This weekend preachers, evangelists, and hobby apologists from all over congregated to participate in the 21st annual National Conference on Christian Apologetics in Charlotte, North Carolina. This year the event was hosted by Richard Land, who used to head up my old denomination’s Religious Liberty Commission but earlier this year assumed the presidency of Southern Evangelical Seminary. Noting that the religiously unaffiliated may one day overtake the faithful in numbers, Land sees apologetics as a central function in the church of the future. He goes so far as to say:
I fervently believe apologetics is the way we will spell Christian evangelism, missions, and discipleship in the 21st century.
Eh, forgive me but apologetics isn’t for the lost, it’s for the saved. It exists to convince people who already believe that they aren’t being foolish to do so. It is “the defense of the faith” and not a tool of evangelism, no matter what these guys would have you believe. But I’ll come back to that in a second. First, I have to pass along this gem from a living relic of 1980’s apologetics, Josh McDowell, who spoke at the conference. I learned so much just reading about it.
The Big Bad Internet According to Josh McSomebody
Ah, Josh McDowell. I remember when he used to be the hot item in Christian ministry. I’ve had a couple of his books on apologetics now for 20 years and have listened to many of his messages over that same time. Honestly, I didn’t even realize he was still with us. He hasn’t maintained a high profile on the internet, and I think I know now why that is.
“The internet has changed everything,” he says, as he whines about the ease of access to information available through the World Wide Web. Clearly he sees this as an unwanted development, and for reasons which should be obvious. He goes on to lament, rather transparently:
Questions that you used to hear in the last two years of college are now being asked by 10- and 11-year-olds. It’s coming all right down through Facebook.
Never mind the fact that you can’t even get a Facebook account if you’re younger than 13. Maybe he knows something I don’t know. Maybe all those heartless atheists just toss their poor children to the virtual lions as young as possible and give no thought to what they see (like science! Curses!). It’s a wonder we can think at all, what with our brains so fried by excessive amounts of porn. But then again, maybe that’s not just a criticism of atheists…
McDowell calls porn “the greatest threat to the body of Christ in 2,000 years.” Wow, really? Not sectarianism? Not greed or judgmentalism or xenophobia? “50 percent of fundamental, evangelical pastors watch porn while 80 percent of youth pastors have a problem with porn as well.” How they get those numbers I’m not sure, but knowing he suspects this of most ministers makes the following statement even funnier. He describes the inevitable progression thusly:
The average person starts with heterosexual sex then after a while that no longer satisfies, then there’s anal, from anal there’s oral, from oral to homo, from homo to bestiality then to children.
Man, I’m taking notes and learning so much! Apparently, according to McDowell, oral sex is at least two rungs down the descending ladder of sexual deviance—below anal sex—even if it’s not as bad as men having anal sex. As most evangelical preachers know (and tell their congregations regularly), gay sex always leads to lusting after animals. And evidently it’s only after slaking your lust with animals that you then turn to pedophilia. Well, that’s if you’re what McDowell calls “the average person.” Somebody really should build a comedy routine off this one factoid from McDowell because it’s gold. But I digress.
The important takeaway is that McDowell sees the easy availability of information via the internet as a significant threat to the Christian faith, perhaps second only to preachers looking at porn and then running after goats or whatever.
What Apologetics Is Really For
I used to be into apologetics when I was a Christian. I also used to study cults and foreign religions in order to sharpen my own grasp of what I believed compared with what anybody else believed. I wanted to believe that the Christian faith was eminently rational. I wanted to believe that a person could hold his head high for accepting the Christian message despite the apparent irrationality of believing a virgin had a baby who then later became a miracle worker and died, then came back from the dead and floated into the sky to become invisible. I bought the books and read them, studying their arguments in order to be better prepared to defend my faith against attack from the outside.
But I don’t think outside threats are really what motivated me to study cults, foreign religions, and apologetics. In fact, I hardly remember anyone bothering to challenge my beliefs at all (except, ironically, my Bible professors at the Baptist college I attended; but let’s save that for another day). The real threat to my faith wasn’t some nefarious outside horde of skeptical assailants roaming the earth, seeking to devour me. No, the greatest threat to my faith was my own mind, my own need to understand why I believed what I believed.
I studied apologetics in order to convince myself, not other people. I think that’s actually why a lot of people dabble in this kind of thing. It’s not so much that people “get saved” this way. I think most people who buy books on apologetics don’t even take the time to critically analyze the arguments people put forth for the existence of God in those things. The arguments contained therein are really weak and unpersuasive to anyone who isn’t already emotionally invested in adhering to the faith. I know this because I looked at them before, when I was a Christian, and I look at the same things now (they haven’t changed at all) and I’m telling you they’re only convincing to people already inclined to believe.
Again, apologetics isn’t for the lost, it’s for the saved. It’s about convincing yourself that you have good reasons for believing what you believe so that you can sleep better at night. I really don’t see any of that argumentation changing minds except for when it convinces people to leave the faith. When they finally hear what the reasons are for being so certain of what they were taught to believe, they realize it’s a house of cards, and invisible ones at that. It just won’t hold up. Even the now legendary C.S. Lewis, who cared less and less for apologetics the longer he was a Christian, said this:
Nothing is more dangerous to one’s own faith than the work of an apologist. No doctrine of that faith seems to me so spectral, so unreal as one that I have just successfully defended in a public debate.
I know exactly what he means. I wrote a book once which encapsulated all the lessons I had learned after 20 years as a Christian and discovered almost immediately after writing it that I no longer believed a word of it.
