Reimagining Apologetics: A Review Essay

W. Jackson Watts

(This is the first of a two-part review essay. Part two will post next week)

The proper way to do apologetics has preoccupied many theologians and philosophers. But anyone who talks to skeptical neighbors about Christ has some guiding assumptions about apologetic methodology, even if they’ve never considered it in those terms. Most of us have made decisions prior to a conversation about the proper use and value of evidences, arguments, and the starting points consistent with our beliefs. And even when we haven’t, those underlying commitments bubble up to the surface when our evangelism hits a wall and we shift to apologetics.

One approach increasingly advocated for in recent years is “imaginative apologetics.” While not all describe this approach the same way, most are referring to the use of aesthetics and appeals to beauty and meaning to show Christianity’s plausibility and appeal. In other words, such an approach asks skeptics to imagine what believing the Gospel might look like and feel like, especially compared to the emptiness and ugliness of the alternative.

To many ears this explanation sounds dubious. Isn’t Christianity beautiful becauseit’s true, not true because it’s beautiful? People naturally have reservations about any apologetics that seems to privilege emotion or the senses over reason. Of course, it depends on what one means by imagination!

In considering this subject, I’d like to review a recent book in this field, Reimagining Apologetics: The Beauty of Faith in a Secular Age (IVP Academic, 2020). Pastor and professor Justin Ariel Bailey offers a serious proposal worthy of examination.

Motivating Concerns

I appreciate Bailey’s frank, pastoral concern that prompted this book:

I was ministering to emerging adults in the Chicago suburbs and encountering a troubling fragility in their faith. They would speak of disconnection: Sunday was full of meaning, but God seemed distant outside the walls of the church. One student, whom I will call Daniel, described it to me this way: ‘When we are in church and I’m listening to the preaching, it’s like you are weaving a spell. I believe, and the world makes sense to me. But then I walk out the door of the church, and it’s like the spell is broken.’ As the one doing the preaching, I felt the fragility in my own faith too. Why did what felt so believable on Sunday not feel as believable on Monday? What had changed? (x-2)

I dare say we’ve all, at some point, encountered or felt this sentiment. This anecdote calls to mind philosopher Charles Taylor’s reminder that secularism is more than simply a set of beliefs that precludes the supernatural. It’s a condition, the proverbial air we breathe in which belief in God and Scripture feels less plausible. Certainly, belief is no longer the cultural default.

Bailey’s anecdote is especially relevant in this moment. Consider how many times we’ve heard the goodness of God, the goodness of creation, and the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit expounded from Scripture. We then walk out of Bible Study or Worship and encounter a world filled with division and disease. Suddenly Scripture’s beautiful picture is harder to see. Indeed, we need to wrestle with what it means for Christian beliefs to become, as David Wells once put it, “weightless” in our lives. If belief sometimes feels this way for believers, how much harder is it for unbelievers to “feel the way into” the faith from the outside? This is the task of imaginative apologetics.

Central Claims

Bailey argues that imagination may be the crucial missing link in our apologetics. What does an emphasis on imagination require? In, “reimagining apologetics, I mean simply an approach that takes the imaginative context of belief seriously.” “Doubters,” Bailey says, “require more than good arguments. They require an aesthetic sense, an imaginative vision, and a poetic embodiment of Christianity” (4). Such an assertion partially reveals Bailey’s understanding of imagination, which occupies the intersection of intellect, emotion, and embodied practice.

We need to think of people as situated in a context, not simply as “brains on a stick,” as James K. A. Smith vividly puts it.[1] People inhabit a set of circumstances in which some beliefs seem more or less plausible (Remembering that most Christians grow up in God-fearing homes illustrates this.). As Bailey explains, “it is impossible to separate any faith (what I believe and in whom I trust) from my desire (what I love and what I wish to be the case) and my imagination (what I feel is possible), as well as from my concrete, lived reality (the way that my faith is tested and maintained in the course of everyday life” (5).

Apologetics, so described, invokes the subjunctive mood than the indicative mood. That is to say, it invites us to consider, “What if Christianity were true? What kind of life and world would this Gospel make possible?” This is a different intellectual posture than one that says, “Christianity is true, so just believe.” The posture Bailey commends isn’t the “evidence that demands a verdict” one in which there is epistemic obligation—“you must believe because of reasons x, y, and z.” Instead, this approach “seeks to grant epistemic permission, to show how a person may believe and how faith makes sense” (7).

