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EPISODE 48: Telling a Better Story
Everyone - and we do mean everyone - is living out a story that shapes their lives, their perspective, and their hopes. The problem is, their stories are not helping them live according to God’s story. That story, the gospel, is better. In this episode we explore how to tell that better story.
Welcome to Questions That Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute. I'm your host, Randy Newman, and today my conversation partner is Josh Chatraw. He is the director of the Center for Public Christianity and the theologian in residence at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He's the co-author of a book, Apologetics at the Cross, which was the way I first became introduced to him. But he has a fairly recent book called Telling a Better Story: How to Talk about God in a Skeptical Age. So that's the question that matters today. How do we talk about God in a skeptical age? Josh, welcome to Questions that Matter.
It's good to be here. Thanks for having me.
I first got familiar with your book, Apologetics at the Cross, because it was recommended so highly in a number of places, an endorsement from Tim Keller, and I read it and devoured it and loved it. I use it as a resource for evangelism courses that I teach. But quite a few times during that book, I thought, “Oh, this is really great stuff, and it's really insightful about how our world has changed today, and therefore how evangelism and apologetics needs to change today.” And I thought, “I hope they write a shorter, more accessible book.” And then, ta-da! Here it is, Telling a Better Story. So I realize that the way I just said that could sound insulting. I really hope it isn't. Both books are really, really helpful, but in a sense, they're for different audiences. But let me back up a little bit. Tell us about this Center for Public Christianity, because if I understand it, it's tied very closely to a local church, and yet it is a larger training ministry. Tell us a little bit about that center.
Yeah. Well, the center started really with the vision of three local churches in downtown Raleigh who were looking to train emerging leaders. They felt strongly that one of the ways that they could help both promote Christianity and the common good, the flourishing of Raleigh, was through investing in leaders. And so they began together this work of really a program for emerging leaders, for leaders in our city or future leaders in our city that would be somewhere in the age of 25 to 40-something in age. And so for the last seven years, the center has been… really the forefront of the center, the engine of the center, as we call it, is this fellows program, where we take 20 to 30 fellows each year. They apply, and then we take them through a pretty intense discipleship program. And now we have around 130 alumni in the city, in different sectors, working together.
And about three or four years into doing this, we started doing other initiatives. So it was kind of phase two. Now we kind of opened up the doors, so we have public forums. And a lot it ties into some of the work I'm doing in some of these books, because the way we think about evangelism is often through the side door. We want to have conversations about things like anxiety or happiness or friendship and look at how Christianity offers a vision for these things, these things that people who aren't necessarily Christians want to talk about still. And we say, “Hey, Christianity has some resources you should reflect on as you're thinking about your life. So it's a way to talk again about God in a way that a lot of people find kind of existentially relevant through some of the public forums and public events we do at the center.
Thank you. That's great! Boy. I love the vision. A lot of resonance with some of the things we do in our fellows programs, so I think a lot of our listeners are going to want to check out. I'll make sure to put some links in the show notes about your center.
So let's talk about Telling a Better Story. First of all, I just love that image, and that's what we want to be telling people, is the gospel is a better story for understanding, handling, living in our very anxious world. Early in the book, actually, it's the co-author of… No, I'm sorry. It is in your introduction. You say, “The aim of these chapters is not to improve your storytelling in general, but rather to model a way to tell God's story as a better story than its rival stories.” Tell us more about that. Why is the gospel the better story? And what are some of those rival stories?
Yeah. I believe all humans, because we’re made in the image of God, have these features of what I call features of personhood, so we want to love and be loved. We are moral beings. We live, as a friend of mine, Jamie Smith, says, “We're existential sharks.” We're going out, and we have to live life, and we assume certain things. And so even if we deny meaning, we live as if there is meaning. We sense that there’s evil in the world. We sense that something has gone wrong. And so there's these kind of creational structures in us as humans, and the argument in the book is that everyone lives out a kind of story because we are also storying beings. And lo and behold, the gospel is a story. The Bible is a story that maps on to who we are as creational beings. And so we can often pick up on these ways people are living life or these things people are pursuing, and we can actually find a kind of connecting point, and then we're able to map on the gospel story to that.
