A Beginner’s Guide to Cultural Apologetics, the Imagination, and What This Tells Us About God

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The reality police tell us the world is disenchanted. There is no sacred order. Nothing is worthy of worship. There is no extra-mundane reality. Humans are organised bits of mud that have appeared lately and locally on a tiny outpost called earth positioned on the arm of an insignificant galaxy in the midst of a vast, unbounded, and ever-expanding universe. The idea that there is a God behind it all is viewed by many as a quaint and simplistic understanding of the world that has been conclusively refuted by modern science. When it comes to morality, just about anything goes. There is no moral order. There is no way things ought to be. Modern man has been unshackled from the oppressive, archaic, and unloving ethic of the religious dogmatist. We are free to chart our own course in this vast sea of nothingness.

On this now dominant way of perceiving, Christianity is viewed as implausible, undesirable, or both. As a result, the gospel message does not get a fair-hearing today. Even if it did, many wouldn’t understand the gospel message. Words central to the divine drama—Jesus, soul, sin, forgiveness, salvation—have been emptied of meaning. It is difficult to imagine a world lovingly created and sustained by God and so it is difficult to imagine a God that pursues wayward sinners. As followers of Christ, what can we do? How can we help others see the brilliance and beauty of Jesus and the gospel story? In other words, how can we show that Christianity is not only true to the way the world is but true to the way the world ought to be?

A new cultural apologetic is needed. Let me explain. Disenchantment has changed everything. It makes unbelief possible and belief more difficult.[1] And it’s not just those “out there” that are disenchanted. Disenchantment infects the church too. Like those in the culture around us, many of us no longer see the world in its proper light. We no longer see and delight in the world the same way Jesus does: as enchanted, sacred, gift. As cultural apologists, we must work to establish the Christian voice, conscience, and imagination within culture so that Christianity is seen as true and satisfying.[2] We do this by seeing and delighting in the world the same way Jesus does and then inviting others to do the same.

How can we join with God in reenchanting the world? We can begin by embracing a more ancient—and biblical—way of looking at the world. For the ancients, reality was understood as an ongoing story that begins and ends with God. Humans enter into the world and take up their place in that ongoing story. This story—the divine drama of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration—shapes our identity and gives our lives meaning and purpose.

Reason and imagination play central roles in helping us locate our lives in God’s story. They also are essential to a robust cultural apologetic of reenchantment. C. S. Lewis calls the imagination the “organ of meaning” and reason “the natural organ of truth.”[3] The idea is that our imagination helps us understand the world around us and the words we use. Once understood, reason judges our ideas and the stories they are embedded within as true or false so that we can act, through our wills, on the good.[4]

By engaging in “imaginative reasoning” we help others understand the gospel.[5] We do this by incorporating metaphor, story, symbol, and the aesthetic currency of our day into our evangelistic and apologetic efforts. During his second missionary journey, Paul finds himself in Athens. As he stands before the leading thinkers of his day, he brilliantly builds a bridge from Athens to Jesus. In making his case, Paul effortlessly quotes from the pagan philosophers and poets of his day to help his listeners understand (see Acts 17:16-34). We should follow Paul’s example in building bridges from our “Athens” to Jesus and the gospel. As we learn to use both reason and the imagination in making the case for Christ, we help others understand the meaning of the world, a world full of mystery, delight, drama, truth, goodness, and beauty. We help others see God as the source of all.

Philosophers, theologians, and sociologist have noted that humans are narrative animals.[6] We narrate our lives according to some story. Reflection upon the storied-nature of our lives teaches us something about ourselves and something about God. Regarding ourselves, it reminds us that we were created for drama.[7] God wants to give us life—real life—and that dramatic life is found in the true story of the world, a story full of drama, intrigue, struggle, and hope. Regarding God, it reminds us that God is dramatic too! In creating the world, the Triune God’s perfect goodness, exuberance, and love bubble over with joy and delight. God didn’t create out of some need, rather, he creates in order to give. This helps us see how incredibly valuable all people—and things—are to God. All things are created by God as gift and humans—as the apex of creation and the “hinge” or “turning point” in the divine drama of wander and return—are created in the divine image to be kings and queens, priests and priestess, that re-gift back to God all things with joy, delight, and wonder.

As cultural apologists, may we join with the Holy Spirit in reenchanting the world so that others will see Christianity as reasonable and desirable.

*For further discussion, listen to Paul on the PEP Talk Podcast here

Paul M. Gould (PhD Purdue University) is the founder and president of the Two Tasks Institute and the author or co-author of ten books, including Cultural Apologetics (Zondervan, 2019). He is married to Ethel and has four growing children. When he is not spending time with his family, hiking or running or reading philosophy or theology, he’s probably asleep.

Further readings in Cultural Apologetics

Paul Gould, Cultural Apologetics (Zondervan, 2019)

Paul Gould & Dan Ray (eds.), The Story of the Cosmos (Harvest House, 2019)

Holly Ordway, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination (Emmaus Road, 2017)

Andy Crouch, Culture Making (IVP, 2008)

Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Belknap, 2007)

Kevin Vanhoozer, Pictures at a Theological Exhibition (InterVarsity, 2016)

Miroslav Volf, Flourishing (Yale University Press, 2015)

[1] This is one of the central insights to Charles Taylors magisterial (and mammoth) A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).  

[2] This is my definition of cultural apologetics. For more see chapter 1 of Paul M. Gould, Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019).

[3] C. S. Lewis, “Bluspels and Flalansferes: A Semantic Nightmare,” in Selected Literary Essays, ed. Walter Hooper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 265.

[4] This is the central insight of an excellent essay by Michael Ward called “The Good Serves the Better and Both the Best: C. S. Lewis on Imagination and Reason in Apologetics,” in Imaginative Apologetics ed., Andrew Davison (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), chap. 5.

[5] The concept of “imaginative reasoning” is nicely unpacked in Holly Ordway, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2017).

[6] This is one of the central ideas to James K. A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies Series. See James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2009); Imagining the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013 ), and Awaiting the King (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017).  

[7] This is one of my favourite insights from J. P. Moreland’s book Kingdom Triangle (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), chap. 1.