Our Interview with FSI Director Mark Ryan
by Rick Matt
Earlier this year, Mark Ryan joined Covenant Seminary as director of the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute (FSI) and adjunct professor of religion and culture. Having served as a part-time adjunct professor since 2010, Ryan was already a familiar face on our campus. His previous experience with FSI (as an intern during his student days), his work with L’Abri Fellowship (in both Massachusetts and Canada), his pastoral leadership at congregations in the U.S. and Australia (his native land), and his passion for proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ clearly and compassionately, make him an excellent choice to lead FSI into a new era of expansion and revitalization. Ryan recently talked with us about his deep interest in helping Christians navigate the cross-currents of religion and culture and enabling non-Christians to hear and weigh the claims of Christianity in today’s pluralistic yet estranged world (NOTE: This is an expanded version of an interview that appeared in shorter form in the Fall 2013 issue of Covenant magazine.)
Q. Christians today face many challenges in communicating the truth of the gospel in a culture that is increasingly less open and sometimes downright hostile to the Bible and anything to do with Christianity. Some of those challenges are of our own making as we struggle with the lingering effects of bad impressions and other baggage left by Christians who have sometimes been overly strident or less than charitable in their encounters with nonbelievers. How can we get past some of those impressions to even begin the process of apologetics? And once we do begin, how should we approach that process?
A. When looking to engage others honestly with the gospel, we must not let ourselves validate the common stereotypes. There are enough other barriers to the gospel already; we don’t need to add to them by behaving in ways that play into the negative or restrictive images many people have of what they think Christians are like. Also, we have to learn to approach people not as evangelistic projects, but as fellow human beings—made in the image of God even though fallen and imperfect—and so give to them the same consideration and attention that we would like and expect for ourselves.
In terms of approaching apologetics as a process—as a regular practice—I think we do well to acknowledge that one of the chief difficulties we face is that most believers are quite afraid of it. We know we’re called to “be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you,” as 1 Peter 3:15 says, but we tend to think we have to be a particular type of person to do it, that we have to have a PhD in philosophy or theology to be effective. So we opt out and say, “I’m not trained. I can’t do it. That’s not for me.” If we manage to get past that fear, we often fall into the trap of thinking, “If I am going to do this, I have to get it exactly right.” We ask, “What must I say? Which argument do I deploy?” Again, we can feel overwhelmed, so we opt out. It seems to me there is an over-burdening that takes place, a difficulty shared with much evangelism.
My emphasis is to help people reframe apologetics and get them to see that it’s not so much a discipline to be mastered as it is an orientation of the heart. Are we willing to live openly, to engage the questions that come our way? Are we willing to engage in conversations, offer clarifications, share our own testimonies in transparent ways? I want to frame apologetics in this broader, more personal sense. But apologetics is also a cultural endeavor. I want people to know that there is no one answer that is good for all times and places and people. I may have a developed answer for the problem of evil, but given the particular context in which I find myself and the particular person with whom I’m talking at the time, it may be the wrong answer for that moment. For example, I heard of a pastor who was called upon by a parishioner who had accidentally run over his own daughter in the driveway. This man was a great dad, and he was heartbroken by this. In that situation, you can’t give the man philosophical arguments for the problem of evil. He needed a shoulder to cry on, he needed practical support for his grief and pain. That said, someone else might actually benefit from engaging in philosophical debate or from receiving biblical clarification. It depends on the situation and the person and this demands that we give some thought to how what we are saying sounds in the ears of another.
My goal is to make apologetics doable, to make it less frightening. So instead of promoting some specific step-by-step method, I tend to focus more on general principles, and I try to give those principles concrete form through examples from my own (or others’) experience.
Q. What are some of these general principles? Where do we begin?
A. We have to start with identifying the real problem. Many Christians assume that the basic problem we encounter in apologetics is ignorance. Much of the literature on evangelism seems to makes this same assumption. That is, people just don’t know the gospel so we need to give them more information. But my experience is that it’s not that simple. The problem is not people’s ignorance; rather, it’s confusion. In much of North America, people hear about the gospel all the time, but they hear it in sound bites and in other very fragmented ways. Despite the decline of biblical Christianity, our culture is saturated with Christian imagery and allusions. We see Bible verses on placards at sports events and references to Jesus on billboards or late-night TV; we see very Christian things in movies, hear them in music, and read them in literature all the time. And yet, these are often presented in playful or superficial or negative ways.
