Part 3 Questioning Evangelism by Randy Newman
Dialoguing the Gospel: Conversation Snapshots
Snapshot 1: What Can We Learn From Two Non-Christians in a Car?
Jerry: What would you say if you were in an electric chair - and they asked you if you had any last words? How could you beat Gary Gilmore? His last words were, “Let’s do it.”
Ricky: I really think that the death penalty is too depressing to even think about - I mean I don’t agree with it - That the State can show that sort of violence.
Jerry: Well what about abortion - do you agree with that?
Ricky: Yeah, but that’s different isn’t it? [pause]
Jerry: I guess, ah, you can just arrange things the way you like ‘em ...when you’re rich, famous... like you.
Ricky: Yeah, unlike you, who’s just a guy with an old car, going along the highway, laughing maniacally because someone feels they’re about to die - I should’ve said, “Let’s do it.” when I got in this car.
You might recognise that conversation from Jerry Seinfeld’s TV Show, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. I include it because it’s a wonderful example of how a few well-chosen questions cut straight to Ricky Gervais’ worldview: that he can arrange things the way he likes ‘em. Which, if we’re honest, is the worldview many of us hold! We’re inconsistent. And it’s only when we’re challenged - in this case with humour and in the context of friendship - that we become aware of the cherished beliefs we cling to. What are these beliefs worth to us? Are we even aware that we hold them? How do they fit with what the Bible says? At what point are we willing to change any of them?
Dialoguing to the Point of Despair
In reading this book I’ve become more and more aware of how much I avoid asking questions and my two reasons why. The first is that I’m more your ‘stand up comedian friend’ and less your ‘therapist friend’. My conversation style is observational - I value honesty and humour and connect mainly by adding things to a conversation and less by drawing things out from others. Secondly, asking questions is so personal and has the potential to be invasive - questions can take you right to the pointy edge of an issue. Newman, however is a master at getting people to this space and using questions to create opportunities for mindset shift. He calls this dialoguing to the point of despair:
They must come to the painful realization that their notion of how people get to heaven (i.e., being good enough, never killing anyone, treating others nicely, etc.) doesn’t work. No one is ever that good. God will never be that compromising. Their foundation must crumble before they’ll consider rebuilding. p.87
Indeed Jesus does just this after his dialogue with the rich man in Mark 10. As the rich man walks away in despair and the disciples look on, equally mortified, they respond, “Who then can be saved?” Newman writes, “Only then could they hear the message of grace: “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God (v 27).” This is a very useful technique, we need to be wise, loving and brave in how we use it.
Responses to Common Questions
Newman has so many helpful insights to offer in unpacking our responses to common questions:
Many of our answers to accusations about the Bible fail to compel belief because they fail to address the real issue. When people ask, “How can you believe the Bible?” some Christians mistakenly respond with a history lesson...Our questioners remain unmoved, because historicity isn’t the issue. Authority is. And despite the question that’s posed (e.g., “Why do you believe the Bible?”), the real questions are:
· “Why do you submit to the Bible?”
· “Why do you allow it to dictate how you live?”
· “Why should anyone give allegiance to a book that discourages looking out for number one?” p.125
Snapshot 2: What Can We Learn From Two Christians Talking About a Tricky Conversation?
I had an experience with a friend recently where they said, “Did God really speak in the Old Testament? Is the virgin birth real? We can’t really believe any of that can we?” My natural instinct is always to answer - I’m such an answerer! So off I went explaining that the Bible is true, that there’s lots of historical evidence. I felt like I was flailing and my friend was unconvinced. When I got home and spoke to my husband about it he responded in his natural mode of conversation which involves answering questions with questions. (He’d love this book!) Here’s roughly how our conversation went:
Andrew: Could you have asked her, ‘What do you think are God’s limitations?’ He can’t lie, that’s one. Is God not powerful enough to speak to a prophet?
Katie: No, he’s powerful enough. She would think he’s powerful enough. But she wants to know why He doesn’t speak like that to us today?
Andrew: I think He does speak very clearly to us today.
Andrew: In the Bible.
Katie: Yeah, right.
Andrew: You can always flip the question around you know - I mean, why should He speak to us today - say out of a burning bush or in a dream - if everything we need to know is in the Bible? If we’re not reading the Bible regularly, should you expect him to speak to you?
Katie: Possibly not.
My friend’s question (I think!) was less about the historicity of the Bible, and less about the authority of the Bible and more about the plausibility of the Bible. If we can accept that God is all powerful, why doesn’t he do the things he does in the Old Testament, or perform the kinds of miracles he did in the New Testament, today? Focussing on the things my friend accepted about God to be true was a helpful angle to sorting out how we ought to respond given that God doesn’t speak to us in that way (mostly) today.
Replay and Reflect
Because I’m not a natural question asker I’ve found it really helpful to play snapshots back with my husband in our kitchen and get feedback on different approaches. Like all on-the-spot moments, the good ideas come after the event...Why didn’t I say?...Why didn’t I ask? Go away and find out more from the Bible, your minister or a trusted Christian friend about how to better answer that tricky question next time you talk. It’s okay to say that you don’t know the answer but that you’re going to go and find it out. Ask God to help you ‘in the moment’ to have words of grace and truth.
If dialoguing the gospel is about throwing the ball back and forth, it’s quite a helpful metaphor because the ball lands in so many different ways. It can be hard to get purchase on why someone is asking the question they’re asking if we don’t keep throwing it back and forth to see where their sticking point is. Pick up the conversation again and see if anything’s changed - especially if you have something more to offer: a good follow-up question, perhaps?
Snapshot 3 What Can We Learn From a Christian Talking to a Non-Christian About Intolerance?
Non-Christian: I can’t believe you’re so intolerant as to believe that Christianity is the only way.
Christian: What’s so bad about intolerance?
Non-Christian: Are you crazy? It leads to hatred and racism and - How can you be so ridiculous?
Christian: You sound pretty upset.
Non-Christian: Well, of course I’m upset.
Christian: Actually, you sound intolerant.
Christian: You sound intolerant of my intolerance.
Non-Christian: I’m not intolerant.
Christian: Everyone’s intolerant of something. We have to be. Wouldn’t you say you’re intolerant of some things? I would hope so. p.84
Some of these example conversations can seem a bit abrupt but Newman gets his point across clearly enough: We don’t have to accept every premise. Just because tolerance is held as a virtue doesn’t mean that those who espouse it are consistent in the way they apply it. Freedom of speech only exists because of tolerance. If we shut down one idea over another because we feel the other idea is ‘intolerant’ we have just practised intolerance ourselves. It’s helpful to have these discussions if only to show that there is slippage in what many of us hold dearly. And we need an open mind (on both sides of the conversation) to meet in the middle and discuss this thing called ‘The Gospel’. And to get there requires unpacking all kinds of tightly held ideas along the way.
Next week will be our last post for this book. We’ll be taking a look at how Jesus and Paul engage people’s hearts with the Gospel and how we can do the same. Be encouraged in your conversations, “For God’s love compels us, because we have concluded that one died for all so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” 2 Corinthians 5:14-15
Meet Katie Stringer
Katie is a lover of books, baking and beaches. She leads a Bible Study at her local Anglican church and loves being part of the inner west community of Sydney. This year she commences a new job teaching the Bible at two local High schools. She would greatly appreciate your prayers for this endeavour.