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Lauren F. Winner

Tell Me the Old, Old Story—and Make It New

Apologetics for our time.

You may recall the premise with which C. S. Lewis begins Mere Christianity, that great work of 20th-century apologetics: "First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the world we live in." Lewis spends the next two chapters raising and dispatching with some objections to his axioms, and attempting to establish, by reference to men and to rocks and trees, that although the "Law of Human Nature … must somehow or other be a real thing … it is not a fact in the ordinary sense, in the same way as our actual behaviour is a fact. … [T]here is something above and beyond the ordinary facts of man's behaviour, and yet quite definitely real—a real law, which none of us made, but which we find pressing on us." From there, Lewis goes on to his landmark exposition of Christian belief and practice.

Mere Christianity is a classic. It has touched, and will continue to touch, many thousands of lives. But there is something in Lewis' gambit that strikes the contemporary reader as … a bit dated, a bit inapposite, a bit beside the point. It wouldn't occur to many of today's seekers, today's unchurched, today's pre-Christians—whatever term you choose—to begin their investigation of Christianity with a grid bounded by propositional truths. These spiritually hungry readers are drawn to the Cross not primarily through rational arguments about the veracity of the Gospel, but through story. This explains in part the recent popularity of spiritual memoir. Such readers don't want to be argued into Christianity; they want to come alongside someone else's journey; they want to enter into the story of what God has done in someone's particular life; and they catch the vision of the Gospel there. Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies may open the door to Christianity for readers who would never pick up Mere Christianity. And this interest in memoir dovetails with the increasing appeal of a theology that emphasizes story over propositional truth—hence Stanley Hauerwas' famous quip that we live as Christians because Christianity is the best damn story out there. The contemporary moment is one of experience and narrative, not numbered spiritual laws and ratiocinated tracts.

And yet—do not hear me say that apologetics is a dirty word. It is a good, if unfashionable, word (just as dogma and piety are good, if unfashionable, words). People may be drawn into the Gospel by story, but doctrine remains indispensable. Living into the story is great. But so too is having a handle on the systems and truths that are the skeleton of that story. The question before us is how to play apologetics on a postmodern register (always remembering, too, that generations are not monolithic, and that for some of our contemporaries propositional apologetics is alive and well). If Mere Christianity was the apologetics for the post-World War II era, where, and what, is the apologetics for our era?

One answer to that question is So Much More, a gentle new introduction to Christianity by memoirist and Calvin College English professor Debra Rienstra. In many ways, her book is not that different from Mere Christianity—and that is a great compliment, for when presenting the basics of the Christian life, one's job is not principally to innovate. One's job is to present unchanging truths in a way that makes sense to a changing culture. Rienstra accomplishes that task with panache.

Here are the doctrines of the Fall, Jesus' work on the Cross, suffering and hope. Here are evil and free will and atonement and resurrection. Rienstra admits to occasional theological fuzziness—for example, not coming down firmly on the side of Calvinism or Arminianism but finding the basic common ground between the two positions. Her elegant and very accessible gloss on different theories of atonement—substitutionary atonement, sacrificial atonement, victory atonement, ransom atonement—acknowledges theological complexity. Her discussion of universalism strikes me as balanced and honest, though it may rub some evangelical readers the wrong way. "Christianity maintains that salvation comes through Jesus Christ," she writes, "but different strains of Christianity mean different things by that." She suggests that Scripture has universalistic impulses (such as Paul's assurance to the Corinthians that God will reconcile himself through Jesus to "all things"), but that many other passages of Scripture point to something starker, fiercer—the separation of the wheat from the chaff, the outer darkness and gnashing of teeth. Rienstra says that "The universalist strand and the outer darkness strand are in the Bible for good reason": one strand reminds us that God extends an invitation to everyone (TULIP Calvinists, gird your loins), the other strand works against a lazy arrogance about salvation. "Some confusion about who's in and who's out is probably quite healthy." Rienstra's discussion of the Trinity, found in her second chapter, is also noteworthy. If academic theology has renewed attention to the Trinity, many American Protestants are functional Unitarians. Kudos to Rienstra for reminding us that the Trinity is not abstruse or optional, but a crucial Christian basic.

Contrast Rienstra's first chapter with the first chapter of Mere Christianity. Rienstra's starting-point has nothing to do with natural law. Rather she begins with the intuition that there is something more than the harried daily grind, the morning latté at Starbucks, the push to fill one's Roth ira. So, as Lewis opens with "The Law of Human Nature," Rienstra opens by tugging at the reader's impulse toward meaning. You might be wading through grief after your father's death, she writes. Or you might be a young girl intrigued by the waddling penguin and leggy giraffe you saw at the zoo. Or you might be a new mother, blown away by the mystery of childbirth. Wherever, whoever you are, you know that "there must be something more" than "the morning commute … the half-lies we tell to get by … the evening news of crime and war, embroidered with empty banter and car advertisements." She nudges her reader to explore Christianity because the reader's own experiences nudge him toward transcendence (as Lewis himself persuasively did in his memoir, Surprised by Joy). Rienstra invites the reader not to march down the road of reason with her but to be "swept into meaning." We are pulled to the Cross through an "alchemy of perceptions, understandings, and memory."

The second half of So Much More lays out some basic Christian practices—prayer, Scripture study, worship, Christian community, service. At first I wished Rienstra had dealt with Christian practices that were more calculated to catch the imagination of seekers, appealing to yearnings that they're already trying to satisfy—practices such as simplicity, fasting, Sabbath-keeping. But my instinct was wrong, and Rienstra's was right. The five practices she lays out really are the basics, and one ought not delve into fasting, say, until one is grounded solidly in Scripture and prayer.

Rienstra's introduction to Christian living feels just right for our moment. She speaks honestly about her own struggles with prayer yet gently insists that prayer is real, and although she sketches some different styles and approaches to prayer, she never loses sight of the fact that "to embark on a life of prayer is to encounter a mystery." Her chapter on Scripture encourages readers to "sink into" the Bible rather than to approach it as a rule-book. Her chapter on worship champions faithful "church ladies," sitting in the pew week in and week out; some, says Rienstra, criticize these ladies' faithfulness as "empty ritual," but she sees in them a piety that carries them through inevitable "dry spells." Through all these chapters runs an emphasis on the importance of community, a theme that will doubtless strike a chord with a generation of Americans searching for "something more" than solo bowling.

Rienstra has presented solid teaching in a contemporary idiom. She has drawn on ancient church teaching and contemporary fiction. She has pointed toward embodied, not merely propositional, truth. She has sought to inspire, not instruct; to encourage lifelong formation, not merely datable conversion. She has maintained a high view of Scripture, while also deferring to theology and church tradition on matters ranging from the Trinity to the sacraments. She has written a Christian apologetics for our era.

Lauren F. Winner is the author of Girl Meets God (Algonquin/Random House) and Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity, just published by Brazos Press.

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