Apologetics After the Two Deaths of Ravi Zacharias

Apologetics After the Two Deaths of Ravi Zacharias

Douglas Groothuis, Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary

I am a Christian philosopher who has defended the Christian worldview for nearly forty-five years. I have a compelling interest in the well-being of my fellow apologists and their ministries. I lead a master’s degree in apologetics and ethics that has trained many young philosophers and apologists in the last thirty years. When Christian apologists and apologetics thrive, I rejoice. I have seen my students get doctorates, secure academic and ministry positions, become colleagues, and publish articles and books. I exult in their achievements and in those of my seniors and peers. I regularly pray for apologists, well-known and otherwise (Ephesians 6:19). When apologists fail, either through bad arguments or bad living, I mourn. But the moral failures are harder to take and more damaging. Ravi’s shameful downfall raises many questions I cannot answer here. I address what I know best: apologetics. 

The Two Deaths of Ravi Zacharias

Ravi Zacharias and I never met or interacted. I had esteemed him as our preeminent itinerant apologist-evangelist. Others, such as settled academics, could go deeper intellectually, but Ravi presented solid arguments in winsome ways and around the world for decades. He consistently published credible books and built the largest apologetics organization in the world, which, at its height, employed one hundred apologists worldwide. 

Then Ravi was diagnosed with aggressive cancer and died shortly after in May of 2020. Millions mourned but thanked God for his life and for the ministry that would live on. Although allegations of sexual impropriety (and the inflating of his academic credentials) had surfaced before, further accusations of sexual abuse were made shortly after his death. They ended up being true, and Ravi died again. This is not the place to catalogue the extent and heinousness of his sins. You can find it all online in the official report released by RZIM. Suffice to say that Ravi was guilty of using his position to manipulate and abuse dozens if not hundreds of women over many years, leaving a long trail of heartbreak and betrayal—even before it was revealed to the general public. And he used ministry funds to pay for his pleasures. So, after the death of the man came the death of his reputation. Even The New York Times aired it for all to see. But, what of his ministry and what of apologetics after the two deaths of Ravi Zacharias—that savvy, successful, suave, and intelligent man we took to be an exemplary apologist?

Apologetics after Ravi Zacharias

I will not speculate about the fate of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), which, even with the highest ideals and deepest contrition, may face an impossible task of preserving a once-flourishing ministry which was so associated with a man now twice-dead. Some of the publishers of Ravi’s books have withdrawn his books from print. Lee Strobel will remove his interview with Ravi featured in his book, The Case for Faith. Ravi’s videos, audio recordings, and other writings will be removed from official platforms. His once-secret life lives after him and threatens to undermine everything he stood for. If someone this good at apologetics turns out to be this bad morally, what good is left for apologetics?

To answer, let us start by considering the three essential elements of rhetoric (or the art of persuasion), according to Aristotle: ethos, pathos, and logosEthos concerns the credibility of the speaker or writer. Ravi had, we thought, a strong ethos. He was articulate, humble, and presentable. We trusted him and deemed him worth listening to. Now we know of a dark and sinister side of the man that, had it been known during his lifetime, would have disqualified him for ministry and destroyed his ethos. Pathos is the ability of a speaker or writer to rouse an audience’s affections, to make them care about the subject. Ravi excelled at pathos, illustrating his points from poetry, literature, and personal stories. Yet he did not manipulate his audience and seemed to care for them. He also applied rational force (logos) as well as pathos.

Logos addresses the rational arguments or logic presented. Ravi’s basic method in apologetics was sound and he did not accentuate ethos or pathos at the expense of logos. Ravi’s apologetic method is called “The 3.4.5 Grid.”  In a nutshell, this grid tests a worldview logically (Is it consistent?), factually (Is it empirically adequate?), and existentially (Is it livable and meaningful for life and death?). This agrees with my apologetic method I articulate in Christian Apologetics. Ravi used the 3.4.5 grid to great and global effect. But where does that leave us?

Arguments have rational power or lack rational power irrespective of the arguer’s ethosor pathos. We test logos by stating the argument in premise-conclusion form and then assessing its cogency. Are the premises well supported? Do the premises lead to the conclusion through some inductively, deductively, or abductively valid manner? If so, it is a good argument and should be believed. It matters not who gives that argument, even Ravi Zacharias. So, the first point is that Ravi’s moral catastrophe do not, in themselves, affect any of the rational arguments he gives, since his logos and his pathos remain credible. Those Christians who discovered apologetics through Ravi—and I know many of them—need not repent of their discovery. Those who found Christ as Lord and Savior through the Holy Spirit’s use of Ravi’s apologetics need not question their conversion or the worth of apologetics. Moreover, all of Ravi’s best argument can be found in the work of other apologists whose reputations have not been sullied by sin. 

Another problem still hounds us, though—and it was a question that Ravi often took up in his apologetics; it is the problem of evil. Why does an all-good and all-powerful God allow so much evil in his world? Why did God allow Ravi Zacharias success as a speaker and writer given his long record of sexual abuse? Why did the God allow so many of us to respect and be grateful for Ravi when he did not deserve it? The Apostle Paul gave part of the answer two thousand years ago when he said that he rejoiced whenever the gospel was preached, even when preached by those with bad motives (Philippians 1:15-18). This is because the gospel possesses an intrinsic power irrespective of the character of those who explain or commend it (Romans 1:16-17). But, since God is not a utilitarian, this in no way justifies immorality on the part of the messenger.

