Review: Narrative Apologetics

Narrative apologetics

Narrative ApologeticsAlister 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:

  1. Identity: Whom am I?
  2. Value: Do I matter?
  3. Purpose: Why am I here?
  4. 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.

Review: Leading Minds

Leading Minds

Leading MindsHoward E. Gardner with Emma Laskin. New York: Basic Books, 2011 (Review is of the 1996 edition).

Summary: Studies how leaders effectively communicate with the minds of those they lead using case studies of eleven direct and indirect leaders.

Howard E. Gardner is a cognitive psychologist who works in the field of education. One of his most significant works is The Unschooled Mind, the thesis of which is that outside of domains where an adult has great expertise, most adults theorize about the world with the mind of a five year old. In this work, Gardner focuses on effective leadership as an exercise of communication with the minds of others, seeking to influence them to action that follows one’s leadership. For Gardner, storytelling is central, and effective leaders are not only able to tell a story that communicates with those who share their expertise, but also with a wider public responding with the “unschooled mind” of a five year old. He identifies two types of leaders, indirect leaders, like Albert Einstein, and direct leaders, like Franklin D. Roosevelt. Some individuals exercise both kinds of leadership.

Gardner considers eleven individuals who exercised leadership in a variety of domains:

  • Margaret Mead: Anthropology
  • J. Robert Oppenheimer: Physics
  • Robert Maynard Hutchins: Higher education
  • Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., Business (General Motors)
  • George Marshall, Military and Statecraft
  • Pope John XXIII: Religion
  • Eleanor Roosevelt: American women
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.: Civil rights
  • Margaret Thatcher: Political
  • Jean Monnet: International leadership
  • Mahatma Gandhi: International leadership

After introductory chapters outlining his basic approach and methodology, Gardner devotes a chapter to each of these leaders, except for the last two, who he considers together. What is fascinating is that he looks at the development of these leaders, the story they told and how they adapted their stories when their leadership moved beyond those who shared their expertise, and how effective they were. He looks at indirect leaders like Jean Monnet, who essentially served other national leaders in forming the framework of the European Union, and direct leaders like Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. who communicated a compelling, missional story for General Motors. He also considers their areas of failure. For a leader like Robert Maynard Hutchins, his inability to embody his story with the faculty at the University of Chicago, and include a wide constituency in his vision were critical failures.

From these profiles, Gardner identified six constants of leadership:

  1. The Story: Leaders must have a central story or message that includes those necessary for accomplishing her vision. Often these are inclusive, but not always, as in political or military conflict.
  2. The Audience: A story cannot succeed without being heard and heeded, and the effective leader is able to communicate in a nuanced fashion that different audiences will understand.
  3. The Organization: The influence of a leader’s story depends on an organization for implementation–be it a business, a political party, a movement. Margaret Mead never created an organization and had no school of followers after she died.
  4. The Embodiment: Leaders, especially direct leaders, must embody their story. George Marshall not only spoke about a vision for service but embodied it in his integrity, hard work, and willingness to work behind the scenes for the success of the war effort.
  5. Direct and Indirect Leadership. Indirect leaders influence through symbolic products whereas direct leaders engage with their followers as they articulate a story.
  6. The Issue of Expertise. Those who move from leadership within a domain to wider leadership, like J. Robert Oppenheimer, do so because of proven expertise. The paradox is that the wider one’s leadership, the less their technical expertise alone is a factor.

Two appendices in the form of extended tables chart Gardner’s analysis, the first consider the eleven leaders in this study, the second ten world leaders during the World War II era.

I did have one reservation about this study. It seemed to me that Gardner’s approach presupposed his conclusions. This does not necessarily invalidate his conclusions, given that this work extends prior research. But I would be cautious in considering this as an all-encompassing account of leadership. For me, it suggested the importance of having, and effectively communicating to different audiences, one’s story of a preferred future.

Gardner’s eleven leaders, although they each have their failings, are generally positive figures. His account of story and the unschooled mind also recognizes that some leaders are able to communicate compelling stories and gather a following with very bad consequences, as in the case of Hitler or Mussolini. There are also instructive lessons for those who are so “wonky” about their stories, that they are unable to garner a following outside those who are already sufficiently wonky. There is also a quite wonderful lesson in the stories of those like Pope John XXIII, George Marshall, and Eleanor Roosevelt who embodied the stories they conveyed, and so were able to lead all the more effectively.

Most of us both lead and follow in our lives. Gardner’s book shows important qualities of story, inclusion, embodiment and expertise as critical in leading well. He also helps us when we follow, to listen to the stories leaders tell and the congruence between story and the life of the leader. It seems to me vital to consider whether the story is one that works for all who a potential leader would lead, or whether those stories will intensify the divides between those included and those excluded.

Review: The Advent of the Lamb of God

the advent of the lamb of God

The Advent of the Lamb of God (Retelling the Story Series), Russ Ramsey. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: A retelling of the story of the coming of Jesus, who would be God’s ultimate lamb, tracing from the Fall through Israel’s history to Christ’s advent, God’s relentless yet loving pursuit of his people.

Christians are story-shaped people. For anyone who would suggest that the Bible is God’s rule book, I would propose rather that the Bible tells us the story of God’s pursuit of a lost humanity and how we might be found by Him and live within that story. The older I get the more I’m persuaded that we often don’t really know the story we live within, and are sometimes shaped by stories that really aren’t our story.

