Narrative Apologetics, Alister E. McGrath. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.
Summary: An argument for and description of narrative approaches to offering a defense for the faith.
Most of us, when we think of apologetics, the making of a case for Christian belief, think of approaches that offer arguments or evidences that warrant Christian belief. This has its place in contending that Christian faith is rational, rather than a leap into irrationality. At the same time, apologist Alister E. McGrath observes both the power of story in our culture, and how much of the scripture consists of narrative, of story and how, from the prophet Nathan to the parable-teller Jesus, story has been a key element in conveying the purposes of God to people. McGrath joins with storytellers like G. K. Chesterton, J.R.R Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis to contend that the “big story,” the “Story of a Larger Kind,” that makes sense of all of life and tells a better story, may serve to create receptivity to following Christ, and making the Christian story one’s own.
McGrath begins by laying a theological case for narrative by drawing on H. Richard Neibuhr’s observation that when early Christian communities defended their faith in Christ, they used narrative to do so. He defends the idea of the great story or metanarrative against post-modern commentators by arguing that the narrative of Christian faith is not rooted in hegemonic modernist rationality but a story of God’s telling through the incarnation of the one who epitomized what it means to be in the image of God in human flesh, yet who humbled himself unto death, entering deeply into the human condition of suffering and sin.
He offers examples from Chronicles of Narnia that function as apologetics addressing the objection of God as projection, portraying the incarnation, and visualizing sin. He gives four examples of biblical narratives that articulate aspects of the grand story: the Exodus, the Exile, the story of Christ, and one of the parables of the kingdom, and then offers a list of a number of others.
He turns to strategies and criteria for narrative apologetics. He quotes C.S. Lewis who proposes that “to break a spell, you have to weave a better spell,” that is, tell a better story, one that makes better sense of the world, and offers a better sense of one’s place, purpose, and destiny within it. It means both proposing a metanarrative, and critiquing rival narratives. He then proposes four elements of narrative around life’s meaning:
- Identity: Whom am I?
- Value: Do I matter?
- Purpose: Why am I here?
- Agency: Can I make a difference?
In his concluding chapter he proposes the weaving of three types of narratives into a narrative apologetic: personal narrative, biblical narrative, and cultural narrative. In the last category, he speaks of literary writers, citing a few example. He admits these are but a tip of the iceberg, but he could also have suggested film and other visual storytelling media. A more extensive appendix of suggested works would have been helpful.
One other addition I would have appreciated is an example, perhaps a talk where the elements he has outlined are incorporated, and perhaps either commentary that identifies the elements, or an exercise where the reader must do so and observe how they are woven into an apologetic message.
While a model might have been helpful, what McGrath has done is both lay a foundation, and offer a blueprint of what a narrative apologetic consists. The challenge of understanding the cultural story, and telling a better one is matched by the conviction that such stories may be found both in our lives and in the scriptures, and even in dialogue with the stories our culture tells. Of course all of this is premised in Christians understanding in what story they are called to live, and not mistaking the culture’s story for the “Story of a Large Kind.”
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
4 thoughts on “Review: Narrative Apologetics”
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Bob, as one who works as an evangelist/apologist in the university world, I find that my best method is to have no strict method. In fact, flexibility is crucial. Depending on the situation and audience, I may use narrative, philosophy, theology, counseling, logical critique, etc. Interweaving these approaches — even in a single conversation — can be helpful, especially if I’m listening carefully to the Spirit along the way.
All this reminds me that apologetics is a tool in the evangelism toolbox more than a stand-alone discipline (though of course apologetics can be hugely important in discipleship as well).
I haven’t read this book but I’ve read other books by McGrath — always thoughtful. Thanks for the review.
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I agree, and I think McGrath would as well.
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