Brief thoughts on apologetics and propaganda

This is a post most unscholarly of which to boast and I must plea for contrition for the relative sparsity of references in advance. However the recent wave of discussion on every platform of political and social discourse concerning the relationship of religion, politics and belief to the events in Paris this month have prompted a pause for thought. What are the boundaries and distinctions, if any, between apologetics and propaganda?

All who have at some point followed or engaged with the practices and subcultures of Christian apologetics, particularly the popular and populist veins that are currently led by book sales and hit counts by a subset of the American evangelical right, will have seen the command given in 1 Peter to believers that they must present a reasoned defence of their beliefs to outsiders. To present such a defence or apologia in the Koine Greek of the Epistle’s original (and somewhat pseudeipiegraphic or forged) composition. That believers must give an “answer” for the faith, especially during times of persecution, and explain the veracity of their convictions for holding it. With some apologetic irony, in defending my ascription of ‘forged’ character to 1 Peter, one of the evidences that modern New Testament scholarship uses to date the Epistles are references made to events external to the audience of each letter in addition of the language of the epistle itself. St. Peter, the original Cephas, would almost certainly have lacked the rhetorical training and Greek composition skills required for authoring the epistle. Furthermore, the persecutory events referred to throughout, whether describing social marginalisaiton or forcible suppression of the Christian faith by Roman authorities, are better fitted to the reign of the Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD) rather than his predecessors from the 30s to the 70s AD.

And without planning, I have gone on a New Testament Studies digression. Was this not meant to concern propaganda?

If an apologia gives a defence of a belief or position, that may reasonably extend to beliefs in policy and the conduct of individuals and parties beholden to this belief. Communicating the message (the truth-bearers, as it were) of the Christian religion to outsiders is the exercise undertaken in apologetics. In that sense, it is hard not to think of one of the most famous residents of Downing Street in the modern era; not the occupants of Number 10 or 11, but instead that prototypical Malcolm Tucker and Tony Blair’s former Director of Communications. Most Christians and believers in general may know him as Alistair ‘We Don’t Do God’ Campbell. The original context of that infamous reply is something demanding a lengthily post of its own.

Campbell, as with every spin-doctor and image handler, was charged with defending the positions of the Blair government, as well as the character of Blair himself, to outsiders. He bore the hope and faith of the New Labour project on his back – the scenery could come crashing down around him if things went badly wrong. Somewhat like S/Paul of Tarsus, he was an expert at handling difficult and seemingly insurmountable challenges to the credibility of his creed; call him any name under the sun for his handling of the Iraq War and the media circus surrounding it in 2003, but you cannot call him ineffective or impotent. Campbell was paid well for his work but was not a mercenary or hired gun – there was never any risk of him defecting to the other side for a handsomer pay packet.

So what this meandering late-night post is digging toward, as the confused but hopeful Biblical archaeologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries hoped they were, is a solid conclusion to a serious question. Is apologetics a matter of spin?

The vast compendiums and encyclopedias of evangelical inerrancy, explaining away every contradiction and misnomer in the Bible as merely “apparent” contradictions, the legions of reply books to any atheistic, sceptical or scientific text (consider the upwards of thirty hardback responses to The God Delusion that were published by major or minor firms, not even considering the vanity press replies and online apologetic scrambling) and the vast expenditure made on training seminars and conferences for apologetics. Apologetics is taught at Christian universities; the most influential are probably Biola University, home to the philosophical apologetics megastar William Lane Craig and ‘investigatory’ apologist J. Warner Wallace, and Houston Baptist University, home to evangelical New Testament scholar Michael Licona as well as Lee Strobel, a former legal editor for the Chicago Tribune whose book The Case for Christ became one of the best-selling and most influential apologetics texts of the early 21st century. If bold and somewhat extravagant claims are made about the number of independent attestations of Jesus and the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts, it probably stems from the claims made in this and similar books. Again, more posts will follow.

Between these institutions and individuals, a vast theistic higher education sector has come to exist in the United States, offering a parallel to secular universities and colleges for families and students who wish to remain firmly within the fold of their faith. When these universities state that “Through a rigorous, Christ-centered and Spirit-led education we enable our students to grapple with and engage in the spiritual, intellectual, ethical and cultural issues of our time, their implications and application to everyday life.”, they make their purposes evident. Apologetics-based education is ultimately a training program for the promulgation of the Christian faith. There would be nothing contestable in itself about this – students must be free to pursue any course of education they wish without impediment by the state or others – except we might be more cautious about supporting similar academic projects undertaken in the name of political ideologies. Consider Alistair Campbell retiring from politics has he has done in order to establish a private university with a “Labour-centered and Blairism-led education” as the ethos of its curriculum and eyebrows would begin to rise.

