Apologetics and why you should throw it in the circular file

A few months ago one of my childhood heroes (and basically my science teacher), Bill Nye, debated with Ken Ham about young earth creation verses evolution. I did not and will not watch a single second of it. I didn’t watch it, because I don’t care, and I am not sure you should either. There was a big hubbub and build up about it on social media. All of my Christian friends were amped up about their faith finally being publicly defended by real life science, and all of my atheist friends were totally amped up about Bill Nye making a mockery of Creationism. As the two sides rallied to their cause, and waited eagerly to be validated by the top minds in their field, I grew more and more disgusted with the idea altogether.

Ken-Ham-Bill-Nye Ham-Nye-debate-in-a-nutshell-via-exploring-our-matrix

I cemented this idea in my mind – I hate debates.

I hate debating. It is the worst “intellectual” practice that the human race has ever engaged in. I can’t stand it, because it is not at all about learning, informing the public, or getting sharper. It is always about ego. No one shows up for a debate thinking, “I bet I’ll really learn something from this person I am debating with.” The motive is always to make yourself look smarter, and make the other person look dumber. Even people that view/attend debates are not interested in learning from the other side. No one goes to a sporting event hoping that they will be swayed into becoming fans of the opposing team. That is lunacy. They only want to hear how their own opinion can be reinforced. What can I carry with me to the next debate that will make me look more informed than the other guy? How can I make myself look smarter and the other person dumber?

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I get it, though. Who doesn’t want to be right? I just wonder, at what cost?

This is where I started to think about apologetics and the way it was fed to me as way to “reach my friends” for the cause. As a kid, I was a part of the gifted program at my school. My friends were really smart. I think I was brought into the gifted program, because they didn’t know what else to do with me. Creativity is a very different kind of smart than book smart. (Maybe I’ll write about that for a later post.) All of that to say, I’m pretty sure I was the dumbest of the smartest. I worked really hard to have all of the information to “evangelize” at my friends through proving to them that God existed. They were a tough crowd to break through. Looking back, I wish I would have been taught to love my friends out of a confident identity that was grounded in the love and acceptance of Jesus. I wish that my friends were not made into a mission field for me harvest believers from, but they were. So, I did my diligent work to convert them. I think I have since made my peace with all of them, and apologized for not knowing then how to love well. I bet you can guess my success rate of conversions: 0%. That statistic will get you fired even if you are playing baseball (the game where you play enough games annually that there is room for a lot of suck). The problem here is that success is/was being measured. Every time someone won inevitably meant someone lost. Unfortunately, the gross reality is that everyone lost – every time. My friends were seeing a terrible picture of the love of Jesus, and I was piling up guilt and shame for the failure I was as an evangelist.

I am pretty certain the problem was not execution. I think the system was flawed from the start, which made me and my friends victims from the start. Here is my primary beef with (Please forgive my late nineties slang. Having a beef with something meant to take issue with, or be in opposition of something) apologetics is the very definition.

  • Apologetics is the discipline of defending a position (often religious) through systematic use of information.

The problem I have is the “systematic use of information”. Doesn’t that sound romantic? Here’s a little story I made up to illustrate my point. Call it a modern parable, if you will.

An apologist shows up at a bar to pick up a date. He finds a desirable mate, and issues a seven point systematic pickup line. The woman says to the apologist, “I already have a boyfriend.” He then proceeds to give that woman seven more systematic points on why the guy in her life is the wrong man for her. Across the bar, another man with a humble disposition buys another woman a drink, and asks the woman what she thinks of the cover band. He makes a really great joke about how embarrassing the lead singer’s hair and pants are, and says that even though she is the prettiest person in the room, she couldn’t make his hideous leopard print pants look good.

Who do you think got a phone number that night? (As an enhancement to the story, my wife suggests picturing me as all three male characters in the story. If you really want it to get weird, picture me as all five characters in the story.)

The obvious moral of my story is that an apologist is most likely very out of context trying to find a date at a bar. The second layer of this cake I am trying to slice for you is that a relationship with Jesus isn’t a systematic rhythm of information to prove to yourself or your friends that He is real. Maybe I’m over romanticizing the Bible, but it sure seems like God loved his creation enough to make a pretty massive sacrifice to be with it. Everyone knows that bible verse, even the atheists you are trying to convert. That verse sounds a lot more like a romance than a used car salesman trying to close a deal.

