A Review of Paul M. Gould’s “Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World”

 

Paul Gould is a friend and philosopher with the heart of an evangelist and apologist. In this excellent 2019 book by Zondervan, Gould draws upon his extensive experiences in teaching and ministry to weave together an important diagnosis of crucial barriers that keep Christians in the west from being the salt-and-light influences they should be in culture and with individuals, as well as the barriers that keep others from seeing the gospel as plausible. Yet, he also offers insightful, cogent, and practical solutions. The book should be widely read.

Chapter 1 is an overview of the book’s main points. For several reasons, western Christianity often is “relegated to the margins of culture as implausible, undesirable, or both” (19). Gould positions cultural apologetics, which is the “work of establishing the Christian voice, conscience, and imagination within a culture so that Christianity is seen as true and satisfying,” as key to help address this problem (21). He develops a model that includes not just rational apologetics, but also imaginative and moral ones that help people see Christianity as “satisfying, plausible and desirable” (23).

However, people in western culture perceive reality as disenchanted, in which everything real is thought to be material. There is no transcendent reality, and so they don’t tend to think of life and reality as beautiful gifts from God. We also are fixated on the physical, sense-perceptible, and material, and not what is immaterial and transcendent. We also live for pleasures, yet without a way to justify our strong, good desires for justice.

We can build bridges to the gospel, though, through appeals to three deep human longings: for truth via reason; for goodness via conscience and morality; and for beauty via imagination. Gould ties these strands together into a model for cultural apologetics (30) in terms of how all three “lines” find their fulfillment in the gospel and Jesus Himself.

Along the way, in connecting truth, goodness, and beauty to the gospel, he also will address internal and external barriers to Christianity (ch. 7). Internal barriers in the church include anti-intellectualism, fragmentation (such as the bifurcation between the “facts” of science, but the mere opinions of Christianity, including ethically), and our “unbaptized” imagination. External ones include major questions today: does science disprove God? Is God truly good? Isn’t it intolerant to claim Jesus is the only way to God? Moreover, is the biblical ethic outdated, unloving, and repressive?

 

Staring Points Relate to 3 longings Appeal to 3 guides
Disenchanted truth Reason
Sensate goodness Conscience
Hedonistic beauty Imagination

 

The rest of the book develops these parts in more detail (disenchantment, reenchantment, imagination, reason, conscience, and our deep desires for being “home,” along with an appendix on how to adapt the model to non-western cultures).

There is much to highlight, but space limits me to just a few. Ch. 4 on imagination and beauty was thought provoking, reminding me of some special ways God made His presence known to me. In them, I experienced the beauty of His fatherly love and care. It also inspired me to take time to appreciate the beauty around me as a way to replenish my soul. There also are very helpful treatments of arguments from desire, reason, and beauty for God’s existence.

I have very little to say by way of weaknesses. One is how Gould phrases the start of the last full paragraph on 108. Agreeing with James K. A. Smith, Gould writes “the raw material of physical sensation … does not come to us unmediated …” I think Gould’s main point is that we’re shaped in how we understand reality by the formative story we embrace, which is true. Yet, it does not follow that we cannot access reality in an unmediated way, on which I have written many times. Otherwise, it seems we cannot get started in forming concepts and interpretations, which is problematic on J. Smith’s views.

This is a rich work deserving of wide reading and careful thought. It is a great tool to help thoughtful Christians understand and have tools to address these issues. I think it would be a crucial text for upper division and graduate students on cultural apologetics. In addition, it is written quite accessibly. Therefore, I would highly encourage pastors, church leaders, and other concerned Christians to read, discuss, and practice the rich insights Gould has provided.

 

Scott Smith is keenly interested in our abilities to have knowledge of reality, particularly in the areas of ethics and religion. He also is very interested in the needed ontology to have knowledge. He addresses “constructivism,” the fact-value split, and issues with our being able to have knowledge on the basis of naturalism, postmodernism and nominalism. He also has written on the emergent church, as well as a knowledge argument and the moral argument for God’s existence. Currently, he is working on exposing and addressing the many, even subtle, influences of naturalism on western churches. He also serves as secretary-treasurer for the Evangelical Philosophical Society. Scott Smith has earned a Ph.D. from University of Southern California, M.A., University of Southern California, M.A., Talbot Theological Seminary and a B.A. from California State University, Hayward.

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