th, Kevin DeYoung posted a short article on thegospelcoalition.org titled, “I Don’t Understand Christians Watching Game of Thrones.” Unfortunately, it is an example of the opposite of engaging popular culture in a Christianly way.

While the title is just barely combative and dramatic (and thus cool?) enough to solicit a lot of reads (woohoo!), it got worse when DeYoung admits, ” True, I haven’t seen it. Not an episode. Not a scene. I hardly know anything about the show.” That fact alone should be a big hint to the author of the article. If you haven’t watched show X, you may not want to write an article about show X. (To be fair, this point is addressed in DeYoung’s follow-up article. Unfortunately, DeYoung doesn’t really give any real answer to it).

As well, dude just became the new Senior Pastor of a large church. Like, it just happened. How does DeYoung have time to write condemningly about a show he hasn’t seen to a bunch of people he doesn’t know? And why would he make time for that even if he DID have time for it? Part of me just wants to say, “brother, you are a Pastor, try focusing on just doing that! Is that work not important enough?” Granted, Kevin DeYoung is concerned about all the sex in the show, which, to be fair, IS concerning, from a Christian point of view. But to outright condemn Game of Thrones because of apparent sex scenes is to show an outright lack of expertise in dealing with popular culture in a particularly Christian mode. It is simplistic. judgmental. unhelpful. and just rude. At the least, it is to only ask one question out of the 10 that Turnau would recommend we ask. What would the article have looked like if DeYoung actually watched the show, and took the time it takes to thoroughly exegete it from a Christian perspective, such as how Turnau would recommend? Perhaps there would have been many less “bazillion blogs and Facebook comments later” – which I’m still assuming would be a good thing, right? Or, am I wrong?

Now, I understand what-with-all the American Christian celebrity culture and what-not, that once you write a few books it is a normalized phenomenon for big masses of people to then expect that same author to then (pretend!) to be the authority on everything. But legit Christians should know NOT to buy in to that madness – as tempting as it is. So, for Kevin, who IS a legit dude, to take time to write an article about his exasperation about other people watching a show he’s never seen? Why, but for madness sake?

Here is where I wish a Kevin DeYoung would read a book like one I’ve just read and take it to heart. Because in the book, there is a straightforward format that lays out a much more robust and faithful exegetical formula – and thus if practiced would most often lead to a much more helpful sort of response. While I realize we don’t always have to go through every 10 steps or ask every question Turnau would ask before we can assume we are “properly” speaking Christianly of a cultural piece, I do think people notice when we do. Keller, of course, is a prime example of someone who takes both Biblical and cultural exegesis seriously. And people notice.

I’ve wondered this about other great preachers in the past, and I also wonder it about DeYoung. How can a guy be so thorough in preaching Scripture from the pulpit, and so nonchalant in preaching cultural analysis from the pew? You would wish the level of carefulness in one arena would trickle down to the other. More than that, I wish we Christians weren’t so prone to embarrassing ourselves.

But, praise God, Turnau’s book can help us eliminate some of that embarrassing cultural technique and instead, engage with the world and popular culture in respectful and loving ways. As Turnau says on the last page of his book,  when trying to engage with culture, “Giving in to anger only defeats the purpose of your cultural engagement.”

 

 

 

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The Ethics (and Marketing) of Evangelism

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Somehow the question of the ethics of evangelism has tended to be avoided both within academia as well as within evangelical communities. One the one hand, there are many religious peoples in the world who see evangelism to be a divine command and therefore would never consider NOT doing it. However, many other peoples see religious proselytism as necessarily annoying, unhelpful, unethical, and even potentially evil. This, partially because in the popular mind persuasion (let alone religious persuasion) is often associated with a wide variety of phenomena including brainwashing, mind control, hypnotic suggestion, mass conformity, coercion and propaganda. But is religious evangelism or persuasion always unethical, necessarily?  In this first-of-its-kind full length book, Elmer John Thiessen addresses this question head-on.

