Someone on Facebook asked, “How would you answer this?”
Christian, watch it if you dare. Prepare for a barrage.
At the end of the clip, the interviewer says, “That sure is the longest answer to that question that I ever got in this entire series,” and they both laugh over it.
That’s nothing, though, compared to how long it would take to answer Stephen Fry. That’s because few people understand what’s behind the Christian explanation for reality as a whole: they don’t understand reality Christianly.
Background Work For Understanding Reality Christianly
It’s not that there is no answer. Given time, any reasonably well-informed Christian thinker could take apart Stephen Fry’s response both philosophically and theologically, and show in great detail how he has misunderstood and misinterpreted Christianity’s view of suffering in the world.
To do that, however, would require laying an enormous amount of groundwork. We would have to ask him to start back at the beginning: to imagine an entirely different reality than the one he thinks he lives in. We’d have to ask him to be patient with us as we lay out a wholly unfamiliar worldview, one in which a good God rules wisely over a not-always-good universe and is making it good for his glory.
For the sake of hearing and grasping an answer to the questions he’s raised, he would need to take a stab at understanding reality as Christians understand it. Only then could he even begin to evaluate whether Christianity can offer his challenge a solid answer.
Would he be willing to do that? Would he take the time and exercise the patience to do that?
I don’t know the man, so I don’t know, but I do know the shallow, glib, gleeful God-condemnations offered by major New Atheist writers and the atheist Internet. Rarely do I sense that they want to invest any energy in understanding the Christians’ answer. They mock Christianity with rapier-sharp slogans and sound bites, but unfortunately also in shallow ignorance.
And it’s partly our fault, Christians.
Many of the people of whom I speak learned (so to speak) this shallow view of Christianity in church. David Kinnaman wrote about this in You Lost Me. In America, at least, we’re talking about the de-churched more than the completely unchurched.
The Church’s Weakness In Teaching a Christian Understanding of Reality
From this point forward I’m no longer speaking about Stephen Fry, for as far as I can tell his upbringing was not at all Christian. I’m speaking instead of all those who think they learned Christianity growing up, but didn’t. They might think they have. Their churches might have led them to believe they have, but they haven’t. Their churches haven’t taught it.
Now, I don’t want to generalize unfairly here. There are great teaching churches, and there are poor ones. Even among the great teaching churches, though, there are distinctions. Some (including some I’ve attended) believe greatly in teaching the Bible, and they teach it well, in one sense. They don’t always teach it in context of the real questions of the day, however, which is to say, they teach it well but not in all the ways that matter most.
Look at it this way: any college student could raise Stephen Fry’s challenge. Every student who goes to school as a Christian, therefore, is likely to hear them. Do they know how to answer? Only if we’ve taught them what they need to know–which means, only if we’ve gone into significant depth with them about understanding reality in a Christian way.
If we’ve done this for them, then they’re probably going to be equipped to stand a challenge like this one. If not, they’re sitting ducks. The next college sophomore with an axe to grind against God is going to sharpen it on them.
Again, I don’t want to generalize unfairly, but from my direct observations and my reading of the research, high-quality Christian-reality teaching is the exception, not the rule. For those of us who want understand all of reality Christianly, even the church can feel like a lonely place.
Stephen Fry’s Vulnerability
I’ll go back to Stephen Fry for a moment. I don’t know him or his educational background beyond what our great friend Wikipedia tells us, but I can at least see he answers with the air of someone who has observed well and felt deeply (which is excellent). His thinking, on the other hand, is vulnerable, to say the least. I don’t see him demonstrating any careful, reflective thought here, and certainly none that take seriously the possibility that Christians have also grappled with these questions. It’s as if we let 2,000 years go by without ever realizing there might be a problem there, and, OH NO!, the actors and pundits have discovered there’s a hole in our worldview.
(May I interrupt my flow of thought here to remind us all how unlikely that really is? Every day, though, I read Internet atheists dropping bombs over Christianity, not knowing they’ve been disarmed for centuries.)
Fry has landed himself in a dangerous place. For God is a good God who rules this earth for his glory and our flourishing, and Fry is poking a hot stick in his eye. Let me clarify what I mean there. God doesn’t have eyes, and he’s not worried about hot sticks. He has a way of turning good back upon us in multiplied ways, but also pain, shame, and contempt. The poker, I fear, is in Stephen Fry’s eye. And it is his own doing. I find that very sad for him.
An Opportunity To Help Others Understand Reality Christianly
It’s not all his fault though. We haven’t done our job. We’ve made it seem unusual for Christians to work hard at understanding reality Christianly. We’ve made it a lonely occupation.
We can do something about this, those of us who care about it. I wrote recently about connecting with other thinking believers. We can work on it with unbelievers, too.
This blog isn’t a great context for what I’m about to recommend. It’s the kind of thing you do walking along a path instead, or sitting across the table at a coffee shop together. I’m suggesting that we take time to go back to the beginning. Let’s tell the story. Let’s not get bogged down in how long the first part of it took (Genesis 1 and 2); instead, just speak of God creating. To do so is one fundamental way to clarify the meaning of “God,” after all.
Let’s talk about how humans carry all the dignity and potential greatness that comes of being made in his image, but how we descended into deadly distance from him instead. We need not be afraid to use the word “sin,” but we must sure to explain what it means.
Then we can just go on and tell the story, especially the story of Jesus Christ.
Story of that sort is needed to build the basic preliminary understanding of the gospel. Even if the other person doesn’t embrace Christianity as true, at least they’ll be much further along the way toward being able to grasp a Christian understanding of reality so they can decide for themselves.
Understanding Reality Christianly
We have our work cut out for us. We’ve got a lot of story-telling to catch up on. That’s how we’ll provide the background people need so they can evaluate the truth and meaningfulness of Christianity. For many, the story alone will be enough to convince. Others will ask for more reasons to believe.
The story matters, though, because first of all it’s true, and second, it’s how people come to understand reality Christianly. The story has not been well told in our culture. The other day someone wrote,
According to Tom his religion is responsible for all of the evil in the world. Something about Adam and Eve or something. So when is he going to apologize for it? (It wouldn’t surprise me if he actuality does apologize for it haha.)
If he thought I was going to apologize for it, it could only be because he thought I might think he had said something halfway true about Christianity. He hadn’t. He thought he had, but no; in fact, this displays a marvelous ignorance of Christianity coupled with an equally marvelous confidence in that ignorance.
It also displays that he hasn’t heard the story. I wonder whether he’s one of the never-churched or the de-churched. Either one is possible.
Overcoming the Loneliness
We need to do a better job of explaining how to understand reality Christianly in the church. We need to do a better job outside the church, too. “How can they hear without a preacher?” asks Paul in Romans 10. How can we preach it if we’re not teaching it in our churches?
I close with this. My recent post on the loneliness of thinking Christianly received more page views by far than any other I have ever written, with the exception of some that were tied to specific controversial current events. It struck a nerve. It’s not enough to think Christianly; we need to know and to communicate how to understand reality Christianly. And we need to make sure that’s not the lonely kind of enterprise it’s been.