In our postmodern culture, lived experience and personal conviction trump evidence, reason and appeal to authority. Benjamin Chang suggests that instead of arguing and reasoning, Christians need to tell a better story
Richard Dawkins best-selling book The God Delusion was published 17 years ago. In the introduction, he boldly declares that: “religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” At the time, Dawkins was one of a group of increasingly prominent individuals known as New Atheists, who were beginning to publish popular books defending the worldview of atheism and arguing that belief in God is irrational and unscientific.
This necessitated an approach to Christian apologetics that could meet the intellectual questions, challenges and arguments of atheism. And so Christian apologists, particularly in the areas of science and philosophy, set out to give a robust and reasoned intellectual defence for Christian faith through books, talks and public debates. When Dawkins argued that faith in God is delusional, it required a response from those who could show that it is not.
However, nearly two decades on from its publication, the tectonic plates of culture have shifted.
In the Western world, our culture is being radically transformed by the campaigns of social justice movements such as fourth-wave feminism, gay pride, Black Lives Matter, and the trans rights movement. These movements are united by a powerful over-arching narrative: that of oppressed groups waking up to their oppression, and then rising up to fight against their oppressors.
However, in this cultural story, Christians have often found themselves not in the role of passive observers, protagonist heroes or victims of oppression, but rather as villains – the bigoted oppressors who need to be overthrown.
The Bible tells the stories of radical equality, liberation, identity, diversity and justice that our culture is crying out for
In today’s culture, the traditional ways in which Christians have taken on the accusations and arguments of our opponents are proving problematic. In the early 2000s apologists engaged with the claims of the New Atheists by tackling their arguments head-on in the public arena using reason, logic and facts.
However, we no longer live in a modernistic culture where people universally submit to the authority of reason and evidence. Rather, we live in a postmodern culture, in which personal conviction and lived experience are of primary currency. Therefore, those who hold ‘politically incorrect’ views meet opposition primarily not through arguments or intellectual ridicule, but through being cancelled and accused of bigotry.
One recent example is the backlash against the suggested changes to the Equality Act (2010) to make “biological sex” a protected characteristic. In the eyes of many in our postmodern culture, subjective gender identity is of far greater importance and significance than objective biological sex, and to suggest otherwise would be a sign of irredeemable transphobia.
Telling a better story
In this new postmodern culture, we need a new type of apologetics. One that deals not predominantly in arguments and evidence, but in stories and narratives.
Of course this idea is not new. Christians follow the greatest storyteller who has ever lived. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a total of 24 parables in a book with just 24 chapters! Jesus tells stories about kings and servants, Pharisees and tax collectors, parents and children, builders and farmers, trees and fruit, coins and sheep. He knew how to captivate listeners’ hearts and minds with gospel truths.
In A Better Story: God, sex and human flourishing (IVP) Glynn Harrison argues that Christians should not respond to the narratives and ideas of the 1960s and 70s sexual revolution with facts, rules and condemnation. Rather, we ought to respond with a more powerful counter-narrative - a better story of sex and relationships.
Harrison is right, but his principles can be applied much more broadly.
The social movements that have driven and formed today’s culture are grounded in principles such as liberation, justice, identity, diversity and equality. But it does not take much study to realise that these are actually deeply biblical concepts that permeate the Bible’s narrative. These should be Christian home-turf issues.
Today, Christians ought to be seeking to captivate hearts and minds by telling the Bible’s great stories and showing that these stories are far more satisfying, fulfilling and complete than anything our culture can offer. The Bible tells the stories of radical equality, ultimate liberation, immutable identity, revolutionary diversity and perfect justice that our culture is crying out for.
If Christians in the pulpit, on university campuses and in ordinary day-to-day life can grasp this cultural language, and show that the gospel provides the true and ultimate better story, perhaps we will then see it resonate with our postmodern culture.
Perhaps this is the new kind of ‘postmodern apologetics’ that we need.