What is cultural “apologetics”? It is a question that has become a topic of heightened interest recently in light of the new Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics, and one I am often asked when I mention what I do in my spare time. Like many of my colleagues here at An Unexpected Journal, I have received graduate training in cultural apologetics (and am close to finishing a Master’s degree from Houston Christian University in the subject). Even among Christians, the term “cultural apologetics” raises confusion and even suspicion. My aims in this article are twofold: first, I wish to define cultural apologetics as it is properly understood to remove the ambiguity surrounding it, and second, I wish to address the concerns Christians might have with the approach.

The definition of “apologetics” lies in its Greek root word, “apologia,” which means “defense.”1 In the Christian context, it refers specifically to giving a defense and reasons for one’s belief in Jesus Christ as the crucified Son of God, Who gave His life to atone for man’s sins and to offer salvation to all those who accept Him as their personal Savior.2 We as Christians have a duty to love God with all our hearts, souls, strengths, and minds, but further, we have a duty to share the Gospel — literally, “the good news,” derived from the Greek “euangelion” — with our nonbelieving neighbors.3 Jesus Himself gave the Great Commission to the disciples, ordering them, and through them, all believers, to spread the good news of His Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”4

So far, so good, but the more pressing question facing us is the definition of cultural apologetics. C.S. Lewis, whose work has contributed to the foundation of cultural apologetics (or, as it is also known, “imaginative” apologetics), explains that the two human functions of imagination and reason must work together. In Lewis’s words, imagination is the “organ of meaning,” and reason is the “organ of truth.” Because meaning is “the antecedent condition both of truth and falsehood,” our imaginations must first possess meaning before our reason can begin judging their truth.5 In other words, through meaning, imagination furnishes the material with which reason works.6 Thus, rather than focusing on gaining knowledge about truth based on factual observations and logical propositions (a worthy pursuit in itself), cultural apologetics aims to impart knowledge through offering more direct and experiential brushes with truth via rich imagery. Such imagery facilitates these experiences by imbuing our language, including the terms used in theoretical arguments and abstract deductions, with deep theological meaning that is often fresh and surprising to nonbelievers unfamiliar with Christian orthodoxy.

But before we can begin sharing our faith with nonbelievers, we must first ensure we are working with the same raw material, or meaning, as they are. To use a simplistic example, if a nonbeliever has the image in his head of God as a bearded man in the sky who at a whim strikes down those who displease Him with thunderbolts, then certainly our encouragements for the nonbeliever to place his trust in such a deity will fall on deaf ears. For our arguments to be effective, we must be on the same page as our audience and share the same or similar meanings for our words. Cultural apologetics addresses this issue by introducing images to nonbelievers that align with Christian belief as formulated through proper doctrine. As an illustration, apologist Holly Ordway — who, incidentally, helped to found and create the Master of Arts in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Christian University — describes this discrepancy between the meanings that a skeptic and a believer assign to the same word as the “meaning gap” and explains that before she came to belief in Christ, she could not wrap her head around the Incarnation.7 C.S. Lewis’s character Aslan in his Narnia chronicles, however, presented the idea of the Incarnation in a way accessible to her imagination — and therefore also her reason.8 Through cultural apologetics, then, we rehabilitate the imaginations of nonbelievers and demonstrate the proper Christian meaning of certain foundational ideas underlying our beliefs.

Presenting considered propositional arguments for God is a time-honored apologetics approach, but all these arguments will ultimately fail if their underlying meaning is radically different from the pictures the nonbeliever already has lodged in his mind. Cultural apologetics equips us to demonstrate the ultimate meaning behind our hope as it plays out in our lives, which is a necessary precondition to our effective witness, by using relevant “cultural goods.” 