So the problem is not that people haven’t heard the gospel. It’s that they’ve only been given shards of it out of context. They often receive the pointy edges of the gospel without any of its comfort or encouragement. They are confused because what they do know, if they know anything at all, is that God is supposed to be love, the church is supposed to be a family, and the Bible is supposed to be true. But some Christians seem only to emphasize the judgmental aspects of God; the church is obviously very fragmented and full of people who don’t always represent Christ well; and the Bible is not easy to understand in some respects. So the question becomes: How can we take the non-Christian by the hand and acknowledge that, yes, this is tough and confusing? We can’t assume that people are dumb and just don’t get it. We need a posture of empathy. Being gentle and patient is every bit as crucial as is readiness to reply.
Interestingly, the Bible doesn’t diagnose our problem as ignorance but as willful rebellion against God. When we are reminded about God and our sinfulness, we tend to push back, to create idols, to live in and use the world in a way that suits us—and, of course, that gets us into trouble. Our own efforts at trying to live apart from God hurt us. This can confuse matters further. And yet this is the canvas against which we have to enter into apologetic dialogue. We start not with, “Let me fill in your lack of information,” but rather, “Yes, this is messy, and we’re all a part of the mess—those of us in the church and those who are not—as sinners before God.” This makes apologetics more of a clarifying enterprise, helping the person to make sense of all those things they’ve heard but have never quite put together.
Q. Once we’ve established that the underlying problem is sin and that people are not simply ignorant of the gospel but confused about it, where do we go from there?
A. A second principle or area of emphasis is, wherever possible, to frame people’s objections to Christianity with the gospel, to retell their stories in the light of the gospel story itself. This isn’t just realizing that we have no good advice to give someone apart from the gospel or that the essence of apologetics is not philosophy or rhetoric. Rather, it’s an attempt to be make the gospel clear and tangible so that everything we talk about can be traced back or thought about in relation to that primary story. Much of apologetics can become quite abstract quite quickly, and although there may be a place for that, most people really need help obtaining clarity. I frequently find people are looking for both a broader depiction of the Christian faith. They want to know: Is this true? How do I know it’s true? Does it work? What does it mean for me given that I’ve already broken all of the Ten Commandments, or that I haven’t ever been to church, or that I’ve left the church? And yet they also seem to be looking for some level of specificity as to how the gospel addresses them. Bringing their particular objections and questions back to the gospel is the first aspect of this emphasis.
The second aspect relates not to the gospel itself, but to others’ perception of it and of us. I find that a lot of apologetics or evangelism techniques basically say to the unbeliever, “You’re wrong. I disagree with you. You’ve got no clue.” That may be the case on some occasions—particularly where there is a real ignorance at play—but certainly not always. In general, people don’t respond especially well to being told they’re wrong or that they have no clue what they’re talking about. Frankly, I don’t respond well to that, either. When the non-Christian or the atheist says that to me, I am prone to dig in my heels or to want to push back harder than I have warrant for.
I think a more fruitful approach is to listen well and try to get some perception not only of what the other person believes, but also why they believe it, how it is meaningful to them, and to what degree it functions to explain their experience, generate hope, or counter fear. Then I can speak back to them in light of those things. I can say, “I understand why you would think that way. Let me shift your focus so you can see where I’m coming from and perhaps even why I think the way I do.” I can begin to tell the gospel story in a way that makes sense of what they value but puts that into its proper place or context. That’s bit more work and it makes the conversation slower, but now they’re not getting just a sound bite anymore.
I believe that’s what I see Jesus and Paul doing in their encounters with unbelievers. They don’t just blast people for their disobedience or dump out truth and leave them to sort it; they actually make the gospel attractive and take time to apply it with wisdom. Other great apologists in the history of the church have followed the same pattern. I think of Augustine in his work City of God, and Aquinas in his Summa Contra Gentiles—both of which understand, articulate, and respond to significant challenges by way of the gospel.
