What are the biggest barriers to faith in the urban setting? What are the most common counterfeit worldviews that are contending for the hearts and minds of people in the inner city? And how can Christians of all backgrounds partner with and learn from those doing apologetics in the city? These are just a few of the questions we explore with our guest, Chris Brooks, author of Urban Apologetics and grad of our Biola MA Apologetics program.

Chris Brooks is the senior pastor of Woodside Bible Church, a multisite congregation across the Detroit metropolitan area. Chris served for 20 years as the senior pastor of Evangel Ministries, a thriving 1,600-member church in the heart of Detroit. He also served as the campus dean of Moody Theological Seminary in Plymouth, Michigan. A popular Detroit radio host since 2005, Chris is the author of Kingdom Dreaming and Urban Apologetics. He graduated from Michigan State University with a BA in Finance, completed his MA in Christian Apologetics at Biola University, and graduated from the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics. He is currently pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree at Asbury Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Yodit, are the proud parents of six children: Christopher, Zewditu, Cameron, Judah, Sophia, and Christyana.

Episode Transcript

Sean: What are the biggest barriers to faith in the black community? What are the most common counterfeit worldviews that are contending for the black community? And how can Christians of all backgrounds better understand and engage the black community and the church today? These are just a few of the questions we are going to explore today with our guest, Chris Brooks, author of “Urban Apologetics” and grad of our Biola MA Apologetics program in 2010. I'm your host, Sean McDowell.

Scott: I'm your co-host, Scott Rae.

Sean: Welcome to Think Biblically, a podcast from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. Chris, it's great to have you back. Thanks for joining us.

Chris: It's always good to be with you guys.

Sean: Well, let's just jump in. The title of your book is Urban Apologetics, so maybe just define what you mean by that.

Chris: Yeah, I think the term has really, two broad, definitions or ways of explaining or thinking. One, when you think of urban communities, urban areas, you're thinking about density. So this is where population is most dense and areas of our country that are most populated. But you're also thinking of another factor and that is diversity. So density and diversity, where do we have that? Typically it's in our major cities: LA, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit. But for me, I'm more specifically speaking of in my book, the African American community, but not exclusively because there are areas of overlap with the Latino community as well. So often you'll hear terms like communities of color, but more specifically, I'm thinking density and diversity, and where there is a high African American population.

Scott: Chris, thanks for joining us. Good to have you back with us. What are, what would you say are some of the biggest, most pressing apologetic issues in the black community?

Chris: Yeah, there's a number, but I would say that it all starts with questions around identity historically. To be African American is to be a part of a population of people who didn't come to America by choice predominantly, historically, but as a part of the transatlantic slave trade. And so as a result of that, there is a disconnect from historical identity. So the need for urban apologetics really starts with the question of, what is our story historically? And that speaks to, Scott, culture what’s our cultural story, but also religiously, what is our religious story historically? And what I've tried to argue and others along with me is the story of the Gospel spreading through Africa and how the Gospel has impacted Africa. But then there's also other questions as well. How does the Gospel speak to pain, suffering, and evil? And in particular, that would be a point of relevance as you look at the story of suffering in the African American community through slavery, through Jim Crow. Some would argue even today, modern reforms of structural discrimination or racism. So pain, suffering and evil is another major story. And then the question of significance, what role have African-Americans played in church history, blacks and Africans more broadly in church history and in the story of Scripture. So identity, pain, suffering, and evil, significance, all of those are very important aspects of urban apologetics.

Sean: You know, Chris, you had an article in Christianity Today, maybe a decade ago, you talked about how apologetics is vital in kind of the urban setting, in the African American community, but the questions are different. And now that seems so obvious. But looking back, I was like, wow, I didn't think about that. I assume the issues that I dealt with…

Chris: Yeah.

Sean: Are the same issues that other communities are going to deal with. So what are maybe some of the big counterfeit worldviews that are kind of scratching where the African American community itches, so to speak, outside of the Christian faith that many African Americans might be tempted to follow?

Chris: Yeah, Sean, I think about what's happened over the past few years since our article has come out and the gulf has only become greater and wherever there is a gulf in between the questions that any community is asking and the gospel, there are counterfeits to try to fill that space and fill that void. So we've seen the rise of significant amount of religious alternatives that are rooted in what's known as black nationalism. And black nationalism, much like Christian nationalism, tries to root and ground liberation and identity and ultimate purpose in a political worldview that somehow salvation comes through not only institutional structural change, but through political empowerment. And so for many within the black community, groups like BLM, Black Lives Matter, have really offered a view of salvation that comes through political power. Sadly though, as we know that those alternatives are very elusive and ultimately over-promised and under-delivered. I think that studies are coming out now that make it very clear that while Black Lives Matter may be a very important mantra, it has been a very impotent movement. It has not brought the type of hope or liberation the black community ultimately needs or is looking for.

Scott: Chris, I know one of the most common objections I hear thrown around by African Americans to the Christian faith and, you know, and Sean and I, we admitted before, before you came on with us that, you know, two white guys talking about urban apologetics, let's just say, we're glad you're with us.

Sean: (laughing)

Chris: Yeah.

Scott: But one of the most common objections we hear to Christian faith is that, from the black community, is that it's Eurocentric and a white man's religion. How do you respond to that? And how would you advise white Christians to respond to that?

Chris: Yeah, I think that when we hear that, we need to make sure that we understand what's being said. What’s being said, ultimately, is that mainstream evangelical Christianity has been predominantly silent on the issues that Black Christians suffer with and face. So school to prison pipeline being an issue within our, among our youth and Black communities, obviously socioeconomic challenges, workforce development, entrepreneurialism, the breakdown of the black family. These are questions that you don't often see come up in your most popular apologetic books or conferences or workshops. So if you're an African American serving in the community where you're seeing 70% female head of household and mass incarceration as one of the contributing factors, not the only, but one of the contributing factors. And you're invited to an apologetics conference or a friend gives you an apologetic book and you don't see any chapters in that on mass incarceration, or you don't see anything in the book on socioeconomic issues that are affecting black people or structural or institutional racism. If you're not seeing these things, then you're left to feel like, man, Christianity speaks to middle class or upper middle class white concerns, but it doesn't speak to black concerns. Now, my response to that is not one of criticism, though I do believe there are some who rightfully could be criticized. I think that the response is we all write from a cultural context. You look at historically the Protestant Reformation, they're writing from a European context. Now there's other things that are going on in Christianity during the 16th century, 17th century, when the Reformation is taking off, but I'm not critical of those who are writing from Martin Luther, from Germany, for example, because that's their cultural context. Everyone is writing from a cultural context. And so what we need is to make sure we're listening to diverse people that are writing from a different station in life, a different demographic, and explaining how they're encountering the Gospel, the impact the Gospel is making on the issues of concern that they're experiencing. So people like a Carl Ellis Jr. or more recently, Alisa Fields, people like myself or others that are writing in this space, we need to listen to their voices because they're going to bring up concerns that are very important to them. I'll say one last example of this: Over the last couple of decades, in particular in the last decade, there was a lot of apologetics to the Mormon community. Now I'll say this, that's not the big issue in the neighborhoods that I was pastoring, right? What we're seeing is Black Hebrew Israelites. What we're seeing is Five Percenters. What we're seeing is the nation of Islam, Nation of God, scenario. These are religious movements, alternative religious movements that are ravaging the Black community, but you're not seeing a lot of conferences on those. You're not seeing a lot of books and materials. So when you hear an urban believer or a non-believer say, "Oh, Christianity is the white man's religion," that's part of the concern. The other part of the concern has to do with the historic way that our story is told. Sadly, this is why we need to expand on how we teach black history. Sadly, for most blacks in the US, the origin story of our history starts with slavery. And if that's your starting point for your history, then Christianity expressed through slave masters seems to be non-tenable. But when you understand that no, Christianity has a deep history in Africa. Martin Luther during the Protestant Reformation as he's shaping his theology and justification by faith alone is writing and visiting and interacting with an Ethiopian deacon named Michael. West Africa had Christianity well before the transatlantic slave trade had taken place. Ethiopia, going back to that, is one of the oldest Christian nations on our planet. When you understand that, then you understand that no, Christianity is not European, Eurocentric, or a white man's religion. But if you're told Christianity from a story that starts with slavery and continues on through Jim Crow, and even modern day institutional discrimination, you come to a conclusion, there's not much that Christianity has to offer for the problems I'm facing.

