sharpen your conversations in Lewis’s toolshed

This post first appeared as part of the ‘On holiday with C.S. Lewis’ section of the latest issue of CASE Magazine.


Imagine this:

You get talking with a friend about their objections to Christian faith. The conversation starts to gather momentum. You seem to be getting more and more opportunity to speak personally about Jesus and about the reasons for your trust in him.

But suddenly there’s a metaphorical screeching of the wheels. Then a sickening jolt.

Perhaps you’ve struck a fissure in the conversational rails. Colliding with some unforeseen personal investments around an issue like same-sex marriage.

Or perhaps something you’ve rounded a corner too quickly, barrelling at speed into some aspect of apologetics that you expected to bluff your way through using second-hand facts and figures (about the fine tuning constants in the universe or whatever).

Or perhaps you were too well-prepared, and allowed your ability to speak at length and in details on your personal field of expertise hijack your desire to talk about Jesus.

Whichever way it happened, your once pleasant and apparently promising conversation has been derailed — and may even be careening out of control towards some ominously looming interpersonal cliffs…

If you’ve ever found yourself in this situation then maybe, like me, you have something to learn from C.S. Lewis’s famous ‘Meditation in a Toolshed’.

Lewis introduces his meditation by recounting his experience of standing in a darkened toolshed. A single sunbeam, originating from a crack at the top of the door, cuts across the shed.

After describing the difference between his experience of looking at the sunbeam and looking along it to see the scene outside, he generalises this to two approaches to knowledge: the ‘external account’ of something, and knowing about something ‘from inside’.

For Lewis, this important distinction was itself an apologetic tool. It helped him challenge the hubris of the ‘scientific’, modernist approach to knowledge — especially its inveterate insistence on the absolute superiority of the ‘external account’.

But for me, it’s more significant as a way to sharpen my sense of how to answer questions.

To begin with, it helps me ask myself questions about how well my responses ‘look along’ my faith towards the One who is its object. A classic biblical passage about this is 1 Peter 3:15:

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…

In these terms, does my response move out of my reverence for Jesus? Or is it shaped by other forces (like my desire to win the argument or gain approval)?

Likewise, I’m learning that it’s one thing to launch a battery of apologetic arguments or draw on conversational tactics that I’ve carefully gathered and memorized, but it’s something quite different to give the reason for my hope in Christ.

For, ultimately, giving the reason for my hope is something that, if I were to do it, might possibly help my conversation partner look along my testimony to see Jesus, rather than simply looking at it to see how intelligent (or well-rehearsed) I am.

Attention! Attention!

Apparently we’re living in an attention economy — where one of the most scarce and precious commodities is our attention.

What this means is that whoever and whatever can capture and hold our attention ‘wins’. (Which I guess means it’s fitting that I read about this attention economy by following a link from my Twitter feed.)

I certainly feel like ‘attention economy’ pretty accurately describes the situation in my household with an incredibly active and curious almost-two year old.

And I suspect many of us can resonate with this more broadly. Can’t we?

Think about the prevalence of the soundbyte. Or the highlight reel.

Or think about how quickly posts seem to appear and then disappear from your news feed on Facebook. Blink and you can miss massively important announcements — weddings, births, new jobs…

(In fact, the ‘experts’ tell me that in university student ministry, the ideal number of times to Tweet each day is between 2 and 8 times! That’s every day. Every. Single. Day. Posting mostly the same content. Just so people have a chance of seeing it.)

It’s like survival of the fittest for ideas!

But as well as keeping everything brief and punchy (to avoid tl;dr), our attention economy rewards novelty.

It’s all about freshness. Originality.

Everything’s got to be new — or at least wrapped in a shiny new package.

All of which poses some distinct challenges for Christians.

Because Christians are people who say we’ve had not just our attention but our loyalty captured and held by one thing. One person — Jesus.

Worse, the writer of Hebrews tells us that this Jesus is “the same yesterday, today, and forever”!

