“Apologetics is a principled attempt to communicate the vitality of the Christian gospel faithfully and effectively to our culture.”

McGrath 17-18

I recently picked up two books to review, both offered by Baker Books, on the topic of apologetics. Apologetics is not a subject that I see a lot in my Progressive Christian circles, which presents a problem for me because it essentially yields the field to more conservative voices. 

Apologetics was an important part of my early faith journey and Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict was important at that time that Christianity had a rational basis for belief. Of course, there are other questions that have driven me further and changed the dynamics of my faith, but this was my entry point.

The first book is Jesus Skepticby John Dickerson. I have to admit that I am a little skeptical of the premise, which is that he explores the credibility and impact of Christianity using his journalistic background. This threw up a few red flags for me because of the dominance of Case for Christ when I was a teenager which also used a faux journalism style to disguise his evangelism. I tried to give Dickerson the benefit of the doubt, however, to see how he develops his argument.

What strikes me about this book is that it’s not really trying to prove or disprove the tenants of Christianity, but instead he frames his argument about whether Jesus actually lived and how his story has changed the trajectory of our world. So it seems less like a defense of Christian faith against counter-faiths, but an argument for reinstating Christianity’s societal impact. 

The questions that form the structure for his argument:

  • Did Jesus actually exist? 
  • Can Jesus’s teachings actually provide peace, identity and fulfillment today? 
  • Do Jesus’s teachings block social justice and human progress or do Jesus’s teachings further those causes?

Dickerson’s response to those questions is rather opaque. To the question of whether Jesus existed and whether his teachings are relevant today, he saves until Part 3 which I will discuss later. Measuring Christianity’s impact on society occupies the bulk of the book in Part 2. Part 1 and the Introduction, speak more to his methodology and describing what he considers to be a unique approach to understanding the validity of the Christian faith. 

Part 2 is the meat of the argument and focuses on measuring Christianity’s impact on society, where Dickerson selects the advances of the scientific method, fostering public education and universities, pioneering hospitals and modern medicine, and the abolition of slavery as core developments in human society in which Christians have been the primary participants. These seem to be in juxtaposition to broader assumptions about Christianity that it is anti-science, anti-intellectual, superstitious, and complicit in human injustice.

These four areas are selectively chosen and while there are Christians who were active in these areas, there are also Christians who were active in opposition. To present the narrative that Christian faith is the primary factor responsible for science, education, medicine, and freedom also carries a dangerous assumption that non-Christians are incapable of supporting the same virtuous activities. (Cue a tired cliche that moral behavior is impossible without deism.) 

The argument seems to be “oh, hey, do you like medicine? What if I told you that I Christian made medicine? Does that make you want to follow Jesus?” Or, “hey, why are you saying that the church has a problem with white supremacy, don’t you know that we helped end slavery?” 

The stats and examples are also heavily cherry-picked to drive toward the conclusion of the book, which is that Jesus’s teachings are relevant to a modern progressive society and that the history of Christianity has been overwhelmingly responsible for modern institutions. This also conveniently overlooks the impact of others and where Christians have and are still opposed to human flourishing in ways that do not correspond with the power structures that enable a Christian industrial complex.

If there is any question about the motivation for this book, the conclusion includes a literal altar call for people to read along and give their life to Christ. The book is propaganda, not to address any of the questions of real people who who may be curious or skeptical about the teaching of Christ, but for Christians who feel a nervous energy that they no longer occupy a central space in society. Dickerson’s book is a balm to those anxieties that presents a version of history in which Christianity is the driving force for social good. It is a fanfiction that is meant to provide a semblance of significance for evangelicals who feel their triumphal morality waning.

Two appendices at the end of the book provide some interesting material about what he terms baselining and Anchor Point methodology, which he has borrowed from investigative reporting and form the logic of his research. It is curious to include them in the end rather than lead with them in the Introduction, but they they provide the appearance of rationality for the selectivity of his research. These appendices were the most interesting part of what would be considered his methodology, I just they were applied with a greater objectivity to try to distinguish what is unique and dynamic about the Christian faith.

(As to the question of “whether or not Jesus of Nazareth actually existed”, I have never encountered someone who legitimately held the view that he did not, in some form. I do not doubt that the view exists, but I I think that it is a device that apologetic writers use to establish authority and a sense of ancient expertise. There are so few classicists and Roman historians available to the general public, so of course we have to take the word of the Christian explaining Roman documents and events.)

The second book, Narrative Apologetics by Alister McGrath, does not set out to prove or disprove any statements related to Christianity, but rather presents a different methodology for what he calls “sharing the relevance, joy, and wonder of the Christian faith”. McGrath is an Oxford professor and has considerable print in opposition to the new atheists, especially Richard Dawkins. From this vantage point, he is thoroughly committed to the intentional defense of Christianity, yet is writing beyond individual evangelism.

As McGrath generally aligns with a broadly evangelical tradition, the methodology corresponds to several of the community’s key attributes. The primacy of the biblical text to form the narrative, for example, or interpreting the significance of Jesus through his crucifixion. Rather than presenting a defense for tenets of Christianity, he demonstrates the narrative apologetic method to find meaning of Identity, Value, Purpose, and Agency (125ff).

The curious opening in Narrative Apologetics is that while relying on the biblical text to form narrative, there is room for nonhistorical and allegorical interpretation. This method arose within the context of postmodern, postliberal, and sociological influences, so while McGrath would not ascribe to these assumptions, he does make room for them rather than pretend as if the rationality of a certain modernity can be recreated. This method would support progressives seeking to communicate the contours of their faith in ways that extend beyond conservative traditions, as it allows for a certain plurality of narratives to exist simultaneously.

While McGrath is an academic, this book is written to a more popular audience, especially for pastors and Christian leaders. There is extensive notations throughout the text, but no footnotes. I would have preferred an index, but the book is structured well to know where to return to find a concept.

Where McGrath succeeds, in my opinion, is in demonstrating a path to accomplish this that can be applied contextually for different perspectives and audiences. Dickerson, unfortunately, positions himself as the authority in an argument that is not quite as novel as he believes it to be. 

Continuing the paragraph from the introductory definition of apologetics, McGrath writes, “Apologetics is not primarily about persuading people that a certain set of ideas is right, although the demonstration of the truth and trustworthiness of the Christian faith is clearly important. It is more about depicting it’s world of beauty, goodness, and truth faithfully and vividly, so that people will be drawn by the richness and depth of its vision of things.”

If this describes the individuals highlighted by Dickerson, their lives are not proof of the relevance of the Christian faith, but it’s beauty, goodness, and truth. And in this presentation, the end result is not a definitive triumph over doubt (whether from one’s self or society), but the inspiration to live faithfully in our present context. 

(These books were provided by the publisher at no expense for the purpose of writing a fair and honest review of their contents.)

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