Tactics and Tools

Culturally Aware Apologetics

Author Greg Koukl Published on 12/11/2001

The culture I deal with is a mixed one, a clash of the modern with the postmodern. It therefore requires an eclectic approach best summed up by the word “ambassador.”

The “modern” mind is a product of enlightenment thinking entailing a conviction that the world is a certain way and can be known. There is truth and error, and human beings have the faculty to distinguish between them. Reason and rationality matter. The world has meaning and we understand our place in it.

Postmodernism, by contrast, is a radical relativism that encompasses all of reality. “The truth about reality itself is forever hidden from us,” writes James Sire of postmodernism. “Those who hang on to their metanarrative as if it really were the master story, encompassing or explaining all other stories, are under an illusion.”1

Postmoderns are more interested in stories than “facts” and are pluralistic, comfortable with a variety of views and lifestyles and sensitive to dogmatism. They are communal, deeply concerned with relationships, and hungry for a spirituality that is not institutional, but personal, practical, and experiential.

Clash of Cultures

Two movies capture the distinction between the modern and postmodern mind. The first, “Moonstruck,” is a romantic comedy with a sub-plot about a middle-aged wife named Rose whose husband is having an affair. One evening Rose meets a professor who provides the kind of warm interaction she hasn’t known for years. He invites her to his place. She declines and he asks why. “Because I know who I am,” she answers. Rose resists temptation because an act of unfaithfulness would violate her character. Her life has meaning. Her moral confidence and strong sense of self allow her to choose virtue in spite of loneliness. This is a profound freedom.

The new style is different. Freedom is not found in virtue, but in emancipation from the moral chains of the past, a perspective captured in the movie “Pleasantville.” Here those who hold to classical virtues are depicted as shallow, one-dimensional, empty, and abusive. Morality—as with all truth—is relative, an invention of the powerful to control the oppressed.

The movie ends, appropriately, in a contradiction. In the final scene David the teenage protagonist of the story, comforts his mother, a divorcee involved with a man nine years her junior. Her life is, in her words, “all f...d up. It is not turning out the way it is supposed to be.”

David gently wipes the mascara-blackened tears from her cheek and says with eyes glowing, “Mom, there is no way it’s supposed to be.” He smiles. She lifts here eyes and the tears stop while she ponders the significance of this sage advice. “How did my son get so wise?” she asks, and the credits roll.

The contradiction in “Pleasantville” is two-fold. In spite of the moral and conceptual relativism implicit in David’s closing comments, the movie is largely dedicated to denigrating the modernist tradition as intolerant, abusive, and oppressive—wrong, in other words. Further, David’s mom, in contrast to Rose, has been living a self-centered, profligate life, without regard for virtue or morality. She’s messed up precisely because there is a way life is supposed to be and she’s not living it.

Our current culture is a dynamic amalgam of these two world views—the modern and the postmodern—in collision with each other. As such, there is no one technique that is most effective. Instead, we need a broad, flexible method: the ambassador approach.

The Effective Ambassador

Paul tells us “We are ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20). An effective ambassador has three essential skills. First, an ambassador must have some basic knowledge of the character, mind, and purposes of his king. Second, this knowledge must be deployed in a skillful way. There’s an element of wisdom, a tactical and artful diplomacy that makes his message persuasive. Paul says, “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned, as it were, with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each person” (Colossians 4:6). Finally, there is character. The kindness, even-handedness, and respect the ambassador shows for those who differ can either make or break his message.

An ambassador is able to adapt to either the modern or the postmodern mindset. Since the approach is flexible by design, he can be effective regardless of what changes he is confronted with. This means intentionally contextualizing the truth of Christianity to the specific circumstances he faces.

The tactical element is critical to the effectiveness of this approach. Two different tactics have been effective even with post-moderns because of a couple of simple truths. First, fairness, gentleness, and respect are always in style, and they add persuasiveness to speech regardless of the message. Second, if Christianity is true, then every person who denies it must live in a contradiction. On one side is the pull of their postmodern convictions; on the other, the tenacious pull of reality.

The “Columbo” Tactic

Lieutenant Columbo was the bumbling and seemingly inept TV detective whose remarkable success was based on an innocent query: “Do you mind if I ask you a question?” The key to this tactic is to maneuver through an encounter—halting, head-scratching, and apparently harmless—with carefully selected questions. Columbo is most powerful if you have a plan of attack, if you ask questions with a goal in mind. You may be alerted to some weakness, flaw, or contradiction in another’s view you can expose in a disarming way.

