Rebecca McLaughlin: In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J. K. Rowling sticks a knife into her readers’ hearts. Professor Dumbledore is the Gandalf of the series. He’s the only person who’s power for good can match Lord Voldemort’s evil. But in the sixth book a weakened Dumbledore stands at the top of the Astronomy Tower surrounded by his enemies and he appeals to Harry’s teacher nemesis Severus Snape for help. “Severus, please.” And Snape kills him. The scene is devastating. We never liked Professor Snape, but we hoped beyond hope that he was Dumbledore’s man. And now his betrayal of his mentor is complete. It’s only in the last book that we discover how wrong we were. And Harry extracts memories from the dying Snape’s mind and he pours them into the Pensieve this magical ball where you can dive into other people’s past. And we discovered that everything Snape has done has been motivated by his hopeless, passionate, unrequited love for Harry’s mother. We see Snape’s anguish as Voldemort kills Lily Potter and how he thenceforth commits himself to Dumbledore and we hear Dumbledore telling Snape that he is dying from the slow working and irreversible curse. And makes Snape promise to kill him when the moment comes. And suddenly the meaning of “Severus, please” is reversed.
When our non-Christian friends glance over at the Christian faith, they see an awful lot of things that look like Snape killing Dumbledore. They see a white center religion where the history of racism and scriptures that condone slavery. They see an anti-intellectual mindset and a contradictory Bible that’s been disproved by science again and again. They see homophobia, denigration of women, and a refusal to acknowledge that love is love. As we look out in our cultural moment it’s tempting to think that the sands are running out on the Christian faith.
But if we believe that, I think we’ve got it all wrong. The sands aren’t running out on Christianity, they’re running in, because just like Snape, when we understand the full story, what seem like roadblocks to Christ become signposts. So this afternoon I wanna suggest, that the sands aren’t running out on Christianity, but that we have an opportunity and there are four things that we must do. We must reclaim diversity, we must reclaim the university, we must reclaim morality and we must reclaim sexuality. But we must do all these things with humility and not by watering the scriptures down, but by lapping them up.
So number one, we must reclaim diversity. On February the 23rd, a Nigerian Christian Oluwole Ilesanmi, stood outside a train station in London preaching to the commuters. And two white British officers came up to him and told him to go away. This is how Mr. Ilesanmi replied, “I will not goaway, because I need to tell them the truth. Because Jesus is the only way, the truth and the life.””Nobody wants to hear that,” said the officers.”They want you to go away.” “You don’t want to listen to that?” Mr. Ilesanmi, replied. “You will listen, when you’re dead. You will listen when you are dead.” And so he was arrested. What do we make of this? Are we encouraged by our brother’s faith? I certainly am. Are we reminded that we, Western Christians have led a far too comfortable life and that the Gospel always comes at a cost for sure? But a black African Christian preaching the exclusive message of Jesus while White Westerners is block their ears is a little parable for the religious world today.
Forty years ago, sociologists thought that the tide was going out on religion. In Western Europe, modernization had bred secularization and where Western Europe led, so the reasoning went, the rest of the world would follow. But that prophecy has failed. In the next 40 years, it seems that Christianity is going to remain the largest global worldview increasing slightly from 31% to 32% of the world. Islam is expected to shoot up from 24% to 31% and the proportion of people who do not identify with any particular religion is set to decline from 16% to 13%. The tide isn’t going out on religion, it’s coming in. This comes as a shock to our non-Christian friends. But what’s perhaps even more shocking to them is that Christianity is the belief system of diversity.
The first century Jewish man we worship broke through every racial and cultural barrier of his day, and he commanded his followers to go and make disciples of all nations, and they began at once. We see the first African Christian in the book of Acts, the Ethiopian eunuch. And Ethiopia became one of the first Christian states in the world in the fourth century before Saint Patrick ever went to Ireland and a thousand years before the Gospel came to America. When our friends realize this, it flips the paradigm. In Revelatiton 7, we see people from every tribe and tongue and nation worshiping Jesus together. This is our destiny, but in tangible ways it is also our reality. Today Christianity already has the most even racial and cultural spread of any belief system in the world. Right now China is the global center of atheism, but sociologists expect that by 2030 there’ll be more Christians in China than in America, and that by 2060 it could be a majority Christian country. What’s more, by that point, 40% of the world’s Christians are expected to be living in sub Saharan Africa.
Meanwhile, in the U.S. black Americans are 10% more likely to identify as Christian than their white peers, and they poll higher on every indicator of Christian commitment from church going, to Bible reading to prayer to core evangelical beliefs. Latina and Latino Americans are also far more likely to identify as Christians. And immigrants of color are planting evangelical churches across this nation. So I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In Somerville, the adjacent city, English is the third most commonly spoken language in evangelical churches after Portuguese and Creole.
Some white Christians worry that immigration is eroding America’s Christian identity. In fact, immigration is a much needed blood transfusion for the American church. This flips the paradigm for our non-believing friends. My secular friends, care deeply about diversity. And when they hear us saying that Jesus is the only way, regardless of culture, race or place, they think that what we’re trying to do is force western culture down other people’s throats. But when they realize that most Christians are not white and that most evangelists are not white, the exclusive truth claims that Christianity can no longer be dismissed. When Mr. Ilesanmi told the white British police officer that Jesus was the only way, he was not saying my culture’s cooking is better than yours. He was saying I was starving too til I found bread. So let’s reclaim diversity because Christianity is the most multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural movement in all of history.
Second, we must reclaim the university. So a good friend of mine is a professor of science at Harvard ,and five years ago I invited him to an event where N. T. Wright was in dialogue with the chair of the Harvard Philosophy Department. And after this event I said to my friend, ”I know that you think what I believe is crazy.” His then girlfriend, he was a much gentler soul than either of us said, ”Oh, I’m sure he doesn’t think that.” I said, ”Yes, he does. I believe that the entire of human history revolves around a first century Jewish man who died on a cross and was opposed that he raised from the dead three days later. Crazy, right?” My friend said, ”Yeah.” So, the thing is I think that your atheist beliefs are crazy too. Our friends think that they are choosing between Christianity and a perfectly coherent secular worldview that does all the work that Christianity does for us without having to believe in crazy stuff, but there is no such belief system.
In the next generation, much to everyone’s surprise, the university is gonna have to start confronting Christianity again. You see for decades, the idea that religion cannot survive in the modern world has functioned not just as a diagnosis, but as a prescription. It’s not just what will happen, but what should happen. So what are Western intellectuals gonna do when they realize that it’s not happening? That the question for the next generation is not how soon will religion die out, but Christianity or Islam? And the atheism is not the movement of a diversity in progress, but the movement of white western men and communist regimes.
Professor Fenggang Yang is a leading expert of sociology of religion in China and he anticipates that the university is gonna have to go through a paradigm shift, much like a scientific revolution, when the fact that the secularization hypothesis has failed, comes home to roost in the western academy. So between now and when my kids are in college, there’s gonna be an earthquake in the university. This should excite us, but it should not surprise us because Christians invented the university and universities like Harvard and Yale and Oxford and Cambridge were founded to glorify God. Yes, the Gospel is simple. Yes, the cross looks like foolishness, but the idea that Christianity is anti-intellectual is utterly at odds with the history of ideas.
Christ calls us to love God with our heart and our soul and our mind and our strength. He is not content with three out of four. Now, don’t get me wrong. We evangelicals have been acting like Christ doesn’t want us to love him with his mind for a really long time. So the historian Mark Noll wrote in 1995, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” But this is a relatively recent phenomenon if you look back over the last 2000 years. The spread of the Gospel poured fertilizer on global literacy rates and mass education. Christians have written some of the greatest literature of all time. Christians have birthed some of the greatest philosophy of all time. And here’s the biggest surprise, not both to our secular friends, but often to us as Christians as well. Christians literally invented modern science. Not as an alternative hypothesis to a creator God, but because they believed in a creator God who is both rational and free.
