Tag Archives: christian apologetics

Apologize This!

In a country where 37% of people describe themselves as “born again” and presidential candidates kick off campaigns with prayer rallies, one might assume Evangelical Christians would feel secure. But they don’t – they are arming for a siege.

There was a bunker-like atmosphere during a crisp and overcast weekend in late October as over 2,000 Evangelical academics and students gathered for the 18th Annual National Conference on Christian Apologetics sponsored by the Southern Evangelical Seminary. Their redoubt was the Northside Christian Academy (motto: “Preparing Students for Eternity”) in a leafy northern suburb of Charlotte, North Carolina.

“I used to believe Christians had two brains — one was lost and the other was out looking for it,” thundered Josh McDowell, one of a parade of electrifying, Baptist preacher-style thought leaders who relied more on rhetorical razzle than PowerPoint slides. “The problem with many Christians,” he complained, “is you can’t give me an intelligent reason why you believe what you believe.”

Like many of the conference keynotes, McDowell is absurdly media-savvy, a prolific presenter, author or co-author of 120 books including the 15 million-selling More Than a Carpenter, about you-know-who. Other far-right erudites on the agenda included Gary Habermas (36 books, half of which attempt to prove the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection), William Dembski (20 books, including the first on Intelligent Design published by a university press), and Michael Brown (20 books, popular radio host).

Apologetics is the opposite of an apology. The mission of the conference was to equip academic Evangelicals with talking points to defend their position on topics such as “The Nature of God,” “The Best Objection to Evolution,” “Refuting the New Atheism,” and “Philosophical Foibles of Modern Physics.” A discipline as old as religion itself, apologetics basically means “explaining our beliefs to outsiders.”

Outsiders were not much in evidence among the well-behaved crowd of believers, but they hovered in the skies like a metaphorical Death Star. Indeed, among the 120 sessions wedged into two endless 12-hour days, one by S.E.S. professor Richard Howe was called “The Religion of the Force: A Look at Star Wars.” After betraying a mastery of minutiae as impressive as that of any Star Warrior in a wookie suit, Howe concluded: “The Force in Star Wars is very much like what you find in witchcraft and the occult.”

More seriously, the assembled apologists feared what they ominously call “The Culture,” which they see as an almost overwhelming Force of God-denying moral wafflers, evolutionists and sexual predators. The most chilling presentation was Josh McDowell’s “One Click Away” about the horrors of — believe it or not — internet pornography. McDowell spewed a torrent of statistics that I can only pray are not true: 67% of 12-25 year olds go to porn sites; 56% of divorces are caused by porn; one-third of eight year-olds “regularly” view sex acts online.

Yikes. Of course, the 70-ish McDowell is a professional yarn-spinner who claims to have delivered 24,000 talks over 51 years, which at an average of 1.3 per day makes one wonder. But his point is clear: Our kids are being podnapped by a liberal culture that is the moral equivalent of a pack of wild boars. This might seem beside the apologetic point until you realize the #1 Evangelical “proof” for the existence of God is the so-called “moral argument,” i.e., that there is an obvious universal standard of right and wrong that would not exist were there not a universal creator. Anyone who denies this standard – or that it comes from God – is guilty of “relativism,” about as close to a curse word as you’ll get from this crowd.

McDowell’s talk was an outlier in that he didn’t mention the Darth Vader of the conference, a man potentially more famous in Evangelical circles than in his own family: evolutionary biologist and author of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins. Moreso than the other members of the so-called New Atheist anti-God squad of Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, Dawkins is seen as a deadly adversary because of his mastery of the evidence for evolution.

Why are Evangelicals so obsessed by evolution? In the words of William Dembski, a floppy-haired academic and Intelligent Design apologist with impressive credentials (Ph.D.’s in math and philosophy), “They [i.e., evolutionists] really think this makes a case for atheism.” He’s troubled by the so-called “theistic evolution” movement championed by scientist-Christians such as Ken Miller and Francis Collins of the Human Genome Project, who believe in God without rejecting evolution.

Next time: The most dramatic plenary!

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Reimagining the Past

Augustine’s litany of woe near the end of his endless masterpiece has a careful purpose — it’s the City of Man opposed to his City of God. All those poisons and hailstorms and treachery and legal issues he lists that beset us in life are not simply an invitation to suicide: they’re solid marketing for something else:

“From this hell upon earth [i.e., our lives!] there is no escape, save through the grace of the Saviour Christ, our God and Lord.” (XXI: Ch 22)

Early Christians were in the odd position of having to make actual life seem worse than a disease because what they were preaching was better than a cure. Once Easter happened (or was thought to have happened), everything had to be filtered through it.

Early Christians were something like a wife who suddenly suspects her husband is having an affair … frantically sifting through a shared past, reinterpreting formerly idle events (weight loss, new haircut, smile) as sinister proof of a crime. For the early believers to think God himself came down to Earth to fix things then — ergo, case closed, doh! — things down here must be a lot worse than we thought!

Augustine’s City of God is the spouse’s witch hunt. Again and again, in a devastating, systematic way, he piles fact upon fact into a carapace of undeniable power with a single apologetic aim: to demonstrate not just the superiority but the absolute existential necessity for dying in Christ to be raised up again in the Kingdom of God.

A couple examples:

  • Original Sin — Jews didn’t make a big deal out of Adam and Eve. Genesis was a story of origins, from which we move on. To justify Christ’s coming to save us, Augustine had to reinterpret Genesis as an absolutely fatal diagnosis.
  • Jewish Law — A lot of the Hebrew Bible, of course, is concerned with the Law, and Jewish theology is Law-based, from Mishna to Talmud. What is Law? A set of rules about how to live in this world now, right? Early Christians were not so concerned about now as they were with later (post-Salvation). So they ejected most of the Law.
  • Platonism — Augustine was a Platonist, which is to Apocalypticism as a marathon is to a sprint. Platonists aren’t dualists: they respect this world as basically okay. But it’s nothing nearly so perfect as the ideal, supernatural realm — i.e., the City of God.

The theme here is:

Life in the Kingdom of God = Good

Life on Earth = Bad

Christians are notoriously challenged by three things: sex, getting along with one another, and feeling guilt-free.

Thanks to Augustine, we’re never entirely comfortable right here, right now.