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The One, The Many And The Few: Shadow Apologetics

  • Bayard Taylor Author
  • Published Mar 01, 2006
The One, The Many And The Few: Shadow Apologetics

In the adventure comedy “City Slickers,” the grimy, gristled, rough-and-tough cowboy Curly slowly raises his index finger in a gnarly old leather glove and proceeds to expound on the meaning of life. “The secret,” he says, “is one thing, but you have to find that one thing for yourself.” Curly won’t say, or even hint, at what that one thing is.

Was it gold? Guns? God? The people in the audience are left guessing, wondering, and perhaps asking themselves, What is the one thing? What is my one thing? Great questions for all of us to ponder.

The Bible actually agrees with Curly. There is really only one thing that we need. Here’s how the psalmist put it. “One thing I have asked from the Lord, that I will seek; That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life...”(Psalm 27:4) Jesus told Martha, who was getting on Mary’s case for not helping with dinner preparations, “Only one thing is necessary.” (Luke 10:42) Jesus told the rich young ruler, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” (Mark 10:21; Luke 18:22)

The one thing is not mere head knowledge – it is experience. The blind man Jesus healed said he didn’t know whether Jesus was a sinner or not, but  “One thing I do know...though I was blind, now I see.” (John 9:25) The apostle Paul used slightly different words to say the same thing when he told the Corinthians: “For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” (1 Cor. 2:2) Paul’s one thing was bound up with the message of the cross and the signs and wonders produced by the Holy Spirit, proving that Christ had been raised from the dead and was reigning from heaven. Later Paul, admitting that he was anything but perfect, said, “One thing I do...I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:13-14, emphasis added)

This one thing is what all of us want in our deepest heart of hearts, that part of us which is the image of God calling out to our Creator. It’s what most youth group leaders and pastors want their people dearly to experience and appreciate. And unfortunately, it’s something many people miss.

The whole idea of one thing hints at a tension in the spiritual life between faith (pursuing Jesus, loving God, being sensitive to the Holy Spirit) and knowledge (trying to systematically figure things out and logically fit them together). This tension goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden, where God told Adam and Eve they could eat of any tree, including the tree of life, but they were not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Immediately the broad permission became an obsessive prohibition, and Adam and Eve decided to put knowledge first rather than trusting God.

This tension plays out in what we might call the faith-apologetics continuum. At one pole you have faith, the spiritual, one thing mentality that – with support from Curly and the Bible – says we really only need to concentrate on the one thing; everything else is peripheral or downright distracting. This attitude can lead to intellectual laziness.

At the other pole you have an intellectual, many things mentality that – appealing to wisdom and the intellectual tradition of the Church – seeks to prove the rational certitude of Christian faith; everything needs to be relentlessly logical. This attitude can lead to intellectual snobbery.

It seems that in the churches people are usually heavily leaning toward one or the other of these poles. What perspectives can be brought to this state of affairs?

First, let’s remind ourselves of the Bible’s recommendation to us to get wisdom (Prov. 16:16; 23:23); Paul’s effort to meet the Athenians on their own terms (Acts 17:16-34; 1 Cor. 9:19-23) and of the best of Christian thinking through history. If we want to bring the gospel to people effectively, we don’t want to be unprepared.

But how prepared? Do you have to know exactly where people are coming from? Is it necessary to know all the ins and outs of their strange readings of the Bible or their clever arguments against the existence of God? Before you share the faith with a Hindu or Muslim, shouldn’t you have extensive knowledge of their religions? If you answer yes to these questions, apologetics (giving answers for why you believe) will quickly become a monstrous scholarly effort, with tons of difficult books to read and ideas to memorize. It’ll like cramming for finals or a knowledge quiz, or like preparing to crush your opponents in debate.

Another, subtler problem emerges. The message may come across that since apologetics is such an important thing to master, if you don’t want to do all this work, if you have other spiritual interests or gifts, or if you simply aren’t cut out for it, you are somehow inadequate or just not as committed as you should be as a believer. Shame on you! for not devoting yourself to know a whole lot about a whole lot.

As a new Christian I tried the apologetics route while clinging to the one thing. There were some benefits. Apologetics helped satisfy me that the Christian faith is not based on fable and it’s not throwing your mind out the window. I like apologetics. Churches needs apologists and their gifts.