So a few years ago I met one of the top philosophers of science in the world. He’s a Princeton professor named Hans Halvorson, and he argues not only is it a historical fact that Christians invented the modern scientific method but that even today, science rests more firmly on theistic foundations than on atheistic foundations. In fact, he says, atheism doesn’t provide a philosophical foundation for science at all. Are there complex theological questions for us to wrestle with as we think through science? Absolutely. But Christians have always been at the forefront of scientific discovery, and if you look at the history of science, Christians have always been on both sides of every science and faith debate. So let’s not concede science to atheism. Instead, let’s find the thousands of believers whom God has raised up in the academy, experts in physics and philosophy and chemistry and history, and let’s learn from them. Let’s reclaim the university in the next generation not as a hostile takeover, but as a homecoming because Christianity isn’t anti-intellectual. It’s the greatest intellectual movement in all of history.
Third, we must reclaim morality. In his introduction to his 2012 book, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, Duke Professor Alex Rosenberg answered 12 questions from an atheist’s perspective. The last three went like this. What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them. Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral. Is Abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible or sometimes obligatory? Answer, anything goes. A few atheists are this blunt. In fact, most atheist intellectuals believe passionately in human rights and care for the poor and racial equality and equal valuing of men and women. What’s more, they argue that the atheism grounds these beliefs better than Christianity ever did. The question is, are they right?
I recently reviewed this book. It’s called Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can’t Deliver. It’s published by Oxford University Press. It’s a serious academic work. It’s by Notre Dame Professor Christian Smith. And in it, Smith evaluates whether today’s intellectual atheists are giving compelling reasons for their moral beliefs and this is what he concludes: “Atheists are perfectly entitled to believe in and act to promote universal benevolence and human rights, but only as an arbitrary subjective personal preference, not as a rational, compelling, universally binding fact and obligation.” This news is deeply disturbing to our non-believing friends. They believe in human equality. They believe in human rights. They believe that racism is wrong and that people starving in the slums of Kolkata can make moral demands on us here now. They think these are self-evident truths, but if you look at the history of ideas, they’re not. They’ve come to us from Christianity.
My friend, Sarah Irving-Stonebraker is a history professor in Australia. She was a convinced atheist when she went to Cambridge to do her Ph.D. She was a convinced atheist when she went to Oxford to do her post-doc. But while she was at Oxford, she went to hear some lectures by a world famous atheist philosopher named Peter Singer. Now Peter Singer is a very smart man and very consistent. And he was arguing that we shouldn’t see humans as equally valuable by virtue of being human. But instead we need to evaluate humans according to their capacities, like the capacity to reason, the capacity to suffer, and so on. And by seeing his calculation, a human infant is less morally valuable than an adult cow.
As my friend Sarah heard this, she experienced what she later described as an intellectual vertigo. She realized that atheism actually cut to the heart of her deepest moral beliefs, and she ended up becoming a Christian. She thought that Christianity was the enemy of human rights, racial equality, care for the poor and equality for women. But she gradually discovered that it was the basis for those things.
When we’re talking with our non-Christian friends, we must acknowledge the failure of Christians through the centuries. But contrary to the new atheist message that religion poisons everything, we also recognize that Christianity is the greatest movement for justice and equality and care for the poor in all of history. In a New York Times op-ed entitled “Evangelicals without the Blowhards” Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Nicholas Kristof writes this. “Go to the front lines at home or abroad in the battles against hunger, malaria, prison rape, human trafficking or genocide and some of the bravest people you meet are Evangelical Christians who truly live their faith.”
Weekly church attenders in America donate 3.5 times more money to charity than people who don’t go to church. They volunteer twice as much. They are half as likely to engage in domestic violence and they’re less likely to commit at least 43 other crimes. As we talk with our unbelieving friends, we must never suggest that we are better than them. We cannot come to Christ with our pride intact and I don’t think we can share Christ that way either. I believe that Christ died to save sinners of whom I am the worst. But in a hurting world, let’s reclaim morality like a diver pulling treasures from a wreck and let’s flea self-righteousness like toxic waste.
Fourth, we must reclaim sexuality. When Severus Snape killed Dumbledore, all doubts as to whether he was on the side of good or evil died as well. And when we stand up for Christian sexual ethics, we cross over in our friends’ minds from delusion to bigotry. Opposition to same sex marriage in their minds is equivalent to opposition to mixed race marriage. It’s morally repugnant and it places us on the wrong side of history. So how can we turn this devastating roadblock into a signpost to Christ? Some people say we need to be less biblical on this question. I think that’s wrong. I think we need to be more.
