Book Review: Cultural Apologetics

Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World

by Paul M. Gould. Zondervan, 2019. Paper. 240 pages: $22.99

The relationship of the Christian church to culture has been a prickly question even since the first Jewish believers considered the requirements for Gentile converts. The debate continued as the early church encountered Roman and Greek culture and thought and has more recently intensified considerably in the postcolonial era. Central to the question of how the church interacts with culture is how the church views culture itself. Is it an evil to be avoided or a good to be enjoyed? In Cultural Apologetics, philosopher and professor Paul M. Gould lands somewhere in between to present his vision for the church’s cultural engagement.

Gould laments that “Christianity suffers from an image problem” (18), grappling with a diminishing influence in an increasingly antagonistic culture. The problem, he contends, is not in culture, but in the church itself. “The church has grown anti-intellectual and sensate,” beholden to the disenchantment that pervades the western world, and thus losing its ability to say anything meaningful. Facing this problem, Gould offers Cultural Apologetics as “the work of establishing the Christian voice, conscience, and imagination within a culture so that Christianity is seen as true and satisfying” (21). That work proceeds through a process of re-enchantment that begins with listening to culture itself. “For the cultural apologist, cultural artifacts—illustrations from the world of music, art, sports, entertainment, social relations, and politics—are paramount” (21). Unlike traditional apologetics which starts with Christianity’s truth claims, Gould’s Cultural Apologetics sees culture as a valid starting point for the church’s theology and action.

When the church listens carefully to culture at the street level, recognized are three universal longings that serve as bridges by which the gospel can be brought to bear. First, humans long for beauty. Where some “hold beauty captive” for commercial purposes and others “exile beauty . . . with ambivalence or outright disdain” (98), the church must resist these impulses and instead reclaim the theology and practice of godly beauty by re-activating imaginations. Christians must embrace their roles as creative cultivators, “bringing beauty back into our lives and into the church” (105). Concretely, Gould urges the church to utilize cultural art forms in preaching and teaching, to promote the arts in local churches, and to affirm artistic vocations as valuable.

Second, humans long for truth. While America has access to more information but paradoxically becomes increasingly anti-intellectual, the cultural apologist will awaken the longing for knowledge and truth by using God-given reason to present Christianity as something reasonable. With a starting posture of love and a starting point at the plausibility structures of culture itself, the church must recover the art of persuasion. For Gould, himself a professor, the American university, as “a center of power for the discovery of truth and the advancement of knowledge” (142), is the perfect and most important venue for this kind of reasoning.

Third, humans long for goodness. When it is all too apparent that the world is not as it should be, the church must “narrow the gaps between how things are and how things ought to be” (146) by affirming Christian conscience. Christianity gives each person a role to play in the story of a morally good God in which “our lives count for something bigger than ourselves” (155). That story does not permit the church to silo itself off from the injustice in the world but rather compels us to engage injustice as a force for good.

Gould wraps this process of re-enchantment—listening to culture and awakening the three universal longings—in a larger story of returning to a lost home, as the place where one finds true belonging and wholeness. “We long for home, we are not home, and we can’t find our way home” (202), but in his mercy, God has made us a way home through Jesus. In this “apologetic of return,” as Christians engage in the work of restoring Christian voice, conscience, and imagination within culture, they function as “agents of shalom” who “help erect signposts for others on the way” (210).

In Gould’s treatment of how the church engages culture, the influence of Andy Crouch and James Davison Hunter are strong. On the other hand, cultural scholars like Lesslie Newbigin, Stanley Hauerwas, and more recently, Rod Dreher, might be nervous that in letting it set the church’s agenda, Gould is capitulating to culture. But Gould has no rosy notions about culture as an unvarnished good. Instead, he comprehensively argues that western culture has distorted reality. Nonetheless, he does not deem culture an irredeemable evil, but rather affirms even broken culture as a valid starting point for the church’s engagement and the arena for God’s redeeming work. Cultural Apologetics is cultural in that culture provides the data for the church’s engagement, but it is apologetic in that it seeks to present Christianity as both true and desirable in that cultural context. In this way, Gould’s Cultural Apologetics has a missional core.

Gould’s book is written at a level academic enough to engage with scholars and so should find a home in university settings. But it is also accessible enough for a wider readership. It will be most useful for American pastors and other church practitioners who want to think intelligently about their interaction with wider culture, especially as the church in America faces growing opposition.

J.P. Cima

LCMS Missionary to Cambodia
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Book review from Concordia Journal, Fall 2022, Volume 48, Number 4, page 69