II. Apologetics as Appetizer

Part I followed a path from the nature of popular culture through desire that ended at apologetics. In Part II, I hope to trace a different but intersecting path that leads from the nature of apologetics through desire to popular culture. Apologetics is much more than neutral, rational argumentation alone. Rather, it has to do with translating our hope, making it relevant to the discourse of desire (i.e., “appetizing”). If we want to know the current landscape of desire, we need to know popular culture.

What is apologetics? There are as many opinions on that as there are apologists. However, all agree that 1 Peter 3:15 is a key text: “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” The verse contains the Greek word from which we derive apologetics (apologia), which the NIV translates as “give an answer.” It also contains the famous (and famously difficult) word logos, from which we get the English word “logic” (which the NIV translates as “reason”). What does it all mean for the nature of apologetics?

Not By Reason Alone

A sizeable group of apologists who trace their roots to the apologetics of Thomas Aquinas take logos here to mean that apologetics means giving a neutral, rational justification for the Christian faith. Acclaimed apologist J. P. Moreland, in his encyclopedic apologetics manual, Scaling the Secular City, never really defines apologetics, but his assumption about the nature of apologetics as neutral, rational justification is stated up front. “This volume is a work in Christian apologetics which attempts to state and defend some of the arguments that support the rationality of the Christian faith.”20 This rational justification is typically construed in two ways: empirical evidences that support facts that the Bible asserts (e.g., “Jesus Christ rose from the dead”) or argumentation that asserts the logical consistency of Christian truth claims (e.g., the belief in a loving and yet all-powerful God in a world full of evil).

One of the reasons these apologists insist on the primarily (exclusively?) rational nature of apologetics is that they feel that neutral reason is the only publicly verifiable currency at their disposal. Secular men and women will find neutral and rational evidences persuasive, whereas other non-neutral testimonies (e.g., of the beauty of the gospel in people’s lives) can be too easily dismissed as subjective, private opinions and imagination.

This type of apologetic has had a powerful influence in many lives, particularly among those who have an empiricist bent, or who have been schooled in Anglo-American logico-linguistic philosophy. It has also been helpful for those raised in Christian homes who are faced with the daily pressures of the “cognitive dissonance” of secular and relativistic college life. But there are problems as well.

First, by assuming that rationality is the sole public currency of persuasion in play, these apologists tacitly assume a Kantian fact/value distinction, even if they themselves may have no sympathy for Kant’s philosophy. When Kant sought to ground the certainty of science as neutral knowledge, he dug a chasm between the public facts of history and science and private valuations and meaning.21 This dichotomy is typified in the attitude of television detective Jack Webb and his “Just the facts, ma’am” approach. Anything else is simply your own personal spin on the facts. Imagination, desire, emotions, and aesthetics are now considered to be part of an inner world with no public significance, but this diminishes the biblical view of what counts as “public” truth. The “glory of God” (that is, his beauty and power) is as public as can be—after all, the heavens themselves declare it (see Ps 19)! The world, according to the Bible, is alive with beauty and significance, all of which points to God. The telic beauty, power, and significance of creation are woven into the fabric of existence. That immense spectrum of significance-bearing creation cannot be adequately apprehended by neutral, rational justifications alone. But this revelation is no less objective and public for all that.

The second problem with this approach to apologetics is that the focus on neutral, rational justification alone can have an aesthetically devastating effect on the unbeliever’s understanding of the Christian story. In striving to make things black and white, the apologist can actually drain the color from the Christian worldview, leaving it bereft of mystery, meaning, and passion. Johann Georg Hamann, the grandfather of German Romanticism (and a Christian) insisted on apprehending things as a unity through the sensibility (i.e., as a whole person) rather than breaking things down analytically (as was the Enlightenment ideal). That mode of analysis was a type of murder, a way of destroying the uniqueness of things—a sort of metaphysical vivisection committed against life itself.22 This is not to recommend  schewing rationality in favor of a more mystical, anti-apologetical approach (the route Hamann himself took). However, a one-sided, rationalistic approach runs the risk of death-by-abstraction.

Apologetics in that case becomes literally in-credible to the very people it strives to persuade. We may succeed at defending a few isolated threads, but in the process cause the whole tapestry to fade and appear less inviting and real. 