So let’s say (hypothetically of course) that I was able to put a positive mark on my score card, and through the miraculous (or manipulative) power of persuasion convince someone to believe in God. How easily could that person then be persuaded to believe something different when someone smarter than I am comes along with a more compelling argument? I recognize that this is walking on tight rope suspended over the bottomless pit of theological discussion that is the definition of salvation, but how shallow is the faith of the one who is persuaded to believe? How much deeper is the connection and loyalty of an enduring friendship or deeper still romantic entwining? Wouldn’t you rather be pursued romantically into the mutual bond of love than reasoned into a contractual obligation?

Convincing someone to be a Christian is about as worthless as building a dam out of sand on the beach. It may stop the waters for a moment, but the ocean will take that sand with it when the tides rise and fall enough times.

Jesus painted a similar picture talking about where you choose to sow your seeds.

Now that we have established that the practice of apologetics is not a bullet to put in your evangelizing side-arm, what should we do with it? “Defense of the faith!” is the answer I hear called out from the crowd in my imaginary panel discussion. Well fine, but I don’t think God needs my defense or your defense, especially if we are selling him as an omniscient, omnipresent, and all powerful creator. He certainly doesn’t need my help. I think the more likely scenario is that God is not the one being defended at all. I think pride is the only thing being defended. What is really at stake in the conversation? Clearly, the identity of God is not changed by someone believing or not believing. Assuming that we have ruled out evangelizing for the above stated reasons, what can be gained by arguing the existence of God? Is there anything at stake other than being right or some perverted definition of a win?

The common “call to arms” for apologists is the passage in I Peter 3:15. “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to the anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,” That doesn’t sound too much like a call to arms. It sounds like being ready to talk about what Jesus did in your life when someone sees “the hope that is in you.” You can drum up whatever you want from the Bible to stand as a defense of the apologetic posture (or anti-apologetic for that matter), but I still just can’t see what it is worth.

I’m certainly not telling you to abolish apologetics. You can (and should) do whatever you feel you are called to do, and that is none of my business. But, we should all look at what it costs to be right and win arguments. Is it worth it? I think the important part is to check the heart on the issue. What is really up for grabs in the conversation? Is God any less God if I am wrong about what I believe about creation? Is God any less God if Jane Doe at work is still an atheist after our lunch break? Does my conversation with Jane Doe say I love you more than I love being right? Does the way we raise our kids affirm a confident, Jesus centered identity rather than equipping them with a box of evangelizing ammunition and a score card?

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8 thoughts on “Apologetics and why you should throw it in the circular file

  1. Do not disagree with the argument in this article; that would be debating. The author has in no way tried to persuade you of anything, which makes his opnion valid. Now that debate is eliminated, all of this author’s beliefs will be considered as valid by all because debate is a waste of time.

    • I think having respect and having the humility to be open to a change of mind (or heart) are two different things. (That difference being my primary issue with debate.) It is likely that once you cross over from respect to a willingness to be wrong you are crossing over the line between debate and just plain conversation. I think you may just have lured me into a debate. Once again, well played.

  2. I think we need friendly debate. I read your article, offered a little criticism, then I thought about it all day, and ultimately I am grateful to you for writing it. I also like the word “conversation”, but I like conversations with people who do not hold all the same views as I.

  3. I think that the word “conversation” is probably a really good place to arrive. People can completely disagree, coming from two different standpoints and have a great conversation. Debates create the false identities of “winners and losers” (usually each side disagreeing as to whom that winner is), but conversations are very helpful.

    Good stuff Trav.

  4. A friend of mine in our city called me for help in dealing with a couple who were having demonic manifestations in their home. Going to the house, it seemed pretty clear to me that the lifestyle and choices of these people were empowering and inviting some of the crazy stuff they were experiencing. I said as much and told the man of the house that if he wanted to be rid of the stuff that was scaring them, then he needed to change the way they were choosing to live; that he was choosing the evil he said he didn’t want. He didn’t care for that.

    Six months later, the manifestations were still happening. This time, my friend called for help, to which I said I had no further help to offer until they followed through on the previous discernment. So he called another church for help. Two “evangelists” joined him, went to the house, debated with the couple for an hour, convinced them of the truth of the Roman’s Road, and led them in praying the sinner’s prayer.

    Sixty days later, the manifestations are still happening and the couple is angry at God for not helping them.

    Great post.

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