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“Cultural Apologetics” — A Review

The Apostle Paul knew the importance of a proper approach. In the Book of Colossians he wrote,

“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Col. 4:2 NIV bold mine)

Knowing how to answer everyone assumes that there’s no pat answers. In the case of the Christian faith, a proper approach varies per person. Some spiritual seekers need an “answer” to complex philosophical questions; others don’t. Some need to be engaged emotionally; others intellectually. But to do this requires flexibility, as well as a more nuanced approach to traditional apologetics.

In Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World, author Paul Gould suggests that knowing how to respond to spiritual seekers involves more than just answering a checklist of objections. Rather, contemporary apologetics demands understanding the cultural zeitgeist.

Using the biblical account of the Apostle Paul preaching to the Athenians on Mars Hill (Acts 17: 16-33), Gould outlines a more “holistic” approach to apologetics, one that involves identifying “a [cultural] starting point for building a bridge to the gospel” (pg. 27) from which to share rational and historical evidences for the Christian faith. Using that template, Gould diagnoses contemporary culture and its lens to the world.

“How does our culture perceive the world? In a word, we are disenchanted. The view of the world presented to us in the Bible is sacred and beautiful, yet our culture treats it as mundane, ordinary, and familiar. As a culture, we are ‘under a spell’ of materialism. We assume concepts like beauty, goodness, and holiness, but they are disassociated from the wonder of receiving them as a gift from our Creator. Belief in God, faith, and religion are an embarrassment. Yet there is universal longing for transcendence, a nostalgia for an enchanted cosmos, something beyond the ordinary and mundane, that will not leave us. Moden culture is obsessed with ‘contraband transcendence” — a kind of spirituality and occultism that is antitheistic and antihumanistic. Moderns insist that everything is matter. At the same time, through their actions, they reveal a deep longing to connect to something beyond the material world.” (pg. 27 italics in original).

Disenchantment is the result of maintaining a commitment to rationalistic materialism while still experiencing a deep instinctual desire for the transcendent.

Knowing this helps the church better craft her approach to culture.

“The missionary work of the church, then, is conceived as a return to enchantment — a reenchantment of reality through the awakening of desires…” (pg. 45)

So how do we “reawaken the desires” of spiritual seekers?

Using disenchantment as the pervasive sentiment shaping cultural expressions, Gould distills “three universal longings” that can serve as the aforementioned “starting points for building bridges to the gospel.” Those three universal longings are:

  • Truth
  • Goodness
  • Beauty

In this way, the goal of the Christian apologist is not simply to make Christianity appear reasonable, but desirable; to address both rational and transcendental longings. By appealing to, by emulating, by sowing Truth, Goodness, and Beauty we seek to re-enchant the dis-enchanted.

“These three universal longings, for truth, for goodness, and beauty, can serve as fitting starting points for a cultural apologetic… These universal human longings cannot be eradicated. Unfortunately, they can be and often are muted and repressed. It’s possible to settle for cheap counterfeits too. This is why God has provided guides within the human soul to help us on our journey. Reason guides us on our quest for truth. The conscience leads us to goodness. And the imagination transports us to beauty” (pg. 29).

Here, Gould introduces us to three “bridges” the evangelist can use to engage the disenchanted — reason, conscience, and imagination.

  • The intellectually and existentially disenchanted long for Truth, and Reason is the bridge to re-enchantment.
  • The morally disillusioned long for Goodness, and Conscience is the bridge to re-enchantment.
  • The emotionally and sensually disillusioned long for Beauty, and Imagination is the bridge to re-enchantment

Cultural aplogetics is holistic in the sense that it engages culture at multiple junctures. Disenchantment is not the result of one thing. Neither should the call to re-enchantment be. Modern man has been shaped by numerous elements and ideas. Science, Philosophy, Political Theory, Art, Fashion, Film, Music… all these things speak, in one form, to our innate desires for Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Disenchantment is the confluence of many streams. Because of this, the Church’s missional work to re-enchant the spiritually disillusioned should encompass a broad swath of institutions, mediums, and platforms — the academy, the arts, literature, technology, politics. Such institutions are tributaries to the larger cultural river.

Which brings me to one of the reasons why Gould’s “Cultural Apologetics” so fascinated me. Most apologetic approaches fail to integrate Arts and the Imagination as tools for evangelism. Like Holly Ordway’s “Apologetics and the Christian Imagination,” Gould acknowledges the powerful role that the arts play in engaging and shaping culture. Here, he quotes philosopher Roger Scruton:

“Art, as we have known it, stands on the threshold of the transcendental. It points beyond this world of accidental and disconnected things to another realm, in which human life is endowed with an emotional logic that makes suffering noble and love worthwhile. Nobody who is alert to beauty, therefore, is without the concept of redemption–of a final transcendence of moral disorder into a ‘kingdom of ends.'” (pg. 104).

