Friday, August 10, 2012

"Are we biblically winsome and persuasive to our apologias?"

"There are, as you know, two kinds of popularity: the one, when we seek favor from motives of ambition and the desire of pleasing; the other, when, by fairness and moderation, we gain their esteem so as to make them teachable by us."
[John Calvin, in a letter to William Farel]

"Finally, live out the virtues of a good ambassador. Represent Christ in a winsome and attractive way. You -- God's own representative -- are the key to making a difference for the kingdom. Show the world that Christianity is worth thinking about."
[Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions, by Gregory Koukl and Lee Strobel, Zondervan, 2009]

When the journal Sacred Tribes was launched by John Morehead, Philip Johnson, and Jon Trott back in 1999, Philip Johnson wrote the lead article for issue 1, volume 1, under the title "Apologetics, Mission and New Religious Movements: A Holistic Approach." Johnson went on to expand that article into a book by the same title, published by Sacred Tribes Press in 2010.

Anyone who thinks of John Morehead & Co. as anything other than just another bunch of Christian missionaris with the same goal as all other Christian missionaries (the replacement one way or another of all of humanity's religions with The One True Religion) should read the Introduction to this book by his long-time missiological colleague and close collaborator (scroll down).

Before getting to Johnson's essay itself, I would like to draw the reader's attention to some of its highlights.

In the opening paragraph, Johnson essentially gives the game away. He reveals that in his mental universe there are two ways of looking at adherents of "new religious movements" (a category under which one finds everything from Latter Day Saints and Seventh Day Adventists, to western converts to Buddhism and Hinduism, to Wiccans, Satanists and Scientologists): (1) poor confused souls who are "bedeviled" into following False Doctrines through no particular fault of their own (because, you know, of The Fall), and (2) "heretics and satanic adversaries" who are the willing followers of their Lord in Hell, whom they will join once they leave this earth. Take your pick.

In the second paragraph, Johnson begins to lay out the broad outlines of his case for a shift in the "vocabulary" and "tone" that should be employed by missionaries when "dealing with cults and new religions." In the following paragraphs Johnson contrasts one group of Bible stories which depict "direct and hostile confrontations", such as Matthew 12:30 in which Jesus declares "He who is not with me is against me," with kinder, gentler Bible stories in which Jesus and Paul are portrayed as "winsome and attractive" toward those they seek to convert, such as Paul's appeal to the Hellenes of Athens found in Acts 17:16-34.

It is worth taking a closer look at the little vignette in Acts that is so often presented as an exemplary tale of Christian open-mindedness. In the first place, Paul "was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols." (Hey, Paul, this is, you know, like, Athens. The Parthenon? Ever heard of it?) Then a little later on Paul is making a nuisance of himself obnoxiously haranguing Athenian Pagan passers-by on some street corner, when "a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him." One thing leads to another, and eventually Paul finds himself being invited to present his case for this new foreign God of his before a large gathering of Pagans (both Athenians and out-of-towners). Paul tells them that while they might be very religious after a fashion, they do not understand what it is they worship. In the past, Paul warns them, the One True God of the Christians overlooked this "ignorant" behavior of the Pagans, but now everyone must worship only The One True God of the Christians or face eternal damnation. This is the "winsome and attractive" version!

But now it is time to let Philip Johnson speak for himself:

Apologetics, Mission and New Religious Movements:
A Holistic Approach

Sacred Tribes Press, 2010
Philip Johnson


New religious movements form part of the mosaic that makes religious pluralism quite a challenge for Christian missions in the twenty-first century. Of course mentioning missions and new religions in the same breath might raise a few eyebrows: is the apologist primarily a gate-keeper who fends off false doctrine, or can an apologist also actively seek to make disciples from the ranks of new religions? Our answer to that question will partly depend on where we place the most emphasis: (a) Do we regard adherents [of "new religious movements"] primarily as persons made in God's image bedeviled by the Fall and who have been misdirected? Or (b) Do we regard them primarily as heretics and satanic adversaries who are destined for divine wrath?