Worse still, Jesus himself tells us (in John 5) that he is supremely unoriginal. He does nothing new — but only what he sees his Father doing: “whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise”.

So in this attention economy is there anything that can stop Christians being boring when we always want to keep talking about Jesus?

And, maybe even more significantly, is there anything that can stop us getting bored ourselves? Not so much turning our back on Jesus as getting distracted — having our eyes and hearts drawn away towards something newer and fresher?

Well… Maybe.

I’m sure this is the bit where I’m supposed to pull a rabbit out of a hat and resolve the attention economy dilemma.

That’s certainly what I’d planned to do. I’d planned to point to the inexhaustible richness of the Bible’s testimony to Jesus.

And I wanted to sketch out a flexible framework that would allow this rich, multi-dimensional witness to emerge with relevance to the questions and issues we encounter in our everyday relationships…

But I’m not sure I know how to do this. All I’ve got is a hunch — a hunch that people like Tim Keller are on to something when they talk about the “irreducible complexity” of the core Christian message about Jesus.

Commenting on how ready the Apostles were to draw a line between true and false gospels, Keller observes (Center Church, chapter 2): “It would be impossible for Paul to condemn a ‘false gospel’ and affirm the preaching of Peter as ‘the gospel’ without assuming a consensus body of gospel content. And yet it is obvious that the various biblical writers express the gospel in significantly different ways.”

It’s almost like God’s anticipated the problem of our attention economy. Or maybe it’s not such a novel problem after all…

a peacemaker’s guide to Christian apologetics?

I’m in the midst of trying to write an article on Christian apologetics — the art of negotiating conversations in which you answer objections and tackle common ‘defeater beliefs’ about the Christian faith.

And I’ve come unstuck (evidently — otherwise I’d be writing the article rather than posting this).

Why? What’s my problem?

Well, first a bit about me:

I’m someone who’s read numerous books and articles, attended training courses, and even run my fair share of training on apologetics. I’m not an expert. But I do have a bunch of answers under my belt. And a few tricks up my sleeve — ways of nudging these conversations in more fruitful directions (e.g., where they’re more likely to end up focusing on Jesus rather than some obscure details about the origins of the universe — which, to be honest, neither I nor most of my conversation partners actually know anything about).

And yet I’m no longer confident this is the kind of thing envisaged in the most frequently quoted prooftext for the enterprise of apologetics (1 Peter 3.15-16):

In your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.

I’m more and more convinced that the sanctifying Christ as Lord in our own hearts bit is the key to the rest of it. And that readiness to make a defence doesn’t equal carrying concealed argumentative weapons into every conversation and trying to hijack it so that it goes where I want it to go.

Rather, I suspect all the stuff there about gentleness, reverence, and keeping a clear conscience is the main game. (This would certainly fit with the overall thrust of the section of 1 Peter running from roughly half-way through chapter 2 through to the end of the letter.)

What this means is that we need a peacemaker’s guide to Christian apologetics — a set of strategies to break out of what Holly Weeks in her book Failure To Communicate calls the ‘combat mentality’, the inclination to see every potentially tricky conversation as a battlefield either to be avoided or upon which to fight.

And I’m not sure I’ve found any of those in my reading about apologetics.

a word of grace for the same-sex marriage debate

We all feel the problem, don’t we?

However you ended up here, you’re talking about same-sex marriage. And you’re feeling pinned.

You really want to say something about God’s grace in Jesus. But you’re struggling to be heard as anything but a moralistic, judgemental bigot.

Maybe — keeping Romans 1.18ff in mind — you’re trying to explain that not just homosexual sin but all sin can be traced back to idolatry.

Perhaps you’ve mentioned something about not expecting people who don’t trust Jesus to buy into Christian morality (a little uncomfortably given your convictions about Jesus being Lord of all and hence of his vision for life applying to all).

But nothing seems to be getting through.