A third problem: a one-dimensional insistence on rationality as the sole justification of the Christian faith prematurely forecloses other avenues of persuasion. There are multiple public currencies of persuasion, many different grounds for belief besides rationality alone. By focusing on rationality, apologetics might render itself irrelevant by isolating itself from the discourse of desire.

Translating Hope

Let us return for a moment to 1 Peter 3:15 (giving a reason [logos] for the hope within us) and the thorny issue of logos as apologia. Part of the problem is that modern readers jump to the conclusion that giving a “reason” (a logos) only means giving a neutral, rational justification. But logos can mean a great many things, including word, story, matter at hand, verbal or written account, assertion, speech, revelation, even the settlement of a financial account.23 Its specific sense depends upon the context in which it is used.

Here, the context has to do with making the Christian hope understandable and persuasive to those who ask. Presumably the questioners would be, if not openly hostile, then at least adversarial. After all, the church Peter was addressing was under persecution. In the previous verse they were told not to fear, to set Christ apart in their hearts as Lord, and to give an apologia, a legal term meaning “getting oneself off a charge.”24 Additionally, the church was told to do this with “gentleness and respect,” that is, to guard against the temptation of verbally lashing back, which would only worsen an already tense situation (cf. Prv 15:1).

So, the translation of logos as reason is not altogether wrong, depending on how one understands the English word. “Reason” includes rationalistic justifications, but it also has a much broader application. Think of a boy asking a girl to the prom. She might respond by saying, “Give me one good reason why I should go to the prom with you.” The reasons the boy gives might include a putatively neutral empirical justification: "If you quantify the fun to time-ratio of spending time with me, I think you’ll agree that it compares favorably with similar ratios of spending time with any boy in school. Here, allow me to adduce historical evidence to support my claim.” But his reasons might well include other types of answers as well: “I asked first,” or, “I can get this really cool limo, and afterwards, some friends and I rented out one of the screens at the multiplex, and we could go see [insert appropriate cool movie title here],” or, “The other guys just want to use you—but I want to know you,” or even, “I’ve never told anyone this, but I’ve been in love with you since the fifth grade, and I can think of nothing I’d rather do than just be with you for a while,” and so on. In fact, the possible responses could be anything that the girl would find persuasive. Hopefully, the responses would be truthful as well. Otherwise persuasion devolves into manipulation (especially that line about being in love with her since the fifth grade!). In short, the range of “reasons” is almost limitless—whatever persuasively connects with the desires of her heart.

“Reason” in 1 Peter 3:15 should likewise be construed in this loose sort of way. The church wasn’t trying to get a date to the prom, but it was trying to give all sorts of reasons for the hope within it (and why others should make it their hope as well). The key term here is “hope.” The word used here (elpis) is much stronger than the meaning we typically give the word in English, that is, a wish (“Gee, I hope I get that date to the prom!”). Rather, hope in the New Testament refers not to some vague wish but to an eschatological reality grounded in the sure promises of God for his people. You see this in Romans 5:2, 5: “And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. . . And hope does not disappoint us because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” This hope—that the future belongs to God—causes Christians to live differently, provoking questions from non-believers concerning the reason for this hope. The apologetical task at hand, then, is one of translation: to render this hope in terms that make sense to the one who asks.

Apologetics therefore has a dual focus: first, to keep an eye on the hope and remain true to it, and second, to keep an eye on what resonates with your listener, what connects with him or her at the level of desire (without manipulation). The job of apologetics is to complete the circuit between hope and the desires of the non-Christian. This will include rational justification, but the possible range of “reasons” could include arguments about the beauty, goodness, justice, mercy, vitality, or peacefulness of the hope within us that comes from God. These qualities are not simply private opinion (as Kant would have it) but part of a public reality woven into the fabric of creation itself. In this way, Christianity is put “out there” in the marketplace of ideas and worldviews as good news for truth-starved people.25 It must appeal not only to the brain but to the heart and imagination as well—that is, to desire.