Q. Can you tell us more about these two men and their works? Give us a brief overview of how they approached the apologetic challenges of their days.
A. Augustine’s City of God is a classic work of apologetics. In it he deals with the fundamental problem of the collapse of Rome. The fabric of the world as it was then known was falling apart, and in some measure Christianity was getting the blame. Augustine does something fascinating. He doesn’t just say to his opponents, “No you’re wrong.” He reaches further back and tells the great story of the rise of the Roman state. He talks about the city of man, and then he talks about the city of God, and of it being the true and great city. He captures the Roman story, entering into the world of his day and the objections and concerns of those who would question him. He picks up their language where that is helpful and adds clarity, and he retells their story. In doing so, he’s helping his readers to see things from another point of view. He does that quite explicitly, using the gospel and its critiques of the false story, the lesser story, but he also preserves what is good and true and meaningful in his opponents’ story.
Aquinas does the same thing in the thirteenth century in his Summa Contra Gentiles. He deals with a maturing Islam, which was very troubling at the time. Europe was enjoying the fruits and glories of Christianity as an established religion, but now Islam was growing and on the move. Christian civilization now had a competitor that was spreading, that was developing in sophistication, and that was producing works of scholarship based upon its appropriations of Aristotle. What had to be faced up to was not just a rival religion, but also a religion that appeared to be equal if not superior to Christianity in some ways. In light of such growth, Aquinas doesn’t just say to Muslims, “You worship a false god. You’ve got it wrong. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Rather he begins to recapture the story—he engages his opponents on their own turf (their appropriation of Aristotle), picks up the terms and issues meaningful to that period of time (the nature of knowledge, the conception of God and man, etc.), and endeavors to retell the story. Initially he addresses key concepts in rather rationalistic terms, but eventually he shifts ground and offers the better light of biblical argument. At least to some degree, I think, that’s what people today long to hear. Not just our “No,” but also our better way forward.
Closer to our own time, this kind of approach has been carried on by men like Francis Schaeffer, for example, whose work has had such an influence in the evangelical world and especially here at Covenant Seminary.
Q. So we acknowledge the points at which the unbeliever’s story intersects with the truth and then try to put their story in the larger context of the gospel story. At some point, though, don’t we have to challenge them on the aspects of their story that are out of accord with what we know to be the truth? How can we speak the gospel with compassion while also speaking it boldly, both of which we are called to do?
A. Indeed, the Word of God does call us to say no to ungodliness, to point out error, and to counteract false teaching. So we must offer a word of challenge where it is needed. Yet I strive to make sure that when I do say no to something the other person practices or believes, that they understand why, and that they appreciate that I’m not saying no to him or her as a human being. They must know that we’re not casting them off because we disagree with them but that our “no” comes from a place of deep concern for them. We do well to offer some rationale for our response.
As for boldness, I think that’s something we are prone to misunderstand. Often, when we hear that word, we do so with all sorts of unhelpful baggage attached to it. For some, boldness means speaking at a higher volume; for others boldness is equated with particularly blunt speech; for others still it implies not caring what people think, how they feel, or how they might process what we’re saying. But clearly boldness in the biblical sense cannot mean being offensive or unconcerned for how the message will be received. When Peter talks about apologetics in 1 Peter 3:15 he explicitly adds, “with gentleness and respect.” Paul, whom I think of as the poster-child for biblical boldness, talks in Colossians 4:6 about letting our speech be seasoned with salt and in 1 Corinthians 9:19–23 of quite willingly being all things to all men so that he might win some. So boldness cannot be the opposite of gentleness, and it ought not entail a lack of regard for how the gospel is received.
Positively stated, I tend to think of boldness as something along the lines of plain speech born of personal confidence. Boldness is my willingness to press home or apply the gospel based on the confidence that I have in its being true. In this light, I’m being bold not when I raise my voice and not when I trample over your thoughts and feelings. Rather, I’m bold when I speak to you out of my conviction that the grace and favor of God are bound up in Jesus Christ and that repentance and faith in Christ are not only necessary to find peace with God, but essential to undoing confusion and to making your way in this world (and in the world to come).
