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Mark Coppenger, Moral Apologetics for Contemporary Christians: Pushing Back Against Cultural and Religious Critics. B&H Studies in Christian Ethics. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2011. IX + 275 PP. Paperback. ISBN-978-0-8054-6420-7. $24.99.
Mark Coppenger offers a measured serving of apologetic help to assist Christians in “pushing back” against the critics in general and atheists in particular. The focus according to the title is moral apologetics which begins with the question “what makes something right or wrong in the first place” (p 8). Coppenger elects to approach the subject by giving a series of quotes suggesting that secular views fail. In fact, the “apologetic” dimension of the book appears less about defending the faith and more why Christians should be confident in their faith. Coppenger admits early on (p 7) that his treatment is broad in scope and not intended as a decisive blow to the skeptic (p 6). Accordingly, the content reveals no sustained argument for a Christian position demonstrating why the answer to the moral question should prevail. Although showing the failure of secular or alternate religious moral systems has some benefit, it does not, however, by itself assure the truthfulness of Christianity’s answer to the moral/ethical question. However, he thinks cultural apologetics has not received sufficient attention from apologists. In addition, he believes cultural apologetics has equal weight in the defense of Christianity. In fact, he thinks that “the ‘bitter fruit’ of rejecting Christianity extends well beyond the intellectual climate to the well-being of society in general” (p 5). While that is true, the question it raises is whether or not cultural apologetics has a sustainable force in the public discourse regarding the truthfulness of Christianity.
Content wise, the author devotes the first three chapters to faulty secular systems of ethics, followed by a chapter on faulty or inadequate religious systems of ethics and then with a chapter on the practical superiority and moral balance of the Christian ethic. Chapters six through nine juxtapose the “immoral ethicists” and their teaching with that of Christian teachers showing by quotes Christianity to be superior. While the quote-laden chapters are informative, they seem to provide little weight for those wishing to push back at the critic with the truthfulness of Christianity. In the four chapters that follow, Coppenger attempts to provide the Christian with apologetic ammunition by showing how the cultural fruit of Christianity outshines that of other religious systems. While the historical review of cultural consequences of different religions is important, its weight in the push-back enterprise seems to lack a sustainable punch. That is to say, what it shows, at least in some degree, is that pragmatically Christianity seems to produce morally superior cultures. Even if that point can be sufficiently established, it would only show Christianity to be morally superior, not necessarily true.
In the next three chapters Coppenger suggests that some of the arguments Christians give prove an embarrassment to Christianity. Rightly, he points out that some arguments short change the Gospel or leave the unbeliever with wanting something more. His comments about what he what he calls “zingers", which are one-liners he defines as “argument from laughter” (p 208), does little for the apologetic cause is spot on. While he is right on this point, it seems he is too dismissive of some of the objections of the atheist. Still, these three chapters serve as very important reminders to apologists of practices to be avoided. In addition, the last two chapters on virtue apologetics, while a little off point of cultural apologetics, is an important word to apologists.
While there is much to commend Coppenger’s book, it seems that the real question of apologetics hits on truthfulness of Christianity, not just its moral superiority. It is not just that Christianity produces better cultures, which could be challenged, or that Christians are morally better than non-Christians (at least sometimes). Just because a belief system produces good behavior does not mean it is true. In fact, this is the point Coppenger makes when evaluating the moral force of Islam. He concludes that gains in sobriety, sexual morals, and circumspection in speech” (180) do not prove the validity of Islam. Then could not the same be said of the cultural benefits of Christianity?
In conclusion, Coppenger provides a breadth of information which is helpful to the Christian defending Christianity against some of the charges laid against it. However, a word of caution is in order for Christians who might rely too heavily on this approach. Those who do so may very well find themselves stuck in a quagmire of endless exchanges where one moral claim is countered by another. In spite of some areas of concern, Coppenger’s work provides a good supplement to the work of apologetics.
Bruce A. Little
Senior Professor of Philosophy
Director of the L. Russ Bush Center For Faith and Culture
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary