A Christian and an Atheist Talk about Why We Need to Change the Conversion Conversation
By JIM HENDERSON, MATT CASPER
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2013 Jim Henderson and Matt Casper
All rights reserved.
WHAT'S WRONG WITH JIM?
JIM: Before we can explore how Christians can better relate to their atheist friends, neighbors, and family members, it is important to address some of the common misconceptions Christians have about what atheists think. As Casper and I traveled and spoke with Christian groups, certain questions came up time and again. These are also the questions I mentioned in the introduction, so let's give Casper an opportunity to answer them here because they not only reveal the preconceived notions that many Christians have about "godless atheists," but they also prevent many believers from even daring to start a conversation with a nonbeliever, and they stand in the way of our ability to communicate effectively with nonbelievers when they gather enough courage to trust us with their questions.
Casper, we've heard that atheists see the Bible as a fairy tale, and that people like you think the Bible is complete fiction. True or false?
CASPER: I know there are some atheists and other nonbeliever groups who see the Bible— and the Koran and the Talmud and the Book of Mormon— as a collection of fairy tales, but there's no way that applies to all of us. Personally, I know there's a lot of history to be found in the Bible and there's a lot of help to be found in it as well. I don't disagree with much of it at all.
I will confess, though, that I struggle with people who believe every word to be 100 percent true from beginning to end since there are so many contradictions. I always wonder how these folks reconcile the discrepancies. There are blogs and entire websites devoted to explaining these complications, but the "Sunday school" answer usually seems to be that mankind can't divine the will of God (but the blogger or website author will certainly give it a shot!)
From some atheists' perspectives, well, those contradictions are used as proof that the whole Bible is malarkey. I think it's a moot point, but I also think it might help some Christians to keep in mind that using the Bible as some form of "proof" is a nonstarter for most nonbelievers. Christians need to remember that nonbelievers also " nonbelieve" the Bible, and perhaps even "nonbelieve" the Bible more than they "nonbelieve" in God.
Speaking for myself, I think the Bible has a lot of important, moving, and wonderful stories, but there are also a lot of rules that may have applied back then but don't really apply now. (I mean, come on: How many Christians are really following the command not to wear clothes of mixed fiber?) But the best part of the Bible for me has always been the words of Jesus.
Jesus' words, as recorded in the Bible, make almost uniform sense to me, except for the supernatural components. (But I feel the same way about the teachings of Buddha: It all makes sense except the reincarnation parts.) And Christianity is really all about Jesus, right? I mean, it's His name on the box.
So though I may struggle with many aspects of the Bible, most of what Jesus said is inspiring and enlightening for me. And one thing all our church visits taught me is that the Bible can be used in these discussions the way some people use statistics: selectively. And now, like so many of the pastors we saw during our church visits, I, too, find verses from the Bible to support what I'm saying and gloss over those that don't.
JIM: My relationship with Casper is partially a learning experiment. I frankly consider it a privilege to hang out with someone (whom I believe) Jesus loves, and have him tell me as we go along the path together what he is and isn't experiencing relative to my perceptions. I want to closely compare and contrast my social construction of reality with his, and this begins with his perspective on the tenets of the faith I want him to embrace.
If I don't hear Casper, if he's simply a target or an object of my evangelistic desire, what do I do when he fails to fulfill my expectations? What do Christians do with nonbelievers as a whole? Where do we start if we can't defend our faith with the very handbook that we were given to instruct us? Well, Casper has given us a pretty big hint on that one: Jesus.
Some Christians believe that atheists unfairly target Christians over other people of faith. What do you say about that, Casper?
CASPER: First I would ask, Is this an accurate perception? Maybe it is, but I prefer to look at things on a case-by-case basis. Some might say Christianity is the most hypocritical faith—for example, many Christians in America claim to worship a God of love, but at the same time they're okay with gross prejudices, violent discriminations, and mass murder by the military—and therefore maybe Christianity is the most worthy target.
Some might say that most atheists are former Christians, with damage, and that is what makes them categorically hate Christianity. Others might say Christianity is "safe" to target because going after Islam in a similar fashion could quickly get ugly and violent.
For me, I just understand Christianity more than any other religion and therefore have more specific questions about it. I was raised in America and attended church as a child. I even went to a Catholic college, though not for the Catholicism. I have never been Catholic. I didn't even know what Ash Wednesday was about, so imagine my surprise freshman year when I suddenly saw everybody walking around with ashes on their foreheads. I'd point it out—"Hey, you have some dirt on your head "—and they'd say, " Ha-ha, very funny," and I'd say, "No, really, you do!" I felt like I was in the twilight zone.
