We continue our discussion with Abdu Murray about his new book Grand Central Question: Answering the Critical Concerns of the Major Worldviews (IVP, 2014). (Part 1 of discussion.) Murray is an attorney, a former Muslim, and an experienced apologist, and his book examines the critical questions of human existence in light of some of today’s major worldviews.
CAA: There are a number of Christian thinkers today who are critical of rational apologetics and who claim that this approach is wrongheaded in a postmodern period. Some hold that the best we can do is tell our personal story and live a visibly Christian life. Have you found in your travels that people are no longer interested in rational arguments for Christianity?
AM: Actually, I have found quite the opposite to be true. I speak at open forums to diverse audiences. Almost every engagement I have is followed by Q&A and almost every time the questions are about propositional truths and how they apply to our lives and ultimate realities. Christians and non-Christians alike are asking these questions. They want—actually need—rational answers to their rationally stated questions. I can recall quite vividly one incident after I spoke at a church about the foundation for the resurrection of Jesus as a historical fact. An older couple, both of whom said they followed Christ for years, told me that they had finally come back to church that day after a year’s absence. They stayed away so long because their son died a year before and while they “hoped” that they would see their son again in the resurrection of believers, they always feared that it was just a feeling. But after hearing the rational arguments in favor of Jesus’ resurrection, they were overjoyed with the confidence that they would see their son again. At our events, we’re seeing many non-Christians coming to faith because they finally find rational answers to the questions they’ve always had.
But we can learn something from our postmodern friends. Postmodernists are very interested in conversations and putting things in the context of a narrative. And I think that is largely true of Western culture; it is certainly true of Eastern culture. That’s why Jesus used parables and stories to teach profound, and profoundly rational, truths. As apologists and defenders of the faith, we need to be careful that we don’t just provide people with dry propositional truths that don’t matter to them personally. We need to provide these truths in the form of a narrative. And that’s what’s beautiful about the gospel. Its truths are revealed in a historical narrative that we can apply to our personal narratives. It is not a question of either propositional truths or relational evangelism. It really is a both/and. I hope that in Grand Central Question I’ve presented the propositional truths in ways that can be applied to the general narrative of human history and the specific narratives of our individual lives.
CAA: In spite of the influence of leading apologists and all of the great books and material out there, there still seems to be much misunderstanding and suspicion of apologetics in the local church. Do you have any advice for aspiring apologists who encounter this thinking in their congregations?
AM: Absolutely. The church needs apologetics today like never before. With the religious diversity around us and the brazen hostility to theism that emerged with the New Atheists, the church can ill afford to engage the culture with emotion-laden sentiments that don’t have substance. But apologists need to assuage the local church’s fear that it is all about dry intellectualism and devoid of spiritual power. There are great ways to do that.
First, be cautious about how quickly you get on a platform or even lead a small group on apologetics. There’s an awesome responsibility in conveying the answers to tough questions, so we need to be prepared and seasoned to do so because others may be shaped by what we say and do. There’s a great article by my friend Jonathan McLatchie entitled “Advice to Young Aspiring Apologists” that I highly recommend and can be read HERE. Along with that, be willing to serve through apologetics by keeping apologetics in perspective. Apologetics is a tool that God uses to convey his truth. It must be done lovingly. Apologists (sometimes deservingly) get a reputation for beating people over the head with arguments. And this happens especially within the church. If we hear a pastor or church leader make a doctrinal misstep, we need to be extra cautious about how we approach him or her. If we come across as harsh or critical, apologetics starts to become a matter of division in the church and not a source for unity.
Second, apologetics is about people. That’s why I often use Colossians 4:5-6 as my chief “apologetics” verse. Paul tells us to “be careful how we walk with outsiders, always making the best use of the time. Let your conversation be seasoned with salt and gracious so that you may know how to answer each person.” Notice that he didn’t say that we need to know how to answer each question. If we keep the person as the focus, then we can fashion our approach in a way that shows apologetics to be the indispensable spiritual discipline that it actually is. None of us is Mr. Spock. We don’t operate on mere logic alone. God created us as whole beings who seek fulfillment in intellectual pursuits, in artistic pursuits, and in emotional pursuits. Apologists can exemplify what it means to love the Lord our God with all of our mind, heart, soul, and strength by engaging in prayer groups in church, helping out at the food pantry, and running an apologetics-based Bible study. And if we are ever asked to give a presentation at church on an apologetics issue, we need to make sure we apply the truths in emotionally stirring and relevant ways.
CAA: Many in our audience are seasoned apologists. What advice do you have for those who are dedicated to apologetics and seeking it out as a full- or part-time ministry? What are some of the lessons you’ve learned along the way?
AM: My friend Greg Koukl (who is undoubtedly well-known to your audience) answers that question with the advice to “bloom where you’re planted.” I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that. I started out by forming a group of like-minded people at my church. We called ourselves “The Bereans,” and we set up a Q&A box at our church. We would commit to providing a written response to any questions that were put in that box. After a short time, our pastor saw the benefit and invited us to do a Q&A night on a few Wednesdays. That really started to take off and soon we were asked to speak at other churches.
Eventually, I saw God’s calling on my life to reach out to tough audiences with the gospel. At the time, I didn’t really know anyone doing that for a living, so I started my own tax-exempt ministry. That’s a tough thing to do, but it is worth it. But there are many creative ways to get involved in apologetics on a full-time basis. I’ve seen churches that have started apologetics departments within their missions departments. Others I know have gone on to teach in seminaries or other educational institutions. One practical way to find out how to fulfill a calling in full-time apologetics is to write blogs and attend as many conferences as you can. Get out of your comfort zone and try to meet apologists who are doing what you would like to do. Networking with those who are doing great work is critical.
On a personal note: Be patient and ask God for the strength to persevere. If this is really your calling, God will place opportunities your way to fulfill that calling. But there will be challenges, not the least of which is financial. Take care of those obligations as you prepare for full-time ministry.
Finally, try to think about what makes you unique as an apologist for Christ. For some, it is their background that gives them a much-needed perspective (former atheists, former Muslims, etc.). For others, it is the way they approach the evidence or convey it. If you have a technical background, think about how that can give you a unique way to contribute to the field. If you have an activist mindset, there are many ways that apologetics can be used. Pray about what God has gifted you to do, surround yourself with like-minded people, and get friends and family to pray for you. Guard your spiritual life carefully. We can get bogged down in books about God without actually spending time with Him. There is no fuel for aspiring apologists like a rich devotional life.