To take that one step further, I’m bold when based on the relationship I have with you, I know that what I’m going to say will cause some measure of conflict within you and perhaps within our relationship—and yet, for the sake of the gospel, I’m compelled to go there. You may push back, you may even be upset, but it won’t be because I’ve been loud or rude or thoughtless; it will be because I’ve said something that hits home or because I have, in the Spirit’s power, presented the gospel to you with a particular resonance. I think that’s boldness. And it is compassionate! (Incidentally, Acts 4:13 connects boldness with having been with Jesus. Perhaps this factor ought be more prominent when we think about bold speech and challenging others).
Q. Are there other principles we need to keep in mind as we seek to present and apply the gospel with both compassion and courage?
A. I consider it important that we remember to engage others as whole people. Communication theorists tell us that only a small percentage of what we communicate is verbal and by far the largest percentage comes through facial expression, gesture, body posture, and other nonverbal cues. A bevvy of current thinkers draw our attention to the ways in which we are shaped by our milieu, the environment we are located within, and the practices to which we give ourselves. I think we need to grasp more fully what that means for us. Content remains important, but in what ways might the physical space I am in, the acts of service I can render, the shared experiences in which we participate, support (or stifle) our gospel conversations?
Stated a little differently, when I talk with a person who is raising an objection or asking a question about some issue he or she is struggling with, yes, it’s important that I have something meaningful to say to them. But I dare not think of them simply as “brains on a stick.” While not desiring to undervalue human rationality, surely it’s not the whole story. As complex, embodied beings, we do have an intellect, but we also have an emotional life and a physical deportment and an aesthetic appetite, and many other dimensions we do well to pay attention to. The question the unbeliever raises with us may well be an intellectual one deserving of an intellectual answer; but even that must be offered in a way that speaks to the heart and the imagination so that it has some emotional resonance.
Sometimes what people really need is not for me to talk at them, but just to listen or to serve, or to share life with them. If I’m to be heard, if the contrary position of God’s Word is to be received and embraced, it has to be held out in a way that the person can receive. My appeal here is simply to recognize the need to be creative and practical and relational as well as rigorous and intellectual.
Q. You’ve presented some guiding principles for engaging with people in apologetic encounters. Now let’s take those principles and apply them in a real-life example. What might this look like?
A. Let me answer that with an incident that occurred not long ago. After a busy day at work, I stopped on the way home at a coffee shop I like to frequent. It was more crowded than usual that day and I ended up sitting in closer proximity than I normally would have to a couple of women I did not know. They were deeply engaged in conversation. It was not my intention to listen in on their discussion, but being so close I simply could not help but hear. One of them was a self-proclaimed pagan with a significant interest in the earth’s and her own fertility. The other was a less-than-convinced abstinence teacher who spoke of the conflict she felt over teaching one thing to groups of school children while practicing something else herself. What appeared to unite these two women was their concern over a mutual friend of some years who had moved deeper into her Roman Catholic faith and who as a result seemed to be in the midst of revising her views on sex, marriage, and other areas of her life related to morality. As these women talked it became clear to me that they were not only concerned about their friend engaging seriously with her faith, but that they were also deeply offended by it. Her move toward “organized religion” in the form of a religious body they viewed as being both glaringly outdated and guilty of gross abuses was frightening and utterly irrational to them. Whether because they simply wanted to consult someone else in the room, or because I had not concealed well enough the degree to which I had been listening in, they suddenly turned to me and asked pointedly, “So what do you think? Do you have friends who are too religious for their own good? Can you possibly imagine any reason to let some outdated religious outfit determine what you think and how you behave?”