I don't think this is something that's formed from scripture. I think, in fact, this is what we see Paul doing in the Areopagus in Acts.
I think Jesus does, as he's interacting with the Pharisees and the other teachers of his day, He’s saying to them, “Hey, you're living out a certain story, but it's off. You're not living out the exact right story because you've misunderstood the scriptures.” I think this is what John's doing in the opening of his gospel when he's saying, “Yes, you're right, in some sense, in the story you tell about the Word.” And of course this logos language has some philosophical resonance to a larger kind of audience. And he's saying, “Hey, actually, let me tell you about the kind of rationality behind the universe Who is also a Person. And so I think, when you actually open your eyes to this, you begin seeing it all across scripture, but of course the job of the evangelist or the apologist is now to do this in our own context. And so it's modeled for us in Scripture, but now we need to figure out what are the story lines? And how are people pursuing life and living out these features of personhood in our context in the 21st century? And that's where I think the creativity needs to come in, and we can learn from each other on how to do this more effectively.
Good, good stuff. Good stuff. This is an incredibly over simplistic generalization, but it does feel to me that, for a long time, apologetics, and evangelism, was trying to convince people that our message was true. And today, a shift is more in the direction of, “Our message is good.” And so the way you say, telling a better story, and there are several other people who are articulating the same thing. Now, again, I know that's ridiculously over simplistic, but I think, for a lot of Christians, we need to make a shift from… we've got all sorts of arguments to convince people that our message is true, and it's just not resonating with non-Christians. They're not there yet. They’re thinking, “I think your message is bad. I don't care whether it's true or not. I think it's bad for people, it's bad for society.” So you have a whole section, toward the end of your book, about saying why this message is good, why it's a better story. Can you say more about that? How do we tell people, “This message that I'm trying to tell you about. Yes, it's true. And we could talk about that a lot, but it's good.” Can you tell us about that a little?
Yeah. I think there's these longings we have as humans that are deep inside of us, so that we want, for instance, justice. And the Bible tells a story that, “Yes, actually, God is a God who both holds people accountable and is ultimately going to make all things right,” and understandably, that can also feel scary and make us nervous. But there's something deep inside of humans that wants that. So the Christian story tells the story of a God who is also concerned about justice. We desperately want to be loved and to love. And so we go seeking love, but we keep seeking it in these places that don't ultimately satisfy.
And the gospel tells a story, and the Christian story is the story of a God who, outside of time, has always been a God who exists as a loving God. And so this idea of love isn't simply some kind of chemical thing. It can't just simply be explained reductionistically and described simply by science. But there is actually something to this thing we call love, beyond us as just kind of physical beings and emotions. There's something deeply true about love and good about it. And the Christian story says, “Yes, there is. There's a God who loves us and cares about us and has sent His Son to die for us.” And then so many of the movies we watch, so many of the stories that we love to tell, even in a secular age, are stories of sacrifice, stories of someone sacrificing their own life for the people they love. From Harry Potter to The Avengers and Iron Man, Tony Stark, all of these tales stories of sacrifice. And they all assume that there's actual meaning in life.
And so the gospel story, as C.S. Lewis has said, you can look at it… as you were referring to earlier, you can look at it, you can say, “What are some of the historical reasons to believe the resurrection?” And I think that's important and we should do that. But you can also look along the gospel story.
Good, good. Yeah.
You can look along it, and you can see how, “Oh, my goodness. This makes sense of our deepest longings as humans. This makes sense of the world we live in in so many different ways. It shines light on our human existence.” And I think both of those are valid. Again, I'm building off of Lewis here to look at Christianity, but also to look along it. And I think Christian apologetics has, for the last century, done a lot about looking at. I don't think we've done enough looking along the Christian story. And that's one of the major points in the book.
