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Open-Handed Apologetics

OS Guinness believes that having truth is not good enough. He believes that simply “sharing the gospel” or presenting airtight arguments for God will not convince people to have faith in Jesus. He says there needs to be a creative element to presentations of truth that appeal to beauty and creativity as well as logic and science. He says we need to add a convincing element to our presentation of the truths of scripture and I, for one, have been persuaded.

Guiness starts Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion by giving a story of an interaction he had with Norman Mailer. He witnessed how a man that was degrading to women was still able to capture the attention of a mostly feminist crowd by kicking it off with a joke. In a situation in which an entire group did not want to listen to his speech he was able to disarm them and cause them to be more open to hear his claims.[1] This is just one example of what Guiness defines as creative persuasion.

Guinness contrasts what is termed closed hand apologetics (the approach most people are familiar with) with that of open handed apologetics. Closed hand means utilizing the best of our knowledge in the areas of logic, science, reason, philosophy, ethics, and history to make the case for God’s existence that are as convincing as possible. This approach refutes objections and makes cases for what one believes.

On the other side an open-handed approach uses different tools to convince. This approach uses “all the highest strengths of human creativity in the defense of the truth” as Guinness says. This includes creating good art, writing beautiful stories, creating intriguing videos, or using the common philosophers of our day (like comedians and musicians) to display the ridiculousness of false viewpoints.

Not Secular Knockoffs

Now some will hear this and immediately think that means we create art with an agenda. Or that there should be a higher volume of art that has some over-arching and explicit message. Christian creativity is oft sacrificed at the altar of the salvation narrative that seems to be necessary for most content creation. Hank Hill summarized it best in an episode of King of the Hill when he told his son Bobby, who had been exploring the hype version of pop Christianity, “Can’t you see you’re not making Christianity any better, you’re just making rock ‘n roll worse.”

This is not a call for pigeon-holing Christian artists into making their art explicitly apologetic but rather for these apologetic messages to be more creative. This approach calls for those who craft presentations and defenses of the gospel to not recite facts as if they alone convince the human heart to change.

When art is created only to push a message or just to make it relevant than much is sacrificed. This can be “Christian” art or overly content driven messages. For example this is what makes some people appreciate an older album by Lupe Fiasco but think that his newer content (which is clearly more message driven) is not as artful.

However, a sweet spot exists where art and message blend beautifully to create a persuasive message that stirs the heart and moves people into action. From Bob Dylan to Public Enemy to hearing “We Gon Be Alright” being chanted by #BlackLivesMatter protesters  it’s clear that art can influence cultures when created excellently.

These songs as well as visual artists have been able to speak to culture and have a persuasive presence. Now if they were simply aiming at a strictly fact driven message set to simplistic music this would not have had the same effect. If people did not enjoy the visuals aesthetics then no one would care what Banksy says. If Marvin Gaye had a bad singing voice and a terribly written song then people would not care “What’s Going On.” The quality of work matters when viewing the trajectory of its popularity. If it’s not good then people just won’t care.

Heart and Head

The problem in much of modern apologetics is not primarily a matter of scholarship. In the fields of philosophy and apologetics the Christian worldview has made a strong impact. By the presence of such apologists such as Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, JP Moreland, Ravi Zacharias, to name a few.

If this is the case, then what’s the disconnect? If strong, rational cases are being made then shouldn’t a wave of belief in God be on the rise?

This brings us back to where we started. Many of us who interact in the world of apologetics need to understand that appealing to the imagination is just as important as appealing to the intellect.There are many who are apathetic about truth until it is creatively brought to their attention.

When I use the word imagination I do not mean things made up in our mind or daydreaming. Rather I mean the underlying conscious part of our selves that forms all of our ideas, desires, and longings. James K.A. Smith referred to this as the way in which we navigate the world primarily through aesthetic forms.[2] The imagination being better described as the central portion of our hearts which guides all others.

For example William Wilberforce labored tirelessly against the evils of the slave trade in Great Britain. People could hear his words all day long but they weren’t moved until he forced the politicians of his day to see a ship that was being used for the trade. They now could smell the death and see the conditions that others were put under. He also enlisted others who had been on those ships to speak out at congressional hearings.

Wilberforce was not satisfied with merely a transfer of information. He wanted them to feel the full weight of what they were voting for. He wanted them to see, taste, and feel the evils of the choices they were making. He recognized that a factual argument alone would not convince their hearts (which loved money) but their head (which can believe one thing and love another). An appeal to the imagination was needed.

Our Messages

Antoine de Saint-Exupery is credited with saying, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Whether we are trying to craft messages that persuade in a pastoral sense, through the written word, or perhaps in a particular art form, we must appeal to people’s hearts and imaginations as well as their minds. There is no “Solus Intellectus” that demands we appeal only to head but not the heart.

Jesus used various methods to communicate timeless truths to people who were indifferent to him. If we want to persuade others of the attractiveness of our gospel we should use our entire God given creativity hand in hand with our logic and rationality to aid us in being a public witness for Christ.

[1] Guinness, Os. Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2015. 1.
[2] Smith, James K. A. Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013. 36.

Kevin Garcia is married to a beautiful woman, Miriam Garcia, and is a senior at SAGU. He will be continuing his studies in seminary afterwards particularly to study in the areas of philosophy, theology, social issues, and apologetics. He is passionate about seeing God work in urban contexts and examining the worldviews that influence people. He serves in a variety of areas at his church including teaching and preaching at LifePoint Church in the OakCliff neighborhood of Dallas, TX. Follow him on Twitter at: @kevingarcia__