How to be Right and Still Lose the Argument

*This post was originally written 6/24/10 in a journal entry of mine, edits have been made for posting purposes.

Today I was distracted…

Not in the typical sense either. Usually, when I get to doing something productive, it lasts for an hour and then some shiny, glittery thing catches my eye and I’m gone. Well that had been the case most of the day, but then I buckled down for a while–my standard hour–before I was distracted again. Through a long string of mouse clicks that started on Facebook (as they usually do) I somehow landed at clips of Ravi Zacharias on Youtube. Then it was over to a Dateline debate between atheists and creationists, back to Ravi, and finally to some video clips of a British talkshow with an appearance by Richard Dawkins. Three hours later, I’m not anymore informed and overly ready to butcher some unfortunate person with scathing, impetuous words derived from deep passions and even deeper levels of ingorance. And I’m not sure what bothers me more–the inconsistency inherent in all the arguments I listened to, explaining why God can’t exist or why religion is silly but “evolutionarily” understandible, or the failure of Christian apoligists to give any kind of decent answer to those that are asking the first kind of questions listed (To be fair, Ravi did do a good job answering these questions most of the time).

Another thing that really bothers me is the poor rhetorical execution of most of the answer and responses Christians give to atheists and evolutionists alike. It’s so very much “anti-.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that I think we should be open to ideas that eliminate God or His fingerprints from the Earth, but I am saying that we should be open to people- their right to think, their right to form opinions, and their right to reason–and quit alienating the “opposition.”

It makes me think of a dinner I once had with a friend/mentor of mine named Todd. Todd has an incredible gift for asking pointed questions that always deepen conversation and reveal motivations and biases behind what a person is thinking and saying. At this dinner, after spouting off at the mouth for roughly twenty minutes about things I thought were wrong with the American church, Todd gently advised me that rhetorically,  it’s not good practice to set yourself in opposition to someone when trying to convince them of the validity of your views.

This makes me think back to my perusing through Youtube videos today, to one video I haven’t yet mentioned. The clip was of some young, savvy, impassioned guy on a street corner. In the video clip, he’s giving another guy a “good person” test using a method I recognized from my time spent in a large college ministry. The examination started civil enough, but as soon as the young evangelist identified a crack in his test subject’s thinking (he professed to be an atheist), the evangelist immediately jumped all over him in front of the crowd who had gathered to listen in. Sure his words weren’t as cut and dry as “You’re wrong and I don’t agree with you,” but the manner in which he addressed his subject was completely combative. So the patient atheist just sat there, attempting to answer, one by one, each question the fiery evangelist grilled him with, but each time he began to answer he was interrupted. Over and over the evangelist fired a question at the man, then as soon as he heard what he was looking for, he’d interrupt and begins to pose another question. This happens over and over and all the while all I can see is the social cleavage this evangelist is creating between his subject and any future encounters he might have with other Christians. It’s moments and stories like these that make me wonder if Christians aren’t responsible for the majority of atheists and deists out there. Responsible, because we push away anyone who doesn’t already “get it.” But what if you have questions (as many “agnostic” folks do)? Or what if you’ve arrived at the answer that makes the most sense to you, and it’s not Christianity? I imagine that if either of those scenarios is the case then some impassioned person standing on the curb is either clearly a person to avoid in your search for answers, or an arrogant nuisance which only proves that Christianity is an inconsistent belief system–one that talks about love, acceptance, and fogiveness and promotes opposition and judgmentalism.

This whole discussion draws my mind to an account of Jesus’s life recorded by John, specifically a scene with a Samaritan woman and a well (John 4). See, I know exactly how these combative types would respond to me, using this encounter in the Bible as evidence: “Jesus didn’t sugar-coat things, he told it how it was!” But then I think, “Yeah, but he was God, he had a right to.” Which then also makes me think of the prostitute who nobody threw stones at because they had all sinned. Jesus could have judged her and thrown rocks, but he decided not to. In fact, the way I read it, Jesus lived and taught in a way that said most of mankind was on the same team. And that’s exactly what bothers me about our young evangelist friend. In fact, it’s what bothers me about Christian apologetics in general. The whole thing seems to be used to show atheists (et al) how they’ve gotten it all wrong. And of course, most of us would immediately wonder, “whose going to positively respond to that?!?” 

Moreover, if we’re all on the same team, then how is setting ourselves against part of the group going to affect us all? I’d imagine it will cause some exceptionally large divides and keep us from making much headway. It will absolutely undermine progress; it will make new teams. Of course there were other subdivisions on the team when Jesus was around too–a couple of groups that refused to play with the other kids (Pharisees, Sadducees)– and He didn’t really like them much. But see, the same thing is going on now. We want those who aren’t on the team to accept our rules before we’ll interact with them. But what’s more, we don’t take time to understand WHY or how they got to their rule set and conclusions to begin with. How on Earth does that make for good debate?

