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Apologetics with a common touch

by
12 March 2021

G. K. Chesterton showed the importance of humour and humility, says Steve Morris

Alamy

G. K. Chesterton, prolific writer and the author of Orthodoxy (1908)

G. K. Chesterton, prolific writer and the author of Orthodoxy (1908)

THE news that the late Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias committed sexual abuse against multiple women was sad and deeply troubling (News, 19 February). My thoughts are entirely with the victims and all the people whom he hurt. But such a momentous fall from grace does give us pause for thought. Is Christian apologetics ready for a reboot?

There have been some insightful articles about what can be learned from the events at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. Indeed, I began this article thinking that I might add to these observations, but I became stuck on a writer who straddled the 19th and 20th centuries. I began to wonder whether, to reimagine the future, we might look to the past.

G. K. Chesterton was prolific. He wrote 200 short stories, five novels, and 80 books. He wrote thousands of articles. By today’s standard, however, he might look an unlikely candidate to be a prominent Christian apologist. For a start, he never went to university. He dropped out of art college, and, as a child, his parents took him to a specialist because he seemed so slow.

One of the ways in which Zacharias lost his way was in the inflation of his academic qualifications: the need to seem academic and to refer to associations with top universities. Was it because of pride or insecurity, or the way in which modern apologetics has become allied with academic strength and prowess? Of course, there is nothing at all wrong with academic brilliance, but the best academic apologists, such as C. S. Lewis, have the common touch. They wear their learning lightly.

Chesterton’s great masterpiece, Orthodoxy, sets out to put a positive case for Christianity. Like today’s, Chesterton’s world was wrestling with a multitude of ideas. Modernism, eugenics, fascism, and Marxism were all making a case for truth. You might imagine that a full-on assault, bombarding these ideas with counter-ideas, might be the way forward: to fight fire with fire, as someone once advised me. “You have to park your tank on their lawn.” But Chesterton’s alternative strategy was a masterstroke — counter-intuitive, perhaps, but it might work now, too.

Philip Yancey calls Chesterton the “Prophet of Mirth”, and it’s a good description. Rather than fight fire with fire, why not use humour and jollity?

 

CHESTERTON explained that he always approached his apologetics with “humility and restraint”. He used poetic language to explain the loveliness of God, but he never watered down the vivid primary colours of the faith. It wasn’t just the ideas that he brought: it was the way in which he brought them.

He was gloriously slovenly. He once turned up at a wedding with the price tag still on his shoes. He was a different kettle of fish to the sometimes airbrushed pictures and perfect teeth of today’s apologists and pastors. Lewis, with his baggy suit and scruffy raincoat, was, like Chesterton, also a bit of a sartorial mess. (I want to make a pitch for more scruffy apologists. If needed, I am happy to volunteer my own shabbiness to the cause.)

In public debate, Chesterton had a glorious hearty laugh, charming audiences and never taking himself seriously. At the end of a debate, he would take his opponent to the nearest pub.

We can’t all be G. K. Chesterton, but much of his approach is deeply applicable today. He was not polished. He tested his apologetics in the world as it was, drawing on his own struggles, and always treated his opponents with great grace and joy. He didn’t mind if people laughed at him and with him, and, in so doing, he began to make the Christian faith beautiful and logical.

 

IMPORTANT though it is, I am not sure that the question of God’s existence is still the most important question for today’s seekers. Instead, they wonder about the environment, fairness and justice, sexual politics and inclusion.

Is this where a rebooted Christian apologetics needs to start from? We have something to say on all these issues, and we can say it gently and truthfully, and, more importantly, we can listen and listen and listen to the cries of the heart of those who wonder what life is all about. We live at a time when people trust feelings and stories just as much, if not more, than propositional truth.

The very best Christian apologists today are inspiring and in the Chesterton tradition: Professor Alister McGrath for instance, and public intellectuals such as Francis Spufford (Features, 26 February). But I wonder whether a wider outbreak of mirth and happiness might be part of what’s next for Christian apologetics — and an ability to show empathy and humility.

T. S. Eliot said of Chesterton that he left “behind a permanent claim upon our loyalty, to see that the work that he did in his time is carried on in ours”. I say amen to that.

 

The Revd Steve Morris is the Vicar of St Cuthbert’s, North Wembley. His book, Our Precious Lives, is published by Authentic Media (Faith, 7 February 2020).

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