So how can we speak a word of grace into the same-sex marriage debate?

In his brilliant little paper on ‘Preaching In A Secular Culture’ (available at Redeemer City to City), Tim Keller isolates four keys for speaking the good news of Jesus in a secular culture — and having it actually heard as good news:

  1. <strongSpeak to Christians and non-Christians at the same time. This isn’t as impossible as it sounds — the good news about Jesus is the key not only to becoming a Christian but also to growing as one.
  2. Proclaim grace not moralism. Sounds obvious, right? But incredibly hard to do in practice.
  3. Show that it’s always about Christ. Again – Duh. And, again, very difficult to do without forcing the connection (e.g., by allegory).
  4. Aim for the heart (or the imagination) not simply the emotions or the mind.

I’d love to unpack this in detail. But I’ll limit myself to picking out one point of particular relevance for Christian interventions the same-sex marriage debate. Namely, how do we pull off Point 2 — speaking a word of grace rather than moralistic condemnation?

The key, Keller suggests, is to work hard to “show how the person and work of Jesus Christ bears on the subject” so people can hear us proclaiming good news not simply (what we consider to be) good advice.

Surely, Christian talk about sin — all sin not just homosexual sin — must take its cue from the way Jesus extended unconditional acceptance to sinners (“Neither do I condemn you” was his word to the woman caught in adultery in John 8) before making demands or calling for transformation (“Go and leave your life of sin”).

It’s worth asking ourselves the question: Do our interventions in the same-sex marriage debate have the savour of Jesus to them?

I suspect we won’t get very far until we start owning up to our sin and failures in this regard. Showing how the way Christ deals with sinners is good news — which, nevertheless, demands change and transformation — for all of us.

Social Design for mission and ministry (series intro)

I want to open up a conversation about what the Social Design guidelines from Facebook Developers can teach us about Christian mission and ministry.

According to the byline, “Social Design is a way of thinking about product design that puts social experiences at the core”. (As such, it’s a version of the kind of ‘human-centered design’ you can watch David Kelley discuss at a TED conference from 2005.)

The question I would like us to explore is thus, What would it look like to put social experiences at the core of our approach to Christian mission and ministry?

I propose we organise our discussion under the following headings:

  1. Working from the outside in.
  2. Utilising community.
  3. Building meaningful conversations.
  4. Recognising the importance of identity.

Before I launch into it, it’s probably worth mopping up a couple of potential misconceptions about where we’re heading.

First up, I don’t really want to talk about how to harness a social media platform like Facebook for the purposes of mission and ministry — or whether we should.

This issues strike me as pretty overdone. Not to mention perpetually deadlocked between the nay-sayers (‘Social networking is the end of relationships as we know them!’) and the cheerleaders (‘It changes everything!’). I’ve commented on this before.

I’m much more interested in how the thinking embodied in Facebook’s Social Design guidelines can sharpen what we do — and maybe even untangle some knotty problems (like the whole Believing vs Belonging thing).

Second, I don’t want us to treat the source material as anything more or less than ‘codified common sense’.

I envisage culling wisdom from the cultural stockpile of observation and experience. Just as the biblical wisdom writers often seem to have done with non-biblical sources.

My sense is that paying attention to Facebook’s Social Design guidelines can alert us to aspects of our God-given ‘sociality’ so we can resist the drift Andrew Cameron identifies (Joined-up Life, pages 56-57):

Oddly … this constant element of our lives usually drifts into unawareness. We imagine ourselves to be ruggedly individual, choosing and planning our destinies as if we’re not materially and mentally dependent on those who surround us.

In short, I want our discussion to help us remember our creatureliness and factor it in to our approach to mission and ministry.

That’s where we’re heading. Onward!

something preachers always knew

The latest post over at Copyblogger confirms something preachers always knew:

Repetition is ‘a linguistically valid way of increasing the effectiveness of a message’.

The key example is “free gift”.