But tough questions remain. Given the character and power of God, why did he not bring Ravi to repentance? Why did he allow him to sin so badly in the first place? Why did God allow Ravi to bring so much misery into the lives of so many through his secret sexual sins? I ache as I think of what his family, friends, co-workers, and many victims, must be feeling. 

Although the apologetic case for Christianity is strong and stronger than any other worldview, it is unrealistic to expect finite and fallible mortals to be able to read the mind of God in everything. Mysteries remain, as much as we hate it. The Apostle Paul has another word for us.

 Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
    How unsearchable his judgments,
    and his paths beyond tracing out!
   “Who has known the mind of the Lord?
    Or who has been his counselor?” 
   “Who has ever given to God,
    that God should repay them?” 
   For from him and through him and for him are all things.
    To him be the glory forever! Amen

Romans 11:33-36; see also Deuteronomy 29:29

Ravi Zacharias is accountable to God for his life. God is accountable only to himself. We are accountable to live within the circle of what we can know, given God’s revelation and the use of our God-given powers to know what matters (Hebrews 5:11-14). Nonetheless, we should also be good stewards of our ineluctable ignorance, and part of that ignorance involves God’s ways with Ravi Zacharias (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20).

Why Do Leaders Fall?

Those with external ministry success coupled with secret lives of sin may deceive themselves by thinking that they need not repent since God is still blessing their ministry. They may feel God’s power as they teach or preach, and see objective results. God must be overlooking their sins, they think. Or, as Kierkegaard wrote, these ministers may put off coming to terms with God since they tell themselves that “there is an eternity in which to repent.” On the contrary, today is the day of repentance and salvation (2 Corinthians 6:2; Hebrews 3:7-19). Tomorrow may be too late. We have no evidence that Ravi repented.

I will not venture to fathom what lead Ravi into such egregious sin for so long. However, I think it had much to do with pain. Ravi had chronic back pain which was exacerbated by constant travel. (He should not have traveled so much, but I’ll leave that aside for this essay.) Pain, whether physical or emotional, offers us a dramatic choice. If God will not take away the pain, we can choose to identify more deeply with the sufferings of Christ and to seek his grace. That grace is sufficient, as the suffering Paul well knew (2 Corinthians 12:9). Or we can alleviate or ameliorate the pain through the pleasures of the sinful flesh. The Devil always has many options at hand, which is why we must resist him always (1 Peter 5:8). Ravi may have needed physical therapy for his back, but that turned into something more and something terrible, as has been revealed. 

Pain, whether physical or emotional, offers us a dramatic choice. If God will not take away the pain, we can choose to identify more deeply with the sufferings of Christ and to seek his grace.

Ravi’s second death further underscores our need for a theology of suffering and pain that instructs to lament and suffer well before God and others. We need to pray the psalms of lament (22, 39, 88, 90, etc.); we need to own the depths of our suffering; and we need to seek healing in godly places. And we need to cultivate the habit of eschatological hope. In the end, all things will be well for the redeemed, come what may in the here and now (Revelation 21-22).

Living Above Reproach and Before God

If we abhor the sins of Ravi Zacharias, we should abhor our own sins even more and seek to repent of them. True doctrine and godly living are equally necessary for ministry and all of life. As Paul wrote Timothy, “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (1 Timothy 4:16). Paul stipulated that an overseer must be “above reproach” (Titus 1:6-7, ESV). That applies to all Christian leaders. 

Those with high callings need high standards, lest the messenger discredit the message and the messenger lose integrity. Christians continue to sin, but no Christian should be controlled by sin (1 John 1:8-10; 3:6). High profile leaders fall hard when they fall and often drag down many others with them. “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12, KJV). 

Since we are all vulnerable to immorality, we should heed Jesus’ words: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3, NIV). Paul paid close attention to his own integrity. “I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:27, NIV). Christian ministers should fear being disqualified and take radical measures to defend themselves against it. We do so by guarding our hearts and being accountable to wise friends, counselors, and leaders (Proverbs 1:7; 4:23-27; 27:17; Matthew 5:27-32). We must regularly have fellowship, worship, and partake of the sacraments (Hebrews 10:25). If one’s ministry travel schedule forbids it, then that schedule should be forbidden.

Ravi Zacharias and his good name are dead. This double-death is tragic. We should grieve and consider our own lives before “the audit of Eternity” (Kierkegaard). But apologetics lives on. We should rejoice and keep our hand to the plow, our hearts pure, and our eyes on the Lord. 

Tom Gilson, Too Good to be False?

I asked Tom Gilson, author and editor at The Stream, to answer several questions about his intriguing book, Too Good to be False (DeWard Publishing, 2020) which takes a unique approach to the character and teachings of Jesus. I have found the book to be insightful and apologetically helpful. It has been endorsed by Lee Strobel and J. P. Moreland.

