Cultural engagement is essentially the objective of gospel preaching and the ministry of apologetics. Ultimately both are about conversion, seeing lives conformed to the image of Christ in terms of justification as well as sanctification. Today, a great deal of the cultural engagement embarked upon is motivated by the moral decline of society. Christians are in battle on a number of issues including abortion, artificial reproductive technologies, the role of women in family and society, homosexuality and the definition of marriage. Proclaiming and defending the faith necessitates we participate in societal conversations on the issues that shape the thinking of current and future generations. Christian voices must have a role in the public square, however small that voice is, fully prepared as a prophetic voice to a culture seeking their own gratification.
In ‘Creed or Chaos,’ Dorothy Sayers writes about the problem of spiritual and moral decay during her lifetime, the early to mid-twentieth century Europe. Written in the 1940s, the influence of existentialism was beginning to make a significant impact, and its adherents like philosopher John Paul Sartre, encouraged people that atheism was worthy of consideration. Nevertheless, Sayers’ assessment of the period is that the Church was failing in her efforts to be the influence she was called to be, not because of these other influences or because of a failure to refute other philosophies taking root, but because of the church’s own distrust of her own dogma. She writes,
We on our side have been trying for several centuries to uphold a particular standard of ethical values which derives from Christian dogma, while gradually dispensing with the very dogma which is the sole rational foundation for those values. The rulers of Germany have seen quite clearly that dogma and ethics are inextricably bound together. Having renounced the dogma, they have renounced the ethics as well—and from their point of view they are perfectly right.
Sayers understood the danger to Christianity when viewed as bits and pieces by its adherents instead of the grand system that it is, pointing out that the perpetrators of one of the greatest evils in human history understood the connection between dogma and ethics. As she saw it, the separation of the Faith from the doctrines that define it made its voice a useless contender in the battle for an improved cultural morality. It is the firm foundation of doctrine that provides the basis for doing what is right and good across the span of our lives.
Our contemporary situation in the U.S. is not dissimilar from the period in which Dorothy Sayers lived and those in ministry, particularly those engaging in cultural dialogue, can learn much from her assessment of things. Sayers wrote,
It is fatal to imagine that everybody knows quite well what Christianity is and only needs a little encouragement to practice it.
Typically I steer clear of sports analogies, but I think another way of expressing Sayers’ point is that the best defense is a good offense. As she points out, it’s at best, naive to believe that everyone knows what Christianity is. Not much has changed since the 1940s except that the situation may appear more dismal. Fewer and fewer people today actually have a churched background, making her core teachings less familiar to the average person. While as apologists we’re ready to answer the charges made against Christianity, sometimes those making the charges simply do not understand what Christianity teaches. Within the walls of so many of our churches, false doctrines prevail where there is any semblance of doctrine to begin with. Popular teachers promoting success and prosperity make it so their followers have no interest in understanding what the Bible teaches on eternal matters like sin, let alone salvation. And evangelism has been reduced to the promises of a “wonderful plan for your life” instead of the stark reality that the God of the universe is a personal God who created you, loves you, and died for you and we are called to live on our knees, reflecting knowledge of this truth.
As apologists, we’ve gotten pretty good at the “why we believe it” aspect of our message. Our “what we believe” needs to be better developed to meet the needs of our theologically underdeveloped culture that is rarely exposed to what precisely Christianity teaches. Of course, our opponents know where we stand on abortion and gay marriage, but they may not fully understand why. They know far less than they should about what we teach on Christ and the Cross and how the redemptive storyline frames our ethical reasoning. Reasons to believe are not always arguments from philosophy, sometimes they are the full-blown doctrinal positions of the Church, the body of Christ. Perhaps, as Sayers suggests, an understanding of the creeds is the cure for the chaos.