As someone who is both interested in engaging secular culture and using my art to do so, the balance between the two has been tenuous. While some approach story as an opportunity to “preach to the choir,” others abandon all pretense and simply seek to entertain. So it’s refreshing to see Gould put forth a more holistic approach:

“Many, if not all, good stories are good precisely because they point to the one true story of the world: the gospel. In the gospel, as in the very best fairy stories, we find what we long for: a magical world, life eternal, love unbounded, the defeat of evil, and a happy ending. And all good stories point us to Jesus, even if they do so indirectly. We are drawn to some stories over others because we intuit that they reflect reality, that they are somehow connected to another, ongoing story. Fictional stories prepare us to recognize the true story when we see it. They are windows to another world, beckoning for us to look through for the One who offers us joy unending.” (pg. 113)

Knowing how to answer everyone (Col. 4:2) means acknowledging that everyone is different. While some seekers require rigorous intellectual engagement, others might need a kind word or a timely story. Being a good apologist means learning to discern who needs what. However, one factor that binds all of us together is disenchantment. We desire Truth, Goodness, and Beauty but too often settle for empty substitutes. Not only must Christians be re-enchanted by the wonder of God’s creation and grace, we must make it our mission to challenge our disenchanted age at every front. Paul Gould’s Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World is helpful tool to that end.

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“Christian Horror” Now Available as Audiobook

My non-fiction essay, “Christian Horror: On the Compatibility of a Biblical Worldview and the Horror Genre,” is now available on audiobook. Narrated by veteran voice artist Randy Streu, “Christian Horror” is my attempt to explore the Judeo-Christian roots of contemporary horror, the religious themes that frame much of the horror art, and how evangelical culture has come to distance itself from such a potentially rich and powerful medium.  The book is designed to be an apologetic for Christians grappling with the horror genre as well as those who want to understand its cultural and religious implications. You can purchase the audiobook version of “Christian Horror” HERE.

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It should come as no surprise that the ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers), the world’s largest Christian Fiction organization, is primarily comprised of females. I say that ‘shouldn’t come as a surprise’ for several reasons, but mostly it has to do with the demographics of reading/publishing and the demographics of the evangelical church.

Exact numbers are difficult to come by, but the disparity between females to males in publishing, as well as evangelical publishing, is indisputable (For example, 78% of publishers are comprised of females. According to this editor, “…most editorial meetings tend to be dominated by women. Saying the ratio is 75/25 is not overstating things. So needless to say when a male editor pitches a book aimed at men, there are perilously few men to read it and give their opinions.”) According to the Spring 2012 ACFW Journal (since discontinued), only 13% of its members were, at that time, men. (You can find a PDF of that edition HERE.) Being a former member, and having attended several ACFW conferences, I can attest to the general accuracy of that figure.

The Christy Awards (the premiere Christian fiction award) is a good example of this demographic disparity. The 2019 awards consisted of 30 Finalists. Of those, 5 were male. (That disparity basically holds up throughout the life of the Christys.) If that figure is indicative of the representation of men writing and/or reading Christian fiction, it means that 1/6th or roughly 16 percent of the Christian fiction market is comprised of men. In an older article entitled In Search of the Male Reader, the author quotes Dave Long, then senior acquisitions editor for Bethany House Publishers, commenting on the problem this gender imbalance creates for male readers. “For guys who might want to read a suspense novel or legal thriller, it’s tough convincing them there are those kinds of books available. The shelves look like they are filled with Amish and historical romances and I think men have either stopped looking or are content with offerings from the general market.” Statistics quoted by Christian Retailing bear that out:

The top Christian fiction genres reported by surveyed readers were historical fiction (66 percent), romance (52 percent), contemporary (51 percent), romantic suspense (50 percent), suspense/thriller/legal thriller (47 percent) and mystery/espionage (45 percent)

With the majority of Christian fiction books comprised of historical, romance, and romantic suspense, it’s not a surprise that Christian men have taken to shopping for their fiction elsewhere.

While a member of the ACFW, I often noted this disparity. In a religious movement that esteemed male leadership, the proliferation of female content seemed incongruous. However, the demographic tilt appeared so organic I eventually concluded it was futile to expect any significant change to the culture. So while I maintain great interest in the trajectory of Christian publishing (and Christian artists in general), I’ve since moved my publishing endeavors to the general market.

