Paul Gould’s recently released primer Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World (Zondervan, 2019) provides the reader with an overview of a branch of apologetics that, until recently, has not enjoyed very much time in the spotlight. Gould defines cultural apologetics as, “the work of establishing the Christian voice, conscience, and imagination within a culture so that Christianity is seen as true and satisfying” (21).
This, of course, raises a question about why this is work. If the Christian voice, conscience, and imagination were established, then Christianity would be naturally seen as true and satisfying. What gets in the way of that translation? Gould cites multiple factors, but easily the most prominent is what he calls disenchantment.
The first step towards disenchanting the world involves suppressing the truth about God. He writes, “When we fail to acknowledge God, this failure has catastrophic effects, corrupting our perception of reality” (45). When we are subject to this corruption, we end up emptying the world of any supernatural value. Gould explains, “Modern humanity, emptied of its soul, collectively side as sacredness vaporized into the crisp, cold air of this disenchanted age” (47). The first leads to the second, and the result is a world that we believe is stripped of the divine. This does not mean the divine is not here or there are not things that point towards God, but the world becomes flat. Hearts become numb. We don’t even realize that Christianity can be true or satisfying because we are so wrapped up in a culture held prisoner to reductionist materialism.
The answer to solving this dilemma is first to discover how to reenchant the world. Gould suggests two steps that need to be taken to move back toward a healthy view of this world and the reality of the supernatural universe that God created. First, our desires have to be awakened. He explains, “The Holy Spirit woos us through the beauty and imaginative stories depicted in these works of art. Ultimately this quest can only be satisfied with Jesus and the gospel” (73). The imagination provides the way for us to realize what we are missing but actually want. We begin to seek that which is good, true, and beautiful. We find ourselves on a journey toward reenchantment with our newly awakened desires.
This journey helps us “return to reality” in the words of Gould (82). Just as our tendency toward disenchantment began when we suppressed the truth about God, our journey toward reenchantment continues when we begin to recognize the reality of the world that we are privileged to be a part of. As Gould puts it, “For Jesus, nothing is mundane. The world is God-bathed, full of wonder and delight. The world is God-permeated” (82). Rather than seeing the world as boring, lacking significance, and ultimately pointless, we begin to actually recognize reality when we realize that this world is a much richer place than our culture teaches us. Once we embrace this picture of reality and come to realize that we don’t have to stay in the prison of reductionist, secular materialism, we can finally get to the point where we start doing the work of cultural apologetics.
The first way that Christians ought to do this is through the imagination. Gould writes, “As God’s image bearers, we are called to be artists and gardeners after his image [previously, he discusses Exodus 31 and Genesis 2, artists and gardeners respectively]. We should be creators and cultivators of goodness, truth, and beauty and what we make and how we attribute meaning” (103). By using our creative abilities, we are able to show the world around us that life actually has meaning. We can point people toward God. The existence of beauty is a sort of signal of transcendence that forces nonbelievers to come face-to-face with the reality that there might be something beyond the material. The imagination, pointed towards goodness, truth, and beauty, can do that.
Second, reason plays a vital role in all types of apologetics. Some people criticize cultural apologists for seeming to abandon reason, but Gould explains that nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, he writes, “Truth calls. Reason guides. A cultural apologetic of return will not shy away from demonstrating the truth of Christianity” (144). Contrary to the popular, modern attacks of the New Atheists, but really coming into the mainstream during the Enlightenment, becoming a Christian does not mean that we have to sacrifice reason. Also, for more traditional, philosophical apologists, engaging in cultural apologetics does not mean that we disregard many of the more popular ways to answer the objections that non-Christians bring to the table. Rather, it is part of a portfolio of tools that the cultural apologist uses to communicate the truth of Jesus Christ.
Third, the conscience plays an understated yet undeniably valuable role in communicating the truth. By this, Gould is referring to the moral character of the church and individual believers. He puts it rather bluntly when he says, “For Christianity to be desirable, we must narrow the gaps between how things are and how things ought to be” (146). In a world where we find the church in the news for all the wrong reasons, it is really important for us to remember that our behavior puts us on the front lines. If we want to be effective cultural apologists and if we want anyone to take what we say seriously, we need to show them why Christianity is desirable. People are “longing for goodness” (148). This is a topic that is not always emphasized in apologetics, so this chapter adds a great deal of value for that reason alone.
Of course, even with these three areas uniting and Christian apologists doing the good work of trying to communicate the truth of Jesus Christ to the world around us, there are still barriers. Gould outlines two different types. The first kind are internal barriers which “pertain to us as the people of God, the church, and the content and character of our lives” (171). The second kind are external barriers which “are obstacles to face found in culture at large, barriers that must be overcome by those on the path to faith” (171). These barriers follow from the failure to adequately address the past three topics adequately. For example, the barrier of anti-intellectualism, an internal barrier, is essentially the failure to embrace reason. This chapter is where the rubber meets the road. As important as imagination, reason, and conscience are, our communication sometimes falls on deaf ears, and we need to recognize the various types of opposition that we may encounter.
Last but certainly not least, Gould comes to my favorite chapter in the book. I love this topic because it gives me hope. The final chapter is entitled “Home.” Gould really wraps it all up effectively when he concludes, “In the end, it you will either save your life by giving it away or lose it by trying to save it yourself; you will either find the happiness and home that God gives and enjoy it in creaturely response or is eternally start” (205). Christianity provides answers that no other worldview can provide. Naturalism fails, postmodernism fails, and other world religions fail. Only when we come home to God’s rest will be at the end of our journey. We will recognize our world for what it is, fully permeated by the presence of God. Helping other people get to that point as well is the entire purpose of practicing cultural apologetics.
Gould’s work is a valuable addition on an emerging field of apologetics. His citation list is a valuable resource in and of itself in this remarkably well-researched volume. As a small side note, I was very happy to see him cite three professors I have had the privilege of studying under: Holly Ordway, Michael Ward, and Mark Linville. As one who likes to fancy himself a cultural apologist, I would recommend this work heartily, particularly to those who have a hard time grasping why this discipline is important or how it differs from more traditional, philosophical apologetics. His depth and breadth of knowledge are inspiring to me and cause me to want to keep reading and studying further. Of course, I guess that is one of the chief purposes of this work, so I would say it is very effective.
In the interest of complete transparency, I was provided with a courtesy copy of this book from Zondervan for the purpose of providing an unbiased review.