Click here can purchase Tom Gilson’s Too Good to Be False?

1. What is the central thesis of Too Good to be False?

It’s a two-part thesis with a coda. The first part stands alone, and occupies about the first half of the book: Jesus is greater than you knew. I’m hearing from many Christian readers, from everyday bloggers to seminary professors, that this portion of the book has genuinely surprised them with new insights into Jesus’ extraordinary character.

The second part builds on the first: Jesus’ character as portrayed in the accounts, is too unique, too consistent, too unexpected, and too good to have been produced the way skeptics think the story was developed, through legendary processes.

It’s not only that he’s “too good to be false,” though that’s part of it. The skeptics theorize legendary processes as the source of the Jesus story, but I say these processes are inherently story-scramblers, and Jesus’ character is manifestly not scrambled. He is very recognizably the same Jesus from beginning to end, in all four accounts, maintaining a stunning, detailed level consistency in a long list of traits.

The coda? He’s worth following no matter what. That’s part three of the book. I think we’re heading toward a stage in history where Western Christians will have to face the “no matter what” question like never before. But he is extraordinarily good no matter what, his truth is certain no matter what, and we must keep following him no matter what.

2. What most surprised you in your research?

Many things. I took an approach to Jesus that may never have been published before. (If it has, I’d be very happy to hear about it.) Instead of focusing on what Jesus did and said, I looked for what he didn’t do and didn’t say. 

For example, I was astonished to find out there is no reference anywhere in the Bible to Jesus having faith. Silence on a given topic isn’t always significant, but this one is, in my studied opinion. He taught faith even more often than he taught love. His love is mentioned often, but his faith? Never. There has to be an explanation for it. The best I’ve found has been in connection with Jesus’ deity. I won’t go into details on that here, though. 

Even more stunning was the discover Jesus never used his extraordinary power for his own benefit. Satan was right about one thing: Jesus could have turned the stones into bread. The mockers at the cross were right: He could have come down from there. If power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, then by that rule Jesus should have been a tyrant. Instead he was the model of love. I try to imagine being that good, having even an infinitesimal fraction of his power, and I crumble, knowing I could never be that perfectly other-centered. It brings me to my knees in absolute worship.

3. Why do you think some aspects of your argument have not been used in recent decades in apologetics?

I wish I knew. It’s a complete mystery to me. What I do know is that the argument is stronger now than it was when Paley or Schaff used it, because skeptics have hardened into a position that’s more vulnerable to it.

I don’t know exactly what led me to it, though I wonder if it has something to do with not being a specialist in New Testament studies, which may have allowed my mind to wander more freely into new territory. 

For example, I used to do organizational assessment work for a major mission organization. Seeing what’s there in a team’s operations is easy, my partner and I quickly learned. The hard part — the skill we kept working to develop — is seeing what’s not there. It’s possible that might have helped me along in this study. 

4. How does your argument challenge the skeptical view that Jesus never existed?

I take the story seriously as a story. Every story has a backstory, a place, person or group that produces the story within its culture, and related in some way to that culture’s norms, expectations, restrictions, and so on. But the backstory has to fit; that is, if you view the story as the effect and the backstory as the cause, the backstory has to be the kind of cause that could produce that story as an effect. And I don’t think the skeptics’ legend theory is the right kind of cause to produce a story with a main character as unique, consistent, unexpected, and good as Jesus. 

Take away that skeptical backstory, and for now at least it leaves one live option: The Gospel accounts are true. Maybe skeptics will offer a new and better-fitting skeptical backstory. It’s hard to imagine what that would be, though. 

5. What has been the response to your book so far?

I keep hearing words like “surprising,” “refreshing,” “fascinating,” “compelling,” and even (from Gary Habermas) “a fun read.” Many are saying it’s helped them fall in love with Jesus all over again. One reader said she’d been sliding into spiritual apathy, but this view of Jesus, “totally shook me up.” It’s been so gratifying to hear of readers seeing Jesus in a new light through it. I’ll tell you, the same thing happened to me as I was studying for it. 

Meanwhile those who are more familiar with apologetics have expressed similar surprise at the originality of the argument. It’s new to our generation, at least. 

6. Have skeptics responded to it?

Some think they have, but they’re only responding to interviews I’ve done, though. So far I haven’t heard from any who have taken the trouble to read the book. 

From those who’ve tried to respond, the most common response has been, “Jesus isn’t actually that good. Just look how Christians have practiced slavery in his name!” But Jesus completely knocked the legs out from under slavery through his strong version of the Golden Rule, by teaching love for neighbor, and by condemning greed, pride, and self-centeredness. He demonstrated love for all, at every level of society. Christians (self-styled or otherwise) have failed horribly at living up to his example, but the book is about Christ, not about Christians.

Besides that, a couple of YouTubers have mounted massive takedowns of arguments I don’t make. Sometimes I wonder what’s so entertaining about that. You’d think it would be more interesting to engage with what people actually say instead.

Just today I heard one going on and on about a comment I’d made in an interview about Jesus being perfect from beginning to end in the accounts. “That’s bad literature!” he repeated in a half-dozen different ways. “Perfect characters are the worst characters. They’re boring!” 

