Apologetics can feel like a 100-lb. backpack. You have to be a renaissance scholar. That’s a heavy load to lug. There’s an easier way. Apologetics can instead be a 4-lb. knapsack.
Apologetics is Greek for defense. The apostle Paul said he “was appointed for the defense of the faith” (Phil. 1:16). All believers are to “be ready to give a defense” for the gospel (I Pet. 3:15). Every Christian ought to be an apologist. Few are, however.
Our problem is how we imagine apologetics. Roger Parrott, president of Belhaven College, says apologetics has become the “domain for renaissance spokespeople.” Captivating speakers make arguments in the hope of persuading others of the truth of religious belief. The rest of us are relegated “to cheerleading from the grandstand.”
I’m not knocking these speakers. I do however question renaissance assumptions. The Renaissance (which means rebirth) originated with Italian scholars of the late 14th and early 15th centuries. They described their age as a rebirth of the literary, scientific, and philosophical works of ancient Greece and Rome after the long, dark Middle Ages.
C. S. Lewis saw a problem with this. The Renaissance was the rebirth of rationalism, the idea that reason plays the main role in understanding the world. Defending the faith became debating—deductive apologetics. The assumption was you could reason someone into the faith. But you had to know a lot. Apologetics became a 100-lb. backpack.
Lewis on the other hand was “chiefly a medievalist.”¹ In the Middle Ages, imagination played the main role in understanding the world. Imagination was shaped by vivid experiences. Lewis came to faith through three of them. The first was the fragrance of a flowering currant bush. It triggered a memory of his time in the Dundela Villas. The second came when reading Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin. It sparked an intense longing for “the Idea of Autumn.” The third came in reading the Swedish poet Elasias Twegner.
All three experiences opened a door that Lewis did not know existed. He saw a realm beyond his own experience. He longed to enter it. Looking back, Lewis came to see experiences stirred in him a deep desire for the divine. He drew this from Blaise Pascal, “who felt there was little point in trying to persuade anyone of the truth of religious belief.”² Lewis practiced what I call experiential apologetics.
This approach to apologetics better fits human nature. In his book On Being Certain, neurologist Robert M. Burton describes how the brains neural networks produce a feeling of knowing that “arises mostly out of involuntary brain mechanisms that function independently of reason.”³ To expect well-reasoned arguments will alter someone’s view is to misunderstand how we come to belief.
A better approach to apologetics is crafting vivid experiences that reframe how we imagine the gospel. I’ve developed a few, including a case study of a fictitious problem in a company. Participants pretend that are part of the firm and their jobs are on the line. I ask them to record what they’d feel, think, say, and do. We categorize their responses. In every case—regardless of culture, race, creed, color, gender—respondents come up with four categories. Ought. Is. Can. Will. We imagine how life ought to be, recognize how it is, consider how things can be fixed, and hope for will result. Ought-is-can-will is our behavioral baseline. It’s universal.
It’s also the gospel. Ought-is-can-will is street language for how scripture defines the gospel: creation-fall-redemption-restoration. I’ve led people to faith by having them experience how ought-is-can-will explains everything. From China to South Africa to Kansas City, I’ve observed how ought-is-can-will opens a door that many did not know existed. They see a realm beyond their own experience. They reimagine the gospel.
For me, these four words—ought-is-can-will—feel like a 4-lb. knapsack. They’re easy to tote since I don’t have to defend them. Because they’re based in experience, they’re undeniable. I’ve found that people can dismiss what they hear in a debate. It’s much harder to deny an experience, especially one that’s self-discovered.
In Mere Christianity, Lewis begins from human experience and shows how everything seems to fit around core ideas. Lewis’s achievement is showing how experience “fits in” with the idea of God. As McGrath notes, “His approach is inferential, not deductive.” Ought-is-can-will is inferential. It’s experiential apologetics.
This is how Nicole Cliffe came to faith. She’s cofounder and coeditor of the website The Toast. In a recent blog, Cliffe writes, “Apologetics, in my opinion, are hugely unconvincing.” She came to faith through experiences that, as she puts it, “overruled arguments.” Ought-is-can-will does this. It’s a 4-lb. knapsack. Sling it over your shoulder and you can be an apologist for any topic anytime anywhere with anyone.
 C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964)
 Alister McGrath, C. S. Lewis: A Life (Carol Stream: Tyndale, 1990), p. 134.
 Robert M. Burton, M.D., On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008), xiii.