When Harry dived into Snape’s memories, he found not a story of hate, but a story of love. Everything Snape had done, was motivated by love of Harry’s mother. And what we dive into, what the Bible has to say about sexuality we find that it’s a love story too because God didn’t discover male and female and decide to make random rules about sex. God created man and female in order to tell us something about Christ’s love for us. This love song begins in the Old Testament as prophet after Prophet compares God’s love for his people to that of a faithful husband to his wife. It continues in the New Testament as Christ dies for his bride and Christian marriage becomes this little scale model of that union. And it rises to a full blown crescendo in the book of revelation, as angels proclaim the wedding of the lamb has come and Jesus’s marriage to his church brings heaven and earth back together. This is why marriage is male and female and why men and women are called to different roles. There is a gospel logic to marriage. Like Christ in the church, it’s love across difference. Like Christ in the church, it is love built on sacrifice. Like Christ in the church, it is a flesh uniting, life creating never ending exclusive love.
Marriage is meant to point us to Christ, but it’s also meant to disappoint us because even the best human marriage is only an echo of Christ’s love for us. So when people ask us why we believe that marriage is between one man and one woman, let’s tell them the gospel. There is no way to give a biblical answer to that question without doing so. And let’s not forget Christian marriage was countercultural from the first. In the Graeco-Roman world, men were not expected to be faithful to their wives, let alone to pull themselves out in sacrificial love. It was fine for them to sleep with other women and often with other men too. No wonder the early church was majority female and no wonder the church throughout history and today is majority female too. Far from being the epicenter of misogyny, Christianity is the greatest movement of and for women in all of history.
And here’s the irony which kinda kills me. So the sexual revolution of the 1960s was sold to us as the liberation of women. Men had been finding ways to sneak around Christian marriage for centuries and have commitment free sex. And now that we had the pill, women could do that as well. What’s interesting is in the last 60 years, despite women gaining substantially in freedom and opportunity, women in America have experienced a decrease in self-reported at happiness. Why? I believe part of the reason is that commitment-free sex is a poisoned chalice.
Stable marriage correlates with a range of mental and physical health benefits, but for women in particular, increasing our number of sexual partners is actually correlated with negative psychological effects including increased depression, increased suicidal ideation, and increased substance abuse. This is no disparagement of sex itself or female sexuality, quite the opposite. But married people have more and better sex and for both men and women, this is kind of funny. So there’s a Dartmouth economist who studied the happiness maximizing number of sexual partners in the last year, like did actual academic research on this. And guess what the answer is? One, the happiness maximizing number of sexual partners in the past year is one. So let’s not lose confidence in Christian marriage.
The marriage is not the only relationship in which we glimpse Christ’s love for his church. “Greater love has no one than this,” says Jesus, “Then that he laid down his life for his friends.” People sometimes say the Bible condemns same-sex relationships. I beg to differ. The Bible commands same-sex relationships of a level of intimacy that we Christians seldom reach. Paul says that we are one body, brothers and sisters knit together in love. He calls his friend Onesimus, his very heart and he tells the Thessalonians that he was among them like a nursing mother with her children. None of this is sexual. All of this is ours in Christ.
And if we’re gonna reclaim sexuality in the next generation, we need to reclaim fierce abiding, non-erotic, non-romantic love. When we hold a biblical sexual ethics, we are not clinging to arbitrary rules designed to keep people out. We are creating space for different kinds of relationship designed to draw people in. Marriage pictures Christ’s exclusive love, but we echo his inclusive love in friendship. I’m not saying this is easy or straightforward. I’ve been romantically attracted to women since childhood. And if I’d not been a Christian, I would very likely now be married to a woman rather than to a man. I’m happily married to a man. And you may think that this is so some sort of crazy outlier encountering here. And in some ways I am. But in this respect, I am actually the most typical kind of same-sex attracted person. It turns out about 14% of women are attracted to other women, but only 1% are exclusively same sex attracted. So if there are 100 women in your church, you probably know 13 women like me, some of them will be married with children. For men it’s about 7% who are same sex attracted and about 2% who are exclusively so.