It was sad and hilarious, both at the same time. He doesn’t know I made precisely the same point in my book! Except I also noted what this skeptic, too, should have seen: Billions of people in thousands of cultures across thousands of years would tell you Jesus is the single most compelling character they’ve ever encountered, in life or in literature. So if the rule is that perfect characters are boring characters, then Jesus breaks that rule into a billion tiny shreds. 

And that makes his character incredibly extraordinary on that one count alone. Still the skeptics think his kind of story is so easy to write, any old legendary process could have come up with a man like him. Funny thing: It’s never happened anywhere else. Not even close. Not in legend, not even flowing from the pens of the greatest poets, playwrights, or novelists, from Homer to Sophocles, from Shakespeare to Dostoyevsky to Dickens and beyond. Jesus, I say, is just too good to be false.

Detecting False Dichotomies that Hinder the Mission of the Church

Jesus excelled in reasoning and never committed a logical fallacy. Nor did he give his followers the option of intellectual slackness. The Holy Spirit would lead them into truth and give them the wisdom they needed. Studying with Jesus for three years meant learning to think on their feet.  But today, many Christians accept a logical fallacy that saps the church’s witness. It is called a false dichotomy.

Some affirm that the church should not engage in apologetics, but, rather, preach the gospel. They set up the relationship as “ether apologetics or gospel preaching” and affirm gospel preaching at the expense of apologetics. But this is a false dichotomy, since both preaching and apologetics have been staples of Christian practice in the early church and through the centuries. The relationship of these two ideas is both/and, not either/or. To hold this false dichotomy hobbles the mission of the church.

Consider another either/or mistake. Some write off apologetics by saying, “Rational arguments do no good in convincing an unbeliever of the gospel. Only the Holy Spirit can do that.” Thus, it comes down to the disjunction of rational arguments or the Holy Spirit. Since they want the Spirit’s work to prevail (and not the flesh), we deny apologetics. Yet what if the Holy Spirit works through rational arguments? If so, there is no disjunction. In the teachings of Jesus, the early church, and throughout the history of Christianity, we find sinners convinced of the truth of the Gospel through the use of apologetics of one kind or another. The best-selling author Lee Strobel was convinced to become a Christian by a careful investigation of the evidence. The fine film, “The Case for Christ” recounts this intellectual adventure. According to Jesus, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth (John 15:26. Thus, it is not surprising that he often employs sound arguments to convince people of the truth of Christianity—although the hard-hearted can turn away from the best evidence for the Christian faith.

Finally, consider the nature of Christ. Heretics claim that Jesus is either God or human, not both God and human. Docetists say that Jesus was divine, but only appeared human. Muslims say that Jesus was human and not divine. On the contrary, the Bible affirms, and the creeds concur, that Jesus is both God and human. He is the God-man.

The divine Word became flesh in human history without ceasing to be divine (John 1:1-3, 14; Philippians 2:5-11). Orthodox Christian faith affirms that Jesus is one person with two natures; he is both divine and human. There is no either/or.

One of the most common errors in thinking is false dichotomy. Sadly, Christians are not immune to them. We must take seriously the commandment Jesus said was first and greatest—to love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind (Matthew 22:37-38). We love God by consecrating our minds to him. We take his commandment seriously by avoiding false dichotomies and all errors in logic. We must scrupulously avoid all sloppy, lazy thinking. The stakes are high indeed. Affirming a false dichotomy regarding apologetics, social action, the Holy Spirit, or the nature of Christ has dire consequences.

 

 

 

 

 

Advice to Christian Apologists: Being Wise as Serpents and Innocent as Doves

Jesus exhorted us to love God with all our minds (Matthew 22:37-39). Explaining, commending, and defending the Christian worldview is not limited to experts; it is the call of every Christian (1 Peter 3:15-16). Arguing that Christianity is objectively true, compellingly rational, and existentially engaging over the whole of life is essential to Christian witness. Our salt and light must not be hidden, Jesus teaches. Since all Christians should be witnesses to the reality of the Gospel, every Christian is an apologist. Some excel at this task and others do not. All Christ-followers are called to worship God. We do not single out a group called “worshippers,” as a subset of all Christians. However, some are much more genuine, clear-eyed, and whole-hearted in their worship than others.

“Since all Christians should be witnesses to the reality of the Gospel, every Christian is an apologist.”

We are sent out as sheep among wolves (Matthew 10:16). Because of this danger, Jesus instructed his followers to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Jesus also instructed his followers to be witnesses who are wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Wise words matter for our mission. We do not want to mislead or muddle the Gospel. The word apologist aptly describes one who makes a case for Christianity. However, this word often connotes a biased presentation given for vested interests. The apologist is taken as a huckster, a propagandist, a shady salesman. Woe to the Christian who fits this description.

Since the word apologistis redundant for the Christian and because it carries unneeded opprobrium, I suggest we use it sparingly, if at all. Once a week, I am introduced as a “Christian philosopher,” on a secular radio program. I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy and teach the subject full-time. I am also a Christian. Yes, I have written much on apologetics, and this term designates a particular field of study. But none of my degrees are in apologetics. All them of are in philosophy. Thus, I do not advertise myself as an apologistper se.