That is why there have always been voices in the history of apologetics that refuse to limit their apologetics to neutral reason alone. Two that come to mind are Augustine and Blaise Pascal. You are probably familiar with Pascal’s famous dictum: “The heart has its reasons, which the reason does not know.”26 That is, reason is not omnicompetent—there are whole realms of heart-motivations that reason alone cannot fathom. Likewise, Augustine argues that trust is that which liberates and makes us truly happy (because it answers the desires of our heart). Note the analogies he uses:

As you may remember, I had promised to show you that there is
something higher than our mind or our reason. Well, this is it—truth itself! If you are able, embrace it and enjoy it!... Men with passionate desires claim that they are happy when they embrace the sensual bodies of their wives (or even of harlots). Can we doubt that we are happy when we embrace the truth itself? Men with parched throats claim to be happy when they find an abundant supply of pure water, or when hungry discover a big dinner or a sumptuous supper. Shall we deny that we are happy when we quench our thirst and feed on truth?27

He goes on to deploy images of lying in a flowery field, music, gold, even the nature of light, in fact, anything that he thinks will connect with his readers in their heart’s desire. His point is that the Truth is more overwhelming than these, that each of these desires and pleasures points to the ultimate dénouement of desire in the Truth (that is, in Christian hope).

Even further back in the history of apologetics, Paul’s address to the Athenians in Acts 17 (considered by some a model of apologetics) shows Paul trying to connect with his hearers’ desires, their religious longing to know their “Unknown God” (v. 23). Paul knew his hearers longed for something that transcended their own superstitious worship (v. 24). They longed for the principle of all life (v.25), for a God with whom they could be close (v. 28, quoting the poet Epimenedes of Crete), and for a Father/Creator (v. 28, again quoting their own poets, this time Aratus). For Paul as well, desire was the chief currency of apologetics. Apologetics acts as a kind of appetizer, whetting the appetite of the unbeliever for something better, more real than whatever his or her idols can provide. 

If apologetics deals in desire and imagination at least as much as rationality, then we must understand the configuration of the desires of those around us. In terms of 1 Peter 3:15, if our hope is going to make sense, we need to map the terrain of our listeners’ desire-laden sensibilities. We must take note of the ears of desire through which they hear about our hope, the way that God has specifically set eternity in their hearts (Eccl 3:10). To do that in our specific cultural context, we must understand popular culture, which has become the weather vane for desire for many cultures in the West. Popular culture is the majority expression of a culture’s heart-desires, that messy interplay between revelation and warped, idolatrous religion. If a movie or singer or television show or video game becomes extremely popular (what could be called “of cultural moment”), then the apologist ought to look into it, disentangling the strands of grace and idolatry.28 In this way, the apologist slowly becomes educated about the landscape of desire, the inner terrain of friends with whom he or she seeks to share the true answer to desire. A relevant apologetics must take into account popular culture, lest apologetics
isolate itself from the ongoing discourse of desire.

So far, we have explored how a Christian reading of the dynamics of popular culture, because of popular culture’s nature as a desire-laden mix of grace and idolatry, leads naturally to apologetical engagement. We then explored how apologetics by its very nature leads one naturally back to popular culture as the expression of the discourse of desire. Finally, we must take a closer look at the meaning of the common term, whose path we have been crisscrossing throughout this article: desire.


19. Charles Wesley’s famous hymn.

20. J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1987), 11.

21. Kant alone is not to blame for this split; it extends back to René Descartes’ distinction between objective and subjective qualities of Cartesian physics. Kant sharpened this distinction and embedded it into his metaphysics.

22. See Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 41–42, and James C. O’Flaherty, Hamman’s “Socratic Memorabilia”: A Translation and Commentary (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1967), 167.

23. See Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 477–479.

24. See Edgar, Reasons of the Heart, 15.

25. Thus apologetics is like evangelism, but not identical with it. Apologetics emphasizes dialogue and persuasion more than simple gospel proclamation.

26. Blaise Pascal, Selections from the Thoughts, ed. and trans. Arthur H. Beattie (Northbrook, IL: AHM Publishing, 1965), 96.

27. Augustine, Concerning the Freedom of the Will (De Libero Arbitrio) Book 2, trans. and ed. L. Russ Bush, in Classical Readings in Christian Apologetics: A.D. 100-1800, ed. L. Russ Bush (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1983), 210 (II 13.35).

28. This is not to say that every culturally salient text is appropriate for every apologist. We need to be mindful of where we are apt to stumble. Apologetics should never become a rationalization for stumbling into sin.