Apologetics in the Wired World
Recovering the art of Christian persuasion
by Os Guinness
We are all apologists now, and we stand at the dawn of the grand age of human apologetics, or so some are saying because our wired world and our global era are a time when expressing, presenting, sharing, defending and selling ourselves have become a staple of everyday life for countless millions of people around the world, both Christians and others. The age of the internet, it is said, is the age of the self and the selfie. The world is full of people full of themselves. In such an age, “I post, therefore I am.”
To put the point more plainly, human interconnectedness in the global era has been raised to a truly global level, with unprecedented speed and on an unprecedented scale. Everyone is now everywhere, and everyone can communicate with everyone else from anywhere and at any time, instantly and cheaply. Communication through the social media in the age of email, text messages, cell phones, tweets and Skype is no longer from “the few to the many,” as in the age of the book, the newspaper and television, but from “the many to the many” and all the time.
One of the effects of this level of globalization is plain. Active and interactive communication is the order of the day. From the shortest texts and tweets to the humblest website, to the angriest blog, to the most visited social networks, the daily communications of the wired world attest that everyone is now in the business of relentless self-promotion—presenting themselves, explaining themselves, defending themselves, selling themselves or sharing their inner thoughts and emotions as never before in human history. That is why it can be said that we are in the grand secular age of apologetics. The whole world has taken up apologetics without ever using or knowing the idea as Christians understand it. We are all apologists now, if only on behalf of “the Daily Me” or “the Tweeted Update” that we post for our virtual friends and our cyber community. The great goals of life, we are told, are to gain the widest possible public attention and to reach as many people in the world with our products—and always, our leading product is Us.
We who are followers of Jesus stand as witnesses to the truth and meaning of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as a central matter of our calling. We are spokespersons for our Lord, and advocacy is in our genes. Ours is the apologetic faith par excellence. But regardless of the new media, many of us have yet to rise to the challenge of a way of apologetics that is as profound as the good news we announce, as deep as the human heart, as subtle as the human mind, as powerful and flexible as the range of people and issues that we meet every day in our extraordinary world in which “everyone is now everywhere.”
The world is full of people full of themselves. In such an age, “I post, therefore I am.”
What does “the grand age of apologetics” mean for us as followers of Jesus? On the one hand, our age is quite simply the greatest opportunity for Christian witness since the time of Jesus and the apostles, and our response should be to seize the opportunity with bold and imaginative enterprise. If ever the “wide and effective door” that St. Paul wrote of has been reopened for the gospel, it is now.
On the other hand, we have to face up to the many challenges of the new age of communication with realism, for there are oddities in the age of communication that make it actually harder to communicate well today, rather than easier. And we also have to face the fact that the global era has shown up weaknesses in our present approaches to sharing the faith that must be remedied—above all because many attempts at Christian apologetics have been caught in the turbulent wake of the massive crossover between the grand philosophies of modernism and postmodernism.
We have lost the art of Christian persuasion, and we must recover it. Evangelism is alive and well in the rapidly growing churches of the Global South, where the challenge is to recover an ardor for discipleship and a discernment of the modern world to match the zeal for evangelism. But in the advanced modern world, which is both pluralistic and post-Christian, our urgent need is for the recovery of persuasion in order to address the issues of the hour. Some branches of the Western church have effectively abandoned evangelism, for various reasons, and others speak as if Christian truths and beliefs are always and readily understandable to everyone, whatever the state of their listeners’ hearts and whatever the character of their audience’s worldview and culture. Others again have come to rely on formulaic, cookie-cutter approaches to evangelism and apologetics as if all who hear them are the same.
This combination of the abandonment of evangelism; the separation of evangelism, apologetics and discipleship; and the failure to appreciate true human diversity is deeply serious. It is probably behind the fact that many Christians, realizing the ineffectiveness of many current approaches and sensing the unpopularity and implausibility of much Christian witness, have simply fallen silent and given up evangelism altogether, sometimes relieved to mask their evasion under a newfound passion for social justice that can forget the gaucheness of evangelism. At best, many of us who take the good news of Jesus seriously are eager and ready to share the good news when we meet people who are open, interested or in need of what we have to share. But we are less effective when we encounter people who are not open, not interested or not needy—in other words, people who are closed, indifferent, hostile, skeptical or apathetic, and therefore require persuasion.
In short, many of us today lack a vital part of a way of communicating that is prominent in the Gospels and throughout the Scriptures, but largely absent in the church today—persuasion, the art of speaking to people who, for whatever reason, are indifferent or resistant to what we have to say. They simply do not agree with us and are not open to what we have to say.
Loss of persuasion? It might seem bizarre, almost unimaginable, that Christian communication has lost something so central to its mission. Yet in profound ways it has, and that is why our challenge is to think about apologetics in ways that are not only fresh but faithful and independent—faithful in the sense that they are shaped by the imperatives of Christian truths, and independent in the sense that they are not primarily beholden to ways of thinking that are alien to Christian ways of thinking.
Much apologetics has lost touch with evangelism and come to be all about “arguments,” and in particular about winning arguments rather than winning hearts and minds and people.
We also need an “advocacy of the heart,” an existential approach to sharing our faith that I believe is deeper and more faithful as well as more effective than the common approaches used by many. Christian advocacy has had many conversation partners down the centuries—particularly the great tradition of classical rhetoric established by the Greeks and the Romans. It has also had many opponents and sparring partners—most recently the bracing challenge of the new atheists. But for all the undoubted benefits of these challenges, one of the more unfortunate side effects is that much apologetics has lost touch with evangelism and come to be all about “arguments,” and in particular about winning arguments rather than winning hearts and minds and people. Our urgent need today is to reunite evangelism and apologetics, to make sure that our best arguments are directed toward winning people and not just winning arguments, and to seek to do all this in a manner that is true to the gospel itself.
The fact is that much contemporary advocacy ignores the deeper understandings of the spiritual and philosophical ways in which people think through their faiths, change their faiths, and the impact of their cultures and their ways of life on their thinking and beliefs. Even more importantly, today’s advocacy often ignores the crucial biblical understanding of the anatomy of human unbelief, how God addresses those who ignore or reject him, and how we too are to learn to address people wherever they are and whatever they think about God or the church or us. The heart of the problem is quite literally the problem of the heart.
My own journey to faith was more than intellectual, but it included a long, slow, critical debate in my mind during my school years. On one side, I listened to the arguments of such famous atheists as Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, and on the other side to such Christian thinkers as Blaise Pascal, Fyodor Dostoevsky, G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis. I sit on the shoulders of certain giants of the faith who have gone before. But together we must rise to the challenge of our time: How can we speak for our Lord in a manner that does justice to the wonder of who God is, to the profundity of the good news he has entrusted to us, to the wily stubbornness of the human heart and mind, as well as to the wide-ranging challenges of today’s world and the mind-boggling prospects of tomorrow’s? In short, how can we as followers of Jesus be as truly persuasive as we desire to be?
—Os Guinness is the author or editor of more than 30 books. A frequent speaker and prominent social critic, he has addressed audiences worldwide from the British House of Commons to the US Congress to the St. Petersburg Parliament. He founded the Trinity Forum and served as senior fellow there for 15 years. This article is taken from Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion by Os Guinness. Copyright 2015 by Os Guinness. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA.