I sat down with Dr. John Stackhouse to discuss his thoughts on Ravi Zacharias and what this scandal says about the state of modern evangelicalism.
My questions are in bold.
In May of 2020, you noted that you would not be adding your name to the list of those who tipped their hat to Ravi Zacharias, heralding him as one of the greatest apologists of all time. This was in the midst of the likes of Mike Pence comparing Zacharias to C.S. Lewis. Can you unpack your reservation or reluctance? What is your professional opinion of Zacharias as an apologist?
Ravi Zacharias started out as an evangelist, and he remained an evangelist—rhetorically speaking. His breakout lectures at Harvard, the beginning of the Veritas Project, are excellent examples of a style of speaking popularized most by Billy Graham. RZ spins out a kind of mood, a cloud of references to pop culture, classical culture, current events, and a key scripture or two to make the basic point: “The world is in trouble, and so are you.” Then, yes, Jesus is the answer.
This is perfectly fine as an evangelistic appeal. God certainly blessed Graham over the years as he used it, and he seems to have blessed RZ as an evangelist. What remains inexplicable to me is why RZ felt, after that Amsterdam meeting of evangelists, he ought to become an apologist instead. It seems to have been something of much higher status in his mind—now he would be an intellectual, a guru, instead of just an itinerant preacher (I can’t help but suspect his Indian background weighed heavily here)—and it remains puzzling to me because he never became a competent apologist.
When I say he remained incompetent, I mean that in the strict sense of offering a clear, well-grounded, and compelling argument. He never mastered any of the material on which he so confidently spoke—matters that generally take sustained graduate study or serious library time to understand, let alone to teach upon. I can’t think of a single distinguished expert in the fields he made his own that endorsed him as a serious player. And his complete lack of publications in academic journals and presses underscores the point.
I don’t mean to say that he was disqualified merely because he lacked a PhD! Lots of brilliant thinkers in Christian history did not earn doctorates, including, yes, C. S. Lewis himself. But they did generally have very strong educations (Lewis earned three degrees at Oxford) and demonstrated their competence in their written work. RZ instead demonstrated a slapdash knowledge of vast and complicated domains that served to impress only the crowds that knew even less than he did—which, of course, weren’t hard to find among evangelical laypeople and undergraduate students.
What do you feel contributed to Zacharias’ soaring popularity despite claims of fraudulent credentials (as well as the rather bizarre scandal involving what appeared to be an online emotional affair in 2017)?
RZ mastered the “music” of public speaking. He just didn’t have much in the way of “lyrics.” Listen and look: his modulation of his attractive voice, his eye contact, his gestures, his constant name-dropping and other prestige-references, his invocation of scholarly terminology and catch-phrases (which only experts in the audience would see as wrongly used). He was excellent at that, even as what he actually said was usually incoherent and often flatly wrong. But experts didn’t even bother showing up to hear him, and who among the few who did show up would want to spoil the show by taking him apart in the question time? Experts generally just stay away, with no stomach for going after poseurs like RZ.
That is, in my view, to the discredit of my fellow academicians. How can we blame people for following RZ if those of us who know better don’t speak up? It’s a serious cultural problem in evangelicalism that the true scholars generally don’t mix it up with the popular speakers, who then have the field to themselves.
Should Christians continue to benefit from Ravi Zacharias in terms of his videos and books? Why or why not?
I just don’t think he’s very good at what he says or does. Yes, lots of people have learned from him—but it’s not as if they couldn’t have learned better from someone who is actually expert. RZ was a master self-promoter. His big boat swamped all of the scholarly little boats. But there’s really not much to his work: look for properly trained people to do expert work, just as you shouldn’t trust some blogger with barely first-aid training to advise you about serious medical matters.
You’ve written on ethics. What must change within modern Western Christianity in order for a more biblical ethic to be employed? What might it take for a more Christ-like ethic to become the norm in Christian culture?
I have written on this at length (e.g., “The Seven Deadly Signs” http://www.johnstackhouse.com/the-seven-deadly-signs/). Here I’ll say just this. Evangelicalism is at its heart a populist movement. We will keep generating heroic leaders whose claim to leadership is simply…popular support. So those people in a position to guide and police such people and organizations (boards especially, but also knowledgeable people in the field) have got to have the wisdom and the courage to expect problems, and outright sin, without freaking out in embarrassment and horror about predictable human frailty, on the one hand, and without covering up and colluding with evil on the other. Transparency, accountability, critique and affirmation in equal measure: it’s pretty basic stuff. Indeed, you can read all about it in one particular book: the Bible.
[End of interview]
Dr. John Stackhouse is an award-winning scholar, teacher, and sought-after speaker whose fields of interest include evangelicalism, ethics, and the history of Christianity. His most recent book is Can I Believe? Christianity For the Hesitant (2020, Oxford University Press) and his forthcoming book is Evangelicalism: A Very Short Introduction (2021, Oxford University Press).You can find Dr. Stackhouse at http://www.johnstackhouse.com.
Interview conducted by Paul Calin Moldovan.