At first I wondered whether they were just calling me out on my inadvertent eavesdropping, but then I realized that they really seemed to want an answer to their question. I thought: I could say, “Yes, I do have friends like that, and I think you’re wrong because I’m a Christian too.” But that would have gotten me nowhere. I could have dodged the question and said, “Sorry, religion is a very private thing.” But that’s not a biblical option. So instead I began to do the kind of thing I’ve just been talking about. I said: “I can hear that you are really concerned for your friend. How long have you known her? Has her change been rather sudden?” I was asking questions—buying a little time, of course, but also getting a little more information to help me better assess the situation. What story was driving their concern, I wondered?
At that, they volunteered more information. “We grew up together,” they said. “We went to college together.” At one time the absent friend had been a roommate of one of these women. So what I was now hearing underneath all their complaints, without them actually saying it, was, “We’ve lost her as a friend.” So I asked more questions, and they volunteered more information. The one woman identified herself as a Wiccan and said that the third friend had occasionally joined her in that but had never felt entirely comfortable with it. The other woman told me that she taught sexual health and wholeness at various private and Catholic schools but that she was mostly asked to speak about abstinence; the absent woman had actually gotten her that job. And so as I gathered more data, what emerged was a story quite different from what it had seemed at first. Neither of these women was simply lashing out at their Christian friend. They were lamenting the loss of a dear friendship due to the fact that the third woman had embraced her faith and was changing; they felt like she was leaving them behind. After a few more questions I ascertained that one of these women had grown up Catholic but had left the church due to scandals in the church, and the other had never been to church at all; both had very negative impressions of organized religion in general. So now I understood more of the context for their objection to their friend’s behavior and knew that what I had to speak to in this situation was not their objection to religion as such, but primarily their sense of loss of the friendship.
I said, “I understand that you really care for your friend and I’m glad for that. But given how much you say you care, how might she feel if she were here listening to this conversation? It seems that you not only differ with her as to her exploring her Christian faith, but you are also really quite angry about her doing that. But I think you don’t really want to hurt her; you just want her back as a friend in your life. Maybe what would be best is to get all of you together to have an honest conversation about what you’re feeling and about why she’s exploring her faith and has chosen the church she has over some other faith expression. Like you, I do have many religious friends, and I sometimes lament where their choices have taken them. But it has nearly always been beneficial to hear directly from them as to why they changed.”
This was an attempt to shift the conversation a bit. I had answered their initial question, but now the context and our few minutes of talking together ensured that they weren’t going to lump me in with the “crazy” religious people they were afraid of. They began to trust me, and began asking me questions. So I explained, “I am a Protestant Christian and I happen to work for a local Christian institution.” They said, “So you’re very religious, then.” And here was an opportunity for clarification. I said, “That depends on what you mean by ‘religious.’ So far you’ve only used that word in negative terms. If you mean by it only the idea of people who cut off old friendships and rush headlong into established religious organizations, then no. But if I can define the term differently, as meaning someone who is seeking after God, then yes, I’m a religious person.”
This brought further dialogue that could have gone in several different directions, but I chose to stay on the main path and address their initial concern. I said, “Given that you are lamenting the loss of your friend and the state of the church she has chosen, I wonder whether you shouldn’t just call her and meet for coffee. Put all your concerns on the table and give her a chance to talk to you about them and maybe clarify her actions or allay your fears. If it were me, that’s what I would do.” They thought that was a very practical solution, but were afraid their friend might think they would simply want to pick on her. I said, “I can’t speak for her, but if I were her, I’d like the opportunity to clarify my position.” And then I added, “By the way, I don’t just have religious friends, and I am not just religious in terms of seeking God. I actually have some affinity with your friend and what she maybe going through. You see, when you begin to pursue God, particularly in the Christian tradition, there are parameters. That can sound bigoted or narrow-minded to outsiders, perhaps, but every faith tradition has areas about which it says, ‘This far and no farther.’ For me as a Protestant, and for your friend as a Catholic, this whole area of sexuality that you referred to earlier is bounded by the practice of the church as informed by the teaching of the Bible. I’ve come to understand those boundaries not only as a way in which I express my faith, but also as the way in which the God I’m seeking expresses his care of me.” So now I’ve made a pathway into the gospel. I’m trying to give a rationale for my disagreement with their point of view.
