Sunday, January 15, 2012

Contrastive Apologetics

So last night I started reading The Crescent Through the Eyes of the Cross, by Nabeel Jabbour, and as of now I'm about halfway through it; that's how hard it is to put down. One thing he said wasn't new to me, but I'd never thought about it in this context, and another thing stopped me dead in my tracks for just a few minutes.
  • I'm familiar with the fact that reasoning in syllogisms (B because A, C because B, D because C, so if you believe A, you must believe D) is a very western thinking pattern but not universal, so one common failing in our efforts to preach the gospel is that we package it in a way that doesn't make sense to hearers from other cultures. Far more effective throughout most of the Middle East is narrative reasoning that makes its point indirectly, but unmistakably. Strongest proof of the premise: Jesus didn't reason in syllogisms, but taught in parables. Paul, on the other hand, was all about the syllogism, but his education had a huge root in classical Greco-Roman thinking.
  • The thing that hadn't occurred to me is a question Jabbour says many Muslims ask of Christians: "Why do the Christian nations favor Israel over the Muslim world when Islam is so much closer theologically to Christianity than Judaism? Jews deny that Jesus was the Messiah, and the Talmud even says Jesus is in Hell. Islam accepts that Issa was born of a virgin, did many miracles, and is in Heaven with Allah. Why can't Christians recognize their brothers?"
Put those two together, and here's my answer to both:

There was a family made up of father, mother, and several children, and the mother's father lived in their household. He had not aged gracefully, and was known for his sharp tongue. He denounced the father's work, the mother's decisions, and the children's lessons and games with loud, hurtful language. When guests came to visit, they marveled at the hostility the grandfather showed, and praised the family for taking care of him, even while he made his presence so very unpleasant.

One day, a visitor came from a neighboring town to complete a brief business errand. His parents had been childhood friends of the father and mother, but tragically, were no longer alive. Upon his arrival, everyone was struck by his resemblance to the children. He could easily have been mistaken for their brother! He spent the evening with them, telling stories and enjoying games, and everyone agreed that his nature fit with theirs perfectly. At the end of the evening, he said, "Why don't I simply become part of your family and live here? You can tell everyone that I'm another of your children that was away at school, but returned home to live in the house because of my great love for all of you?"

The mother smiled. "It is a blessing to us that you've visited, and we treasure your friendship, but we have no room here. Our family fills all the rooms in the house."

"But if you were to move your father out, I could take his room," the young man said. "He undercuts everything you do and say, while I am much closer to you in appearance, belief and attitude. I would fit here perfectly. Why not accept me in his place?"

Very, very gently, hoping not to hurt his feelings, the father replied, "Even if my father-in-law's words do not please us, my family would not exist without him. The relationship we have with him is genuine. It is living proof of our family's history. The relationship you propose is based on deceit. You are very near to us, but to tell the world we shared a blood tie would be a lie. We hope always to enjoy your friendship, but friendship with you is not a sufficient reason for us to deny what is."

It's a clumsy first attempt, but at least it doesn't fall into the error of framing the reasoning in a way that will only breed confusion, not understanding.

And that leads me to wonder whether anyone has paid serious attention to contrastive apologetics? Contrastive rhetoric is a fairly young field, having begun in the 1960s with the work of Robert Kaplan, and that makes me curious as to whether anyone has tackled the work of reframing reasoning that clarifies difficult questions in Christian thought in argument patterns that work in different cultures? That might be a research project for this summer.


Isaiah McPeak said...

Both Ray VanderLaan and a great little book called "The Parables" show a Jewish and Eastern look at apologetics and Christianity at all. Jesus was a Jew and many people forget that.

Doyle Srader said...

Thanks, Isaiah! I've read several of Brad Young's books, and enjoyed them all. I also recommend Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, by Kenneth Bailey. I've actually been teaching my college Sunday School class out of it, and Jabbour quotes it approvingly in his book. But I've been on the kick of interfaith arguments between Christians and Jews for a few years now -- Michael Brown's books are just like candy to any Christian who's debated -- but what's fascinating about Jabbour is that the argument structure itsef is different. Rabbinic argument is a little different from mainstream western argument, and my colleague at the University of Oregon, David Frank, is one of the world's leading experts on that. But Jabbour's pointing me in some fascinating directions as far as how to frame arguments for people with entirely different world pictures. I'm late discovering this book; what's interesting to me is whether anyone in the contrastive wing of rhetoric and argument has gone down the road of apologetics.

Isaiah McPeak said...

I'll definitely be getting that book. I've been trying to study the parables and Hebrew logic myself and appreciate the pointer.

My favorite single concept has been from the book "Our Father Abraham" where it discusses the double-truth, which requires a proper understanding of a human's position. It's OK that God being just and merciful at the same time are true and contradictory and still true because there are limitations in who we are to understand these things.

So God is my rock, and my comforter, and my shield, at the same time. But a Hebrew wouldn't try to prove it in syllogism on paper because it doesn't compute that way.

Doyle Srader said...

One other thing you might have a look at:

Frank, David A. "The New Rhetoric, Judaism, and Post-Enlightenment Thought: the Cultural Origins of Perelmanian Philosophy" Quarterly Journal of Speech 83 (1997): 332-350.

His discussion of the ovens of Akhnai is especially good, and pertinent to that same double-truth idea. And he offers up rabbinic argument as an alternative to the postmodern turn, because it doesn't get so hung up on the principle of the excluded middle.