By Sue Careless
Does a British apologist of the mid-20th century have any relevance today for Christians who are trying to share the gospel?
“Telling a More Beautiful Story: Lessons from C.S. Lewis on Reaching a Fractured World” was the theme of the Mere Anglicanism Conference held January 26 to 28 in Charleston, South Carolina.
The popular conference derives its name from C.S. Lewis’s 1952 classic, Mere Christianity. Yet this is the first time the gathering has focused on Lewis and used him as an inspiration for postmodern apologetics.
The keynote speaker, Oxford professor and theologian Alister McGrath, believes that Lewis, an Anglican layman, is the greatest Christian apologist of our time. “He is intellectually resilient and imaginatively rich. Lewis is able to speak to ordinary experience, to people who don’t know the Bible or the Christian tradition.”
Mere Christianity was adapted from a series of BBC radio talks Lewis made between 1941 and 1944. As a scholar of English Literature, he gave lectures without notes in packed, standing-room-only lecture halls but he could also speak to 16-year-old Royal Air Force recruits who wouldn’t have understood a word of his Oxford lectures.
Until fairly recently, Christian apologetics has focused primarily on using rational argument to defend the faith.
Lewis was aware that there are limits to rational arguments. “You can’t argue people into the kingdom of God,” McGrath said. “You have to show them something better that draws them to the beauty of the Christian faith. You have to use stories and beauty if you are going to deliver something of great moment.”
A Christian apologist or preacher needs to “draw on truth, beauty, and goodness to show that Christianity is able to engage at every level of life. There are going to be those who say, ‘I want to be persuaded rationally.’ Good. That can be done. But others will say, ‘I want to be given a vision of what is good.’ Lewis provides a comprehensive way of talking about the Christian faith, of bringing out its full riches rather than limiting it to simply saying ‘Christianity makes sense.’
“Truth may convince people, but beauty attracts people. Beauty doesn’t need to be argued. You show it and people respond to it.”
He continued: “Our world has been captivated and seduced by a story of a materialist universe that means nothing and in which we mean nothing. A spell has been cast upon us. But there are spells for breaking enchantments. We’ve got to break that spell by telling a better story.”
McGrath recognizes that you need to awaken the longings and yearnings humans have, although many suppress them.
“If you don’t write stories, you can still tell stories, including you own story, how coming to faith or growing in faith has transformed you.”
Dr. Amy Orr-Ewing, director of the Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics, tackled the toughest question in Christian apologetics: Where is God in all the suffering?
“Pain is real in the experience of every single person we are called to reach with the gospel of Jesus Christ. If our apologetics in any way minimizes abuse, rape, war, disease, loss, or trauma, then we have failed, however clever we might seem.
“As we try to think and speak into the mystery of human suffering, we will find it is deeply baffling. This leads to a sense of frustration and longing, which arises from our intuitive conviction as human beings that this is not the way that things are meant to be.
“If human beings are created in the image of God, if ‘God has set eternity in the hearts of people’ (Ecc. 3:11), life is more than just our biochemical matter.
“The problem of pain is the problem of love. In a culture where coercion and sexual violence are rampant, in a context where consent is the universal moral principle, we should explore the free-will defense of Christianity in the context of love. For love to exist, the freedom to choose must exist: to choose to love or to withhold love and to harm.”
When Orr-Ewing was a 15-year-old living in Birmingham, England, her best friend, who was also 15, was being compelled by her parents to marry a man she had never met. Her friend said she knew that “love should not be compelled by another person.”
With young people today, Orr-Ewing has found a fresh way of using Lewis’s free-will defense. “God, who is love, gives us the capacity for love and choice.”
She said today we must engage with the myth of religious neutrality, with what writer Dorothy Sayers called the ‘imposter narratives.’ Orr-Ewing said karma judges but does not love. Buddhism encourages detachment, cutting any emotional bonds. In fatalism, humans don’t exercise real choice.
Naturalism sees all of life as only a biochemical existence and all morality as subjective.
“Yet a woman who has experienced a serious sexual assault knows that what has happened to her is more than flesh torn and bruises inflicted. Our outrage at human suffering tells us something about our humanity. It tells us we are fearfully and wonderfully made.
“I’ve never known a time when it’s been easier to talk about human wickedness,” Orr-Ewing said, after 23 years of apologetics in 35 countries, often with university students
“Today the outrage in cancel culture speaks loudly about what the culture thinks about wickedness. In cancel culture we shun the transgressor. There is no possibility of forgiveness or redemption. To forgive would be to say that the transgression didn’t really hurt and it doesn’t really matter. There is a passion for the idea that there is moral wickedness and moral transgression in our culture right now. This is an apologetic opportunity for us.”
In the first 15 years of her ministry, Orr-Ewing said, speaking about the judgment of God felt very difficult. “Christianity used to be criticized for being too judgmental, threatening people with retribution in the afterlife to get them to moderate their behavior today. But sometimes I wonder if we have lost sight of the goodness of judgment. Christians have hope that one day every perpetrator will face a just God. Our hearts cry out for judgement. As Jesus Christ bears the just judgement of God for a sinful world, so on the cross he offers us mercy.”
For those of us who avoid apologetics for fear of confrontation, Dr. Jerry Root, professor emeritus at Wheaton College, was perhaps the most helpful. Instead of launching into Christ’s story or his own story, he first elicits from total strangers their story.
“Any of us can ask a public question of a person that’s not intrusive. If you see them at the airport, you can ask, “Are you from here?’” One young man told him, “No, but we moved here when my parents divorced.”
“He didn’t have to tell me that. I think you can go deeper and deeper when people give you permission.”
And after they have freely told him their troubles and longings, Root gently shares with them what he calls the old gospel: “God loves you. Christ died for your sins. You can be reconciled to him,” often repeating “God loves you.”
He gave several remarkable examples of such tender encounters, so that in the panel discussion, when the moderator asked the other participants how they would evangelize, one panelist quipped, “Put them on a plane with Jerry Root.”