Elmer John Thiessen’s book, The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion is the most extensive ethical analysis of evangelism to date. In it, Thiessen clarifies and answers objections, defends the possibility of ethical proselytizing, elaborates criteria to use to distinguish between ethical and unethical forms of proselytizing, and applies these criteria to actual forms of proselytizing. In Chapters 3-5 Thiessen clarifies and answers particular objections to proselytizing such as, among others:

  • A distrust of persuasion tactics in general because it is seen as an invasion of privacy
  • The seeming arrogance of some proselytizers
  • Relativism, pluralism and skepticism calls into question the idea that any one person could really have access to any capital “T” truth and thus proselytism done in the attitude of religious exclusivism is inappropriate.
  • Religious claims are not entirely rational or verifiable and therefore people should not try to persuade one another of the veracity of their own religious beliefs.
  •  Proselytism is in some way a violation of the freedom and integrity of individuals or societies because:
    • Proselytism is sometimes coercive – physically, psychologically, socially, or emotionally.
  • Proselytism is colonialism
  • We should be tolerant of people of other faiths and leave them alone. Therefore, proselytizing is unethical.
  • Proselytizing leads to social disunity, hatred, and bitterness between peoples.
  • Proselytizing is only done when people are insecure and religious adherents engage in proselytizing as a way of dealing with their own doubts and insecurities.
  • Proselytizing peoples desire to gain power or control of others

After answering those above objections, Thiessen then defends religious proselytizing and gives his version of a positive approach in Chapter 6. Chapters 7-8 are written to distinguish between ethical and unethical proselytizing, and chapter 9 is the conclusion. In appendix A, Thiessen summarizes the 15 Criteria (discussed in Chapters 7-8) to distinguish between ethical and unethical proselytizing. They include:

  1. Dignity criterion
  2. Care criterion
  3. Physical coercion criterion
  4. Psychological coercion criterion
  5. Social coercion criterion
  6. Inducement criterion
  7. Rationality criterion
  8. Truthfulness criterion
  9. Humility criterion
  10. Tolerance criterion
  11. Motivation criterion
  12. Identity criterion
  13. Cultural sensitivity criterion
  14. Results criterion 
  15. Golden Rule

The most intriguing part of the book for me was Thiessen’s constant comparisons between religious proselytism and marketing advertising. He uses these comparisons in some contexts to warn religious proselytizers of what unethical proselytism looks like. But in other contexts in the book, Thiessen makes the comparison to show that religious proselytism is indeed defensible.

For example, in discussing the nature of conversion as trying to change someone’s belief, behavior, identity or belonging, Thiessen reminds us that this happens to us all the time in America and we the potential consumers don’t hardly ever fight it. Take for example the area of commercial advertising and marketing. What is oftentimes really being attempted in these advertising contexts is to bring about a conversion in us. He points to the commercial success of Amway, which is short for “the American way.” Amway is all about selling a certain lifestyle. McDonalds is another example of propaganda. The examples could be added ad-infinitum.

Naomi Klein’s study shows how many items are marketed through a “branding” process, which tries to associate a product (through its logo), with a lifestyle or worldview, so that the consumer is buying not only a product, but an identity. Marketing brings about not only a change of behavior (buying a product), but also a change of identity (belonging) and of course also a change of beliefs (this product is better than its competition). Yet, we allow for this all day long, every day of our lives. The average American sees thousands of ads per day. In the words of David Loy,

“The aggressive proselytizing of market capitalism, which has already become the most successful religion of all time, winning more converts more quickly than any previous belief system or value-system in human history.”

If all of this is true, then we must admit that we constantly and readily allow marketers to proselytize us. Why then would we not allow religious adherents to do the same thing? Why is it ethical for marketers to proselytize, but not religious people?

