A Different Approach to Apologetics

With apologies to popular apologetics today, I have never found them as helpful as they claim to be. From what I have seen, they attempt through proofs and logic to prove that Christianity is the best and most reasonable religion, and that the Bible is the only and most perfect holy book. There is a place for all of this, of course; having logical reason to see the Bible as true is essential to helping the Christian witness. But insofar as the discipline of apologetics have presented Christianity as a religion, I have not found it satisfying.

Recently, though, I have been reading an interpretation of René Girard’s theories by Gil Bailie, and suddenly it made so much more sense. Bailie gives a Christian apologetic by presenting the gospel of Christ as the thing that came from Heaven to destroy religion, not simply another religion. Here is a rough summary of some of Bailie’s argument:

Religion is a complex animal that performs many societal tasks. In the area of conflict and violence, religion–especially primitive religion–plays a very specific role. Generally speaking, it takes the violence inherent in society, which is mostly cyclical and subject to mimesis, and makes a system out of it. It blesses certain kinds of violence, condemns others as profane, and creates rituals and myths that help tell the story of that society from the perspective of those who created the given religion. The “profane” violence is utterly despised, and “sacred” or simply “good” violence is used in attempts to straighten society out–again, though, from the perspective of those creating the religious system. The myths that are created come, in the minds of the religion’s adherents, to be believed as accurate “history,” even though they only tell one side of the story, obscuring every other.

In a religious society such as this, scapegoating becomes a problem as well, as religionists try to explain away their problems by blaming, and thus sacrificing, persecuting, or killing certain individuals, ethnicities, or societies.

This is pervasive in our world, and can be observed in almost any culture. Into such a system, the gospel message of Christ comes and confounds everything. It preaches grassroots action, taking the side of the poor and oppressed, vindicating the scapegoats, and befriending the prostitutes. It threatens, although fairly subtly, the existing hierarchies, both political and religious. And it clearly has no need for the myths that try to uphold the social system and proclaim the need for violence. It then culminates its message by having its leader die a criminal’s death by crucifixion, but then beats the system of death by coming back to life. Where other stories had presented the society as good and those who died as evil, or deserving of their fate, the gospel message presents God as taking that exact role of scapegoat, the one who took the violence of the system upon Himself. This is not simply another myth; no, this is the anti-myth, the anti-religion. Christ and His apostles did not simply seek to re-regulate society, control violence, and form new political and ethnic myths. They taught emphatically that that time is over, and the followers of this new faith are to reject the old system that is based on domination.

Other systems of belief, of course, have claimed to be the anti-religion, the answer to religious destruction. Various modern and postmodern philosophies fit this bill, hoping to be able to set right the world and enlighten it, free it from the bondage of religion. But these systems themselves have become enslaved to the most destructive tendencies of primitive religion, because they have not managed, as the gospel has, to turn upside-down the worldly assumptions of domination, scapegoating, and ethnocentricity. In a very real way, then, the Christian gospel is not simply the best and most reasonable religion to believe in; it is rather the only entity in this world that has true power to destroy religion once and for all. Such is the power of the gospel.

I should point out before I finish that I do not see this as replacing all other apologetic arguments, nor do I see this as capturing the totality of the Christian faith. I do, though, see the ideas of Girard and Bailie to be vindicating and stimulating as I have delved deeper into Christianity.

Comments (7)

  1. TimN

    Well said, Nathan. I read Bailie’s Violence Unveiled two years ago and found it to be an inspiring vision of Christianity. You’ve summarized his thesis succinctly and clearly. I hadn’t thought of him as an apologist, but your right.

    The one part of your argument that I might disagree with is this:

    It threatens, although fairly subtly, the existing hierarchies, both political and religious

    I don’t think Jesus was very subtle about threatening existing hierarchies. He saved his most biting insults and tirades for the Sadducees and Pharisees. Matthew 23 is at the core of his refutation of the existing religious system and its scapegoating, violence and opression. In it Jesus calls the religious leaders snakes, vipers, sons of hell, blind guides, blind fools, whitewashed tombs and hypocrites (6 times). The end of the chapter is his lament over Jerusalem that “kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” (all references NRSV). The whole chapter is a good reminder that the Jesus meek and mild that Sunday School drummed into us isn’t really the whole picture.

    I’m currently reading Binding the strong man : a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus by Ched Myers and his reading of Mark squarely places a challenge to the symbolic order represented by the Jewish religious leaders of his day and its labeling of people as clean and unclean. This Ched Myers quote from Wikipedia sums up his argument well:

    Jesus calls for an end to the entire cultic system – symbolised by his overturning of the stations used by (lepers Mark 1:44 and women Mark 5:25-34). They represented the concrete mechanisms of oppression within a political economy that doubly exploited the poor and unclean. Not only were they considered second class citizens, but the cult obliged them to make reparation, through sacrifices, for their inferior status – from which the marketers profited … Jesus utterly repudiates the temple state, which is to say the entire socio-symbolic order of Judasim. His objections have been consistently based upon one criterion: the system’s exploitation of the poor … The “mountain” mut be “moved”, not restored.

    The book is dense, but I’d highly recommend it as a second source for a system of alternative apologetics that explains Christianity’s core as a challenge to the political and religious status quo throughout history.

  2. Nathan Eanes

    Hey Tim,
    Thanks for the book rec. I’ll definitely have to look it up.

  3. eric

    Nathan and Tim,

    It’s a great thought, but there’s a jump here that I don’t follow:

    …these systems themselves have become enslaved to the most destructive tendencies of primitive religion, because they have not managed, as the gospel has, to turn upside-down the worldly assumptions of domination, scapegoating, and ethnocentricity.

