The Age of Apologetics is over. The noble art of Christian persuasion in the West is fast losing public traction.
Note that I said “public” traction.
Christian apologetics has plenty of traction left – for Christians. But just as the early 90s reruns of Billy Graham on the big screen across the country proved, it’s the already convinced who are turning up to to events and conferences in order to be further convinced.
In the same way that the age of steam swept away the age of sail, the age of apologetics has been swept away by the age of kategoria. Robust proclamation is the future. Artful persuasion is the past.
The primary reason behind this shift is simple. In the social media age, and the combative approach of the hardening “Sexular Culture”, people have lost patience with the delay tactics of apologetics and are demanding we cut to the chase.
Forget about the “common vision of the good life” that we all long for, what is your foundational framework? Are you signing up to our vision or not? Don’t bait and switch us with clever arguments that mask your true intent. That’s the demand.
In that sense Queer Theory has done its work very well indeed. In fact Christians should welcome Queer Theory’s approach as refreshingly open and honest. We should emulate it, because it’s increasingly the only game in town.
Queer Theory says that rather than bang on the castle door demanding social and cultural change for marginalised groups, the more successful approach is to undermine the castle wall itself by removing and exposing the foundations.
The aim is not to destroy the castle. Despite the hopes of fundamentalists and Preppers, no one actually wants the Zombie Apocalypse do they? The aim of Queer Theory is not destruction, but deconstruction followed by reconstruction. Queer Theory is: Why these stones and not other stones instead? Unmask and proclaim your foundations by bringing them into a hotly contested space.
In this setting the art of gentle, apologetic persuasion is not only ineffectual, it is viewed as a mask for power, a way of hiding our foundations stones from examination. Apologetics is busy saying “Look at the lovely castle”. Kategoria is declaring “Ok, here’s what is holding the castle up. Think you can do better? Come up with something better if you can. Let’s make a contest of it.”
Apologetics risks being seen as a dark art, a way of hiding what lies beneath. Queer Theory demands an up-front level of cut-to-the-chase honesty that, in these hardening times, Christian apologetics just cannot meet.
And so often doesn’t want to meet.
Much of apologetics’ appeal is in that delay process. It fashions an argument in which , for example, we all agree that we share a vision of human flourishing. We can all get along, because despite our differences we all want to flourish, don’t we?
But the problem is, and it’s one that the age of proclamation exposes, the Christian vision of the good life is no longer viewed as an acceptable framework for flourishing, but rather an impediment to it once its foundations are unmasked. In the age of proclamation apologetics has to hold its final card ever so nervously tighter to its chest for fear that once it is exposed it will regarded as worthless.
This delay tactic is employed across all apologetic approaches, whether they be the academic approach that strives to maintain its place in an increasingly toxic intellectual atmosphere; or the cultural approach of the young, hip urban evangelicals who hope against hope that their coffee drinking habits mask their foundational beliefs long enough to gain a hearing.
In his book Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience, Mark Sayers nails this issue when he explores the shift from second culture (Judeo-Christian culture) to third culture (post-Christian culture defined by hostility to Christianity and an evangelistic zeal) :
Approaches that are purely based on an attempt at cultural relevance will ultimately fail in the face of the corrosive power of the post Christian third culture. In the third culture, you can reach levels of blistering hipness, gain position within a key industry, hold an encyclopaedic knowledge of popular culture, throw yourself into the great justice causes of the day, AND STILL your belief in the second culture values of faith will see you viewed as beyond the pale.
And if you want to see that played out in a slow train wreck for a blistering hip Reformed evangelical church, then listen to the pilot podcast by Mike Cosper from Sojourn Church in Kentucky, The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.
In a salutary lesson, the hip young things from Sojourn Church who ran a music venue called The 9-30 that eventually attracted national secular talent such as Grizzly Bear, were scorched when a local journalist turned up at their church and events for a few weeks, befriended them promised not to do a public number on them. He then promptly did a public number on them, accusing them of misogynistic, homophobic Fundamentalist bigotry.
But the real heat was the response from the local progressive community, who vented their fury online at a church. The charge? That Christians were masking their unreconstructed, outdated and dangerous values with good music, tattoos, great coffee and a hipster attitude that belied their beliefs.
That’s what got people really angry. That Christians had been using a masking agent – a cultural apologetic in order to keep them in the game for as long as possible. The journalist had simply exposed them as cheats and when he did so it was game over.
Music crowds shrank, signed up talent was contacted by activists and warned off, and The 9-30 eventually shut its doors to secular music. So much for seeking the welfare of the city, huh?
The secular frame hostile to the Christian belief wades through all of the facades, swats away the niceties and the attempts to unite around a vision of the good life, and demands a sign up to our vision of the good life – and now!
And apologetics just can’t handle that exposure tactic. It must delay and delay and delay, when all along the culture is saying “Hurry up and show us the foundations of your castle. What are you trying to hide.”
That’s why Rugby Union star, Israel Folau, makes Christian apologists so nervous. He’s a man constructed for a contest in a contested culture. That’s why, on top of the opprobrium he gets from the MMS and social media, he gets called out by Christians who have tied their strategy to apologetics not kategoria, and whose strategy is to delay the final contest for as long as possible.
Whether you agree with him or not (and he is increasingly clunky), he’s in the business of proclamation not persuasion. That’s why he’s clashing so readily with his sporting code, for it too is in the business of cultural proclamation. Folau is not interested in persuading others about what his vision for the good life is and he recognises that Australian Rugby Union isn’t interested in persuasion either.
Folau threatens the gentleman’s agreement of so much Christian apologetics, that what we’re really here to talk about is a common picture of human flourishing in which we all take part.
Yet for many of the previous losers; the “queer”, the transgressives, those on the cultural edges, it’s a bit rich for the new crop of cultural losers to gently call for a level playing field in the public square, when they were never offered one themselves. When they were never invited to take part in the common vision of the good life.
Ironically a large part of our proclamation may be having the confidence to admit that we didn’t exactly cover ourselves in glory, and rather than angle for a seat at the table, take our cultural medicine.
That’s the charge. That’s what is creating the heat. And that’s why, although it will be difficult, robust proclamation – kategoria – is the tactic we increasingly need to employ in these times.