The Awkward Christian Witness

The Awkward Christian Witness August 3, 2018
John the Baptist preaching before Herod, by Pieter Fransz de Grebber

I confess: I want to be cool. A little cool, at least. A little square too, but square in a hip, retro way that conveniently wraps back around to the ultimate goal: cool.

I don’t like this about myself. My one consolation is that you’re probably like me. Inasmuch as I’m human, and you’re human, I have a terrible feeling we’re pretty much stuck with this. They’ve even given it a name: FOMO, Fear Of Missing Out. Every marketer knows it’s true: Everyone wants to be cool.

I enjoyed my fifteen minutes of cool last week, for sincere reasons as well as selfish reasons. I was sincerely glad to be the first person to provide a hot evangelical Christian take on a cultural phenomenon that evangelicals have by and large been ignoring, as a function of our terminally siloed media. I think Greg Thornbury puts it well when he talks about hearing Christians debate whether or not to “engage culture.” He wants to tell them: “You’re swimming in culture!” It’s become a cliché that Christians are always behind, on everything, because Christians tend to stay in their Christian media bubbles.

But let’s be honest: There’s a bubble for everyone. If Christians have their bubble, we can just as well say atheists have theirs. Ditto for conservatives and liberals.

Perhaps this is why so many people have latched onto the phenomenon known as the Intellectual Dark Web: It pops everyone’s bubbles. It takes people who disagree on fundamental issues and brings them together to have long-form, mutually respectful dialogues, where nobody tone-polices each other and ideas are free to flow. And when it’s all over, they go have lunch together and talk some more off camera. It’s a refreshing thing to watch.

At the same time, I suppose at the end of the day, my nagging issue with the Intellectual Dark Web is not that they’re too controversial. On the contrary: I feel as though they’re not controversial enough.

Of the people who’ve been unofficially “initiated” into the group, only one member, Ben Shapiro, brings a distinctly Judeo-Christian perspective to the table. You can feel the difference, particularly on the issue of abortion. Consider this YouTube medley of perspectives on abortion, which starts with Dave Rubin, Michael Shermer and Sam Harris and closes with a clip of Shapiro on his show. That shift you feel when Ben says his piece is the shift from not Judeo-Christian to Judeo-Christian. It’s a big shift.

And yet, when sitting face to face with some of his dialogue partners, Shapiro’s tone can become curiously muted. For example, in this three-way discussion with Jordan Peterson and mathematician/physicist/economist Eric Weinstein, Shapiro says that he would like to interact with “the most sophisticated arguments” for the pro-choice position. Weinstein, who is pro-choice, appreciates this and says he thinks the issue is more complex than either side has made it out to be (gesturing vaguely towards some notion of life quality as a “float” rather than a binary thing…whatever this means). Weinstein continues by saying that he and Shapiro can respect each other because neither one will veer into “extremism.” For his part, Weinstein says, he won’t insist on abortion rights up to the day before birth, and for Shapiro’s part he knows Shapiro isn’t going to “go nuts over spermicide.”

Shapiro’s reaction: Laughter, move on. My reaction: “Come again? Can you clarify that please? Because honestly, I have no idea what you’re talking about. I truly don’t.”

If Weinstein is talking about embryonic stem cell research, then I guess I’m “extreme,” by his lights. But if he literally meant “spermicide,” this makes no sense whatsoever. No pro-lifer has ever passionately argued for a sperm’s right to life. At least, not that I’m aware of.

Yet Shapiro let the moment pass. Why? Because he didn’t want to make it awkward. After all, he’d already said that some pro-choice arguments were “sophisticated,” and he was sitting across from a self-styled “sophisticated” pro-choicer. It’s awkward to call out your brilliant, sophisticated dialogue partner on a comment that is anything but.

And I think here is where we find the evangelical Christian’s vocation: to make things awkward. Not in the sense that we shoehorn our awkward beliefs into every possible conversation, but in the sense that those beliefs set us apart. They keep us from becoming too comfortable at the cool kids’ table. They keep us from being satisfied that people like Steven Pinker believe in free speech and have some of the same politically incorrect ideas that we do, because they keep us from forgetting that this is the same man who has openly soft-pedaled infanticide. They keep us from seeing our differences with Sam Harris as no more than “a squabble,” as one writer has suggested.

