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Apologetics for Postmoderns

by Douglas Groothuis

If a Christian apologist of postmodernist stripe were to stand on our equivalent of Mars Hill today, he or she might say something to this effect, something quite different in spirit from the apostle Paul's original address (Acts 17:16-31).

People of Postmodernity, I can see you speak in many language games and are interested in diverse spiritualities. I have observed your pluralistic religious discourse and the fact that you use many final vocabularies. I have seen your celebration of the death of objective truth and the eclipse of metanarratives, and I declare to you that you are right. As one of your own has said, "We are suspicious of all metanarratives." What you have already said, I will reaffirm to you with a slightly different spin.

We have left modernity behind as a bad dream. We deny its rationalism, objectivism and intellectual arrogance. Instead of this, we affirm the Christian community, which professes that God is the strand that unites our web of belief. We have our own manner of interpreting the world and using language that we call you to adopt for yourself. We give you no argument for the existence of God, since natural theology is simply rationalistic hubris. We are not interested in metaphysics but in discipleship.

For us, Jesus is Lord. That is how we speak. We act that way, too; it's important to us. And although we cannot appeal to any evidence outside our own communal beliefs and tradition, we believe that God is in control of our narrative. We ask you to join our language game. Please. Since it is impossible to give you any independent evidence for our use of language, or to appeal to hard facts, we simply declare this to be our truth. It can become your truth as well, if you join up. Jesus does not call you to believe propositions but to follow him. You really can't understand what we're talking about until you join up. But after that, it will be much clearer. Trust us. In our way of speaking, God is calling everyone everywhere to change his or her language game, to appropriate a new discourse and to redescribe reality one more time. We speak such that the resurrection of Jesus is the crucial item in our final vocabulary. We hope you will learn to speak this way, as well.

Having criticized the postmodernizing tendencies of three Christian writers in the previous chapter, the inadequacies of the above approach should be readily recognizable. It has no apologetic nerve; it is sapped of argumentative and evidential support; it has nothing unique or even provocative to say to postmoderns. If so, how ought we to communicate the Christian message to those imbued with postmodernist beliefs?

Biblical Apologetics: Arguing Truth in the Marketplace

Scripture makes a distinction between the proclamation of the gospel, the defense of the gospel and the communal manifestation of the gospel. Christians who subscribe to postmodernist ideas absorb the defense of the gospel into proclamation and manifestation, given their views on language, truth and rationality. However, F. F. Bruce's classic book The Defense of the Gospel in the New Testament thoroughly demonstrates the early church's passionate apologetic impetus. He notes that "Christian witness in the New Testament called repeatedly for the defense of the gospel against opposition of many kinds - religious, cultural and political."1

Bruce observes that when Paul speaks of himself as imprisoned "for the defense of the gospel" and when Peter speaks of being "prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you," the Greek word is "apologia, from which we derive the words 'apology,' 'apologist' and 'apologetic."2

The apologetic emphasis in the New Testament inspired the "age of the apologists" in the second century A.D., when Christian intellectuals began to fight back against false charges and repression. For writers such as Justin Martyr and others, Christianity . . . is the final and true religion, by contrast to the imperfection of Judaism and the error of paganism. Not only does Christianity provide the proper fulfillment of that earlier revelation of God given through the prophets of Israel . . . it also supplies the answer to the quests and aspirations expressed in the philosophies and cults of the other nations. It was divinely intended from the beginning to be a universal religion.3

It is still intended to be a "universal religion," even in a day when universality is equated with antiquated or even dangerous metanarratives of totality and hegemony. An apologetic for the people of postmodernity must place the concept of truth at the center of all its endeavors. The term truth is so subject to abuse, dilution and distortion, it is incumbent that apologists define and illustrate the term, and engage post-moderns according to it. As I mentioned in earlier chapters, biblical truth is, as Schaeffer nicely put it, "true to what is"; it matches reality and it calls us to embrace God's reality with all of our beings. It is also revealed, objective, absolute, universal, antithetical, systemic and momentous, and it has intrinsic value.

The Hidden Dangers of Relevance

Because of the postmodernist redescription of truth, apologists must be wary of working to make the Christian message relevant to the felt needs of non-Christians. What is relevant to those enmeshed in postmodernity is not, typically, the biblical view of truth or biblical truths themselves. Our operative term ought to be engagement, not relevance. The performer Madonna is the apex of relevance to many postmoderns, but the protean princess of sexual seduction offers Christians nothing positive from which to draw for evangelistic or apologetic endeavor. Rather, we must dynamically engage the thinking of postmoderns with intelligence, sensitivity and courage.4

As Douglas Webster notes, our situation often demands that we "renegotiate the presuppositions" of our audience and not cater to its truth-decaying tendencies.5

When people are asking the wrong questions, or not asking questions at all, Christians need to introduce new concepts and suggest new ways of thinking. This means that we must reorient the discourse toward the nature of truth and the truths of reality, and away from human constructions, personal preferences and tribal leanings. Thomas Merton speaks of the insecurity of "being afraid to ask the right questions - because they might turn out to have no answer." This results in a sad condition of "huddling together in the pale light of an insufficient answer to a question we are afraid to ask."6

Christians must shine the bright light of truth by raising penetrating questions and giving satisfyin