We’d just finished up another night at Christianity Explored when I stumbled upon a discussion my friend Lisa was having with a guest she’d brought to the study. Seeing me approach, Lisa said something to her guest about the fact that I taught the Bible for a living and that I’d be able to answer his question. Wanting to live up to the introduction, I confidently asked what the question was. He wanted to know why Jesus acted so surprised when his father abandoned him during his final moments on the cross (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mark 15:34), esp. since the Gospels suggest Jesus knew exactly what his death would accomplish. It’s a pretty good question, isn’t it? I told him just that and mentioned that I’d actually wondered the same thing while watching the lesson’s video. I said a few more things before he cut me off and interjected another question—this time, however, it was more of an assertion:
“Aren’t the Gospels a bit like what’s produced at the end of the telephone game?”
In other words, aren’t the Gospels’ narratives quite a bit different from the way things actually happened? You know the way the game works. It’s a pretty common claim, so I was primed.
“You see,” I began, “the analogy only works if the fellow who started the conversation isn’t around to see how things turn out, which, of course, isn’t the case with the Gospels. The Gospels were written during the lifetime of the eyewitnesses who’d walked and talked with Jesus.”
Before I was able to add in a few more nuances and other evidence, he interrupted me again:
“Aren’t the Gospels sort of like the last stage of the fishing tale we all know that simply got a bit bigger (and, thus, a bit less accurate) with every telling?”
I was just about to respond to this one when I realized what I should have recognized from the beginning. This guy wasn’t looking for details or a debate. He was kicking up dust. He didn’t need my answers. He needed someone to listen, to probe, to care. As I thought about the conversation later that night, I wondered if I would have gotten a bit further had I responded to his initial assertion about the Gospels this way:
“You know, that’s a possible way to explain the Gospels. A lot of people find it plausible. Why do you find it so compelling?”
Asking a question rather than playing a pre-recorded answer would have forced him to open up a bit more and would have let me in, perhaps, on what was behind the question. Instead of simply assuming that he needed more facts, I should have explored a bit further to make sure. Perhaps I would have found that he’d just read Bart Ehrman’s latest book or that a co-worker had challenged him with the telephone-analogy the day before. Or, perhaps, I would have found that he was struggling with the claims of Jesus and the weight of his sin and was simply looking for a way—any way—out. Again, a question would have probably brought all this to the surface better than my answer did.
This is essentially the point Randy Newman makes in his book Questioning Evangelism. I’ll forgo a play-by-play here and, instead, simply recommend it to those of you who, like me, want to do a better job sharing your faith in the new year. It’s a pretty easy read, often funny, and it’s full of useful advice about how simple questions like “really?”, “how do you know that?”, “so what?” or “isn’t it possible?” can parry assertions like “All paths lead to heaven” or “Christians are a bunch of hypocrites” and turn their energy into meaningful, Gospel conversations. It’d be a good addition to your 2013 reading list.
Note: Back in 2011, Newman did one of the break-out sessions at The Gospel Coalition’s national conference in which he essentially summarized the book (see here). If you’re interested in the topic but hesitant to add another book to your list, then this may be a good compromise.