Does Evidence Even Matter? (Part I)

20100331_joshmcdowell2A week and a half ago, I was at a high school missions event and had the opportunity to hear Josh McDowell speak for the first time.  Since that time, I’ve reflected on two things: 1) no one under 30 seems to know who he is and 2) his perspective on apologetics may have more merit than I realized.

To briefly address the first issue, McDowell (now 74 years old), is a longtime staple in the evangelical youth ministry circuit and amongst those interested in Christian apologetics (the defense, explanation, or proof of the Christian faith).  His heyday was in the 1970s and 1980s, though his legacy persists today amongst those of a certain age.

My second thought may be connected to his eclipse in the popular mind, for the kind of propositional and evidence-based apologetics he provides have long felt to me to be out of place in the postmodern world.  McDowell’s form of apologetics (or at least what I understood him to be saying), can be summed up in perhaps his best-known work Evidence That Demands a Verdict.  The title tells you a lot about his approach.  Basically, he was going to give you some logical reasons and evidence to believe (in the Bible, in the Resurrection, etc.), and you were going to have to decide it they were true or not.  This binary (True/False) is predicated upon a world that thinks in terms of universal Truth and an overarching narrative that explains everything.

The problem with this argument during the past two decades or longer has been that American society no longer lives in this kind of world. Time_cslewis_cover Like the arguments of C. S. Lewis I have discussed elsewhere, the approach that seeks to prove or logically argue for the existence of God can largely be ignored by a postmodern culture that does not think in terms of grand “metanarratives” that explain all of reality, but rather lots of different “truths” or narratives that can all exist at the same time.  It may be logically inconsistent, but that’s our world.  As I heard a British pastor once say: “It isn’t that you have to convince someone that the Resurrection happened. They’ll accept that.  But then they’ll accept a lot of things.  The bigger question to answer is what to do when they say, ‘OK, so what?'”

So it is that as I’ve thought about this and spoken to teens on the subject of apologetics over the past decade or so, I’ve de-emphasized the McDowell evidentialist approach in favor of a personal narrative based approach to the Truth who is Jesus Christ.  I’ve said, basically, that you can’t argue or debate someone into believing in God with evidence, so why even try?  Yet consider this: while postmodernism may de-emphasize big “T” Truth, it does provide us space to share our stories and experiences with God.  This isn’t argument; it is testimony.

Evidence that Demands a VerdictI believe that in a postmodern world that the story of our trust in and relationship with God may be the best apologetic of all.  We know that God can work through this, and that in our open-minded culture people will be open to hearing “our truth” and experience of God acting in our lives.  Their minds might be open to lots of ideas, but they’ll be open to ours too.  The gospel can and does work through such opportunities, and in postmodern world, maybe that’s the best we can do.

These were generally my thoughts until the other night.  In the service, McDowell asked a student if they believed some basics of Christianity (existence of God, Jesus, etc.).  The student said yes.  Then he asked her why.  She had no real answer besides “that’s how I was brought up.”  Not exactly an earth-shattering answer.  Even if she had been able to clearly articulate her story of faith as a personal narrative, I feel there would have been a lot lacking in terms of thoughtful depth.  Not wanting to single her out too much, McDowell then said he’s asked that same question many times and rarely, if ever, received a thorough answer.  He said that it is imperative in our Internet age to be able to answer questions and give reasons, because there are a host of ways to “prove” Christianity isn’t real, worth our time, or worth giving any positive attention at all.

I thought about all this, and realized that he’s right.

(to be continued)

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One comment on “Does Evidence Even Matter? (Part I)

  1. Scott Haile says:

    It seems to me that we should remember why it’s called “apologetics.” I think it’s a worthwhile practice to the extent that it overcomes objections to the faith, not that it proves the faith. So someone raised a Christian probably hears lots of attacks on the faith as irrational, etc., and I think apologetics can be really important to keep those attacks from driving someone from the faith.

    That seems to me to be a really different kind of thing than someone not interested in Christianity at all, and trying to argue for them why they should believe. In that case, I think you were right before, that it’s the personal story, or a compelling presentation of the story of Christ, or of some Christian who has lived out a powerful witness, that is what might draw someone into the faith. Only then are apologetics, for the purpose of answering objections, going to do any good.

    I confess I haven’t read part II yet. But I’ve got to get back to work.

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