Last week, the most recent Postgrad Initiative email was sent out which introduced the idea of “Cultural Apologetics for Academia.” “Cultural apologetics” as opposed to traditional apologetics was framed as “showing how academics in all disciplines can introduce the gospel in a winsome way.” This quote from Collin Hansen was included in the email:

“Cultural apologetics, then, helps unbelievers want the gospel to be true even before they may fully understand this good news. We offer the beauty of the lordship of Christ as opposed to the ugliness of the lordship of the principalities and powers (Ephesians 6:12).”

A link to a longer article by Collin Hansen was included which roots this idea of “cultural apologetics” in the thought of Lesslie Newbigin who defined “culture,” in Foolishness to the Greeks, this way:

“By the word culture we have to understand the sum total of ways of living developed by a group of human beings and handed on from generation to generation. Central to culture is language. The language of a people provides the means by which they express their way of perceiving things and of coping with them. … And one must also include in culture, and as fundamental to any culture, a set of beliefs, experiences, and practices that seek to grasp and express the ultimate nature of things, that which gives shape and meaning to life, that which claims final loyalty.”

This concept of culture has historically often been overlooked in evangelical circles. It is precisely because of a lack of attention to culture as a vitally relevant component of the Christian doctrine of Creation that historian Keith Sewellsays that “Protestant Christianity in western countries is in deep trouble” (ix). He goes on:

“This neglect of [culture in] the order of creation is inextricably bound up with what Evangelicalism is prone to do with the gospel is proclaims. It tends to reduce the gospel to a message focused on the salvation of individual souls. This is a great deal less than (and arguably a distortion of) the proclamation of the good news concerning the coming of the kingdom of God that we encounter in the New Testament. … At best, Evangelicalism has exhibited only a sporadic and fluctuating awareness of the religious significance of human culture, and of the truth that all of life is religion – in the sense of lived coram Deo; before the face of God. Yet this truth is central. It does not mean that everything is churchly, or that everything is to be understood in terms of theology. It means that the totality of our lives – our thoughts, words and deeds – is in the service of the one true living God or of an idol” (6-7).

The retrieval and renewal of a robust understanding of culture is needed for Evangelicals in academia. It is through a commitment to culture that we can participate in the flourishing of all of life, the life of the mind included, without viewing academic work as only having meaning when it results in the religious conversion of our colleagues and peers. But when culture is eclipsed from the Christian’s view of the world, what often happens is that the multiple aspects of human life are reduced only to ideas and especially religious ideas we call beliefs (in the sense of explicit propositional truths).

Looking above at Newbigin’s definition of culture, rather than the fully-orbed “beliefs, experiences, and practices,” Evangelicals are most often only concerned with what others believe. And by beliefs we often assume it is our task to generate agreement to questions like, “Do you believe in God?”, “Do you believe in the divinity of Jesus?”, “Do you believe in substitutionary atonement theory?” And we forget that before beliefs are symbolized in language and before beliefs conceptualized in ideas they are embodied in ways of living (Newbigin’s “experiences and practices”). In the end, what I (or others) believe is not primarily found in what I say I think but in how I go about living my life.

This is one of my many critiques of Christopher Watkin’s new book, Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture, which is receiving significant attention in Evangelical circles. The book includes a Foreword by New York City church planter Timothy Keller and a long list of glowing endorsements. Most of the book reviews I’ve seen offer effusive praise. But I find this book frustratingly focused on ideas as if Christians are only interested in a battle of rational ideas-as-beliefs. In this way, the book engages the world on the world’s terms of modern scientific rationalism. As Sewell says, “when we look at the history of Christianity, it resembles much of the history of human culture in general” (10). 

The good news is not that the Bible offers ideas that are better than the ideas that happen to be in current academic discussion. The good news is God’s loving vision of renewal and restoration for the whole of human life, all of culture, in the whole of Creation. This vision has been secured in Jesus’ death and resurrection. And we are graciously invited to participate in this new life along the whole range of our human gifts, abilities, and callings. It is a new way to be human that is both a gift and a call rooted in love. But it starts with living a new life and, for academics, engaging in scholarship that is oriented and directed by this holistic vision of love for all things. It is in and through love, Jesus says, that people will know who we follow (John 13:35).

This raises a range of questions for the Christian postgrad or academic. These questions, in one way or another, probe how we view the relationship between following Jesus and engaging in academic work. Where do you find this calling most challenging? Most energizing?

Michael Wagenman

Michael Wagenman

Michael Wagenman is Senior Research Fellow and Director of PhD Studies at the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology in Cambridge. He earned his PhD at the University of Bristol (Trinity College) and now teaches Christian theology and philosophy in Canada. His academic work focuses on the theological dimensions of institutionalized forms of power within culture and society. His most recent book is "The Power of the Church: The Sacramental Ecclesiology of Abraham Kuyper" (Pickwick, 2020).​