Is it possible to be a scientist and a person of faith at the same time? Are Christianity and science at odds with one another? I think there are a whole lot of people in our world who think that. Well, these apologetic questions and others are going to be explored in a prerecorded interview that we did with scientist and philosopher and mathematician and brilliant mind Dr. John Lennox. Dr. Lennox examines some of the latest scientific research and theories surrounding questions of the origins of life and concepts of the mind. He will demonstrate why a Christian approach to an understanding of the universe makes the most sense. So if you're a believer who's looking for a way to explain the validity of the Christian worldview to some of your friends who are more scientifically minded or scientifically oriented. This is a really, really important event and it's free of charge, but you do need to register for it because we'd like to be able to have all those kind of connections in place. So to register for this, please go to Cosmic Chemistry.
Oh, I love that. And that concept of looking at versus looking along, it’s tricky to understand. I think you've just articulated it really well. But we'll put a link in the show notes about Lewis's article. I think a short little article. It would have been our version of a blog today. But I think it's in his essay “Reflections in a Tool Shed,” because he steps into this tool shed, and he sees this beam of light, and he can look at the beam of light, or he could kind of step into it, and now he's looking through or along the beam of light at other things in the room. And I think that that is an important skill we need to develop in our day. I think you're touching on this theme you mentioned in the book, about inside-out apologetics or inside-out method of expressing the gospel. Can you say some more about the inside-out and why you call it that?
Yeah, yeah. So there's a lot of, I would say, philosophical work behind this approach and also practical, from experience. So I won't go into all the details about thinking through some epistemological models or all the data, and I'll just do what I did in the book, which is kind of jump straight into it, which is: When you're engaging with somebody, often it seems like we are talking to people who aren't using the same reason we are. I just go on Facebook or anywhere, and all of a sudden you realize, “Oh, my goodness! We are not in the same ballpark here.”
So the question is, in an age of pluralism, in an age where people think very differently about life, how do we even get into these conversations? How do we have productive conversations? And so the approach, and this was in the previous more of a textbook that Mark Allen and I wrote together, Apologetics at the Cross, and then played out here in Telling a Better Story as well, is, to begin with, stepping inside of their story, trying to understand, “Hey, where do you go for meaning? What's most valuable in your life? Where are you going for love?” Asking questions. And the simple question that I encourage people to ask is, “Hey! Good to meet you,” or, “I've known you for a long time, but I've never really asked, ‘What's your story?’”
If you come in, and you say, “I've got five proofs for you for the resurrection,” they're going to look at you strange, and it's going to feel like a power play, right? I mean, that's just how I don't work like that with most humans. And so if you stop and say, “Hey, I want to get to know you,” well right there is a kind of counter-cultural move, that you're attending to the other person as a human being. You're showing them respect. You’re wanting to understand who they are. And along the way you can ask questions. You can say, “Tell me a little bit more about your background,” and, “You mentioned growing up in a religious family,” or, “I didn't hear anything about spiritual beliefs. Tell me, do you have any spiritual beliefs? I'm curious to know.” And so you’re actually having this conversation, and along the way you're looking for these features of personhood and where they're going to find meaning, find life, find love, find joy, and then you begin to ask some questions. What often happens, in this course of the conversation, is they turn to me, and they say, “Okay, well, tell me your story.”
Yeah, right. That's right.
And so, all of a sudden now what we have is a dialogue, and someone has just asked me, “What is your story?” Well, there’s an opportunity to tell your story as a sinner saved by grace, and then all of a sudden now we have a conversation, and it's on. But it hasn't been this kind of boom, “Let me prove God,” or, “Let me prove the resurrection.” But it's starting inside their story. But then, as you're listening to their story, of course you need to listen for kind of pressure points. If they're saying, “Hey, really my family is the most important thing in the world,” well, say, “Hey, that's wonderful. My family is important too. Do you feel a lot of anxiety around your family if things don't go well for your kids? Let's talk about that,” and say, “What do you do? How do you cope?”
