Putting the “apology” in apologetics

Ever read something that almost instantly strikes you as strange?

I read an article today by Christianity Today (read it here) that claims that apologetic teaching (a field of study that aims to provide logical arguments in favor of Christianity) has come back en vogue for teenagers and youth ministry.

Now, I want to be clear. I personally enjoy good apologetic discussion. I like to use my brain in conjunction with my faith and wish more Christians would as well. I think logical reasons for trust in Christ can be useful in proper context and that student ministry curriculum should include some of these elements. However, this article raised all kinds of red flags and questions for me:

Are apologetics really the hot new trend for teenagers?

Are today’s students really lined up outside the door to hear William Lane Craig argue creationism and God’s existence against his nemesis, Christopher Hitchens?

Can mental arguments for religion inspire today’s students to live like Christ?

Does the religious “I-can-prove-I’m-right” candy of modernity really taste that sweet to the children of postmodernity?

Maybe.

Maybe not.

Almost every study available on this generation suggests that in fact the opposite is true; that apologetic classes are in fact not en vogue. And my personal experience with teenagers seems to agree. Even Christian studies by George Barna, David Kinnaman, Gabe Lyons, Thom Rainer, and others show time and again that young people today are turned off by logical arguments for faith alone.

That’s not to say that kids today don’t want to think about evidence for their faith. They do. They desire some rational answers to religion. However, they don’t perceive these discussions as having real value unless they are embodied in experiential Christ-like living. If you don’t live it, they don’t care whether it is intellectually believable.

The primary question that the majority of young people (both in the church and outside of it) are asking today is not, “Do I believe what you believe?”

The big question is: “Do I want to be like you?”

If I don’t like who you are as a person, if you’re not kind, generous, loving and accepting, then I’m not interested in what you believe. Because, clearly, neither are you.

In an environment where truth has become relative, apologetics has just become your spin on how you see truth. It matters, but not universally. It matters to me, but not necessarily to you. It’s important, but limited.

What does matter is your actual experience.

The question has moved from “is Jesus who He says he is?” to “do I really see Jesus living in you like you say He does.”

Some have called this an embodied apologetic; rational answers given credibility by how we actually live and treat others.

The questions of apologetics, then, aren’t unimportant to young people, it’s just that the answers are meaningless unless they have context of actual life transformation.

The famous quote: “No one ever converted to Christianity because they lost the argument,” is completely understood and valued by this generation. And actually, I think it is mostly admirable and honest.

With this well documented cultural mindset as a backdrop, I find it very hard to believe that arming students with arguments is or will be any time soon the new youth ministry fad.

With one exception…

One of the great problems with American Christianity today is it’s insistence on winning the so-called “culture wars”. There is a strong feeling in many church circles that the prevailing culture has lost it’s moral compass (which is mostly true) and that it is the church’s job to legislate, argue and demand a return to Judeo-Christian moral principles (which is mostly untrue).

This “Us vs. Them” mindset is being played out on our political stage on a daily basis. There are Red-States and Blue-States. Conservatives and Liberals. Bumper stickers and talking heads have replaced actual conversation. As of today, the President and House Republicans can’t even agree on what day he should give his “jobs speech”.

We are a very divided country and this culture war mindset is deeply entrenched in many of our churches.

And don’t think this doesn’t rub off on our children. There are, I believe, an increasing amount of children of culture-war soldiers that have been told they must know the arguments to “defend their faith & country” from demise.

It is these students (and perhaps more accurately their parents) that have started this niche trend toward apologetics. And while apologetics is a great field of study, I believe any resurgence in it’s popularity for students and youth group is born out of this more fear-based rhetoric then actual interest in youth culture more broadly. It is localized in the Christian subculture and certainly not a trend for young people generally.

I’m encouraged that this field of study is being included in youth ministry curriculum, but I pray that youth leaders across the country will have the wisdom not to cave into this small minded view of “my god is better than your god” spiritual war mongering. I pray we will not only teach students what we believe to be true about God, but that we’d spend even more time modeling how we actually live like Him.

If we don’t we’ll have a lot of churches full of answers with no one who wants to hear them.

And, we may end up doing a lot of apologizing for all our apologetics.

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Predestined to Hate Rob Bell

Weeks before Rob Bell’s newest book was released the claims of heresy started swirling.  People like Mark Driscoll, John Piper, and Justin Taylor had condemned him while only reading select excerpts or in some cases nothing at all.

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John Piper famously tweeted:  “Farewell, Rob Bell,” apparently insinuating that he was no longer considering him to be a fellow Christian.

And truly, I don’t blame him.  I don’t hold them responsible for this reckless criticism.  How could I?  They were predestined to do it.  It’s not as though they had a choice.  From the beginning of the world, they were fated to do this very thing.  It’s almost as if the words were typed into Twitter on their own.

Love Wins

I just finished reading “Love Wins” for myself yesterday.  And as I read it, I was struck by how orthodox it was.  Having watched the blog and twitter world for the last two weeks I expected to find the reincarnation of Buddha or the Wiccan “Rule of Three” being proclaimed by Rob Bell.

Turns out though, he still believes and follows Jesus.  He believes in His divinity.  And His humanity.  He thinks His sacrifice was the crucial point in human history that reconciled us to God, set us free from sin and defeats evil. He believes He died and came back to life.  He believes only through Christ can we experience true life, healing, salvation and wholeness, and that through him all things hold together.   He believes that what we do on this planet has real consequences, either for good or bad.  He states his belief in the “already-not yet” paradoxical components of heaven and hell.

And he believes in free-will.

Which is actually where I think the real problem lies.

Over and over in the book, Bell asserts that “real love” requires the capacity to deny or reject that love.  Love that is compelled is not truly love.

Much of his theology is based on the rules of this love.  Rules that God himself chooses to play by in order to allow our decisions the reality of significance.  And though he acknowledges our ability to deny it, Bell believes that God will never stop His divine attempts to woo, pursue, and offer us His incredible love.

Rob Bell, author of "Love Wins"

It is the topic of choice then that is on trial for many.  Does Rob Bell believe in hell?  Yes, both in the sense that it exists now and in the age to come.  But he believes God doesn’t SEND people there.  He believes people choose to live in hell now and presumably in the future as well.

What is on trial is not the existence of hell, but the parameters of human freedom and choice.

And by the way, this is not new.  Nor is it universalism.  And I’m sorry to ruin the hype, but it isn’t heresy by a long shot.

This book is controversial because there are many people who do not share the ‘free-will” or “open” view of the human condition.

We live in a time that is currently marked by a significant “resurgence” of the Reformed theology/Calvinists that believe that all things are determined in advance by God.  Or if you prefer to think of it in building terms, that God has a divine blueprint that shows every decision every person will make.  And not only does he know that decision, but that we are in fact created to make that decision.  It isn’t really a “decision” at all, just the appearance of one.

And if you read the reviews closely, I think you’ll find people coming down on this book mostly along those lines:  free-will or determinist.

Heretic! Heretic!

Though the “heretic” rhetoric is flying around more carelessly than radioactivity spewing out of a nuclear meltdown, this isn’t a new battle for these tribes.  This is an age-old disagreement clothed in different garments.

So don’t buy the hype.  Rob Bell isn’t tearing down Christianity or saying that any path you take will lead to eternal life.  He’s not a universalist or a heretic or a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”.  He’s just another guy contributing his voice to a long conversation of well intentioned followers of Jesus trying to make sense of the Divine.

And also, don’t be too hard on the Piper/Driscoll/Taylor clan.  It’s not their fault.  They were predestined to dislike Rob Bell.