What’s more, both men and women, particularly women can experience significant change through the course of their lives. And this research has been pioneered by a woman named Lisa Diamond, who was a professor of psychology at University of Utah. She is herself a lesbian activist. And her conclusion is this. When we categorize people as gay or straight, we are not in fact cutting nature at its joints. We’re imposing some joints on a very massive phenomenon. None of this means that people do not experience real and persistent unchangeable patterns of attraction. We don’t choose our attractions. But we do choose our actions. And this is one of the reasons why we cannot equate the gay rights movement to the civil rights movement. All racial heritage is something we are born with and it does not carry moral weight. Our sexual lifestyle is something that we choose and it does.
For some of us choosing a God-honoring lifestyle will be intensely hard. It will mean denying ourselves and taking up our cross and following Christ in the most profound way. But the question for everyone in this room is not, are you ever attracted to someone you are not married to you, but will we submit our attractions to Christ? For all of us married or single, straight or otherwise, we’re in the same boat. And if we’re going to reclaim sexuality in the next generation, we need to throw out the venomous mentality.
For too long, our churches have been places where it’s easier to confess a pornography addiction than same sex attraction. We have let our siblings shiver in the dark believing that they are weird and unwanted and unloved. And if you want to pour paraffin on sexual temptation, what do you do? You leave someone alone. But if we want to reclaim sexuality in this generation, our churches must become places where same sex attracted Christians are embraced and encouraged in their discipleship. In fact, faithful Christ following self-denying same sex attracted Christians in our churches are not an embarrassment. They’re an asset.
People are stopping their ears to the Gospel because they think that we’re homophobic bigots. Same sex attracted Christians, especially those who remain single like my friend Sam Allberry, who’s in a parallel session now, they are our God-given SWAT team to burst through those defenses because there is no more powerful witness in our culture today. There is no more powerful way for a Christian to testify to Christ than to turn away from their sexual relationships because they believe in a better love.
So in conclusion, as we go out into the world with the message of the Gospel, we must reclaim diversity. We must reclaim the university, we must reclaim morality and we must reclaim sexuality. But we must do all of these things with humility. We must repent of the ways that we have allowed racism to thrive in our churches. We must repent to the ways that we have abandoned the life of the mind. We must repent of self-righteousness and hypocrisy and we must repent to the actual homophobia that has infected our thinking for years. We need to take a hard turn toward the scriptures and a hard turn away from ourselves because Jesus is not a relic of the ancient world. He is our modern world’s best hope.
I’m sorry, that was a little bit intense. I feel pretty strongly about some of these things. I would love now to hear some of your questions. And two ways this is gonna work. You’re gonna say a question, I’m gonna repeat it from the mic so that I got it for the recording. I also have this sort of weird personal rule that when I’m doing a Q&A, I’ll take one question from a man and then one question from a woman and alternate because sometimes women don’t come forward even though they have great questions. So thank you.
Who would like to ask a question? Stand up and shout out? Yes.
McLaughlin: Oh, so this is a great question. We’ve talked about comparing Christianity to atheism, but how do we relate Christianity to pluralism? Pluralism is a really tricky word and it legitimately means different things, different people. So I come from the UK where some words mean different things in the UK than they mean here. So there’s one way to define pluralism which is essentially relativism i.e. the idea that there is no such thing as like a universal absolute truth, but that all truth is just specific to its culture and its place. That kind of pluralism as Christians, we have to say no to. And as I was mentioning earlier, we have to point out that actually Christianity isn’t cased in any particular culture, but it is something that belongs to all the different cultures of the world. Now other people use pluralism to mean a real engagement between people who actually disagree. And I am a huge fan of that kind of pluralism.
So one of the things we’ve done in the modern world is said, you know, if I’m a Christian and you’re a Muslim, then the most respectful thing I can do to you is say, oh, we don’t really disagree. And to try to persuade you to change your mind would be a sort of active violation. I disagree. Number one, we are far more respectful to our Muslim friends if we recognize that they believe different things than we do. We’re also more respectful to our Muslim friends or friends from any other culture and religion if we treat them as rational agents who could actually change their mind rather than products of their culture who have no agency over that. So if you wanna be respectful to somebody, respect the person, it’s not the same as respecting the beliefs and we should respect people’s beliefs enough to disagree and to try to persuade them. Question from a lady please.
