At some point, Christians were viewed by many in the West as annoying, perhaps prudish, even self-righteous. Sometimes believers set themselves as an example of holiness that the world could not or did not want to attain. To be called “holier than thou” was common.
But those days are long gone, says Stephen McAlpine, author of the new book Being the Bad Guys: How to Live for Jesus in a World That Says You Shouldn’t, published by The Good Book Company. McAlpine is a pastor, blogger, and ex-journalist who lives in Perth, Australia. He’s written some of the most provocative and creative commentary on this cultural moment that I’ve seen. And that’s why I was eager to read this book and talk with him for Gospelbound.
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Collin Hansen: At some point, Christians were viewed by many in the West as annoying, perhaps prudish, even self-righteous. Sometimes Christians set themselves as an example of holiness that the world could not or did not want to attain. To be called “holier than thou” was common.
But those days are long gone, says Stephen McAlpine, author of the new book Being the Bad Guys: How to Live for Jesus in a World That Says You Shouldn’t, published by The Good Book Company. McAlpine is a pastor, blogger, and ex-journalist who lives in Perth, Australia. He’s written some of the most provocative and creative commentary on this cultural moment that I’ve seen. That’s why I was eager to read this book and talk with him for Gospelbound. Thank you for joining me, Steve.
Stephen McAlpine: It’s great to be with you, Collin, across the miles and across the cultural divide.
Collin Hansen: The wonders of the internet.
Stephen McAlpine: Yes.
Collin Hansen: Steve, when did you realize you’re the bad guy?
Stephen McAlpine: When did I realize I was the bad guy? Well, I think partly, being a Northern Irishman, you go out to be a bad guy initially, and be a bit of a contrarian. But I think what I noticed more than anything was, maybe the last eight or nine years, that the tone in the culture shifted quite dramatically, that the Christian framework wasn’t the greatest thing that we were looking for, and it wasn’t even dispassionate disinterest. It was hostile interest.
But then again, I went to university in the 1980s and did a culture and creative writing degree, so I saw what was coming maybe 30-odd years ago, but it hadn’t left the university framework at that stage. Now that’s mainstream thinking, that whole framework that Christianity is the problem in the culture that we need to slough off and sort of find a new direction in a post-Christian West that will lead us to something, the liberty that Christianity promised but couldn’t deliver.
Collin Hansen: What Charles Taylor calls the coming-of-age narrative
Collin Hansen: Steve, how did this happen so quickly?
Stephen McAlpine: Well, I think it’s like anything. It doesn’t happen quickly in one sense. It happens over a period of time, but the collapse is quick. And I think there’s the whole buildup of I guess post-Enlightenment era, the understanding of where truth resides. Then you go into the cultural framework of the culture wars. You go back to the ’50s and the ’60s in the U.S. and the West, which sort of spread out a framework of thinking where your true identity was located within you in a way that you could discover in certain ways, that you curated your own narrative and created your own salvation. It’s as populist as Disney, I suppose, but it’s also got deep roots in philosophical thinking in the university departments. There’s the queer theory, the issues around how we deconstruct the culture we’re living in and then reconstruct it in a new way.
All those things took time to evolve. But in the last 40 or 50 years, the pace has picked up. Then I’d say in the last 20 years, it’s picked up even more, so that 20 years ago, I don’t think we were thinking that we were going to reach this moment. Many Christians thought the postmodern experiment would be that all ideas were up for grabs, and everything was morally in the same basket. That’s not what we’ve arrived at. We’ve arrived at a much more hostile and almost puritanical . . . almost the flip side of a Christian puritanical framework, where the same language that Christians have employed down the years of saint and sinner, things like that, have been taken by the culture and used in a post-Christian setting. And it’s quite a confronting thing to have the tools of your own armory kind of used against you in a different way, I think.