Far from being limited to high culture accessible only to those with specialized knowledge, “cultural goods” range from fine art to film, from literature to the laws we create, from music to the technological devices we use to listen to it, from architecture to the way cities utilize those structures in building and planning. In short, a cultural good is any creation, invention, or advancement, whether tangible or intangible, whether artistic or scientific, that human beings craft.9 Cultural apologists utilize these cultural goods by various means: some might perform deep analyses of literature and films and explicate their theological strengths and weaknesses; some may engage in their own creative work, such as writing, painting, and sculpting; others might work in an educative role to heal communication gaps between Christians and nonbelievers; others may address the lies of atheistic worldviews by tracing historical shifts across time; and still others might study our culture’s tools and institutions to understand how we use them and how they, in turn, shape us.

But nevertheless, suspicion exists among Christians about the use of cultural goods to discuss the Gospel, as these goods are often deemed sinful in our narcissistic, sex-obsessed, decadent culture. The Book of Acts, however, presents us with a biblical precedent for engaging in cultural apologetics. At the Areopagus, Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, seized upon a cultural good to show Christ to the Greeks. (See Raphael’s rendition of this event above, titled “St Paul Preaching in Athens.”) Among their statues of the gods was one entitled “To the unknown god,” which Paul used as a springboard to introduce them to the Christian God as the one true God whom they did not know.10 Here, we have a scriptural model of using a half-truth embedded in his contemporary culture to share the full truth as embodied in Christ. Similarly, we can and should use the fragments of truth we find in today’s cultural expressions to direct nonbelievers to Jesus.

Further, we often forget that the church itself, historically, had a deep connection to the culture of its time; in the Middle Ages, artistic expressions, such as music and the fine arts, usually had a basis in Christianity and were even included in the church’s worship.11 It is a more recent phenomenon that the church is not as intimately connected to the culture of the day.12 Thus, the church and we as believers have historical precedent to engage with our contemporary culture.

Many cultural goods, however, do contain material that is sinful by biblical standards, and many Christians wonder how to handle such content. But we must remember that in this world, precious little does not bear any stains from sin (including ourselves!), and Jesus Himself ate with prostitutes and tax collectors. Our task as cultural apologists is more complicated than simply “canceling” a piece of artwork because it depicts a sin; indeed, such a stringent standard would exclude even the Bible, with its depictions of various acts of violence and sexual perversions. Rather, we have the harder work of locating the art worthy of our attention and then sifting it for good theology. An accurate portrayal of the human condition will necessarily depict sin and the painful process of moral growth (and sanctification, for Christians). Our main question should therefore be not whether the art includes sin, but whether it accurately portrays the wages of sin as death and whether the overall picture it paints conforms to God’s moral reality. Indeed, the portrayal of human depravity without God can serve as an effective apologetic for why we need Him. As an illustration, Picasso’s horrific Guernica depicts the depths of human depravity when we are left to our own devices and our desperate need for justice.

Our artistic expressions are often, like their creators, a complicated bundle of both goodness and sin, and barring extreme examples that brook no exception (such as pornography) or those that are clearly morally bankrupt, we should be willing to engage in a fact-intensive inquiry for every cultural good we encounter. Such an approach leaves us open to discover, if indeed it can be found, the good, the true, and the beautiful in every cultural good we encounter — for God’s truth may be found anywhere, not only in those cultural goods explicitly labeled “Christian.” 

We should also keep in mind that given our individual circumstances, a certain degree of grace for personal conscience, as directed by the Holy Spirit, must be allowed. Those stronger in their walk with Christ might be able to deal with more difficult issues in cultural apologetics than their less spiritually mature brothers and sisters, and this is as it should be.

 We must therefore seek a nuanced, discerning approach that takes into account the work of the Holy Spirit in our cultural expressions. Certainly, He is not to be found in every work of art, but to swing to the other extreme — that Christ cannot be found in any cultural expression of our day — is to insult the power of the Logos, or the Word, as John describes Jesus.13 Jesus, the mighty Logos, delights in revealing Himself and communicating through the cultural goods of even our own intensely hedonistic society.