“Evangelical” has the same root as “evangelism.” There’s another awkward thing. Just the word conjures up mental images of the guy with a bullhorn pacing and shouting on the street corner, or at the university flagpoles. We’ve all seen that guy. We don’t want to be that guy. He’s loud. He’s embarrassing. He’s awkward.

Only slightly less awkward, the person who invades your personal space to pluck your sleeve and ask, “Mister, mister, if you were to die tonight, where would you go? Would you take a tract? Please take this tract, sir. God bless you, sir. Jesus loves you more than you will know.” You take the tract, if only to make him go away.

I am not saying that evangelical Christians are called to pace the town square bullhorn in hand, or to press tracts onto captive audiences at crosswalks. I am only saying there is a certain logic in these things.

For if we are, indeed, immortal creatures, and if there will indeed come a moment when we must say to God “Thy will be done” or else he tells us “Thy will be done,” then perhaps it is worth asking what might happen if we should die before we wake.

Perhaps it is worth turning our eyes upon the Nazarene and asking: “Who is this man?”

Perhaps it is worth turning our attention to that unfolding miracle in the womb and asking: “What is this thing?”

Perhaps we evangelicals must stand fast a little. Even at the risk of being awkward.


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  • Steve92

    I think what Weinstein was referring to about the spermicide was Christian groups who don’t believe in birth control. That last minute abortions are to pro-choicers what not believing in birth control is to pro-lifers. There are Christian groups that believe using birth control is imposing our will on God’s, while the majority of Christians believe this is nonsense.

  • @EstherOReilly

    Now that you say that, I’m thinking you might be right, but in that case the comment is still dumb because we are no longer having a conversation about the pro-life issue at that point. There simply isn’t a parallel. Yes, some people do have the misconception that some forms of birth control can induce abortions, but that wasn’t what Weinstein was referring to, if your guess is right.

  • Steve92

    You are right, it becomes a birth control discussion instead of an abortion discussion. Although, you could then make the argument some people use abortion as birth control. Generally, I agree it doesn’t totally parallel, but I understand his point.

  • Steve92

    Very good articles though.

  • TinnyWhistler

    IIRC, Catholics combine “no abortions” and “no contraception or birth control” as well as “no masturbation” under the same umbrella of teaching about sex and Christian sexuality. It’s something Catholics have been known for for a very long time, even before Protestants joined the pro-life movement.

  • @EstherOReilly

    Again, if the topic of discussion had been “our views on sexuality writ large,” that would make more sense, but it comes out of nowhere since ostensibly the specific focus was abortion. Not to mention the fact that even though I disagree with the Catholics on birth control, that “extreme” view has, shall we say, a lower body count than the extreme pro-abortion view.

  • TinnyWhistler

    Weinstein said that the extreme for pro-life was anti spermicide and the extreme for pro-choice was abortion the day before birth. Do you really think that there’s a lower body count of people who are against birth control vs people who are for abortion the day before birth? I find that very, very hard to believe. Every single pro choice person I’ve talked to about the subject thinks that if the baby’s old enough to live outside the mom’s body, it’s too late for an abortion and you might as well just perform a c-section. On the other hand, I personally know two families who have 10+ biological children because they don’t believe in birth control.

    Weinstein deliberately used the two furthest possible extremes: spermicide, which kills sperm before conception is a possibility, and day-before abortions. He literally chose those examples because they’re at extreme ends of pregnancy to draw a nice neat parallel.

  • @EstherOReilly

    I think you misunderstood what I meant by “body count.”

  • @EstherOReilly

    It is neither nice, nor neat, nor a parallel. We are talking about murder versus non-murder. Which of these is not like the other?

  • TinnyWhistler

    Ah, ok. Your objection makes much more sense now. You weren’t listening to that conversation to learn anything, you were listening to confirm to yourself that baby-murderers are, indeed, baby-murderers. If Shapiro managed to stick it to them, that’s just additional popcorn for the show.