Collin Hansen: Now, there are many different ways you can do cultural analysis of this kind. You can focus on pop culture. You mentioned Disney there. You can focus on philosophy. You’ve talked about the university departments. You can focus on technology. You haven’t mentioned that one yet. Do you incline in one direction or another, or you find it more of a potpourri kind of approach to all of the above? How do you make sense of it?
Stephen McAlpine: Maybe it depends who I’m reading, but a potpourri, I think, because… Like Mark Sayers, another Australian pastor, lives in Melbourne, very secular city, Melbourne, says that technology has boomed this, has pushed this in a way. But he said, “It’s not Babylon out there. It’s Babylon in your hip pocket.” Your average 12- to 13-year-old child is pulling out the phone and surfing through… Remember that, surfing the internet? Going through.
The way that approaches their lives and the way it curates their lives is vastly different to how things were for us maybe 30 years ago, and the messages coming through are so strong, and so persuasive, and so plausible, and the frameworks that they are giving is that you must have a thicker plausibility structure to be able to combat that narrative. Culturally, I think that technology has really ramped it up. It’s broken down the time gap between those who are shaping the culture in the institutions and the kids and the younger people who are consuming it, so the time gap has shrunk.
And also, the influencers in the media. If you’re a wealthy and you’re a young wealthy person living in a good part of the United States where you’ve decided to craft your sexuality a certain way, and you’ve got the money and capacity to do it, the average 15-year-old girl sitting in the back blocks of Perth city in western Australia can find that information out very quickly, and adopt that framework themselves in an instant. In an Instagram, I should say. I think technology has ramped up the pace.
Collin Hansen: Yeah, I got to say, Steve, I’m probably inclining these days toward a more technological explanation of it. I think that makes… With what we’re seeing with things like social contagion, rapid onset gender dysphoria, things like that, it’s hard to imagine, without the technology, we’d be seeing what we’re seeing. But of course, without the fundamental philosophical shifts underneath it, we wouldn’t be seeing that either.
Now, by the way, I thought you were going to go for the phrase “the Babylon in your pants” as opposed to the back pocket. Either one is good. I think we could… I’m going to steal that.
Stephen McAlpine: The Babylon in your pants. It sounds like a series on Netflix, coming your way.
Collin Hansen: Sadly, it does. Sadly, it very much does. Now, Stephen, should we embrace the role as Christians as the bad guy? Or should we try to prove that we’re not as bad as the stereotypes?
Stephen McAlpine: Well, I guess there’s very much tongue in cheek when I wrote that title, because I think that there’s a… Certainly with the loud cultural noise that’s saying that Christianity is toxic, it’s bad, it’s oppressive, especially from the philosophical university cultural framework… And popular culture is always upstream of politics, which then gets nervous saying, “Oh, maybe we got to make sure that we’re on board with this new framework, or we’ll get voted out of office.” And law, kind of the legal framework, is sort of embedding those things as well.
But the bad guy thing for me is, how do you take what is there and that… You know in Scripture it says, “If you want to live a godly life for Christ Jesus, you will suffer.” How do you take that the right way, rather than being the jerk at work, so to speak?
There’s certainly a tone in some evangelical Christianity, and you would’ve seen it over the past few months, where “We’re going to take this place back by hook or by crook,” and by “this place,” I didn’t quite anticipate the Capitol a few weeks ago. But that’s where it ended up. And I think the bad guy routine can get you very hostile and angry and get you looking sort of suspiciously at everything.
But I think I’m using it in a much more ironic way, that somehow the Christians in today’s West have suddenly realized that it’s not going to be all beer and Skittles. It wasn’t for many Christians down the years. The culture pushed against them. And now we’re entering this post-Christian phase, which isn’t the same as pre-Christian paganism. It’s much more hostile, much more evangelistically driven, the post-Christian framework, and Christians are seen as the sinners in that framework, as those who are getting in the way of a good, utopian, joyful, free future. Christians have to decide, how do we live as a community of people that, even though people say we are the bad guys, they look at us and go, “Well, you know, they’re pretty loving. They’re pretty kind. They’re generous. They are forgiving.”