Unfortunately, we were interrupted at this point by other activity in the coffee shop and we didn’t get to carry the conversation much farther. But where I was hoping to take it would have been to briefly narrate the biblical creation-fall-redemption framework, then lay out what the gospel is and how sexuality functions for people who are pursuing God in the Christian tradition. I would have talked about how sex is a good thing because God made it to be so, but because of the fall it has often become a platform for selfishness leading to exploitation. And that would have given me an opportunity to address some of their concerns over abuse in the Catholic church and perhaps even allowed me to talk about how it is possible to recognize the fact of sin and yet continue to exercise faith. And I might also have drawn some picture of redemption and consummation, showing how much more there is to my identity than my sexuality and its expression. As I said, I didn’t get the opportunity to carry this further, but that’s where I would have gone with it.
The amazing thing about this was that both of these women wanted to meet again to talk some more. They even thought it would be good for me to be present when they met with their friend. Of course, their openness was purely due to God’s providence, it wasn’t me. But what was encouraging was that they sensed that I was trustworthy because I didn’t immediately start telling them they were wrong. I wasn’t loud or rude. I simply asked questions and looked for a good point to step in and retell their story in the context of the gospel. They sensed that I really wanted to help them value the friendship they felt they were losing. That became my bridge to the gospel.
Q. That’s an excellent example that really helps flesh things out for us. Would you mind sharing another? Could you maybe tell us about what you consider to be your most challenging apologetic situation? What were the circumstances? How did you approach it? What was the result?
A. Several years ago, I entered into a friendship with a man in his mid-forties who happened to be homosexual. I met him at an event and through a mutual friend. Frank [not his real name] was an artist who did some high-end design work and had connections to the local arts and music scene. When I met him, he was already exploring questions of faith and he was remarkably open about his life journey to that point. At different points in time he’d had some experience with church, but as a homosexual man he never felt welcome. “I felt the church was against me,” he would say. When he found out I was a minister, he was cautious, but also interested enough to begin asking me all kinds of faith-related questions. We met regularly, often around a question he’d shoot me during the week and which we’d then bounce around over coffee. We did this for a number of months, meeting about a dozen times. Then one Saturday night I received a call informing me that Frank had just died in a car accident. Not long after that, I was asked by Frank’s partner (who was not a religious man himself, but knew Frank had been struggling with faith issues) if I would be willing to speak at Frank’s funeral.
Two days later, Frank’s partner called to tell me that Frank’s friends in the gay community objected strongly to having a Christian minister do the funeral. Some preferred that I not even come to pay my respects. That was a disappointment for me, but I told him I understood and did not wish to intrude where I was not welcome.
A couple of days further along, Frank’s partner called again. He said that Frank’s friends really did not know what to do about the funeral, were somewhat confused about Frank’s seeking God, but, as he talked about his meetings with me so positively, so it had been decided to ask me to come after all. Although that seem settled, what I discovered when I arrived for the service was that the tide had turned yet again. They didn’t want a religious service. Again, that was a disappointment for me, but I said OK, and sat there without saying anything. From there, what unfolded was the most unusual funeral I’ve ever been to. Everybody just shared their stories about Frank—sometimes very confused, sometimes inappropriate, each time full of raw emotion and grief. After about 20 minutes of this, Frank’s partner mentioned to me that some in the room wanted me to speak. So he outright asked the whole group if that was OK, and they agreed.
So I stood up and said, “It’s good to be here with you. I understand some of your have a rather conflicted relationship with the church, so please know I have no agenda in that regard. I was a friend to Frank and I’m here to remember him. If you think it’s fitting for me to say a few words, I’d be happy to speak. If not, no offense taken.” They debated for a bit and someone finally said, “Somebody should at least pray.” So I prayed. It was not quite the kind of prayer I would say in church, but in this context, I was trying to recognize their anger and hurt and confusion while also communicating the possibility of a fresh start. I said, “If you don’t feel there is a God to whom to pray, please don’t be offended by my praying. There is no pressure for you to join with me. If you do believe there is a God, then please let these words be yours.” Then I prayed, “Father, God who made us all, who gives us gifts and emotions, and relationships, help us in this moment of losing a dear friend. Grant that we might find peace in the face of loss, peace with one another, and peace with you.” It was somewhat generic, I admit, but in that moment and in that context, I felt it was appropriate to say less than I typically would. I prayed further, “O God, if anyone here is struggling with hard questions, life and death questions, why questions, would you please bring the right people alongside to help, to supply wisdom, to lend comfort. And if anyone is suffering from hurts or wounds caused by those who claim to speak in your name, please give opportunities to help us sort through those things so that we would not be mad at you when we are actually mad at someone else.” Then I prayed the Lord’s Prayer. When I finished, maybe three people said, “Amen.” Most just looked at me blankly as I sat down.
