What Has Athens to do With America?: A Case for Cultural Apologetics

Article ID: JAF060622CB | By: Cole Burgett


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​In 1963, Anglican theologian Harry Blamires published The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? A protégé of renowned Christian thinker C. S. Lewis, Blamires lived under the great conviction that should the Church of England follow in the footsteps of the trendy universities and “modernize” itself, then nothing would stop the torrent of secular humanism and moral relativism from muddying the philosophical convictions of the faith. At the time of the book’s publications, his notions were seen by many throughout Europe as something akin to fearmongering — theology students reportedly shouted him off the stage during a lecture at the University of Kent. But the book found a wide audience in America, and for a time was commonly listed under the heading of “Required Texts” in syllabi at hundreds of Bible colleges and seminaries.1

Almost a half-century later, The Christian Mind looks less alarmist than it does outright prophetic — and not simply regarding the Church of England. In its opening pages, Blamires bluntly asserts, “There is no longer a Christian mind. It is a commonplace that the mind of modern man has been secularized. For instance, it has been deprived of any orientation towards the supernatural.”2 His diagnosis of the state of Christian thinking in the middle of the twentieth century proved accurate, considering that navigating the apparent divide between the sacred and the secular became a major talking point not only for the starch-collared academics, but also for the obscure researchers and rebellious storytellers in the decades to come, through which the debate spilled over into the public conscience.

To illustrate, one of American television’s most popular series of the 1990’s, The X-Files, came to embody the conflict. The series follows two FBI agents with wildly different personalities and grids for interpreting reality as they investigate cases deemed unsolvable: Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), an atheist with strong convictions regarding the existence of extraterrestrials and other supernatural phenomena (the believer), and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), a Roman Catholic and medical doctor whose commitment to rationality and scientific explanations are unwavering (the skeptic). When asked by Innovation & Tech Today what role religion played in the show, series creator Chris Carter replied, “It’s everything; it is the beating heart of The X-Files. I would say The X-Files is a search for God.”3

By the turn of the century, Blamires’s convictions about the secularization of a church more interested in capitulating to the whims of a culture in which science and technology carried it away from the earnest convictions of faith were realized. In 2008, Dr. John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York at the time, contributed to Zaki Cooper and Guy Lodge’s Faith in the Nation. In his essay, he argues for an established Church of England “so that it can continue to ‘serve’ the nation, including Britons of other faiths and non-believers, as a whole,” suggesting that the church is best defined in the context of public utility and national milieus.4

APOLOGETICS AND THE CULTURAL LANDSCAPE

In a culture consumed by consumerism in the age of globalization, the Christian who seeks to make a case for his or her dependency on an old rugged cross and an empty tomb must compensate for the lack of “common ground” between the believer and the unbeliever. Because of the secularization of the culture and the dwindling of the Christian mind, there are now few epistemological topics on which the believer and the unbeliever can converse without talking past each other simply because their categories of thought are vastly different; in fact, it was Blamires’s fear that many Christians, hoping to woo the culture, might end up unwittingly borrowing more from secular categories of thought than biblical ones.

The secularization of the Christian mind proves to be one of the biggest hurdles to clear when it comes to modern apologetics. Not only is the apologist seeking to build a rational defense of the faith, but now must also contend with the fact that much of the zeitgeist has shed itself of the more traditional categories of thought that would allow for natural inroads into conversations about that faith. An obvious example of massive shift is the current climate surrounding the LGBTQ+ community and the related conversation about gender norms, wherein traditional assumptions (what we might call presuppositions) about what constitutes a male or female have been tossed out in favor of staggeringly radical and complicated definitions.

Indeed, some engaged in these debates have even gone so far as to call for a “new kind of apologist” who “can’t simply quote what Scripture says because most of our culture rejects biblical authority.”5 In other words, the Christian who seeks to engage in apologetics must now recognize that Western culture, by and large, views the Bible as less of a reliable source than it did a century ago, when more established apologetical methods (evidence-based, classical, presuppositional, etc.) were in use.

