Telling a Better Story | Book Review


In an increasingly post-Christian America, apologetics — the defense of the Christian faith — is a necessary component of evangelism and discipleship. Christians need to “be prepared to give an answer [Greek, apología] to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). How they can do so well is the subject of Joshua D. Chatraw’s excellent new book, Telling a Better Story.

Apologetics has a bad rap in some quarters. Chatraw tells the story of a student at a Christian university who asked him, “What is your best argument for Christianity?”

When Chatraw answered, “It depends on who I’m talking to and what the situation is,” the student seemed unimpressed.

He was looking for a “knockout punch,” a “winner take all” argument. Here’s a pro tip: Those arguments are vanishingly rare, and anyway, what we want to win is a person, not a debate.

And then apologetics seems far removed from the concerns of everyday life. Chatraw describes the kind of apologetics in which many Bible-believing Christians were trained as “Building Block Apologetics.” The foundation of the pyramid is “universal logic,” rules of thinking that validate a “general theism,” on top of which is “historical evidence” for the Bible. The capstone is “the message of the gospel.” The problem with this kind of apologetics, which moves from the abstract to the concrete, is not that it’s false but that it’s irrelevant to most people. It answers questions they’re not asking and leaves little room for genuine conversation.

Rather than a “knockout punch” or a “rigid system,” Chatraw offers a “way” of doing apologetics that he calls “Inside Out Apologetics.” He explains, “The goal is for both sides to be willing to ‘try on the other story’ and see how it ‘fits’ rationally, psychologically, and experientially.” For the Christian, this involves internalizing certain questions and applying them prudently in conversations:

Inside:

  • What can I affirm [in the other’s story], and what will I need to challenge?
  • Where does this story lead, and is it internally consistent and livable?

Outside:

  • Where do competing views borrow from the Christian story?
  • How does the Christian narrative better address our experiences, observations, and history?

Chatraw cites Paul’s Areopagus speech as an example of an inside-out approach (Acts 17:22–31). Inside: “[Paul] quotes pagan sources and affirms where Athenian thinking is correct,” but he also “challenges their culture by using one of their own beliefs to demonstrate that God must be independent from his creation.” Outside: Paul invites the Athenians to view life through a Christ-centered lens: God “has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).

If Acts 17:32 is any guide, inside-out conversations do not guarantee conversions, either for Paul or for us. They do lead to more productive conversations with those willing to invest the time, however. And that’s what budding Christian apologists should aim for.

The bulk of Telling a Better Story demonstrates how an inside-out approach might work in conversations about five common cultural assumptions in post-Christian America:

  1. I don’t need God or religion.
  2. You have to be true to yourself.
  3. The ultimate goal of life is to be happy.
  4. It’s okay to be spiritual, but not to say that your religion is the only way, or attempt to bring it into the public square.
  5. We’ve progressed beyond faith and myths to reason and science.

I don’t know about you, but I see variations on these assumptions every day in my social media feed. These are the questions people are asking, and therefore the questions Christians need to be prepared to discuss.

Of course, once you commit to having a conversation with someone who does not share your Christian faith, you’re committing to hearing their pushback on that faith. Chatraw rounds out his book with three common objections to Christianity: it’s oppressive, unloving, and untrue. He concedes— rightly, in my opinion — that our skeptical friends sometimes have a point. Christians have not always acted Christianly: liberatingly, lovingly, rationally. There are nonetheless reasons to believe, and to act on the belief, that the gospel is true.

Telling a Better Story concludes with a quote from Soren Kierkegaard: “Christ is the truth in the sense that to be the truth is the only true explanation of what truth is.” In post-Christian America, it is important that we Christians “speak the truth” as we answer the questions of our unbelieving neighbors. More importantly, however, we need to “embody the truth.” This, as Chatraw puts it, is the “greater apologetic.”

Book Reviewed
Joshua D. Chatraw, Telling a Better Story: How to Talk About God in a Skeptical Age (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2020).