Now, some apologists might take exception to this initial gambit of mine and feel this is simply pettifogging about words. It might be felt that this is an artificial dichotomy that deliberately polarizes the issue because an apologist can both fend off false doctrine and engage in evangelism. I certainly do not intend to imply that these twin functions are mutually exclusive. However, what I am seriously inviting readers to reflect on concerns our motives, methods and messages in dealing with cults and new religions. In particular, it is about our choice of vocabulary, the tone in which we write and speak, and our efforts to disciple people who are currently devotees in new religions.

If we are genuinely interested in communicating Jesus' call to discipleship to those who participate in new religions, then we must look at the shape and content of our messages to them. What parts of Scripture are we emulating when presenting the gospel and commending the faith? Do we consciously or unconsciously adopt a stance similar to these passages:

(a) Elijah versus the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18: 21-40)?

(b) John the Baptist versus the Pharisees (Matthew 3: 7-10)?

(c) Jesus versus the Pharisees (Matthew 12: 22-39, Luke 11:42-54)?

(d) Paul versus the Judaizers (2 Cor. 11, Galatians)?

From the "Men On A Mission" Calendar, 2009
In the above examples we have direct and hostile confrontations occurring between a particular religious group inside the nation of Israel and God’s prophet, or with Jesus, or with Paul and a congregation. Are these sorts of encounters intended in Scripture to be used as a guide to apologetics, evangelism and discipleship? That is one of the issues I hope we can reflect on once this discussion is concluded.

By way of contrast, to what extent do we approach devotees in the style of Jesus in his encounter with the Samaritan woman (John 4: 1-42) and Paul’s apologetic speech in Athens (Acts 17:16-34)? Are we following Paul’s mission’s principle to become all things to all people (1 Cor. 9: 20-23) when approaching the non-Christian devotee? Are we biblically winsome and persuasive in our apologias? Do we show courtesy and respect towards devotees or are we scornful, scathing and sarcastic in what we say and write? These too are issues I hope we will reflect on at the conclusion of this discussion.

On another tack, some countercult apologists might argue that apologetics is synonymous with evangelism. It might be argued that as adherents of new religions embrace false doctrine the tried and true method of apologetic refutation, coupled with an appeal to repent, is the only way to evangelize. This is what we have always done. So it might be genuinely felt that we are already engaged in mission and there is no further point to this discussion.

From the "Hot Mormon Moms" Calender, 2012
The temptation to cease reading here should be forestalled. It is almost a cliché to say that we are living in a time of rapid change. Yet it is precisely the ebb and flow of the tides of history that carry us along, and it can be very helpful for us when navigating those currents to take some bearings. By taking bearings I mean that we should from time to time pause in our journey and reflect on the cultural and historical contexts in which we find ourselves. We should also be willing to look at what our apologetic forebears have done and consider their strengths and limitations. By looking at what others have done or are doing, we can put our own labors into critical perspective and test the mettle of what we do.

Now there are things implied in what has just been said. One is that countercult apologetic methods need to be evaluated, and the very suggestion that our apologetic toolkit could stand some upgrading probably sounds shocking. Yet to paraphrase Socrates’ aphorism, “the unexamined apologetic method is not worth using.” If we evangelicals do indeed believe that in everything we say or do, we do it for Jesus Christ (cf. Col. 3:17), then we surely will want to do our utmost in service for him in the field of new religions.

A different way of looking at ourselves in the mirror is through Ralph Neighbour’s cheeky point about the church’s famous last words: "we never tried it that way before." He made those remarks about resistant attitudes to change in the church. For my purposes Neighbour’s remarks provoke a pertinent question for us to consider - how resistant are we to examining our methods and learning about other approaches? Are we so habituated to primarily using negative apologetics as the remedy for cults that we might be too rigid to be challenged by fresh ideas? Has our apologetic toolkit become a sacred cow that we tenaciously refuse to subject it to scrutiny? I am not suggesting here, by the by, that apologetics is misguided or useless at all, particularly since I have taught the subject of apologetics at a Bible college level for several years, am on the board of the recently established School of Apologetics at the Centre for Evangelism and Global Mission in Sydney, Australia and been a practitioner in the field of personal evangelism and apologetics since 1978.