The distinction between epistemic obligation and epistemic permission is crucial. Bailey is quite clear that his goal isn’t to “prove Christianity’s truth,” but to prompt people to consider how our hopes are uniquely satisfied in the Christian Gospel. Quoting Avery Dulles, Bailey explains that this approach—the “apologetics of hope”—assumes that people inherently wantto have hope as opposed to despair, and only Christianity can sustain the hope that human beings need (12). Here one sees resonance between Bailey’s approach and that of Leroy Forlines, whose emphasis on the existential comes through in his focus on life’s inescapable questions. It’s not that we repent and believe solely because we heard a Gospel presentation; in a postmodern environment, we simultaneously see that only the truth of Jesus adequately answers the questions of deepest personal significance. This, too, is the Spirit’s work.

A significant component of Bailey’s argument draws upon authors who show that appealing to this aspect of our humanity awakens our “religious sense,” our “homesickness for the absolute” (17). Bailey uses 19th century British author George MacDonald—a significant influence on C. S. Lewis, and Marilynne Robinson, an award-winning modern fiction author, to illuminate what it might mean to “awaken the religious sense and to reveal the religious depth of experience” (17). Without fully describing Bailey’s use of them, I’ll simply point out that he believes they help show what it might mean to use an unconventional apologetic tool—in this case fiction—to invite people to respond to God’s active presence and summons.

Now we should be clarify this notion of God’s active or wider presence. Sometimes such language is used by theological liberals and mainline thinkers to advocate for religious inclusivism and all manner of unbiblical practices. Bailey means something quite distinct. He draws upon the larger Reformed tradition, including John Calvin and Herman Bavinck, to remind us that God can break through to people where they are with His truth, even in unconventional ways. Because we inhabit God’s creation—the arena of His glory—we should not be surprised to find that its beauty and majesty have the ability to awaken possibilities in people’s hearts and minds.

I’ll reserve further comment for below, but I mostly think Bailey demonstrates a legitimate approach to common grace. By analogy, many a person has found the fiction of C. S. Lewis or J. R. R. Tolkien to be pivotal in their spiritual journey. Of course, no one actually crosses the threshold of the Kingdom simply by reading good stories! However, in good, Scripture-shaped stories one can be better glimpse a Christian vision that makes the final step toward God in repentance more plausible, even more attractive and glorious.

Defining Imagination

Before we proceed with further summary and analysis, we do need a clear grasp on what Bailey means by imagination. Like many concepts, it takes on various flavors and connotations in the hands of different people. Bailey summarizes this way: “First, I wish to define the imagination as a faculty concerned with possibility [what could be the case]. Second, I will defend the imagination as responsive to real presence. Third, I want to direct the imagination for participation in the theodrama of Scripture” (85). In short, we recognize that the God of Christianity moves toward people, addresses them with different possibilities for true life in the world, and invites them—through repentance and faith—to participate in His intentions for creation.

Imagination should be seen as “a strategic, intentional, and embodied activity that suspends actuality [what is the case] for the sake of reality” (85). We choose to consider something that isn’t actually the case, but what could be. Unlike other types of perception such as memory or belief, imagination doesn’t have to be about something that really exists. However, it perceives “possible ways of being in the world, [and] is captivated by other possibilities” (90). This is why we are so drawn into fiction—whether in literature, theatre, or other artistic forms. They speak to our imagination.

So what is imagination? Is it the work of the mind or intellect, desire, or body? According to Bailey, it draws on all three. What one “feels is possible” couldn’t help but be. We might think of it as the “eyes of our heart,” provided we remember that our heart, biblically speaking, is never separable from our will, thoughts, or desires. While each has been impacted by sin, they aren’t compromised beyond the point of any spiritual usefulness.

Bailey wants us to think of our capacity for imagining in three primary ways: seeing, sensing, and shaping. In seeing, humans are reflecting God’s image by using their imagination to explore “possibilities in order to fulfill the mandate of care and cultivation, unleashing the potentialities of creation for its own good to the glory of God” (101). It’s not simply that humans can do this; in fact, imagination is essential to ask the deeply moral and aesthetic question, “What if I did this?” Imagination is deliberative, in other words.

Bailey explains that sensing works in reverse. In seeing we project a possible image on the world, but “sensing moves in the opposite direction and occurs when an image impresses itself on the mind” (102). To put it provocatively, our imagination uses us rather than the other way around. In this experience an image evokes “fear or gladness, anxiety or anticipation, consistent with [our] desires” (102).

Finally, shaping is the “most creative exercise of the imagination, a multi-dimensional constructive project in which a person clears a generative space to facilitate a perspectival shift” (107). While this statement is a mouthful, it brims with real importance. We’re deciding what we might do in response to what we have seen and been shaped by, how we might incorporate this picture of things or participate in it. These three steps are summarized best this way: “The imaginative faculty moves us forward by facilitating three things: (1) an orienting vision for the world, (2) an aesthetic experience of the world, and (3) poetic participation in the world” (102).

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[1] Bailey uses this phrase without citing Smith, but I’m fairly sure the first appearance of this crude description for a truncated anthropology appears in Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom (Baker Academic, 2009).

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