And say, “The Christian story says family is good, but when you make it ultimate, it ultimately leaves you angst filled. It leads to all of these problems, and if they're not actually living up to your expectations for them, they fall apart. That's what idols do. The Bible talks about this thing called idols, and idols can be….” And there we go. Now we're talking about a doctrine of sin all of a sudden. So it's not being a theological, it's being able to take your theology to the street, to this person, to say, “Hey, let me explain the gospel in ways you can understand. And so that the gospel all of a sudden begins to make sense.”
Now along the way, of course, they might have different challenges, where “I can't believe in a God that's this,” and then, of course, you're going to try to respond to those challenges as you go. But it's really a way to get in a conversation, and ultimately the aim is not to cut them down, not to have them feel stupid and you feel superior, but for you to say, “Hey, there's this medicine, that we're broken people, we've turned and we're living wrongly, and there's this medicine that I have found, and I still have plenty of scars, I still have plenty of struggles, but this person called Jesus has changed my life, and I believe He can change your life.” And to point to Jesus as this kind of cure for the disease we have.
And that's a different type of conversation. All of a sudden now we're talking about, even in therapeutic language, or we're talking about even in language of human flourishing, that oftentimes people in a therapeutic age are already tracking in. And of course, Jesus doesn't mind talking in therapeutic language. And so, again, I'm not talking about certain, I think, secular forms of therapy. I'm talking about the good news, the healing power of the gospel that I think we can tap into.
Yes, so many great insights here, Josh. Thanks. So again, I want to just underline some things, so you said about inside-out approach. So you ask them to tell their story, and you get inside their story and here… How did you say? Looking for pressure points.
Yeah. Pressure points. It's almost saying, “Is this working?” And then maybe sometimes I have to suggest, “Is it working as good as you think it's working?”
“Do you have a good reason to live this story out? Or are there are some cracks in your foundation?” Those are the types of things I'm trying to identify and then help kind of lead them to see, and sometimes that can be indirect, sometimes I can be very direct, depending on the rapport that's built and the way the conversation is going. Some of this is wisdom in conversational skills.
Yes. I want to jump in for a little bit, this mode that I shift into as trainer. I want to say to people, because I think some people are listening, and some people may be a bit intimidated, especially when you used the word epistemological a little while ago. I think some people went, “Wow! So you don't have to know what the word epistemological means in order to do this well. You ask good questions, and you get into people's conversation, and you look to see what are the really big deals in their life? But I want to encourage people. You can develop conversational skills. It's not that difficult. But some of us really need to work on this.
And what I want to encourage people is develop your conversational skills talking about other, lighter things first. Before you go jumping into the world of epistemology. So just get to know people. “Where are you from? What was that like to grow up in Indiana? And how has that been, moving from wherever you did to here? And what are some of the most exciting parts of your job?” And just to become really curious. And even ask the Lord, “Lord, make me curious about people, make me caring, and I want to hear what are the big deals in their lives.” And I have to tell you, I've prayed that prayer a lot, because my natural sinful default mode is not caring about people. I care about my agenda, and I care about talking about me, which is probably evident right now in this conversation that I'm doing so much talking. But I think we can ask the Lord, “Give me ears to hear, give me a heart that wants to care deeply about people.” So again, your approach is really helpful. Yes, go ahead and jump in.
I think what you're getting at is… you're really getting at issues of spiritual formation. And I think this is really important, because sometimes we want to have… if you're listening to this and you're really into apologetics, this is maybe where you might fall, the danger zone is for you, is that you've so separated spiritual formation from apologetics that actually you're losing what I would say is one of the most powerful apologetics, which is being a person of virtue, being a person of the spirit. And so I think because we've separated those, they're taught in different courses. If you've gone to seminary, they're not in the same course, right? “So we’re here to make arguments. Here we're here to be conformed with the image of Christ.” But I would actually say being the right type of person, being a person who cares, being a person who is attentive to other people and treats them with respect, is the central apologetic.