Whether or not one has degrees in philosophy, it is wiser to explain and defend the Christian worldview without using the word apologeticsor apologist—if possible. Of course, some have received graduate degrees in apologetics. Good for them! My school offers one, and I direct the program. There is no reason to hide this. The church does not recoil from this term, by and large. But the non-Christian world is suspicious of it. Argue for Christian truth, by all means, but avoid being stereotyped. Be wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove. What does this mean, besides not stereotyping yourself as an apologist?

Apologists should be wise as serpentsby being cunning and clever, but without sin. You can wisely insinuate Christian truth into unlikely places if you are enterprising and ethical. This was Paul’s aim: “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation” (Romans 15:20;NIV).

Deception, however, must be avoided. Just as Christ-followers must avoid being deceived, so must they shun deceiving others. As Paul writes;

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ (Colossians 2:8; see also 1 John 4:1-6).

When writing to the Thessalonians, Paul assures them that “our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive” (1 Thessalonians 2:3, ESV). For example, public lectures on apologetic themes should not use the bait and switchmethod found in advertising. A customer is lured in by one product only to find that selling another product was the real purpose of the advertisement. If this is morally questionable in business, how much more should apologist shun this technique which borders on lying?

I was once guilty of this myself, if only indirectly. In 2009, I gave a talk at a local college called, “The Deniable Darwin,” in which I challenged the sufficiency of natural selection to explain the bacterial flagellum, a molecular machine. The ministry that sponsored the event told me they wanted a woman in their group to give a short testimony after my talk about her Christian conversion. I did not suggest the idea, but agreed to it. Not long after the event, I realized that her testimony had little to do with my talk, which was limited to an apologetic against Darwinism and an argument for a Designer. In other words, it was a piece of natural theology, not a defense of the gospel per se. After all, not every apologetic event needs to be evangelistic; it can be pre-evangelistic, as the masterful apologist, Francis Schaeffer, put it. Some in the packed room may have felt that my talk was simply a set up for the testimony. This was untrue, but it may have seemed that way. But if being “wise as a serpent” precludes deception, what does in it include?

“Not every apologetic event needs to be evangelistic; it can be pre-evangelistic, as the masterful apologist, Francis Schaeffer, put it.”

In the early 1980’s, a friend and I taught a class at the University of Oregon in a program that allowed non-faculty to teach for-credit courses if they were approved by a professor. We knew the head of the sociology department, who signed on for us. Our subject was comparative worldviews. We used James W. Sire’s classic, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalogue(originally published in 1976 and now its fifth, and last, edition.) Each term, I would create a flyer advertising the course and put it up all over campus, staple gun at the ready. My copy said that “evangelical and orthodox Christianity” would be compared with other worldviews, such as naturalism, deism, pantheism, and more. My elder brother in teaching said, “Take out evangelical and orthodox” and just put ‘Christian.’ It will attract more people.” He was “wise as a serpent.” I was not as wise at that point. Today, I have grown in that grace.

How might apologists be “innocent as doves”? The contrast between serpents and doves seems unbridgeable. The cunning are not innocent, are they? Jesus thinks otherwise. The Messageparaphrase renders it, “Be as cunning as a snake, inoffensive as a dove.” Defenders of the faith should never be con men or operators. We should seek no advantage for our cause outside of what is virtuous. Paul knows that even those with bad motives may still proclaim the true gospel, but he does not commend that.

It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice (Philippians 1:15-18).

Being innocent also pertains to what should not be known. Paul tells the Romans that, “I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil” (Romans 16:19). There are some things that apologists should not know, in some cases even about the worldviews and practices they attempt to refute. Jesus says to the church, “Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets, I will not impose any other burden on you” (Revelation 2:24).

Earlier in my career, I wrote much about the New Age movement. My research was extensive over several years, and I read some unsavory stuff. However, I tried to never read anything not necessary to my apologetic against the New Age worldview (pantheism, monism, reincarnation) and for Christianity. When I studied particularly dark subjects, I prayed for protection and read the bare minimum necessary. Further, I have studied very little about Satanism, since I had my hands full with my other research and discerned no call to minister in that area. I take seriously Paul’s admonition: “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them” (Ephesians 5:11).

Having been an apologist for the last forty years, I could give much more advice. I have only highlighted the need for defenders of the faith to be wise, but innocent, witnesses to Jesus Christ and the Gospel. Without these values, apologetic arguments, no matter how powerful, will sit unused and be ineffective. But when we pay heed to Jesus, our arguments will find their home in the hearts and minds of those who need his saving grace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Obituary for James Sire (1933-2018)

When I took the course, “In the Twilight of Western Thought: A Christian Response,” at the University of Oregon in 1978, we read a book called The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalogue (InterVarsity Press, 1976), by James W.  Sire, editor of InterVarsity Press. I was a young Christian, who had been reading Francis Schaeffer and wanted to get more grounded in Christianity as true, rational, and pertinent to life. I did not want to fear investigating any other religion or worldview. After all, why be a Christian unless you know it is true and will stand up to criticism?

