The Practical Application of Narrative Apologetics

Written by Steven Barto, BS Psy

STORIES OFFER APOLOGETIC possibilities that are more effective than approaches that rely on rhetorical argument. Certainly, this is because stories engage audiences that would otherwise choose to pass on logical discourse. C.S. Lewis believed a well-told story opens the imagination to new ways of thinking and believing. He believed this approach allows the Christian story to be put forth in its “real potency,” allowing it to sneak past the watchful eye of rationalism.

Christian apologetics has three crucial tasks. First, it must engage cultural objections to religious belief that dominate public discourse in today’s post-Christian society. Second, it must show the ways in which Christianity connects with the lives and concerns of everyday people. Third, it must present Christian beliefs in a way that contemporary culture can relate and understand. Using the medium of story to achieve these goals should be considered by all who engage in evangelism and apologetics in the twenty-first century.

With the proliferation of “non-religious” theories on origin, morality, purpose, and destiny, the early twenty-first century has presented Christianity with a challenge like no other. The evangelistic and apologetic approaches that worked well in the 1950s and 60s do not fit the culture of today. Postmodern writers are attempting to move public discourse forward in a way that uses the best insights of the past without being trapped by it. Postmodern theologians stress experience over reason, subjectivity over objectivity, spirituality over religion, images over words, outward over inward. Are these things good? Sure. But this orientation can be taken too far, leaving Holy Scripture in its wake. Over-stressing such thinking when sharing the gospel tends to lean more toward liberalism. Today, experience is valued more highly than reason, which causes truth to become relative. This often leads to heresy and dogma outside the scope of truth.

But please realize there is no need for Christian evangelists or apologists to panic over the rise of postmodernity. It certainly brings some real challenges, but the Christian faith possesses many resources for meeting such challenges. The faith was able to thrive during the first century, when Jewish leaders persecuted Jews who joined “the way” of Christ. Christianity continued to grow during the rule of the Roman Empire despite torture, beheading, and crucifixion. Certainly, the negative mood today toward theism in general, and Christianity in particular, requires Christians to alter their methods. It is important to connect with people where they’re at rather than telling them where they should be.

Kevin Vanhoozer (1) suggests that postmodernity can be summarized in terms of four major tenets:

  1. Reason. The modern approach of reasoning by argument is viewed with suspicion by postmodern writers. Where modernity believed in a single universal reason, postmodernity holds that there are many different approaches to rationality. Postmoderns deny the notion of universality; reason is merely a context, a relative affair.
  2. Truth. Postmodernity is suspicious of the idea of truth because of the way in which it has been used to legitimize oppression, or give justification to vested interests. Postmoderns see truth as a compelling story told by persons in positions of power in order to force their way of seeing and organizing the natural and social world.
  3. History. Where modern writers tried to find universal patterns in history, postmodernity is “incredulous towards narratives that purport to recount universal history.” From the standpoint of Christian apologetics, this means any attempt to see universal significance in the narrative of Jesus Christ will be viewed with intense suspicion by some in today’s culture.
  4. Self. Postmodernity rejects any notion there is “one true way of recounting one’s own history” and thus concludes there is “no true way of narrating one’s own identity.” All ways of understanding the individual are open-ended and partial. Postmoderns decry universal answers to the question of human identity.

Alister McGrath said apologetics is not about inventing the rationality, imaginative power, or moral depths of the Christian faith. It is about pointing them out, and allowing people to see them clearly and appreciate them for what they are. He writes, “This means the apologist must be able and willing to develop a deep and informed appreciation of the Christian faith. Yet this is not enough: it is also important to develop an outsider perspective” (2). In other words, it is helpful to understand how the great themes of the Christian faith can be defended and explained to people who are not familiar with its vocabulary or practices. This “cultural” engagement involves establishing the Christian voice, conscience, and imagination within a culture so that Christianity is seen as true and satisfying.

A Theological Approach

J.R.R. Tolkien did not refer to Christianity specifically as a metanarrative, but he conveyed the same sentiment when he said Christianity is a story of a larger kind. He suggested that “myths” are ubiquitous, appealing primarily to the imagination and reasoning. Man relates naturally to story. No doubt, this is due in large part because man is created in the image of God (imago Dei), the Great Creator. Man possesses the unique ability to create stories that tend to reflect the divine nature of creation itself. Tolkien referred to this concept as “sub-creation” in his poem Mythopoeia. Accordingly, his theology of religion is grounded in Christianity’s metanarrative. Myth elicits a strong sense of wonder and imagination that fuels man’s longing for meaning. Myth contains deeper truths that otherwise might remain unspoken. Moreover, it creates intellectual and imaginative space for stories.