Douglas Murray, in his book The Madness of Crowds, mentions that in our culture today, people are fearful of losing forgiveness, or not being able to attain it after they’ve fallen through the cracks. I was working with a young woman who was trying to make some videos for Scripture Union here in Perth, and I asked her, “What are the three big issues that teenagers talk about and are worried about?” Predictably, she said the identity issue. That’s key. Purpose. I could pick those two. And the third one she said was forgiveness. Teenagers are worried that if they fall through the cracks, there is no one who will redeem them.
In a culture where you’re told that if you craft yourself the right way and are successful, it will work, you’re also being told, “And if you get it wrong, you’ve only got yourself to blame.” I think that’s a scary world. The church can come into that, even when it’s viewed suspiciously, with suspicion by a culture that’s saying, “We want to go past the Christian framework on sexual ethics in particular,” because it’s so tied to identity, and go, “You know, despite all that, there’s something rich and deep and good about the way they live together that I want a bit of.” That’s what I’m trying to pitch at.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. Oh, man, there’s a lot I can follow up on there. I was talking with Tim Keller for my podcast Life and Books and Everything, and he was talking about how he’s preparing to write about forgiveness, and trying to decide to take it in a more classically theological direction or in a more apologetic direction. And that’s precisely what you talked about there, is the apologetic dimension of it.
As he was talking, I realized we have a situation with propitiation without expiation. So the propitiation… We’ve got the suffering part down of the punishment you deserve when you betray the sort of social codes on social media. But we have no expiation. Your sins are not separated as far as the east is from the west. They travel with you forever. So the entire world now is like your junior-high cafeteria, when you’re afraid to meet those friends 20, 30 years down the road who remember that nickname, or remember that incident. Now that’s every single moment in every nook and cranny of your life.
Stephen McAlpine: That is debilitating, and that causes that freeze where you don’t know what to do. You speak to any clinical psychologist and they’ll say the most shaping years for someone’s life are their school years, and when they draw those things out, the pain of those years is very immediate if something happened bad in the school era. It was dog-eat-dog. But if you can bring those things up, dredge them up constantly, because they’re always on social media… “Here’s your Twitter statement from 10 years ago. You’re dumb.” That is scary. So young people… You’re finding it with sexting and things like that. When you’re 25 and someone finds a video of you from when you were 17, and your employer finds it, you’re done. I think it’s a brutal world we’re heading into if that keeps going at that level.
Collin Hansen: Yeah, I think there’s a million things you could say about these factors with the Trump administration, but I think one of the most salient takeaways from that whole era was the Conway family situation. Kellyanne Conway, of course, visible as one of President Trump’s closest advisers. Her husband, George, being a strong opponent of Trump. And then their daughter, caught in the middle, living on social media in the most horrific ways. We’re recording this shortly after an incident where she said she’s taking a break from social media after just a bizarre situation.
But when I look at sort of… When I do my cultural analysis, I’m actually not as interested in the policies, per se, that President Trump might’ve pursued. Those are significant in many ways. But I’m looking at those cultural dynamics there, because that’s where most of us live and what we’re having to negotiate. These family dynamics in the middle of social media, in the middle of generational change, in the middle of this bizarre situation that we’re forcing young people into of crafting an online persona there.
I think your book is one of many ways that Christians can be reoriented to be thinking about building these kinds of distinctive communities. I love that as an alternative. It’s an alternative that I wrote about for my book, Gospelbound, because I believe in it so strongly. Because the options are, Steve… I mean, this is why I asked the question. We can either essentially stand up and say, “Hey. We’re just not like those horrible people out there. You’ve seen the people who stormed the Capitol. We’re nothing like them.” Sort of a PR strategy. Or we can say, “Yeah. Absolutely. Bring on the fight. We relish it.” I love that your book takes the alternative and goes back to the Scripture and says, “Why don’t we be this distinctive community living for Christ in ways that are challenging and appealing to the world?”
