Myron Bradley PENNER, The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013. 180 pp. $19.99 paperback or e-book. ISBN: 978-0-8010-3598-2. Reviewed by Steve W. LEMKE, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, New Orleans, LA 70126
Myron Penner is an Anglican priest who serves in Edmonton, Alberta. In The End of Apologetics he presents an argument that Christian Apologetics should shift away from the sort of classical Apologetics that has sought to address the challenges of modernism toward a new Apologetics that addresses the concerns of postmodernism. Penner argues correctly that postmodern thinkers discount the rational arguments of classical Apologetics as representing the logocentric perspective that they reject. The author proposes a kinder, more person-centered apologetic based on witness that is more fitting for a postmodern era rather than one based on rational arguments. Penner draws from the trajectory of Soren Kierkegaard’s distinction between the apostle and the genius to argue that Christian Apologetics should focus on witness rather than argument, from Richard Rorty’s use of irony to argue that Christian Apologists should be ironic prophets, and from Gabriel Marcel’s concept of disposability that Christian apologists should be more dialogical and person-centered than argumentative. In all this Penner makes a valuable contribution. His concern is well taken for crafting apologetic approaches that are more persuasive for postmodern hearers.
Having said that, significant problems arise in The End of Apologetics. The first problem is the tone of the work in its nay-saying. To call for a new paradigm for Apologetics is one thing, but Penner doesn’t stop there. He accuses contemporary Christian Apologists of being motivated primarily by money; and of practicing or legitimizing oppression, mistreatment, and exploitation of persons. Penner’s tone is so negative toward his fellow Christians that one could be excused for getting the impression that it is the expression of some sort of personal agenda or bitterness. His overkill of classical Apologetics is unnecessary and undermines his own presentation, and somewhat hypocritical since by doing so he is not practicing the kinder, more personal approach he advocates.
A second problem with Penner’s proposal is that he seems to be calling for the abolition of classical Apologetics rather than supplementing it with a new paradigm. The subtitle of the book’s introduction, “Against Apologetics,” is revealing. Penner appears to equivocate on the rationale for forcing the abolition of classical Apologetics. He argues on successive pages that “modernity is, for better or worse, our situation, and we may never fully leave it behind us” (p. 13), and yet proclaim on the next page (echoing the subtitle of the book) that postmodernism should be the “starting point” for Apologetics (p. 14). First of all, Penner glosses over the fact that Apologetics did not begin within modernism, but in the early days of the church during which the premodern worldview was dominant. Early Christian fathers such as Origen, Tertullian, and Justin Martyr wrote defenses of their Christian faith against the predominant rationalistic Greek worldview, so Apologetics was not originally designed to address or express modernism. However, in our contemporary setting, if many persons remain within a modernist mindset, or even some persons, why would it not be fruitful to utilize classical Apologetics to minister to the needs of these persons, while also developing a new paradigm for Apologetics to minister to persons with a postmodern mindset? In fact, since only a small percentage of the world’s population are actually adherents of postmodernism, it seems like a strange and self-defeating method to utilize just an apologetic method that is tailored for postmodernists, and it betrays a serious Western bias in Penner’s thought. Furthermore, Penner’s claims appear to be self-referentially incoherent in that, while calling for the demise of modernistic rational arguments, he nonetheless makes modernistic rationalistic arguments throughout the volume. His arguments are far from the sort of person-centered apologetic method that he advocates.
Another problematic aspect of The End of Apologetics arises from some aspects of Penner’s proposal for a new paradigm for Apologetics. Although it is somewhat slippery to assert with any confidence what postmodernists actually “mean,” there are points at which Penner may not fully represent some aspects of the thought of some postmodernists. For example, he utilizes Rorty’s notion of ironic poets in Irony, and Solidarity to argue that Christians should be ironic prophets. Penner does not mention that in the same volume, Rorty applies this principle by suggesting that one should deal with private fantasies such as reading the book Lolita rather than acting on those fantasies. The impracticality of this idea is made manifest by the fact that even Rorty himself would not give a copy of Lolita to a clinically diagnosed pedophile ex-convict who lived next door and began befriending Rorty's young daughter. The problem with irony as a technique is that it is unconvincing to many people. Kierkegaard also used irony early in his writing career, but later despaired of its effectiveness and moved toward more direct means of communication. Likewise, Penner makes much of Kierkegaard’s distinction between the witnessing apostle and the rationalist genius. However, Jean-Francois Lyotard’s classic definition of postmodernism in The Postmodern Condition is “incredulity towards metanarratives.” So, while one would affirm the crucial role of prophetic proclamation in Christian witness, what reason is there to believe that postmodernists would be any more open to metanarrative-saturated prophetic witness than to rationalistic Apologetics?
The End of Apologetics is an interesting read, and makes a valuable contribution for calling for a new paradigm in Apologetics. However, it is hindered by serious flaws.