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New (and Dull?) Apologetics

By October 16, 2008 No Comments

Debra Rienstra

Two doctrinal sermons every Sunday, hymns thick with theological import, Bible class at school, and catechism class every Wednesday. That was my religious upbringing, heavy with Bible knowledge and theological terminology. This appealed to my bookish nature, and for the most part I lapped it right up. The part I hated was youth group, with its strained urgings toward “sharing” followed by activities that we cynically referred to as “forced fun.”

I would be hard-pressed to find a church today that drills its youngsters in a catechism. As churches have become more desperate to retain young sheep in the fold, they have scrambled to ramp up the sharing and fun and play down the doctrine. After all–and this is true–doctrine is difficult, and it tends to divide. Christianity is not, indeed, all about right belief.

A couple of generations growing up without much theological training, however, results in adults ill-equipped to cope with the theological puzzles life insists on presenting. People have questions–oldtimers still in the fold, doubters who have wandered out, and seekers who have never quite wandered in–and they want someone to explain.

Who better to do so than two distinguished Anglicans? N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, and Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, carry the authority of scholarly training and pastoral experience, and both have recently published their entries in the “basics of Christianity” genre.

Simply Christian

N. T. Wright’s book, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (HarperCollins, 2006), forthrightly presents itself–in title, book jacket copy, and publicity materials–as the anointed successor of Mere Christianity, first published over fifty years ago and written by that other British apologist of the two initials, C. S. Lewis.

Wright immediately acknowledges a dual audience, stating his aim as “to describe what Christianity is all about, both to commend it to those outside the faith and to explain it to those inside.” His approach to this task responds to a very different philosophical sensibility than the one Lewis addressed in the 1950s. Rather than using moral reasoning to argue a case for Christian belief, as Lewis did, Wright begins with the experience of longing. We can all recognize in ourselves a longing for justice, for acknowledgement of our spiritual nature, for human intimacy, and for beauty. These longings, Wright proposes, are “echoes of a voice,” a divine voice of course, the voice of a God who wishes to “put the world to rights.” Wright later establishes three basic ways of thinking about the relationship between “God’s space and ours.” They correspond roughly to pantheism, dualism, and a third view in which the “heavenly” and “earthly” “overlap and interlock.” This third is the view for which Wright argues throughout.

The second section is an overview of biblical history with an examination of basic Trinitarian theology along the way. Here we find N. T. Wright–accomplished New Testament scholar and tireless explainer-to-the-general-public–at his strongest and most characteristic. I especially appreciated his distillation of the Old Testament as a story of exile and homecoming, as this view comprehensively gathers up the Old Testament literature while resonating with other literature from ancient times to the present. Many readers will find his section on the reliability of the gospel texts reassuring and helpful. Also excellent is his explanation of Jesus’ actions as symbolic, a theme developed more extensively in Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus. This sort of material requires someone exactly like Wright: a serious scholar with a talent for clarity and winsomeness, a person who knows what he’s talking about and is not afraid to declare sensationalist views “rubbish.”

The final section, on basic Christian practices, is a wise effort to present Christianity as something more than “clever intellectual word games or mind games.” It addresses practical aspects of worship, prayer, the Bible, and the church. While there are certainly some helpful insights here–the three options scheme reaps particular benefits when thinking about prayer, for instance–overall I found this section least satisfying. Here we have Wright the church hierarch, straining against common misconceptions and offering mildly polemical defenses of set prayers, frequent celebration of the Eucharist, and other Anglican ways of doing things. Although I personally agree with his positions on most things, the polemics seem to limit and perhaps will eventually date the book. More fundamentally, this section misses the opportunity to enter the experience of faith deeply, to reveal the inner contours of these practices. I suppose Wright feels the need to leverage his position of authority, making statements meant primarily to clarify confusion. He’s probably right.

The other book in this pair, Williams’ Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Westminster John Knox, 2007), is a “slightly enlarged version” of a series of talks given by Williams just before Easter of 2005 at Canterbury Cathedral. Tokens of Trust Each of the six chapters explores an article of the Apostles’ Creed. The book is handsomely presented in a slim hardback illustrated with intriguing paintings by David Jones. Unfortunately, numerous typos mar this otherwise smart organizational scheme and attractive package.