On the other hand, Thiessen urges caution, reminding religious proselytizers to not proselytize in the same way as marketers do. In our pluralistic environments, it is tempting for religious peoples to mimic marketing strategies. Peter Berger says it well,

“The religious tradition, which previously could be authoritatively imposed, now has to be marketed. It must be ‘sold’ to a clientele that is no longer constrained to ‘buy.’ The pluralist situation is, above all, a market situation. In it, the religious institutions become marketing agencies and the religious traditions become consumer commodities.” 

But Thiessen argues that it is this dynamic that often leads to the rightful charge of unethical conduct. While such competition can be friendly, it can also lead to a “war for souls.” This kind of marketing-Christianity is unethical because,

“Put through the meat grinder of market analysis, the gospel becomes a ‘product,’ the unchurched become ‘consumers,’ Christians become ‘salesmen’ and the ‘needs’ of the unchurched become a potential tool of manipulation.” 

Very well said. So while marketing and advertising shows us that proselytizing can and often should be “put up with” in our society, it also shows us how proselytizing can go horribly wrong.

 

 

Apostle(!) vs. Genius :(

E of A

I just finished reading Myron Bradley Penner’s book, The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context. Generally, I’m a fan of Christian apologetics so I knew I would disagree with the author’s main argument right out the gate. However, I’m open to changing my mind, and had heard decent reviews of this book so figured I’d pick it up as a sort of intellectual challenge.

Penner’s argument is that we shouldn’t do Christian apologetics anymore. Or at the very least, we should be doing it very different. He makes a pretty interesting argument on page 59 when quoting Terry Eagleton, Penner points out that,

Christian apologists and the New Atheists are, in fact, mirror images of each other. Faith for either side boils down to a kind of positive scientific knowledge that tends to reduce the substance of faith to an intellectual debate over the reasonableness of a theoretical entity: the proposition ‘God exists.'”

Penner can say this because he believes the overwhelming majority of Christian apologists rely too heavily on the epistemological paradigm of modernity (as do the New Atheists) and thus Christian apologetics is no longer very helpful now that we find ourselves living in a postmodern society. Penner would say in our (modernistic) attempts to justify (and prove!) Christianity to be logical, rational and “true”, we are missing our postmodern audiences. Penner believes we should switch from an epistemological to a hermeneutical strategy. Our Christian witness should be more focused on personal and meaningful appeals vs. debate-style coercions. We should focus more on edification rather than justification. Our witness should be characterized more by the sympathetic, prophetic, and apocalyptic than the logical, scientific, or rational.

While I agree that the majority of apologists probably (and unwittingly) behold themselves too heavily to a modernistic understanding of reality, I think Penner pushes his argument too far. It’s not as if there aren’t still major echoes of modernity in the hearts and minds of current audiences – even educated ones – whether we like it or not and whether that is a good thing, or not. Additionally, Penner makes it seem that we could pick between a hermeneutical stance and an epistemological one, as if one is NOT reliant on the other. Anyways, in the end I still think Christian apologetics is a worthwhile endeavor and so Penner hasn’t convinced me. But he did open my eyes to one of the strongest critiques of apologetics I’ve ever heard – he does this by pointing to Kierkegaard.

Penner argues Christian apologetics does more harm than good because the apologist debater functions something like an expert witness who is uniquely qualified and highly trained – and therefore especially qualified – to articulate and defend Christian truth in a way the rest of us cannot. Penner believes the apologetic industry buys into the “culture of experts” that in the end hurts us more than helps.

Kierkegaard addresses this modern secular condition by drawing a very careful distinction between a genius and an apostle. For Kierkegaard, a genius is something like our concept of an “expert.” A genius is the highest person on the intellectual totem pole, the first in our pecking order of whom to believe. They are the “leaders in the field.” They know more than the rest of their peers (and us), and their claims carry with them the weight of rational deliberation, insight and brilliance. What separates them from us is that they are MORE brilliant, intelligent, and rational than we are, and this supposedly puts them in a better position to ascertain the truth. They are ahead of the curve, so to speak, so these geniuses seek to speak authoritatively about how the rest of us believe.

