How to Talk About God in a Skeptical Age: An Interview with Joshua Chatraw
Why is it that people don’t just believe Christianity is false; they assume it isn’t good? How can followers of Jesus effectively communicate the biblical story of his grace and redemption in today’s skeptical, divisive, and technologically saturated world? How should Christians be respectful of unbelievers, all the while remaining focused on Jesus?
Bible Gateway interviewed Joshua Chatraw (@joshchatraw) about his book, Telling a Better Story: How to Talk About God in a Skeptical Age (Zondervan, 2020).
What does it mean to be living in a “post-Christian” society?
Joshua Chatraw: In the first century, Christianity was viewed as something new. As it entered the Roman world and beyond, the societies it came into contact with were pre-Christian. This remains the same still today, when missionaries go to unreached people groups to share the gospel. In these contexts, Christianity is seen as new, and perhaps even strange and dangerous, but it has not been tried and tested. These conditions produce certain challenges for the church, but they’re familiar challenges; the church has been working within a pre-Christian context in missions and evangelism for the last 2,000 years.
As the gospel became embedded in societies and leading institutions consciously assumed elements of the Christian story, Christendom took root. Thus, sharing the gospel often meant an invitation to submit to what seemed close to common sense, or at least, it felt plausible to most.
Yet now, for example in Europe and the United States, divine realities are no longer assumed, and Christianity is frequently seen as something we’re morally compelled to move beyond. No longer are leading cultural institutions building on the foundation of Christian assumptions. In major cultural centers, Christianity is now viewed as antiquated and oppressive. Social pressure no longer exists for people to go to church and in many parts of the Western world there’s social pressure not to go.
Ministry in a context that has once embraced but now has sought to move beyond Christianity is a novel challenge for the church. Unfortunately, our churches have largely failed to understand this new context and have been relying on evangelism strategies developed within and for a Christian society rather than a post-Christian one.
What is the appeal that telling a story has over people?
Joshua Chatraw: Everyone naturally thinks in “story.” We organize our past through a story of our lives. We daydream about how the future will play out via narrative. We desire an imagined life and live by a morality absorbed through the stories we hear—from the stories our parents read to us as kids to the Netflix series we binge-watch.
We love stories and we’re formed by them. If you ask someone to tell you their story, and then listen closely, you’ll likely hear the basic features that are common to humans. We’ll find meaning, be moved by beauty, invest our life in something, and live by some moral code directed by our visions of the good life. By tapping into the script people are living by, we find aspirations that will only be fulfilled by discovering the true story—the story of paradise lost and regained through the sacrifice and redemption of the conquering King. The story of Christ, as C.S. Lewis put it, is the “true myth” that echoes in the heart of every person.
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What do you say to skeptics who want absolute proof about Christianity before they decide to become Jesus followers?
Joshua Chatraw: If you set out to calculate a basic math “proof” or prove that a married bachelor can’t exist, we can reach a something we might call “absolute proof.” But if you expect “absolute proof” for the biggest questions of life—such as who you should marry, how you should raise your kids, what is meaningful, what is a virtuous way to live, is there a God and what is God like—absolute proof is not on offer.
Marriage actually serves as a pretty good analogy. Deciding who to marry is a decision we cannot—nor should not try to!—detach ourselves from emotionally. Nor is it an isolated decision that we can disengage ourselves from afterwards. The decision—whether in who we marry or if we will trust Christ—has implications on the rest of our lives and it requires our mind and our heart working together.
Making up our mind about Christ certainly includes evidence about whether we can trust Christ; Jesus is a historical figure and Christianity makes historic claims. But what moves us to “decide” goes much deeper than simply following the evidence. There’s something at the gut level that causes us to say, “I do.”
While “absolute proof” is not available to either disprove Christianity or to prove Christianity, this does not mean that we’re all left to blindly choose a story. We must learn to ask rational and existential questions of the competing grand narratives in our world today. Which story about the world is most coherent on its own terms? Which story is able to incorporate the insights from other stories in a way that makes sense? Which story is most livable? Which story corresponds with our observations, experiences, and history?
What is the Christian story and how are you proposing that is to be presented as the better story?
Joshua Chatraw: The Christian story is centered around a triune God. As an outpouring of his love, God created everything in the universe good. As God’s creatures, we’ve been created with inherit value, meaning, and purpose. As his image bearers, humans are made for a relationship with God, to love others, and to care for creation. And yet something has gone deeply wrong.
Endowed with the sense of moral obligation, the capacity for creative brilliance, and the desire for deep interpersonal relationships, humans were given the freedom to choose. Our problem is that we, quite absurdly, used our God-given abilities to run from God.
The result is a disordered world where we love things in the wrong order—we worship ourselves and the world around us rather than the Creator. We’ve become self-absorbed and fail to love others as ourselves. Having turned in on ourselves and away from God, we’ve become ill-equipped to live for what we were made. The result is the exclusion, enmity, and self-righteous superiority expressed in a myriad of seemingly ineluctable ways throughout history—testified to on a horrific scale by wars, genocides, and destruction of the earth and on the micro-level of our daily lives in our verbal spats, selfish tantrums, and desperate anxieties.
The story of human failure fits with what we know all too well. While we have the potential for glorious achievements, we also have the tragic track record of misery and destruction. Facing this reality is essential for seeing the message of Christianity as good news.
The good news is not a series of abstract beliefs or an ideology or a list of rules to follow to be “good” people. While other religious “solutions” claim to offer salvation through obedience to a great prophet or a spiritual guru, the Christian story hinges on an event. The good news is a person. God himself entered our world as a man, offering forgiveness that transforms the broken and turns rebels into sons and daughters. To pay for sin and to mend the wounded, he bore on the cross the cost of rebellion. To defeat evil, he absorbed the worst of the malevolent powers of this world. While we ran away, Jesus came running to us with the Father’s love. The good news is grace.
He came to save so that we might flourish as his image bearers. As the ideal human, Jesus charted the path of true human flourishing that combined authority with compassion, justice with mercy, and the freedom found in obedience.
At the very heart of the Christian message is sacrifice and love for the stranger, for the marginalized, for enemies—a vision that has already transformed lives and the world in powerful ways, even as his followers continue to limp through a broken world. But one day, we will run and laugh and play in joy.
Broken and grief-stricken, Jesus willingly carried his cross to his own death. But then, surprising even his own fearful disciples, he rose from the grave in victory. Jesus’ resurrection is the climactic event that proclaims to the world that God has conquered death. He is renewing the world. The disordered and broken world will ultimately be made right. Evil will be banished. The resurrection is the beginning of the great renewal. Christ’s Spirit resides in those who turn from themselves and trust in him as Lord, liberating us to rest in God’s eternal love in a new creation.
At each turn in this plotline, there are opportunities for us to invite our friends to compare the script they’re currently living by with the true story of God. In doing so, we ask them to “come, taste, and see” a better story.
Telling a Better Story is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.
Bio: Joshua Chatraw (PhD, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as the director for New City Fellows and the Resident Theologian at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. His books include Apologetics at the Cross, Cultural Engagement, The History of Apologetics, Truth in a Culture of Doubt, and Truth Matters. He is a fellow with the Center for Pastor Theologians and has served in both pastoral and academic posts during his ministry.
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