What Should Christians Study?: Part 2(c) – Cultural Apologetics

What Should Christians Study?: Part 2(c) – Cultural Apologetics September 5, 2022

In this series, I am considering four main areas of Christian study: Theology, Apologetics, Church History and Spiritual Formation. In the first post, I discussed the the most important area of study for Christians: Theology. In the following three posts, I have broken down the study of Apologetics, or, the defense of Christian truth claims using arguments and evidence, into three subsets. The three subsets of Apologetics are: Philosophical, Historical and, here, Cultural Apologetics. Before I describe this final type of Apologetics, which is more ambiguous in nature than the other two, a brief comment on some approaches to teaching Christian theology.

Three Approaches To Teaching Theology

There are roughly three ways one can teach Christian theology. They can be stated as follows:

  1. Start with Christianity
  2. Start with the Culture
  3. The Synthetic Approach

Approach#1: Start With Christianity

The first approach emphasizes the Christian sources themselves: the Bible, the history of Christian theology and Church History. It then works its way outward from the sources to the culture in which the Church resides. On a Roman Catholic view, one might add to the Bible and Historical Theology something like Sacred Tradition and liturgical practice as that which the Church must impart to culture. This is the traditional, seminary-style approach. Study one’s own sources carefully, then engage with the surrounding culture by explaining Christian belief and practice to it.

We might say that roughly from the time of Charlemagne up to the early 20th century, this has been the main function of the Church in the West: to explain, teach and transmit the received theological doctrine and practice to the surrounding culture. Obviously there is a development to theology, so this is not a static process. But as Europe and the Americas became generically Christian cultures, this was the main approach to teaching Christianity. With the background assumptions of the culture almost monolithically Christian, this approach allowed the Church to articulate the doctrine of the Apostolic faith to the general public while engaging in theological controversy mainly at higher levels of the social strata.

For most of Western history this approach was effective because the culture itself already assumed some kind of naive Christian identity; either naive Roman Catholicism or naive Protestantism (with smatterings of Eastern Orthodoxy here and there). However, that is no longer the case in the West (or perhaps anywhere). Christianity itself has been by and large rejected in the Western world. As such, one cannot simply teach Christian doctrine to a largely unbelieving culture, especially if that culture is formerly Christian. If the very sources of Christianity are themselves rejected a priori by a culture, or are treated as just one set of religious sources among many, then the need for a different kind of approach emerges.

Approach #2: Start With Culture

Today one must almost reverse this pedagogical process. The contemporary theologian must first approach the culture and its intellectual sources, and then explain the culture to the Church. This is a point theologian Carl Trueman has recently made, and he has written an excellent book that does just this kind of analysis. This approach takes into account the fact that the culture in which we now live, no longer presupposes a Christian identity or worldview, even a naive or unreflective one. This is in spite of the fact that many of our institutions still maintain, albeit less and less, a basic sense of Christian moral values and duties (but only a very basic sense at that).

The Catholic philosopher, Charles Taylor, has provided a detailed account of this great shift into secular culture in his seminal work, A Secular Age. The “social imaginary,” or cultural background against which most in the West hold their beliefs, is simply no longer that of what was once called “Christendom.” Our sensate, intellectual and emotional lives are no longer shaped by Christianity as such. One central reason, therefore, to emphasize studying the culture in which the Church resides, is to identify to what degree the Church itself has been indoctrinated by its secular surroundings. With regard to Protestant Christianity in America, Trueman addresses this problem:

At a very practical level, the way Protestantism has often failed to reflect the historical concerns of the church in its liturgy and practice, most obviously in the megachurch movement and the manner in which it has frequently adopted the aesthetics of the present moment in its worship is arguably a sign of the penetration of the anticulture into the sanctuary of historic Christianity. Christians today are not opponents of the anticulture. Too often we are a symptom of it.

Trueman, Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, 389

The idea being that in studying secular culture we are now at a point in the Church in the West where we are almost studying the Church itself. So much of secularism has “penetrated” into the Church that the line between what is an authentic, historic Christianity and what is a bastardized, secular Christianity is harder and harder to recognize. Knowing the sources of our beliefs matter, and many in the Church can be confused about what is and what is not from the Bible or the historical tradition. Secular ideologies have seeped into the Church’s teachings, and we need to know from whence they came.

This is not only to weed these ideologies out of our doctrinal and liturgical life. It is also to know why our culture behaves the way it does and how a truly authentic Gospel message can respond to that behavior and address its underlying motivations. This approach is much more like that of the traditional missionary, who studies the target culture before setting sails for its foreign shores. Only in today’s case, the foreign shores tend to be virtual ones, like Tik Tok and Instagram.

Approach #3: The Synthetic Approach

A third approach, more subtle and synthetic, tries to incorporate the other two by understanding the symbiotic relationship between culture, any culture, and the Church. This usually entails a deep study of intellectual and material history more broadly. On this approach, one tries to grasp the genealogy of ideas over time to see how both Christianity and culture have influenced each other historically. Paul Tillich identifies this central concern of the approach in the Introduction to his Systematic Theology:

Theology moves back and forth between two poles, the eternal truth of its foundation and the temporal situation in which the eternal truth must be received. Not many theological systems have been able to balance those two demands perfectly. Most of them either sacrifice elements of the truth or are not able to speak to the situation. Some of them combine both shortcomings. Afraid of missing the eternal truth, they identify it with some previous theological work, with traditional concepts and solutions, and try to impose these on a new, different situation. They confuse eternal truth with a temporal expression of this truth.

Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, 3

This third approach is the most proper but also the most difficult, and, being the most difficult, the most dangerous. It is the approach of the Reformer, who in studying the history of ideas and material history, tries to see where the Church has gone wrong theologically or socially due to prior cultural influences or historic accretions. Or, to see where the Church has possibly confused a relative truth with a universal one. Tillich calls this confusing “eternal truth” with “temporal expression of that truth.”

In my own view, Tillich himself failed in rightly discerning what was eternal and what was not, but that is a topic for another post. Still it is the rare Christian mind that can properly employ this synthetic approach. We might think of men like Luther or Calvin as examples of those able to employ this third approach properly; but even then, when we look closer, there are problems that emerge. Further, the synthetic approach is way of thinking about faith and culture that often is only expressed in the thin air of the academy, even if our technology is enabling more and more of us to attempt it today (a problem in its own right).

Assessing The Approaches

There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach, and all three overlap to some degree. Each approach is more a matter of emphasis than a totally distinct methodology. On the first approach, one could wind up losing sight of the most pressing issues in the culture right now, the issues that are most on people’s minds, especially the ever-present “next” generation. This is what Tillich calls “the situation.”

On the second approach, however, one could get so bogged down in trying to understand culture, that the Church loses sight of that which has come before, of our own Christian heritage and its deep well of resources. More disastrously, one could begin to apply cultural modes of thought to the Bible itself, reversing the hermeneutical lens and making culture prior to Revelation. Finally, the third approach is, as stated, often simply out of reach to the average person and, if attempted, often results in theological novelty rather than clarity.

In general, the first approach is the safest one: a straightforward study of the consensus doctrines of the ecumenical Church, and then teaching those doctrines to the next generation. An excellent example of this approach is Thomas Oden’s Classic Christianity, a text that should be widely used in Evangelical churches across the country, regardless of denomination. Of course, this approach can have a particular Roman Catholic, Protestant or Eastern Orthodox flavor once assumed.

However, as Taylor and Trueman demonstrate, this is not easily done in today’s post-Christian culture. And so we do need a Cultural Apologetic that looks carefully at where the secular world in which we live has gotten its ideas, and how best Christianity can answer its most profound and penetrating questions. As Trueman points out in his book (406-407), today’s Church is much more like the Church of the 2nd century, trying to engage a very hostile, pluralistic culture with what would seem to be a relatively novel message. Moreover, if there is any doubt that the early Church was well versed in its cultural surroundings, one must only read Clement of Alexandria’s Exhortation to the Heathens to allay that suspicion.

The Cultural Imagination

Some apologists emphasize logical rigor and abstract analytical thought, while others seek to awaken the aesthetic side of the human person. The latter rely on theologically inspired art, music and narrative to offer a more attractive view of the world than its secular counterpart. Some in this latter group have even suggested that reason itself is but an extension of the human imagination, that “reason is imaginative” (Andrew Davidson, Imaginative Apologetics, xxv). And so to employ the imagination in the service of the Gospel is the main emphasize of any cultural apologetic.

If this is the case, then our apologetical defenses, or offenses, need not rely on logic alone to attract our audience. Our presentation can be a more fully-orbed articulation of a Gospel that speaks to the whole person. This doesn’t mean that we dispense with sound reasoning. But it does indicate that Apologetics can be supra-rational, or “above reason.” Apologetics must engage at the level of cultural imagery. It must target the “social imaginary.” Again, here is Taylor’s thought about cultural background conditions for belief:

I want to speak of ‘social imaginary’ here, rather than social theory, because there are important differences between the two. There are, in fact, several differences. I speak of ‘imaginary’ (i) because I am talking about the way ordinary people ‘imagine’ their social surroundings, and this is often not expressed in theoretical terms, it is carried in images, stories, legends, etc. But it is also the case that (ii) theory is often the possession of a small minority, whereas what is interesting in the social imaginary is that it is shared by large groups of people, if not the whole society. Which leads to a third difference: (iii) the social imaginary is that common understanding which makes possible common practices, and a widely shared sense of legitimacy.

Taylor, A Secular Age, 171-172

In sum, the social imaginary is the worldview that most people in a given culture simply assume to be the case. This is done without much, or any, intentional reflection about why the assumptions exist. The imaginary is presented to the culture through cultural means, like books, movies, television shows, sports, podcasts, commercials and the various symbols, words and images related to each. Further, it imposes a general demand upon how we behave publicly, and perhaps even privately. It is, for all intents and purposes, the given public normativity in a particular society. This imaginary is not accidental, however, it has been carefully and intentionally constructed over time by the “small minority” of theoreticians who have often gone unnoticed by the broader public they influence, but not always.

In a more analytical register, Jürgen Habermas explains how this process works in his treatment of Ernst Cassirer’s work on the power of symbols:

In that ‘state of awareness which hovers between grasping and being grasped’…Cassirer recognized the specific characteristics of a mentality shaped by symbols. Mind only makes contact with its environment in a mediated way. The position of human beings in the world is defined by a form-giving power which transforms sense impressions into meaningful structures.

Habermas, The Liberating Power of Symbols: Philosophical Essays, 24

In short, the creative power of the human mind to symbolize natural sensations, not only in language, but also images, and imbue those symbolizations with meaning is more fundamental to our understanding of the world than any analytical dissection of it. It could be said, therefore, that whoever controls the symbols in a culture, controls the culture. One only has to think about the transformation of the symbol of the rainbow in recent history from a deeply biblical image to one far less biblical and trace the effects of that symbol on our public belief and behavior to know this to be true.

Engaging At The Level of Culture

What we need is an apologetical method that cuts deep at the base of the world’s false premises, or as John Milbank puts it:

We need a mode of apologetics prepared to question the world’s assumptions down to their very roots and to expose how they lie within paganism, heterodoxy or else and atheism with no ground in reason and a tendency to deny the ontological reality of reason altogether.

John Milbank, Imaginative Apologetics, xx

Jesus Himself provides the example for engaging culture where culture is at when He uses parables to teach truth. The parables themselves are not the truth, not in the full, metaphysical sense of it. Those secrets are reserved for the elect (Matt 13:11-17). Nevertheless, parables are the culturally apt expressions of truth that meet Jesus’ audience where His audience is at.

The parable uses illustrations common to the culture in order to both reveal aspects of God’s truth, while also veiling truth in such a way that it requires the hearer to take some initiative in their own journey of faith. Leon Morris explains this cultural mode of engagement. Commentating on Matthew 13:10-17, Morris illuminates the meaning of Jesus’ answer to the disciples about why he teaches in parables:

Commentators differ as to whether parables were meant to make the truth plain and simple or whether they were a way of making a veiled witness to truth. Paradoxically there is truth in both suggestions…The parable is a powerful method of teaching, but perhaps some measure of commitment is required in hearers if they are really to understand what a parable is saying.

Morris, PNTC, The Gospel According To Matthew, 338-339

The Bible, perhaps to our dismay, is not Aristotle. Jesus did not engage in Platonic dialectic. Thus, when it comes to cultural engagement, in the Bible itself we already have an example of cultural apologetics. Jesus and the writers of Scripture mainly used story, poetry, parable and proverb to make their point about spiritual truth. Of course, there is discursive argumentation in the Bible, especially in Paul’s letters. However, for the most part, the truth of God comes to us through propositions that themselves are couched in an imaginative idiom.

We Need an Imaginative Apologetics

No modern author has engaged better with culture in this manner than C.S. Lewis. Lewis’ fiction and non-fiction are paradigmatic of how Christianity can capture the imagination, and, in doing so, open up the heart to the great Truths of the Gospel. While Lewis did address problems with the analytic thought of the Enlightenment, he rightly recognized that the far more threatening historical opponents to Christianity were not the analytic philosophers but the Romantic poets. For where Kant made his critique of pure reason, Schiller, Shelley and Keats tried to fill in the metaphysical hole he left behind. Their poetry tried to center the divine not in God, but in man.

Allison Milbank describes this historical dynamic referencing the work of the German poet Novalis, whose work greatly influenced George MacDonald, the author to whom Lewis gives most credit for his own literary inspiration:

The Romantic project of Novalis and those influenced by him, like the novelist George MacDonald, is to awaken in the reader this feeling of homesickness for the truth. And this, in my view, is the beginning of the apologetic task. Good evidence for its effectiveness may be found in the conversion of the critic and theologian C.S. Lewis, who purchased a copy of MacDonald’s Phantastes from a second-hand bookstall in 1916, and described what he later called, ‘a baptism of the imagination’ through a story imitating Novalis in taking a young man on a journey in search of the good, the true and the beautiful.

Milbank, Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition, 33-34

While there is always place for an analytic approach to Apologetics, in either the Swinburnian or Plantingian mode, to engage with the culture Christians need to mainly employ the powers of imagination. Very few will ascend to the height of analytic philosophy of religion, fewer yet will scour ancient documents for evidence of the historical Jesus. But many will read books like Lord of the Rings or Narnia or watch movies or shows that appeal to the intuitive part of the human soul. The sense of the divine of which Calvin spoke so forcefully, is not usually aroused through logical inference. The innate desire for God and the capacity to know Him are most often excited first by an aesthetic experience, an experience of great beauty (even tragedy). This is the level of human culture, the popular imagination of how the world should be, that Christians must once again recapture.


About Anthony Costello
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago to a devout and loving Roman Catholic family, I fell away from my childhood faith as a young man. For years I lived a life of my own design-- a life of sin. But, at the age of 34, while serving in the United States Army, I set foot in my first Evangelical church. Hearing the Gospel preached, as if for the first time, I had a powerful, reality-altering experience of Jesus Christ. That day, He called me to Himself and to His service, and I have walked with Him ever since. You can read more about the author here.
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