Sean: Chris, that’s really helpful to say, “Are we listening” when somebody says it’s a white man’s religion to what that really means instead of just launching into the historical response like you said. What’s the heart cry behind that? So I appreciate that you addressed both of those. Now you mentioned you called the Black Hebrew Israelites. I've heard about this more and more again. Who are they? What's their appeal? And what do you think are maybe some of the shortcomings?

Chris: Yeah, so they wouldn't describe themselves as a religious movement as more, they would describe themselves as a national identity. They are appealing to the black community because of a couple of different factors. Number one, the starting point of their question, which is very intriguing in the black community is, “Do you know who you are?” And so they're gonna start the conversation with urban men and women by asking that question, “Do you know who you are? Do you know your identity?” And because so much of Christianity's story in Africa has either not been told, or it's been what would be labeled whitewashed, meaning we've told European aspects of it, but we haven't told, for example, stories like Augustine of Hippo serving the church from Africa. Athanasius is in Africa. Tertullian is in Africa. There are so many church fathers that are from Africa. We're not telling the African aspects of their story or their heritage. What then is done by Hebrew Israelites is nothing different than what's done by Bart Ehrman. They will bring up issues that are easy to resolve if you've been educated or trained in these areas. But if you're not, to the novice, you're looking at these things and saying, "Oh my God, this wasn't told to me, so therefore I can't trust Christianity." The other thing about Hebrew Israelites is much like the Christian faith builds upon its Jewish roots, what the Hebrew Israelites will say is we were the original Jewish people, that the original Jewish people are darker in skin, they are a black people, and that our identity was basically, our ethnic identity was basically hijacked by Ashkenazi Jews, European Jews later on, and what we currently would see as the Jewish people, predominantly fair-skinned people. They would argue they have actually stolen our identity, that we were the original Hebrew people. Therefore, all of the promises of the Old Testament, all of the covenant promises that God gives to Abraham and his descendants are rightfully ours. And we have not experienced those benefits because we've been blind to our identity. We have been disobedient to the law, and just as God promises Israel punishments, if they're disobedient to his covenant and his law, we are up under those punishments. But if we come back to the knowledge of our identity and begin to live under the law. This is a very legalistic movement. That if we live under the law as faithfully as we can, then God's blessings will return back to us as a people. So that's really the framework of the Hebrew Israelites movement, which becomes very appealing to a group of people who are trying to make sense of their suffering, trying to make sense of their social station, trying to make sense of their historic identity, which they've been stripped from and not really taught. So this, all of those voids, the Hebrew Israelites, come in the field, and it doesn't say you have to walk away from Christianity, it just says you have to understand Christianity from an ethnocentric vantage point.

Scott: Chris, this is really helpful. I suspect that lots of our listeners are not familiar with groups such as the Hebrew Israelites. One group they might be more familiar with is what you mentioned a few minutes ago, the Nation of Islam. And we know Islam has been making pretty significant progress in black communities all over the world. Help our listeners understand exactly what the Nation of Islam is about and what its appeal is.

Chris: Yeah, let me just say one more thing if I could, Scott, and then I'll come back to the of Islam on why the Hebrew Israelites movement is significant, and it may not be to the average Caucasian believer, white believer, but it's very significant in the black community. Any movement only gains sustainability and credibility when you start seeing mainstream or middle to upper class or influential people accepting that belief system. What has happened with Hebrew Israelites is you have mainstream people or more popular influential figures now adopting that belief system. So I'm talking in hip hop, you have rap artists who are doing it, in television, people like Nick Cannon would identify that way. And in sports, you have athletes that have adopted this, from the NBA to the NFL to MLB. And so that's what makes it viable, is that now it's not just an underground movement, but now you have quote unquote mainstream influencers who have adopted it. So I just want to make sure that that is stated…

Sean: Yeah.

Chris: because there's a lot of movements out there that you don't hear mainstream people espousing. But when you hear Colin Kaepernick or you hear Nick Cannon, or when you hear NBA players saying, this is how I identify about like Kyrie Irving. So the whole thing with Kyrie Irving and the Jews or the whole thing with Kanye West and some of the things he was espousing, was the belief that we are the original Jewish people as Africans, as blacks, that our identity has been stolen, and this is why there was so much tension and offense around what happened with Kyrie and others. So I just want to make sure that point is made.

Scott: That's really helpful and insightful.