And I see this as so crucial, not only to being someone of wisdom, but being someone who that person says, “Oh, my goodness! I could see myself… I wish I was like that person. I wish I was a non-anxious presence. I wish that I cared about other people.” And I think that only by kind of actually… and I mentioned idols before, dealing with our own idols, being in a community of people like this, in a church where you are actually learning to attend to people, who aren't hostile to the faith, but who are actually just your brothers and sisters in Christ. Learning to attend to them and to hear their stories is like the training ground for being the right type of apologist. So I really believe we've got to bring these things back together in the church. Yes, we need rigorous training, absolutely, in the skills of apologetics, but we need also to be people who look and live differently, and that's the long haul of being in the church together and this kind of hospital for sinners that we're inviting people into, but also the hospital that we ourselves are being killed and transformed within.
What is spiritual warfare and does it really matter or does it really affect my everyday life? C.S. Lewis, in his introduction to The Screwtape Letters, said this: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” Isn't that brilliant? Well, we're doing an event about spiritual warfare with our good friend and C.S. Lewis scholar Jerry Root. Dr. Jerry Root was professor for many years at Wheaton. Now he's Professor Emeritus at Wheaton College. And if you were fortunate enough to be at Wheaton and study under Jerry Root, you know that he is brilliant and a delight to listen to, one story after another and brilliant insight. And he's doing a special event for us about spiritual warfare. This one is an in-person event. So if you're in the Washington, DC, area, if you're interested in learning more about spiritual warfare, if you follow Jerry Root, or if you're a Wheaton alumni, this event is for you. It's going to be at Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Annandale. There is a cost for this event. It's $10 per person, and there will be a question and answer period following Dr. Root's presentation. We'll also have light refreshments, and we really hope you can make it. We're really eager to have Jerry Root with us once again. Please register for the Event. Don't let the devil discourage you from registering. If you go to our website, I don't think it'll be hard to find the spiritual warfare event.
As you're speaking, I'm remembering back, oh, I don't know how many, many, many years ago, Francis Schaeffer wrote about love as the ultimate apologetic, right? Or did he call it the final apologetic? Or the ultimate? It’s our strongest apologetic. And yet we have made this dichotomy or this separation of, “Okay, I want to be able to articulate truth, and I also want to be a Godly, loving, compassionate person.” Well, why did we put those in two separate categories? And so, yes, we want to be being transformed to be the kind of people who are caring and loving and listening and concerned.
I also love your statement about… the way you worded it. “We've known each other for a long time, and yet I've never really heard your story. I've never really heard, what are the really big deals in your life?” I think that that can be a great beginning or transition for a lot of people's conversations. A lot of us have known people for so long, in fact we've known them so long that we just assume that we know each others’ stories, but we probably don't. And even if we do, that story keeps changing and evolving in people's lives. So we want to hear what's the latest chapter in that story. So you've given us a lot of very, very helpful things. I do want to kind of wrap this up. Any other thoughts you're thinking of? How do we talk about God in a skeptical age? How do we tell that better story?
Yeah, I think that I mentioned a line earlier, which is a non-anxious presence, and I think that's a kind of posture when we're doing this. I think, for some of us, we come in, and it's like, “I've got to be in control of the situation.” And so even some forms of evangelism and apologetics give us this impression that, “Okay, I've got to control, and I've got to be five steps ahead, and I'm going to lead them in an alley.” And you know what? People can feel that, right? If you're trying to control them, a lot of people, especially in their younger age, they're going to hold onto their wallets, right? They see that coming a mile away because everyone is always trying to sell them something. So they can feel that.