But massive apologetic knowledge isn’t for everybody. It took me a longer than I’d like to admit, but eventually I figured out I wasn’t as smart as the guys who were really good at apologetics. So I began looking for a way to keep my eye on the prize and not go crazy trying to turn myself into a Christian Einstein.

I came up with this: Affirm the one thing, but realize you don’t have to know a million things. Learn just a few things well.

This approach isn’t traditional apologetics. Rather than focusing on body-slamming unbelievers into submission with the total competence of black-belt verbal jujitsu, honed by years of dedication and single-minded training, the goal is to understand the basic underlying structures of how people think.

To do this you need to understand the concept of worldview. All the thousands of philosophies, religions, truth-systems and conceptual worlds boil down to just a few worldviews. Catch on to the basic worldviews and their rules, and you’re ahead of the game.

A worldview approach fully accepts that all people have a common humanity; that none of us has all the answers; that what we know is conditioned by our worldviews and our faith in our worldviews; and that nothing we can do can change that.

It also assumes that if you know someone else’s worldview, you can be much more empathetic toward that person, and you can listen better. Rather than mere speech-making or making your debating points, you can have genuine conversations, you can better earn the right to be heard, you can communicate your ideas better, and you can potentially be a better friend.

So, what should this approach be called?

I’ve toyed with and rejected Dadaist Apologetics. This name is attractive, fun and iconoclastic, but it conveys too much contempt for tradition. Here’s what I mean: recently a Frenchman was convicted of defacing a public urinal that Marcel Duchamp had declared back at the turn of the 20th century to be a “work of art.” Duchamp was one of the leaders of the Dadaists, a movement that mocked conventional standards in art, thought and morality. The man, who had taken a sledgehammer to the urinal – once in 1991 and once recently – actually pleaded in his own defense: “This was a wink at Dadaism. . .I wanted to pay homage to the Dada spirit.”

In other words, the Frenchman with the sledgehammer defaced “art” that wasn’t art, but had been called “art” by anti-artists (and later, in their honor, by the government) who themselves were trying to destroy art as it had been practiced up until that time and put in its place a new form of “art.” Did you follow that?

Me, I’m not out to destroy whatever has come before.

I thought of the name anti-apologetics, but that has the same problem as Dadaism. I’m not against apologetics, I’m just trying to find an apologetics for the rest of us who aren’t complete I.Q. studs.

I like Minimalist Apologetics. It gets at the idea that you don’t have to know everything, but just a few things. It also dovetails with some of the themes I develop in Blah, Blah, Blah.

But in the end I’m settling for Shadow Apologetics**. I’m trying to throw the spotlight on worldviews – that aspect of apologetics that’s so often in the shadows. It’s kind of like “drawing on the right side of the brain.” To do this you have to put your mind in a place where it looks at things from all sides, including the “negative space.” You don’t just draw the line of a person’s cheek; you also try to pay attention to and draw what’s not there, like the hollow part of the cheek or the space behind the cheek as it disappears from your vantage point. Shadow Apologetics forces us to concentrate on things that operate beneath the threshold of consciousness most of the time.

Shadow apologetics can be frustrating for someone who’s into traditional apologetics because it often involves deflecting people away from typical patterns of thought in order to bring their hidden worldview assumptions out in the open. This process is both unnerving and enlightening. It’s unnerving because it takes you on a journey into unfamiliar territory; it’s enlightening because it helps you gain perspective and understand better the essentials of each worldview.

Shadow Apologetics is the method behind my book Blah, Blah, Blah. With that book and the website blahblahbook.com I hope I can teach myself and others to stay focused on the one thing (the “one”), to avoid the discouragement – or the conceit – of trying to know too much (the “many”), and to learn a few things well (the “few”).

Bayard Taylor is the author of the upcoming book Blah, Blah, Blah: Making Sense of the World's Spiritual Chatter (Bethany House, April 2006). Taylor holds an M.Div. with an emphasis in cross-cultural studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He spent four years working with Campus Crusade for Christ and currently is Senior Editor of Biblical and Theological Issues at Gospel Light/Regal Books. Bayard has also edited such bestselling books as So What's the Difference? by Fritz Ridenour and Fasting for Spiritual Breakthrough by Elmer Towns.


**Jennifer Cullis came up with this creative term as we discussed an early draft of this paper.