What I so love about this book, and the series of three of which it is a part, is that Russ Ramsey uses three great seasons of the church’s life: Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter, and Pentecost to help us discover (or re-discover) our story. Through 25 brief reflections, he traces Israel’s longing for the Promised One, the Messiah, and then his coming in Jesus, Immanuel. Ramsey’s spare prose sketches out the main contours of the biblical narrative from the fall, through the coming of the Messiah, and briefly his baptism, and ministry, death, and resurrection, that fulfilled the longings of generations of Israel.

We’re reminded of the one who would come to crush the head of Eve’s deceiver, the one who would be sacrificed on Moriah instead of Isaac, the one who wrestled with Jacob, who was the new Moses, the faultless judge, the King promised to David. It is a narrative that stresses how Israel relentlessly tries to shake God’s grasp, and a God who refuses to let go of them because of his intention to bless them, and through them the nations. Ramsey writes:

Though they would wrestle with God, and though the Lord would hobble them, stripping them of their leverage, it would be because God was fighting for them even when they were fighting against him, even when they forgot the covenant the Lord himself swore to uphold. (p. 51)

He explores how God fulfilled his covenant promise through a silenced priest, an aged wife, a  young girl, and a bewildered but obedient husband, all of them living under the thumb of the Roman empire, and their power hungry surrogate, Herod the Great. We are reminded of the real agonies the young maiden endured among the stabled animals, the wondrous birth, the angels with the shepherds, the flight to Egypt with the Magi’s gifts, and the joyful declaration and sober warnings in the words of aged Simeon of a sword that would pierce Mary’s heart.

This is not a tightly focused treatment of the birth narratives alone but connects them to what has gone before in Israel’s history. These are not disparate narratives but one narrative, in which the birth is a kind of culmination of what has gone before. Yet Ramsey accomplishes this by focusing on the main contours of the story, and by prose that is both imaginative and yet disciplined.

You may wonder about reviewing an Advent book in July. Yet Christian educators and worship leaders are anticipating the Advent season even now. This might be a great Advent devotional to be used, perhaps as an adjunct to adult education or a preaching series. It is a wonderful resource for young believers, as well as those of longer years who, immersed in theological argument, how-to-ism, or approaches that set the Bible at war with itself, might discover again for the first time this wondrous story. Ramsey’s book is no substitute for the Bible, or “Cliff’s Notes” for scripture, but rather an invitation to discover our story and immerse ourselves in it, allowing it to shape our lives.


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.

Review: Reading Your Life’s Story

Reading Your Life's Story

Reading Your Life’s StoryKeith R. Anderson. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: An exploration of the work of spiritual mentoring using the idea of attentive listening to the Holy Spirit and a person to “read” one’s life, with practical instruction on the mentoring process from beginning to ending.

It is not uncommon to speak of one’s life story. The challenge is seeing the story line when you are the one within that story and life appears to be simply a series of relationships and events, and perhaps accomplishments. What Keith R. Anderson proposes is that often it is in the company of another person joining one in listening to the Holy Spirit that the threads of the narrative, or the dots in the picture are connected in a way that makes sense of our lives, and the unique ways in which God may be working in and through them. Anderson calls this “reading.” Here is how he writes about this in his first chapter, “Reading with a Consecrated Purpose”:

“We live in what we have built. The stories of our life become a house we inhabit with its
limitations, eccentricities, mistakes, hidden meanings, and crafted beauty. In this book I hope to offer ways to help us all read the story of our life through the centuries-deep practice of spiritual mentoring. Stories are a way to find coherence and meaning in what seems random, episodic, or even chaotic.”

The first part of this book develops the idea of spiritual mentoring. He differentiates spiritual mentoring from either spiritual direction or spiritual friendship as “an intentional, planned, repeated and focused set of conversations about the life of the mentee in the presence of the Holy Spirit.” After introducing this idea, in successive chapters he writes about God as the author of our stories, about our lives as the text and the different ways we read stories, about mentors as coreaders, and the importance of spiritual friendship in the mentoring process. Finally he speaks of spiritual mentors as imperfect people, and that it is in our authentic vulnerability as great sinners who depend on the mercy of God, that we do our work. He writes, “Effective mentors are honest about their own brokenness and the holes within.”

The second part of the book traces the movements of the spiritual mentoring relationship from beginning to ending. I found the chapter on ending especially helpful, because he focuses on ending well, even if a mentoring relationship hasn’t gone well. It is a bring of closure, and what will happen next. It is not just ending but sending, which he describes as “s/ending.” Other chapters focus on starting well with practical helps on the initial interview for mentor and mentee. He charts what a mentoring session might look like. He talks about the practice of wisdom in helping people begin to understand that the life of faith is a long walk. He talks about the pacing of the mentoring relationship and how mentees can prepare for each session and he addresses accountability.

One of features of this book is that each chapter ends with a brief reflection focused around either a metaphor for spiritual mentoring or some useful resource or concept. Metaphors include hospitality, farming, ecology, prayer, and geography. He describes the “core curriculum” mentoring and the work of spiritual mentoring as “disillusionment,” that is the casting aside of our illusions to embrace truth. These short reflections both stand alone, and round out the framework Anderson gives us in this book and were a highlight of the book for me.

The book concludes with a “Mentor’s Library” and several appendices on lectio divina, how spiritual mentors deal with transference and countertransference, discernment questions for choosing a mentor, and dealing with differences between mentor and mentee. The appendix on transference and countertransference seemed to me especially important in dealing with realities other counselors encounter, and the importance for spiritual mentors to have their own mentors and accountability.

In this book, Anderson gives us an account at once practical and yet not prosaic. He helps us understand this deeply human and yet spiritual relationship, and offers wisdom that comes out of a lifetime of being mentored and mentoring. This is a valuable book both for those who mentor and those who seek mentoring.