And I just want to say, recognizing that ultimately God must work here, the Spirit must work, and I'm not on the hook to just kind of give every possible thing I know or handle every possible objection or, “Oh, my goodness, if they say something, and I don't know what to say, it's over.” No, that's not how this works, right? And people aren't simply converted because they have really high IQs and can follow all of the arguments. So I just want to say take a step back and say, “Okay, I'm in this conversation. Lord,” as you were saying, being prayerful and saying, “Hey, tell me about yourself.” And I just think we've got to leave space here for… yeah, you want to be bold. There's moments to be bold. There's times to be bold. But I think part of this kind of humble boldness means just maybe it's one good question, maybe it's one good question, and then letting them kind of talk and work that out, and then as they're talking, thinking, “What's a good question to keep this going?” And again, I'm not at all suggesting that we're not bold and we don't ask hard things or there's not a time to push back and be critical of what someone is suggesting. I think we need those rigorous skills, but sometimes we get into these things where we feel like we've got to control the situation. And I just think step back on that a little bit and say, “This is a dialogue, so I don't know where the dialogues are going.” It's like, think about when you try to control conversations with your spouse, for those of you who are married. For me, my wife's like, “Listen, you're talking to me. Turn off bad apologist mode and talk to me as a human.” And I think that a lot of times, in conversations, people, when they're talking to apologists, would like to say that if they knew what was going on. They’re just thinking, “Stop bad salesman mode right now and treat me as a person.”
Hey, let's equip up, right? Let's know arguments, let's be ready to use them, but we've got to learn to use them in a way that the person actually says, “Yeah, I want that, and yeah, that makes sense, and I could see myself actually converting,” rather than just kind of walking away, feeling like you've controlled and you've stumped them, but they think, “What a jerk, and they walk away.” So we need to think carefully about how we're actually having these kinds of conversation and using our arguments.
Yeah, there's several little phrases you've used that, again, I want to underline, because I don't want our listeners just to have that fly by. You just said about humble boldness. That's a great picture. It is a boldness, but it is wrapped in a humility, and it's wrapped in a trust that God will use this no matter how skilled I was at articulating it. And then you also use this phrase, a non-anxious presence. Oh, my, what a great image that is. Lord, help me to step into these conversations, so that I can be a non-anxious presence and really focus on the other person. So this is really helpful stuff, Josh. I really am appreciative of it. I want to bring this to a close by reading a couple of sentences of your own book to you, which may be weird, and then you could make some comments afterwards, but I love this. Toward the end of it, you’re wrapping things up. You said, “This book has been about our stepping into the stories, forming there our friends and outsiders, their imaginations and shaping their desires, to offer a Christian reading on their anxieties, fears, hopes, and joys. It has also been about asking unbelievers to try on the Christian story to see how it actually makes sense of their experiences and how it speaks to their deepest aspirations and longings.” That is brilliant and helpful wisdom in there. So, final thoughts? Anything else you want to add as we wrap this up?
Yeah, I would say I've made the case, early on in the podcast, that this is biblical, really briefly, and it's practical. Also, I just will add, because of some of my other projects I'm working on and actually just finished up, that I think this is actually deep within the tradition of the church. And if you look at, for instance, St. Augustine's work from the fourth and beginning of fifth century in his famous book Confessions, where he’s framing his intellectual journey. But he frames it in that he has this restlessness, and it's ultimately, yes, he tries on different belief systems, world and life views, but at the end of the day, he comes back and he tries on Christianity, and he finds peace. And I also would say he's doing something like that except to the empire in his magnum opus apologetic book, which is The City of God, where he's actually trying on for people these different options in their day, and then he turns to Christianity, and he narrates that story.
And so our challenge is that even… so though this is modeled, I would argue, at the fountainhead of the Western tradition, Augustine. This is modeled in scripture. Our job is to say, “Okay, we have these models. How do we do it for the 21st century? How do we do it in our context? How do we do it for our neighborhood?” And this is where we need each other. And this is where we can work together to be more effective at sharing the good news and bringing hope in a time that definitely needs it.
Okay, well summed up for us. I think we need to have you back and do a whole discussion about Augustine’s City of God. I think you're exactly right. There's so much in there that we need to adapt and connect to our world, but we'll save that for another conversation, and that'll be another very important question that matters. Thanks for being my guest.
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