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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