Christian apologetics is as old as Christianity itself. The Letter to Diognetus and Origin’s Contra Celsum represent some of the best early defenses of Christianity against a pagan Roman Empire. While Christians in the Middle Ages continued in the defense of the Christian face, more attention was shifted toward Christian polemics. As Enlightenment thinking took root in Western culture, Christians were once again active in the defense of the faith. With each passing generation, believers encountered challenges to their faith that required an answer.
Even with its long, rich history, Christian apologetics has seen a rise in popularity since the mid-nineteenth century. The Christian worldview that once permeated Western culture – particularly in America – is now attacked and abandoned by an increasingly secular society. Led by Carl F. H. Henry and other evangelical thinkers, conservative evangelical Christians sought to engage the culture head on by addressing cultural issues with the Gospel.
The idea of engaging the culture, according to the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement, is “to speak wisdom in a confused age, to offer…’true Christian hope that is Christological in its foundation.” Underlying the approach of engaging the culture is the belief that Scripture is sufficient for and relevant to all life and cultural issues.
Coupled with the apologetic movement in recent decades has been technological advances in media and the relative ease at which one can obtain resources and publish apologetical works. Where the primary means of promulgating the Christian message used to be the written and spoken word, today Christians have a variety of effective means to spread the Christian message: television, radio, print (in all its various forms), websites, and (most recently and significantly) social media (including blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., etc.). We live in a day and age where Christians (particularly in Western culture) are blessed with an abundance of riches in resources and media.
Though we have an abundance of excellent apologetical resources at our fingertips, there is a sense in which “cultural engagement” has devolved into polemical defensive reactions, and nowhere is this clearer than in the daily social media interactions.
It goes without saying that social media has greatly impacted how we get our news and how we communicate. A July 2015 Pew Report claims that the number of Americans who get their news from Facebook and Twitter continues to rise. According to the article, “the new study…finds that clear majorities of Twitter (63%) and Facebook (63%) now say each platform serves as a source for news about the events and issues outside the realm of friends and family.”
Social media also serves as a platform from which Christians engage the culture. Numerous forums exist in which Christians interact with those of other faiths, with non-religious persons and atheists, and with other Christians. In addition to the various forums, one’s one status update serves as a means to interact with the news of the day. One can easily provide their own commentary on current issues, tagging friends and well-known personalities as a means to engage in dialogue. The availability and ease of social media has allowed Christians outside of the academy to engage in apologetics.
“Dialogue” within social media. Credit: Coldbourne.
The effort of Henry and other evangelical leaders on engaging the culture is still bearing much fruit. However, some (or much?) of what is intended today to be engaging the culture comes off as just personal rantings, ad hominem attacks, and parry-and-thrust attacks. That is, there is a sense in which some Christians are not engaging unbelievers; rather, they are defensively reacting to what is wrong (perceived or actual), what they don’t like, and what they find offensive. Again, no where is this more evident than in the world of social media.
Take, for instance, President Obama’s “bathroom directive” for public schools. This is, indeed, an issue that Christians must address, as it undermines the essential nature of gender identity. However, if one scrolls through the various social media sites or blogs, a majority of responses by Christians by those opposed to Obama’s directive are not instances of engaging the culture. Rather, they are just the ventings of (rightfully) angry individuals or the expressions of one’s opinion.
For instance, a Facebook status claiming: “I can’t believe what Obama is doing! This is not a Christian nation anymore!” is just one’s personal ranting. The individual is not engaging anything, but is reacting to an event. Another example would be a blog post calling into question and blasting Obama’s (and liberals’ in general) character is not a way to engage the culture-shifting decision on transgender bathrooms. Such an approach would be an ad hominem attack. Finally, a “parry-and-thrust attack” approach consists of something like the Newsboys’ God’s Not Dead – a song in response to the claim by the New Atheists that God is dead (a claim originating with Nietzsche, and carried on by the New Atheists). Their chorus partly goes:
God’s not dead
He’s surely alive
He’s living on the inside
Roaring like a lion
This image illustrates the parry-and-thrust approach to engaging the culture. Credit: Ningyou
The Newsboys are correct – God is certainly not dead. However, their appeal to personal experience (“He’s living on the inside”) alone as a means of countering the claim that God is dead does not answer the charge against Christianity. Rather, it just states what they believe in contradistinction to atheists. That is, it’s more of a “You believe A, but your wrong. I believe B”, where you parry the opponents charge, and thrust with your own. Surely, this approach is better than the previous two mentioned, but it does not address the real issue(s) at hand. It merely draws the battle lines. In short, the reactionary approach addresses cultural issues at more of an emotional level rather than calling on both sides to reason.