With regards to Paris, argumentative of the Islamic faith in the light of another atrocity carried out by self-appointed martial defenders and representatives of the Prophet Muhammad has led to great indulgence in one of the most well-attested and intellectually galling logical fallacies: No True Scotsman. Francois Hollande stated on French television following the attacks that the massacre of the Charlie Hebdo staff, several police officers and four people in a Jewish supermarket had “nothing to do with Islam”. This juxtaposition begs the question – if men shouting “we have avenged the Prophet” and acting entirely upon belief in just retribution for blasphemy against the Divine and his appointed human servants has “nothing to do with Islam” – what would? Evidently it is diplomacy and the need for civil calm has trumped razor-sharp or even moderately watered-down logic. The French President speaking more plainly about the connections between belief, indeterminacy and action and the theological claims of the Qur’an and Hadiths following the attacks may not have aided the stability required after several days of chaos. Spin can prevent riots and pogroms. But it can, as generations of antisemitic and racist canards in Christian and Islamic nations have proved, be both the root and the accelerant of them.

Apologetics and the misuse of history is something which, when I can allot the proper time, earn much of the attention of this blog. Alongside political abuses and distortions of history made most manifest in the school classroom per the efforts of overzealous education ministers, as well as the myth-making of popular histories furnished by newspaper columnists, the subject suffers egregiously in the hands of religious apologetics. Again, this is not to cast disparaging criticism at the work of all religious authors and certainly not to religious believers generally. As stated previously, the field of Christian apologetics at present remains under the predominant influence of conservative Evangelicals and fundamentalists in the American cultures of Christianity. Likewise, Islamic apologetics remains in the grip of conservatives – when the faith is not being externally defined and ‘defended’ by jihadism and militant Islamist ideology, it is usually upheld to outsiders by representatives whose ultimate vision of an accomplished Islamic society is comparable with minor differences to militant counterparts. This helps none in the Muslim community attempting to protect their rights to exercise beliefs without threat of intimidation or harassment by the self-styled counter-jihadist movement and only provides fuel for disingenuous media outlets thriving on Chaucerian characters that provide inflamed controversy with every appearance. It is small wonder that Sean Hannity and FOX News have repeatedly picked Anjem Choudary as their guest speaker on matters Islamic. One spin-drying machine races against another in an arena where rhetoric wins out and facts are left bloodied by the wayside.

Whether the fields of Christian and Islamic apologetics constitute propaganda, and the defence of religion from association with violence and militancy in general falls under a diplomatically necessary denialism, will require greater scholarly focus. I must state immediately my own lack of confidence in the reaction to the Paris attacks from several quarters; first, those on the political Left who forgot the supposed values of 1789 and 1848 and 1870 and declared France to have been a ‘racist country’ inviting violence upon itself with its structural oppression of Muslims and other minorities. The fetid ignorance of this dogmatic adherence to an unfalsifiable structuralism is made all the more laughable by the origins of structuralist theory, along with the very concept of a right-left spectrum, in the nation and capital city subjected to theocratic terror from January 7th to January 9th 2015. The worst was probably epitomised by one very unwise tweet by Laurie Penny, made whilst the second wave of attacks (this time targeting Jews in a market) were still taking place: “Murder is vile and unconscionable. Freedom of the press must be protected. But racist trolling is not heroism. Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie.”

This attempt at contrarianism fails every litmus test but passes succinctly as an effort to spit on the dead and blame the victim. Trolling knows no irony.

If Sartre, Foucault and Barthes had been abducted and butchered in their offices by Catholic fundamentalists aggrieved at their critiques of mass society, would the chorus of the identity politics Left have resounded quite as loudly “Murder is wrong BUT.” This post from 2005 by the late, great and insightful Norman Geras, then Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Manchester, entitled ‘Apologists Among Us’, makes the link explicit. The excuse-making and denialism of the causal agents behind the beliefs of Islamist militants during the Iraq insurgency was, in Geras’s view, an act of apologia for evil. It stands the test of time; sadly, history is yet to make Geras’s comments appear dated or from an epoch before the present.

Apologetics takes many guises and it would be unfair to characterise it as merely the art of excuse-making, denial and outright lying. There are schools of apologetics which have produced useful and significant contributions to logic and the advancement of human reason – hard to believe in the age of banana-wielding science deniers and the school of historical method hijackers whom I would like to be known as the Empty Tombers. But in the reactions to events like the January Paris massacre and the diplomatic needs for face-saving denial of the self-evident, we see apologetics at play in the most sordid and dishonest manner. Something worth apologising for.