Remodeling Rationality: Apologetics for the 21st Century

on December 6, 2019

Christian apologetics means different things to different people. Setting aside the more erudite philosophical versions and focusing on lay-level versions, apologetics is often presented as a way for Christians to get nonbelievers to engage with the Bible. We must always be prepared to give an answer for the hope we have, we are told in 1 Peter 3:15. In my Evangelical context growing up, this “answer” usually consisted of rational arguments based on evidence from archaeology, history, science, and logic that demonstrated that the facts of the Bible checked out and its claims were true. If the Bible could be shown to be reliable (that is, pass our rigorous fact-check process), then nonbelievers would want to hear the message. That approach may have worked well in the past, and may still have a place in Bible classes and formal Bible studies, but attempts to re-package yesterday’s apologetics as an invitation to explore Christianity may get a tepid response from younger generations. It is worth considering whether our current cultural context calls for a different way of enticing people to engage with the message of the Bible.

Although Western societies have been literate for centuries, a cultural shift in the way people approach knowledge is well underway. This is very apparent in two areas of society, education and entertainment.

Within education, a move away from teacher-centered learning toward student-centered learning has been gaining ground for decades. This educational philosophy favors linking new knowledge to the personal experience of students. It advocates a dialogue approach to learning where the instructor tries to guide the students to build their own meaningful connections to new ideas instead of simply telling them what they are supposed to know and expecting them to repeat it back. To facilitate these student-centered approaches, many schools in the West have moved away from individual learning that relies on textbooks and prepared lectures to more cooperative, experiential forms of inquiry. There is also a much greater emphasis on mutual trust, respect, and relationship between student and teacher. Instead of seeing learning mainly as mastering new concepts and ideas, there is now also focus on developing new behaviors, values, and emotional responses as an important part of learning.

In entertainment, the digital age has not only introduced new technological options, but using all these options has begun to change how people read. When people interact with digital content on screens, their brains work differently than when they read print on physical pages. We are also moving from a primary dependence on books to dependence on multimodal texts. That is to say, people are increasingly supplementing the reading of texts with multi-sensory stimulation from video, audio, and images. With the capabilities ushered in by the internet, the texts people read are also increasingly interactive (incorporating hyperlinks, social media sharing, and comment boards) as well as much more sensitive to aesthetic and emotive design elements.

These developments in education and entertainment in the West have predisposed young people to respond less enthusiastically to methods of apologetics that worked well in previous generations. Holding up the Bible as a reference book of true facts to be proven, accepted, and mastered does not fit with the way many young people approach knowledge and learning.  As a result, some Bible professors complain that biblical literacy (determined by traditional standards related to mastery of biblical content) is at an all-time low.  Many people do not interact with physical Bibles at all anymore, preferring interactive digital apps like YouVersion. People may be much more likely to listen to a podcast from someone they respect than refer to a book, and many young people want to discover the Bible in conversation and community with others.

phone screen showing John 3:16 highlighted

In light of this situation, what can we learn from a more global context? Orality is a term widely used in missions to describe a societal situation in which speaking, hearing, and remembering are the primary ways knowledge is acquired, preserved, and passed on to others. Orality contrasts with literacy, where reading and writing are the primary ways of learning and preserving information. In oral societies who is communicating the knowledge and the relationship they have with the hearers is often just as important as what they are communicating. In contrast, in literate societies, people often see knowledge and truth as disembodied and abstract, something that is “contained” in reference texts.

Before the invention of the printing press, almost all cultures depended on orality. Literacy levels in the West were low and most people did not interact with written texts on a regular basis. Through most of the history of the Christian church, the majority of people encountered the truth of the Bible in embodied forms; in the public reading or recitation of Scripture in liturgy, in the artwork and music of churches, and in the context of spoken rituals and sermons. In the centuries following the invention of the printing press, books became widely available, public education brought literacy to the masses, and most Western countries developed cultures in which the primary means of gaining and preserving knowledge depended on access to books and writing. For the first time in history, many Christians owned their own Bibles, and the Bible was translated into vernacular languages so that people could study it for themselves. Various streams of Christianity developed new traditions and emphasized individual, private Bible reading and study. Over time, people adapted to encountering the message of the Bible through a text instead of a person.

