Apologetics for the 21st Century
Book review by Michael Kallenberg
Louis Markos, Apologetics for the 21st Century. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010. Paperback. 271 pages. $17.99. ISBN 978-1-4335-1448-7.
Apologetics is the rational justification of the essential, core doctrines of Christianity (from the Greek word apologia, meaning “a defense”). It is presenting a logical, reasonable case for the truth of the Christian account of reality and human experience in the face of dissent. The discipline serves two important purposes: it bolsters the faith of believers and it removes obstacles to faith for unbelievers. The key biblical rationale for engaging in this practice can be found in 1 Peter 3:15-16, which says, “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (NIV).
Over the last century, this type of Christian defense has been mounted both in the academic realm (especially in the fields of philosophy, theology, and biblical studies) and in the arena of pubic opinion. One of the greatest champions of the faith in this latter domain was C.S. Lewis. Thus, it is with good reason that Louis Markos, English Professor and Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities at Houston Baptist University, seeks to don Lewis’s mantle by writing a highly accessible book on apologetics in a familiar, narrative style.
In Apologetics for the 21st Century, Markos traces the development of apologetics over the last century through the lens of its most influential apologists as well as summarizes the best contemporary arguments that will inform defenders of the faith for the next hundred years. The first part of the book primarily considers the legacy of C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton with due deference to Dorothy Sayers, Francis Schaeffer, and Josh McDowell. The second part draws from numerous working apologists as it presents general arguments for the existence of God, the reliability of Scripture, the Lordship of Jesus, the resurrection of Christ, the exclusivity of Christianity, and the intelligent design of the universe. The latter half of the book also mounts cases against the neo-Gnosticism of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and the “new atheism” of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. In addition, the second portion of the book contains a strategy for apologetically engaging postmoderns and a personal testimony about following the evidence away from atheism toward theism. The book concludes with four appendices: a timeline of forty-seven widespread works that have shaped the apologetic discussion over the past century, a short glossary of related terms, a who’s who list of orthodox apologists that have written for a broad (mostly nonacademic) audience, and a substantial annotated bibliography of accessible books associated with the subject matter.
In order to communicate both a sense of how apologetics has advanced and to cover as many of the arguments as possible, Markos intentionally (and skillfully) composed twenty-four succinct, fast-paced chapters. While this renders the work very readable, it also makes a comprehensive review rather unmanageable. Consequently, my aim in what follows is simply to underscore some strengths of the work, draw attention to a few weaknesses, and conclude with a couple recommendations.
The most obvious strength of Markos’s work is his masterful summaries of C.S. Lewis’s apologetic arguments. For example, in chapter two, he highlights Lewis’s main arguments for theism, which are derived from four things that cannot be explained in purely natural terms (i.e., according to physical entities and processes alone). In his argument from desire, Lewis contends that the source of our deepest longings can only be traced back to a transcendent God. That is, our innate, conscious desire for something more than the natural world can offer strongly suggests – just as our thirst indicates we are creatures reliant upon drinking water – that another, supernatural world must exist that can satisfy this inherent desire. In his argument from ethics, Lewis again maintains that the existence of objective, cross-cultural moral values (what he calls “the Tao”) can only be explained by a divine source. Likewise, in his arguments from religion and reason, Lewis claims that only a supernatural origin can account for both our sense of the sacred and our ability to make logical deductions. Another example of Markos’s firm grasp of C.S. Lewis’s work can be found in chapter five, which recounts Lewis’s defense of miracles. In addition to judiciously defining a miracle within the context of an open system as the suspension of the natural sequence of events by the introduction of a new factor (as opposed to a violation of the laws of nature), he insightfully goes on to express the fuller truth that “a miracle is . . . a sublime act during which the Creator, for a brief, glorious moment, restores the truly natural – that is, original – order of his creation” (54).
A further strength of Markos’s book is the pastoral way he grapples with the existence of suffering and evil in our world. First, he places the issue in its biblical context by observing that recent generations of Americans struggle more with the problem of pain than their ancestors did, despite possessing a better quality of life, because they have exchanged the doctrine of original sin for an erroneous belief in the inherent goodness of human beings. As fallen moral agents, it is not surprising that we are more comfortable blaming God than taking responsibility for our misuse of free will (Markos’s treatment of this topic in chapter fifteen builds upon his summary of Lewis’s freewill theodicy in chapter four). Second, he deals directly with the logical problem of evil by citing Alvin Plantinga’s rebuttal, which shows that the statements God is all-loving, God is all-powerful, and evil exists in the world do not actually comprise a formal contradiction. Third, he draws upon the rich resources of theology to provide a robust answer to the existential challenge of evil; namely, that the integrated doctrines of the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection reveal that God wants to eliminate evil, God is able to eliminate evil, and God will eliminate evil.
Although the book has several other strengths that I do not have the space to commend, it does have a few conspicuous weaknesses. The first, and perhaps most flagrant, flaw is Markos’s (intentional) failure to use inclusive language. Many individuals today do not recognize “he,” “man,” or “mankind” as generic collectives that refer to all human beings. Whereas such exclusive language used to be normative, it increasingly alienates a significant number of people. Therefore, I find it particularly troublesome that Markos continues use gender-specific language in a work that putatively seeks to establish common ground with its readers.
A second significant weakness is his treatment of “apologetics for postmoderns” in chapter twenty-one. I think Markos’s recommendation that apologists seeking to reach postmoderns ought to emphasize narrative as well as Christ incarnate as the true myth is sensible, but it strikes me as more evangelistic than apologetic. What I find particularly problematic, however, is his attempt to rehabilitate the allegorizing approach to biblical interpretation with its four levels of meaning: literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical. Although he rightly notes that these levels of meaning are “slippery,” his further assertion that “it is a kind slipperiness that leads toward rather than away from meaning and truth” is historically naïve (200). Unless our interpretations are primarily guided by what the biblical authors intended to say, they will end up depending on our own personal preferences. Moreover, such allegorizing methods tend to obscure the historical accuracy of revelation, something most apologists diligently seek to establish. I also find it difficult to understand precisely what Markos means by “a higher, redemptive postmodernism” (199). While it is clear that Markos rejects the deconstructionism and relativism of hard postmodernism, he neglects to define and defend his objective view of truth. What is worse, the authors he cites as effectively engaging postmodernism primarily do so from an evangelistic perspective that, at best, circumvents the crucial issues of truth and rationality.
Overall, I found Markos’s book to be an accessible defense of the faith fashioned out of succinct summaries of apologetic arguments. However, while the work is a worthwhile introduction to the discipline, its notable weaknesses prevent me from giving it a wholehearted endorsement. In the end, my recommendation comes down to this: read it, but handle with caution.
Michael Kallenberg, M.A.