Josh McDowell: America's dad?

Last night at Calvary Chapel in Santa Barbara, one Josh McDowell, with 47 years of youth evangelism experience talked about the state of the youth culture in America and across the world. His talk was very confusing and upsetting to me. Part of this post is frustration at claims he made, part aims to shed light as to what is really going on here.

He tried to say epistemology was the "study of truth" - instead of 'a branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge' (dictionary.com).

He talked about the 'epistemological turn' in youth culture around the world, citing about 6 different countries in which some statistics (unknown source) revealed that the amount of 'born-again' kids who believe in absolute truth has fallen to less than 4%.

'Born-again' to him means, "I have personally trusted Jesus as Savior and Lord. If I were to die today, I know I would be in heaven because He is my Savior and has forgiven me of all my sins."

Hmmmm....Is that definition of being 'born again' even in the Scriptures, Mr. McDowell? Is that Peter's story? Is that what Jesus is talking about in John 3 when he encounters a searching Pharisee named Nicodemus?

Unfortunately, the epistemological shift that happened prior to the one that Mr. McDowell is describing happened a couple centuries ago, as a Europe tired of years and years of wars within the church sought to move 'religion' into the private sector of human life for the sake of preserving life......This period of history is known as the Enlightenment. In enlightenment thinking, Reason is Lord, and the quest for certainty dominates. Rene Descartes ' famous Cogito, ergo, sum (I think, therefore, I am) is taken to be one of the crucial epistemological shifts in modern philosophy. True knowledge, according to this paradigm, is that which cannot be doubted. Certainty. Tracking?

And that's not the apostolic faith.

What Mr. McDowell doesn't realize is that he has accepted a mutant form of Christianity, heavily influenced by Enlightenment thinking (quest for certainty) and historical and apostolic Christianity does not include seeing truth in terms of certainty. If you do not believe me that Josh has fallen into this sort of association of the two, one of his latest books being sold before and after the seminar was named, "In Search of Certainty." If you'd like to buy it, click here:

And that intrigues me, with some background in the way modernity affected the telling of the biblical story. Here's some exposure to Kevin Vanhoozer's essay entitled Theology and the condition of Postmodernity:
"David Tracy states that modern theologies 'were principally determined not by the reality of God but by the logos of modernity.' (see below for reference). Hans Frei's diagnosis is similar: modern interpretative schemes eclipse the specificity of biblical narrative, and with it, the singular mythos of Jesus Christ. In so doing, thought Frei, modern theologians gain the whole world -- the world of academic respectability and cultural plausibility, in a word legitimation -- yet lose their own souls. Paul Tillich's method of correlation, for instance, let modern culture and thought forms set the agenda by asking the questions which theology then answered.......Tillich is illustrative of the modern tendency to let some logos or other swallow up the biblical mythos. Modern theological systems, like other -isms, are able only to think "more of the same"; they leave the "other" unthought. In Tracy's words: "Theology will never again be tameable by a system....For theology does not bespeak a totality. Christian theology, at its best is the voice of the Other through all those others who have tasted....the Infinity disclosed in the kenotic reality of Jesus Christ." (From The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology ed. Kevin J. VanHoozer, from the essay Theology and the condition of postmodernity, written by Kevin VanHoozer, p. 19).

(Quotes from David Tracy come from two of his works, the first being: On Naming the Present: God, Hermeneutics and Church (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994, p. 41 & the second being: Theology and the Many Faces of Postmodernity in 'Theology Today 51 (1994), 114).

If you are scratching your head, rest assured, so am I on certain parts, but I do see elements of what Vanhoozer quotes the David Tracy talks about in McDowell's approach to evangelization:

McDowell claimed:
"I've been going around the world for five years and I have yet to come across one Christian who could tell me why they believe what they believe." Now, he didn't give anybody in the room when I was there a chance to respond, but instead listed the most popular responses on his cute power point presentation.......Among the responses:

1. My church taught me
2. My parents taught me
3. The Bible is true

He insisted that these reasons were not good enough and if anybody had dare answer that night (the seminar I was in), he would be able to 'back you into a corner so fast' and destroy your argumentation....Do you see him playing by the culture rules, what Frei (above) is talking about? Do you see him not accept the answers of God's faithful as legitimate, but rather attack them and tell them that saying any of the above three answers is not good enough? Who says? Is he to say?

All we need to do is formulate better arguments to figure out WHY we believe what we believe and HOW WE KNOW.....and what better way to do this than his books. Which was the real disappointment of the evening, because he presented as his answer, himself. His own thoughts, his 47 years of experience, which I heard him quote time and time again....What is he doing, friends?

At this point, you may recall that Paul in 1 Corinthians outlines to the Corinthian church that worshiping a crucified criminal is foolishness to those who are perishing (1:18). He doesn't try to say, "Now, everything that you do has to make sense to everybody else..." No, he says that his approach to evangelism was NOT to proclaim the gospel with eloquent wisdom, but to preach the cross, Jesus crucified, so that 'the cross of Christ may not be emptied of its power' (1:17). NOW, WATCH PAUL BE AN EVANGELIST/PASTOR:

"When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words of wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the SPIRIT and of POWER, so that your faith may not rest on human wisdom, but on the power of God" (1 Cor. 2:1-5). And that power is the cross, as he goes on to explain.

McDowell could have made the beginning of a Santa Barbara lent truly spectacular, re-focusing the faithful towards the cross, but instead, confused people and offered his books and wisdom as the answers. Sort of disappointing, especially after being introduced by Ricky Ryan, the pastor at Calvary Chapel as "America's dad."

I'll take Paul's epistemological assumptions and The true Father of our Lord Jesus Christ instead.


Anna Jordan said...

Brett -

Sounds like your experience listening to Josh McDowell was a little frustrating...
You make a lot of good and interesting points. I would love to talk with you more about this sometime.

Love -


emilykatz said...

ditto, anna.

miss you, b!

Joe Bunting said...

I haven't gotten all the way through. Here's my first reaction. You question his definition of born again. Here is John 3:15, "that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life." It seems to me that this is what McDowell is referring to. What is he missing? Fill in the dots for me. How is this not Peter's story?

Sidenote: I found an interesting site you might enjoy. Dense, controversial, too much to read for me, but check it out.


Joe Bunting said...

Ok, finished.

My favorite was the part where you ripped into McDowell's claims that most Christian's reasons for belief were not good enough. Very nice. Plus, I got excited when I understood Vanhoozer a little.

The article needs some editing though: run ons, "the" when it should have been "that," and confusing sentence structure. Try reading it out loud.

Joe Bunting said...

I'd email this to you, but I don't have email at work. What do you think of this little bit of wisdom from Seth. What does it mean for the gospel?

"I don't think I'm being harsh... I’ve seen far too many great ideas fail to believe that I’m being cynical in this post. You may have the greatest thing ever, but if it doesn’t match a prevailing worldview in the market where you hope to tell your story, you’re invisible."

Here's the link: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2005/06/shark_attack.html

Should the worldview of the market change to meet the gospel? Should the gospel be made to fit the worldview? Or both?

dom. said...


How've you been, brother? I've met some Willamette mutual buddies of ours up here...so fun!

Thanks for this post. I appreciated it a lot. I like how saucy you get in your frustration. :)