Archive | June, 2012

Who you’re speaking with matters…

27 Jun

I’ve alluded to this before – but it’s worth explaining myself so I’ll cover a few reasons why it is important to know your audience in conversation with someone who doesn’t believe. Several exist but two leap out to me.

What do they care about?

Every person you speak with actually does care about something. A large number will not care about faith, God, spirituality etc. but they have something that matters to them. Listening as they speak and trying to discern what matters will help you as you frame the importance of the Gospel.

Additionally, knowing that your friend is very concerned with truth and ultimate things will lead you down a very different path than if he is more or less just getting by and doesn’t consider much outside of his own sphere of influence and experience. For example, a friend of mine who loves the poor and cares for the marginalized would be interested in what Jesus had to say about people in those segments of society while my friend who is mostly interested in sports and drinking wouldn’t really care.

What do they find convincing?

I began thinking about this because I realized how much I enjoyed being able to discuss different scriptures when the Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my door. Those folks believe in the Bible (although they carry with them an erroneous translation) so it’s easy to make headway. However, my Muslim friend or my friend who is an atheist will not respect the Bible as authoritative. I can point out what it says, but to them it is a historical document with questionable reliability. It is not my job to ask them to treat it otherwise, that comes on the other side of trusting Jesus. Instead I need to listen to them and ask questions about what types of things are convincing.

Personally I find the historical case for the Resurrection (made by Mike Licona, N.T. Wright and Gary Habermas among others) a practical and strong way to reason with folks who don’t agree about who Jesus really is. I also enjoy having conversations about the nature of moral truth (if such a thing even exists, and if so where it came from) with folks who claim no belief in any transcendent power. Your friend will let you know what types of things stick and what seems trivial, your job is to listen and present those things clearly and with compassion.

For the purposes of consolidation (and by way of oversimplification) you can think of people in three broad categories based on their worldview commitments.

1)      Non-Christian Religious worldview – this includes anyone who considers themselves a believer/follower of any faith that isn’t historical Christianity. These folks care about God/Spirituality and have made some sort of decision about what is true. It will be important to remember that your conversations will be probing at the deepest levels of identity and belief so it is vital to be sensitive and respectful. They are convinced by the power of a worldview to explain the human condition and make real sense of the world we live in.

2)      Secular/Naturalistic/Materialistic worldview – these folks have considered the “God hypothesis” and found that it lacks convincing evidence. Generally folks in this category can be subdivided into two groups: those who have chosen this after freshman psychology/sociology/biology and those who have thought deeply about ultimate things. In general they care about humanity, justice and truth. They are convinced by tangible evidence and logical rationalization. (Note, this doesn’t mean “proofs” per se and could be simply a functional healthy Christian community that invites this person in).

3)      The apathetic – this isn’t to say they don’t have a worldview commitment, we all do. These folks simply haven’t spent much time considering what their ultimate beliefs are. Often when pressed they will cop to some sort of belief in God, but it is so far removed from their conscious decision making that it might as well not exist. Generally it is hard to have a fruitful conversation unless it is initiated by the other person.

Please note that the above categories are broad generalizations meant to help you begin thinking about what type of worldview commitments your friends may have so that your spiritual conversations can be more fruitful. They are not meant to be definitive or all encompassing in any way, so try not to shove your friends value and belief systems into a box.

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Jesus is God…right?

18 Jun

As I’ve previously mentioned, it is vital to the success of your conversation that you know with whom you are speaking. Does this person accept the truth of the Bible or not? A skeptic will need different reasons for the truth of your claim than a cultist (someone who claims to follow the Bible but has radically unorthodox beliefs). In this post I will be dealing with defending Jesus’ divinity in conversation with a Jehova’s Witness. I am going to link to the verse references so that the post is more readable – know that you don’t need to memorize them but it will be important to find specific examples of what you’re talking about when actually dealing with JWs.

One God

With your JW friend you can agree that there is one God. This is explicitly clear in the Old Testament. (Good examples of this come from Is 43:10-11 and 44:6-8). The case for Jesus’ divinity begins here.

New Testament Authors

Despite the fact that all the New Testament Authors have Jewish roots, most of them feel comfortable calling Jesus “God” or “Lord.” This seems weird given the strict prohibition against idolatry and blasphemy set up by God. Examples abound but the following are particularly helpful: Phil 2:5-11, Jude 1:4, Ti 2:13, 2 Pet 1:1

In addition to using overt titles of deity, the NT uses divine titles for Jesus that should be reserved for God alone. The book of Revelation refers to Jesus as First and the Last (Rev 2:8, Rev 1:17-18) and Alpha and Omega (Rev 21:6 ).

What about Jesus?

So maybe we are reading the NT authors wrong. If Jesus himself didn’t claim to be God, how can we put that into the mouths of his followers? This is a question that emanates from the JW camp and it is important to show that Jesus did have a divine self understanding.

First, he uses divine titles as well. He uses the famous “I AM” phrase in John 8:58, and his meaning was clear enough that the Jews tried to kill him for it. Jesus favorite self designation is “Son of Man” which is often erroneously cited as proof of his humanity. Instead, this refers to Daniel 7:13-14 when Daniel sees someone “like a son of man” approach the Ancient of Days (God). This son of man is worshipped by all nations and is given glory and sovereign power. The high priest understood what Jesus meant by the title Son of Man at his trial, because after he uttered it the case for blasphemy was closed. If Son of Man simply meant “human” then Jesus’ prosecution would have needed more to go on!