David Wilkinson of St Johns College, University of Durham, in addressing the wider dimensions of apologetics observes:

"Apologetics, like preaching, is an art to be developed rather than a science to be understood. In developing apologetics for our time, we need to rediscover its biblical roots. Often our western theological tradition has narrowed the practice of apologetics making it largely irrelevant to contemporary mission. A broader biblical view allows us to reformulate apologetics as an essential part of Christian ministry and evangelism in the new millennium."

What Wilkinson intimates about reformulating apologetics to suit our cultural circumstances has some bearing on the sub-discipline of countercult apologetic ministry. We need to consider what our cultural circumstances now comprise in view of religious pluralism being a street-life reality in most parts of the world. For some western Christians it probably comes as a great jolt to realize that the privileged societal position of Church dominance has been undermined or in many cases has ceased to be a living reality. One thing we might find helpful to rediscover is how the children of Israel and then the apostolic church functioned in cultural contexts where they were in the minority rubbing shoulders with many competing religious options. As Wilkinson calls for a rediscovery of the biblical roots of apologetics, so too we should learn from our biblical forebears in the ways they lived, ministered and engaged in mission with rival religious movements.

Another implication to my earlier remarks is the distinct possibility that we might not be properly engaged in mission as it is classically understood and practiced. That probably sounds absurd. Yet we must surely wonder why is it then that westerners who participate in cults and new religions are not being discipled by us en masse? Why do some evangelical missiologists look askance at our activities and cringe? Why do some sociologists and phenomenologists dare to observe that we are so caught up in preaching to the choir? Why is it that few cult devotees ever end up in our churches as servants of Christ? Are we construing boundary-maintenance against heresy as being coterminous with evangelism? Maybe we could learn some fresh tricks of the trade from our colleagues in world missions that will become a blessing to the church at large and for ourselves. For the issue at hand is not about jettisoning the analysis of heresy in the light of orthodoxy. Rather the basic question is whether evangelism and discipleship of devotees in new religious movements is taking place on any serious and sustained level.

For some readers this call for reflection about our methods and strategies may seem odd or even provoke some impatience. Most of us as apologists for the faith have happily applied methods and forms of argument that have been formulated by others. We have probably been content to follow those who have pioneered countercult ministry without much need to call our methods into question. However it would do us no harm to consider how and why these methods were formulated, particularly when in recent years various apologists have expressed disquiet about existing models through their essays or in public conventions. When debates about method emerge in a discipline they may arise because there are new circumstances that highlight inadequacies with existing approaches. Although methodological debates can sometimes polarize the participants, they can also be the catalyst for new and productive enterprises.

The purpose of this critical discussion is to evaluate some of our existing methods, and propose some improvements by gleaning insights from cross-cultural missiology, so that we can be more effective in our engagement with today’s world. To achieve that goal this rather long paper is divided into four separate documents. The first involves a description and positive appraisal of the pre-eminent apologetic method used in ministry to new religions, the heresy-rationalist apologia. The second illustrates limitations and weakness with the heresy-rationalist approach. The third carries on with a brief description and analysis of five other models used: end-times prophecy & conspiracy, spiritual warfare, apostate testimonies, cultural apologetics and behavioralist apologetics. The fourth and final installment provides a skeletal outline of the directions we need to take to create a holistic, integrated approach that can have maximum effectiveness in the proclamation of the gospel and the task of discipleship.
Related posts from this blog:

Gerald Gardner, Magna Carta, and the Right to Bear Arms

"... my Luger and Donna's revolver ..."

In August of 1940 the Battle of Britain was just getting under way, and it very much remained to be seen who would prevail. If the Luftwaffe managed to establish control of the skies over Britain, then the Wehrmacht would soon be marching on British soil.

