William Edgar teaches apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary and has written books on music and Christian understanding.
How did you come to faith? In my sophomore year at Harvard I had a professor who was a Christian. He strongly suggested that I connect with a friend of his, Francis Schaeffer, on a trip I was taking to Switzerland. So in 1964 [in Europe] I pulled this little slip of paper out of my pocket that said, "Francis A. Schaeffer," with a name and address, and I called him up. The Schaeffers urged me to stay for several days, and I thought, "This is really amazing hospitality." When I got there I realized that it was a Christian community with a very strong emphasis on cultural apologetics. I ended up staying the rest of the summer.
At Westminster Theological Seminary you studied with Cornelius Van Til. Why is he so important to Christian apologetics? Van Til is considered to be the leading exponent of "presuppositionalism," an apologetic that looks at issues of the heart and worldview, rather than simply amassing great doses of evidence that are presented as though facts were neutral. Van Til was very favorable to evidence but it had to be in a framework. I took that ball and ran with it into the area of culture studies, and now I teach cultural apologetics.
You say that "culture" is never neutral, but always driven by religious commitments. What we call the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:21 and following says that as image-bearers of God we are to populate, replenish, and subdue the earth. In the subduing of the world we're doing culture. We are cultural beings because of that first mandate. Despite the Fall it has not been abrogated; it's been redefined in Christ in His Great Commission. For me, culture is central to the way we think and move and have our being. Apologetics that simply take tight philosophical arguments, dump them on people, and then simply wait to see if they can say "uncle" or not, are not very effective. First of all, not all of us are philosophers; second, it doesn't reach into heart commitments, which is where the issues of life are. It's not how bright I am and whether I can think through a problem that is going to lead me to Christ. It's whether I have the kind of information, wisdom, and preaching that will challenge my deepest assumptions and lead me to Christ.
The idea that facts aren't neutral sounds a little postmodern. Is that true? Yeah, there's good and bad in the so-called postmodern condition. The good is that there's much more recognition of heart commitments, positions, and faith. For that reason, religion has been more recognized and given a better catalyst for faith than when I was growing up, when it was much more modern and science had supposedly refuted the Bible, and so forth. But the tradeoff is that heart commitments aren't neutral either. A postmodern mindset can fall into the purely relativistic idea of, you believe what you believe, I believe what I believe, and we can live with each other. Hard-core relativism is just as destructive as modernism.
But postmodernism at least allows religion to have a place at the table. . . . You have to be deeply aware of the shape of the table when you come to it. Being invited to the table in a negative way could be, "Let's bring the Christian along in fairness," or, "He's got his point of view and we've got ours, and let's see if we can get to a lower common denominator." Just having a place at the table doesn't necessarily do away with the relativism.
You talk about the role that Christianity played in the development of African-American music. . . . I think the best African-American music comes out of the church. As you know, enslaved Africans came over to North America beginning in the early 17th century, and by the 18th century the numbers were just appalling. The horrors are very hard to describe-only about half the people survived the trip, and those who did were separated from each other and bought and sold. Into this mix comes a remarkable wave of evangelism, both from white and black sources and ministries.
Slaves responded, right? In huge numbers, and the remarkable historical miracle is that they were able to differentiate between the Jesus who was preached and the lifestyle of the preacher, who was often OK with slavery. When they became Christians they gave back this marvelous form of music and worship, and other innovations, to their former oppressors. It's one of the great miracle stories of history.
What did they sing? The black sermon, which came out of the King James Bible, begins in a speech-like manner and then goes into singing, with instruments supporting. The congregation doesn't just listen-they help you along with amens and "fix it, brother" and all sorts of wonderful responses. So it's an antiphonal call and response pattern. Music was sung responsively because people like Isaac Watts were helping to develop music by "lining it out." That's a technique where the lead singer would sing the first line of the psalm, and the congregation would sing it back. The Africans were right at home in this.
The African-American aesthetic came out of spirituals? The African-American aesthetic is the narrative that moves from deep sorrow into inextinguishable joy. That's found in all good jazz, and all good blues, and all good spirituals. There's a passionate, poignant suffering that reflects the deep misery of slavery. There are lots of ties with ancient Israel, enslaved in Egypt. And then there's this liberation, emancipation, the joy of freedom that was the experience of the Israelites and ultimately Jesus and the apostles. That aesthetic found its way into Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, all the greats.
And what's the background of the blues? While spirituals address God in worship and admiration and encourage the congregation, blues is about life in general: the hardship of work, the unfaithfulness of a man who goes after another woman, the lack of charity of the foreman who dresses up nice on Sunday and brings out the bullwhip on Monday. Blues crystallized into the form A A B, you know, "I hate to see that evening sun go down, oh I hate to see that evening sun go down, for my man has done left this town." It's not at all unlike biblical Hebrew poetry, which is parallelism. . . . Ecclesiastes is a blues book because it doesn't have a happy end. Job never found out exactly why he suffered. I hope this doesn't sound irreverent, because I think it's really beautiful: the most poignant blues singer and the most poignant blues ever sung was Jesus in the garden. "If this cup can be taken away from Me"-that's blues. He knew it couldn't, but He was wailing to God.
To hear Henry Bleattler's complete interview with William Edgar, click here.