    Because spermicide is effective before the instant that a sperm reaches an egg, it falls outside the entire scope of the conversation in your mind, and is thus completely irrelevant in your mind. Never mind that no one actually argues for abortion the day before delivery and someone might argue that Weinstein bringing up such an extreme view should be just as irrelevant.

    I think you misunderstand what “mutually respectful” means in the context of dialog. Mutual respect means *listening* to your conversation partner, trying to *hear* what they are trying to communicate, and certainly not replacing every word they say with “I like the violent murder of precious babies because I don’t care” in your own mind.

    Make an effort to hear people and you might find them more willing to do the same. You’re correct, there’s nothing more awkward than trying to have a conversation with someone who is not listening.

  • @EstherOReilly


    My point was simply that there is no such thing as a “sophisticated” pro-choice argument. I can listen to a pro-choice person spin out his argument, but I don’t have to operate under the illusion that it’s more respectable than it actually is. What I’m observing in Shapiro is the subtle but definite effect of a kind of peer pressure. It’s telling that it’s having an effect even on such a normally pugnacious firebrand as he is. I’m not saying he needs to stop having conversations across the board with Weinstein or other people who favor the pro-choice side of the abortion argument, for one thing because there’s a variety of interesting topics they could discuss that have nothing to do with abortion (and have discussed, with interesting results). I’m saying Shapiro made an unforced error. An unnecessary concession.

  • james warren

    Ask a Christian to consider a fertilized egg in a petrie dish alongside of a nine-month old baby.
    Throw them both into a pool of water and watch which living baby they reach for.

    The elephant in the room about the abortion argument is common sense.

  • TinnyWhistler

    Part of what you’re noticing is the simple fact that most decent people are more civil when they’re sitting together talking to each other in front of a camera than if they were to swap videos or blog posts back and forth.

    It seems like you’re saying is that there’s nothing of value that anyone pro-choice can say in the context of an abortion dialog. The concession that Shapiro made was that he sat down to have a mutually respectful conversation. You can agree or disagree on the value of that but that’s where the concession was made.

  • Richard B

    I have no quarrel with evangelicals – but they must first and foremost be true to the Gospel of the One they claim as Savior. There are way too many sham evangelicals saying all kinds of things which decidedly not Christian.

  • @EstherOReilly

    In point of fact the dialogue was freewheeling, and the topic of abortion was touched on in passing only towards the end, as one of several points of disagreement among the group. It was more of a meta-discussion. Shapiro was certainly not *bound* by civility to make the comments he did. Voluntarily saying that there are sophisticated pro-choice arguments was something he did in an unprompted way. Now if, in the future, he does record an actual debate as opposed to a meta-debate and doesn’t pull his punches, I would be interested to see that. Interestingly he was sharper in a solo interview with Rubin. To be honest, I think he held back because it was Weinstein, and he knows Weinstein could spot Rubin about 40 IQ points. Guys like that have an unhealthily intimidating effect.

  • Sarah Flood

    Except it really doesn’t, because areas where birth control is more readily available have fewer abortions. The no-birth-control stance absolutely has a body count when you combine it with extreme shame over extramarital pregnancy. Panic abortions and guilt abortions are a real and common thing among the religious. Conversely, the extreme abortion view is rare and third trimester abortions are EXTREMELY rare. Yes, they occur, but they are virtually always in cases where the baby would have died at or shortly after birth anyway; women rarely have elective second or third trimester abortions. Not to be callous, but whether the baby dies in the womb due to an abortion or out of the womb due to a fatal defect, the body count is the same.

  • Doug Johnson

    You could throw my 96 year old mom and my 3 year old grandson in the same pool and we would all go after the 3 year old first. It is not that a fertilized egg or an elderly person has no value but rather that there are degrees of value. That issue never gets considered by either side..

  • Campaigner1

    You could throw a canister containing 10,000 zygotes into a pool of freezing water alongside EITHER a nine month old baby OR a nonagenarian; any decent human being will go attempt to save the actual, existing humans, not the “potentials”. So I’m more than willing to agree a fertilized egg has a value slightly under one-ten thousandth of an existing human being.

  • Brievel Montague

    A fertilized egg in a petrie dish *isn’t going to survive anyway*. And actually I’d try to get both.