Anyway, I am definitely experienced with the Christian "brand." And maybe this makes me—atheist or not—qualified enough to speak about the issues I have observed in American Christianity, having been raised around it.
But just because I know far more about Christianity than I do about Islam, for example, doesn't mean I have "brand loyalty" to it or to any faith more than another. When you're an atheist, you don't have a horse in this race. When someone says they believe in an all-powerful God—and I don't believe in gods of any kind—why would I say one god I don't believe in is better than another god I also don't believe in? And in this case, it looks to me as if Christianity and Islam are worshiping the same God anyway.
I think it can actually be a benefit (even an honor) to have so many nonbelievers more interested in Christianity than perhaps any other faith, because, when handled well, their interest gives you more opportunities to share what you believe and why.
JIM: Sharing your faith is intimidating on a good day, but going up against people who are well- known for their faith (or lack of it) is a whole other level of scary. Have you ever had the opportunity to "Save a Celebrity"? Someone famous, like Bob Dylan or Lady Gaga. Well, I have! I am going to tell you this story as an illustration of a choice we have. The direction we choose to go has a direct correlation to perpetuating the perceptions of Christianity that Casper just covered.
In 2009, I was invited to do an interview with Ira Glass, host and creator of This American Life. Ira is one of America's best story tellers and a certifiable rock star to about two million people who avidly follow him on the radio.
He was famous, he had an audience, he was an atheist, and he was asking me about evangelism! Here was my big chance to "Save a Celebrity"! How did I do? You can listen to the interview in the This American Life archives, but let me spare you the digging and the wait.
Realizing that millions of people would be listening and that God might be giving me this unique opportunity to "preach the gospel" to an audience of exceedingly difficult-to-reach cultural elites who definitely skew non- evangelical (read: seriously unsaved), I basically bombed. Here's how the conversation went.
Ira: Jim, isn't it true that your version of evangelism actually leads to nothing?
Jim: Ira, as I see it, I have two scenarios. Scenario 1 is I "witness" to you and valiantly attempt to save you right here on the radio. But if history is any indicator, and barring a true miracle of divine intervention, you will most likely reject my offer. I then go back to my supporters and claim victory, even though you said no, because our evangelism paradigm provides me an "out."
As long as I try to save you, I still get "points" for being courageous enough to boldly preach the gospel. Another evangelistic loophole I can use is to claim that Jesus said people (especially famous people like you) would reject me. So even though you remain lost and on your way to my hell, I actually win! And, oh, one other thing: You and I will never speak again. But hey, this is spiritual warfare and losing a possible relationship with you is simply collateral damage.
In scenario 2, I say something like, "Ira, is there anything that I believe to be true about Jesus that you want to know more about?" I'm transparent and direct. I keep things real without placing undue pressure on our relationship. Instead of my pushing something on you, this approach requires that you pull something from me. You say yes or no and I answer. If you're interested in following Jesus right now, I say, "Cool, let's talk or pray." And if you say you're not interested in following Jesus right now, I say, "Cool, let's grab a coffee and talk about your show." You and I continue to hang out and learn from each other and see what happens.
I told Ira, "I choose scenario 2 every time."
I said this not because I was afraid to give him my personal testimony or tell him about Jesus. I'd already done that with hundreds of people. Nor was it because I was trying to be progressive, relevant, or postmodern. And it's certainly not because I don't believe in conversion.
I chose scenario 2 for a simple and very strategic reason:
People typically come to faith (or buy a car, choose a school, or invest their money) as the result of an influential relationship with someone they trust and are conversant with.
So you see, we can either continue to give nonbelievers ammunition for their aversion to the faith, or we can back away from our conversion checklists and leave doors open for them to walk through as they grow more curious.
Casper, do you think there is anything useful in religion? Some atheists say that religion is always dangerous.
CASPER: Always dangerous? Of course not! The best thing I ever heard about this—and I don't remember where I heard it—was that religion is a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people. It's totally subjective. For example, I love it that Jim has faith. It drives him to help others. I hate it that a guy like Fred Phelps, the leader of Westboro Church in Kansas, who pickets at the funerals of AIDS victims and soldiers killed in combat, has faith. His so-called faith drives him to behave monstrously.
You can point to the wonderful things Christians do to serve others and make the world a better place. You can also point to the bloody slaughter of the Crusades. I don't think there's anything but a subjective answer to the question. Religion is a good thing when it inspires people to help others. But it has also proven to be a very bad thing in many other ways.