There are literally hundreds of ways to do this offering tremendous advantages. It’s interactive, inviting the other person to participate in dialogue. It’s a good tactic to use at work because no “preaching” is involved. The Columbo tactic allows you to make good headway without actually stating your case. More importantly, a carefully placed question shifts the burden of proof to the other person where it often belongs.

Using the Columbo tactic accomplishes a couple of things. First, it immediately engages the non-believer in an interactive, relational way. The questions are probing, but still quite amicable. Second, it’s flattering because you’ve expressed a genuine interest in knowing more about the other’s view. Third, it forces her to think more carefully—maybe for the first time—about exactly what she believes. Fourth, it gives you valuable information, putting you in a better position to assess her view. You learn what she thinks, but also how she thinks.

The Suicide Tactic

The suicide tactic makes capital of the tendency of many views to self-destruct when given the opportunity. Such ideas get caught in the noose of their own cleverness and quickly expire. These are commonly known as self-refuting views.

At first it would seem this rational approach to truth would put off a postmodern who rejects such methodology as illicit holdovers from the modern era. In practice, though, this seldom happens. Postmoderns still care about truth, in spite of their protests. They are human beings made in the image of God. As such, they live in a world in which their claims collide with reality. This tactic is meant to exploit that tension.

The simple truth is, no one is really a relativist, a fact that surfaces readily when one’s guard is down. They wax eloquent about relativism, but in the next breath complain about crooked politicians, legal injustice, and intolerant Christians—all meaningless if relativism is true. When they do this they’re not advancing personal opinions. They actually believe these things are wrong. Their own objective view morality is surfacing.

Even postmoderns hold that certain concepts—justice, tolerance, fairness, etc.—are meaningful, common-sense notions. Further, they bring up the problem of evil as an argument against God and engage in moral discussions to determine the “right” course of action in a situation. These seem to be legitimate ways of talking. Yet if relativism were really true, they are nonsense notions because each derives its meaning from its relationship to an objective moral rule. Relativists find themselves in the unenviable position of having to admit there is no such thing as evil, and no actual obligation of justice, fairness, or tolerance. They may philosophize confidently about the death of truth, but in practice this is too big a price to pay.

Is Truth True?

In a debate on postmodernism I participated in at Chapman University, I defended what seemed to be a very modest claim: Objective truth can be known. My opponent, Dr. Marv Meyer, was forced to argue against the proposition, effectively stating he knew truth couldn’t be known.

The debate reminded me of a construction worker who complained one day about the air quality in Los Angeles. “This smog is killing me,” he said. “I need a break. I’m going out back to have a smoke.” His comment entailed a contradiction. He said one thing was objectionable, and then blithely proceeded to do the very thing he objected to, sensing no conflict between the two.

Dr. Meyer’s claim was much the same. First, he claimed that knowledge was a certain way. Second, he claimed he knew it to be so. All the while he argued all such claims are false. In my final remarks, I encouraged the audience to cast their votes for Dr. Meyer, then reminded them what such a vote would mean, that my opponent convinced them his view was true and mine was false. A vote for Marv, then, would be a vote for the resolve: Objective truth can be known. Professor Meyer got one vote. My success was not due to cleverness on my part, but to the fact that even post-moderns must live in God’s world. The suicide tactic was effective.

When someone is graciously disarmed in the context of a respectful discussion, there is more openness to consider the Christian story. When people become aware they actually do believe in morality, this has explanatory power for something else they know intuitively: the personal guilt that each is painfully aware of.

At this point I make a suggestion. “Maybe we feel guilty because we are guilty. Is that a possibility? If it is, then denial (relativism) is not going to solve the problem. Only forgiveness can do that. This is where Jesus comes in.”

This brings us right to the foot of the cross in a way that is relational, interactive, and without the feel of dogmatism. It’s a way of appealing to a postmodern mindset without adopting a postmodern epistemology.

Further, this is a truth I don’t need to convince them of. They already know it. Note the frank admission in the final words of Douglas Coupland’s ode of the postmodern man, Life After God:

Nowhere is my secret: I tell it to you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray that you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is that I need God—that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.2

Coupland, the quintessential postmodern, knows that his sickness is a moral sickness—an inability to be virtuous—that only God Himself can heal. Christians who are careful ambassadors have a way of making sense of that gnawing angst. Relativism is not liberty; it’s bondage. Yes, there is a problem, but there’s also a solution. There is meaning. We’re not alone. Someone does care. There is reason to hope.