Winsome and accurate, The Universe Next Door taught me the meaning of worldview and the world views of Christian theism, Deism, Naturalism, Nihilism, Existentialism, Eastern Pantheistic Monism, and the New Consciousness (later called New Age). (Later editions contained a chapter on postmodernism.) After reading this book, I feared no other worldview and wanted to learn more about all of them. I have done so for the last forty years. Universe was immensely readable and helpful.  Unlike many books on worldviews and apologetics, Jim’s love for literature shined through. He was, after all, a professor of English before coming to InterVarsity Press as head editor.

I would later go on to read and teach from all five editions of this path-breaking book and come to know Jim Sire as my editor and friend. Dr. Sire and others at InterVarsity Press took a chance on a young and relatively unpublished writer and campus minister. They offered me a contract for my first book, Unmasking the New Age, which was published in early 1986. He likewise edited my second book, Confronting the New Age (1988), and I interacted with him in his capacity as editor until he left to lecture full time around the world.

I read nearly all of Jim’s subsequent books, and used several as textbooks, such as Habits of the Mind (2000) and Scripture Twisting (InterVarsity, 1980). Universe has never gone out of print; it has been used as a textbook in many colleges, universities, and seminaries; and it has been translated into a number of other languages. I’m sure he found much delight in this, as did his readers.

Jim was kind enough to give me an endorsement for Truth Decay (InterVarsity Press, 2000): “Written with brilliance and clarity that is highly unusual among both defenders and critics of postmodernism.” I was also honored when Jim asked me to look over several of his manuscripts. I endorsed his recent book, Apologetics Beyond Reason: Why Seeing Is Really Believing (although I wasn’t smitten with the title). But enough about how James Sire helped me. You can tell how much he meant to me.

Jim was the father of the Christian worldview movement. Loosely defined, this movement is made of writers, speakers, and educators who advocated that Christianity be understood and promoted philosophically. C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer were key as well, but Sire consolidated the Christian view in a clear and captivating way. Christians should be able to explain what the Bible teaches and what the church has always affirmed according the rudiments of Christian theology and confession. However, worldview isn’t an in-group way of explaining Christianity. It is not a catechism. Rather, it specifies broad and neutral conceptual categories that can be applied to any belief system, not simply Christianity. Although he refined it in subsequent editions of The Universe Next Door, I still appreciate Sire’s first definition of a worldview.

Christians should be able to explain what the Bible teaches and what the church has always affirmed according the rudiments of Christian theology and confession.

A set of assumptions (or presuppositions) held (either consciously or unconsciously) about the basic makeup of the world.

A worldview answers such questions as these:

  1. What is the nature of ultimate reality? Is it matter, God, or ideas?
  2. How does the universe work? Is it a closed system or open to divine reordering through revelation and miracle?
  3. What is the meaning of history? Is it haphazard, linear, or cyclical?
  4. What is the basis of morality? Is it God, the self, or society?
  5. What is the human condition and is salvation possible?
  6. Is there an afterlife, and, if so, what it is like?

Before Jim wrote The Universe Next Door, he was instrumental in the writing careers of Francis Schaeffer and Os Guinness, two giants of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism. Both applied the Christian worldview skillfully to apologetics and social criticism. He edited Guinness’s first book—his unmatched critique of the counterculture, The Dust of Death (1973). In the case of Schaeffer’s Death in the City (InterVarsity Press, 1969), Sire shaped a manuscript from a series of explosive lectures Schaeffer gave at Wheaton College. Sire also wrote an incisive introduction to the 30th anniversary edition of Schaeffer’s modern classic, The God Who is There (original publication, 1968). The 2006 of Schaeffer’s gem, The Mark of the Christian, is introduced by Sire as well.

In recent years, some critics, such as James K. A. Smith, have disparaged the idea of presenting Christianity as a worldview. They charge that it is too conceptual, reductionist, and lacks a confessional element. But the idea of a worldview was never meant to replace systematic theology, liturgy, or the corporate confession of the church. The principal strength of worldview is for apologetics and cultural criticism. Yes, some of the recent books on worldview are superfluous, but that is not the fault of James Sire.

I tell my students that discerning a non-Christian’s worldview is crucial to knowing how to bring the gospel to them, since it allows us to find points of common ground as well as areas of disagreement. Further, as Sire himself demonstrated in his public lectures and interactions with unbelievers, we must be sensitive to the particular human beings before us, by asking the Holy Spirit to give us intellectual and emotional insight that is fruitful for Christian witness.

Discerning a non-Christian’s worldview is crucial to knowing how to bring the gospel to them, since it allows us to find points of common ground as well as areas of disagreement.

James Sire, especially later in life, became something of a mystic. He was hardly a stilted worldview-brandishing rationalist (in Schaeffer’s use of the term) with no room for personal communion with the living God! He wrote two books on meditating on the Psalms: Learning to Pray through the Psalms (2006) and The Psalms of Jesus (2007). His later writings spoke more of spiritual experience.

