Alister McGrath is professor of theology, ministry, and education and head of the Centre for Theology, Religion, and Culture at King’s College, London, and president of the Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics. He’s written more books than I care to list here, but this is actually the second recently published book of his that I’ve read in the last 30 days. His C. S. Lewis – A Life was my spring break reading, and now I’ve had the opportunity to read through his Mere Apologetics: How to Help Seekers & Skeptics Find Faith. Read the latter after the former proved interesting since McGrath draws on Lewis quite a bit, and I imagine the writing of these two works overlapped considerably.
Mere Apologetics, like the name suggests, is something similar to Lewis’ Mere Christianity, but for apologetics. As immersed as McGrath was in Lewis’ writings during the writing of this book, it’s not surprising to see the resultant book very much in the spirit of Lewis. As McGrath opens up:
This book is an introduction to apologetics – the field of Christian thought that focuses on the justification of the core themes of the Christian faith and its effective communication to the non-Christian world. It commends a mindset of engagement, encouraging Christians to interact with the ideas of our culture rather than running away from them or pretending they can be ignored. (11)
This book sets out to introduce its readers to the leading themes of apologetics, presenting a basic understanding of its agendas and approaches. I have tried to make this book accessible, interesting, and useful, while giving pointers to more advanced resources that will allow you, the reader, to take things further in your own time. It is not comprehensive, so you will need to supplement it with more advanced and specialized texts. Nor is it committed to any particular school of apologetics. Rather than limiting itself to any one specific school or approach to apologetics, this work draws on their collective riches. (12)
That last point is what makes this book a great introduction to “mere” apologetics. There are things in here that will make presuppositionalists proud, and other things that they’ll find somewhat annoying (see more below). Evidentialists and classicalists alike will find their insights in McGrath’s book. The book then succeeds in McGrath’s aims stated in the second quote and gives readers the “flavor” of the riches that Christian apologetics has to offer. In terms of a brief overview, the opening chapters are very basic. First, McGrath defines apologetics (chapter 1). McGrath sees apologetics involving defending the truth of the gospel, commending the truth and relevance of the gospel to an audience, and translating the core ideas and themes of the Christian faith to an audience unfamiliar with Christian thought. In chapter 2, McGrath tackles the shift of culture from modernity to postmodernity in perhaps the briefest form possible. It is here as well that he outlines his general approach (35-36):
- Understand the faith
- Understand the audience
- Communicate with clarity
- Find points of contact
- Present the whole gospel
- Practice, practice, practice
McGrath comes back to this approach in chapter 8, but before getting there he tackles first the theological basis for apologetics (chapter 3) and the importance of the audience (chapter 4). For the latter, McGrath takes us through Paul’s speeches in Acts, showing how he adapted his presentation, but not his gospel, depending on the audience. After laying this foundation, chapters 4-6 comprise the meat of the book. Unlike God is Dead, a book for seekers, skeptics, and curious Christians that I’ll be offering a review of Thursday, McGrath’s book is for young apologetes who want to learn how to best defend their faith. This section on defense then is giving weapons, but talking to an audience already on-board. McGrath covers in succession the reasonableness of the Christian faith (chapter 5), pointers or clues to faith (chapter 6), and gateways for apologetics (chapter 7). These chapters are the longest and focused on the content of an apologetic defense. His list of clues has a presuppositional flair and is worth listing:
- Clue 1: Creation
- Clue 2: Fine-tuning
- Clue 3: Order
- Clue 4: Morality
- Clue 5: Desire
- Clue 6: Beauty
- Clue 7: Relationality
- Clue 8: Eternity
As McGrath sees it, these are “proofs” that Christianity is true, but rather clues in search of an explanation. In short, they are transcendentals we know exist and that any adequate worldview needs to account for. They are also great apologetic conversation starters. McGrath moves further in chapter 7 to offer four gateways for doing apologetics:
Arguably, the latter two have been ignored for a bit too long, a problem I wanted to remedy with my thesis. Discerning your audience is key here, since some people want a clearly reasoned argument, and others would like a story that captures their imagination. Lewis himself was captured first through his imagination and later through his reason. Reading your audience means knowing what to use when. Finally, the book closes with a chapter where McGrath deals with two common questions about the faith. He does so in a way that doesn’t offer pat answers but guides you through seeing what is actually being asked when people bring up these questions (Why does God allow suffering? Isn’t God just a crutch?) so you can respond appropriately. The final chapter focuses on developing your method and is only a few pages long.
Overall, I think this is a great book if you keep in mind it’s goal. McGrath is not offering extensive apologetic answers and he is not aligning himself with any specific apologetic school. There are a couple of places I could probe a bit deeper into some of the arguments McGrath makes, but I think you get the general overview well enough to form your own conclusions. I come from a strong presuppositional background but I am growing in my appreciation for imagination, because I see how powerful or an entry point that is for people. I tried to connect the two with my approach to movies, and I think McGrath does a good job of a similar suture job here. As a book that gives very practical advice on how to do apologetics, this book is a must read!
- Author: Alister McGrath
- Title: Mere Apologetics: How to Help Seekers & Skeptics Find Faith
- Publisher: Baker Books (January 1, 2012)
- Paperback 208 pgs
- Reading Level: General Audience
- Audience Appeal: Anyone looking for a non-technical introduction to apologetic method
- Gratis Review Copy: Yes (courtesy of Baker Books)
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