I’d like to start off this column about apologetics with an apology. I apologize to all the people I’ve sat next to on airplanes, occasionally exchanging a few words about going to Atlanta but nary a mention about going to heaven. To be precise, I’m no master of evangelism. Any successes I’ve had in focusing the attention of others on what’s most important have been accidental (seems that way to me) and utterly foreordained (by God).
So, you are getting the following from me as reporter, not the frequent practitioner I should be—and what I can report is that things have changed. God bless the methods of Campus Crusade (excuse me, Cru), but the name change is organizational recognition that we’re no longer in the 1950s and 1960s. That’s when most Americans had only three television channels to choose from and, in essence, three worldview alternatives—Christianity, atheism, or apathy.
From the late 1960s through the early 1990s, UHF and then cable television emerged. Meanwhile, existentialism became more than a French fancy and nihilism more than a German nightmare. Eastern religions started to make inroads. Americans had dozens of TV channels from which to choose, and the apologetic methods of Francis Schaeffer contrasted biblical approaches with dozens of worldviews.
Schaeffer, instead of focusing on the four spiritual laws, proposed that months of study and discussion could lead students to truth, through God’s grace. In The God Who Is There, Escape from Reason, and other books, Schaeffer showed how biblical objectivity is true and reasonable, and the alternative is nothingness and despair. Schaeffer was God’s instrument in changing the lives of hundreds in person, and then hundreds of thousands through books and films.
But change did not stop in the early 1990s. The past two decades have brought us hundreds of channels for specialty interests and millions of different religious choices. That’s because “Sheilaism,” named after a young nurse, has become our national religion. In their 1985 book Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah and Richard Madsen quoted “Sheila” saying, “I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. … It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice. … It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself.”
Bellah and Madsen called Sheilaism “a perfectly natural expression of current American religious life” that created the logical possibility “of over 220 million American religions, one for each of us.” They may have underestimated the quantity—we now have more than 300 million Americans—but were right on the central impulse: To be free from “the dead hand of the past,” with its creeds, confessions, denominations, propositions, and senses of antithesis.
When many young Americans are primarily yearning for freedom, talk about objective truth may swim right by them. That’s why some of the most successful pastors with young people start out not by talking about truth but about freedom. Tim Keller in Manhattan, for example, tells his youthful audience: You may think you’re free, but you’re not. In shunning Christ you have made yourself a slave to money, or sex, or to a particular body image, or success, or … something.
Those who shun Christ embrace slavery of some kind. Those who embrace Christ gain freedom: As Jesus said to the Jews who believed Him, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” The University of Texas at Austin and many other institutions have carved onto administration buildings those words from John 8:32, but I have yet to see on the walls Christ’s follow-ups: “Everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin,” and “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:34, 36).
We need all those verses and we need to get the order right, because truth leads to freedom yet freedom does not necessarily lead to truth. Sadly, college professors these days typically advocate freedom and skip over the means by which we gain it—so students often do the same. That leads to my apologetics question: Is it unproductive to talk about eternal life with young people who don’t yet care about it? Or to talk about Truth with those who don’t think it exists? Why not talk about our shackles and how Christ breaks them?