McLaughlin: Oh, I love that question. Yeah. So here’s the thing. I have three children and I cook a lot and I’m not very good at it. I don’t follow recipes. My husband’s much better at cooking. I often use leftovers for my family, but I was mixing some stuff, right? So what I just said to you was partly things you will find in the menu, in this book and probably some new things I wrote just especially for you. Oh, I didn’t repeat the question, but I think people got the general idea. Any question…it could be from a man this time. It’s okay guys, you can speak up too. This is a safe space. Yes.
McLaughlin: Okay. So I think the question here is how can we most helpfully engage our friends and neighbors who may have a Catholic background, but aren’t currently engaged in a kind of church situation? Before I answer that, I’m gonna tell you something I find really interesting. Sorry, not that your question isn’t interesting, it is.
The Pew Forum did some research on the level of retention between like parents and their kids in terms of their beliefs. And they looked at three kinds of people in America. They looked at Protestants, Catholics and nonreligious folks. And it turns out if you grew up a Catholic in America, you have a 60% chance of still identifying as Catholic as an adult. So 40% of Catholics no longer do if they grew up Catholic. If you grew up Protestant in America, you have an 80% chance of still identifying as Protestant as an adult. And if you grew up nonreligious you have a 60% chance of still identifying as nonreligious as an adult.
So isn’t that interesting? We hear a lot about people being brought up Catholic and then throwing it out as adults. Actually, 40% of people who had been brought up nonreligious in this country become religious as adults. Most of them become Evangelical Christians because why not? It’s best thing to do. But isn’t that interesting? Because we hear about like the rise of the nones and we think, “Oh, this like wave of secularization is washing over. So the best thing we can do is like cling on for dear life to what we have.” But actually being nonreligious is a really hard place to be and there’s a lot of switching in and out, particularly across generations in that category. So to go back to your very important question, how to engage our Catholic but not practicing friends. I mean, I think share the Gospel with them, obviously, listen to them about their experiences growing up. I don’t find it fruitful when talking with people who have a kind of Christian background of a different sort to sort of go straight in with like, this is why the Reformation happened and why Catholics are wrong about this, this and this. I would major on like, hey here are beliefs of the historic Christian faith. And I would invite them to church and see what they make of it. Yes.
McLaughlin: Yeah. Thank you for that question. So I think the question is how can we most helpfully relate to and witness two friends who grew up in evangelical circles, maybe went to a Christian college, maybe had even some sort of intellectual evangelical background and are now identifying as post-evangelical. And maybe even trying to fish us out of the crazy brew and help us get over our beliefs? It’s a very important question. I think some of the reasons why people become exvangelical is because they haven’t actually looked with a truly biblical lens at the things that trouble them. So I think for a lot of us as Christians, there are problems and challenges and questions that sort of hover around in our peripheral vision. Maybe it’s about sexuality or maybe it’s about racism, maybe it’s about the history of slavery. It could be…or science, any number of things.
And we let them hover there and then, you know, either we just kind of continue in that place or we have a look at them, but we only listen to people who are gonna help us sort of see how Christianity actually is. They cannot stand up in the face of these questions. The reason I wrote this book was because I got to spend nine years interacting with some of the top Christian academics in the world at secular universities where they are like literally world leaders in their fields. And I started to notice that a lot of the academic areas that are trumpeted as having discredited Christianity, Christians are world leaders in those fields. So like psychology of religion, which says, you know, we’re kind of actually wired to believe in God in some way that’s often preached as, “Oh, that discredits the actual potential existence of God.”
The guy who invented that field is an evangelical Christian. So there’s this huge information gap between what’s actually going on in terms of Christian intellectual engagement in the secular university and what the average person on the ground at a Christian college or at a secular college like has access to. So I think there are a lot of bridges that we can build there. If somebody keeping an eye on the time? I’m not, I turned my phone off. Somebody tell me when I need to… What’s that?
