In a little article titled “A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls,” G.K. Chesterton censures the modern intelligentsia because they “rate the gutter-boys for their immorality at the very same time that [they] are discussing (with equivocal German professors) whether morality is valid at all.”[1]

One hundred years after Chesterton’s rebuke, our culture is so permeated with such inconsistencies that we now live in what some have called the post-truth era. We no longer seek or believe in a coherent and objectively true understanding of the world. In such a context, how can Christians give a reasoned defense for their faith? How can a rational apologetic even be comprehended in a culture that no longer believes in truth or reason?

Taking his cues from Chesterton – among others – C.S. Lewis pioneered a new approach to apologetics that has become known as cultural apologetics. By attending to the essential role imagination plays in human understanding, Lewis sought ways to make the truth plausible, meaningful, and desirable again to his modern readers.

Since Lewis, cultural apologetics has developed and matured. Schools such as Houston Baptist University have helped to formalize this holistic way of defending the Christian faith by establishing graduate degrees in cultural apologetics. The discipline is now ready for someone to measure the height, width, and depth of its mature form, and Paul Gould, Professor of Philosophy and Apologetics at Oklahoma Baptist University, is up to the task.

In his excellent new book, Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World, Gould offers a comprehensive and readable map for navigating the world of cultural apologetics. Gould identifies the major concepts, arguments, and analogies of this landscape in a clear and concise way. For readers who want to zoom in on an area and investigate further, Gould’s footnotes and bibliography read like the resource list for a graduate degree and are alone worth the price of the book. Gould’s book is an excellent primer for the uninitiated and a helpful resource for those who want to grow in their ability to answer the apologetic challenges posed by our postmodern culture.

DEFINITION

Gould’s opening chapter gives readers a summary of the book and his attempt at a definition of cultural apologetics. One curious feature of this new discipline – and every integrative discipline – is how difficult it is to define exactly. Precise definitions feel somewhat misleading, for the effort to gather up a complex, multifaceted endeavor into a single statement renders it flat. Just as one cannot claim to know what poetry is after having read a dictionary definition, so one cannot really reduce cultural apologetics to a dictionary definition either; both the poet and the cultural apologist seek to show us that which is truer than true.

Consequently, this first defining chapter of Gould’s book proves the weakest. Throughout the rest of the book, Gould excels at taking us on a global tour of cultural apologetics, but he struggles to name this world with unifying clarity. His categorization and accompanying diagrams can be a bit confusing on a first read. For example, even after reading the book several times, I am still not sure why the “sensate” nature of our culture relates more to our longing for goodness than for truth or beauty (see diagram on page 32). However, I strongly recommend that the reader press on through the stiffness of the first chapter, for the rest of the book is well-polished and clear.

After gently setting aside a few reductionist definitions offered by Ken Meyers and William Lane Craig, Gould presents a very serviceable one: “cultural apologetics [is] the work of establishing the Christian voice, conscience, and imagination within a culture so that Christianity is seen as true and satisfying.[2] While a bit cumbersome and vague to those who don’t already understand what he means, Gould’s definition is still a good workhorse. It accurately draws together the two major characteristics of cultural apologetics: attention to the transcendentals and a recovery of meaning.

TRANSCENDENTALS

First, let us consider Gould’s use of the transcendentals. While traditional apologetics has focused almost exclusively on grasping the truth through the principles of reason, cultural apologists recognize that reality has not one but three essential characteristics: truth, goodness, and beauty. If Christian apologists would lead others to perceive the truth rightly, they must also show that the truth is always both good and beautiful.

This is especially important in our post-truth world. Contemporary culture may have blinded her eyes to truth, but perhaps she can still taste beauty or long for goodness. And wherever we find goodness or beauty, we will also find truth. Just as length, width, and height are always characteristics of any physical object, so these three transcendentals are always characteristics of that which is real. God has created all things that truly exist, He has called all things in His creation good, and the radiance of His presence makes all things beautiful.

Accordingly, Gould defines cultural apologetics as the Christian endeavor to awaken our contemporaries to reality again through a recovery of the transcendentals. Within a given cultural context, cultural apologists seek to reestablish the Christian voice, our ability to name truth; the Christian conscience, our ability to name goodness; and the Christian imagination, our ability to name beauty.

Unfortunately, Gould does not take time to explain the ancient transcendental categories clearly before using them as his framework. He simply credits modern philosopher and apologist Peter Kreeft with naming “the three longings of the human soul”without educating the reader about their historic role in classical philosophy and Christian thought.[3]  Still, Gould’s reliance upon these tested and true categories is what makes his book so successful. The three transcendentals provide the guiding principle for Gould’s deep understanding of cultural apologetics as well as for the structure of his book.

MEANING

The second part of Gould’s definition of cultural apologetics explains the purpose of restoring the three transcendentals: to show how Christianity is both “true and satisfying.” Too often philosophical apologists have won their arguments but failed to help unbelievers see the Gospel as personally meaningful; the Christian faith has never been mere rational ascent to a set of propositional statements. In our disenchanted postmodern culture, the meaning of Christian truth claims cannot be taken for granted; it too often sounds like gibberish. Thus, Gould argues that the cultural apologist must recover the transcendentals to show that not only is Christianity logically true, it is also meaningful and desirable. Truth and meaning must go together – lest we accept empty signifiers that make no impact on our lives personally – and it is goodness and beauty that make the truth something we desire to know.