After that, a man went up to Frank’s partner—I found out later he was the primary naysayer about having me speak—and said that I could speak some more if I wanted to. I felt that this was actually an amazing opportunity, so I took it, albeit not really knowing where best to begin.
I thanked them for the chance to share some words, made it plain that I was minister of the gospel, a pastor of a Bible-believing church, and that I had been meeting and talking with Frank for some time about various matters touching on Christian faith. From there, I laid out the gospel for them in light of the kinds of questions Frank had been asking me. I ended with the very last discussion Frank and I had had: “What about art? The church seems to have no place for it, or me.” With so many memories having been shared in relation to Frank’s artistic gifts and interests, I tried to connect some dots.
I said, “There are lots of reasons why the church has struggled with the arts in our time. Some of the struggles I understand. Much of it I tend to lean against in favor of embracing the arts. Given that God is himself the Great Artist, that he gives artistic abilities and capacities to men and women who then image him in their deployment of these gifts, I am confident that God himself values artistry. Because he gave us this colorful, beautiful, textured world in the first place, and that he made sure there was decorative art before him in the Temple, and that he continues to make some people to paint, some to sculpt, and some to design and arrange objects and images in truly remarkable ways, I am positive there is a place for art and artists.
“But Frank wouldn’t have asked me to talk about this issue if there wasn’t a problem somewhere, would he? With Frank, and I suspect with you, we recognize something is broken, not right, and this not only in terms of artistry and whether the church accepts our art or not. As I pointed out to Frank, we have turned away from the Great Artist. We all live out our lives against a spoiled canvas. We paint out of step with who he is. We dance to music of our own making—and at root it’s sad. Although created to image God, we are now separated from the God who made us. We are in rebellion against him. That’s a strong word, but it’s true, and so much of our art veers toward depicting that and its fruits. The stories we write, the films we produce—they’re all full of exploitation, racism, sexism, division, alienation, and our seeking a return to a more primal peace. Of course you’ve experienced this brokenness not just in the arts, but in the rest of life also. Certainly Frank was grappling with that. Though so taken with beauty, symmetry, and design, yet he also felt so estranged from it. He felt fragmented, alienated, profoundly unsettled, which led him to want to talk about God with the likes of me.
“What I held out to Frank, I also hold out to you: There’s good news at the bottom here. Despite the mess we have made, the Artist loves us. He continues to give us a beautiful world, to uphold beauty, goodness, and truth. More than merely upholding things, he also holds out a way to get back in step with him, to enjoy coloring within the lines again.” I then told them the story of Jesus—including how he spent many years of his life as a carpenter who fashioned wood, who made things with his hands, and who doubtless shared the artist’s eye for details, for tone, for texture. I said, “We know him as Jesus the savior and preacher, the one who came to point us back to God and to provide a cover for our sin and rebellion. But I think we also do well to appreciate that when God put on human skin and set foot on our planet, he showed us afresh that art and creativity are not irrelevant. Even as there is a place in the church for all who trust that Jesus is God’s way to peace, God’s provision for the mess we have made, so there’s a place in the church for artists like many of you are. The arts are valuable to God, and that longing in our hearts for our work to be known and recognized and appreciated will be fulfilled when we trust into Christ, when we recognize the connection between our alienation from God and our alienation in our artistic lives. I’m not sure if this is helpful to you, but it’s what I shared with Frank, and he seemed to understand it.”