    From your early talk of the religious society, it sounded like we were talking about the societies of religions, the institutions, not the texts they are based on. Can we really claim that Christian society has gotten past the enslavement of destructive tendencies of primitive religion listed above? I see that in Jesus, but it’s a huge stretch to claim that for the church – either the global christian church as a whole, or the now-also-global mennonite church past or present. (see the crusades, slavery, gender and orientation discrimination, and on and on)

    Given that – a church succumbed to primitive tendencies of domination, scapegoating, and ethnocentricity – are we not called to follow Jesus in his response to a very similar situation? Jesus did not go out to the Gentiles with apologetics of any sort, but went directly to the outcasts, taking kind words, and directly to the church leadership with angry words. even insults! (I have a feeling “brood of vipers” is not a very kind thing to say. Doesn’t lend towards dialogue around the issues in question.)

    Wow was Jesus not good at dialogue and committee discernment and listening carefully to the other side. Jesus wasn’t mediating anyone or anything, Jesus was in the temple overturning the tables.

    This is not a rant against mediation – which plays a very important role in instances of misunderstanding and conflict between equals – but against the assumption that mediation would be appropriate in instances of institutionalized abuse, violence, domination and scapegoating. We wouldn’t dare suggest mediation for victims of domestic abuse or rape, let’s not suggest it for victims of religious or cultural abuse either. Let’s hold “take back the church” rallies and fight for change with everything we have.

  4. Nathan Eanes

    Excellent thoughts. I should have included a discussion of the Church, and Christendom as a whole, in this post, because I see how it is confusing.

    First of all, you are totally right about Christendom not being above, or out of, the cycle of domination, myth, and superstition. Neither is the Mennonite Church. This is because, as Gil Bailie argues, history is (at least in part) an epic struggle between myth (as described in the post) and the gospel of Jesus. Within the Christian Church, there is that same struggle. We still have mythology, domination, and untruth within our midst. We will never kick that habit until Jesus returns. But the gospel gives us a glimmer of hope that tells us that it is possible to get past those barriers.

    In reference to sacred texts: I would say, following Bailie’s lead, that the New Testament is the only text in the world that is truly non-religious, that really turns this myth on its head and shows us God’s truth. That doesn’t mean that Christianity is perfect– far from it– but it does mean that we have a basis for beginning our move towards enlightenment. Every other religious text, on the other hand, tends to affirm (to some extent) mythology, superstition, domination, scapegoating, and the myth of redemptive violence. Islam, Judaism, Hinduism… you can see it in all of their texts, from what I have studied. This is not an attempt to get down on all other religions, but to show that they all have the same limitation. Christianity, as the only non-religion, shows the only way out of this mess, even though our churches and the Bible are flawed. God can work through flawed entities.

    So, I agree 100%: we must challenge our Church, worldwide, just as Jesus did. The Church suffers from the same problems as other entities within humanity, and we must not be afraid to call a spade a spade!

  5. carl

    hi Nathan et al,

    I’m jumping into the conversation a little late here, but I have real problems with this. If we’re “calling a spade a spade”, what I see here are some good ideas about the meaning of Jesus’ death, mixed in with a Christian exceptionalist myth that I find arrogant, ignorant, unsubstantiated, and very destructive.

    I haven’t read Bailie or Girard (both are sitting on my shelf back in Goshen, waiting for “someday” to arrive), so I’m only responding to what I’m reading here and don’t know how well it reflects their writings.

    I have read Walter Wink’s trilogy on the Powers (he draws quite a lot from Bailie and Girard) and I really liked his analysis of Jesus’ upside-down kingdom vs. the Domination System. Wink takes apart a particular set of Babylonian myths of Jesus’ time to point out how they reflect beliefs in domination and redemptive violence that are certainly common throughout human history. Then he contrasts that set of beliefs with the moral code of Jesus’ upside-down kingdom. All of that makes lots of sense to me (though it has been awhile since I read Wink, so I really should go back and see if I read it the same way now, or find more in it that I object to).

    But. My neighbors and friends here at Pine Ridge are indigenous people, survivors of the invasion of North America by “Christian” Europeans and the subsequent attempted genocide of the indigenous people of this continent. Many of my friends here practice their traditional spirituality — what some might (arrogantly and insultingly) label “primitive religion.” They don’t follow Jesus (though some Native people I know find Jesus himself to be right in line with their beliefs — it’s Jesus’ followers they tend to have a problem with). Yet somehow their (Jesus-free) way of life has caused relatively little destruction to people and the earth over the past two thousand years, in stark contrast to the actions of people who’ve been claiming to follow Jesus.

    So what are we to make of this? I’ll tell you what I make of it. Let us by all means, as Christians, learn to really practice in our lives, in every way, the upside-down ethics and politics of Jesus. Let us by all means, as Christians, remove the massive logjam from our own collective eye long before we make more foolish statements about how our tradition is the only “anti-myth” or “anti-religion,” the only tradition that has the secret of love instead of scapegoating. This is in contrast to, apparently, every other culture or spiritual tradition in the entire world, since we have apparently studied them — all of them — in depth, and have determined that every single one is inherently and fundamentally inferior to ours (despite all the evidence of history bearing witness to the contrary).

    Any apologetic that “attempt[s] through proofs and logic to prove that Christianity is the best and most reasonable religion, and that the Bible is the only and most perfect holy book” is, in my mind, arrogant balderdash. And no matter how much I agree with Bailie’s take on Jesus, to whatever extent he is trying to do the same, it’s just more arrogant balderdash.

    Can we appreciate the wisdom of Jesus with a little bit of humility, and leave the arrogant balderdash behind?

  6. Pingback: Purpose of Religion « Beyond Rivalry

  7. Christoper Tennett

    Very Good post man Thanks

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