Kierkegaard then connects the modern emphasis on genius and the modern concept of reason. At the end of the day, the modern appeal to genius (or expertise) as the final authority for belief and practice directly corresponds to the authority accorded human reason (as objective, universal, and neutral) which is of course, a primarily modern concept – separate from both premodern and postmodern viewpoints, respectively.

The apostle on the other hand, appeals not to reason but to revelation as the basis on which claims are warranted. A genius is born, Kierkegaard points out, while an apostle is called. Whereas genius is a quality that distinguishes a person from other humans comparatively – by being MORE rational or brilliant or intelligent – the apostle’s constitutive identity comes only from the call of God.

Subsequently, the apostle’s message is one that no one else can improve upon or add to because it is dependent on God’s action alone. There is nothing extraordinary about apostles prior to their call to apostleship. Apostleship does not depend on any particular human abilities. In this sense, every human being is equally capable of being an apostle, regardless of their circumstance or natural endowments – because their source is God Himself and God’s revelation. The apostle is authoritative NOT because it is demonstrably rational or exceptionally brilliant, but because it has a word from God.

Notice, God’s word in this context does not come to us as the result of human calculation. It is not particularly brilliant but at the same time it cannot be improved upon, nor will it ever become obsolete. Because it’s God’s Word! Additionally, the apostle doesn’t need to play to the crowd en masse, while the genius must. The genius cannot ground its claims in any way that is final or absolute outside of the rational consensus of “the power-craving crowd”. The genius succeeds (or, is legitimized) when it achieves the widest possible number of adherents. All the while the apostle doesn’t need the crowd because the apostle is already speaking a different message anyways – a word from the divine outside.

Penner believes “the privileging of geniuses means apostles lose their voice.” And he also believes the Christian apologetic industry, with its tours, books, dvds, and degrees perpetuates the climate of geniuses and even encourages it. Another way of saying it is that Penner thinks apologetics is a celebrity-driven enterprise – which ends up more as a unique form of Christian idolatry vs an example of Christian salt and light.

Kierkegaard (and Penner along with him) believes Christians should be fighting AGAINST the modernistic phenomenas, not WITH it. Kierkegaard objects to Christian apologetics partially because it is reliant on the entire modern epistemological paradigm which was never Biblical to begin with! Penner despises the fact that “Christian apologetics” attempts to ground faith in genius or secular reasons. He believes modernity and all modern enterprises empty faith of its Christian content and robs it of its true authority. In this way the genius/apostle distinction suggests modern apologetics is ITSELF a symptom of the incipient nihilism at the core of modern thought. It is not the solution, Christian apologetics is the problem.

So, to summarize: We don’t need more geniuses, we need more apostles!

Now there is an argument of weight – I’ll be working on that one for the next little while. Gotta love Kierkegaard’s constant twists of insight.

 

3 “Apologetic” Highlights

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So, I’m involved in a “Thinktank Event” for an apologetics organization, and one aspect of this event is to read and respond to the recent book edited by Sean McDowell titled, A New Kind of Apologist. This book review is a way to get me started… My three favorite chapters in this book were the following:

  • Chapter 6 by Dan Kimball titled, “‘Don’t Blame Us, It’s in the Bible’ – Understanding New Strategies for Shaking Up the Faith of New Generations.” In this chapter Dan talks about the importance of going beyond “good worship bands and even loving churches” and challenges us to listen to how our friends are processing the “troubling” passages of Scripture. Part of this process includes helping readers to read well – and to notice the context of what they are reading. He illustrates this masterfully in his “Mary Poppins” example on page 72. He writes,

“Mary Poppins is a wonderful movie about a caring, magical nanny who helps a dysfunctional family. Mary is kind and loving and everyone loves her. But I saw a fascinating movie clip where someone took short scenes from Mary Poppins and arranged them out of context. A scene of a group of nannies being blown away as Mary looks out sternly through a window at them. A boy being sucked into a closet and the doors shutting a sMary stares at him. A girl being sucked up into a chimney. Children running in fear. The clip ends with the words, “Scary Mary” and then the line, “Hide your children.” Someone who had never seen the whole Mary Poppins might assume it’s a horror film.” 

