Author: Justin Ariel Bailey
Publisher: IVP Academic
Publishing Date: October 13, 2020
Pages: 272 (Paperback)
Just a few weeks ago, in one of my courses, we were discussing Augustine’s Confessions. We had focused in on his famous line: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” One student, obviously captivated by this line, noted almost despondently that, while it was a wonderfully rich sentiment that had profound meaning for her as a Christian, we couldn’t ever begin a conversation with a non-Christian this way. She asserted that we first have to show them Christianity is true before we can get into the way we experience faith.
That sentiment was shared among many of her peers in my classroom that evening. Convict someone of the veracity of Christianity, then we’ll talk about the experience, desire, or joy of faith—as Justin Bailey refers to it, the “felt sense of a worldview” (11). Such an apologetic strategy, what Bailey refers to as “Uppercase Apologetics” (5) or “truth-oriented apologetics” (57), has been quite common among many evangelicals and certainly has merit. But is commending and demonstrating the factual truth of Christianity the only way to practice apologetics?
In Reimagining Apologetics: The Beauty of Faith in a Secular Age, Bailey contends that this practiced form of apologetics—while not unimportant—does not exhaust apologetics. In fact, only focusing on the intellect can create an imbalance in apologetic practice. “Rationality and truth are essential,” he writes, “but in our context, the prior necessity is a demonstration of faith’s generativity and beauty” (10). Thus, Bailey invites readers into a reimagined apologetic—one that is not unconcerned with the factual basis of Christianity, but begins with imagination, drawing upon the beauty and wonder of the gospel, and is rooted in a steadfast assurance of God’s active presence and work in every nook and cranny of his creation.
A reimagined, imaginative apologetic, Bailey argues, is particularly important in our time. Drawing on the penetrating insights of Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, Bailey is keenly attuned to the social imaginary of our day, an “age of authenticity” (8). One of the key aspects of this age is the “internal call to compose an original life”; in other words, our focus on authenticity “has become the very air we breathe” (26). If we are going to communicate the good news of the gospel in such an age, Bailey contends, we cannot ignore the defining marks of the time. Instead, we must find ways for the gospel to meet our particular context. Including an apologetic strategy invites someone into an imaginative exploration of the feeling of faith and responds to desire and the aesthetic appeal of Christianity. In his affirmation of an apologetic that begins with imagination, Bailey offers a compelling witness for our time and shows his central conviction: “the good news of Jesus Christ can be communicated in the logic of authenticity without compromising its integrity” (26) for, “God may be more present in the quest for authenticity than we think” (8).
In his quest to both ground and describe a reimagined apologetic, Bailey draws on a multitude of philosophical, theological, and literary voices, from Charles Taylor to Alvin Plantinga, Friedrich Schleiermacher to Karl Barth, and George MacDonald to Marilynne Robinson. This rich array of thinkers is brought together by a robust Calvinist theology that runs through the entire work—sometimes functioning as a quiet backbone (as in Bailey’s consistent use of a “creation-fall-redemption-restoration” framework and key concepts like structure and direction) and sometimes brought to the forefront in thinkers like John Calvin and Herman Bavinck. Bailey’s thoughtful, creative use of these two highlights a different side of Calvinism than is sometimes perceived. While some may think of Calvinism as a particularly heady theological tradition, Bailey draws our attention to the way Calvinism is also attuned to aesthetics and the imagination. Calvin’s sensus divinitatis, for example, helps us understand how we “perceive…glory in the ordinary,” (72) sensing God’s active presence in dewdrops and snowflakes, in the laughter of a tiny child or a mid-afternoon breeze. The scope of God’s revelatory work in Herman Bavinck also reinforces an apologetic, imaginative hope for the way God might stir someone’s longings and imagination. “Revelation,” Bavinck writes, “in its periphery extends to the uttermost of creation” (112). Bailey draws upon a steady assurance of God’s sovereignty and the wideness of God’s revelation to conclude that “whatever imaginings orient our life in the world, they are always in some way (however diminished) responsive to the revelatory initiative” (112). He continues, “common grace and general revelation remain ad hoc and mysterious, a matter of careful discerning and identification;” while they may not “bring about individual salvation,” they “give a foretaste of cosmic salvation, the healing of all creation” (113). As Bailey argues, Calvinism has “something other than ‘tulips’ to offer the wider church” (193); it also provides a “Calvinian imaginative vision” (205) that can sustain and animate a hopeful, imaginative apologetic.
One of the great delights of Reimagining Apologetics is that Bailey not only articulates the basics of an imaginative apologetic, he invites readers themselves to imagine what it might be like to participate in such an approach. With captivating examples from Robinson, MacDonald, and his own experiences, he invigorates our own imaginations for what this approach could look like in workplaces, schools, and other ordinary moments of life. In this, he provides an answer to my student’s despondency over Augustine’s insight that the gospel as the fulfillment of our desire, the antidote to our restlessness might not be one we could share with non-believers. It is, Bailey persuasively argues and gives us language to dive into a re-envisioned apologetic with the questions that explore imagination and desire: “what kind of faith would resonate?”; “what would faith feel like?”; and “what new possibilities would faith facilitate?” (238).
Bailey ends with a winsome challenge to his readers, one of invitation and beauty, not resistance and battle: to tell more beautiful stories, to paint more beautiful pictures (227), to actively seek out the operative desires and hopes in someone’s life, and to see where those might be met, corrected, and fulfilled by the gospel. With the confidence that our cosmic, sovereign, and sustaining God is already at work, Bailey sends us out in hope, to tell the old, old—and beautiful—story of Jesus and his love.