Who is this 'apostle Paul' you're referring to?"
I was quietly thunderstruck at 35,000 feet. On a flight from Chicago to Minneapolis, I had been talking with my seatmate. A young executive on her way to a new job, she had told me a little about herself. Among other things, I found out that she had earned university degrees from Ivy League Dartmouth College and from the internationally recognized School of Business at the University of Chicago.
She, in turn, had asked me about my work, and I had joked that some of my introductory students could not place "Jesus Christ" and "the apostle Paul" in the correct chronological order. "Who is this 'apostle Paul' you're referring to?" she asked me, utterly sincere, completely unaware that this ought to be an embarrassing question for a well-schooled American to ask.
This ignorance among the educated is a sign of the times. Too much of our Christian witness today concentrates upon trying to convince people that Christianity is true. We need instead to consider two prior problems. First, most Americans and Canadians are ignorant of even the basics of authentic Christian faith. And second, most people think that they do understand Christianity and thus feel entitled to dismiss it out of hand.
The problem of plausibility
Much of our apologetics and evangelism is misdirected to the problem of credibility: Is Christianity true? To answer this question, we pile up reasons and arguments and evidences that we hope will overwhelm every skeptic and bring to faith every doubter. The trouble is, we earnest Christians come armed to the teeth for battles that rarely occur. We are eager to convince all comers, but nobody comes. Why is it that we are willing to engage in two hours of argument, but no one will give us the time of day?
We need to consider the prior question of plausibility: Might Christianity be true? Ought someone to consider it even briefly as an option?
To agree that something is plausible is to agree that it is worth serious consideration. If you're trying to determine why you have become sick, you will consider microbiology, the physiology of your immune system, hygiene, contact with others who have had the same sickness, and so on. If someone suggests that the real reason you feel lousy is that you wear too much brown, and you should switch instead to summery pastels, you will think that person mad. You won't take the suggestion seriously for a second. It is not plausible to you, and you won't take time to listen.
Now, it is at least theoretically possible that you are sick precisely because you do wear too much brown. Perhaps most clothing manufacturers now use a popular, cheap brown dye that turns out to contain a toxic substance, and prolonged wearing of brown leaches this substance into your skin. This sort of argument is what someone would have to present to convince you. But it is entirely likely that he or she would never have the chance to convince you by all this evidence (the issue of credibility—is it true?) because you would have immediately dismissed the idea as preposterous (the issue of plausibility—it cannot be true).
What then can we do to cause our friends to slow down from their breezy dismissal of authentic Christian faith to consider its truth and its bearing on their lives? If they won't sit still for a course in basic Christian doctrine, if they won't engage in an argument over Christian evidences, can we reach them any other way? The challenge increasingly for Christians in our culture is to find ways to subvert the confident ignorance of our friends.
We can draw comfort from the fact that the problem of plausibility is not a new problem in the history of the church. Indeed, our Christian heritage contains a wide range of resources that we can adapt to our own day. We might call these "corollary apologetics," ways of affirming the worthiness of the Christian faith other than by traditional theological arguments.
One strategy is to make contact with people's immediate, secular concerns. In the case of knowledge, Christians offer expertise in some area that others find valuable, an experience that can prompt those others to consider seriously what Christians have to say about spiritual matters. A marvelous example of this is retold by Yale University's Jonathan Spence. He tells how missionary Matteo Ricci taught the Chinese to use memory aids.
The family that Ricci was seeking to instruct in mnemonic skills stood at the apex of Chinese society. Governor Lu himself was an intelligent and wealthy scholar who had served in a wide variety of posts in the Ming dynasty bureaucracy. … Now he had reached the peak of his career, as a provincial governor, and was preparing his three sons for the advanced government examinations; he himself had passed these exams with distinction twenty-eight years before, and knew along with all his contemporaries that success in the exams was the surest route to fame and fortune in the imperial Chinese state. Thus we can be almost certain that Ricci was offering to teach the governor's sons advanced memory techniques so that they would have a better chance to pass the exams, and would then in gratitude use their newly won prestige to advance the cause of the Catholic church.
So-called tentmaking missionaries go beyond mere self-support in precisely this way, using their special abilities to bring plausibility to their convictions about the gospel. One popular strategy used frequently today on the mission field is the teaching of the English language to those foreigners eager to learn the language of international commerce. An example used closer to home is the Christian musicians, scientists, soldiers, explorers, and industrialists who have used the platforms they have earned through their worldly successes to testify to their Christian faith. Sophisticates may grimace, but many people have claimed that they were encouraged to question whether Christianity is "just for losers" when these "winners" gladly endorsed it.
Wisdom is a second dimension of this apologetical resource. Christians contribute as they can—in neighborhood associations, in the workplace, on school boards, in mass media forums, in government—to the public conversation. Such Christians bring the wisdom of the Christian tradition to bear on matters of societal concern, and they do so in such a way that those who do not share Christian presuppositions nonetheless can appreciate and benefit from this wisdom. Education, financial responsibility, marriage and child-rearing, conflict management, ecological stewardship, racial justice, and a host of other generically human concerns all have been discussed by Christians in public language. Beyond the important intrinsic benefits of such "salting" and "lighting" of one's culture, Christians hereby construct reputable standpoints from which they can share more specifically Christian convictions.
Any important work done well is an effective apologetic, especially as integrity in service continues to erode in our society. A Christian plumber who answers calls promptly, fixes problems quickly and thoroughly, and charges a fair price for time and materials makes a powerful impression for good upon every customer. A Christian manager who sets out clear expectations, listens attentively to both complaints and suggestions, and responds with evident thoughtfulness and wisdom elicits respect that strengthens any explicitly Christian testimony he or she might render. Good, skillful service thus casts threads around others that connect them to us in a relationship of mutual respect within which spiritual conversation might take place.
