Gospel through Shared Experience

My interest in evangelism/apologetics, natural theology and metaphysics has its roots in the soil of the Midwest; more specifically, two courses that I took at Cedarville University. The first was Dr. Daniel J. Estes’ course on “Wisdom Literature,” and the second, Professor Ed Spencer’s course on “The European Novel.” It was in the first that I encountered the book of Ecclesiastes, and in the second, or shortly thereafter, that I read Albert Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus.”

Somewhere along the way, Estes suggested that we might use the book of Ecclesiastes in an evangelistic Bible study. But then, after reading Camus’s The Stranger, I read “The Myth of Sisyphus,” and I began to wonder if, instead of using Ecclesiastes for an evangelistic Bible study, we might mimic the methodology of the Teacher. The genius of Ecclesiastes, after all, was that it made no appeal to Torah, but spoke from commonly observable, shared experience. But now, the book is part of the Bible, and so today’s hearers would likely respond to it much the same as the Teacher’s hearers would have responded to Torah.

But what might it look like to mimic the methodology of the Teacher?

Our evangelistic efforts tend to begin with a presentation of the facts (e.g., the Romans Road) or our testimony of how the facts have made a difference in our life or lives (e.g., Evangelism Explosion and Lifestyle Evangelism), but having communicated his thesis in 1:2, the Teacher goes on to reconstruct in the reader an experience of vanity by way of the poem in 1:3-11. Upon reading this poem, the reader feels the weight of vanity more keenly than they may have if they had stopped at 1:2, skipped on to the testimony of 1:12ff., or jumped to the conclusion in 12:13. The Teacher begins, not with facts or testimony, but with a poem, a gospel through shared experience.

But, and this is where it gets interesting, the Teacher doesn’t stop there. He goes on to share his testimony in 1:12ff., and ultimately presents the facts of 12:13-14. And so a gospel through shared experience approach has a place for facts and testimony, but only after shared experience, and then in reverse order (i.e., from shared experience to testimony to the facts).

But why are we talking about evangelism? Isn’t this a symposium on imaginative apologetics?

Though I tend to lump the two together as they’re so closely related, I want to be careful not to conflate them. Evangelism, it seems, has more to do with proclamation than persuasion. Here, Tom Price’s discussion on the relationship between evangelism and apologetics is helpful. In his post he introduces Andrew Fellows’s “Apologetics Spectrum” which includes subversion, persuasion and proclamation. Gospel through shared experience is a similar sort of spectrum, but one that suggests, not only that evangelism and apologetics are related, but also that we might think twice about beginning with non-contextualized facts or contextualized testimony. In place of the first we might substitute the Story the Bible tells, but only after we’ve shared our story (i.e., testimony, individual as well as collective),[2] and that only after we’ve shared their story.

But what does that mean? How do we share their story?

We mimic the Teacher, and the Teacher enters into the reader’s story via poetry, a language of immediacy that communicates the Teacher’s experience and the reader’s experience simultaneously. The poem, it seems, speaks from a sort of between using the language of shared experience. And these shared experiences might be a universal human experience like love, loss, pain, suffering, longing or joy, or they might be something more specific like music or art, but whatever they are, these languages of immediacy are a sort of vicarious experience by which we can pass from our own experience into the realm of shared experience.

More recently, I’ve been exploring the metaphysics of William Desmond, and I wonder, might Desmond, in the spirit of the Teacher and along the lines of the exegetical work of Michael V. Fox and J.A. Loader, give us an approach to evangelism, apologetics and natural theology that moves beyond facts and testimony to the between, a gospel through shared experience?

Christopher R. Brewer is pursuing a PhD with David Brown and he is exploring the possibility of an imaginative natural theology.  Along these lines, he is the founder and director of  gospel through shared experience as well as the editor and publisher of Art that Tells the Story.


[1] Daniel J. Estes, “The Hermeneutics of Biblical Lyric Poetry,” Bibliotheca Sacra 152 (1995): 419.
[2] By “collective” I mean the corporate testimony of the Church.

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