Someone asked on Facebook for advice on responding to the meme you see above and below. (It didn’t have my “Wrong” commentary on it.) Answers varied. Most of them had something to do with clarifying the nature of prayer. They were good answers, but not for a meme like this.
They were good answers, that is, for someone who’s genuinely puzzling about the nature of prayer. Prayer raises genuine issues, and they’re fair questions when asked fairly. Even C. S. Lewis wrote an essay about petitionary prayer, and how hard it is to understand what God is really doing there. (It’s in Christian Reflections.) But Lewis prayed anyway, even as he struggled through that question.
The creator of this meme was doing nothing of the sort. It’s mockery. No, actually it’s baiting. This meme is a worm dangled in front of the Christian, saying, “Here. Take it! You’ll like it!” But there’s a hook it’s attached to, and that’s where the mockery really resides. Take the bait, and the next thing you’ll hear is “Gotcha!”
Refuse the Bait!
If there were one thing I could wish for atheist/Christian dialogues on the web, it’s this: That believers would refuse to let atheists bait them. Or if I may switch metaphors, that we’d refuse to play by atheists’ rules.
Jesus set the example here. Study him in the Gospels, and you’ll find he almost never let his adversaries set the rules for engagement. He consistently kept conversations pointing back toward truth, but seldom if ever by cooperating with traps people laid for him. I wrote a full study on this in my short book How Would Jesus Blog? Answering Online Adversaries Jesus’ Way. I’m not trying to sell a book, I’m trying to help Christians interact more productively. If you want to understand better, though, I really do recommend the book.
I’m not trying to sell anything, and I’m also not recommending weasel tactics. We don’t need to evade memes, and we certainly shouldn’t squirm out of them through any sort of illegitimate comeback. Instead we need to recognize what’s going on beneath the surface and address that instead.
Ask Questions to Get Beneath the Surface
In this meme, for instance, what’s likely going on is that the person:
- Has no clue to the character of Jesus.
- Thinks Jesus is worthy of scorn or mockery.
- Has no idea understanding of the true doctrine of Christian prayer.
- Nevertheless thinks he understands the doctrine of prayer.
- Has no idea what really goes on when Christians pray.
- Doesn’t care that he doesn’t know, or that he gets these things wrong.
- Is quite sure this is a fatal “gotcha” for Christianity.
It’s possible not all of those are true, but some of them surely are. So why would we answer a person with that kind of attitude?
Use More Questions to Open Up Understanding
For starters, we might actually try to help them understand; but not (at first, anyway) to understand the answer to their question, but rather to help them see that their question is built on faulty premises. So we answer with questions:
- Tell me, please, what you think prayer is.
- I wonder where you got that information from?
- Do you think that’s all there is to prayer?
- Has it occurred to you there might be more to it?
- Tell me what you understand of the character of Jesus, that would lead you to think he might be pulling a trick on us like the meme suggests?
- Where did you get that information from?
- Why do you think Christians pray? Is it because the issue you’ve raised here has never occurred to us?
- Do you actually think Christians have never worked through a question like that? (You can find some good thinking on it by searching for “Lewis essay petitionary prayer.”)
- (If the previous answer is “yes,” I think this is a question you’ve never worked through.) Your view of Christians here seems to be that we’re mindless and stupid. Am I right to read you that way, or did I get that wrong?
- Would you be interested in hearing a thoughtful answer to your question?
That last question comes at any point in the question/answer where you think you might get a positive response. But I wouldn’t offer a thoughtful answer unless I had some reason to hope they’d be interested in hearing it.
If They’re Really Adversarial: Mocking/Scorning/Ridiculing
Sometimes — too often, sadly — in a question/answer dialogue you discover they don’t care to listen at all; they only want to mock. Then it’s fair to ask questions like:
- You seem to think it’s okay to mock without listening. Am I reading that right?
- Would you agree it’s a mark of good character to listen before you treat other ideas with such scorn?
- I see you stereotyping Christians here. Do you believe in stereotyping?
The person who is only there to heap scorn on Christianity doesn’t need an answer, other than the one Jesus gave. In one way or another, and seldom in the same way twice, he called on people to look to their own character. We shouldn’t do it condemningly, and we should keep it in a question-asking mode, such as, “Am I reading that right?” — except if it’s obvious, we can call it what it is. Mockery is mockery, and you can say so; it only goes wrong when you make unwarranted pronouncements on the persons’ motives.
One final note. In case it seems wrong to plaster Jesus’ face with the word “Wrong” as it appears to be in the image above, I don’t see it that way at all. That isn’t Jesus; not if he’s speaking those words. It’s someone who vaguely resembles popular images of Jesus, but that’s not really him there. He wouldn’t say that.