Jim and I were not close personal friends, but we fondly communicated over many years and appreciated each other’s work. He always signed his letters or emails with, “Cheers, Jim Sire.” We enjoyed being together the few times we were. I met him for the first time in 1983 at a Christian’s writer’s conference in Portland, Oregon. While teaching a seminar, Jim said, “We have one of our InterVarsity Press author’s with us.” He meant me, even though I had only signed the contract for Unmasking the Age. That was kind. We exchanged a few emails in recent years and I’m happy that I thanked him for his work in a hand-written card some years ago. (Hint: I suggest you write cards or send emails to authors who have meant much to you. See 10 Ways to Write a Meaningful Card.)

I knew Jim to be a warm and genial man, both quick witted and ready to laugh. He was a prolific author, an expert editor, a smart Christian statesman, and an ardent follower of Jesus Christ, his Lord and Savior. Thank you, Jim, for your life and work. Thank you, Jesus, for giving this man a long, full, and productive life in your service. Cheers!

How Jazz Can Shape Apologetics

Jazz is a national treasure, but is no longer a common pastime. First rock and then hip hop eclipsed its popularity long ago. Historian Gerald Early claims that three things uniquely define America: the Constitution, baseball, and jazz. Yet the sale of jazz records accounts for only a small fraction the music market. The last time I checked, it was 4%. Many of my students at Denver Seminary and at other institutions where I teach know very little about it, and are a bit puzzled if not flummoxed by my references to it. Others claim they “do not understand jazz,” perhaps with a twinge of guilt that they should. Last summer, a very intelligent and godly campus minister and long-time friend attended a jazz concert with me. Afterward he said, “The music has a center, but I cannot find it.” I humbly told him that I had found it and that I loved it. I love it for many reasons. One outstanding reason is that it can help inform and reform our apologetics engagements through its distinctive genius. All that is needed is a bit of transposition from the sensibilities of jazz to the skills of apologetics.

My point here is not to evangelize for jazz, or at least not directly. (I do that elsewhere.) Whether or not one likes or understands jazz, the nature of the music is rich in virtues that can be transferred to the art of defending and commending the Christian worldview. By this, I am not arguing that Christians should be jazz musicians or write about jazz. That is true enough, but I am after something else: the essence of jazz itself as an art form and what it tells us about excellence in general and in particular for Christian witness to the truth.

What is Jazz?

The roots of jazz are complex and contested, but all grant that jazz sprung from African American slave songs. These songs of lament and hope were tied to rhythms that aided exhausted workers to rally their strength and cheer each other on. This “call-and-response” is intrinsic to jazz–this musical collaboration and cooperation performed without tightly scripted parts.

In this tradition, a jazz band performs according to a song structure (or a chart) and solos are taken at the proper places. This requires a deep knowledge of the standards of jazz (the musical canon) and how to play them. (See Ted Gioia, Jazz Standards.) Learning these canonical tunes and mastering one’s instrument means spending “time in the woodshed.” This is a jazz term for practicing, refining one’s skills—also known as “chops,” a term coined by Louis Armstrong, one of the seminal jazz pioneers.

However, a true jazz group will never play the same tune the same way twice. (That leaves out Kenny G and most “smooth jazz.”) My colossal John Coltrane collection sports about twenty versions of his interpretation of “My Favorite Things” from “The Sound of Music.” Each is stand unique and very different from every other performance. Improvisation—the marrow of jazz—is what explains this. Jazz players improvise in two main ways.

First, in a jazz performance, one or more musicians take solos which are created on the spot. No two jazz solos by the same player in the same song sound the same, although they are usually similar. This kind of solo is akin to composing on the spot. Jazz writer Ted Gioia calls jazz “the imperfect art” for this reason. The freedom to fail makes way for the freedom to shine. Jazz musicians, such as guitarist Pat Martino, often refer to this as “being in the moment.” We can also think of it as performing without a net (but not without skill).

Second, jazz musicians improvise together, not only during solos. This is known as “group improvisation.” Even as the drummer, pianist, and bass player—the rhythm section—back up a soloist, they adapt their accompaniment by what they hear the soloist playing, whether it be trumpet, saxophone, vibes, or another instrument. Jazz pianist Herbie Hancock is, perhaps, the greatest living master of this skill. Group improvisation is rare and probably unique to jazz or at least to jazz-inflected and jazz-infected music.

Jazz Speaks to Apologetics

What, then, could this emphasis on mastering material and improvising (in both senses above) have to do with apologetics? Just as jazz musicians, apologists need to “know their charts” by having spent much “time in the woodshed.” That is, they need to master the standard apologetic arguments on the nature of truth and faith, the arguments for God’s existence (natural theology), the reliability of the Bible, the deity and resurrection of Christ, the case against rival worldviews (atheism, pantheism, polytheism, Buddhism, Islam) and much more. However, knowing the arguments (the charts) is not the same as offering the arguments in various interpersonal settings. These include one-on-one, in a small group, in a larger group, in a lecture, in a sermon, on line, in a postal card, and more. This demands inventiveness, being prepared “in the moment” to size up the scene, seize the moment, and jam accordingly. Apologetic witness should never be stilted or clichéd, just as jazz is never hidebound to one way of playing a tune. As Phillip Brooks said of preaching long ago, apologetics is “truth through personality.” No one else has your personality and every situation is unique. So make music—in your solos and through group dynamics.