An important, related point is that Jesus Himself was located in a specific culture: that of the Jews in the first century. He was, as it were, “culture-specific” because He was a particular man in a particular family in a particular part of the world.14 His culturally specific Incarnation thus demonstrates that in Him, divine truth is “culturally embedded.”15 To be sure, to be culturally embedded is not to be relativistic, in the vein of current claims that posit the equal moral value of any given practice across different cultures, despite whatever depravity might be involved in those practices. Nor does it mean with regard to Jesus that He is merely a cultural figure. Rather, to recognize that Jesus’ divine truth was culturally embedded is to acknowledge that Jesus entered a specific point in history and used and sanctified that culture to communicate the Gospel. As Lewis notes, the story of Jesus embodies the “dying god” story that many mythologies feature, but the difference is that in Christ, the story concretizes in a specific man, a specific time, and a specific culture:

“It is like watching something come gradually into focus; first it hangs on the clouds of myth and ritual, vast and vague, then it condenses, grows hard and in a sense small, as a historical event in first century Palestine.”16

In other words, as Lewis explains, Jesus is the “myth became fact” insofar as He reflects the ancient myths of a dying and rising god, but as the Son of God actually entered history and brought the myth to life.17 Although God has redeemed all of His creation through Christ, He chose to do it in a highly specific and personal, way: through the Incarnation of His Son, Jesus. Jesus Himself ministered to those around Him in a culturally sensitive manner by approaching the Samaritan woman differently from the way He approached Nicodemus.18 Our duty as His followers is therefore “to serve the present generation by speaking within and to the cultural context in which God has placed us.”19 

In the present-day church, we often overlook a theological tenet the early church father Irenaeus emphasized: that Christ came to redeem not only humanity, but the entirety of God’s creation, including the natural world.20 Thus, we as Christians speak of and look forward to the New Heaven and the New Earth. But in the meantime, as we await that glorious day, if we take seriously the idea that Christ redeemed all of God’s good creation, every piece of it, then we must also take seriously the idea that He has redeemed art and culture — and not only art and culture in a general sense, but in a specific sense; that is, that He is currently redeeming our specific art and our specific culture. Not every cultural expression is redeemed in whole or even in part, but we should actively incorporate into our cultural mindset that Christ is in the process of actively redeeming our art. Protestants should particularly take note here, for evangelicals are far more likely than their Catholic counterparts to view culture with suspicion; whereas evangelicals focus on the sinfulness of the world and assume God’s absence from the arts, Catholics emphasize His presence and the “sacramentality of the world.”21 We should look harder for evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work in artistic expressions rather than automatically dismissing them out of hand.

Of course, the answers our culture provides do not necessarily point to Christ; indeed, one of the central points taken for granted in this discussion is necessarily that our culture as a whole has abandoned Christ. But as the author of Ecclesiastes wrote, there is nothing new under the sun, and human nature has not changed over the course of history. The questions we invariably ask also have not changed. The fact that we were not made for this broken, sinful world is one of the fundamental truths of Christianity, and because nonbelievers do not have Christ in their lives, they will continue to have Christ-sized caverns in their souls. They will therefore continue to ask questions only Jesus can answer and will find other ways through culture, such as film, to pose their theological questions and probe the issues common to humanity as they uniquely present themselves in the contemporary world.22 Taking our modern culture’s expressions seriously allows us to see exactly what questions are being asked and how they are framed, which gives us as Christians insight into the specific issues troubling our non-believing neighbors. If we do not pay attention to the culture surrounding us, we will never hear its questions and can never truly address its concerns. We would be the most tragic ships passing in the night. Instead, we must meet our neighbors’ needs and answer their questions as they ask them, not the questions we think they should ask. Knowledge of the cultural expressions of the day allows the apologist to take the collective pulse of the culture and gives us common ground for discussion with nonbelievers. 

In closing, we see that cultural apologetics equips us to minister to the nonbeliever’s past, present, and future. Through cultural apologetics, we minister to his past insofar as we use it to understand and rehabilitate his flawed mental pictures of what is good, true, and beautiful. It also addresses his present concerns by demonstrating the resiliency of our faith in providing robust answers to even his most difficult questions. Finally, it offers him a vision of the future by offering a foretaste of the glory divine that we as believers begin to experience in this life through sanctification. Cultural apologetics thus resembles Jesus Himself in its incarnational approach, as it ministers to the nonbeliever’s head, heart, and body rather than addressing the mind alone. Jesus came not simply to offer dry, rational, propositional apologetics, but also to embody the purest form of the good, the true, and the beautiful: a life lived in obedience to the Father. As Lewis explained in a letter to a friend, the rational “doctrines” derived about Jesus, the “true myth,” are “of course less true” than Jesus Himself, as they “are translations into our concepts and ideas of that [which] God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.”23 

In other words, Jesus is not merely a fact to be assented to or a math equation to be solved; He is our Lord who bled and died on the cross, who desires a personal relationship with each individual, and who came to deliver His message not merely through a list of directions and propositions, but also through entering history and living His own human life. This means that as we continue to follow Him, we find a path forward into the eternal future He promises every believer. Cultural apologetics, in its story-telling approach, mirrors this journey. It beckons us, onward and upward, to assent to the One calling us, whose face we see in a glass darkly now but one day we will see face to face. At its best, cultural apologetics shows, rather than simply telling. It gives us glimpses of that far-off mirror and ushers all of us, believers and nonbelievers alike, from our sinful past through our struggling present to our sanctified future. It beckons us to the Feast of the Lamb in the new heaven and the new earth, where in our glorified and resurrected bodies—the better to know the divine blaze of sound, imagery, and scents awaiting us—we will join our beloveds at the table and drink together from the fruit of the vine with Jesus, our Creator, Redeemer, and King. For that reason, I submit that cultural apologetics is an approach worthy of every Christian’s attention.

Notes:

[1] “Apologetics,” Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States, accessed April 3, 2023, https://suscopts.org/resources/literature/546/apologetics/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “What does the term ‘gospel’ mean?”, Bible.org, accessed April 3, 2023, https://bible.org/question/what-does-term-“gospel”-mean.

[4] Matt. 28:19-20.

[5] C.S. Lewis, “Bluspels and Flalansferes,” in Selected Literary Essays, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 265.

[6] For an extended treatment of this topic, please see Michael Ward, “The Good Serves the Better and Both the Best: C.S. Lewis on Imagination and Reason in Apologetics,” in Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy, and the Catholic Tradition, ed. Andrew Davison (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011).

[7] Holly Ordway, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith (Steubenville: Emmaus Road, 2017), 10, 25.

[8] Ibid., 10.

[9] For an extended discussion of “cultural goods,” upon which this discussion is based, see Andy Crouch’s Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008).

[10] Acts 17:22-31.

[11] Stanley J. Grenz, “What Does Hollywood Have to Do With Wheaton?  The Place of (Pop) Culture in Theological Reflection,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 43, no. 2 (June 2000), 306.

[12] Ibid.

[13] John 1:1.

[14] Grenz, “Wheaton,” 308.

[15] Ibid.

[16] C.S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?”, in The Weight of Glory (New York: HarperOne, 1949), 129.

[17] C.S. Lewis, “Myth Became Fact,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 66-67; C.S. Lewis, Miracles (1947; repr., New York: HarperOne, 1996), 186.

[18] “Wheaton,” 308.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Bengt Hägglund, History of Theology, 4th rev. ed., trans. Gene J. Lund (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2007), 48-49.

[21] Robert K. Johnston, Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 104-105.

[22] Ibid., 29.

[23] C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, October 18, 1931, in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, vol. 2, Family Letters 1905-1931 (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004), ed. Walter Hooper, 977.