“Oh, I used to be a Christian. I know all about it.”
“Man, I was raised in church and then saw through it.”
“I’ve studied Christianity, so…”
Ever been talking about the gospel with somebody and heard something like this? It can be intimidating, right? You’re trying to talk about the good news and it turns out they already know about and have rejected it. I know I’ve been hit with that sense of uncertainty before. In fact, it happened to me just the other day at a coffee shop.
I, once again, somehow managed to end up talking to an avid young philosophy student. Now, in the course of things, he mentions that he was an atheist, but had been raised Christian, gone to a Christian school, studied other religions in college, and was now “kinda bored” with the subject. I thought, “Okay, well, I’ll bite”–because, clearly, you don’t offer the college pastor the unsolicited bit of information that you’re “bored” with religion, if you don’t want to talk about it. So I followed up and asked a question I was curious about, “Hey, so, just to be clear, I’m curious: what do you think the main message of Christianity is? Like, at the descriptive level, what is the main message or ‘good news’ Christianity teaches?”
What followed was a fascinating little pop-explanation of how religion came about through ignorance, fear of the elements, and a need to justify morality. So I asked him again, “So, what’s the main message of Christianity?” And essentially, he boiled it down to morality with the threat of the deity to enforce it. Nothing about grace, Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection in our place, the forgiveness of sins, the kingdom of God, or anything approaching the message of salvation found in the New Testament.
So then, despite his professed well-researched understanding of Christianity, he actually didn’t know the gospel.
On the Value of Doubting Stories – Reflecting on this the other day, I was reminded of a thought-provoking piece by Alastair Roberts, drawing on philosopher/critical theorist Slavoj Žižek, in which he suggests that we ought to be a bit more suspicious of our autobiographical stories:
Personal stories can have the most profoundly distorting effect upon our moral judgment. By playing up the ‘luxurious’ details of personality and the ‘depth’ of individual character, we can blind ourselves to the true ethical nature of actions. Žižek’s phraseology is important—‘the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing’—and captures a number of important matters. First, ‘our story’ is not some eternal truth, but an account told by interested and unreliable narrators—ourselves—and should be handled very carefully as a result. Second, not only are we the narrators of our own stories but we are also the primary hearers—it is a story we ‘tell ourselves about ourselves.’ We are the ones most easily and typically deceived (usually willingly) by our own unreliable narration. Third, it is a story told ‘in order to account for what we are doing.’ As such it is a story typically designed to help us live with ourselves and our actions. It is usually a rationalization, an attempt to make sense of our actions retrospectively, in a manner that acts as a defence against the harshness of the ethical or rational judgment that they might otherwise provoke.
You and I tell ourselves stories about ourselves all the time. Sometimes they reflect reality accurately and sometimes they don’t. Actually, often-times they’re half-truths used to make ourselves feel better, smarter, more righteous, and justified in our actions than we really are.
What conclusion does Roberts draw from that? Among others:
We ought to be a lot less indulgent when it comes to personal stories more generally, a lot more alert to the ways that they are most fertile grounds for the deception of ourselves and others, and a lot more prepared to call them into question. Personal stories, while they should not be excluded, should not be treated as ‘sacred’, but subject to testing and judgment.
Now, very quickly, let me say this: I don’t bring this up in order to tell you to ignore, demean, or knee-jerk reject whatever someone says about themselves. Far from it! What I want to do is simply call our attention to the fact that we have reason to slow down, and do a little digging in our conversations about the gospel. With that in mind, I want to suggest two simple lines questions to ask in your conversations about the gospel.
1. Ask Them About Their Story – First, legitimately ask them about their story. You’ll find out who they are, or, at least, who they think of themselves to be, which is good in itself. Real love genuinely wants to know people. Also, as you ask questions, you’ll also find out what they actually mean when they say things like, “I used to be a Christian”, or “I studied Christianity.” Their Christian experience could be anything from a few months in youth group, or getting catechized as a child, or having an emotional experience in a church once, or a long, adult experience in a solid church.
For instance, I remember talking to one young lady who described herself as formerly Christian. As I asked her about her story, I came to find out she went to the school of a local, barely Christian mega-mega-”church” (and, to be clear, I’m not one who holds mega-churches in contempt), and rejected “Christianity” when a teacher she had respect for was summarily dismissed for budgetary reasons. This wasn’t some long, thoughtful rejection of Christian doctrine, but the angry disappointment of a young teenager with no exposure to the true gospel, in a group of hypocritical adults. With that in mind, the conversation I pursue with her is going to take a very different shape than the adult who has rejected a maturely grasped faith.
2. Ask Them What The Gospel Is – Honestly, this one’s basic, but so important. America is an increasingly post-Christian culture where a large portion of the population, especially younger generations, have little-to-no working knowledge of Christianity. Even in putatively religious communities, this is true. Living in Orange County as I do, I’m around a lot of people who’ve been in or around church, and so it’s very easy in conversations to assume a basic knowledge of the gospel that people don’t actually have. Whether because of poor, moralistic teaching, or just spiritual incomprehension, even some of those who’ve grown up around church their whole lives can’t tell you what the message of Jesus is.
Returning to my new friend in the coffee shop, by asking him about his own understanding of Christianity, giving him an opportunity to demonstrate he didn’t actually get it, I was given an opening to briefly present and explain the gospel properly, by way of contrast. If I’d have just taken his story at face value, I might have been led down any number of apologetic rabbit-trails without ever actually addressing the fundamental truth at issue. This is important for a number of reasons, but most of all because one of the greatest obstacles to people accepting the good news is never having properly understood it.
Of course, I am not saying everyone who tells you that sort of story is lying, confused, or only rejecting the gospel because they don’t understand it. Some have heard the gospel and have knowingly rejected it. That’s a real situation you’ll come up against. And that’s fine–God works in those situations too. I’d still encourage you to do feel free to do a little digging in your evangelistic encounters. A key question can make a world of difference.
Soli Deo Gloria