Chris: So when it comes to the Nation of Islam, you know, obviously the Nation of Islam made their heyday in the 60’s behind Malcolm X, later on Farrakhan, Elijah Muhammad. And here's what has been their rhetoric, their preaching, their homiletic, if you will. Their homiletic has been Jesus came to speak to the here and now, not just the ever after. So they really were critical of a Billy Graham approach to Christianity that really prepared the soul for heaven. What they spoke of is a faith that was concerned with how you live now. So Hell was experienced on earth if you did not fall into God's will and have concern for neighbor. And so they really tried to leverage the ethic of loving your neighbors yourself and really tried to drive that into what Jesus was most concerned about, was how we live here and now and us addressing the injustices of that. The other thing that the Nation of Islam did very, very well, or does very well, is male empowerment. The primary focus of their social programs was how do we help this swath, this broad group of black males who are being overlooked? Now, let me just say this. We are currently seeing an awakening across our country around the fact that we have a male problem. There is a male crisis in our country. Now I'm talking broadly, black, white, young men are not as likely to go to college anymore. They're more likely to commit violent crimes. You guys know a lot of the studies and a lot of conversation that's around that. Well, that conversation has been happening in the black community for decades now, that we have a male crisis, a lack of male empowerment. Many of them are not even showing up in unemployment statistics because they just flat out stop looking for a job. So what do we do to empower them? How do we re-engage them? How do we help these men who have gone through mass incarceration and the United States has more of its population in prisons and jails than any other country on the planet and predominantly those folks that are incarcerated are black and brown people. So the Nation of Islam went specifically into the jails, went specifically into urban communities, and they taught ethics, they taught we don't drink, we watch our diet, we make sure we are taking care of our families. This was not a nefarious thing. This was actually a genuine attempt to try to give a moral framework to a group of people that quite honestly, Christianity was overlooking. And as someone who is the product of the black church, I will tell you that one of the things that the black church has to improve in, and some have done a great job of improving in, is making sure we center ministry to men. And not just build our churches on the backs of women. And so much of the black church has been very much female centric, very egalitarian, very much focused in on the blood, sweat, and tears of women. And that's not a criticism praise God for black women and the contributions they've made to the spread of the Gospel, but oftentimes it's been at the neglect of men where the nation of Islam has been very male centric, much like Orthodox Islam is very male centric, the nation of Islam has been as well. So that's the appeal.

Sean: That's super interesting, for a number of reasons, but let me ask this, you can help us with: When I look at apologetics in the wider evangelical community, it tends to be probably more white and male than other demographics.

Chris: Yeah.

Sean: Although I think that's really growing and it's changing. We're getting a number of women in our program, a number of different minorities, which is exciting in some fashion. But in the black community, how much interest, is there growing interest in apologetics? Is this one way that appeals to men? What's the sense of the movement within the black church in terms of kind of apologetics?

Chris: Absolutely. There's growing appeal. And part of the reason why I wrote my book, Sean and Scott was to be able to highlight that reality.

Sean: Wow.

Chris: There's a false assumption that African-American or Black Christianity is not concerned with the life of the mind. That critical questions are not being asked. I began to put on, this is 15 years ago, I began to put on conferences and gatherings to take up a lot of the big philosophical questions. What is true? How do we know what is knowledge, epistemology, bringing in scholars to be able to talk about historical evidences for faith. Being able to take on questions ranging from homosexuality to AI and technology. What I found was that these were subjects that the Black community was conversing in, that were interested in, they wanted to dialogue about. And we've seen since that time movements like the Jude 3 Project and Lisa Fields, who's doing a phenomenal job and mainstreaming these conversations. We've seen people like Eric Mason as well, Charlie Dade, others that have mainstreamed these conversations. So yes, there is a hunger for apologetics. And again, it's like any other group that when we answer questions that our audience is not asking, it is no different than if we did not answer the question at all.

Sean: Wow.

Chris: Or no different than if if we answered the question wrongly. So giving right answers to the wrong questions has the same results as giving the wrong answers to the right questions.

Sean: You can maybe make the case it's worse because it's just so tone deaf to where people are really at, you know, you could probably make that…

Chris: When any group asks a question of the Gospel and they don't get it answered, they leave assuming that's because there is no answer. And what I've tried to argue and others is that the Gospel is sufficient, that it answers the questions of the head and the longings of the heart. And so when we begin to identify what the right questions are, and that comes from listening to why people are opting out of church, why people are deconstructing, what are the barriers that kept you from Christianity. When we listen to those folks who are in urban communities answer these questions, it helps us to be able to shape a relevant apologetic. And some have been doing it for years, and they do it really well. And I'm grateful to be able to stand on the shoulders of those who have done it.

