Reimagining Apologetics: A Review Essay (Part 2)

W. Jackson Watts

(This is part two of a two-part review essay. Part one can be found here.)

Authenticity: Problem or Opportunity?

In order to appreciate fully Bailey’s approach to the imagination, we need to appreciate the environment in which he makes his proposal. Following Charles Taylor, Bailey argues that the “modern condition of secularity is an imaginative crisis.” By this he means that in this kind of flattened world the individual is burdened with the task of finding meaning (25). This is a moment in which engaging the imagination—the aesthetic dimension—is possible and necessary.

Bailey asks, “If Christian faith can only be adequately known from the inside, how can it be communicated to those on the outside?” (57) After sorting through possible answers, Bailey advocates a route by which we “alert outsiders to the way that their embodied, emotional experience of the world may already bear the marks of divine presence and address” (58) He calls this the “apologetics of authenticity.”

Authenticity is certainly a buzzword in contemporary culture. For good reason, it both interests us and troubles us. Quite frankly, who wants to be known as “inauthentic” or “disingenuous”? Indeed, in apologetics we will struggle to get our bearings if the people to whom we speak don’t believe that we are authentic or sincere in what we say, what we mean, and how we live out our faith.

Yet the very issue of perception is problematic in the modern quest for authenticity. Nowadays “authenticity” is a stand-in for, “Be true to your desires. Pursue your dreams. Do what feels right.” This take on authenticity drips with worldly narcissism, and this problem is not lost on Bailey. Yet he argues that we need a thick vision of authenticity that moves beyond the Romantic age, which largely perverted the notion of authenticity. We want to embrace a vision of authenticity in which people are pulled outside themselves to see the God who alone is capable of meeting our inner needs.

For Bailey, the age of authenticity is an opening or opportunity for imaginative apologetics. He argues that in a world shaped by Romantic authenticity people seek meaning everywhere, whether the all-consuming rituals of sports fandom or on-demand television. As he explains, “I can find meaning, beauty, and fullness in a flattened world by investing my everyday actions and associations with religious significance and depth” (44). What’s more, the experience of this depth, resonance, and aesthetic has now become downright “ethical” to people. People feel they ought to seek such things in their pursuit of an authentic life (45)!

But Bailey counters, “Is this the only kind of authenticity available? And doesn’t this represent an impoverished moral imagination, and an opening for a robust one?” He draws on Charles Taylor’s thought to distinguish between a thin, sentimental, Romantic authenticity and a thick, spiritually legitimate, post-Romantic  authenticity.[1]

Bailey says an ethic of authenticity is simply “the internal call to compose an original life, a life that make sense” (8). Imaginative apologetics addresses this by engaging that which is deeply felt and what sorts of “possibilities are explored and for what sorts of lives we make in response” (54). To parse this out practically, we can help people ask how the Gospel might speak to the desires they have for beauty and meaning.  Bailey explains,

This does not mean altering the gospel for the sake of disordered desire. It means showing how the gospel offers something deeper than, but not discontinuous with, human longing. Just as Bible translators seek to give a faithful translation of the Christian Scriptures in the ‘heart language’ of a people group, so too imaginative apologists seek a telling of the Christian story that resonates with the movements of a person’s heart. It is because the apologist has confidence that the Holy Spirit is already at work within human longings that she orients her presentation here. (231)

Bailey realizes that many will fear that this approach might be selling out to authenticity. After all, expressive individualism has been complicit in many modern problems. But Bailey argues that, “narcissism is not the necessary destination of the ethic of authenticity” (48). While the “impulse of authenticity” can certainly be destructive, it can also point us to a more responsible form of life (49). There is moral recognition and responsibility involved with choosing, discerning, and embracing a path. Think of it as choosing not to look within, but to listen to the voice that breaks forth, which summons us to align our lives with something nobler, purer, more glorious than any project in self-discovery or self-creation.