Tolkien’s position regarding myth persuaded C.S. Lewis to move from a general theism to Christianity itself. Lewis was finally able to see the Christian story as more than a set of doctrines or moral principles. Instead, he regarded it as a grand narrative that ultimately generated and supported such ideas and values. Lewis decided myths offer at least a gleam of divine truth. No longer did Lewis see Christianity as one myth among many, but as representing the fulfillment of all myths. What he called the true myth toward which all other myths merely point. In other words, Christianity tells the true story about humanity that makes sense of all other myths humanity tells about itself. As “dim dreams or premonitions” of the greater and fuller truth of the Christian gospel, Lewis believed the biblical narrative gives rise to a clear and complete vision or ontology of things. He said, “It is like watching something come gradually into focus.”

The writings of C.S. Lewis feature an invitation for his audience to decide if the story of Christianity rings true to life experience, and whether it weaved things together in a more coherent manner. He challenged his readers to consider whether they would like to enter into such a world. This approach is quite useful in apologetics and evangelism. He said we do not need to somehow rise above our “finite” mind in order to discover the “real world” of creation and redemption; rather, it has come to us through the incarnation.

Narrating the Incarnation

Jesus Christ is not merely the object of theological and doctrinal discussion. He is a person who is to be known and loved; to be understood and worshiped. This approach is refreshing given the usual debate regarding His deity and His humanity. Tertullian (A.D. 160-220) insisted upon the unity of the person of Christ while distinguishing the proper functions of His humanity and divinity. He essentially considered the incarnation to represent an amalgam (such as when two metals are fused together). Others during Tertullian’s time attempted to distinguish two beings in one person: saying that the Son is the flesh, the human being that is Jesus, while the Father is the spirit, or the God “part” of Christ. Of course, this approach served to divide rather than unite Father and Son.

The Word was not transformed into flesh, as this would imply destruction of what originally existed. Rather, the Word became clothed with flesh. Origen (A.D. 185-254) taught the necessity of a mediator between God and humanity, noting the respective importance of Christ’s divine and human natures in relation to His work. He wrote, “Therefore with this soul acting as a mediator between God and flesh (for it was not possible for the nature of God to be mingled with flesh without a mediator) there was born the God-man, that substance being the connecting link which could assume a body without denying its own nature” (3). Jesus had to be “without sin” in order for “God and man” to co-exist through the incarnation.

An integral element of Christian evangelism and apologetics is an effective explanation of the significance of Christ. Yet, words like “incarnation” are not well-received outside the theology of Christianity. It is important to accurately and faithfully translate theological terms into cultural dialects. For example, the apostle Paul views man’s condition regarding sin as spiritual slavery, from which mankind has been redeemed by Christ (see Gal. 4:5). For Paul, the analogy is not necessarily about moving from bondage to freedom; rather, it is about moving from the domain of fleshly servitude to the law to a new domain: that of belonging to God. Such concepts are heady and require an explanation that can be easily grasped. Narrative apologetics attempts to communicate the remarkable significance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ through telling stories.

The Gospel narratives (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) emphasize the transformative impact of Jesus upon those who believe in His ministry. God chose to enter into human habitation. The Word became flesh and lived among us (see John 1:14). God’s compassion for humanity is clearly expressed by the incarnation. Jesus taught us about our sinfulness, and provided the means by which we are able to rise above spiritual death. The narrative of Jesus Christ makes us want to turn our backs on the sinful past and embrace the gospel. The story itself does not save us. There is no incantation, memorization, or recitation that takes the place of redemption. What happened to Christ on the cross is the means by which we are saved. Faith in His sacrificial death can make us whole; allowing us to be healed by God’s grace. Not only does the incarnation help us understand the paramount importance of Jesus Christ, it also tells us something about the kind of God we love and worship as Christians. Yet, we must never misuse the grace of God.

Philosopher and historian R.G. Collingwood wrote, “The chief business of twentieth-century philosophy is to reckon with twentieth-century history” (5). Some argue that the best apologetics is a good systematic theology. Stephen Wellum says, “We cannot defend the faith (apologetics) without systematic theology” (6). Systematic theology is the exegetical discipline that seeks to grasp the entirety of Scripture as the unfolding of God’s plan from Genesis to Revelation. It is through systematic theology (from the patristic era until now) that doctrine is preserved and the message of sin and redemption is shared. McGrath shares Charles Taylor’s thoughts concerning how to best do apologetics in today’s post-Christian culture: “Taylor persuasively argues that there is a need to move away from the traditional believers-nonbelievers paradigm to a new seekers-dwellers paradigm” (7). Taylor recommends this approach because of numerous alternate beliefs found where modern secularism abounds.

