The Art Of Apology
by Ravi Zacharias, apologist and author of Beyond Opinion
The ultimate calling upon the follower of Christ is to live a life reflecting who he is, and in Beyond Opinion, I and my ministry contemporaries will highlight three components of discipleship. We will look at skeptics–and believers–difficult questions. We will suggest that we cannot begin to understand these questions until we ourselves have also wrestled with them intellectually and personally. We see that our answers must then be internalized–the essential, lifelong process of spiritual transformation–such that, these answers may be lived out with compassion for the lost and a passion for the gospel. These are critical issues, for as I have said many times, I have little doubt that the single greatest obstacle to the impact of the gospel has not been its inability to provide answers, but the failure on our part to live out the answers.
Malcolm Muggeridge once said that all new news is old news happening to new people. He was right; even as Solomon said, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl.1: 9). All that has happened before so often happens again. But in quoting that verse, we forget something very important. The people to whom it is happening are new, and the answers, however old, must never sound stale.
Those two key realities sum up an effective apologetic: how to relate to the questioner and how to make sure that the answers are couched in a relevant context? If we miss those two converging lines, we miss the moment of opportunity. At the peak of my ministry’s call, I reflected long and hard on how best to combine these two elements in apologetics. The blueprint was not easy to imagine, and the even greater challenge was in building according to the vision. For some people, the hard questions never surface. Life is complicated enough”why complicate it in the questioning? But then there are others for whom every issue has to be carefully thought through.
Years ago, there was a popular book intriguingly titled Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Without going into the details of the storyline, the backdrop to the narrative is two different types of riders: the classicist for whom the nuts and bolts of the motorcycle mattered as he journeyed, and the romanticist for whom the enchantment of the journey was all-engrossing–never mind how the motorcycle worked, so long as it did. Ah! But there was the rub. Journeying together, the two could have a wonderful complementariness. Life has both sides. When the machine broke down, the romance of the ride didn’t fix the machine. How to put it back together was critical if one were to move on. At the same time, life is not just a how-to manual; there is an instinct and intuitiveness to living.
Not everything is argued. Some realities are felt deeply in a “soulish” sense. Apologetics should therefore respect those elements without violating the absoluteness of God’s person and his revealed Word in the Holy Scriptures, and consummately in his Son, Jesus Christ.
There is no greater example in apologetics than the apostle Paul speaking at Mars Hill. The irony of the talk Paul gave is in the difference in reaction the Easterner has when reading Paul’s address to that of a Westerner. The Easterner is thrilled at how the apostle wove the message starting from where the listeners were to bring them to where he was in his thinking. The average Westerner is quick to point out that the response was not in large numbers. That critique proves volumes of why the church in the West has been as intellectually weak as it has been. To those in the West, the bigger the number of respondents, the more replicated the technique. The bigger the statistic, the greater the success, we assume. Westerners are enamored by size, largesse, number of hands raised, and so on. When the sun has set on these reports, we seem rather dismayed when statistics show the quality of the life of the believer is no different to that of the unbeliever.
As harsh as it sounds, I doubt Jesus’ method of apologetics would have appealed to many of us living in the West. I mean, just think of the opportunity Jesus lost when he was asked, “What good thing must I do to get eternal life?” (Matt. 19:16). Is there an evangelist we know of who would have questioned the question, rather than sit down to the task of “closing the deal” with the questioner? We are so eager to pull in the net that we have failed to understand why we are pulling it and for whom!
Sometime in the 1980s, Christians in the West began to label evangelistic techniques and reconfigured church services to reduce the message to the lowest level of cognition in the audience. As nobly intentioned as that was, the end result was to produce the lowest level of writing and gospel preaching one could imagine. Mass media was brought to aid this purpose, and before long evangelicals were seen to be masters in entertainment and minimalists in thought. As this was happening, the intellectual arenas were being plundered and young minds gradually driven away from their “faith” in the gospel message. Christians are paying our dues today and likely will pay for an entire generation.
My intention in describing this is not to be critical, because many of us were enamored by huge churches and left the ranks of our youth unprepared for what rabid intellectualism and hedonism were doing at the same time, harnessing the same media for their own purposes.
Let’s be candid. In terms of the imagination, the spiritual world cannot match the sensual world because gratification in the sensual is immediate; in the spiritual, it is delayed. A Christian who takes the intellectual track is often rebuked with this verse in 1 Corinthians: “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power” (2:4). Some people take that to infer that Paul made a mistake in coming to the Athenians with a philosophical bent. However, that verse to the church at Corinth implies nothing of the kind. In fact, Paul reminds us to become all things to all people (1 Cor. 9:22), meaning that you start with where the audience is. If there is an intellectual barrier, you start there. If there is a sensory barrier, you start there. If anything, Paul had to spend so much time writing an apologetic to the Corinthian church, arguing about all the problems that had arisen, because they had mindless commitments that harnessed their senses without harnessing their rationality.
Is it not amazing to us that two of the chief defenders of the faith in the Old Testament and in the New–Moses and Paul–were both well-versed in the language, the thinking, and the philosophy of their culture? It is at all accidental that when the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, wanted to reshape the thinking of the Jewish exiles, he selected the best of their young men to educate the exiles in the language, the literature, and the philosophy of the Babylonians, and then use them to reach their own? They knew what it would take to reach the foreigners in their midst.
We are fashioned by God to be thinking and emotional creatures. The emotions should follow reason, and not the other way around.