When I wrote my own essay about the Capitol attacks, I was pushed over the ledge to write about it because of a pastor in Australia who wrote me and said, “You’ve got to say something.” I was looking for somebody else to say something, but that just moved me, and it helped me to see how interconnected we are on all of these issues, including politics, which you’d figure would be a more national phenomenon. But Steve, how does politics play into your account of how Christians became the bad guys?
Stephen McAlpine: Well, I think it does in the sense that we decided that, at some level, politics would give us something that we needed, a place at the cultural table, depending on our politics, I suppose. But what happened in the end, I suppose, is that we pushed the Left and Right thing right into the church in such a way that it almost feels like the Jew-Gentile thing going on, and we haven’t got a way to figure out who’s the weak one and who’s the strong one, and who we should admit to the table.
So when we come to church, we’re viewing everything through the lens of politics, because in the culture, when there’s no transcendence left, politics is God. So we have drunk that Kool-Aid, I think, in the church, and we aren’t able to say… Actually, the church is the alternate polis towards which we are drawing people, because Christ is the head of the church, and we are a taste of the future city today, although it’s in broken sense.
But I mean, I say this. People say to me, “Well, what’s your church like?” I say, “Well, it’s not combative, and it’s not on a podcast or a blog post every week. It’s a bunch of people living lives together who have different views on politics, who are trying to love each other, serve each other. Some of them are foster families in the community. Some of them do other things for Pregnancy Problem House.” All these different things, from Left and Right on the spectrum. But we’ve decided that our identity… That we’re going to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. When you take that out of the Church, when you forget that the unity you have is the unity of the Spirit… You have to maintain it. It’s given to you, it’s not something you create. When you realize that’s what your call is, you take that very seriously.
I think politics has leached into us, because it’s promised us a sort of a… I guess in one sense, if you think about it like when you get the gold pass at Disneyland, where you get to pass the crowds and get onto the rides quickly. I sometimes think that’s what we think with politics. I can bypass the hard work if I can get the right political voice to represent me somewhere, and I’ll bypass the hard work of living the long-term faithful life as a community or as an individual, and I’ll see what advocacy group can get for me, lobbyists can do for me in the halls of power. I sometimes wonder if we gained a sugar rush of an immediate hit, but the long-term effect of that is a real downer, like any sugar rush does. And it takes a lot of sugar.
Collin Hansen: You’re writing in Australia for a book that’s published by a UK publisher that’s going to be largely read by Americans. That’s not necessarily an easy thing to do, because there are some significant differences between those contexts. But I read what The Gospel Coalition Australia publishes, and because there are some overlaps there. When you guys had the controversy with one of your leading rugby players and his statements about homosexuality, and his losing his job over that… I mean, I read so many different articles about that that TGC Australia had published, because I knew the dynamics were not altogether different. So what are some of the differences and similarities? It does feel like technology, as we’ve talked about already, is closing the gap pretty quickly.
Stephen McAlpine: Yes, that’s right, because you can be a teenager in a small town out at the back of western Australia, and a teenager in New York, and you’ve got access to the same information at the same time. So that shrinks things.
We in Australia probably live in the rain shadow of your political framework. If you want to tear down a conservative politician in Australia at the moment, you say they’re part of the Religious Right. I go, “What Religious Right percentage in Australia, where 2 percent of people identify as evangelicals, are we talking about?” There’s no power base to that. But it’s seen as the bogeyman by, say, a more secular progressivism.
Now, Australia is a classically more secular place than the U.S. England has surpassed Australia, even though it started with a state church, in no time at all. So the irony of Australia is that, at a time when Christianity in particular and religion in general is sort of seen as being the bad guy, people who are not Christian are sending their kids to independent Christian schools, which are funded by the government, at a rate of Nots.