Similarly, taking bits of the Bible out of context paints an altogether different narrative than the true one of the God of compassion who is slow to anger and abounding in love.” 

2. Chapter 7 by Jeff Myers titled, “Shepherd is a Verb – The Role of Relational Mentoring in Communicating Truth.” Perhaps I’m biased to this chapter as I recently read another book on this topic, or because I’m a Pastor. Nevertheless, I loved this chapter because I felt the tone was perfectly humble. Myers quotes professor Linda Hill from Harvard Business School who said, “A leader is like a shepherd…He stays behind the flock, letting the nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing all along that they are being directed from behind.” Similarly, “shepherding leaders guide and nurture with a light touch that helps their followers conquer timidity and live out their design more fully” (79).

He doesn’t want us leaders to make the Christian life sound easy by teaching a “gospel devoid of a context of social struggle.” He believes, “those I’m influencing have to struggle. They have to watch ME struggle. Growth happens when we walk with one another in our struggles” (80).

As he has thought about influence, leadership and what it takes to facilitate true faith growth, he has a takeaway:

“Academic training piles up kindling; personal life-on-life influence lights the match. Apologetics training is invaluable for this generation, but transformation takes place when that truth is experienced in relationship.” 

3. My **favorite** chapter in the book was by Matthew Anderson – “Why We Should Love Questions More than Answers.” His thesis is fairly simple. I’d summarize it as:

  1. We are all looking for an intellectual home
  2. Questions are the means by which we travel
  3. We should care about the means of travel, not just the intellectual destination.
  4. We shouldn’t just care about other peoples’ questions, we should continually ask questions ourselves. This is in and of itself an effective apologetic.

Essentially: questions are important, and we should love to ask them, and love when people ask them.

After all,

  • “a question reveals more than what a person thinks, though; it also exposes the person’s attitude.” (150)
  • “questions are windows into what people want…the question is an expression of desire” (150)
  • “We must be Christians first and apologists second, which means our intellectual lives must be primarily shaped by seeking to understand the faith we live within rather than debating, disputing or even persuading those who do not believe it” (151)
  • “What we win people with is what we will win them to.” (151)
  • “Somewhat paradoxically, the method of answering the objections and questions from skeptics actually risks undermining their discipleship if they become Christians, as it can convey that having a satisfactory resolution to every question is a necessary criterion to believe. But who among apologists has achieved such a blessed state? The whole joy of Christianity is that it provides answers that keep the questions alive, deepening them and renewing them so that its adherences can go on seeking deeper understandings of the world forever” (152)
  • “Apologists should be more familiar with questions than any other tool in their rhetorical toolbox” because “questions are invitations to conversations. An apologist who only has answers is playing chess without a queen.” (153)
  • “The point of questions is to understand what the other person is saying and to help the other person understand what they are saying.” (154)
  • “Questions are among our most widely used forms of speech” (154).

And on and on it goes. This chapter was very affirming for me – such a delight to read! Matthew Anderson is such a gift to the church!

Other particularly helpful chapters in my mind were Chapter 8 by Brett Kunkle who recommends our training be similar to a classical education model, Chapter 10 by Holly Ordway as she discusses the value of storytelling for Apologetics. I’m particularly intrigued by her dissertation in the value of imagination in all of this – will look into her more as my post-graduate degree is in this area as well. And last but not least, Scott Smith’s Chapter titled, “The Scientific Naturalist Juggernaut and What to Do about it” presents a succinct explanation and “history of” the western naturalistic worldview and as such is very helpful.