Monday, June 10, 2013

Myron Penner and "Apologetic Violence"

I just became aware of a forthcoming book by Myron Bradley Penner, The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context (Baker Academic, 2013). The book's description from Amazon reads:
The modern apologetic enterprise, according to Myron Penner, is no longer valid. It tends toward an unbiblical and unchristian form of Christian witness and does not have the ability to attest truthfully to Christ in our postmodern context. In fact, Christians need an entirely new way of conceiving the apologetic task.

This provocative text critiques modern apologetic efforts and offers a concept of faithful Christian witness that is characterized by love and grounded in God's revelation. Penner seeks to reorient the discussion of Christian belief, change a well-entrenched vocabulary that no longer works, and contextualize the enterprise of apologetics for a postmodern generation.
The book caught my eye given an interview with the author by Peter Enns at his blog. One section of the interview is particularly striking in one section where the author discusses the idea of "apologetic violence." When this happens on a personal level, Penner defines this as "apologetic arguments [that] are used to treat people badly...When they are used to demean, ridicule, show-up, or hurt another person in any way, I call that a form of violence."

The term apologetic violence may push the issue too far, and I'm more comfortable with a term like "predatory apologetics," but the idea is the same and I agree with his basic premise. In my view Evangelicals engage in apologetic violence, no matter how well meaning and "evangelistic," when they engage in apologetic argument or doctrine over person, or when they engage in identity contestation through confrontational "preaching" in the sacred spaces of others, whether among Mormons at General Conference and various  pageants, or among Muslims at the annual Arab American International Festival in Dearborn, Michigan. Instead, Penner offers an alternative, a form of apologetichs which he calls “person-preserving” and that "involves Gabriel Marcel’s concept of sympathy, which propounds a fundamental concern with others as persons, not things."

Penner also discusses apologetic violence on a social level, such as
when Christian apologetic practice merely reinforces and defends a given set of power relations operative within an unjust social structure. We then overlook real people and proclaim to them the “truths” of the gospel packaged in “universal” concepts and categories (as well as practices) to which they cannot relate in any personal way and which have often played some role in their mistreatment or exploitation.
I am sensitive to this as well, and in some of my conversations with Pagans I have been reminded that this may also be playing out among Evangelicals in regard to minority religions in America.

Regardless of whether readers agree with Penner's overall thesis, his forthcoming book includes elements that sound tantalizing and worthy of thought by reflective Evangelicals.


Charles Randall Paul said...

I prefer this title to this subject: A New Apologetics and I agree that violence is used to describe any attempted coercion which diminishes its intensity. Coercive apologetics would be a better choice and could be juxtaposed with persuasive apologetics. The New Apologetics is one that seeks MUTUAL contamination and influence. It is fully committed to speaking the truth, but just as committed to hearing the other's testimony of truth. It also presumes that human voices can only speak and hear truth as they understand it. Their thoughts are not identical to God's--requiring humility in any human interpretation.

Unknown said...

@Charles Randall Paul: If I would be so bold I would venture to say that Penner is drawing on Slavoj Zizek's more nuanced conception of violence, where we find violence happening passively or implicitly "behind the curtain" of our actions or words. It's all well and good to say something like "A New Apologetics" in attempt to change the way we understand arguing for the faith. Yet when we get caught up in arguments about what apologetics means I think we too often simply broaden the definition beyond its colloquial use. "Apologetics" within the modern context is bogged down in a very long, well defined tradition that often cannot conceive of ethical imperatives within the paradigm in which it operates. Whether he's right or not I believe "Apologetic Violence" sidesteps any typical argument over the meaning of apologetics or any attempt to make the practice of apologetics more benign than it all too often has been. This to say nothing of the clear ethical import "violence" contains: possibly we should take more seriously the ethics behind foolish theology.

Thanks Charles, thanks John! Great read. :)

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Penner is the master of false dichotomies. The universal truths are those that set individuals free. Christianity gives arguments made in love. That is my goal; yet he attacks me and accuses me of "apologetic violence." He should actually read my books, such as Christian Apologetics, and the section, "the character of the Christian Apologist."

John W. Morehead said...

Doug, thanks for stopping by my blog as a result of your comments on Facebook about Penner. I obviously disagree in my assessment of this volume. While he did offer critiques of you and other Evangelical apologists in terms of approach and assumptions, he didn't attack you or anyone else. And his section on apologetic violence was clearly defined and I don't see a conflict with your intentions, only the approach that is common to much of Evangelical countercult apologetics where there does seem to be an ethical problem in regards to apologetic arguments as Penner defines it.

Penner gives evidence of having read "actually read" your books and those of other apologists, so your concerns here miss the mark. You are certainly free to disagree with Penner, but your critique of his critique must be more accurate in how you understand and describe it.