At a time when Parliament is strictly a secular place, one of the key issues at the last election was the prime minister and the opposition arguing about who would end up in hell, as in, it was an issue about sexuality. The opposition leader wanted to trap the prime minister as to saying, because he was a Christian, the prime minister’s a Christian here, that gay people would end up in hell. I thought, “Wow, we would not have picked that 20 years ago, that Parliament would be dividing itself or pushing that narrative.”
So at the same time that we’ve become deeply secular, the heat has been raised on the Christian issue. Whereas I look at the UK, and Christianity has fallen off the map in many places. It’s just fifth generation, no Christians. The U.S. looks like it’s always been a very religious place, and of deep convictions. Australia was founded on its convicts and you were founded on your convictions, so that tells you a little bit about the differences.
So there’s a lot of more zeal as I watch it in America at the moment, that The New York Times recently saying that Biden is the kind of progressive Christian that’s going to lead the way. I’m going, “Why are we saying that we’re wanting Christianity to lead the way in a place that’s supposed to have the separation of church and state to the level that the U.S. does?” We’re in a weird time.
Collin Hansen: Weird is a good way to put it. Yeah, what we see in the United States is a kind of hollowing of our middle. The dominant mode of religion from most of the 19th and 20th centuries was a kind of moderate Protestantism, and then kind of merging into a moderate Catholicism. So some quasi-evangelical elements, some strong moralistic elements, but sort of your fervent evangelical belief remained largely within the margin.
But the difference is that between the Catholic and the mainline churches, especially in the United States, they’ve really been… They’ve lost significant population, and they’ve lost significant direction within their leadership. As a result, sort of the secular left and the distance between them and the mainline and the left of the Catholic Church has really disappeared. So you end up with these two poles that are very strong, with the added element of the black Protestant church, which is of course very powerful within the Democratic party within a political secular coalition.
It’s weird. It’s very confusing. It would be impossible to explain in any kind of rational way, except to say, whereas religion was seen as a kind of moderating effect, it now is seen as being a kind of driver of more polarized extreme views in the United States, and fewer people are having any pretense to declaring themselves to be Christians if they don’t have any actual observance of Christianity.
Now, part of that moderation has meant that America can be a very Christian nation that seems to be rather ignorant of what Jesus actually taught and did. And that’s one thing I wonder if you could help us with here, because you’ve already alluded to this once, Steve. Jesus warned us the world would treat us as bad guys if we were following him. So why is that hard for us to understand? I don’t know how Jesus could’ve been any clearer about that.
Stephen McAlpine: Well, I guess a couple of things. A, we’ve had it too easy. Don’t underestimate how good having a Christianized framework is in a country. When people say, “Lean on common grace…” Well, common grace isn’t that common if you go somewhere where there hasn’t been any, where the Christian framework hasn’t been. I think it was Ross Douthat who said, “If you think the Christian alt-right is a problem, wait until you see the non-Christian alt-right.” I think when you lose the Christian framework, you’re going to see that things are much more hostile generally in the culture that will be harder, more brutal, more brittle.
But I also think, too, that the therapeutic aspect of the… Or the therapeutic gospel, so to speak. The prosperity gospel on one hand, and almost this therapeutic culture, the what Christian Smith called moralistic therapeutic deism, and the best life now kind of narrative, where Jesus is your life coach to craft you the kind of life that you would like to have. You can be the most heterosexual, married, with three kids, working in a good job, with a white picket fence person, and be completely suckered in by a false gospel that’s therapeutic about you crafting your own life, just as much as the lesbian community who are working in one of the major university departments in a big city university is crafting its own narrative. They’re just two wings of the same bird. Unless you’ve got Jesus at the center and shaping your identity, then you are a sucker for either one of those things, I think.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. Let’s give a positive example here. Who’s a Christian leader, or any ordinary Christian you know, does not have to be somebody famous, who you see as navigating this moment in a way that could help us to emulate. That’s one of the things I was trying to do in my book, Gospelbound, so I’m hoping here we could just… Let’s give people a positive example. This isn’t all negative. There are people God is raising up and simply using in everyday ways to be able to show us what to do.