Second, Jesus accepts glory and worship; things which are reserved for God alone (Is 42:8). He asks God to glorify him in His presence (John 17:8), a strange request considering God’s stance on sharing glory (spoiler alert: he doesn’t). When Thomas is convinced of the Resurrection he worships Jesus, saying “My Lord and My God!” (John 20:28). [See here for an article responding to claims that Thomas was not worshipping Jesus]

So…conversation?

Remember, we should do our best to use questions. Knowing this general outline (NT authors named Jesus as divine and used divine titles, Jesus himself used divine titles and accepted glory and worship) should give you plenty of questions. Essentially they will all be of the challenge variety, and you can phrase them that way. For example “If Jesus never claimed to be God, then why do so many New Testament authors call him by divine names?”

Having not had a productive conversation with a JW ever, I’m not sure how they will respond to all of these different lines of reasoning, but at some point it becomes stubbornness. Often they will appeal to logic, but not well. (How can God say ‘us’ if he’s one person!? Referring to Gen 1) Learning how to make the case for Jesus’ divinity will help your faith in the long run, so it’s a worthwhile time investment even if you don’t want to hang out on your front porch with JWs.

Uh, Sure I’ll take your magazines…

11 Jun

Jehovah’s Witnesses are pleasant people as far as I’m concerned. In our neighborhood they come by on a regular basis and I alternate between talking to them, taking their magazines and saying “thanks”, and just saying “no thanks.” (Once I just sat very still and waited for them to leave).

Part of the reason I don’t engage with them every time is that they have been coached to answer all the standard concerns with their understanding of who Jesus is and what the New Testament has to say about following Him. Another factor is that some of the key verses of scripture relating to this topic have been erroneously translated by the JW’s in their “New World Translation.”

Knock and the door shall be opened to you…if I’m home and not busy.

Saturday I was outside testing a pneumatic air canon that I made for shooting confetti at soccer games when a few guys approached, magazines in hand. (If you’re not familiar with JW’s they carry two magazines which feature their take on relevant issues of the day…I made confetti out of mine). I simply said “Gentlemen, I appreciate you, but I know that we happen to have a very significant disagreement about who Jesus is.” One of them asked me who I thought he was and I responded he is God the Son, who along with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit comprise the Trinity.

We spent the next 10 minutes going back and forth, not making any progress of course. Despite having recently posted about using questions to drive these types of conversations I found myself making tons of assertions and then trying to defend myself. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this, it just wasn’t effective.

Using questions I could have driven the conversation and not gotten stuck. Instead of leading the way I did, I might have just said “thanks for the magazines. Can you give me a quick summary about what they have to say about who Jesus is?” Then I could have asked some questions about their assertions.

I had two other thoughts after reflecting on my encounter which I’ll write about in my next two posts:

1)      I don’t have a lot of rock solid references for Jesus’ divinity on the tip of my tongue. I can make the case, but I generally just assume that people understand that Jesus claimed to be divine.

2)      It’s really important to know who you’re speaking with. JW’s have a very different understanding (and therefore need) than the average skeptic who also differs greatly from the average person who thinks there is a God out there but doesn’t know much about that God. How we converse with these folks needs to reflect what will be most beneficial for them to hear.

Respond to THIS! (and this, and this, and this…)

7 Jun

Sometimes I meet people who have clearly done some thinking about Christianity, and decided the evidence against it outweighs the evidence in its favor. A significant percentage of these people don’t hold one or even several objections, but seemingly every possible objection. They spout off claims about the reliability of the Bible, detestable actions by Christians throughout history, alleged contradictions in scripture, the arrogance of an exclusive claim, the non-existence of God, etc. My first few encounters with folks who had this sort of initial reaction were not great (to make an understatement).

For an example in written form, check out the comments on this post from a few weeks ago. In my responses I tried to succinctly answer a few objections but not deal with all of them (some were not great objections to start with). However, in conversation your approach should differ significantly for several reasons. First, you won’t be able to mentally catalogue all the challenges. You will inevitably forget something, or you will spend tons of time addressing one thing only to have your friend point to their giant list as if to say “your plate’s still full!” Second, many serious objections take careful study and consideration to answer. We can address whether or not it is arrogant to think there is only one way to God in conversation – but making a case for the reliability of the New Testament or the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection are harder tasks. (NOTE: I think we can sow seeds conversationally: make the point that it is possible that those things are true and then invite further dialogue). Third, you will feel less overwhelmed in taking on one objection at a time compared to a dozen.

Instead of standing there with your mouth hanging open and your eyes glazed over, I encourage you to stop your friend before he makes his list of objections. I’m not asking you to ignore his objections, simply to invite him to address them one by one. Your friend might get wound up and come out with something like this: “Well, Christianity has done more harm than good – and there isn’t any reason to believe it’s true anyways. And did you know Jesus wasn’t even proclaimed God until the 4th century? And the Bible has been rewritten so many times virtually none of the original stuff is in there….”

Try to stop them after their second objection. You can simply say something to the effect of “It sounds like you have a lot to say about this, and I’m interested to hear all of it. It would be easier for me, and more productive I think, if we could talk about these things one at a time.” Then start asking questions. The ‘more harm than good’ assertion is prime soil for the ‘what do you mean/how do you know’ line of questioning.

Some people will still get revved up and the best way you can help them is to listen, and not dismiss their objections. The only way to make sure you hear every one of your friends’ problems is to hear them one at a time. Every time she gets ready to go on an objection spree, gently affirm her interest in these topics and request that she give the two of you time to resolve each one before moving on to the next. Generally this will happen over multiple conversations so find some places that you both agree on for lunch!

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