As I’ve said elsewhere, the days of fire-and-brimstone preaching are past. Systematic theology and dogma may speak to the heart of the “dweller,” but a different approach is required for engaging with “seekers.” Essentially, the same fundamental concepts are featured in theology and apologetics; the difference between them is the manner in which these concepts are presented. It is far easier to reach a non-believer through an organized discussion about their doubts and counter-arguments than it is to say unless you believe, you are going to hell. We should not engage in apologetics until we fully know God (including the Godhead), know ourselves as redeemed creatures, made new through the blood of Christ, and plug in to the Body of Christ through a local church. Gathering together, we come to understand our gifts and our calling. We must know the gospel truth as an entire worldview over against the errors of the world.

Apologetics and Evangelism

Apologetics and the Great Commission are complementary. Jesus clearly said we are to go forth, making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that He has taught (Matt. 28:19-20). McGrath says apologetics allows for sustained engagement with others, answering questions raised, and showing how the Christian faith is able to provide meaningful answers, but evangelism moves in a different circle. Where apologetics aims to secure consent, evangelism aims to secure commitment (8). Apologetics aims to establish the plausibility of salvation in Christ. Evangelism is inviting someone to become a Christian. Apologetics involves clearing the ground for that invitation. McGrath believes evangelism is like offering someone bread; apologetics is persuading people there is bread to be had and that it is good.

McGrath says, “Apologetics can be likened to drawing curtains to one side so people can catch a glimpse of what lies beyond, or holding a diamond up to the light and allowing its facets to scintillate and sparkle in the sunlight” (9). It is about building bridges, allowing non-believers and skeptics to cross over from the worldview they already have, and to experience the Christian faith. But the task of an apologist is not simply to win arguments or to establish the “rationality” of Christianity. Instead, it is critical to establish “true God” as a God who may be relied upon. It is also important to share the passion, beauty, and mercy of God. C.S. Lewis was attracted to the gospel story because it offers meaning, not merely “propositional correctness.” He said, “Reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning” (10).

For Lewis, belief in God was neither a distraction from life’s hardship, nor a psychological “band aid” for what causes us grief. Instead, discovering God involves discovering our “true self” and redirecting our lives toward that end. God is not a tangible object, but that does not mean He is not Him. He is, in fact, I am. Admittedly, when we first approach the gospel we do so with rational argument in mind. Lewis believed religious faith is grounded on rational norms that are not identical to those governing scientific theories. He wrote, “[The existence of God] is a speculative question as long as it is a question at all. But once it has been answered in the affirmative, you get quite a new situation… You are no longer faced with an argument which demands your assent, but with a Person who demands your confidence” (11).

NOTES

(1) Kevin Vanhoozer, “Theology and the Condition of Postmodernity, ” in The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 73-75.

(2) Alister E. McGrath, Mere Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2012), 47.

(3) Origen, “On the Two Natures of Christ,” in The Christian Theology Reader, Ibid., 230.

(4) Alister E. McGrath, Narrative Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2019), 97.

(5) R.G. Collingwood, An Autobiography (London: Oxford University Press, 1939), 70.

(6) Stephen Wellum, “4 Things You Can’t Do Without Systematic Discovery,” TGC (Dec. 26, 2017). URL: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/4-things-you-cant-do-systematic-theology/

(7) Charles Taylor, in Narrative Apologetics, Ibid., 99.

(8) McGrath, Mere Apologetics, Ibid., 22.

(9) Ibid., 127.

(10) C.S. Lewis, Rehabilitations and Other Essays (London, UK: Oxford University Press, 1939), 158.

(11) C.S. Lewis, Essay Collection: Faith, Christianity and the Church (London, UK: HarperCollins, 2000), 213-14.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: C.S. Lewis and The Great Divorce

The following is from my class “Topics in Theology” as part of my master’s degree program in Theological Studies at Colorado Christian University.

I find C.S. Lewis more engaging every time I read another of his amazingly theological stories. I cannot help but compare The Great Divorce to Dante’s Inferno. Although the towns people were given a “glimpse” of heaven, such is not our lot as Christians. In Luke 16, we read about Lazarus and the rich man at the gate. Lazarus dies and is carried to heaven. The rich man also dies, but he is transported to Hades. He sees Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom and cries out for mercy. Abraham insists that the rich man had his “good life” and (as we surmise) he did not repent for his evil ways. Abraham tells the rich man it is too late; he cannot cross the chasm. Abraham also denies the rich man’s request to send someone to warn his family to repent. Abraham said, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31, NRSV).