Imagination relates to this vision of authenticity because the Reformed worldview shows us that creation is the arena of God’s glory. As Bailey says of MacDonald,

If Romanticism transformed the imagination from mirror to lamp, MacDonald offers a mediating picture: a mirror that illuminates because of the image it reflects. As divine light bounds off the mirror it lights the wick of the lantern that already exists within the creation. Although entrusted with the light, the imagination is never the source of the light. It is always ‘God’s candle’. (202-203)

Calvin himself expressed the belief “that everything good is a divine gift, having its source in God rather than in humanity” (110). Of course, the human heart is also an idol factory that can easily distort the picture of reality God gives. Herein lies the tension. We believe in general revelation and the common grace it makes possible. We also believe in depravity. This is where the apologist, Scripture, and the Holy Spirit come together. Bailey believes an imaginative emphasis can draw out the aesthetic desire and provoke it to see God speaking to us everywhere, as the old hymn, “This is My Father’s World,” says.

Calvin said that there isn’t anywhere in the universe free from the sparks of God’s glory. At the same time, the “bright lights of creation fail to bring clarifying vision apart from further illumination by the Spirit” (110). Bavinck joins Calvin in this idea of God’s revelation permeating all creation. Moreover, it is clear that people have real encounters with the goodness of God, yet unfortunately these encounters don’t always result in regeneration (112). But even the apologist realizes that a positive result is never guaranteed in his apologetics and evangelism. He simply has to paint the picture and extend the invitation.

Some Critical Reflections

People interested in apologetics in this “spiritual, but secular age” will find this book significant. I deeply appreciate the pastoral aims that motivate it. I also applaud Bailey’s attention to the environment of Christian belief. What Peter Berger called “plausibility structures,” Bailey echoes as he shows this to be as a necessary consideration in apologetics. Paying attention to the universal elements of human nature and the diverse intellectual environments that shape the thinking of those we encounter is useful in personal evangelism, apologetics, missiology, and preaching.

That said, I offer few additional reflections divided into four discreet categories.[2]

Conversation Partners

While I found nothing in Bailey’s proposal to contradict our own theological tradition in any explicit way, his proposal is not without tensions. This is nowhere clearer than in his choice of conversation partners, including Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of Protestant liberalism.

My former professor Darrell Holley used to say, “Even a broken clock is right twice a day.” This sentiment allows Bailey to use Schleiermacher—not because of his theological integrity, which Bailey acknowledges isn’t fundamentally sound. Instead, he sees in Schleiermacher a basic attempt at an “apologetic resonant with Romantic sensibilities,” that takes human desire and subjectivity seriously (59). Even the theologically orthodox Herman Bavinck thought Schleiermacher was onto something in his central insight that dependence is the core of spiritual self-consciousness (63). There is certainly a legitimate human quest for not only truth, but meaning. Of course, true meaning is found in the truth of Christianity!

Bailey is aware of the concern that this may exalt human need and satisfaction at the expense of objective Christian truth. He explicitly acknowledges the vigilance we need to spot the difference between the Divine voice of God and the inner voice of man. Yet he asserts that a person’s existential situation as a starting point is unavoidable. After all, the starting point for our theological and spiritual quest isn’t the same as its grounds. The grounds of any true quest for God lie in the “objective action of God toward us.” Yet, following Bavinck, Bailey says faith is the “internal principle of the Christian religion” (218). In other words, because the world belongs to God, we can start almost anywhere in our individual movement to him (provided that movement ultimately runs through the cross, repentance, and faith). So while anthropological starting points can be fraught with peril, they may not be automatically idolatrous or misguided.

Yet where Bailey is most vulnerable to this charge of choosing dubious conversation partners is adding George MacDonald and Marilynne Robinson to the dais. Both of these authors are undoubtedly gifted, provocative, and committed to the role of imagination in providing fertile soil for spiritual searching. Bailey concedes potential weaknesses due to their heterodoxy on certain points, which in my mind leaves his project on a bit of a tightrope. He wants to commend their sensibilities and posture, not their full doctrinal substance. This makes none wonder, “Is there no fully orthodox author who could have better served as guide to how to engage the imagination in a spiritually and aesthetically serious way?”[3]

Authority and Confrontation

Bailey is right to soften the strong epistemic onus assumed in a lot of modern apologetics (see my comments above about epistemic permission versus epistemic obligation). However, he goes further to question the combative, militaristic mindsets that many Christians have used in cultural engagement and evangelism. Fair enough. But isn’t this a question of balance and tone more than substance? In other words, the apostle Paul clearly envisions such ministry as spiritual warfare, and accordingly uses militaristic language and metaphors repeatedly. And must confrontation only be understood in heavy-handed or pugilistic terms?

