By Matthew Flannagan. Here in New Zealand, I am often told by evangelical leaders that we now live in a post-modern society, which has moved beyond “arguments” and that Apologetics is an outdated “modernist concept.” They say we need instead to “tell the story” so that people will see the “meta-narrative of scripture”—whatever exactly that means.
Last night, Madeleine and I were invited to a Christmas function for new lawyers, organised by the Law Society, the professional association for lawyers in New Zealand. The function was in a major law firm in central Auckland’s business district. So I was right in the thick of the up-and-coming legal professionals in New Zealand.
Anyway, Madeleine struck up a conversation with some young lawyers who were working for an arm of the government. They discussed aspects of their respective legal professions. Then one of them turned to me and asked me, “what do you do?” I answered that I was a theologian. Immediately, this caused them to pause (it often has this effect) and one told me he had been reading a book called The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Without thinking, I said, “Oh, that book, it’s crap.” He replied, “Yeah, but you have to say that, don’t you?” I responded, “No I don’t actually.” I then mentioned to him the works of some other atheists to whom I would not respond in that fashion, despite the fact I disagreed with their conclusions.
Then, for the next thirty minutes, these lawyers began asking me genuine questions about the Christian faith. One asked me immediately, “why don’t you refrain from eating shellfish given the Old Testament prohibits it?” He was not being hostile; he was interested. I explained how the food laws functioned to set Israel apart from other nations and how, in the New Testament era, Gentiles were incorporated as part of God’s people, meaning the barrier between Jew and Gentile lacked relevance.
Then one asked me, “I have heard the evidence for Jesus is as good, if not better, than that for other historical figures—is that true?” I discussed with him the sources we have for Alexander the Great and how they compared with the Gospels in terms of time, discussed how people date the gospels to confirm it, and mentioned the age of the epistles. We then discussed the supernatural aspects of the narrative and Hume’s arguments about miracles. They were fascinated.
Next came a question about pagan mythology and parallels with Jesus. One then said, “wouldn’t a really popular guy like Jesus be written about by everyone?” I explained why this assumption was mistaken and one other lawyer said, “Yeah, I suppose expecting the Romans to write about Jesus is like expecting Washington, D.C. to write about the Aramoana incident.” (When non-New Zealander’s respond to this with “What’s the Aramoana incident?” their question illustrates nicely the point being made.)
I then discussed Josephus’s reference to Jesus, Tacitus, the Talmud and so on. Each then opened up to me and told me of their own spiritual struggles and journey. To my considerable surprise, when one of them was called away from conversation some 30 to 40 minutes latter, ending the discussion, he stated to his beckoning companion, “Hey, you missed a really interesting discussion we had over here. This guy’s a theologian; he is not a try-hard ex-Catholic like you, he is the real thing.” This companion’s girlfriend then responded, as though she was viewing an exhibit in the zoo or a museum, “Is he a minister?” and then my interlocutor relayed to his companions how interesting and fruitful he considered the conversation to have been as they moved over to his friend.
They moved on, but one lawyer who was nearby came over to us, pointed to one of the high rise buildings in the central business district, and pointed out that he worked there. This identified him as working in one of the largest and most important law firms in the country. He had clearly had too much to drink, but on realising we were Christians, he began talking about how he believed he had “made it” in terms of success and yet was worried he had misunderstood the nature of true success. He was concerned that Auckland, the “big city,” (Auckland has a population of 1.5 million, NZ has a population of 4 million, so Auckland is the “big city” in NZ) lacked an understanding of real relationships and wanted to understand what true success was. He did not want to lose his integrity or authentic relationships and become superficial, and he began asking us what we thought of this.
Sometimes being an apologist in New Zealand is surreal. I commented to Madeleine on the way home that we, two people from west Auckland—a theologian who did not have full time employment and very little resources to support my ministry, and a lawyer from a tiny firm who largely does legal work for poor people who don’t pay handsomely—were at a function at one of the largest law firms in the country, in the central heart of Auckland city, sharing our faith with some of the most successful up-and-coming lawyers in NZ, many who worked for the government. How can Apologetics be boring when stuff like that happens? I also wonder, however, how many of my “post-modernist” colleagues with their youth churches and really “cool” music, would have been able to have that conversation with any real meaning with the urbane elite of Auckland.
I also have to say that this is not the first time something like this has happened. In the last few years Madeleine and I have frequently found similar things have happened over and over. Apologetics is not “dead”. It is not a “thing of the past”. It’s extremely relevant. What’s irrelevant are those who are so culturally out of touch that they don’t realise that the questions apologists address are being asked, and answers to those questions assumed, in the conversations of some of the top lawyers in New Zealand; and those people, ostensibly secular liberals, are hungry and interested in credible answers to those questions.