Beyond that, Williams’ explorations of the creed are deeply philosophical and, within the broad organization, fairly unsystematic. His overarching approach asserts that belief is not a set of ideas we get straight so that we can trust, but rather, that belief arises out of trust: “Basic to everything here is the idea that Christian belief is really about knowing who and what to trust.” From that thematic emphasis, Williams proceeds to present orthodox views with nuances meant to appeal to readers who shy at doctrinal declarations and the church as institution.

His description of the Trinity, for instance, emphasizes the interrelationship of the three persons as divine receiving as well as divine power–an effort to mitigate the lightning-wielding-God-in-the-sky distortion of orthodoxy. He defends the historicity of the resurrection, the possibility of miracles, and the existence of angels: “If we try and rationalize all this away, we miss out on something vital to do with the exuberance and extravagance of the work of God, who has made this universe not just as a theatre for you and me to develop our agenda, but as an overwhelming abundance of variety and strangeness.”

As with Wright, occasionally Williams normalizes Anglican practice as descriptive of the whole church:

[T]his is where the eternal reality of selfless divine love and gift is to be identified in the world–not always (though sometimes) in the “performance” of the Church, which so often is embarrassingly bad, but in the ritual and language of the Church, in the way the Church expresses what it believes it is.

That the “ritual and language” of the church manifests God in the world is not exactly how your average Pentecostal or Baptist might put it. Still, from a forgivable rootedness in his own tradition, Williams defends Christian orthodoxy throughout, which may surprise readers who suspect him of heretical leanings.

Reading his prose reveals, however, the poetic inclinations of Williams’ theological mind. While Wright synthesizes and clarifies, Williams nuances. Tokens of Trust takes basic creedal articles as jumping-off points, but this is heady stuff–for Williams, each word of the ancient formulations offers, not rigid referentiality, but dimension and possibility. In other words, this book is most certainly not an “introduction to Christian Belief.” It is a little, shall we say, overly optimistic for the pub
lisher to present it as such.

I wonder if Williams’ ability to nuance and poeticize explains why some people are so impatient with him as a church hierarch. They wish for him to be an ecclesiastical CEO, drawing boundaries and meting out decrees. But that is simply not how he thinks of the church, his calling, or the faith. Poetic ways of thinking–however appealing to anyone who values a more mystical mode of faith–do not translate well into official policies.

Different as they are, both of these books raise the persistent questions of apologetic works: who, exactly, are they for, and what, exactly, should they do for readers? One review of Wright’s book suggested that it would fail to “win hearts and minds over” to the faith. But apologetics only appears to be about persuasion. As both these authors recognize, drawing clear lines between the persuaded and the unpersuaded is not so easy. Often apologetic works are more useful for the more-or-less faithful who find it difficult to defend or maintain their faithfulness.

And perhaps for that purpose, Wright and Williams are welcome voices. But especially for those standing on the threshold, I wonder if the talking-head authority, however compassionate and articulate, is necessarily the right greeter at the door. Lover of theology that I am, I found these books a bit… dull. I missed a sense of lived faith, a sense of how beliefs play out in the day-to-day particulars of a regular person’s life.

I have read numerous examples of what might be called the “new apologetics,” in which the emphasis is precisely on personal story–memoir-cum-theological reflection. At their best, such books replace abstraction with particularity, depicting for readers the bumpy sensations of on-the-ground belief. At their worst, I admit, such books come off as annoyingly self-indulgent therapy- in-print–the stylized literary analog to youth-group-style “sharing.” The writer’s authority comes, not from theological study or pastoral experience, but from his or her snappy writerly voice and from a willingness to be “brutally honest” about a past drug habit, eating disorder, or unsavory romantic history. And the faith, absent of any theological content, can get reduced to a shallow posture of accepting one’s poignant brokenness, savoring the moment, and perceiving the shimmerings of divine grace in a vase of flowers.

As I write this cranky complaint, though, I think of Augustine, the original master of sordid self-disclosure embedded in profound theological contemplations. I suppose the challenge remains to find the right place for theology in faith formation. Undisciplined self-exposure is hardly the answer, but neither is rote drilling in formula. Even good theological explanation, though useful, is not enough. We need to strive for a truthful witness that balances pontification and confession, the poetic and the systematic, individual experience with inherited tradition, the rigorous architectures of doctrine with our particular wobbly and messy endeavors at Christian faithfulness.

Debra Rienstra is associate professor of English at Calvin College and author of So Much More: An Invitation to Christian Spirituality (Jossey-Bass, 2005).

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching early British literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for The Twelve as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.