McLaughlin: Yeah. So this gentleman is asking about a lady named Mary Poplin who is a professor of education at Claremont Graduate School of Education, who used to be a sort of not a Christian at all in any way, shape or form, had this amazing conversion experience. And has written a couple of books one of which is, ”Is Reality Secular.” And I think your question is, is that the kind of person I’m thinking of when I say there are real Christians at the top of the university? And is a book like hers having an impact in the secular university? So I think number one, sure Mary Poplin is a great example of that. And I’ve had the privilege to get to know Christian professors at like every cool school you can think of from… I mean, Harvard’s not that cool to be honest, but like Harvard, MIT, oh my goodness, there are so many Christian professors at MIT. It’s really encouraging, you know, Cambridge, Oxford, Yale, Berkeley, Stanford, you name it.
So God has extraordinary people at the top of their fields, across the board. I don’t know how many academics have, have read Mary’s book. My guess is her friends have. I think as with many of these questions, we need a movement here. We need to identify the thousands of Christian professors in university. We need to get behind them, learn from them, give them a platform. And so that there isn’t this information gap kind of within the university where one academic doesn’t know what another academic is doing from a Christian perspective. Yes.
McLaughlin: Yeah. So this is… Yeah, thank you. So quite right, there was some questions in the blurb when I was gonna go… I was gonna do like two minutes, 12 questions. I changed my mind and I’m sorry, but chapter 11 of this book is how could a loving God allow so much suffering? And you’ll find some engagement with evil I think in chapter four, not just Harry Potter evil but other evil as well. But no. So here’s the thing, when it comes to suffering, we tend to think of suffering as kind of an embarrassment to the Christian faith. Like Christianity is basically a religion for happy people.
Christianity hinges around the torturous death of an innocent man. We see God most clearly in the person of Jesus on the cross, right? So, and if you read the Bible every, almost every page, perhaps not the song of songs, but almost every other page of the Bible is written for suffering people and by suffering people. And I think part of the reason why the West is secularized is because half our kids don’t die before they’re five anymore. There are ways in which we can insulate ourselves from death and suffering that most of the world and most of history couldn’t. And so we can pretend we don’t need answers to some of these questions. And Christianity provides not just sort of intellectual answers to these questions, which I think it does provide, but it provides the person of Jesus, right? We believe in a God who came to suffer and he meets us in our suffering in the most profound and intimate way. So I fully understand why people have walked away from Christianity because they cannot believe in a loving God with so much suffering. But actually I think if we engage that more closely, and I attempt to do this in my book, we find that suffering is actually a deep connection point to the Christian faith. And no other worldview has the resources to offer that Christianity has. Yes.
McLaughlin: Okay. So I think your question there is about God commanding violence in the Old Testament. Is that right? Yeah. And that’s a very important and a hard question. And I think often we’re inclined to think that we know what God should and shouldn’t do. And we start with the baseline that basically human beings are good and deserve God’s unqualified favor. And, you know, he’s kind of lucky to have us around it. In fact, if we read the scriptures, we find that we are all in like a really bad way before God. And what’s remarkable is his incredible grace to us to bring us out of that. And now I haven’t spent a lot of time in… I’ve addressed in my book. I’ve spent less time probably on that specific question of violence in the Old Testament. But I think when we hear God commanding something there’s always a context to that. And we often get glimpses of that.
So for example, God is commanding the conquest of this land where child sacrifice is rife. You know, there are things where we’re like, “Huh, I can actually start to see some of the logic there, not that God needs to answer to me.” And I think as we explore the scriptures, we realize that our desire for justice and for right to be done is kind of like a kid dressing up in like police clothes compared to a high court judge when it comes to like oh desire for justice compared to God’s. So, yeah, I think we got into some important questions there. Do we have time for another question?
McLaughlin: Yeah, great question. So I think your question is how can we engage some of these issues in a helpful way for the younger generation? I’m gonna tell you a funny little story first. So I have two daughters who are eight and six and I have a baby son who is eight months. And my daughters are really excited about my book and they’re like, “Mommy, we want to read your book.” And I’m like, “Oh.” My book is like so not age appropriate in a hundred different ways. Like they would be so traumatized by reading my book. They said, “Mommy, what if you got post-it notes and covered the parts that you don’t want us to read and we’d just read the rest?” I was like, “Oh golly, no.” So I was like, maybe what I’ll do is write a version of this that’s for younger kids because my eight-year-old, she’s very smart and she is encountering some of these important questions at school.