We simply cannot escape the question of authority, even if we don’t lead with it. Bailey’s emphasis on culture care as opposed to cultural warfare isn’t wrongheaded. We certainly need to recognize (and point to) the goodness of God’s creation and our proper place in it. We should, as he suggests, tell better stories, paint more beautiful pictures, and make connections between human longing and God’s world that are often unexplored. But there is an inescapable, confrontational dynamic inherent to speaking the words of Christ. He is the King who summons us to bow and repent of idolatry. I would hope that Bailey wouldn’t want us to side step the spiritual authority and allegiance emphasis in apologetics and evangelism, but rather to maintain it alongside the aesthetic emphasis.

The Purpose of Apologetics

Bailey devotes some extensive attention to how his proposal differs from other mainstream approaches to apologetics. While he doesn’t discredit positive elements in other methods, readers are at times left wondering if everyone is using the same definition of apologetics.

Establishing Christianity as rationally coherent, evidentially unassailable, or existentially meaningful strike me as three different goals. Regardless of the burden one places on their approach, all methodologies—imaginative apologetics included—need to give a more concrete account of what plausibility or aesthetic appeal mean. For better or worse, apologia means defense, which connotes something rational, though rationality need not be explained as “100%, knock-down, incontrovertible proof”! I would like to hear Bailey say more explicitly if he thinks plausibility is just another way of saying rationality, and if aesthetic appeal or existential meaning are a function of reason, desire, or both.[4]

Along these lines, Bailey raises an interesting question when he asks, what are the boundaries “between apologetic preparation and evangelical witness?” (194). This is a useful question. We need to resist making a stark divide between apologetics and evangelism. Francis Schaeffer hints at this when he used the language of “pre-evangelism,” which seems to be a good way to describe part of what Bailey is after. In some respects, what many apologists may glean from his book is how to broaden the scope of their conversations, recognizing that people’s unique path into faith may be longer and/or more circuitous than we’ve imagined.

In summary, Bailey reminds us that his approach to imaginative apologetics “gives methodological priority to the aesthetic dimension” (229). “To invite another person to explore the Christian way of seeing means meeting them where they are, clearing a space for mutual understanding, and showing hospitality toward their doubt and unbelief” (233). Moreover, “reimagining apologetics invites exploration of a larger vision of the world” (232).

Whether we fully employ the tactics, flavor, and assumptions of Bailey’s proposal, good apologetics most certainly should speak to the whole person, reminding them that we are all caught up in the drama of God’s story. And He, the great playwright and director, graciously and lovingly is inviting us to play our part.




[1]Of course, Romanticism calls attention to the largely British-American emphases of many nineteenth century poets and philosophers in which the rational took a backseat to the emotion. As Carl Trueman helpfully charts in his recent and powerful tome, The Rise and Triumph of the Therapeutic, we’re very much living with the weight of that costly legacy.

[2]Bailey is also to be commended for taking some time on pages 207 to 222 to deal with potential problems and shortcomings in his argument. Credit him for being up front about those and trying to offer honest rebuttals.

[3]In Making Sense of God, Tim Keller calls attention to the way that meaningshould be added to our apologetic toolkit. In some sense, his book does this in a more accessible way, though it doesn’t deal with the imagination in as developed of a way.

[4]In a related way, the actual definition of imagination is very much at the crux of this proposal. Is imagination best seen as its own anthropological faculty, subordinate faculty to intellect, desire, and/or practice, or a link between them? One could extend such questions into asking how imagination maps onto one’s approach to general revelation.



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