Review: Reimagining Apologetics

Reimagining Apologetics, Justin Ariel Bailey. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A case for an apologetics appealing to beauty and to the imagination that points toward a better picture of what life might be.

When most of us hear the term “apologetics,” we think of reasoned argument for why one should believe, indeed, reason that compels belief. Yet in this age of epistemic uncertainty, such argument often elicits suspicion and may turn people ways from faith rather than remove obstacles to it.

Justin Ariel Bailey doesn’t dismiss the value of this traditional approach to apologetics, which he calls “Uppercase apologetics.” What he proposes instead is that some may be drawn to consider Christian faith through the imaginative, the telling of a better story or the painting of a better picture of an authentic Christian life makes better sense of the human condition. He frames it this way:

“By reimagining apologetics, I mean simply an approach that takes the imaginative context of belief seriously. Such an approach prepares the way for Christian faith by provoking desire, exploring possibility, and casting an inhabitable Christian vision. When successful, it enables outsiders to inhabit the Christian faith as if from the inside, feeling their way in before attempting to criticize it by foreign standards. Whether a person ultimately embraces the vision that is being portrayed, imaginative engagement cultivates empathy. It enables a glimpse, even if just for a moment, of the possibilities that Christian faith facilitates for our life in the world.”

Justin Ariel Bailey, p. 4.

The book is broken into two parts. The first is more philosophical in elaborating the relationship of apologetics and the imagination. Bailey begins with the work of Charles Taylor, and the disenchantment of the modern world under secularity. He treats secularity as a crisis of the imagination that reasoned argument alone cannot address. He then turns to Schleiermacher as a pioneer of an imaginative apologetic that sought to “feel our way in,” albeit at the expense of a connection to truth. Bailey argues that such an approach with a thicker theological ground is possible. He then deals more properly with the nature of imagination itself and how it is shaped by creation, fall, and redemption.

The second part then considers two writers, George MacDonald of the Victorian era, and Marilynne Robinson of our own, and how their writing models imaginative approaches to Christian faith in the face of the Victorian “crisis of faith” and the contemporary “new atheism.” MacDonald wrote his works with his friend John Ruskin in mind. Using the Wingfold trilogy, he shows how MacDonald sought to awaken his readers to a vision of virtue leading to a vision of God and his world. Bailey sees Robinson revealing a capacious vision of authentic Christian life in her characters. Then he looks at the Calvinism of both writers that sees the world filled with the presence of God that makes sense of our homesickness for God.

Bailey concludes with identifying three elements of an apologetic of the imagination:

  1. Sensing. Imagination as an aesthetic sense and gives primacy to the aesthetic dimension.
  2. Seeing. Imagination as orienting vision that invites exploration of a more capacious vision of the world
  3. Shaping. Imagination as poetic vision that situates the human project within the larger redemptive project of God.

He points to Makoto Fujimura’s idea of “culture care” as a model for how this apologetic may work in commending the faith through appealing to beauty, for seeing this care for beauty in every aspect of life, and reflective of the creative and redeeming beauty of God.

I believe Bailey is onto something. I think of the power of stories like Narnia Tales, or in the case of C.S. Lewis, the fiction of George MacDonald to capture the imagination and open it up to Christ. What does this mean for the apologist? Here, Bailey’s book is only suggestive and needs a follow up. It doesn’t mean buying everyone copies of MacDonald’s and Robinson’s works. At the very end he points to the work of understanding the stories of others and relating our stories to those. I also think, when people are ready, that the narratives of the gospels are also powerful stories, where we allow people to situate their stories within the Jesus story. I hope Bailey will do further work in this area, offering believing people more help in telling their stories and the story. What this work has done is offer the grounds for that work.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.