What Your Approach to Apologetics Tells Me About YouI have noticed something over the last few months of writing for public consumption. I have noticed a person’s people skills seem to be inversely proportionate to how “into” apologetics he or she is. Put differently, the more hardcore into the defense of the faith people are, the less in touch they are with how people actually work. Generally speaking, I see three levels of intensity in this discipline:
Level One: The Casual Apologist. Most people live here. They dabble in light apologetic reading either to placate their own inner skeptic or else to give them something to say to a loved one already in the hands of the devil. They read just long enough to come away with a few loaded questions and challenges for use at the right moment so they can feel in the end that they’ve done their part in evangelizing their loved one. Bless their hearts. They really don’t understand that we’ve heard everything they have to say to us at least a hundred times. Many of us remember saying the exact same things ourselves once, only we’ve moved on to understanding what was wrong with the things we once thought were ironclad proofs for our doctrinal views. It takes a great deal of patience to sit through this without getting exasperated, and some of us are better at it than others. Those who have run out of patience become the stereotyped “angry atheist,” and to be honest I don’t really think I blame them. It really gets old.
Level Two: The Hobby Apologist. These people tend to be more intellectual, maybe even a bit nerdy. And hey, I don’t judge. All my best friends are nerds, and I consider myself one as well, even if my short attention span keeps me from getting good at it. But these folks spend a lot of time building up their arsenal of “gotcha” type questions and then go roaming the web for a sandbox to play in. Typically, instead of contributing their own substantive content for the world to scrutinize and evaluate, these folks parasitically rely on the writings of others in order to have something to refute. They’ll spend hours, no, days battling skeptics on the internet, helping create comment threads on blogs and on YouTube that surpass a thousand or more comments within a couple of days. It doesn’t even matter what the original post was about. They need a place to use all this obscure knowledge they’ve accumulated and this is their chance! Real, live atheists are right there, just ripe for an argument!
But is this really winning anybody to the faith? Is that even what they’re trying to do? I sincerely don’t see how it could be. It seems to me that this type of person is playing a game, and their goal is to say the right things at the right moment in order to feel they have won something. They’ve beaten you at building syllogisms and therefore…therefore…well, what, exactly? I don’t really see people being won over by this kind of thing. It looks and sounds something like conversation except usually it’s not. It’s usually dueling monologues (which I call “nonversations”), with each arguer coming away feeling he or she has bested the other when really neither side budged a bit. Spectators and lurkers sometimes benefit from this ritual, I am told, but I don’t see people very often being won over to the Christian faith from this game.
I don’t buy that it’s even about winning people over, no matter what Richard Land and Josh McDowell say. Apologetics debates are really about winning. Period. It’s about feeling your team is better than the other team. Which means it’s not really evangelism at all. It’s a kind of nerdy fighting. It’s about protecting your own sense of superiority over the rest of the world. This of course flies in the face of what the apostle Paul once said:
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing…Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age?…God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.
Modern Christians have decided the “foolishness of the cross” is a bit too much for them to bear. They would prefer to be seen as intellectually legitimate, whether in the public sphere, the marketplace, or even in the halls of academia. They’d rather not take up that cross, thank you very much. And frankly, I don’t blame them. I decided it wasn’t for me, either.
Level Three: Career Apologist. These guys are an interesting bunch. Maybe I haven’t come across the healthy ones, but I honestly think something is wrong with most of these guys. Every single one of the professional apologists I’ve encountered struck me as a narcissist with a high need for control in conversation. In fact, most of them compulsively script out every moment of their public debates, and any deviation from their pre-approved plans will precipitate a shutdown of the entire event.
These guys carry themselves very much like politicians. They meticulously control their public persona much the same way a career politician would. They remain camera-ready, armed with pithy rehearsed sound bites and cocky attitudes, always being careful to exude an air of confidence lest their followers fear that there are any questions for which they do not have the answers. For as I’ve said again recently, certainty is the currency of fundamentalism.
I don’t trust these folks any further than I can throw ‘em. I’m telling you, something’s wrong with them. And their people skills are often the worst of all. They aren’t evangelists, they’re performers. They put on a show and people love them for it. They pander to their own crowd and recite the familiar talking points which their own people have been programmed to love because that’s why they do what they do. They perform for their own people, not for the rest of us. It’s not about us (the non-believers) at all. If it were, then the way they speak to us wouldn’t sound so condescending, so consistently disrespectful and dismissive. These people aren’t appealing to us; they’re appealing to their own. It’s as plain as the nose on their faces.
I once asked one of these self-styled career apologists whether anyone ever converted to the faith as a result of his apologetic method. Being a thoroughgoing Calvinist and “presupper,” he dismissed the question as irrelevant. “That’s not my concern,” he said. “That’s God’s business, not mine.” He felt his job was to “say the right stuff” and disregard whether or not anyone is ever helped by what he has to say. Granted, his approach may be more adamantly anti-empirical than most, but for the presuppositional approach that’s actually pretty consistent with their theology. At least the evidentialists care about trying to be persuasive to non-believers. Their biggest hang up is not being willing to embrace the ignominy of the cross, wanting instead to remain intellectually respectable in the face of a mushrooming skeptical knowledge base.
Don’t say your words are for the benefit of others if they’re primarily about making yourselves feel “right” and others “wrong.” The defense of the faith and evangelism aren’t about the same things at all. We have a word for activities which imagine themselves to be for the mutual benefit of two parties but really only bring pleasure to one person. I’ll leave it to you to figure out what that word is.