Sean McDowell | June 22, 2019

What is the Best Way to Engage Culture? Author Interview.

What is the Best Way to Engage Culture? Author Interview.

Paul Gould is a friend of mine, an excellent philosopher, and the author of a number of great books including his latest: Cultural Apologetics. I would highly recommend this book for individual study, a class on apologetics, or for a small group discussion. Check out this brief interview and consider getting a copy of his new book!

SEAN MCDOWELL: You have written a new book called Cultural Apologetics. What is “cultural” apologetics?

PAUL GOULD: The cultural apologist works to establish the Christian voice, conscience, and imagination so that Christianity will be seen as true and satisfying. The cultural apologist works both “upstream” at the level of culture-shaping institutions (for example, the university with respect to truth, the art world with respect to beauty, and the city and cultural innovators with respect to goodness) and “downstream” at the level of individual lives. The chief question the cultural apologist asks is, how can we work to help others see the reasonability and desirability of Jesus and the gospel. This involves doing all the traditional kinds of things that usually fall under the term “apologetics” such as giving arguments, providing evidence, and so on, but enfolds these activities into a robust picture of what it means to be embodied humans that both shape culture and are shaped by culture.

MCDOWELL: Who do you think was the first cultural apologist? Why?

GOULD: This is a great question. Given the polemic nature of Genesis 1-11 in the context of the ancient Near East, I think a case can be made that Moses was the first cultural apologist. But I’m going to play it safe and highlight the apostle Paul as a paradigmatic cultural apologist, even if he isn’t the first. In Acts 17, we find Paul engaging a culture different than his own and brilliantly building a bridge from Athens to Jesus and the gospel. He does this first by identifying a starting point (the altars to an unknown god). From there, Paul builds a bridge to Jesus by affirming what he can in Athenian culture (the religious impulse behind the idolatry), outflanking their thinking (and effortlessly quoting from their own pagan poets and philosophers), and confronting their idolatry, bringing them to the ultimate question: What do you make of Jesus? In the book, I unpack a model of cultural apologetics that builds on Paul’s example in Athens. Among other things, a cultural apologist is someone, like Paul, who seeks to first understand the culture he/she seeks to reach and then communicate the gospel is a way that it is viewed as meaningful, reasonable, and desirable.

MCDOWELL: In our day, who are some of the most effective cultural apologists?

GOULD: C. S. Lewis was an incredibly effective cultural apologist. He had a way with words and understood that the human heart is moved by reason and romance. He modeled to us with his life and work what an effective cultural apologetic might look like. Of course, not all of us can do the things Lewis did. But each of us can be a faithful witness and steward of God’s gifts. Since Lewis is no longer with us, who are those now following in his steps? Many come to mind. I’ll name a few (with apologies to those I’ve left out).

There are those who help us better understand our culture such as James K. A. Smith, Charles Taylor, Rod Dreher, Nancy Pearcey, John Stonestreet, and more. There are those who help us show the reasonableness and/or desirability of the gospel such as William Lane Craig, J. P. Moreland, Alvin Plantinga, Joshua Rasmussen, David and Marybeth Baggett, and Greg Ganssle. Others help us understand and employ our imagination better in apologetics such as Holly Ordway and Michael Ward. There are artists such as Andrew Peterson, Jeremy Begbie, Malcolm Guite, and Makoto Fujimura who point us to beauty and help us do theology through the arts. There are theologians such as Kevin Vanhoozer, Bruce Ashford, and Heath Thomas that help us see the beauty of the gospel story and how to locate our lives within it. There are those who teach us how to connect faith and work to the gospel such as David Nelson and Tim Keller. And there are those who are doing a great job training the next generation of Christian leaders such as Brett Kunkle, J. Warner Wallace, Jonathan Morrow, Hillary Morgan Ferrer, Natasha Crain, Megan Almon, and yourself. There are institutions and ministries such as the Colson Center, Summit Ministries, Impact 360, Acton Institute, the C. S. Lewis Institute and more that are equipping our children and mobilizing believers to make a difference in the marketplace. And then there is my own Two Tasks Institute.

MCDOWELL: Why is imagination so vital for evangelism and apologetics?

GOULD: C. S. Lewis defines the imagination as the organ of meaning. The imagination helps us understand our experiences and the propositions we consider so that reason can judge them as true or false and the will can act for the sake of the good, true, and beautiful. In a culture that is increasingly biblically illiterate, one of the ways we can love our neighbor is by communicating the truths of Christianity in a way that others can actually understand. This will require “imaginative reasoning.” The imagination is crucial to our lives in another way too. As many have pointed out, humans are narratival animals. We view our lives as a story. We find our meaning, identity, and purpose from within some story. Of course, there are many stories today—naturalism, humanism, consumerism, postmodernism, and so on—that seek our allegiance and invite our participation. Given disenchantment, unbelief is possible and belief is more difficult. This means that for many Christians, it is hard to imagine themselves as part of God’s ongoing story. I argue in the book that we need to re-baptize our imagination so that we can see and delight in the world the way Jesus does and then find our identity, meaning, and purpose within the gospel story. As we begin to locate our lives within the gospel story, we’ll naturally be led to invite others to do the same.

MCDOWELL: If you could make one change in the church for people to do cultural apologetics more effectively, what would it be and why?

If I could change one thing (and this is hard, I want to say many things, but you’ll just have to read the book for the rest) I’d say, we must bring beauty out of exile and back into the church. We must begin to value beauty in the things we say, the buildings we build, the actions we take, and the lives we live. As we embody beauty and embrace beauty and seek beauty and create beauty others will be drawn to the beauty of Jesus and the gospel. Jesus, as Augustine puts it, is the beauty of all beautiful things. The reality is that we all long for truth, goodness, and beauty and God has given us reason, the conscience, and the imagination as guides on our quest. As we create and cultivate beauty (and truth and goodness) in our lives, the world will be drawn to Christ in us and, Lord willing, will seek Christ through us.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author, popular speaker, and part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell, TikTok, Instagram, and his blog: