Cultural Apologetics

Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World

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Paul M. Gould
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Zondervan
    , March
     2019.
     240 pages.
     $22.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780310530497.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Paul M. Gould’s Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World is a welcome edition to a growing awareness in evangelical America of the need to come to grips with a turbulent social and cultural landscape. Gould defines cultural apologetics as “the work of establishing the Christian voice, conscience, and imagination within a culture so that Christianity is seen as true and satisfying,” and seeks to sketch an apologetical model capable of doing this work (21). The approach to apologetics presented in this book includes both classical, rational style arguments for the defense of the Christian faith—which appear at various points throughout the book—as well as apologetic styles that go “beyond reason,” including those that focus on joy, beauty, and morality. As such, Gould’s model sits somewhere between those of William Lane Craig (Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, Crossway, 2008) and Ken Myers (Mars Hill Audio Journal), and is intended to be “more general and inclusive” than other models (21).

Gould’s model advances in two basic steps. First there is an investigation into culture, which is understood as the “whole way of perceiving, thinking and living” in the modern West (27). Gould argues that, corresponding to those three points of inquiry, Western culture is disenchanted, sensate, and hedonistic, due to the operation of a rampant materialistic worldview. Further, he argues that this disenchanted perception of the world is a product of our choice, and that an opposite, enchanted view of reality is also available. The choice to perceive an enchanted world works, in some way, with the power of God in bringing people to faith in Christ.

Yet, Gould contends that the church can influence culture to make this choice less daunting and more appealing. Cultural apologetics does so by employing a model of re-enchantment to counteract the primary features of disenchantment in operation in Western culture. These characteristics are described as “the felt absence of God, a consumer culture, blindness and foolishness, and idolatry” (52). Gould traces the rise of these features philosophically through a brief narrative of the rise of nominalism, a mechanistic worldview, and empiricism, which cumulatively lead to nihilism. He further offers a theological explanation with the themes of the suppression of truth about God and the emptying the world of transcendence. However, even this disenchanted world is still haunted by “signposts” that point to God, and prompt those living within culture to seek something beyond its flattened horizon.

The second step is to engage culture by “removing obstacles to, and providing positive reasons for” the Christian faith (22-23). This is primarily accomplished by awareness to the longings for beauty, truth, and goodness in culture. Following, Gould discusses the corresponding human faculties of imagination, reason, and conscience. With respect to the first faculty, cultural apologetics focuses on “cultivating and creating beauty,” since it is a central component to life in this world (99). According to the second, it has the task to awaken in the world an “innate longing for truth and knowledge” (126). Lastly, in regard to the third faculty, cultural apologetics seeks to “partner with the Holy Spirit” in order to illuminate a universal longing for goodness, specifically by cultivating notions of wholeness, justice, and significance which are innate features of the world (156).

Each of these points of focus is met, however, with a degree of resistance. According to Gould, these “barriers” can be sorted into two primary categories. There are “internal barriers” which pertain to “the people of God, the church, and the content and character of our lives” (171). These include such obstacles as anti-intellectualism, fragmentation, and an unbaptized imagination; and are resolved by revisiting theological questions, such as liturgy. Then there are “external barriers,” which are located within culture, and include such obstacles as scientific naturalism, religious pluralism, questions of theodicy, and a general distaste for Christian ethics. Gould clarifies that these specific barriers are unique to the modern West, and encourages further work to be performed for the identification of barriers within a non-Western setting.

As far as the goal of Cultural Apologetics—“to outline the contours of a model” of cultural apologetics—Gould succeeds (25). This is even true considering the intended audience—which, I suspect, would be pastors and laypeople—into consideration. However, the one seemingly underdeveloped area in his argument is the understanding of culture employed throughout this book. The monolithic vision of Western culture presented here could have aided in both clarity and nuance by engagement with such cultural theorists such as Clifford Geertz (such as in “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” in The Interpretations of Cultures, Basic Books, 1973), and such theologians as Kathryn Tanner (Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology, Fortress Press, 1997) and Graham Ward (Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice, Cambridge University Press, 2005). Overall, however, the interest into cultural matters that this book is sure to spark will hopefully lead to further clarifications for this apologetic model.

About the Reviewer(s): 

C. M. Howell holds a graduate degree in Theology from The University of Oxford. He is currently researching themes of divine agency, ecclesiology, and intercultural theology.

Date of Review: 
November 14, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul M. Gould is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Christian Apologetics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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