‘Place’ and Apologetics: Christopher Brooks and “Urban Apologetics”

Recently I wrote on the fundamental role “being known” plays in one’s act of knowing. That is, my coming to know something is not reduced to the Cartesian “I think, therefore I am.” Just as important is the reality that each individual is confronted by reality – by others, by the physical world, etc. We are not able to completely abstract ourselves out of culture and tradition (as Descartes tried to do). Rather, we are shaped by the culture and tradition in which we live.

This culture and tradition makes up what I’m calling place, which also includes one’s geographic location and social setting. Where one is and was (i.e. if one lives in a different location from where they were born) plays a significant role in what issues they face on a regular basis. Place also determines what worldviews and religions one encounters through their neighbors, co-workers, and fellow citizens. These issues and questions force the individual (either reactively or through reflection) to come to terms (at some level) with what they believe or know about them.

Apologetics is not immune to the impact place has on the act of knowing and what one believes.For instance, during my time in Malaysia earlier this year, I was confronted with the reality that the question of God’s existence—a perennial question in modern Western apologetics—is not a question many in Southeast Asia face. Particularly in Malaysia, most Malays are Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and various stripes of animist—so the question is not whether God exists, but that of which God, god(s), or spirits are the true deity. So, the Christian doesn’t change the message of the Gospel, but they do address different questions with the truth of the Gospel. Even in America, the questions and challenges brought against Christianity are often determined by place. Christopher W. Brooks’ book, Urban Apologetics, brings this reality to the forefront for Christians serious about giving an answer for their faith (1 Peter 3:15).

Before I continue, allow me to take an aside that connects to what Brooks does in his excellent book. I’ve had the opportunity to teach apologetics at a small Christian college here in the states as well as overseas in Malaysia. Though apologetics in the West is often addressed in terms of methodology (classical apologetics, evidential apologetics, presuppositionalism, experiential apologetics), I’ve come to see that the questions the unbeliever asks play a far greater role in how one does apologetics. That is, each method just listed are valuable in the right context, and that context is informed by what questions and challenges the unbeliever has regarding Christianity. Often, these questions and challenges are informed by the individual’s upbringing, personal challenges, education, social setting, etc.

To bring this back around my earlier discussion, modern apologetics has tended to emphasize questions that Western academia and intelligentsia have brought against Christianity. When it comes to urban America, Brooks asserts that it is often the case that many urban Christians feel that there is no audience nor space in apologetics for their voice (13-14). That is, the questions many urban Americans ask are not addressed by most Christian apologists. Brooks seeks to fill this void with Urban Apologetics.

According to Brooks, the issues that many face in urban settings are those of “poverty, public policy, and personal suffering to those of social justice and sexual identity” (17). What drives many to question Christianity is not a denial of God’s existence; rather, many question Christianity’s relevance to the issues they face.

Brooks echoes Cornel West who, when asked by George Yancy why there is a paucity of African-Americans in philosophy, stated that modern philosophy was “too far removed from my own issues…[like] the problem of evil, suffering, misery and how to engage in struggle, how to talk about courage, how to talk about joy, etc. For me, such issues were much more at the center of things.”[1] For West, philosophy has failed to connect to “history, struggle, engagement with suffering, how we cope with suffering, how we overcome social misery, etc.”[2] Likewise, Christian apologetics (for the most part) hasn’t addressed the questions many are confronted by in urban settings. Note, Brooks is not saying that what modern Christian apologetics has produced is therefore valueless; rather, modern Christian apologetics does not adequately connect with the all issues in urban America. (Later in the book, Brooks does appeal to modern apologists like William Lane Craig; elsewhere he expresses gratitude for being able to study apologetics at Biola. His point is that are areas Christian apologetics needs to address.)

For the sake of space, I want to move to Brooks’ later chapters that address the questions faced by urban America. After addressing the relevance of Christianity in urban areas, the intimate relationship between apologetics and evangelism, and the grounding of ethics in Christ, Brooks then addresses the prominent questions in urban America:

  1. Sexuality
  2. Family
  3. Religious pluralism
  4. Social justice

It’s easy to see these issues as merely ethical, theological, or political – but for Brooks, these are areas that confront urban Americans daily. Issues of identity, the value and necessity of family, conflicting truth claims, and justice are all at the heart of the Gospel:

  1. Sexuality address the core of who one is—their identity. One’s identity speaks to who they are before God and who they are as created in His image. Ultimately, it speaks to their need of a savior.
  2. The family serves as the most fundamental unit of society. When families are undermined by political policies, economic policies, or societal ills, the foundation of society is weakened. When children grow up with just one parent or no parents, or live in some level of disfunction, it shapes how they view Christianity, particularly God as Father and the body of Christ as a family. Thus, the matter of family is a vital apologetical issue.
  3. Most readers will readily see how religious pluralism is an apologetical matter. In fact, religious pluralism is an issue regardless of where one lives. What Brooks draws out, however, are the specific religions contending for space in urban areas. For instance,
    1. Islam (in its various sects)
    2. Moorish Science Temple of America
    3. Nation of Islam
    4. Nation of Gods and Earth
    5. Black Hebrew Israelites

I must confess that—aside from Islam—I am unfamiliar with these religions, and I bet it’s safe to say that many Christians in America are like me. Yes, atheism, metaphysical naturalism (scientism), and false religions like the JWs, Mormanism, and Seventh Day Adventists are worth our attention in apologetics. Yet, far too little attention has been directed toward other religions Christians face in America.

  1. Social justice is perhaps the one area many (?) Christians will not see as an apologetical issue. In fact, if what I read is correct, there is a large segment of Christians who see social justice as merely a social and/or political matter. Brooks rightly notes that the Gospel not only address the individual, but it impacts society as well. According to Psalm 89:14, “righteousness and justice are the foundation of [God’s] throne” (quoted by Brooks, 133-34). The saving work God does in the heart of an individual necessarily impacts that individual and the society in which they live. [Much more needs to be said about this, and I hope to do so soon.]

Urban Apologetics is a much-needed book in Christian apologetics, accessible to the layperson and useful for one trained in apologetics. While works exist in urban apologetics (Brooks notes Carl Ellis, Jr., Patrick Smith, Thabiti Anyabewla, D. A. Horton, Jemar Tisbi, Nicole Johnson, and Bruce Fields), much more needs to be done. It is my hope that Christians take up Brooks’ call to fill this void in modern Christian apologetics.

The questions urban Americans ask emphasize the important role place plays in one’s apologetics. It does behoove the Christian to know the various arguments for God’s existence and the various methods on answering Christianity’s challenges. Yet, these arguments and methods are not one-size-fits-all. What informs the answers we give is the questions the unbeliever asks (implicitly or explicitly). Know your context and setting, and listen for what’s being asked, and address those questions.

[1] George Yancy, ed. “Cornel West,” in African American Philosophers: 17 Conversations (New York: Routledge, 1998), 35.

[2] Ibid., 38.

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