I said I’d be happy to answer any questions for them sometime—and Frank’s partner stood up right then, in the midst of this memorial service, and asked if there were any questions! Inexplicably, I ended up with an impromptu Q&A time with this group of mostly gay and lesbian people asking me things like, “Are you sure God cares about me?” and affording me opportunity to clarify further some of the things I’d just said. Some of them asked to meet with me at a later time, and I still do have opportunity to do so with some of them one on one.
I would have to say that this was my most difficult apologetics context, I felt I was flying blind at so many points, and so much seemed so unique to that moment; yet it became one of my favorite moments as well. I was given an opportunity to share off the cuff, to take aspects of Frank’s story and his friends’ concerns and reframe them, connecting them to the gospel and handing it all back to them. In the end I walked out of there speechless—not at what I had done, but at how God seemed willing to work in that situation.
Q. How might you sum up our discussion of apologetics? What are some of the takeaways for someone who doesn’t think he or she can really do this?
A. In terms of takeaways, I’d say, don’t be afraid. Despite what we sometimes imagine, apologetics does not demand advanced or specialized training, neither does it dictate loyalty to specific “steps” or to a specific school of thought. I’d also say, be in prayer and walk with the Spirit, because, of course, none of us can answer well under our own power. If we allow ourselves to think of apologetics less as a discipline to be mastered and more as an orientation of the heart, then I think we can approach apologetics like any other aspect of our Christian discipleship—as something Christ by his Spirit delights to aid us with and is committed to growing us in.
And in terms of a summary, let’s remember that apologetics is not about having the exact right words to say; it’s about trying to discern what aspect of God’s truth needs to be conveyed in a particular encounter. As a Reformed apologist, I am helped and humbled by the fact God knows what each person needs to hear; that he does the convicting and converting, not me. My focus in apologetics is not results. I’m simply trying to listen well so as to frame the concern in light of the gospel. I’m looking for that aspect of the gospel that seems most fitting in this particular context for this particular person—that one thing I can leave with him or her that the Spirit seems likely to take up and use to point that person to Christ when I’m gone from the situation. For my money, that’s apologetics.
Recommended Resources for Gospel Engagement
FSI Director Mark Ryan offers the following resources that have profoundly shaped his thinking about evangelism and apologetics.
- Dick Keyes, Chameleon Christianity: Moving Beyond Safety and Conformity (Baker, 1999). I have turned to this slim volume so many times that it is hard to separate myself from it. Keyes’ critique and the place he affords to apologetics in the formation of vital Christian communities are both compelling and practically helpful.
- Jerram Barrs, The Heart of Evangelism (Crossway, 2001). If Keyes opened my eyes to the need for cultural apologetics, then Barrs opened my heart and taught me how to engage people in a truly Christ-like way. Here principles of communication trump strategy and technique, and we learn that evangelism is first and foremost a giving of ourselves for the lost, just as Jesus did.
- Curtis Chang, Engaging Unbelief: A Captivating Strategy from Augustine and Aquinas (IVP, 2000). Although I seldom see this volume referenced, I have found it extremely helpful. Reading it not only make us students at the feet of two apologetic titans, but also puts their wisdom into our hands in a way most congenial to the needs of our own century.
- Harvie M.Conn, Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching Grace (Zondervan, 1982). Now more than 30 years old, this little book continues to command rereading. In solidarity with God’s working in this world, and with an awareness of the world of our audience, Conn deftly weds listening and serving with proclaiming and depending upon the Holy Spirit.
- Other significant influences include the works of Francis Schaeffer, C. S. Lewis, Lesslie Newbigin, Cornelius Van Til, Os Guinness, and William Edgar.
Free Online Courses (Visit “Resources” and click “View Courses”)
• Apologetics and Outreach
• Francis Schaeffer: The Early Years
• Francis Schaeffer: The Later Years
Free Online Lectures (Visit “Resources” and click “View Lectures”)
• Breaking Down Walls of Unbelief
• Francis A. Schaeffer Lecture Series (various topics)
• Friday Nights at the Institute (various topics)
• Ministry for a Postmodern Generation
Rick Matt is associate director of print communications at Covenant Seminary.