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Identity Crisis: Should We Use the Term Apologetics?

In Church, Commentary, Term Definition by Steve WilkinsonLeave a Comment

Do you get blank stares when you mention apologetics? Should we drop the term and find another, like case-maker? Having tried apologetics as well as other terms, I think the problem is deeper. What can we do, and what might we learn from others who share a similar identity problem?

Should we find a new term?

I’m not inherently opposed to replacing the term. Apologetics is derived from a Biblical Greek word used convey making a legal defense for a point of view (in this case our Christian faith). But, I don’t think it is important we insisting on it (like we might for terms such as justification, propitiation, or atonement). (1)Yes, I do think it is important we teach such terms, as something is always lost when we start substituting. In other words, it isn’t a term that is particularly unique or important in its own right.

I’ve tried J. Warner Wallace’s suggestion of the term, ‘case-making.’ The problem is that I usually get similar blank stares. I’ve tried using the definition of ‘defending’ or ‘making a defense for’ Christianity. This sometimes results in a blank stare coupled with a negative reaction. I suppose defense seems a bit more militant.

In many cases, confusion concerning apologetics isn’t a matter of difficult terminology, but of a struggle to fit the concept into a particular understanding of Christianity.

If I were an endocrinologist, I’d probably have to explain that term at dinner parties. But, once I told them I was a doctor who worked with the body’s system of hormones, and had patients with diabetes or metabolic disorders, they would be on-board. And, while they would be far from understanding the details, they would be unlikely to react in a, “why would you do that?” kind of way (which is often a reaction I experience to apologetics).

Another identity problem being overcome

Podcasters share a similar problem. Mentioning podcast to many also returns a blank stare. Some have suggested Internet radio, others Internet streaming audio, or ‘Net-cast.’ The problem is that these are longer, more technical, or suggest their own definitional problems which then require explanation and correction. And when people do start to understand what a podcast is, images of Steve Job’s ‘amateur hour’ quip might come to mind. It takes a bit of explanation and promotion before people start to see the true benefits and appreciate podcasting.

For example, while a podcast is delivered via the Internet, one of the best aspects is that you don’t have to be connected to the Internet to listen to one. You can listen at your own convenience, often while doing other things like commuting or cleaning the house. And, while ‘amateur hour’ is sometimes a problem, podcasting is rather unique in focusing on niche interests, often at a very in-depth level. It’s a bit like Internet radio, but that doesn’t really capture the unique benefits.

In other words, feel free to use other terminology to describe podcasting (or apologetics), but don’t expect that to be enough, or initially even help much. You’re going to have to teach, explain, and defend the CONCEPT behind them and explain why someone should care.

What can apologists learn from podcasters?

A few occurrences got me reflecting on this correlation between apologetics and podcasting (and writing an article on the topic). First, we podcasters (or aspiring podcasters in my case, and podcast fans) recently celebrated National Podcast Day on September 30th. It was established to raise awareness of podcasting and help educate people about what podcasting entails. Next year, it’s going to be rebranded International Podcast Day for obvious reasons – there is nothing national about it!

Second, I heard Cliff Ravesnscraft (aka. the Podcast Answer Man) talk about this topic a while back (including relating the issue to seeker-sensitive churches failed attempts at avoiding big terminology). He takes the tact of using the terms and teaching people through explanation and example to encourage the link in their mind. (16:23 ~ 23-15 min.)

Third, I recently wrote an article about why businesses should consider podcasting, and I’ll probably write a similar one on why Christian apologists should do the same! While some of the motives can be different, podcasting is an incredible opportunity apologists shouldn’t miss. You might say I’ve become an apologist of podcasting in addition to Christianity.

Essentially, I’ve become convicted concerning the value of educating people about podcasting and the approach that community is taking. I’ll teach people what the term means, what the benefits are, and help raise awareness. I think we can (and need to) do the same with Christian apologetics.

To change or not to change (the term)

I’m reaching to a similar conclusion in terms of Christian apologetics. Why should we drop a term that is centuries old with a rich history? The problem, as I see it, isn’t that people can’t learn to grasp a complex term. People use complex terms every day in their jobs and other duties. The problem is more one of apathy and misunderstanding.

The average Christian doesn’t respond with a blank stare because the term apologetics is too complex, but because even upon grasping the meaning of the term, they often (at least initially) find the concept irrelevant. Why would someone defend or make a case for Christianity? (They think or express.) Isn’t that kind of last-century modernism? (2)No, they don’t use that language, but given the influence of postmodernity, relativism, and multi-cultural diversity/inclusivism, that is essentially what they are saying. Isn’t defending Christianity a bit impolite even if it can be rationally justified? Why not just take it all on faith? These are the messages I most often read from the blank stares and conversations that follow.

Focus on our identity and history

We face a tough battle. As I pointed out, the problem isn’t a term. It is the cancer of apathy within our churches and culture, consuming the rich historical place for apologetics alongside theology, community, the sacraments, etc. Not unlike the Reformation period, we face an apathetic church, attempting to placate diminishing masses with modern-day smells and bells (or sometimes real ones).

The reasons for this are many, but I think we should keep in mind the relationship between apathy and anxiety. Apathy is often a symptom of anxiety. It is especially common in people (or people groups) who experience a big set-back. Social pressure around controversial topics, nervousness about a perceived strain between faith and science, and cultural relativism are just a few factors creating a lot of spiritual anxiety. When we’re not aware of the strengths of Christianity or answers to those challenges, I think we often turn inward (for protection) and become apathetic.

As with the risk of dropping a term like podcasting, we Christian apologists risk diluting a powerful term and identity with a rich history. (3)Yes, this history is short in podcasting, but ‘podcasting’ (term-wise) is the hub of that community. It’s an anchor point from which to build. In my opinion, we’re better off rallying around the term apologetics – educating, doing PR, promoting – all in a consolidated effort.

So, what is apologetics?

This is a great continuing discussion within our community. I’ve tried a number of tactics depending on the person I’m speaking with.

If the person is unaware of the term apologetics, I’ll often explain that it addresses why someone should believe Christianity rather than, say, Buddhism, Islam, or Atheism. Just be prepared, as many have never considered such a question and often look at me like I have just committed some kind of logical category error. I get the, “DOES NOT COMPUTE!” look.

If the person has a strong church background or theological training, I might explain that apologetics addresses the ‘why believe’ similar to how theology addresses the ‘what is believed.’ They typically understand, but also sometimes still give me a puzzled look.

If either of those approaches dead-end, I often try to think of some apologetics example to illustrate. This is challenging to do on the fly, as you want to try and find an example which will best resonate with the individual. Having a few on-hand and practiced is quite helpful. That way, if you can’t think of a custom tailored example, you have something to fall back on.

Here are a few:

  • If your God is such a good God, why did He cause/allow X?
  • I recently heard Jesus didn’t even exist.
  • Why do you believe the Bible? It’s just an ancient book of myths.
  • I don’t want to be associated with people who hate homosexuals.
  • Science has done a lot for me. I won’t join up with science deniers.
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Basically, find something you think they might care about (even better if it is also a hot cultural topic), and turn it into an objection to Christianity. That should make them see the importance of addressing it. This provides a real-world example of Christian apologetics.

Conclusion

Feel free to use whatever term you find works best. However, I’d like to suggest that we not abandon ‘apologetics’ because it isn’t the actual problem and has a rich history. And much more important, like with podcasting, is the common identity for the community to rally around and promote. Having a strong, unique term is helpful to that end.

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Photo: © Depositphotos.com/vlue

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