While enjoying breakfast in a quaint diner with my family the other day, I observed another family sitting a few booths over from ours, finishing up their meal. Well, “sitting” is not exactly accurate. While the mother and father sat, engrossed in their phones and oblivious to the world around them, their two children ran around the restaurant throwing food at each other and screaming at the top of their lungs. Eventually, they paid for their meals and walked out, leaving their waitress to scrape home fries off the floor—Norman Rockwell would be rolling over in his grave.
Paul M. Gould, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Palm Beach Atlantic University, would refer to this scene as evidence of the disenchantment of the world. Humanity has been estranged from God and is in desperate need of reconciliation. In our increasingly technological and mechanistic Western society, this need for reconciliation is becoming more and more difficult to communicate. If we cannot break away from our screens long enough to make eye contact with our loved ones, how can we be expected to see the signposts in nature which Gould says point us to God? In his book, Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World, Gould argues that “the missionary work of the church, then, is conceived as a return to enchantment—a re-enchantment of reality through the awakening of desires and a ‘return to reality.’”1 He asserts that Christians must work to create an appreciation for beauty, goodness, and truth in the world. Christians should also educate themselves in Biblical, Theological, and Philosophical arguments for God, and always be prepared to confront seekers with the ultimate question, “What do you make of Jesus Christ?”2 Gould’s book is an attempt to establish a more compassionate and realistic approach to apologetics, by setting forth a vision of what it means to be an “embodied human that shapes and is shaped by culture.”3 Overall, I believe Gould provides helpful insight, but little in terms of providing concrete steps for implementing his apologetic method.
Throughout the book, Gould provides insightful analysis of our disenchanted Western society, which he refers to as “our Athens.” He draws the term from the narrative of the Apostle Paul’s address to the Athenians on Mars Hill in the book of Acts. Paul’s encounter is used as a broad template for cultural apologetics. First, Paul sought to understand their culture, second, he found starting points to begin building bridges, and finally, Paul set forth his case for Jesus and the gospel, addressing barriers along the way.4 The people who inhabit our Athens, Gould says, are disenchanted, hedonistic, and sensate. The longings people have for transcendent beauty and goodness which are only found in God are being imperfectly satisfied by pornography, material wealth, and other forms of “contraband transcendence.” Gould, however, far from despairing, sees the longing for truth, goodness, and beauty in our society as possible starting points for cultural apologetics. The inherent desire for truth in all people opens a door for the apologist to use philosophy, history, and science to appeal to a person’s reason. Their longing for goodness is an opportunity to appeal to their conscience. Finally, our society’s yearning for beauty allows us to use “cultural narratives” contained in familiar literature, music, and film, to point people’s imagination to the beauty of Jesus and the gospel. After addressing each starting point, Gould provides possible ways to apply his method, and theorizes about how individual Christians and the Church at large might begin to develop longer-term implementations.
Next, Gould addresses common barriers that must be overcome to lead people to the final goal of Jesus and the gospel. He divides these barriers into internal and external. Internal barriers have to do with Christians whom Gould says, view Jesus through the lens of culture. They are often more influenced by science or Hollywood than by the patterns of thought espoused by Christ in Scripture. One solution, Gould writes, is to “see Jesus as brilliant, a person of wisdom, and an expert on all matters.”5 To overcome internal barriers, Christians should look to Christ as the intellectual authority which trumps all others. Next, Gould defines external barriers as culture’s assertion that the claims of Christianity should be kept out of the public square. This tendency to view faith in Christ as nothing more than a private, subjective experience must be countered, he writes, by establishing the claims of Christianity about the world as testable, and verifiably true. Along the way, Gould provides very helpful overviews of some of the most common arguments for God: the argument from desire, from reason, from morality, and the cosmological argument. After explaining each of the arguments, he acknowledges the most current objections to the individual arguments by well-known critics and then provides his own counterarguments. Finally, he gives a brief overview of how his method for cultural apologetics might be applied in non-Western contexts.
There is much to be applauded in Cultural Apologetics. First, Gould convincingly demonstrates the benefits of finding starting points from which bridges to Jesus and the gospel may be built, and his training as a philosopher is on full display in his clear defenses of the common arguments for God. Gould is also involved with the C.S. Lewis Institute, and therefore quotes Lewis liberally. In particular, he relies upon Lewis’s explanations of the arguments for God, while providing his own analysis and critique. Next, the chapter on Reason provides excellent methods for interacting with people respectfully and treating them with care, compassion, and love. For me, this facet of speaking about faith and culture is often the hardest to learn and remember, and I found Gould quite helpful. Third, Gould gives introductions to the narratives of modernity, post-modernity, and Christianity which are vital for any budding Apologist to understand. Finally, Cultural Apologetics reminds us that all humans are longing for some sort of enchantment. The fallen people around us, however, try to fill the void with counterfeits in the form of virtual reality, consumerism, and forms of neopaganism. This is a key point of the book and is instructive for relating to unbelievers and identifying starting points to show them genuine beauty, goodness, and truth.
At times, however, the book struggles to articulate how this re-enchantment actually occurs. For example, Gould argues that Christian artists, musicians, and filmmakers should be supported by the Church in order to enable them to make their passion their vocation and to obtain influential positions within the music and film industries. From these positions, it is asserted, they will be able to wield their influence on the collective imagination of culture. His explanation, however, for how Christians are to navigate these competitive and often hostile industries and rise to influential positions is unclear and seems a bit like wishful thinking. Additionally, Gould claims we should use common cultural references found in music and media as bridge-building approaches to apologetics, but elsewhere he reprimands Christians for spending their time paying attention to their screens instead of having quiet time, praying, and reading their Bibles. Ultimately, in stressing the need to re-enchant the world, Gould uses puzzling, and at times, troubling language. Relying in part on James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom, and Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, he urges us to realize that “the world is God-bathed . . . [it] is God-permeated . . . creation is haunted.”6 Reformed readers may wonder how Gould views the distinction between general and special revelation, but the answer is not entirely clear, as Gould spends very little time speaking about Scripture. Later, speaking of art, he writes that “beauty is a divine megaphone to rouse a disenchanted world.”7 He writes that when we breakdance (which is another art form), “we participate in that eternal Trinitarian dance of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which bubbled over into the gift of creating a world full of wonder and delight.”8 This is meant to be humorous, but it does point to a disturbing reality—by going to such lengths to re-enchant nature he appears to blur the Creator-creature distinction.
All breakdancing head spins aside, this book is well-written, easy to follow, and an interesting introduction to apologetics. It raises many good questions and provides insights into how Christians can identify starting points in their interactions with unbelievers. It also raises questions about how individual Christians and the Church are to implement Gould’s method of using culture for apologetics. The answers, unfortunately, are often ambiguous. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants a helpful introduction to the arguments for God, and a starting point for understanding Western society.
©Paul Fine. All Rights Reserved.
- Paul M. Gould, Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019), 45.
- Gould, 213.
- Gould, 22.
- Gould, 217.
- Gould, 33.
- Gould, 82–83.
- Gould, 104.
- Gould, 105.
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