And I do try to speak to her in ways that are like helpful and give her a glimpse of the glory of God and these questions. So I think we should never patronize the younger generation. I think for those who are in college age or like maybe, I don’t know, maybe 15 and above, maybe they could read my book. I don’t know. But I think we need to develop some resources for the even younger, because my kids are in public school, which I praise God for, and they’re rubbing shoulders with people who have all sorts of different beliefs, which again, I praise God for. But we need to be equipping them at a very early age. And I think that’s, maybe it’s the work of every parent in this room to translate these kinds of ideas and resources into something that their smaller kids can access. Yes.
McLaughlin: Great question. So I think the question is, we’ve talked about the need for Christians to repent to the ways in which we have failed to live up to the standards of our savior. Is that something we should be doing just sort of individually or is it something we should be doing publicly? Is that right?
McLaughlin: So number one, I’m a big believer in corporate confession. I think on Sunday mornings we should show up and we should like repent publicly even before our own congregations. I think there are some very specific things that probably our churches here in America need to repent of that may be different from what churches in Slovenia need to repent of or what churches in the Philippines need to repent of. And so I am not a church leader, thank God. But I do think that it’d be important for church leaders to think about how they can publicly model kind of owning and repenting of sins that they have been in some sense complicit. And actually, my pastor is here now. And he, like my husband is a white man from Oklahoma and he has preached very helpfully on race to our congregation and helped our congregation to see that even if you don’t sort of see yourself right here right now today as being like actively racist, that actually there are probably ways in which you and your family and your heritage has been complicit in things that have utterly disgraced the name of Christ, right? So I think as Christians, we don’t need to have any anxiety about repenting publicly or privately because that’s what we should be doing all day long. So yeah, I mean I don’t have any like ultimate answers for anybody on that, but I do think it’s something that we should probably consider but at the same time we shouldn’t be saying, “Yes, Christianity is racist,” or, “Yes, Christianity is like against women and we’re sorry for that.” We should be saying, “These are the ways in which Christians have failed to live up to the standards given to us by Christ. But let me also show you how Christianity has been a movement for good on these issues and how actually the Bible gives us the best resources on these questions not the worst.” Have we got time? Five minutes. Okay. People are starting to walk out so, you know, I’m getting anxious here. Another question from a lady. Yes.
McLaughlin: Yeah, a great question. So we have a question here about how do we help kids like smaller kids engage with the sort of transgender issues that they’re encountering on a day to day basis? And just a very brief thought on that because I do wanna let you guys move on to the next thing. I think we need to go much further back in our thinking on the Bible and gender. And I mentioned this earlier, but we need to stop thinking like God saw male and female and did something with it and recognized that men and female are actually theological categories that God dreamt up for really good purposes. And I think if we start there, then we find ourselves in a very different sort of theological space that is on the one hand much more open and relationally embracing of others because we’re not stigmatizing people for the real experiences that they have of either same sex-attraction or gender dysphoria or like the ways in which they can really be struggling and looking for relief in different kinds of identity. I think we can draw close to people in that. But at the same time we can have a conversation about the deeper meaning of male and female, which isn’t about like gendered psychology or you know how because I’m a woman, therefore I must feel or think a certain way, but actually God’s called me to a certain role.
It’s almost like if I was auditioning for Romeo and Juliet, I’ll walk onto the stage and I’m not gonna say, “You know what, Juliet’s lines, I’m not so into those. I’m gonna like write an alternative version.” The point is that I’m playing Juliet in this drama between Romeo and Juliet and likewise as a Christian woman, I’m playing… playing the Church and the drama of Christ and the church. And I think if we kind of understand the theological categories ourselves and help our kids to understand it, they can then have conversations with friends in a way that’s like theologically fruitful rather than just being like scared and trying to put people down. But bringing them back to the Gospel. Not very coherent, but that’s all I got today.
“The sands aren’t running out on Christianity, but . . . there are four things that we must do. We must reclaim diversity. We must reclaim the university. We must reclaim morality. And we must reclaim sexuality. But we must do all these things with humility and not by watering the Scriptures down, but by lapping them up.” — Rebecca McLaughlin
Date: April 2, 2019
Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana
Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.
- What We Need to Confront About Christianity
- Christian, Answer Questions People Are Actually Asking
- How to Answer the 12 Strongest Objections to Christianity
Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.