10.10.17

Urban Apologetics, 1: Introduction

There’s a growing interest in “urban apologetics.” By “urban,” most people mean dense ethnic neighborhoods usually in the inner-city. “Apologetics” simply means defense. In Christian terms, people are trying to find effective ways of defending the faith among people in the inner-city. That means becoming familiar with the concerns and objections of urbanites who may either be unfamiliar with Christian claims or oppose those claims with arguments of their own.

Many are finding out that the objections and issues presented in urban communities differ significantly from those presented in typical books on apologetics. A very different set of religious ideas exist in inner-city neighborhoods, so most mainstream texts contain little information about them.

But a more fundamental issue also exists. Mainstream texts “do apologetics” by describing the core beliefs of a faith, comparing those beliefs to Christian claims, and then arguing for the superiority of Christian teaching. This approach assumes that if the Christian faith can be intellectually defended and shown to be stronger than rival claims, then the apologist has successfully defended the faith.

What would-be urban apologists soon find out is that the typical approach doesn’t work with a lot of people. There’s a simple reason for this: Black religion in urban centers developed to answer a very different set of questions than the major world religions. The questions answered by Black religions and cults have a great deal to do with the sojourn and suffering of Black people in the United States. Before the religious claims become intellectual or “purely theological” they are first existential. If we fail to understand this dynamic and genius of Black religion then we will fail the apologetic task at the start.

What I hope to do in this series of posts is offer some tentative thoughts about a set of apologetic questions often raised by urban religions and cults. In most of the posts I hope to show how Christian teaching answers the concern but not necessarily in the way traditional apologetic arguments do. Because I think the concerns are often legitimate, I think the challenge to Christianity is to prove its power and relevance by answering the fundamental question rather than simply debunking the rival claim.

I’m thinking the series will include some brief comments on:

  • Origins and identity
  • Suffering and evil
  • Collective restoration and well-being
  • History and “America”
  • Nationalisms and race relations

I’m not inclined to write about specific groups on the urban scene except by way of illustration. Rather, I hope these posts contribute by trying to engage the worldview behind many of the groups. Urban religions and philosophies are not merely lists of doctrinal positions; they are views of the world as it is and as it should be according to the religion. To employ the traditional strategies of apologetics effectively (and especially if we’re doing it cross-culturally), we need to understand something about that worldview.

Feel like you’re behind on this topic? Check the online work of Urban Apologetics and Jude 3 Project, for examples. Or pick up Christopher Brooks’ recent Urban Apologetics: Answering Challenges to the Faith for Urban Believers or the older work of Arthur Huff Fauset in Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Religious Cults of the Urban North. You might also be interested in The New Black Gods: Arthur Huff Fauset and the Study of African-American Religions. This collection of essays reflects on Arthur Huss Faucet’s pioneering work in Black Gods of the Metropolis and provides a sense of the academic study of African-American religions.

There are a lot of places you could start. This is just one. So, pull up a chair on the Porch and join the conversation!

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

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  • Danny Brister

    Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this. Espousing a holistic biblical worldview in the urban context presents a lot of challenges. Especially because in the south everyone tells you that they believe in Jesus. Preaching to those who believe that they know Jesus, but live as if they don’t is a great challenge for our generation.