A couple of years ago I was part of a small group talking to an archbishop about evangelization.
The archbishop, a very intelligent shepherd, remarked on the challenges facing Catholics in a seculiarized, postmodern world. “How are we,” he pondered, “to reach people who do not share a common culture or a common language?” Americans once could assume a common understanding, at least generally, regarding the objective nature of truth and goodness, the reality of a transcendent order, the existence of God, and even the divinity and uniqueness of Jesus Christ. No longer. The public square is now shorn and stripped of such common understanding and language. Most Americans are biblically illiterate, and precious few know or care about theology, philosophy and the permanent things. What is the best way to explain and defend the Faith? This is a question that every Christian should ponder and seek to answer.
Years before becoming Catholic, I was introduced to apologetics through the writings of Francis Schaeffer, C.S. Lewis, Ronald Nash, James Sire and similar evangelical or Anglican thinkers. Now, having been a Catholic for nearly 20 years, I continue to read the works of certain evangelical thinkers. One such writer and scholar is Os Guinness, a prolific author who was educated at Oxford and now lives in the United States where he attends an Anglican parish. His first book, “The Dust of Death” (1973), was an outstanding analysis of the counterculture of the 1960s; it dug deeply into the philosophical foundations of belief systems ranging from atheism to existentialism to pantheism.
His new book, “Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion” (InterVarsity), is an exceptional reflection on apologetics and evanelization. “We are all apologists now,” writes Guinness. But, he notes, most “apologetics” today are secular in nature, often taking the form of online discussions and debates and facilitated through relentless social media. On one hand, Christians have an opportunity to witness in ways never dreamed of before; on the other hand, “there are oddities in the age of communication that make it actually harder to communicate well today.” We must, Guinness insists, regain the art of Christian persuasion. An essential problem is that most Christians assume “that people are open to what we have to say, or at least are interested.… Yet most people quite simply are not open, not interested and not needy.” In fact, many people are increasingly hostile toward Christianity and the Church.
What to do? First, Christians must work to employ “prophetic persuasion,” which is marked by both creativity and fidelity to the Gospel. It is informed by examples in Scripture and in the history of the Church. The prophets were remarkable for getting people to see and hear what they didn’t want to see or hear. To accomplish this, they directly raised the questions and issues that made people uncomfortable. However, doing so did not ensure success, at least not in terms that we might accept or understand. Second, we must be “more decisively Christian in our communication.” This is not relying on rote formulas but is “a communication of the gospel that is shaped by our understanding of God’s communication in Christ, just as God’s communication in Christ is shaped by God’s understanding of the condition of our hearts.” Guinness posits that our witness must be shaped by the great truths of salvation history: “creation, the fall, the incarnation, the cross, and the Spirit of God.” In doing so, we recognize the place of reason but also acknowledge “the primacy of the human heart.” This, in fact, is a deeply biblical approach to witness. Finally, Guinness argues that all good thinking involves three questions: “What is being said? Is it true? What of it?” Unfortunately, most people are preoccupied with the third question and ignore the other two. A major reason for this is how technology has shaped our perception of how things work and should be understood. Technique rules. Yet Christian persuasion and witness is not a matter of technique; it is an art rooted in a biblical worldview and aimed at revealing Jesus Christ.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Ignatius Insight (www.ignatiusinsight.com). He and his family live in Eugene, Oregon.