Book Review: "Mere Apologetics: How to Help Seekers and Skeptics Find Faith," Alister E. McGrath, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012. 197 pages.
Alister McGrath is the president of the Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics in London, England and regularly engages in debate and dialogue with the leaders of the New Atheist movement. I read this book at the suggestion of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in preparation for this year's Summer Institute. It is written as an introduction to Christian apologetics (taken from the Greek "apologia," meaning defense.) So apologetics is simply a defense of one's position, in this case, the Christian faith.
McGrath begins by explaining that there are three basic tasks for an apologist: defending, commending, and translating. In defending, the apologist is dealing with barriers that have been erected to faith, whether misunderstandings, misrepresentations or existential issues. In commending, the challenge is to help the audience (whether 1 or 1,000) grasp the relevance of the Christian message. Finally, in translating, the goal is to relate the core ideas of the faith in language and story that makes sense to the hearer.
The second chapter - "Apologetics and Contemporary Culture" looks at the cultural context within which we must function. An approach that may work well in one culture will likely not be as effective in another. So, the challenge is to understand the culture; to be able to determine the common framework through which our audience views the world: ie. modernism and post-modernism, and to adjust your approach accordingly.
He then deals with the theological basis for apologetics, that there is an important, yet limited role for apologists in helping people find faith. "Apologetics is grounded in a deep appreciation of the intellectual capaciousness and spiritual richness of the Christian faith." It is not about formulas and systems; nor wisdom and reasoning, but simply in helping to break down barriers to faith. It is God, ultimately, who transforms lives.
Next is a section on "The Importance of the Audience." An individual or group's background can differ from another's in many ways, so the method may need to be different as well. We see this modeled in the New Testament as Peter preached to the Jews in Acts 2 using one line of reasoning and reference; and Paul spoke to the Greeks in Acts 17 using another one entirely. They both ended at the same place - Jesus Christ - but they began from different points. We need to ask what our audience believes and why.
Chapter 5 speaks of "The Reasonableness of the Christian Faith." The Christian worldview is truly unlike any other in its capacity to explain things as they are. As C.S. Lewis said, "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." There are two ways to demonstrate the reasonableness of the Christian faith. One of them is by showing that there is a good evidential base for the core beliefs of Christianity. The second is by showing that the Christian faith makes more sense of reality than its alternatives.
McGrath then deals with "Pointers to Faith" or approaches to engaging others. "Reality is emblazoned with signs pointing to the greater reality of God. We need to connect the dots and see the overall picture." Some of those signs include: Creation - the origin of the universe; the appearance that the universe is designed for life; the structure of the physical world; the universal longing for justice (morality); the spiritual nature of mankind; our appreciation of beauty, etc...Where do these come from? Apologetics helps to point people to the source.
"Gateways for Apologetics" follows logically from the previous chapter - it's all about opening the door to faith. Many people have never considered the claims of Christianity, may even be antagonistic, and would be more likely to respond to one approach over another. So, what are the gateways? The first is explanation, which requires an ability to share the basics of the faith. The second is argument - building a rational case leading to faith. Examples include the argument from design or the argument from morality. The third gateway is stories. This approach is particularly useful in dealing with postmoderns, who have a tendency to reject an appeal to reason. The final approach mentioned is images, which builds upon the previous model. Postmoderns tend to prefer pictures, not words, in their communication. C.S. Lewis was a master at these last two gateways.
The last chapter before the conclusion is "Questions about Faith." This deals with helping people at the point of their own stumbling. Some have had bad experiences with Christians; others may be from a Muslim background and stumble at the church's history of the crusades. Many stumble at the question of evil. What are the keys to dealing with someone with real questions? Be gracious. Look beyond what is said to the real question. Don't just give prepackaged answers; be genuine. Learn from other apologists.
This book provides help for those trying to develop their own skills as an apologist. It is not so much a list of arguments to use, but rather it is a guide to help to develop and refine one's approach. I'll end with some good common-sense advice from McGrath: "Before we can answer the questions others ask about our faith, we need to have answered them for ourselves."
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