The thing is, in this whole Atheists vs. Christians, Evolutionists vs. Creationists, “no-gloves” brawl, we’ve forgotten that there are people over on their side, and those people usually have reasons why they feel a certain way. And those reasons usually have experiences tied to them. And it seems like nobody asks about those.

Listening to the Small Voice

Last night I sat on my front patio, with its cracked cement and gravel laden corners, and drank wine and ate hot dogs with my dear friend, Jon the Rebel. Jon, who has undergone significant changes in his heart and spiritual journey in the last year, sat catty-corner to me in a lawn chair and pleaded for me to recognize the working of the Holy Spirit. Jon, his wife, my wife, and myself, have talked many times over the past couple years about alternatives to the American church format. We have all felt a deficiency in how the Western church functions. Jon and his wife recently took a trip to Uganda for five weeks. With a couple of weeks left in their trip, Jon’s wife Keisha was offered a job and a place to live in Uganda. They had a little more than a week to make the decision to stay. Jon has been back in the U.S. now for about three weeks while Keisha begins her job with a non-profit healthcare organization there in Uganda. Jon is tying together loose ends here in the states before heading back to Uganda in September. This has allowed us time to reconnect, and I have found Jon to be a more confident, and convicted individual.

As Jon sat and debated with me, he mostly wanted me to see that we had all (his family and mine) arrived at a point where we needed to act; we need to do something about the stirring in our hearts, he said. Jon and I feel the church we see in the U.S. has become removed from the original intentions and purposes it had in the New Testament. My hang up about acting on these convictions has always been a feeling that we are in an underwhelming minority of Christians who feel similarly about this issue. Jon, on the other hand, patiently reasoned with me and surmised that perhaps there are more Christians out there– ones who feel as we do– who want to try something different (though we’re not entirely sure what that looks like yet).

A couple of nights earlier, Jon and I sat at his kitchen table around midnight talking about the same topic. However, during this earlier encounter, Jon made the argument that the stirring in us about the deficiencies of the modern American church were not going away, and were therefore legitimate callings. Perhaps, he proposed, this feeling inside me is so deep and won’t go away because it’s a “thing.” A “thing” we need to give credence to.

Now I have a complex friendship with Jon. We’ve been everything from acquaintances to confidants, mentors and pupils, brothers to enemies. Honestly I’ve often looked at him as an ongoing ministry in and of himself. Yet, I have watched Jon  grow in leaps and bounds this past year, and last night  Jon made me realize my attitude toward him has been wrong–that we can all learn from each other, no matter the perceived degree of spiritual maturity we each posses. Last night,  Jon humbled and taught me. Jon had me realize that we all possess convictions, and those are not accidental. Sometimes convictions are off base, and people get into trouble when they don’t seek out wise men and women to bounce those ideas off of. But these convictions I’ve been speaking about– the ones about the church– we’ve been talking about them for years, and with many, many different people. Almost all of those people agree with what we’re observing too! Yet, for some strange reason, I had dismissed the possibility of exploring these convictions in action because I felt it improbable that anyone else would join in. So, basically I was guilty of exercising the type of logic that I want to see the world freed of: the logic of basing our actions and lifestyles off of what is acceptable to others. This realization made me wince.

Jon pointed out how all along this road we’ve been traveling along, in both our friendship and our spiritual journeys, we’ve both had a small voice speaking to us, prodding us, beckoning us not to settle for the mediocrity that we see so many Christians settling for in their churches, and subsequently in their spiritual walks. I am reminded of Elijah on the mountain, finding the voice of God, not in earthquakes or fire, but in a gentle breeze–a still, small voice. What’s more, this voice was speaking to both of us separately, but at the same time.

For almost three months now I’ve been toying with the idea of a blog– a tool to seek out others who feel that something is missing, that there is more we’re not experiencing in our churches. I’m not saying that all churches in the U.S. are bad, or that nobody grows or gets anything from being a part of them. In fact, I know that many, many people do have great church experiences, and many churches are wonderful facilitators of growth in their members’ lives. But, what if our modern approach isn’t the BEST way?  What if we changed the paradigm we think in when we think of “church?”

That’s what the small voice has been telling me for a few years now. It’s the same voice that Jon has been hearing. And if both of us have been hearing it, maybe there are others out there who are hearing the same voice.

God isn’t like us. He doesn’t have to go to people one at a time or call an assembly to tell us what’s on His heart. So that small voice, it was telling me that a blog might help to connect me with believers who are hearing the same voice. Maybe, just maybe it can.

It’s a theory.