Five Ways Apologetics Can Respond to Postmodernity
One of the great questions occupying the minds of theologians and pastors alike is how the Church can respond to an increasingly pluralistic, diverse, global world where the Church is no longer in control of the dominant narrative. This emerging world is often called “postmodern,” a term that is steeped in undecidability, a term that resists any single definition. When we speak of the “postmodern” we are never speaking of a clear set of beliefs. Instead, we are speaking more about an attitude towards truth and truth claims which roughly amounts to a deep-seated skepticism about any one account for the world (Christianity, Science, Psychology, Patriotism, etc.) being the right account.
You can think of postmodernism almost like the game Jenga, where blocks are moved about, stacked and restacked all the while undoing the ordered form of the original tower into a creative, abstract expression of community cooperation. Yes, you lose the ordered form of the tower this way, but individual blocks are not constrained to always be set in their place. If you were a bottom block, Jenga would be a far fairer game to play.
This analogy falls short in many ways, essentially because even defining what is a block? would be a contested issue in postmodernity. But hopefully this gives a sense of what is at stake. After the failure of modernism’s promise that reason would make the world a better place and that humanity could progress to a better state, postmoderns cry foul! They want to play a different and fairer game.
What postmoderns see in modernism is a misuse of power through the control of dominant narratives. The narrative that “reason” is a vantage from nowhere, a neutral, objective way for humanity to come together and decide what is right and wrong, good and bad, is rejected. Why? Because this narrative of reason, which led to the rise of the sciences, was also behind the rise in eugenics and the privileging of the educated and elites, at the expense of the rest.
Postmodernity sees this privileging of power for what it means to be human in education or reason as ever shutting out the “other” whose own traditions, culture and situation resist that dominant account. This puts Christianity in a precarious position because on the one hand, Christians can agree with the need for justice in a world that has all too often favored elites at the expense of the powerless. But on the other hand, postmodern claims mean that Christianity’s narrative about God and humanity must also be rejected because Christianity believes it possesses the story that makes sense of human life and purpose. So where to go? That is the question the Church struggles with now as the new, postmodern world emerges from the older, modernist one.
Particularly challenging is how the Church can do apologetics in such a world. If postmodernism is suspicious of reason or any other claim to objective truth, a suspicion of any supposed neutral vantage that bypasses our experience and biases, then can traditional apologetics work? That debate is happening right now. Below, are five ways we can all think about doing apologetics moving forward. In postmodern fashion, I don’t claim these are the ways to move forward, but hope they offer a challenge and response to the shifting grounds of Western culture.
1) The Church is its own apologetic
In modernism, the main point of apologetics was often to show the reasonableness of the Christian faith. This meant producing arguments that showed why Christianity was objectively true. Postmoderns are not likely to put much trust in such arguments because those arguments assume that an objective grounding can be had. Instead, scholars like Stanley Hauerwas and Dennis Hollinger argue that in postmodern apologetics, the Church itself is its greatest defense. The Church makes itself plausible not because it has the better argument than others, but because it tells the better story. While it’s true that Christianity has one big story about human life and purpose, and that postmoderns reject big stories, it’s also true that postmodernity leaves people thirsty for meaning and purpose. If any one big story will save postmoderns, it’s the narrative of Scripture. What Hauerwas and Hollinger argue is that the Church’s witness to this story, as it is lived out in a non-Christian society, is the Church’s best defense. The Church becomes plausible because the story it tells is visceral not cerebral, embodied not erudite. This is not in any way to say the Church should dumb-down its theology or doctrines. Yet in my opinion, sharing testimonies in Church will become a huge part of apologetics in postmodernity. Pastors and elders should thoroughly teach their parishioners the story of Scripture so that, in giving their testimonies, people can connect their individual stories to God’s own. Postmoderns will appreciate the confessional nature of these individual stories that are lived out in a community gathered into God’s.
2) Preaching should be less “about” and more “for”
I admit, that as a preacher, I struggle with this one. My entire seminary education trained me to preach a certain way. As someone who has undergone years of formal theological training, my mind feels comfortable with rationalistic, ordered, systematic thinking. Preaching that comes from this tradition is, as Craig A. Locaizo, says, reasoned:
“The modern pulpit was steeped in a reasoned homiletic, marked by point-making sermons, alliterated outlines, and a third-person descriptive logic. Sermons of the modern era often talked about God, about the Bible, about life, viewing these matters like specimens under a microscope.”