Apparently, split-testing indicates that “free gift” outperforms “gift” — even though a gift is free by definition.

This isn’t just about emphasis.

Where a technically redundant combination of words (“free gift”, “PIN number”, etc) works better than the more streamlined version, ‘those words become necessary, and perhaps even essential, to the success of a message’.

Worth remembering for those of us who are in to communicating — and communicating about the “free gift” of God’s grace in particular!

5 things I’ve learnt about writing essays from marking them

I would like to add an extra learning style to the well known list of learning by seeing, by hearing, by doing etc. I want to add learning by judging. Here’s what I learnt about essay writing from my recent experience marking them:

  1. Formatting matters. Your essay does not need to look beautiful. But when I pick up a double-spaced essay in a serif font there is a feeling of peace that descends upon me that I am sure puts me in a more generous frame of mind.
  2. Your reference list does matter. I want to see that you’ve been in the class, that you’ve done some of the prescribed reading and are responding to the arguments made by them in your essay. It is in your best interest to use as many of the readings you’ve had to do as possible! But then I also need to see that you’ve done some of your own research. There needs to be some stuff there that’s not on the reading list too.
  3. Don’t just summarise. Argue. You won’t get a bad mark if your essay summarises content from the course on the topic you’ve chosen. But you will get an average one. Show me you have a brain that thinks independently. I don’t mean ‘be argumentative’. Find the links between the five different points you want to make to tell a story and persuade me of point ; e.g. “instead of thinking about memory as history, I will argue that it’s more appropriately thought of as fiction”. I don’t mind a little bit of argumentative, too. I quite like it when, at some point in your essay, you take issue with what you’ve been taught — when you find a critic or a case study that problematises the subject. The best essays I marked made good arguments, but I suspect a bad argument could be worse than a good summary…any thoughts from more experienced markers?
  4. Your first paragraph is really really really important. I’d always known it was good to have a good introduction, but I never really felt the weight of it. It sets the tone in terms of of writing ability, but I care less about style than I do about content. Your introduction should help me read the rest of your essay: it makes it so much easier for me to mark your essay if you tell me what you’re going to argue and how you’re going to argue it. Don’t just restate the question. If the question is “Discuss Anderson’s theory of the nation as imagined community”, it is not enough to say in your introduction that “In this essay I will discuss Anderson’s theory of the nation as imagined community”. Of course you will! If you don’t, I will struggle not to fail you. Rather, tell me something like: “In this essay I will show how Anderson’s theory helpfully contributes to previous formulations of nationalism, but is insufficient to explain nationalism in its entirety. First, I will…”.
  5. Signposts will make your essay stand out from the crowd. Signposts are those sentences that tell me where we’ve been and where we’re going: “The four aspects of ethnic nationalism discussed above are criticised by John Doe. It is to this criticism we will now turn.” Signposts should reflect the argument and structure you described to me in your introduction. They mean I don’t have to keep flipping back to your introduction to remind my self of the structure of your paper. Flipping is frustrating.

do you speak Australian?

A couple of weeks ago, Natalie and I had a terrific conversation with some friends that’s been percolating away in the back of my brain ever since.

One thing we talked about was the idea of the Australian heart language.

‘Heart language’ is a concept that Bible translators and missionaries would be familiar with. It’s traditionally carved out in opposition to the trade language. It’s like the Kriol into which the Bible was finally translated in 2007 so that indigenous Australians could encounter God’s Word in a more direct and meaningful way.

But I’ve been wondering whether the concept’s got wider application to helping us promote Jesus in contemporary Australia. Basically, I’m not sure we’re hitting the mark when it comes to presenting the good news in terms that connect deeply and directly with people.

Let me give a personal example. A few years ago I read North American novelist Don Delillo’s book Falling Man, which is set in New York City in the wake of 9/11. It contains explicit, extensive discussion of the problem belief in God in the face of such large-scale suffering. It’s language and register is very close to what you’d find in articles and online. But it left me feeling cold.