The reactionary approach that is so common in social media is not limited to internet-based media, but the ease of access and use makes social media the ideal platform for defensive reactions to cultural issues. One reason for this is that social media is – in its nature – reactionary. However, reactionary appeals do little in engaging the culture. Entailed in “engagement” is dialogue, expounding on ideas, supporting assertions, refuting false claims, and counter-arguing. The idea is that the parties involved get beyond the surface issues to the underlying issues.
Further, “engagement” entails teleology – there is a purpose and end to a Christian’s engaging the culture. That purpose and end is to lead another to truth and ultimately the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Today, though, we see more reaction than engagement. Little time is spent considering the issue at hand and its root problem(s). The issue is taken at face value while the “responder” takes a dogmatic stance against the perceived issue, setting up a dichotomy between his view and an opposing view.
In summary, engaging the culture in particular (and apologetics in general) goes beyond the emotional reaction and the mere expression of one’s opinion on an issue. Addressing cultural issues may also involve one’s emotions, but they do not dictate nor direct the dialogue. Finally, when one wants to address cultural issues that intersect with Biblical truth, they should carefully critique ideas and events; it is a concerted effort to shed light on and remove error in order to proclaim and uphold truth. Cultural engagement is reflective, thoughtful, careful, and attentive to the end of proclaiming the truth.
Post Script: I recognize that the nature of social media (and media in general?) is not a setting favorable to concentrated and intentional interaction. Because of how quickly news and events change, the temptation is to respond just as quickly in order to stay current. Doing so lends itself to being more reactionary rather than truly engaging the culture. However, if we are to address cultural issues as envisioned by the likes of Carl F. H. Henry, there may be times where one camps out on an issue in order to provide thoughtful and meaningful interaction. There may be other times where one withholds expressing an opinion (or making a dogmatic claim) until they obtain more information. Whatever the situation, the proclivity of today’s defensive reactions does little by way of engaging the culture “to speak wisdom in a confused age, to offer…’true Christian hope that is Christological in its foundation.”
Finally, not all instances of cultural engagement (particularly in social media) are characterized by what I call “defensive reaction.” Here are just a few excellent apologetic resources that seek thoughtful engagement with cultural issues from a biblical, Christian worldview:
 See Avery Cardinal Dulles, A History of Apologetics (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999) for an excellent history of Christian apologetics since early Christianity.
 Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement, 2014, accessed June 1, 2016, http://www.henryinstitute.org.
 Michael Barthel, Elisa Shearer, Jeffrey Gottfried, and Amy Mitchell, “The Evolving Role of News on Twitter and Facebook,” Pew Research Center, July 14, 2015, accessed June 1, 2016, http://www.journalism.org/2015/07/14/the-evolving-role-of-news-on-twitter-and-facebook.
 Newsboys, God’s Not Dead, lyrics accessed June 1, 2016, https://www.google.com/?gws_rd=ssl#q=God%27s+not+dead+lyrics
 In fact, the approach in the Newsboys’ God’s Not Dead is akin to the emphasis on religious experience as the modus operandi of early nineteenth-century apologetics. Take, for instance, E. Y. Mullins, a prominent Southern Baptist thinker who appealed often to religious experience as an answer to the encroaching liberalism and naturalistic atheism of his day. The problem with appealing to religious experience alone is that one can easily respond by saying that one’s experience does not serve to demonstrate the existence of God, for one can just as easily say they don’t experience God, thus he does not exist.
Apologetics should not ignore religious experience, but it should not rely soley upon it nor emphasize it over other methods. God has revealed himself in real time and space – Israel experienced God salvation and his revelation. But God has also revealed himself propositionally and has acted in history such that we can demonstrate the validity and truthfulness of God’s existence and of his truth revealed in Jesus Christ. Experience alone is insufficient as an apologetic; it must be coupled with (and preceded by?) demonstration through appeal to evidence and attention to presuppositions.
*Updated 6/2 to correct grammar and redundancy.