Recently, I learned about the ACFW’s attempt to engage more men. A Facebook page dedicated to connecting with male readers was introduced. According to the group’s Statement of Purpose: “The ACFW Men’s Fiction group is for current ACFW members both male and female who write stories designed to reach men and boys for the Kingdom of God.”

While I applaud efforts like this, I’m mostly skeptical. This isn’t because I question the motives or sincerity of those involved, but because I’ve concluded the problem is much bigger and more complex than we tend to concede.

So what are some of factors that have resulted in Christian fiction being predominantly aimed at women? And what has prevented the industry from connecting with more male readers? In this article I want to outline five reasons why I believe Christian fiction publishers have lost/are losing male readers. Below are the first two.

The ‘Gender Gap”

In feminist circles, much is made of apparent discrepancies between men and women in various walks of life. Most of this critique is intended to portray a type of “male privilege” that pervades our society and tips the balance of power to men.

So, for example, during Women’s History month 2017, one used bookstore owner decided to protest the perceived “gender gap” between male and female fiction authors by turning in the spine on all books written by men. A sign posted at the store read, “We’ve silenced male authors, leaving works of women in view.” Such protestations are now fairly common across all industries as narratives of gender and racial diversity are emphasized.

One glaring inconsistency to the claims of a gender gap in publishing is the very real data concerning a biological gender gap between readers. For example, this NPR article notes that “When it comes to fiction, the gender gap is at its widest. Men account for only 20 percent of the fiction market.” In an article entitled What Is It with Boys and Reading? Psychology Today peruses to standard data:

On the U.S. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), boys have scored significantly lower than girls in reading at all grade levels every year since 1992 (the first year for which NAEP scores are available).  And the gap grows larger, not smaller, as children get older, such that, by twelfth grade, more than twice as many girls as boys (5% versus 2%) scored as “advanced” in reading on the 2015 NAEP.  Not surprisingly, given these data, boys are also for more likely than girls to be identified as learning disabled in reading.

…these disparities continue into adulthood as well; in 2016, the Pew Research Center survey of adult reading habits concluded that “women are more likely to read books than men,” and noted that 32% of men (versus only 23% of women) surveyed said that they hadn’t read a single book in the past year.

The data are pretty consistent across time, countries and age groups: there is little doubt that, on average, boys read less, and less well, than girls.  (emphasis mine)

Compounding this problematic disparity is the belief among some that “Our society is neutering boys of their maleness at a young age.” That according to “dissident feminist” Camille Paglia in her interview with the Wall Street Journal.

…attempts to deny the biological distinctions between men and women is to blame for much that is wrong with modern society. ‘What you’re seeing is how a civilization commits suicide’ [Paglia] told the Wall Street Journal.

Such “biological distinctions between men and women” are clearly in play when it comes to reading and readers. While this is obviously a larger sociological and biological issue, it remains a very real factor in why Christian fiction publishers are losing male readers — Men simply don’t read as much as women.

Evangelicals don’t read much fiction

According to this study by Barna, evangelicals read differently than the general populace. Whereas, in general, mainstream readers prefer fiction over non-fiction, Christians favor non-fiction over fiction (see graph below). This is somewhat understandable in that Christianity is defined by theology and regularly confronts cultural, philosophical, historical, and political issues. Which could explain why there is significant skeptism among evangelicals regarding fiction and entertainment in general. After all, the Bible is a book of Truth. Why then should Christians bother with make-believe?

Suspicion of fiction may start at the top. Having been on staff with two different churches over an 11 year stretch, I can attest to the fact that many evangelical ministers do not read fiction. Rather, the typical pastor’s library is top-heavy with books on Theology, Administration, Counselling, and Church History. At best, fiction is seen as simple entertainment or diversion. At worst, it is a vehicle to pollute the imagination and shape values of the gullible. Either way, few Christian churches invest much energy into making a case for the arts and storytelling, much less developing a theological apologetic for its value.

In this way, the scarcity of Christian men reading fiction is partly representative of the evangelical church’s suspicion of the medium. (Of course, the gender gap comes into play here as the male mind is more left-brained, analytical, and less emotive. Which is why men who do read tend to gravitate to more non-fiction — practical, professional, theoretical, investigative, biographical, or clinical stuff. Similarly, when men read fiction, it tends to lean to the visceral, speculative, and adventurous — war, espionage, crime, survival, courage, camaraderie, and coming-of-age. )

So one reason Christian publishers are losing male readers is because evangelical churches have not made a compelling case for reading fiction. Even if a Christian man is predisposed to be a reader, it is statistically more likely that he would pick up a book on exercise, self-defense, or true-life survival than epic fantasy or steampunk.

Continued in Pt. 2

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