Locaizo finds the solution to this in a more “for you” homiletic. “The Gospel of Jesus Christ is an intrusive word”, he says, “It cuts against the grain of societal wisdom.” As such we must make, “a case for the Gospel in all of its scandalous reality.” That means, among other things, not looking at the sermon as “a mere marketing strategy to maintain an institution...Apologetic preaching must offer the Christian faith without merely attempting to sell the Church. People today have lost the sense of the presence of God.”
If Locaizo is right, and I think he is, then preachers would do well to preach differently, with less focus “about” and more focus, “for you.” This does not mean catering sermons to application. Rather, it means recovering the tradition of preaching typologically. Typology is a way of reading Scripture that sees Christ in all its parts. For example, Adam is a “type” of Christ in that he is a forerunner for the ministry of the New Adam, Jesus. Abraham, is a “type” of Christ because he is the model for faith and obedience. Typological preaching is less concerned with the “plain sense reading” of the text because it favors the “big story” being told.
This doesn’t mean the “plain sense reading” doesn’t exist. Not at all! It means that what is most useful in preaching is not that people know the historical-grammatical, authorial intent of each passage in each sermon, but that they understand their Sunday morning passage is a part of a bigger story-a story that they are a part of and is addressing them! That’s visceral preaching. No need for application or catering the message to itching ears. Instead, we all get caught up in the story God is telling.
3) The Gospel must collide with other narratives, and situate them within itself
In a 1995 essay, Christian Apologetics in the African-American Grain, Ronald Potter says, “If theoretical thought does not make a difference within the actual, lived experience of African Americans, then it must be jettisoned.” Potter quotes Michael Green in saying, “Most of our apologetics is directed to those who are literate middle class rational thinkers. But the majority of our countryman do not read books at all. They are not middle class and they are not used to abstract thinking. They are immediately visual people.” We might do well to ask ourselves some hard questions. Are the ways we are preaching and doing apologetics commensurate with the way people experience and earn trust today? Are apologists better trained by learning the ins and outs of the ontological argument or by studying the oppression of minority groups? Will postmoderns be more apt to care about the existence of God or the fact that those who claim to love God don’t appear to care about minorities?
Thoughts like this are threatening, especially to mostly white, traditional Christians. They sense a liberal agenda in such questions, or a conspiratorial creep of the Social Gospel into the pure Gospel of salvation from sin and death. But such binary thinking is not likely to be helpful in postmodernism. The Social Gospel is not anti-Gospel because of what it says, per say, but because of what it leaves out. But evangelicals can be equally guilty of throwing out the loving service of the Church for the world out of fear of being branded theologically liberal. It is simply not the case that Christianity is predominantly escapist, promising a better life in the hereafter because of Christ’s work. Rather, and conversely, Christ’s work ensures a certain hereafter that makes its home, already but not yet, in the here and now. Good theology allows the Church the freedom to non-threateningly listen and respond to the the stories of minorities, outliers and the disenfranchised. The Church can listen, care and respond because such stories are community confessions of hurt and longing that the Christ Story alone can ”make sense” of and heal. The role of the Church is not to agree with every narrative that comes its way, but to carefully collide itself with them so that in a crash of meeting such confessions find a hearer and healer. For those who may object that more than a hearing is necessary, we say, “Yes! You are right!” but also, “Faith comes through hearing.” It is only when the Church first listens without being defensive that it will begin to see that such minority stories are not without truth. In postmodernity, it will become a vitally important skill to learn how to listen and situate stories (narratives) into the story of Scripture. And it will become necessary not just to listen but to respond, to repent, to confess, to bind up wounds and take up crosses.
4) Work towards plausibility, not certainty
In his article, No News is Good News: Modernity, The Postmodern, and Apologetics, William Edgar offers a hard challenge: “The conservative side [of apologetics] seems to have a blind trust in the Enlightenment program for higher learning. They place blind faith in unaided human reason, which shows them tied to the most questionable aspects of modernity. Christian apologetics needs to point this out and lay bare the fallacy of unaided reason as a sure guide to meaning and hope.” James Sire agrees. He argues that instead of trying to make the Christian faith credible apologetics should strive to make Christian presuppositions plausible. I find this a helpful distinction.