Since jazz music is made through profound interaction, the apologist should solicit reactions from the unbeliever through the “call-and-response.” Transposed from music to speaking, this means dialogue, not monologue. In jazz, a musician does not solo according to a chart while backed by monotonous musicians. Just as jazz musicians, apologists need to “know their charts” by having spent much “time in the woodshed.”  They need to master the standard apologetic arguments on the nature of truth and faith, the arguments for God’s existence, the reliability of the Bible, the deity and resurrection of Christ, the case against rival worldviews and much more. Rather, he improvises along with the group. Mutatis mutandus, thus the apologist does not recite a text with no interaction with the listeners. No, one speaks before one or more listeners, who, in turn, listen and speak back. This apologetic music is made mutually. One desires to be “in the moment” as one leans on God, the Spirit of Truth (John 14:26), moment-by-moment. This does not eliminate errors. Just as jazz is “the imperfect art” (Gioia), apologetics dialogue allows for mistakes, which one hopes can be resolved (or at least minimized) through on ongoing discussion. If more than one Christian is making a case with a non-Christian audience, each can support the other. Herbie Hancock tells of hitting a wrong note on piano while playing in The Miles Davis Group in the mid-1960s. He was rescued when Miles played a note that made his “mistake” the right note after all. Apologetics needs this kind of teamwork as well.

Study and Improvisation

Some wrongly think that inspiration in apologetics or Christian witness in general has little or nothing to do with previous study. This is dead wrong—for both apologetics and jazz. The best improvisers practice the most, such as John Coltrane. This saxophone virtuoso was known to practice incessantly and even right before bed, causing him to fall asleep with his saxophone. When Jesus told his disciples not to worry how they would respond when they were imprisoned for their faith, he did not say not to study, but not to worry (Mark 11:13; Luke 12:11). Moreover, the disciples had studied and lived with the Master Teacher for about three years before his statement. They were already well-equipped to produce under pressure.

Reliance on the Holy Spirit does not mean being an ignoramus, or, in jazz lingo, not “spending time in the woodshed.” Instead of reciting talking points (like talking heads), the apologist should engage conversation points through the exchange of ideas. Sparks fly and may ignite the friendly fires of truth. Truths of God that were initially only opposed or considered may become knowledge through patient persuasion inspirited by the Spirit of Truth.

Syncopation and Salvation

Let us consider one more element of jazz pertinent to apologetics: syncopation. This is a subtle concept. To syncopate means to hit the off-beat instead of the expected down-beat. There is freedom to syncopate, which means to accent the off-beat without throwing off the beat. This is rarely heard in rock-and-roll, which is usually far more flatfooted and predictable. (Progressive rock is another matter, since it is influenced by jazz.) Some wrongly think that inspiration in apologetics or Christian witness in general has little or nothing to do with previous study. This is dead wrong—for both apologetics and jazz. More generally, it means to make surprises work in the moment. Syncopation saves music from being plodding and boring. It is a particularly sublime kind of improvisation. This is why jazz musicians so often look at each other and smile with a twinkle in their eye while performing. Jesus syncopated by doing unexpected yet wonderful things throughout his ministry. (See, Robert Gelinas, Finding the Groove.) Jesus blesses us with many examples, but consider this felicitous encounter.

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him,“Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” (Luke 19:1-7).

Note that Jesus did not intend a visit with Zacchaeus. He was “passing through Jericho.” Hailing little Zacchaeus, who was unceremoniously perched in a tree, was certainly off-beat, especially since these Jewish tax collectors were considered terrible “sinners” because of their collusion with Rome and their extortion of extra money for themselves. But we find in verses 8-10 that Zacchaeus repented publically, causing Jesus to exclaim:

Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost (19:10).

Jesus’ syncopation resulted in salvation.

Francis Schaeffer (1912-84) was an exemplary apologist in many ways. But his greatest strength lay not in public addresses, but in private conversations. William Edgar, now a theologian at Westminster Theological Seminary, reports that Schaeffer was once in a tough conversation with an unbeliever at L’Abri, a Christian study center in the Swizz Alps. A young woman had an odd objection to becoming a Christian. She could not serve a God who required animal sacrifices during the time of the Old Testament. Schaeffer tried a number of approaches, none of which budged the woman from her objection. Then he looked at her shoes, which were made of leather. Schaeffer asked the woman if wearing these leather shoes, taken from an animal, was immoral. She said no. Then the conversation opened up to the truth and goodness of God’s ways with men. Schaeffer, like Jesus, syncopated. I have read thousands of pages on philosophy of religion and apologetics, but no book or article ever suggested a “shoe leather apologetic.” But by being prepared as well as “in the moment,” Schaeffer knew what to do. I take it that the Holy Spirit knows how to jam.

Whether you are (like me) among the “the few, the proud, the jazz aficionados” or not, this musical art has much to instruct us in the way of fruitful and faithful apologetic engagement. Its virtues may become ours. If so, the witness of the church will deepen and widen as the swinging music of eternal life breaks out all around.