Stephen McAlpine: Yeah, I would say they’re not big names at all. They’re people that I know in my church, and there’s a young guy called Daniel in Sydney. He’s a single guy who, whatever work setting he’s in, he’s a godly guy. He’s well-educated. He goes around schools talking about young boys and porn and how to deal with that situation, in non-Christian settings. He has friends from across the Christian spectrum. He’s what I would call a strong Pentecostal Reformed Calvinist charismatic. Whoever he meets, whether… He lives in a part of Sydney that’s the gay capital of Sydney, which is a gay capital of Australia, and he just engages with people, and talks with them, and shows them what the gospel looks like.
Then I think of a couple in our own church that we’ve been working in the last 10 years who… He works in a university department as a racing car engine designer. Imagine doing that for a job. His students know he’s a Christian, and the way he treats them is just so… He sees them as people to love and care for and shape, and they notice that it’s his Christianity. Then he and his wife put an extension on the house so that they can foster some children, local indigenous children who have no home. He’s quietly intelligent, very capable at all that he does. But he just ticks along like that.
I think that, for me, is that unsung hero thing, is that it’s those grassroots Christians. Now sure, there are people at the top of the pile who have to do the hard work of politics and law, and I know quite a few of those people. But I do see the grassroots people as making the real difference. That for me is something that you just got to come back to, that that’s the way the gospel started. Of course there were well-to-do, well-thought-out people in Christian settings, and there are in Perth, and there are in the United States, around Australia or UK. But it’s those quiet people getting on with those sorts of things that I think, as you read my book, it’s going, “That’s where things are going to look different. When those people are together in a community, that smells and sounds different and feels different to what the world’s got.” It just does. You just got to trust that, that the Holy Spirit will do that.
Collin Hansen: I’m guessing the people you’re citing here don’t run around loudly complaining about how somebody else is the real bad guy?
Stephen McAlpine: No, they don’t. They don’t. And they occupy slightly different political spectra as well on the framework. So I think one of the things I wanted to inculcate in people in reading this book is, if you become resentful about the bad guy issue, you’re going to struggle. You’re going to come across as chippy. You’re going to come across as that person you don’t want to be.
Now, Greg Sheridan, who’s the foreign editor of the Australian newspaper here, is a friend of mine, and he wrote a book called God Is Good for You, as what he would call a ropey Catholic, which he is. But I helped launch it when it was here in Perth, and our former prime minister launched it in Australia, which is interesting, because Greg’s a well-known journalist. But his term of “Christians can be warriors, but they can be happy warriors.” He’s a typical journalist. He’s not afraid of a stoush. But he sees no reason for us not to be joyful.
I think someone like a Greg Sheridan, who wanted to write a book about Christianity and put it in the secular book shops… He’s another guy I’d say is a bit of a hero, because he just says, “Let’s explore what Christianity’s done for Australia, and let’s put it out there.” Someone like that has got an ear to a lot of ex-prime ministers and current leaders. But he engages with the grassroots people as well, and I think that kind of person is someone I think who’s probably going to be a key person in this debate in the coming years.
Collin Hansen: I’d also say that Jonah taught us it’s hard to evangelize people you hate.
Stephen McAlpine: That’s right, you know? “I knew you were a compassionate God. That’s why I fled.”
Collin Hansen: If evangelism is what we’re going for, it is hard to do that with people that you see as enemies beyond reason who must only be defeated. Now of course, I made an assumption there that evangelism is what we’re going for, and I’m not convinced that, especially in the United States, that some people who go by the evangelical name are actually looking for evangelism so much as they are for a kind of political program on different ends of the spectrum.
Stephen McAlpine: Yes, I think that’s true. It’s like, the evangel is the good news that’s to be proclaimed. I think the challenging thing for many people who want to proclaim it is figuring a way to be able to do it that will get a hearing in a reasonable way.