Traditional apologetics sought to make the Truth of Christianity True over and against other, competing views. The goal was usually to make the Christian faith “win” out as the story. But in Postmodernity, such a goal smacks too much towards objective certainty. Postmoderns will struggle to believe arguments that move towards this end. Instead, the Church should work towards showing how the Christian story is plausible. By showing that this story has something to offer and makes sense of life and experience, this approach takes seriously the postmodern emphasis on little-t truth. This approach takes more seriously the reality that we do not live by sight but by faith. The Church is certain in its confession because faith gives assurance. But the Church cannot justify its claims by objectively proving itself True.
5) The Power of the Un-spoken Word:
James K.A. Smith asks in Desiring the Kingdom: “What if education, including higher education, is not primarily about the absorption of ideas and information, but the formation of hearts and desires?...What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about why we love?” (17-18). For Smith, the context and structure of how we learn is as important as the content. In modernism, the “head” was valued over the “heart.” The “heart” was subjective, moody and romantic, the “head” was objective, reasonable and logical. But we are not head-only persons. A more holistic sense of the human person understands that our emotions are just as important as our heads for “making sense” of the world, ourselves and God.
For Smith, and many other scholars, a return to robust catechesis and liturgical worship is a powerful tool to make the Christian story plausible and primed for a hearing. In a fascinating way, Smith shows how the shopping mall, the stadium and the theatre all work off the ancient medieval cathedral model of creating a formative space where hearts are shown images and sensations of “The Good Life.” As such, these spaces are powerful secular cathedrals that inscribe beliefs on people through liturgical ritual. One only needs to look at the recent controversy in American football with kneeling and the national anthem to see how sacred such sites can become and how formative they are to our consciences.
I think Smith is right and that his solution is worthy of consideration. While I am not convinced a return to a traditional, divine service of liturgy is as powerful a solution as often advocated, I am convinced the general idea is correct. Part of postmodern apologetics is making use of the unspoken word: art, music, liturgy etc. and inviting people into those spaces. If our churches and services look and reflect too much of the world around them, it is not that such congregations will be ineffective, but that they will not be taking advantage of all the opportunities to tell the Christian story better by forming hearts in a strange, counter-cultural, artistic space. Liturgical churches have not done well in balancing the real Gospel from the Social Gospel, and high liturgy tends to lean itself towards elitism and a downplaying of evangelism and apologetics. This is, of course, a broad criticism.
I am advocating congregations think deeply about their order of service, church practices and art. These are not neutral things. They form an identity not unlike the identity formed in the clothes you wear and the decorative style of your home. This unspoken word will not save souls, but it will capture hearts. Thus the Church in postmodernity must be more deeply thoughtful about creating a unique and counter-cultural, but not alienating, sacred space.
We could list many more challenges for the Church in postmodernity. We haven’t had time to talk about the importance of diversity, catechesis, authority, meaning and a whole host of other things. But this is a start.
Notice something about my five points, however. What I haven’t done is given five challenges of how the individual can be a better apologist in postmodernity. Underlying all these suggestions is a sense that private apologetics is not going to be as useful since arguing people into objective certainty is less and less likely. Rather, in postmodernity one-on-one conversations between Christians and unbelievers will certainly occur (as they should!) but they will start there as a means to a greater context. The Church in all its fullness, from its preaching, to worship, to one-on-one conversations will be important for telling the story. It is access to the community of the Church which will have people “taste and see that the Lord is good.” God’s Word, embodied in a people by the Holy Spirit, not in demonstrations of Truth, will change hearts. To those of us bent towards rationalism, we must throw down (but not throw out) our need to privilege modernist presuppositions over all others, a move that if we are reticent to try may unmask our idolatrous hearts. Jesus, of course, always remains the Truth. It’s just that the Truth is seen best in the work and mission of a sinful people; as they bring his Word and walk as living witnesses to a Story that the world cannot accept - but does, by God’s own grace, through us.
 It should be noted that, even within postmodern studies, there is a debate about if postmodernism is a movement away from modernism or an intensification of modernism itself.
 Apologizing for God: Apologetic Preaching To a Postmodern World. "Review and Expositor," 93 (1996).
 Sire, James. On Being a Fool for Christ and an Idiot for Nobody: Logocentricity and Postmodernity. As found in, Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World. Phillips and Okholm, Editors. IVP Academic. Downers Grove, Il. 1995.