Casper, what about your team's version of Fred Phelps? (Yes, I'm talking about Richard Dawkins.) Would you agree that atheists are the ideological enemies of Christians?
CASPER: Good grief! No! Different does not mean we're at odds. I mean, come on! I am very different from my children, but we're not enemies. Women are different from men, etc. And as far as Christian ideology goes ... well, it seems to change from person to person, so I have to consider people on a case-by-case basis. I think anyone who calls himself a Christian would be well served to do the same with atheists: case by case.
I can understand why Christians might consider Richard Dawkins their ideological enemy as he does nothing but attack them; but don't lump me in with him. And I will do the same. I consider Fred Phelps my ideological enemy—because he seems to stand only for discrimination and seems to think it's appropriate to share his twisted views when people are at their most heartbroken—but by no means do I consider all Christians to be my enemies.
And I know some folks think I've been hard on prosperity preachers; but the truth is, I do not consider them my ideological enemies. I see them more as Jesus' ideological enemies, since it seems they are using Jesus' name to make themselves wealthy.
JIM: One of the most influential books I've read is called To Change the World. In it, professor James Davison Hunter analyzes what it actually takes to "change the world." He suggests that Christianity suffers from idealism:
Idealism misconstrues agency, implying the capacity to bring about influence where the capacity may not exist or where it may only be weak. Idealism underplays the importance of history and historical forces and its interaction with culture as it is lived and experienced. Further idealism ignores the way culture is generated, coordinated, and organized. Thus it underrates how difficult it is to penetrate culture and influence its direction.
Perhaps more than any other Christian practice, modern day evangelism beliefs and practices emerge out of the mix of idealism and denial concerning the agency of sin, culture, and complex human experience. The inflexibility of so much idealism is what produced the Crusaders and people like Fred Phelps, who put such horrible black marks on the history and perception of Christianity.
This same attitude is what makes people such as Richard Dawkins just as ineffectual. Are you okay with alienating everyone you are trying to influence just to make your point? Are you content to feel you've made a good argument at the expense of potential relationships? It's one thing to have a set of ideals you strive toward; it is another thing to be so stringently idealistic that there is no room for individual experience.
Do you think Christians are failures if they don't fully embody Christ? In other words, do atheists expect all Christians to act just like Jesus?
CASPER: Isn't that what being a Christian is all about? You don't have to be an atheist to expect Christians to act like Jesus. You only need to be able to read the Bible.
JIM: That pretty much says everything we need to know. Of all the directives, missions, callings, and charges, the one thing—the only thing—we are really expected to do is show others why we claim Jesus, why we want others to know Him. If we aren't doing that, and if Casper is a good barometer of the view from the other side of the fence, then we can't possibly expect atheists to have an interest in being on the bandwagon.
However, the reason this feels so daunting is because of the false belief many of us have been taught: "When conversion is done right, it is dramatic and instantaneous."
We have this image in our heads because modern-day evangelicalism has put it there, meaning the preponderance of salvation stories that are preached, printed, or produced for Christian TV are fast, furious, and fantastic.
But in my experience, that's not how things typically go down. The truth typically has a bumpier road, one filled with unexpected stops and detours. Have you ever heard an evangelist tell a story like this?
"When I was six years old, I went to the altar. When I was ten, I walked away. When I was sixteen, I got saved at youth camp and then when I went to college, I dropped out and started taking drugs. I lived with a girl for five years and she got saved, and for five more years I said no. Then I lost my job, so I asked my girlfriend and her church friends to pray for me. I got a job, so I felt guilty and started coming back to church, and I recently gave my heart to the Lord, but I'm not one hundred percent sure about the whole tithing thing and Jesus being the only way and all that stuff."
You haven't heard a story like this because it's "too normal," and if evangelists are anything, it's "not normal." We Christians like our evangelists to be different and on fire.
You're lost, then you're found, then you're filled with God's love and spread the Good News until you die and join God in heaven. No wavering or wandering allowed.
The only problem is that's not how people usually experience faith or come to faith. The fact is, for most of us, faith is fluid. Researchers Nick Spencer and Peter Nielson tell us:
Wandering is part of the journey itself. We do people's stories and indeed the whole business of "finding faith" a disservice if we envisage it as a simple, predictable, linear path, from which we deviate at a cost. Awkward as it may be, people's journeys are personal, unpredictable, unique, and marked by meanderings. Sometimes, walking away from the path is part of the journey. (Continues...)
Excerpted from SAVING CASPER by JIM HENDERSON, MATT CASPER. Copyright © 2013 Jim Henderson and Matt Casper. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc..
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