One of the things I would say is, the first thing you got to do is you’ve got to realize your gospel is coming into a non-neutral setting. It’s coming into a place where there’s another gospel, another vision of what human flourishing can look like, and it has a… It’s got a message. It’s got a goal. It’s got a salvation story. And it’s got a list of saints and sinners. You have to deconstruct that. You have to know it so well as to, that when you’re having a conversation with someone, and they’re looking at you with total implausibility that you could say, “Well, actually, if you want to sign up for Team Jesus, you fill in a blank check and you hand it to him, and he says, ‘I’ll put the amount in,'” that just doesn’t… For autonomous, individualistic Westerners, that’s anathema.
Somehow you’ve got to find a way of, how do I breach that? How do I speak into that setting? I think if you can do that, if you can learn how to do that in specific situations with specific people, that’s the key. Because I think there’s so much tribalism going on that you’re not going to get the Billy Graham. “You all know you’re a sinner. You know…” That’s not going to happen again, except for a sort of… The evangelistic equivalent of an ’80s reunion tour of a rock band. It’s not going to happen. You’re only going to get the devoted fans to that.
But it’s got to be something where you’re able to deconstruct this alternate gospel that has a built-in hostility towards the gospel and a built-in suspicion that the gospel is there merely as a power play to get them to do what you want. That’s the transaction that needs to be sorted out.
Collin Hansen: I want listeners to hear also that I agree wholeheartedly with that, and I think there are people like you who are good at helping us do that, and I think the book does that as well, helps to orient us to know how to speak and how to act. But I think for a lot of other people who might be intimidated by evangelism or apologetics, I want them to know that it’s really the community aspect, I think, that’s going to be key. It’s not so much you come up with a grand new message, a grand new strategy. It’s the same old strategy of Acts 2:42. It’s living in distinctive community, living as a creative minority, as you describe it in the book.
That doesn’t take anything extraordinary. It takes the Holy Spirit, but he is a gift, gives himself as a gift, or comes from the Father and Son as a gift to us with new birth. So I mean, that’s not something that belongs just to the really smart people or the people who understand or read all the books. That belongs to the whole body of Christ.
Stephen McAlpine: Yeah.
Collin Hansen: So I think that’s the key. Go ahead.
Stephen McAlpine: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I can’t remember who said it, because it was a great quote I was reading in a journal recently or an article online, where a woman who wasn’t a Christian went along to church. She said, “It wasn’t that they were interesting. It’s that they were kind, and that made them interesting.” I think perhaps our apologetic is, how can we make this as interestingly plausible as possible? Whereas a good deal of just being kind, of kindness in a world which is ready to throw you on the scrap heap with one mistake, would go a long way.
When you’re in a church setting, you’re doing evangelism together as a community that, some of you are very good at speaking, but other people… My wife, for example, is much more restrained, kind of background person. Imagine two of us in the house who were like me. It’d be terrible. But other families in the church are saying, “How do we do this together?” We provide meals for people in foster families who… One thing. People took on foster kids, and then they started preparing meals for other foster families who aren’t Christian. And just that kindness aspect has drawn people to come along to church and see what things are about.
So I still think that church is the best apologetic framework we’ve got. It’s going to take five years for someone who may hear the gospel for the first time to becoming a Christian. That seems to be the average these days. But if they’re seeing that done embedded in a community where it’s spoken and lived, and our flaws are there, but we’re honest about them, I think there’s something attractive… What I call repellently attractive. Everything says, “This can’t be true. But it feels so right.”
Collin Hansen: Yeah, no, I’ve seen the same thing. I’ve seen that in almost every evangelistic case that I’ve been a part of somebody coming to know the Lord. It’s typically within a community. It’s typically over time. There is the clear proclamation, bold proclamation, over and over and over again. Sometimes it happens sooner. Sometimes it takes a longer time. But God is still at work, and I think that’s a large part of what your book helps to remind us.
One last question before we get to our final three about the book, Steve. Would you prefer to go back to the time when Christians were not seen as being the bad guys?