With the advent of the digital age, the Western world is shifting into an era of secondary orality, in which some characteristics of oral societies are re-awakened. This is a good reason to consider some lessons learned by people working in global missions in contexts that are less affected by literacy, where God’s message to humanity is typically presented in much more embodied and multimodal ways that appeal to oral learners.

There are two main takeaways from scripture engagement initiatives around the world. First, the message is more effective when it is embodied, when it is communicated in a contextualized way by a person, instead of when it is found only in disembodied texts. For example, one very effective way of getting people to interact with the message of the Bible in many oral cultures is called storyweaving. Christians are encouraged to listen to people’s personal stories of struggle, connect those stories to their own, introduce a relevant story from the Bible, and encourage people to act in some way to change their story in light of what the Bible story communicates. This approach of recommending Christianity to non-believers involves relationship, communicating God’s word as a response to real life, and inviting people to encounter God’s truth in a personal way.

Second, the message is more powerful when people have access to multimodal forms of the Bible—video, audio, drama, and song—in addition to (or in place of) a written text. It is also more powerful when these multimodal interactions with Scripture happen in social contexts and invite dialogue with people.

There is evidence that these kind of embodied and multimodal approaches to scripture engagement are not only effective in majority world contexts. For example, InterVarsity uses an embodied approach to getting people to engage with the Bible on Western college campuses through proxé stations. Students are drawn into discussion about an issue they care about, such as human trafficking or climate change, as they interact with an artistic display that incorporates various experiential elements. Christian students use the connection points the participants bring to the experience to open up discussion about how truth in the Bible speaks to the situation and empowers people to act. The Bible Project’s popular Bible study tools use animations and conversational-style audio to supplement text. Moving away from presenting the Bible as a reference book, Alabaster has set out to publish individual books of the Bible in an image-rich aesthetic format that looks like a high-end magazine designed to stimulate interaction and engagement.

students talking around a mind map

BioLogos resources can help Christians spread an embodied Christian apologetic that invites action on issues like creation care and bioethics. Interviews and personal stories of Christian role models in the sciences and in ministry allow people to hear contextualized biblical truth from a person instead of a disembodied text. BioLogos resources take into consideration the multimodal preferences of the digital age, offering podcasts, audio and video content, as well as text-based articles with plenty of interactive links. People are also given the opportunity to extend dialogue in community and network with others on the BioLogos Forum, social media, and BioLogos hosted events. BioLogos’ student-centered high school curriculum supplement, INTEGRATE, invites students to explore not only new ideas, but new behaviors and values as well.

This season of Advent, as Christians everywhere reflect on the ultimate embodiment of God’s truth, the Incarnation, is a very appropriate time to reflect on how we could make adjustments away from apologetics focused on disembodied truth found in a reference book Bible, toward a more embodied apologetics approach that puts the God’s truth in dialogue with our lives.


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Christy Hemphill
About the Author

Christy Hemphill

Christy Hemphill and her husband Aaron work as linguistic consultants on a minority language Scripture translation project in southern Mexico, where she homeschools her three children. Prior to her work in Mexico, she worked as an educator for eight years in various contexts including high school, museum education, college, and adult education. Christy has a master’s degree in Applied Linguistics/TESOL from Old Dominion University, and a master’s degree in Applied Linguistics/Bible Translation from the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics at Dallas International University. Christy serves on the curriculum development team for BioLogos INTEGRATE and on the BioLogos Advisory Council. She has also served as a moderator on the BioLogos discussion forum since 2015, and you can often find her there sharing her pursuit of good biblical exegesis and good science with anyone who wants to join in.
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