It was under these circumstances that one Gerald Gardner wrote a letter to the editor of the Daily Telegraph under the title "Resisting the Invader" and subtitled, "Delaying Actions by Civilians". (See Philip Heselton's wonderful book Witchfather: A Life of Gerald Gardner, Volume I, for the full text of the letter as well as more background information, sources, etc.)

The main thrust of Gardner's letter was that in the event of a successful invasion of Britain by the Nazis, any civilians who found themselves behind enemy lines should engage in armed resistance against the foreign occupiers. In order to prepare for such an eventuality Gardner specifically proposed that "Everyone willing should be given arms when they are available and taught how to use them."

Gerald Gardner was as good as his word. As a volunteer ARP (Air Raid Precautions) warden, he had already begun distributing the few weapons he himself possessed (including pikes and coshes) to his fellow wardens. In addition, Gardner took an inventory of the privately held weapons among his neighbors, which he found lamentably inadequate for the task at hand: "We expected Hitler on the seashore any day. We had no weapons worth the name. In my three-mile beach sector there were six shotguns, my Luger and Donna's revolver, and a few other pistols, with about six rounds apiece for them. Then there were my pikes and swords."

When a small unit of regular army soldiers was dispatched to Gardner's area, he further complained about their lack of serious weaponry: "barring rifles and not much ammunition, they had nothing. No artillery, no automatic weapons. I tried to get an old Malay cannon going, with some blasting powder for explosives, but nothing came of this." Despite the lack of success with the Malay cannon, Gardner did manage to get his hands on some Sten guns for the local Home Guard, and he also showed his neighbors how to make Molotov cocktails.

Gardner, a proud Conservative, worked closely with the local Commander of the Home Guard, Major Fish, a Canadian socialist. Despite their significant political differences both men shared a common anti-authoritarian streak, and a fierce determination to "fight them on the beaches" when and if it came to that. Fish enrolled Gardner as an Armourer for his battalion despite the fact that ARP wardens were officially forbidden from taking up arms even in the event of an out and out invasion. But Fish and Gardner agreed that this prohibition was nonsensical, and, besides, Gardner "could be a warden during air raids and Home Guard during the All Clears".

One might be tempted to assume that Gardner's Churchillian sounding letter was nothing special, just an obvious and unproblematic statement of ordinary patriotic sentiments in the face of an imminent threat to British national sovereignty. But the role of civilians in warfare is a matter of perennial controversy. Wars should be fought by armies on the battlefield, and civilians should having nothing to do with it, or so one way of looking at things would have it. After all, in theory at least, the "rules of warfare" dictate that civilians should not be the targets of military attacks. But when civilians arm themselves and join the fray, as Gardner was proposing, what makes them any different from any other armed combatant? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that in the act of taking up arms, civilians thereby make themselves (and all nearby civilians) "fair game."

To Gardner's mind, however, there was nothing theoretical about any of this: "If each village and town had defended itself, France would never have fallen as she did, and Germany might well have been on the way to defeat now," he wrote in his letter. England must not repeat the mistake of the French: "Why should people who wish to defend themselves be prevented just to make it easy for Germany? By Magna Carta every free-born Englishman is entitled to have arms to defend himself and his household. Let us now claim our right."

The official Nazi press took notice of Gardner's "Magna Carta letter", as it became known, and responded by publicly lecturing Gardner about "advances" in "human ethics": "His suggestion is condemned as medieval and as an infringement of international law."

The Nazi position was not quite as ridiculous as one might think. All too recently Europe had witnessed first hand the mind-bending horrors of modern, mechanized warfare. The killing power of machine guns and poison gas, combined with other technological advances such as rail and air transportation and electronic communications, had all combined in the Great War to result in a truly staggering loss of life (2% of the British population, 4% of France, nearly 4% of Germany ....).

And when all out war raised its ugly head again in Europe in the 1939, it came in the form of Blitzkrieg, which made the weapons that had slaughtered so many millions in WWI look crude and primitive by comparison. What could civilians with pistols and swords and clubs hope to accomplish against Stuka dive-bombers and Panzer tank divisions? To many it just seemed ludicrous to think that ill-equipped and barely trained civilians could play any meaningful role in modern warfare, other than to provide a cruel pretext for savage collective retaliation against civilian populations.