The Cultural Apologist. While calling for a new kind of apologist seems a step too far, there is nonetheless a need for an approach to apologetics that does not shy away from a more culturally literate audience. Consider that survey results published by the National Endowment for the Arts in the early 2000’s estimates that less than half of the adult population in America reads literature.6 American culture, arguably the country’s largest export, charted the course and led the charge into the digital age, facilitating an unprecedented shift toward the visual medium as the primary source of entertainment.7

With the rapid expansion of technology aiding the rise in popularity of streaming services and social media platforms, as well as the megalithic and seemingly unstoppable Disney Company subsuming other studios and exhuming intellectual properties, never has the world been so interconnected or the population so cognizant of the most obscure cultural artifacts. Even popular entertainment has had to shift to “self-aware” storytelling (the trademark style of the billion-dollar Marvel series) to accommodate a population in which the term “meme culture” is actually treated with seriousness. How is the Christian apologist to reach such an audience that is more interested in a quick Google search to find “evidence-based” data to stifle apologetical conversations than reading Lee Strobel’s books?

Enter cultural apologetics. For some, this method of developing an argument for the Christian faith will seem new and unrefined at best, outlandish and probably a bit like a hippie’s apologetical approach at worst. Nevertheless, there is something to be said for an apologetic method that relies less on the secular world’s chief category for epistemological validity (the scientific method) and more on appealing to the imagination. In a 2019 article for Christianity Today, apologist Paul M. Gould defines cultural apologetics as distinct from more traditional apologetic methods in this way: “The main point of contrast between the traditional apologist and the cultural apologist has to do with the kinds of evidence utilized in making a case for Christianity. For the traditional apologist, academic sources — such as philosophy, science, and history — are prioritized in providing evidence for arguments. But for the cultural apologist, cultural artifacts — illustrations from the world of music, art, sports, entertainment, social relations, and politics — are paramount.”8

This approach to apologetics does not disregard those aforementioned academic sources; rather, it simply does not prioritize them. And in a culture with uncountable opinions flying around on social media, access to which is always a simple click of the thumb away, the apologist who is committed to the tried-and-true “evidence-based” apologetical method is going to have to accept the fact that most people will be able to pull up “evidence” to the contrary on their iPhones, and that’s even if they somehow managed to get past talking about the latest superhero flick. In short, anyone interested in apologetics in modern Western culture should at the very least be familiar with an apologetical method that does not rely in large part on the sheer volume of academic treatises having been read by either party engaged in the conversation.

What Is Old Is New Again. Ironically, the real merit of being a culturally aware apologist can be seen (at least in principle) in Scripture. Consider the oft-discussed instance in Acts 17, wherein the apostle Paul visits Athens and finds within an altar to an “unknown god” the opportunity to preach the gospel to the Athenians in the Areopagus. He quite literally exegetes the culture of Athens in the first century and concludes, “Men of Athens, I see that you are very religious in all respects” (Acts 17:22 NASB) and manages to leverage their interest in religious affairs to steer the conversation to Yahweh and His messiah.

In a sense, cultural apologetics is one of the oldest methods, used to some degree by at least one of the apostles. Evidence-based apologetical methods, while certainly having merit, especially in the twentieth century, arose more as a response to an increasingly secularized culture that worshipped at the altar of science and swore by the scientific method and philosophies such as empiricism. If you broaden your perspective of “traditionalism” to include history as far back as the first century, something like evidence-based apologetical methods are actually more recent developments in Christian thinking than something like cultural apologetics — this does not make one better than the other, it simply highlights the fact that one is a bit more timeless and transcendent of historical context than the other.

This concept works itself out pretty clearly on the mission field. Consider Don Richardson’s classic work of missionary literature, Peace Child (1974), which tells of his experiences in New Guinea working with the Sawi people, whose custom between warring tribes was to exchange a “peace child,” and how Richardson was able to use that concept unique to their culture to explain the gospel to them. What Richardson does not do is march in with textbooks on archaeology and anthropology to explain away all of their myths and legends before giving them the truth of the gospel. In essence, Richardson was doing cultural apologetics in New Guinea in the middle of the twentieth century, quite like what Paul was doing in Athens in the first century.9

The purpose here is not to disparage evidence-based apologetics — again, these methodologies have their appropriate place and uses. But the apologist should not limit themselves to this method of apologetics alone; in fact, it will require cultural sensitivity to know when to employ a more evidence-based apologetic in the first place. What cultural apologetics does is open the door to a broader audience to engage in conversations about faith. The earliest believers in Christ did not relegate their desire to preach His gospel and argue for the merits of their faith to ivory towers with the social elites, and neither should we. Most of us do not have the luxury of choosing into which culture we are going to plant ourselves — and in the digital age, cultural engagement is far less a choice than it is a given.