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P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

Review of ‘The Pilgrim’s Regress: The Wade Annotated Edition’ by C. S. Lewis


The-Pilgrims-Regress-WadeC. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress: The Wade Annotated Edition, ed. David C. Downing (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014). Hardcover

First published in 1933, The Pilgrim’s Regress by C. S. Lewis is “an allegorical apology for Christianity, reason, and romanticism” (in the words of the subtitle). It was Lewis’s first Christian book, written over the course of two weeks (August 15–29, 1932) while Lewis stayed in Belfast with his lifelong friend, Arthur Greeves. Lewis had converted—or perhaps, reconverted—to Christianity in either 1929 or 1930 (the date is disputed by Lewis scholars) after a long intellectual sojourn through various intellectual points of view. Elements of that sojourn find their way into the book, though readers should not assume that the book is strictly autobiographical.

The Pilgrim’s Regress is an allegory, self-consciously modeled after The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. In broad outline, it traces the journey of John from Puritania to the Grand Canyon, along the canyon to the North and the South, and then across the canyon with the help of Mother Kirk so that, after he retraces his earlier steps, he comes to the Landlord’s Castle at long last. Puritania is a legalistic and judgmental form of Christianity. The Grand Canyon is Peccatum Adae, the “sin of Adam,” which separates humans from God. The North symbolized arid rationalism, while the South symbolized undisciplined emotionalism. Mother Kirk is what Lewis would later call “mere Christianity”—as opposed to the doctrine of a specific denomination, the Landlord is God, and the castle is union with God.

As in Bunyan’s work, much of the action in The Pilgrim’s Regress revolves around John’s conversations with the proponents of various worldviews. In an Afterword to book’s third edition, Lewis wrote, “my own progress had been from ‘popular realism’ [i.e., naturalistic materialism] to Philosophical Idealism; from Idealism to Pantheism; from Pantheism to Theism; and from Theism to Christianity.” Broadly speaking, these isms mark John’s conversation partners throughout the book.

In that same Afterword, Lewis owned that the book’s “chief faults” were “needless obscurity” and “an uncharitable temper.” (Lewis wrote less of this latter fault than the former, so I’ll pass over his remarks about it here.) The obscurity arises, in part, from the intellectual currents of the early twentieth century that Lewis interacted with, many of which—such as Idealism—had already ebbed within a few years of the book’s publication. (By contrast, Lewis’s critiques of Nazism and Marxism were timely and prophetic.) It also arises in part from the way Lewis defined the word romanticism. For Lewis, the word referred to the experience of “intense longing,” where the “the sense of want is acute and even painful, yet the mere wanting is felt to be somehow a delight.” Further, he adds, “there is a peculiar mystery about the object of this Desire.”

In later works, Lewis would use the German term Sehnsucht and the English word joy to describe this longing. (Hence, he titled his memoir, Surprised by Joy). He spelled out the logic of this longing in a famous sentence from Mere Christianity: “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” It is this desire that propels John along the journey and which sustains him as the various worldviews attempt to explain away or subvert it. For Lewis, we should not oppose “desire” (romanticism) and “explanation” (reason) to one another, for they work together to bring the pilgrim to God. That is the whole point of his “allegorical apology” for them both.

Despite the clarity of Lewis’s basic insight regarding desire and reason, the obscurity of his references makes The Pilgrim’s Regress one of his most difficult books to read. That is why the Wade Annotated Edition of the book is such a boon to Lewis scholars and fans alike. Lewis himself annotated a 1935 printing of the book for a student named Richard Thornton Hewitt. That copy is one of the holdings of the Marion E. Wade Center of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, and the basis for this edition of the book. In addition to Lewis’s own annotations, David C. Downing has added “nearly five hundred page notes, including definition of unusual terms, translations from a half-dozen foreign languages, identifications of key characters, and cross-references to other works by C. S. Lewis,” as well as selected bibliographies of works by and about Lewis. I would not recommend reading any other edition of The Pilgrim’s Progress than this one, so helpful is it. Indeed, as I read the Wade Annotated Edition, I was astonished to see the many ways in which Lewis’s Christian rational romanticism was already formed at such an early stage. Downing consistently points out how Lewis expanded on themes first mentioned here.

Who, then, should read this book? As noted above, certainly Lewis scholars and fans. If you have read widely in Lewis but have not read this book, it repays careful study. It is Lewis in seed-form. Ideas present here will come to flower in his later books, whether apologetic, fictional, or biographical. The one group I would not recommend to read The Pilgrim’s Regress is people who have not read, or have not read widely in Lewis already. For them, it is better to start with the flower than the seed. Only after they see the full bloom will they have appreciation for the potential of the early germ.

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Christianity & Western Thought, Volume 3: Journey to Postmodernity in the 20th Century


Alan G. Padgett and Steve Wilkens, Christianity and Western Thought, Vol. 3: Journey to Postmodernity in the Twentieth Century (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009). $35.00, 388 pages.

Tertullian, the North African church father, famously asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Athens was a cipher for rational philosophy; Jerusalem for revealed theology. Tertullian’s answer to this question was apparently, “Nothing.” In the two millennia of its existence, however, the mainstream of the Christian church has answered, “Quite a lot.”

Over the past twenty years, InterVarsity Press has published a three-volume survey of the interactions between reason and faith, Christianity and Western Thought, with an evangelical readership uppermost in mind. (Like Tertullian, evangelicals have often been suspicious of the philosophical enterprise.) Colin Brown wrote the first volume, From the Ancient World to the Age of Enlightenment, which came out in 1990. Alan G. Padgett and Steve Wilkens wrote the second volume, Faith and Reason in the 19th Century, ten years later. Now they have brought the series to a conclusion with a third volume, Journey to Postmodernity in the 20th Century (2009).

Two things differentiate this multi-volume history of philosophy from the comparable series by Frederick C. Copleston and Anthony Kenny: First, the intended readership is evangelical scholars and students. Second, the specific focus is how philosophy has informed or been critiqued by theology. Some readers in the history of philosophy might find this narrowing of readership and focus off-putting, but I think it adds to the value of the series. If you want an encyclopedic history of philosophy, read Copleston. But if you’re interested in that history with a specific set of faith-questions in mind, read Christianity and Western Thought.

Volume 3 examines the Journey to Postmodernity in the 20th Century. The century began with optimism in the ability of reason, specifically scientific forms of reasoning, to clarify and even solve humanity’s enduring problems. But it ended with the dissolution of that scientistic metanarrative after two world wars, the end of colonialism, and the growth of the civil rights movement—all of which called into question the West’s characteristic self-regard.

Like other historians of philosophy, Padgett and Wilkens classify the two main streams of twentieth century philosophy as analytic and continental. But they also point out a deep meeting of the waters between these two streams in terms of the questions they ask, even if the modes of analysis and answers or these two streams are strikingly different or even contradictory. Those questions center on four topics:

  • Philosophy and science
  • Ontology, or the nature of being—specifically, human being
  • Language and meaning
  • Postmodernism

 

As befits historians of philosophy, the authors present each philosopher’s argument from a sympathetically critical perspective, seeking first to understand each one on his (rarely her) own terms. But the history of philosophy is incomplete without a record of rejoinder and surrejoinder, and the authors attempt to capture the ongoing debate as well.

As befits a history of philosophy with an interest in its interaction with theology, the authors also provide, where appropriate, a narrative of how Christian philosophers and theologians have appropriated and critiqued the philosophical tendencies of their day. Chapter 5, “Existence and the Word of God,” helpfully surveys the relationship of neo-orthodox theologians to various forms of existentialism. Chapter 8, “Faith in Philosophy,” looks at the rise of a neo-Thomism among Catholic thinkers, as well as the surprising rise of what might be turned “analytical theology,” because of the use of analytical tools of language analysis and logic by Christian philosophers addressing specifically Christian theological themes.

Unlike some Christian apologists, who denounce postmodernism tout court, Padgett and Wilkens take a cautiously appreciative stance. Postmodernism is a bewildering variety of often mutually incompatible themes and strategies, so Christians ought to be very careful in their assessments of it.

On the whole, I enjoyed and recommend Journey to Postmodernity in the 20th Century, not to mention the preceding two volumes of the Christianity and Western Thought series. My only major disappointment was the near total absence of discussion of political philosophy and the dearth of discussion of ethics. Alasdair MacIntyre makes a brief (and welcome appearance), but Leo Strauss and John Rawls are completely absent. Obviously, authors must pick and choose what they are going to discuss, but politics and ethics (including bioethics) are often the only “philosophical” topics of interest to lay readers. And they have an immediate bearing on how we live our lives, in a way that technical discussions of science, ontology, and language don’t.

But again, I enjoyed this book and the entire series and recommend them for readers interested in a better answer to Tertullian’s question than he himself provided.

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P.P.S. It’s hard to believe, but this is my 750th blog post. Holy Cow!

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