Additionally there is the embarrassing (especially for Conservatives like Gardner and Churchill) fact that it was just a tad inconsistent for the British Empire to uncritically embrace the general principle that ordinary people have a right to take up arms against a foreign occupying force. For, you see, once that is conceded then one is already well on one's way down the slippery slope toward such things as "self-determination" and "national liberation". And if the point was lost on anyone in 1940, this ineluctable logic bomb exploded with full force in Africa and Asia less than a decade later, once the European "Great Powers" had settled their differences.

But desperate times have a way of focusing the mind. With Nazi aircraft directly overhead and only the English Channel separating them from Nazi jackboots on the ground, Britons knew that their choices were down to two: submit or fight. And they knew that to fight meant to fight by any and all means necessary, and this demanded that "Everyone willing should be given arms when they are available and taught how to use them."

"While the Anglo-Saxons were yet Pagans."

It should be emphasized just how fitting it was for one of the most important figures in the modern Pagan revival to invoke the Magna Carta. It is even more fitting to turn to a letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Cartwright in order to illustrate this point. (source)

In 1776, the year in which Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence at the behest of the Continental Congress, John Cartwright produced a work that was arguably even more radical. The title of Cartwright's book was Take Your Choice, and in it he argued for the radical reform of Parliament in order to make England truly democratic. Specifically, Cartwright argued for the principle that we now call "one man one vote" (a phrase that Cartwright used and may have coined), that is, universal male suffrage and strictly proportional representation.

Nearly fifty years later, in 1823, Cartwright's reforms had not been enacted in England. In the U.S., on the other hand, property restrictions on voting had been removed for white males, but other serious issues remained (as they do today, such as non-proportional representation in the Senate, the electoral college, and so forth). In that year Cartwright published another highly significant book on The English Constitution. In that book, Cartwright set himself the task of showing that the basic democratic principles that he had devoted his life to were based in Anglo-Saxon Common Law. This meant that the democratic reforms that appeared so radical to some were, in fact, simply a long-overdue reestablishment of ancient traditions.

As one might expect, Cartwright was generally well disposed toward the American Revolution and its leaders. The copy of his The English Constitution tha one finds online at (link) is signed and personally dedicated to John Adams. Cartwight also personally sent a copy of his book to Thomas Jefferson, who wrote to thank Cartwright, and to make a few specific observations.

One thing that Jefferson found especially worthwhile about Cartwright's book was the author's conclusion that the essential rights and liberties cherished by both the English and their American cousins were traceable back to the first arrival of the Anglo-Saxons on British soil. Jefferson was pleased not only because this afforded the founding principles of the United States such a long and estimable pedigree, but more specifically because it decisively undercut any claim by Christianity to a central place in the English or American political and legal systems, and, thereby, resoundingly validated that principle which Jefferson held especially dear and with which his name is so closely associated: the separation of church and state.

Here are Jefferson's own words to Cartwright:

"I was glad to find in your book a formal contradiction, at length, of the judiciary usurpation of legislative powers; for such the judges have usurped in their repeated decisions, that Christianity is a part of the common law. The proof of the contrary, which you have adduced, is incontrovertible; to wit, that the common law existed while the Anglo-Saxons were yet Pagans, at a time when they had never yet heard the name of Christ pronounced, or knew that such a character had ever existed."

The opinion that Jefferson expressed in his 1824 letter to John Cartwright, that the rights and liberties cherished by the English and the Americans were rooted in pre-Christian traditions, was one that Jefferson had long held. This is shown by another letter, written just one month after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

This letter concerns another project, in addition to the Declaration, on which Jefferson, Adams and Franklin were also working at the same time: a committee (the first of three, as it turned out) charged with designing an official "Great Seal of the confederated States." In a letter to his wife Abigail, John Adams described Jefferson's proposal that that Seal should portray "Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon Chiefs, from whom We claim the Honour of being descended and whose Political Principles and Form of Government We have assumed." (full text of letter, dated August 14, 1776, here.)