RESTORING OUR VISION OF BEAUTY, TRUTH, AND GOODNESS

After his introductory chapter, Gould leads us through a first-rate overview of how the West became disenchanted and drained of spiritual meaning. He then outlines a method of re-enchantment which depends upon a revival of goodness and beauty in order to reawaken our culture’s desire to seek and see spiritual truth again.

After orienting the reader to our cultural predicament and prescribing a general approach, Gould unpacks how to recover each of the transcendentals in turn by tending to the human faculties that perceive them, beginning with that aspect of being most neglected by moderns – beauty. In chapter four, Gould explains how the human imagination stirs our desire to know truth through its apprehension of beauty. Building off Lewis’s memorable claim that pain is God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world,” Gould cleverly argues that “[b]eauty is a divine megaphone to rouse a disenchanted world.”[4] [5]

Next, in his chapter on reason, Gould contends against the anti-intellectual dumbing down of both secular culture and the church. Gould rightly argues that the “question is not if we will engage in philosophy but whether we will be a good philosopher or a bad one. . . .Part of our task as cultural apologists is to awaken in others this innate longing for truth and knowledge.”[6] Christ instructed His disciples to seek for the truth; He gave us minds so that we might use them to feast on the riches of His wisdom. A dull, lazy mind distracts us from this quest and prevents us from being fully conformed to the image of Christ, in whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Thirdly, Gould expounds Lewis’s classic apologetic from Natural Law and discusses how our innate longing for justice can lead us toward a desire for the Divine Good: Christ. Within these three chapters on beauty, truth, and goodness, Gould provides thoughtful, clear summaries of Lewis’s more innovative arguments for the existence of God from desire, reason, and morality. Gould’s explanations of these unique arguments would be very helpful for teachers, pastors, or lay leaders who want to make Lewis’s profound arguments more accessible.

CRITIQUES

The weaknesses of Gould’s new book are wonderfully few and mostly due to the editorial constraints of such a short overview. A few points – such as his discussion of narrative and his response to the challenges of evolutionary psychology – suffer for the lack of development. An adequate response to these topics requires more attention than Gould gives them, yet in his footnotes and bibliography he provides the reader with adequate resources for further study.

Some have criticized Gould for failing to see that postmodern culture is as much disenchanted as it is paganized by false re-enchantments, but this reproach seems unmerited. Gould recognizes that “we now live in a post-secular age” and he explicitly identifies and addresses three contemporary efforts to re-enchant the world with spiritual meaning apart from the recognition of a transcendent God: contemporary humanism, transhumanism, and neo-paganism.[7] In a short popular-level overview, Gould does not have the space needed to thoroughly address each of these false re-enchantments, but he does give an accurate – albeit brief – assessment of each that provides an introductory understanding of these movements and how to respond to them. Furthermore, while our culture is awash with neo-pagan movements, it is still the disenchantment of scientific materialism that drives our institutions. Scientists, not wiccan priestesses, are brought before Congress to testify in support of new policies.

However, I do fault Gould for joining the bandwagon that insists on misunderstanding Rod Dreher’s argument in The Benedict Option as a “large-scale withdrawal from cultural-shaping institutions.”[8] Although Gould respectfully praises aspects of Dreher’s argument, he still summarizes The Benedict Option “as a cultural apologetic from a posture of Christ against culture,” yet it seems to me that a thorough and fair reading of The Benedict Option must acknowledge that Dreher carefully nuances his approach to culture and by no means contends for one of Neihbur’s monolithic typologies.[9] (See Dreher’s direct response to reductionist interpretations of his work.) Rather than set Christians against “culture,” Dreher encourages the Church to withdraw from cultural institutions only in so far as working within those particular institutions has become toxic and futile. This retreat is strategic and not for the sake of permanent withdrawal but for the purpose of creating a stable foundation upon which Christians can work to better engage and renew the broader culture on all levels.

SUMMARY

While Gould has not provided us with a final definition of cultural apologetics, he has provided an accurate, thorough, and insightful overview. Cultural Apologetics is well-organized and filled with both clear explanations and meaningful analogies. In good form, Gould both explains and demonstrates its imaginative approach to apologetics by consistently offering his readers effective analogies, metaphors, images, and anecdotes. Gould especially excels when gathering and summarizing the work of those who have shaped cultural apologetics from Lewis to the present. His explanation of modern disenchantment, his chapter on reason, and his discussion of external barriers – the problem of evil, the problem of exclusivism, and the perceived conflict between faith and science – are excellent chapters which I plan to use in my own apologetic classes.

We at An Unexpected Journal, a collection of cultural apologists trained at Houston Baptist University, are very thankful to Paul Gould for writing a well-written, readable, and excellent introduction to our emerging discipline. Cultural Apologetics is a book we recommend for students and friends interested in helping us revive the Christian voice, conscience, and imagination in a world that indeed longs for the goodness, beauty, and truth of Christ.


[1]http://www.gkc.org.uk/gkc/books/penny-dreadfuls.html?fbclid=IwAR0htS3mDMmu4dywNrkdKhXS1LCBHCd0icNdMM6aBn9gyXLnvzIWGHGKbEA

[2] Paul Gould, Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019), 21.

[3] Ibid., 28.

[4] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996), 91.

[5] Gould, 104.

[6] Ibid., 126.

[7] Gould, 90.

[8] Ibid., 167.

[9] Ibid., 24.

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