The danger always lurks, however, that Christianity will be misunderstood as guaranteeing success in worldly affairs. It can be a short step from the testimonies of local celebrities at a Billy Graham Crusade to the "health-and-wealth" message of the heretics on the evangelical fringe. As Christians thus appeal to worldly talent, wisdom, and accomplishment in order to overcome the prejudices of others, they need deep roots in biblical teaching: "Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world … so that no one might boast in the presence of God" (1 Cor. 1:26-29, NRSV). It may well be that Christians must engage in the paradox of exploiting our worldly status in order to win a hearing for a gospel that subverts precisely that status under the grace and glory of God.
Justice and charity
Missionaries typically have demonstrated the authenticity of the message of God's love through acts of justice and charity. Pope Gregory the Great (c. 540-604), for instance, earned lasting respect and loyalty to his office by interceding for the city of Rome against barbarian invaders and by spending church money on massive relief for the poor when the political leaders failed to help. The generosity of monasteries as places of refuge, healing, and nourishment redounded greatly to the credit of the church in the Middle Ages. The work of William Wilberforce (1759-1833) and the Clapham Sect against slavery in Britain and the many other worthy causes championed by evangelicals in the nineteenth century on both sides of the Atlantic burnished the image of the Christian faith in those societies. In our own day, the work of World Vision and Mother Teresa and her Sisters of Charity shut the mouths of those who would accuse the church of otherworldly irrelevancy.
Perhaps no movement in church history, though, was as sweeping in its attempt to provide for human needs as was Pietism under the leadership of A. H. Francke in eighteenth-century Germany. With the support of Pietist leader P. J. Spener, Francke moved to Halle and became a pastor and professor of biblical languages and theology. These duties were not enough for the indefatigable Francke. He organized the establishment of the famous Halle institutions, and historian Howard Snyder makes an impressive list of them.
Most of these institutions were started partly in response to needs in Glaucha and the surrounding area after the plague of 1682-83, which reportedly reduced the population of the town by two-thirds. Francke was so moved by the ignorance and poverty of the children of Glaucha that in 1695 he began a school for the poor which soon grew to over fifty students. This led to the founding of an orphanage in 1696, and eventually to a whole series of interrelated and mutually supportive institutions. These included a paedagogium for the sons of the nobility (which the young Count Zinzendorf attended for six years), a Latin school to prepare students for the university, and German schools designed to provide a practical secondary education for boys and girls of ordinary citizens. In addition to the orphanage and schools, Francke founded a home for poor widows (1698), a bookstore, a chemical laboratory, a library, a museum of natural science, a laundry, a farm, a bakery, a brewery, a hospital, and other enterprises. He was instrumental also in founding the Canstein Bible House which was lodged in the new orphanage building, completed in 1698. By 1800 the Bible house had distributed nearly three million Bibles and Scripture portions in several languages.
Snyder goes on to describe Francke's explicit objectives for these institutions: "They were part of a very intentional reform vision. … He saw his schools as means for infiltrating all levels of society with Pietist influence. His educational methods and ideas were in fact applied very widely due to the success of the Halle schools."
The apologetic of good deeds was commanded in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:16), and the history of the church is full of instances of noble Christian obedience to it. To be sure, the Lord Jesus reminds us that love for the neighbor is undertaken for its own sake in obedience to God, not merely as a means to an evangelistic end. Still, these acts of justice and charity do indeed express the good news of God's love, and they create grounds upon which Christians can go on to set out explicitly that message.
Our friends are entitled to ask whether Christianity delivers what it promises. Christianity claims that Jesus Christ established a community of believers that would be characterized chiefly by worship of him and love for each other (John 13-17). The inquirer therefore rightly may ask whether such communities exist. He or she may want to know, after all the demonstrations of prestige and integrity and charity, does Christianity transform individuals, decisively reorient them toward Christ, and integrate them into a community of love?
Monastic renewal movements understood this principle and planted new communities of faith to initiate and sustain Christian testimony throughout Europe. Mass evangelists in our era wisely pay attention to what they call "follow-up" so that the fire of revival can be sustained in the fireplaces of existing or newly founded churches once the tents have folded up or the stadiums have emptied.
John Wesley (1703-91) stands as an exemplar of this sensibility. He devoted enormous energy to structuring a variety of groups to lead people into the Christian faith and to help them mature once they were converted. For all of the spectacular successes of Methodist oratory, Wesley believed that it was in these intimate meetings of earnest fellowship, rather than in the general preaching services, that the great majority of conversions occurred. Indeed, he early resolved simply not to preach anywhere he could not follow up by establishing such groups with adequate leadership.
Considering Christian community leads to considering the broader category of Christian institutions. If churches, parachurch organizations, house fellowships, and families themselves are clearly devoted to Christ and Christian fellowship, and live out their Christian calling with integrity (with the other forms of "corollary apologetics" in action), they accomplish something deeply important. These social structures, these created environments, are places in which people can consider the Christian truth-claims as if those claims really might be true. Once inside such structures, inquirers now can and will hear theological instruction and challenge, because they have been welcomed into a context in which such discussions are now interesting, intelligible, and plausible.
If we want our friends to consider seriously our gospel message, we must depend upon more than intellectual argument, however worthy that surely is in the right context. We must rouse them from their settled complacency as we depend upon the Holy Spirit of God to shine out through all the various lamps of good works we can possibly raise to the glory of our Father in heaven.
-John G. Stackhouse, Jr., is associate professor of religion at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. This article was adapted from the author's contribution to Christian Apologetics in the a Postmodern World, ed. Timothy Phillips and Dennis Okholm (InterVarsity).
Copyright © 1997 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
February 3, 1997 Vol. 41, No. 2, Page 48
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