Cultural Apologetics and the Christian Mind. The real struggle of the apologist aiming to engage culture is discovering how to navigate that culture while recovering the Christian mind. If Blamires’s premise is true, even the church itself has become marred by secularization and the Christian thinker more given to arguing in secular categories than biblical ones. An apologetical method that examines cultural artifacts must be mindful and chosen carefully — Paul himself based his tactics in the Areopagus based on what he assessed was a priority to the Athenian people without compromising his own beliefs (Acts 17:23).

In other words, Paul never lost sight of his own presuppositions regarding the faith. Though he engaged the Athenians in the midst of their own cultural milieu, Paul himself never seemed to lose sight of the fact that he was thoroughly Christian, committed to teaching the resurrection of Jesus — and this is why many of Athenians eventually shut him out (Acts 17:32). Paul maintained “a mind trained, informed, equipped to handle data of secular controversy within a framework of reference which is constructed of Christian presuppositions.”10

In twentieth-century America, with the scientific method taught in schools reigning supreme, evidence-based apologetics served a unique and important purpose. In twenty-first-century America, wherein fewer people are attending institutions of higher education and the scientific method is decidedly less important to the average person than the latest Marvel movie, cultural apologetics is worth more than a passing look from the Christian thinker.11

Cole Burgett is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and the Moody Bible Institute. He teaches classes in theology and Bible exposition and writes extensively about theology and popular culture.

Related resources you may be interest in:

Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton

Cultural Apologetics: Book and DVD Video Lectures

NOTES

  1. Geoff Thomas, “Harry Blamires and ‘The Christian Mind,’” Banner of Truth, February 21, 2018, https://banneroftruth.org/us/resources/articles/2018/harry-blamires-christian-mind/.
  2. Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1963), 3.
  3. Chris Carter, quoted in John Faulkner and Chris Carter, “Inside the Mind of Chris Carter,” Innovation & Tech Today, February 22, 2016, https://innotechtoday.com/inside-the-mind-of-chris-carter/.
  4. Zaki Cooper and Guy Lodge, “Introduction,” in Faith in the Nation: Religion, Identity and the Public Realm in Britain Today (London: Institute for Public Policy Research, 2008), 7, https://www.ippr.org/files/images/media/files/publication/2011/05/Faith%20in%20the%20Nation%20introduction_1667.pdf.
  5. Alan Shlemon, “Transgender: Truth and Compassion,” Stand to Reason, August 24, 2016, https://www.str.org/w/transgender-truth-and-compassion.
  6. Dana Gioia, “Preface,” Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America (Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts, 2004), vii, https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/ReadingAtRisk.pdf.
  7. Robert Velarde, “Television as the New Literature: Understanding and Evaluating the Medium,” in Christian Research Journal, vol. 33, no. 4, 2010, https://www.equip.org/article/television-as-the-new-literature-understanding-and-evaluating-the-medium/.
  8. Paul M. Gould, “What Is Cultural Apologetics?,” Christianity Today, April 15, 2019, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/april-web-only/what-is-cultural-apologetics-paul-gould-excerpt.html.
  9. See Don Richardson, Peace Child: An Unforgettable Story of Primitive Jungle Treachery in the 20th Century (1974; Ventura, CA: Regal, 2005).
  10. Blamires, The Christian Mind, 43.
  11. Allison Nicole Smith, “Fewer Kids are Going to College. Here’s Why That’s Bad News for the Economy,” Dismal Science, May 23, 2021. https://dismalscience.journalism.cuny.edu/2021/05/23/fewer-kids-are-going-to-college-heres-why-thats-bad-news-for-the-economy/.
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