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What Is Cultural Apologetics?

Several years ago, I asked sociologist James Davison Hunter a few questions about that season’s political campaigns. Who better to answer than the scholar who introduced the phrase “culture war”? But his response startled me. He waved off my questions and said he doesn’t forecast the weather.

He studies climatology.

His message stuck with me. We need more cultural climatologists. We need people not just reactively responding to the immediate events in our daily newsfeed (“the weather”), but proactively studying and assessing the deeper-rooted values, ideologies, narratives, and patterns at work in our culture (“the climate”).

At The Keller Center, we don’t necessarily think cultural apologetics is the only—or even always the best—way to defend the Christian faith. But we do think cultural apologetics can connect us to vital sources of biblical, theological, and historical wisdom, so we can apply the gospel in compelling ways for our secular age.

No matter what kind of apologetics you practice, you’re arguing according to a certain set of rules, in a particular language, attuned to what you expect to resonate in your time and place. In other words, it’s cultural.

Jesus commonly deployed illustrations from everyday life that connected with his neighbors in an agricultural society. In the book of Acts, Peter’s sermon at Pentecost and Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill convey the same gospel message but strike different notes based on their respective hearers: the Jewish diaspora and Greek philosophers. Justin Martyr’s First Apology in the second century and Augustine’s City of God in the fifth century speak timeless truth in timely ways for dramatically different moments in the history of the Roman Empire.

“We are always doing apologetics in a culture of some sort, whether we admit it or not,” Mark Allen and Josh Chatraw write in their forthcoming book, The Augustine Way: Retrieving a Vision for the Church’s Apologetic Witness. “The philosophy department at any university is just as cultural as your local pub.”

From these biblical and historical examples, you can see there’s nothing new about cultural apologetics. No matter your strategy, you can’t avoid culture, because culture itself is another way to describe what we mean by religion. As David Foster Wallace argued, “Everybody worships.” Missiologist Lesslie Newbigin offered this definition of culture in his work Foolishness to the Greeks:

By the word culture we have to understand the sum total of ways of living developed by a group of human beings and handed on from generation to generation. Central to culture is language. The language of a people provides the means by which they express their way of perceiving things and of coping with them. Around that center one would have to group their visual and musical arts, their technologies, their law, and their social and political organization. And one must also include in culture, and as fundamental to any culture, a set of beliefs, experiences, and practices that seek to grasp and express the ultimate nature of things, that which gives shape and meaning to life, that which claims final loyalty. I am speaking, obviously, about religion.

Religion is not downstream from culture. Culture is downstream from religion, the inevitable human pursuit of meaning and eternity. Newbigin’s quote captures the wide-ranging nature of cultural apologetics. As I learned from theologian Kevin Vanhoozer in his seminary course on “cultural hermeneutics,” even marketing slogans can convey a society’s deepest longings. Films, songs, and sporting events all speak to a culture’s hopes and fears. They help us understand the climate. They provide occasions for apologists rooted in the gospel to correct and connect so unbelievers can see their sin and need for a Savior.

Bridge of Hope

The climate shapes your desires. In the Augustinian tradition, cultural apologists recognize desire as a key motivator for faith.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has described the relationship between intuition and reason as an elephant and its rider. Reason may steer, but intuition will only move when motivated. What the heart wants, the head will rationalize. Our intuitions follow our aspirations: What kind of person do I want to be? Or, to ask the same question another way, who’s my tribe? We might imagine ourselves as independent, rational actors who weigh arguments with careful consideration of objective truth. More often, we’re activated by tribal instincts that filter what beliefs we’re willing to entertain—let alone allow to transform our lives. Until we want to change, until we can envision ourselves in a new community, we’re not likely to lower our rational defenses.

What the heart wants, the head will rationalize. Our intuitions follow our aspirations.

Cultural apologetics, then, helps unbelievers want the gospel to be true even before they may fully understand this good news. We offer the beauty of the lordship of Christ as opposed to the ugliness of the lordship of the principalities and powers (Eph. 6:12).

“The job of apologetics is to build a bridge between hope and the non-Christian,” Ted Turnau writes in his book Popologetics. He cites a wide range of reasons we offer for belief: arguments about goodness, beauty, justice, hope, peacefulness, vitality, and mercy. But as Newbigin points out in The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society, the church is the hermeneutic of the gospel. The church can provide an alternative climate, a life-giving atmosphere that challenges the dark clouds of the surrounding cultural weather system. Christians themselves are the best bridge between hope and non-Christians. The world sees Jesus in how the body of Christ lives together with grace, in truth, for love. Thus, cultural apologetics seeks spiritual and moral renewal in the church as testimony to the transforming power of the gospel.

Paul Gould defines cultural apologetics as the “work of establishing the Christian voice, conscience, and imagination within a culture so that Christianity is seen as true and satisfying,” In this noisy culture, with seemingly infinite voices competing for attention, the church captures the imagination of nonbelievers when we love them and each other. This is what Jesus prayed in John 17:23—the world will know the Father sent him when we are one.

Of course, no one will conclude just from watching our life together that Jesus is the Son of God, that he died and rose for sinners, and that he’s coming again soon to renew the heavens and the earth. We must tell them this good news, warn them to repent of their sin, and call them to believe. When they can see the effects of the gospel in our flesh and blood, nonbelievers can better recognize this news as good. When they see us face to face, they can better differentiate between the offense of the gospel and the offense of sinners who so often fall short of God’s perfection in a divided church.

Lose to Find

Superficial understanding of culture—too much weather, not enough climate—threatens the unity and thus the mission of the church today. I think we don’t see more evangelistic fruit because we don’t realize how far we’ve already strayed from God’s Word. So many of us think we’re living for Christ when we’re mostly conforming to the world.

Even in many evangelical churches, the gospel has become an accessory to middle-class mores. We might vote a certain way to “save the culture,” meaning, to oppose the evil of our political opponents. But what about our own cultural captivity to consumerism or convenience or comfort? I fear we often project a hermeneutic of the gospel that suggests Christian faith is just one more means toward the end of ease.

Jesus warned all of us, “Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:38–39). Cultural apologetics orients us toward the deep structures of society to recognize our complicity in sin, what we must lose to find Jesus.

“The need of the hour is a mature apologetics that is historically informed and theologically rooted in the gospel itself,” Josh Chatraw writes in Telling a Better Story. “This will require not only knowing how to give reasons for our faith, but also knowing how to stoke imaginations, model cruciform lives, and publicly confess both our own personal shortcomings and the failures of the church throughout history.”

Cultural apologetics also forecasts how the climate is changing. And in these changes, we find opportunities to prsent the gospel. The end of Christendom has thrown the West into disarray. Christian values supplied the foundation of Western civilization—tolerance, minority rights, equal justice, and much more. But Christianity is forgotten (at best) or blamed (at worst) in what philosopher Charles Taylor describes as the “subtraction story” of secularism—we could have everything we want if we just subtracted Christianity.

Of course, you can’t have the benefits of Christianity without Christ. So will the West give up on its values in a post-liberal free-for-all? Or turn to Christ? Cultural apologetics helps our society see the essential question of our age is religious. Everybody worships. Dare we trust ourselves to create a new and better Eden?

This post-Enlightenment dilemma, as sociologist Christian Smith describes it in his book To Flourish or Destruct, is a spiritual project in pursuit of a sacred good:

To make everything new, to leave behind the past, to be unbound by any tradition, to enjoy maximum choice, to be free from any constraint, to be able to buy whatever one can afford, to live however one desires—that is the guiding vision of modernity’s spiritual project. It is spiritual (not merely ideological or cultural) because it names what is sacrosanct, an ultimate concern, a vision for what is most worthy in a sense that transcends any individual life. It is spiritual because it speaks to people’s deepest personal subjectivities, their most transcendent vision of goodness, their definition of ultimate fulfillment. It is spiritual because as a deep cultural structure it occupies a position in the modern West homologous with salvation in God that was prized in the premodern Christendom that modernity broke apart. And it is spiritual because, by being sacred, it is worth protecting, defending, policing, fighting for, perhaps dying for, even killing for.

In every way, our secular age remains very religious (Acts 17:22). Cultural apologetics helps us identify this underlying social narrative, the spiritual project trying to succeed Christendom. Then we can overlay the biblical story of redemption to identify points to connect and correct, as we see in Tom Holland’s magnificent book Dominion. Finally, we can reveal God’s plan as more ultimately appealing than any alternatives.

Cultural apologetics helps our society see the essential question of our age is religious. Everyone worships.

This is the model we find back in the fifth century in Augustine’s City of God. It’s the approach that makes Christopher Watkin’s new book Biblical Critical Theory so compelling. It’s the spirit behind Joshua Ryan Butler’s forthcoming book Beautiful Union: How God’s Vision for Sex Points Us to the Good, Unlocks the True, and (Sort of) Explains Everything.

In the previous generation, Newbigin helped Christians see we need a missionary encounter in Western culture. That missionary encounter continues in our own day.

“The job of the missionary,” Tim Keller says, “is to enter sympathetically the worldview/story of the culture yet challenge and re-tell the culture’s story so they see their story will only have a happy ending through Jesus.”

This is why we need cultural apologetics. Our desperate world needs to know the thundering darkness of our current weather doesn’t have the last word. Dawn will break; the culture of God’s kingdom is coming. They need to know a happy ending is coming—but only if they turn from sin and trust in Christ.