Sean: So Chris, one last question for you. I'm curious how you would counsel me, you know, me personally, we've known each other for years, my ministry focus, how you would counsel me to maybe equip or partner with the Black Church and apologetics. And so you don't have to say it. I know one thing is get your book and read it for people that are listening. Seriously, it was a game changer for me starting with that article you wrote in Christianity Today. I've hosted some conversations here on our podcast on my YouTube channel. I've had Eric Mason on to discuss this. But how would you counsel me and others outside of the black community to just better equip and partner with and understand and engage African Americans in the larger apologetics and theological realm?

Chris: Yeah, first off, I appreciate the question. And even the recommendation of my book, I hoped when I wrote my book that it would be kind of like the field of systematic theology, where it just opens up a field of study. I didn't attempt to write the end all book on the urban apologetics. My greatest joy is to see other urban apologetic books coming out now, and I'm grateful for it. So the first thing we can do, particularly those of us who have institutional posts, is to encourage scholarship in urban communities. And there's a lot to that, overcoming the cost barrier. But honestly, there's just an awareness. We often don't market our institutions well in urban communities, and so I am, in all reality, a product of some friends who, a mentors who told me that there were actually Christian institutions that I could get higher education training in. I didn't know graduating from high school as a kid growing up in Detroit that a Biola existed. I didn't know that a Moody existed. There was not the marketing of our programs and our institutions in my community. So I would say it starts there. As it pertains to reading books, there's so many books that are out now, but I would say even more importantly is following our bibliography. So when you're reading these books, look for the footnotes, and that will send you on a journey of being able to see the original sources and the underlying resources that have undergirded this whole field of study that is now getting more attention in urban apologetics. So that's where you're going to be introduced to a J.D. Alders Roberts or a Howard Thurman and those who have been writing them, a Marvin McMickle, who have been writing on this for years, for decades, a Carl Ellis Jr. and others, you'll be introduced to them when you follow the bibliography of our writing. And then finally, I would say, continue to do what you're doing, and that is to just simply stay conversant. Our professional lives are only gonna be as diverse as our personal lives. So as we diversify our personal lives and we're conversant with groups of people specific individuals from different communities, then that expands and pours over into our professional lives as well. And I do want to commend you and you guys for the folks you've talked to for highlighting conversations like this, because I think it makes a huge difference. And here's what we should hope. And I'll close with this. We should hope to be able to be historians who celebrate the spread of the Gospel among various people groups. If I were to ask you, how did the Gospel spread among the Ephesians during the first century? You could tell me, because there's a book in the Bible called Ephesians. How’d the Gospel spread among the Corinthian people in the first century. How’d the Gospel spread among the Romans in the first century. What our Bible and our New Testament is, is a celebration of how the Gospel spread among various ethnic groups as the gospel spread from the Jewish people in Jerusalem into the gentile people groups of the world. Well, the Gospel continues to spread, and today, the reason why I celebrate Black History Month and why I celebrate Hispanic Awareness Month, Heritage Month, is because I want to, much like Paul did, and others, I want to be able to tell the story of how the Gospel is spreading to the glory of God among various people groups in our day.

Sean: Amen, brother. I love it.

Scott: I think we should close in prayer right there and be dismissed.

Sean: (Laughing) I know, exactly. That was awesome. Chris, we so appreciate your clarity, your boldness, your passion. Again, your book, Urban Apologetics, is fantastic. And really, as far as I'm aware, where it was one of the first that put this issue about doing apologetics in the city with minority communities on the map. And it's thrilling to hear you say that this is just a growing movement. So we appreciate you. Thanks so much for coming back. And again, folks listening, we highly recommend Urban Apologetics by Chris Brooks. Thanks for joining us, Chris.

Chris: God bless.

Sean: The Think Biblicaly podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including our Masters in Christian Apologetics, where I teach, and our guest today, Chris Brooks, graduated in 2010, is now offered fully online. Visit biola.edu/talbot to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation, please give us a rating on your podcast app and consider sharing it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.