the shape of leadership

Proclaiming Truth in a Disenchanted World

Paul M. Gould outlines an apologetic approach for today’s culture

Phil Steiger on April 1, 2019

The story is becoming increasingly common. When Christians present the case for the truth of our faith, a typical response — even among people with open minds — is some version of, “So, what?”

An evangelist or apologist may lay out a compelling case for Christianity, but that just doesn’t seem to be enough.

How did we get to this point? And once we figure that out, what can we do about it? Paul M. Gould’s Cultural Apologetics is a fresh and welcome treatment of both the problem and ways of getting at the solution. Gould is a professor of philosophy and apologetics at Oklahoma Baptist University’s College of Graduate and Professional Studies, and has been a campus evangelist for years with Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ). This makes his book a practical combination of issues and advice based in experience.

The book has two sections, connected with an interlude describing how the second section addresses the first. The first section defines cultural apologetics and discusses what Gould calls disenchantment and re-enchantment. The second half does the apologetic work of developing arguments and ways of working with imagination, reason and conscience.

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.” Apologetics proper concerns itself with defending the truth of the Christian faith and formulating evidence in its favor.

Cultural apologetics, as Gould defines it, does not neglect truth and arguments, but adds the work of making the Christian faith desirable to the seeker. The Christian position, then, is not just “it is true,” but is, “it is true, and it satisfies human longings.”

Gould maintains that this expansion on the way we think about evangelism and apologetics is critical because we live in a disenchanted culture. By disenchantment, he means, “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.” We no longer see the world in its proper light. We have lost our sense of the fingerprints of the Creator in His creation. Injecting the Creator back into creation is the work of re-enchanting culture.

Paul Gould is interested in helping Christians learn how to evangelize a culture that is changing in fundamental ways.

We are, as Gould puts it, under the spell of materialism. We act as if the world is only physical. Yet we know, somewhere deep in our bones, that there is more to this world than just physical matter. Because culture has ruled out the possibility of God, however, people are left in a no man’s land. A genuine seeker is now caught in the middle of an unreconcilable tension between needing meaning and rejecting the only true Source of meaning.

A cultural apologetic addresses both sides of this internal divide. The gospel story is true, God really does exist, and we are reasonable to believe so. More than that, the Christian faith fulfills our need for the transcendent and the beautiful. What we want to be true really is true.

Gould builds a wonderful aid to help us think through how disenchantment works and what it means for Christians to re-enchant the world with their witness. We have what he calls “three universal longings” — longings for truth, goodness and beauty. Disenchantment strips God from all these longings and leaves us with deeply unsatisfying, materialist options.

To re-enchant the world, cultural apologetics builds bridges with reason to get at truth, conscience to get at goodness, and imagination to get at beauty. The second half of the book engages this project.

In the chapter on imagination, for instance, Gould argues it is necessary to use “imaginary reasoning” because the assumptions and background knowledge of our culture have changed so much. By this, he does not mean fictional or fake reasoning. Gould means using the creative faculty of imagination to describe ideas that are now mostly lost on our neighbors. For example, I can give my neighbor a theological definition of sin, or I can use metaphor and imagery to help it make sense.

However, this doesn’t exempt us from studying and knowing our theology. Gould notes, “Imaginative reasoning is not easy. We must study theology and we must study culture. Then we must learn to make thoughtful connections between the two.”

This seems to me to be a good approximation of preaching. The pastor should have a solid grasp on biblical theology and have the tools for exegeting the culture. When the pastor preaches, he or she should communicate God’s Word through the lens of the culture in which the congregation lives. Pastors make “thoughtful connections between the two,” showing God’s Word to be the most satisfying answer to real life.

In the end, Gould is interested in helping Christians learn how to evangelize a culture that is changing in fundamental ways. While keeping our eyes on the truth of the Christian faith, we also learn how to reanimate culture with the goodness and wisdom of God. We learn how to talk about culture, family and the arts in terms of God and how He created us.

If our faith is true, it will not only stand up to rational scrutiny, but it will also fulfill our deepest longings. It will be the thing that, at our very core, we want to be true.

Book Reviewed

Paul M. Gould, Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019).

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