Stephen McAlpine: Not necessarily. I think if I had the chance to go back to my school years, where it was a bit lame, Christianity… It was just something no one cared about. I would rather it was talked about and gave us some places to hook onto. Some Velcro moments, I suppose, rather than Teflon. It felt like it was Teflon when I was in my sort of mid-teens, that people just didn’t care. And there’s a level of not caring in Australia still.
But there’s certainly more openness to people feeling the pressure of life. They’re feeling the stress. They’re feeling the anxiety. Levels of loneliness and anxiety in our world are ramping up, and we’re facing a mental health tsunami. Christianity is well placed, obviously, and I’m going to think that, to say, “Here is the answer. Here’s what the good life looks like. Now, it will require you to die. So there’s that caveat. But the life you get in this age and in the age to come, there’s something precious and sweet about it.”
I run a lot, and I’ve got a running friend who’s an Irish girl who grew up in the Catholic Church. I mean, she was a kid, but very against it now. She and her husband have moved to Australia and Perth. Our running community is half Christian, half not. She said, “I envy you guys because,” she said, “I’ve got no family here. I just watch the church and the community you guys have. I’m amazed by it.” She’s got a bit of antipathy towards the church for Irish Catholic reasons. But she looks at us and says, “There’s something about what you’ve got.” And when you’re running with someone for 30-odd Ks on a Saturday morning, you can have long conversations about why. If you run slow enough.
Collin Hansen: You can. You can. I would be sucking wind. You can do that. No, I think that’s the way forward. It reminds me of another one of my regular guests on Gospelbound, Sam Chan, talking about the community approach to evangelism. His ratio isn’t 50/50. I think his ratio of Christians to non-Christians is 60/30, 6/33, something like that.
But do the final three here with Stephen McAlpine, author of Being the Bad Guys: How to Live for Jesus in a World That Says You Shouldn’t, from the Good Book Company. All right, Stephen, final three. What is the last great book you read?
Stephen McAlpine: The last great book I read. I would have to say Dominion by Tom Holland. That was superb. Took me forever. When you’ve got it on Kindle, you don’t realize you’ve got acres to go. But amazing. Very emotional as he unpacked the life of Jesus and the life of Paul. I found those very emotive chapters in that book. But a beautiful book.
Collin Hansen: If anybody’s not convinced by this endorsement, they should read Tim Keller’s review of that book for The Gospel Coalition. Stephen, what brings you calm in the storm?
Stephen McAlpine: Brings me calm in the storm. I used to be an extrovert, and now I’m an introvert, so any time away. I like my cave time. And I think running for me is a mind-clearer, so I’m an early morning person for both reading, and praying, and running. I think the three hours in the morning when a lot of people aren’t up are my calm hours, because everything else feels like, “Here comes everybody,” for the rest of the day.
Collin Hansen: Well, and where do you find good news today?
Stephen McAlpine: Well, I think you find it in the Scriptures as you read the Scriptures are fresh each day, because I think I have to launder out of my mind the 15 newspapers and seven websites I read every day. I’m finding the Scriptures are doing the good laundering of that.
But just then seeing friends who you’ve learned to craft a life together with where you can drop a text message of encouragement in the gospel, or you can phone them up and talk about how they’re going, and you can pray with them over the phone. For me, that web of interconnection, and the internet allows you to do it. It giveth and it taketh away, but what a giveth if you use it well. Has given us a good, strong connectivity. Where you’ve got a church that’s connected already, it can thicken those connections, and I think those channels of gospel conversations, little ones every day, are the things that feed you and keep you going, I think.
Collin Hansen: It’s been a lot of fun. My guest on Gospelbound has been Stephen McAlpine, author of Being the Bad Guys: How to Life for Jesus in a World That Says You Shouldn’t. Check it out from The Good Book Company. Stephen, thank you very much for joining me.
Stephen McAlpine: Thanks so much, Collin. It’s been great.