This is a story about a book. It’s not just a review because that wouldn’t be quite winsome enough. So a story it is. Once upon a time I was a philosophy major and really caught up in the Christian apologetics scene. It’s still a pool I like to dip my toe in now and again, so I was pretty excited to hear what Alister McGrath had to say about the subject.
The book (published by Baker, 2019) arrived after a summer spent contemplating two contrary viewpoints. The first was espoused by a speaker who made the following assertion, “The entire Bible can be summed up in the statement, “What ever you are doing that’s right, keep doing it. What ever you are doing that’s wrong, cut it out.” The second viewpoint was from an Instagram video of a pastor catechizing his own grandkids with the question “What is the Bible about?” To which they responded in unison, “Kill the Dragon. Get the Girl.” Wow. What a stark contrast! The first synopsis is purely moralistic and works oriented. Most other religions out there could offer a similar summary of their own teachings. The second is what McGrath would define as a narrative approach and focuses on the eternal gospel story. I’m definitely on the same page as McGrath in that regard. In adopting the religion of moralistic therapeutic deism, Christians have lost sight of the great drama of redemption which God ordained from eternity past, Christ accomplished on the cross and the Holy Spirit will complete in the church, Christ’s Bride.
Nothing gets me more excited than Christians– be they apologists, evangelists, pastors, conference speakers, authors, tweeters, teachers, parents, neighbors, or buyers and sellers in the market place– proclaiming the gospel to a hell-bound world. In my lifetime there has been so much emphasis on means and methodology that the actual urgency of getting the message out there seems to have been lost. I even heard a speaker say that 1 Peter 3:15 meant that we were ONLY to share OUR story with people who asked us about the hope we have. Further, he claimed that Jesus Himself modeled this methodology by only teaching or healing those who came to Him first. Not only is that patently false, it’s the poorest excuse for ignoring the Great Commission I’ve ever heard. Will we really be able to say in our own defense of all our acquaintances sentenced to eternal damnation, “Well, they never asked. Sooo…”?
My concern with McGrath’s book is that his focus falls too heavily on the means and takes too lightly the urgency of the message. He really does offer a winsome approach to sharing the Gospel story, not failing to live up in any way to the promises of his sub-title, “Sharing the Relevance, Joy, and Wonder of the Christian Faith.” He states his purpose in the very first sentence as aiming “to introduce and commend… an approach to affirming, defending, and explaining the Christian faith by telling stories (7).” Bravo for “affirming, defending, and explaining the Christian faith!” That puts him right in line with some of my other favorite apologists out there today (i.e. James White, Jeff Durbin, Ray Comfort, Mark Spence, Eric Hovind, Neil Shenvi, Sye Ten Bruggenicate, Alisa Childers and the rest of the Mama Bears). I think several from the above list would also appreciate McGrath’s self-described “winsome and welcome” approach while several others would be encouraged by mainstream evangelicals to give said approach a try, rather than the “clinically rational approaches … [which] lack imaginative depth and emotional intelligence (8).” In other words, there are winsome, story-telling apologists and there are apologists.
McGrath argues that “A narrative approach to Christian apologetics does not displace other approaches” but rather “is best seen as supplementing other approaches (8).” I might be able to buy that except for that he argues later that “Narrative acts as both the medium and the message in Christian apologetics (15).” That makes for a rather exclusionary statement. One that he follows with the claim that “demonstrating the reasonableness or truth of Christianity does not always lead people to embrace it (15).” This is true and is clearly supported by numerous Scriptural texts (such as these found just thumbing through the first half of the Gospel of John– 3:11,12, 5:36-39, 8:45-47, 10:24-26, 12:39) none of which are cited by McGrath. His next statement however, lacks the same force. “Truth is no guarantor of relevance. Veracity is one thing–indeed, a good thing. Existential traction, however, is something very different (16).” Where McGrath errs is in citing as an example 3 true statements involving measured rainfall, the weight of gold, and a certain Nobel Prize nomination. These, he argues, “may be true yet possess little, if any, relevance for human existence… while they might be interesting, none of them probably makes the slightest difference to anyone (15).”
McGrath is correct in his appraisal but wrong in his application. The examples he uses are indeed true, but they are not what one would call Gospel Truths, or doctrine, which is exactly why they lack any “existential traction,” not because they are set outside the context of a winsome narrative, as McGrath suggests. If McGrath is correct in his definition of apologetics as “depicting its world of beauty, goodness, and truth faithfully and vividly, so that people will be drawn by the richness and depth of its vision of things,” rather than the traditional definition of “persuading people that a certain set of ideas is right (18),” then I can see why his winsome narrative approach is so crucial.
The problem is, though I agree on one hand that the Bible itself is made up of said narrative, and that we actually are but players in this great drama of redemption, I disagree that the manner in which the story is relayed has the power in and of itself to produce transformation in one’s life. Romans 1:16 tells us that the Gospel itself IS the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes. But effectual saving faith is a gift of God, not a natural response to a well told story (see Romans 10:20). McGrath solves this difficulty by arguing that we need to “move away from the traditional believers-nonbelievers paradigm to a new seekers-dwellers paradigm (99).” The book of Romans again proves problematic here for in the 11th verse of the third chapter we read, “no one understands; no one seeks for God.” Which is why we have to be super careful in distinguishing an intellectual acquiescence to the truth, and true saving faith.
McGrath is honest enough to acknowledge this danger, pointing first to his own conversion, which he describes as “an intellectual conversion, lacking any emotional or affective dimension (28) and later Dorothy Sayers’ self-criticism. “She at times wondered if she had fallen in love with the intellectual pattern that Christianity disclosed, rather than with the central character of that narrative (115).” These two testimonials are almost reminiscent of that of the demons in James 2:19. One has to applaud McGrath for pointing out this pitfall in any approach to Christian apologetics.
Since we’re already applauding, I might as well wrap things up. The end of the story is this: I was excited about reading this narrative approach to apologetics because I thought it would be an effective counter to the pragmatic, therapeutic, moralistic nonsense which has so weakened the church in my lifetime. But in the end I was disappointed by the emphasis on seeker-sensitive methodology and lack of urgency for the bold proclamation of the Gospel to a hell-bound world. That’s my narrative and here’s my rating:
Even though I was sent a free copy of this book from the publisher, I obviously wasn’t obligated to write a favorable review.