In contrast, a novel like Tim Winton’s Dirt Music resonated much more powerfully with me as it handled similar issues. It just seemed to speak much more directly to my heart.

Reflecting on this sort of experience has got me thinking about whether I speak a language other than that in which most Australians think and feel as I seek to communicate the good news of what God has done in Jesus. I’ve started asking myself: Are the words, images and stories that I typically reach for when speaking of Jesus recognisable? Or are they too ‘high culture’ — or, worse, too evangelical Christian sub-culture?

What I’d love from you are suggestions about novels, TV-shows, radio-programmes — anything really — that you reckon speak the Australian heart language? I urgently want to tap into them so that I can get better at promoting Jesus to the people I know!

how to use the Old Spice technique to promote Jesus

Well, I reckon it’s safe to say that the current Old Spice advertising campaign is a marketing hit — if not a phenomenon! Although I’m not sure how much Old Spice it’s selling (UPDATE: its apparently boosting sales 107%), it works a treat for raising brand awareness.

And it’s got me thinking about what technique Christians should use to promote Jesus.

Try to picture this situation:

A work colleague asks, ‘What do you make of the whole boat people situation?’ You desperately want to give an enticing and distinctively Christian response. You know, something gracious and seasoned with salt? Something that points to Jesus in a compelling and meaningful way without hijacking the conversation altogether. But what you manage to blurt out sounds a lot like the Old Spice add –‘Look at your question … now look at Jesus … now back to your question … now back to Jesus … Jesus is on a horse’.

Sound familiar?

Maybe I’m being unfair. I’m sure your responses usually makes more sense than that. But that’s how I sometimes feel when I’m trying to articulate why I believe in Jesus and how that makes a difference to my whole life.

Obviously there’s work to be done in joining the dots — figuring out how to get from Jesus to our urgent real world problems and questions (and back again). But I wonder if the Old Spice technique is really all that bad. I suppose it probably depends on how high we set our expectations. On what we hope to achieve in those few moments before the topic of conversation changes.

Would it be so terrible to embrace raising Jesus’ ‘brand awareness’? After all, we know that not everything necessarily hinges on that one moment of conversation. And yet in terms of the rich tapestry God is weaving even such a slender thread may prove incredibly significant. Especially if it declares: ‘This Christian person is actually convinced that Jesus makes a difference — a real difference’.

what Christians can learn from the American Museum of Natural History (NYC)

When we were in New York, Natalie and I were struck by something very distinctive about a bunch of the displays in the American Museum of Natural History:

Where there was debate, the displays would usually outline two alternative explanations.

Whether it was theories about how certain dinosaurs walked — ie. more like horses or more like lizards — based on conflicting reconstructions of the fossil evidence. Or speculation about what might have given Homo sapiens a competitive advantage over Homo erectus (or whatever). They wouldn’t hide the fact that expert opinion was divided. Rather, they’d just put it out there.

Now, I make no claim to prophetic insight into the precise motivations of the museum curators. Who knows how much their readiness to foreground debate has to do with the reputedly litigious culture of the US?

But I do think Christians can able to learn something from this. I think we can learn that it’s OK to be clear and confident in proclaiming the things we do know with certainty and — at the same time — to be honest where there are uncertainties or differences of opinion.

Of course, there’re lots of questions to settle about which uncertainties or differences of opinion are legitimate (it’s kind of the nature of the beast that the legitimacy of most of the issues upon which Christians are divided is contested by those who are doing the disagreeing). Just are there’re things to sort out about how exactly we communicate our differing degrees of certainty — without preventing us being clear about the matters that matter.

But I think it’s just a reality that ‘The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our children for ever, to observe all the words of this law’ (Deut 29.29). And so we’ll often bring our questions to the Bible only to discover that it doesn’t seem very interested in answering them — leaving us all sorts of uncertainty — because it has more important questions of its own to put to us.