How Metaphors Work
In their book Metaphors We Live By (1980), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that metaphors are not ornamental to language. They shape how we see and think about the world, and therefore they have the power to shape entire cultures. One example that fits the bill is the “TIME is MONEY” metaphor: in western culture we don’t just compare time to money – we actually think and act like time can be saved, spent, or wasted! Metaphors, then, are extremely powerful.
Lakoff and Johnson also show that metaphors are partial in their scope: they highlight some features of a concept but hide or downplay others. For example, MONEY is not the only way to conceptualize TIME. We can also conceive of TIME as an ARROW or a STREAM. All of these metaphors are needed to adequately grasp the human experience of TIME, and we do injustice to that experience by privileging one metaphor over others or by reducing them all to a single one. In other words, reductionism with respect to metaphors is dangerous because it leads to a myopic and truncated understanding.
The Warfare Metaphor
Now, you may be asking, what do metaphors have to do with Christian apologetics? Let me explain. I was listening to a YouTube video yesterday by a Christian apologist whom I respect highly (and who will remain unnamed). He was delivering a talk to clergy about the importance of training young people, especially teenagers, in apologetics so that their faith will remain in tact when they transition to college or university. I agree with the thrust of this apologist’s argument, but I was surprised when his words took on an almost apocalyptic tone during a climactic point in his presentation. He said,
“In high school and college, Christian teenagers are assaulted intellectually with every manner of non-Christian philosophy and ideology conjoined with an overwhelming relativism and subjectivism. How dare we send them out unarmed into an intellectual battlefield! We’ve go to prepare our kids for war!”
Before I critique this statement, allow me to state what I agree with. I have no problem in principle with viewing apologetics through the lens of warfare. I know full well that university campuses in Canada and the U.S. are generally unsympathetic to religious belief and to religious discourse in the marketplace of ideas. I am also aware that some professors (sadly) make it their mission in life to ridicule or de-convert students who profess to be Christians. It is a war out there! Moreover, there is biblical precedent for viewing apologetics as war, e.g. when the Apostle Paul speaks of “demolishing arguments” that set themselves up against the knowledge of God (2 Cor 10:5).
However, in an effort to awaken the church from its intellectual slumber and warn complacent parents/clergy of the real dangers that kids will face on university campuses, I fear that this apologist (and many who follow him) are promoting an overly militant view of their craft. Why do I say this?
Well, I agree that the APOLOGETICS IS WARFARE metaphor can be helpful, but it is quite dangerous when it stands alone or is privileged. To put it bluntly, warfare is a very polarizing image that portrays apologetic encounters in an adversarial way. First, when we privilege the mindset of warfare, it becomes harder to distinguish between the ideas being attacked and the people who hold them. Second, this metaphor transforms apologetic tools into “ammunition”: ideas get shot down, arguments become assaults, and different worldviews become threats. Third, the image of battle tempts us to see victory as winning an argument at all costs, rather than creating an intellectual atmosphere in which people are more receptive to faith. Needless to say, this is not the tone that apologists want to set in their encounters with other worldviews.
Four Other Metaphors for Apologetics
So how can we avoid reducing the apologetic craft to warfare? My suggestion is that we supplement the metaphor rather than reject it. There are other metaphors for apologetics which are equally valid, corrective, and complementary. I shall mention four.
First, consider the APOLOGETICS IS DIALOGUE metaphor. When people engage in dialogue and conversation, they seek common ground and clarify disagreement with listening and respect. Persuasion is one goal of conversation, but within the larger goal of mutual understanding.
Second, consider the APOLOGETICS IS HEALING metaphor. Medical physicians know that very few patients enjoy surgery. It is painful, and that’s a given. But physicians also understand that they may need to “cut in order to heal”, so that their patients can get well. Similarly, apologists are spiritual surgeons in the business of healing people. Their goal in challenging and defending ideas is not to cause pain but to restore people with competence and compassion for their well-being.
Third, consider the APOLOGETICS IS GARDENING metaphor. By addressing objections to Christianity and challenging the hidden assumptions in others’ worldviews, apologists are “clearing the rubble” from the soil of people’s hearts, so that seeds of truth can be planted and nourished by others. This requires patience, skill, and sustained care.
Fourth, ponder the APOLOGETICS IS LOVE metaphor. Christian agape means being primarily concerned with the well-being of others, in particular their spiritual well-being. This means that apologists are servants! Their aim is to love seekers and skeptics by helping them to find and eventually love God with their minds. Powerful stuff.
I could have mentioned more metaphors, but I’m curious if my readers have any new ones to add? You’re thoughts are welcome!
 Thankfully, Paul’s passage on the armour of God in Ephesians 6 warns us against that very tendency.