The narrator in The Great Divorce is “Everyman,” who finds himself on the streets of a dismal gray town as night falls. He sees no one on the streets but discovers a throng of people waiting at a bus stop. The people all seem discontent and are verbalizing their sorrow, complaining of petty and desolate lives full of loneliness and dissatisfaction. As they murmur and shove against one another, it seems they cannot wait to get “somewhere else.” The bus rises above the gray, wet town, arriving at a beautiful sunny meadow. Although the people find themselves in a wonderous land, they cannot settle in; they cannot even feel the ground. They are opaque ghosts, incompatible with this new land. Many become discontent and decide to return to the bus, the “solid” people try to convince them to walk toward the beautiful, majestic mountains in the distance. If only they let go of their pride and petty grievances, they can become acclimated to heaven. But they are stubborn and would rather be miserable than humble.

Lewis describes the wandering masses thusly: “They were all fixed faces, full not of possibilities but impossibilities, some gaunt, some bloated, some glaring with idiotic ferocity, some drowned beyond recovery in dreams; but all, in one way or another, distorted and faded” (Chapter 3, p. 17). Everyman comes to realize what he must give up so he can pass from “earth life” to the “afterlife.” He encounters a guide who will lead him throughout this strange experience. Lewis identifies Everyman’s guide as the Scottish author and Christian minister George MacDonald. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien both attribute much to MacDonald as one of their “guides” on earth, making him a logical choice to accompany Everyman and answer his questions. MacDonald explains to Everyman that the ghosts can stay if they are willing to take excursions (paths to the afterlife), but they choose not to make the effort. As Everyman’s experience ends, MacDonald informs him he is not yet dead; that this has all been a dream. But it is suggested that choices made during earth life have an impact on the afterlife. Indeed, Jesus said, “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter” (Matt. 12:36).

It is important to note that these discontented “ghosts” are not being given a “second chance” to move from “limbo” to paradise. This dream is meant for the benefit of Everyman. Each one of us as “Everymen” must choose our path. We all must acknowledge our pride and our “fallenness,” and admit our need for rescue from the dismal gray streets of “earth life.” Quarreling and complaining fall on deaf ears. Lewis suggests that we are blind to the role we play in our “less than” life. We are unfulfilled, but merely murmuring about our lot will change nothing.

Stories provide a unique apologetic narrative. Lewis used stories to open the imagination to new ways of interpretation. He invited his readers to go with him to another place, another possibility. Lewis understood the cultural and intellectual importance of narrative. For Lewis, the Christian  narrative provides a vantage point from which to understand reality. Alister McGrath says, “Narrative apologetics is best seen as supplementing other approaches, reflecting the rich and deeply satisfying nature of the Christian gospel itself” (1). We have a built-in narrative instinct, as if we have been predetermined to thrive on story for memorializing our past, making sense of our present, and shaping our future.

In Divorce, Lewis inserts Everyman and others between heaven and hell in a sort-of literary purgatory (or observation deck) rather than a weigh station. Lewis presented a mental picture of heaven and hell coexisting side-by-side in linear time. He wrote, “But I notice that Our Lord, while stressing the terror of Hell with unsparing severity, usually emphasizes the idea, not of duration but of finality(2). Knowing that man is fixated on the physical, the sensory, and the material, Lewis effectively uses allegory and illustration. Lewis, Tolkien, Aquinas, Augustine, all believed we are part of a larger, ongoing story of redemption. Perhaps Divorce is meant to help Lewis explain his stages of “Unenchanted Age,” “Enchanted Age,” “Disenchanted Age,” and “Re-enchanted age.” I want to end with a famous line from Lewis said, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world” (3).

What I loved about this reading is the almost palpable sense of what each scene was truly like. The “earth life” conditions were vivid: never-ending rain, clouds, cool air, and a never-ending dusk. People were walking aimlessly, looking for improvement, hope, something other than a dreary existence, but they never found the “good part of town.” No “grass is greener on the other side of the fence.” Lewis does a great job explaining how stubborn, self-centered, self-seeking, and closed-minded we can be. The townsfolk were more than stuck in a miserable town with no money for a moving van and a fresh start. They were proverbially chained to a life devoid of peace, love, joy, contentment, a sense of purpose. What an amazing metaphor. The more I read Lewis, the more I want to read Lewis!

Notes

(1) Alister E. McGrath, Narrative Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2019).

(2) C.S. Lewis, The Joyful Christian (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1977), 226.

(3) C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 136-37.