As I mentioned last year when I visited an apologetics conference at Watermark Church in Dallas, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s report on the rise of the “Nones” in America was just another in a long series of warnings to the American Christian Church. Society, the Church has said for decades, is slouching into secularity; now the data suggest that more and more people are not even interested in the pretense of a religious label.
This pronounced rejection of religious affiliation has a strikingly demographic bent. While 90% of those 65 and older still consider themselves affiliated with a religious organization, only two-thirds of those younger than 30 are similarly labeled. And trends in the data over the past decade indicate that this disparity is only going to grow wider.
Among American Christendom, the hardest hit are Protestant denominations, both evangelical and otherwise. Since the 1970’s, the percentage of American Protestants has declined from almost two-thirds of the population to now just barely half, while the percentage of Catholics has remained the same (presumably due to immigration) and the percentage of “Nones” has more than doubled.
In response to this inevitable sociologic trend, Dallas Theological Seminary has expanded the scope of their Hendricks Center for Christian Leadership which since 1986 has existed to support pastoral leadership development. In December of 2012, DTS announced that Dr. Darrell Bock, a world-class New Testament scholar and expert in the theology of Luke-Acts and the Historical Jesus Quests, would be appointed the new Executive Director of Cultural Engagement at the Hendricks Center alongside Dr. Andy Seidel.
In this new role, Bock has sought to reach out beyond the ivory tower to connect with the public through a series of podcasts. The literally-named “The Table Podcast” features Bock with a rotating selection of Christian guests discussing issues seated around a bare table, adorned only with state-of-the-art recording equipment. Available in both studio quality video and audio versions, the goal of these podcasts is to “help Christians think biblically and theologically about issues and how to engage them in a gracious and forthright manner.”
In this, they succeed amazingly well. Podcasts produced thus far are clear, respectful discussions among people who have interesting things to say about how Christians can interact with homosexuality, the media and the arts, and other religious traditions in the context of a changing American culture. Unfortunately, these discussions have been manifested thus far as mutual confirmation sessions (i.e., Christians agreeing with Christians), designed apparently to provide questions for answers, and not the other way around.
I saw the same phenomenon repeated at the first “Table Conference,” held on a warm spring weekend in Dallas and given the theme, “Presenting God to Those Who See Christianity Differently.” As one of the rapidly growing number of people in Dallas who does, in fact, “see Christianity differently,” I couldn’t keep myself away. Bock, the architect of the conference, had assembled a small number of highly-respected New Testament scholars for the event. These included Dr. Daniel Wallace, a fellow DTS faculty member, one of two worldwide masters of New Testament textual criticism and most likely the world’s foremost expert on Biblical Greek; Dr. Craig Blomberg of Denver Seminary, an expert in parables and Historical Jesus studies; Dr. Charles Hill of Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, who is an expert in John’s Gospel and the early canon; and finally Dr. Michael Svigel also of DTS, a junior faculty member there who specializes in study of the history and theology of the early Christian Church. To open the conference, Bock had invited Lee Strobel to speak, the bestselling author of several pop-apologetics books cast in the same mold as his original “The Case for Christ.”
Though the conference was obviously Bock’s baby, that Strobel had been chosen to set the tone for the weekend spoke volumes; this was not to be an event where Christians could grapple with real-world issues and criticisms, be asked to think critically about their faith, or even to seriously consider a different point of view. Rather than actually “engage” with the perspective of the “Nones,” much less that of the explicit apostates that are also captured in that designation, the only atheism on display were Bock’s recollections of being a (somewhat boring) middle-school agnostic, and Strobel’s dramatic testimony where his life as an atheist included routine inebriation, domestic violence, and self-loathing. Such a caricature is painfully unfamiliar to me in my travels among atheists, and I know of far too many instances of troubled Christians for this emotional appeal to resonate with me. But I can see the value of having Strobel’s participation, aside from his celebrity in the pop-Christian circuit; in addition to his loudly trumpeted intellectual bona fides as a legal journalist, he really does seem to reflect the earnestness that apologetic-minded American Christians routinely demonstrate.
Following his testimony, Strobel was interviewed by Bock onstage at the eponymous table. He relayed a story which I found quite fascinating: although his wife’s conversion precipitated his own, neither of them were able to make any headway towards converting her father to Christianity. A lifelong skeptic (presented as a bit of a curmudgeon by Strobel), he was tolerant of their religious revolution but didn’t want any part of it for himself. That is, until the end of his life when, afflicted by multiple strokes, he was virtually on his deathbed, watched over by his son-in-law. Strobel recounted how he hounded and harassed the man to consider converting, a process that took several of his father-in-law’s final hours. At long last, he agreed to accept Jesus as Savior, and the family celebrated until that evening when another stroke occurred, and his wife’s father was whisked away by ambulance to the hospital where he finally passed. His last words to Strobel were given indirectly through his wife, “Tell Lee I said ‘thank you’.”
For Strobel, this was a triumphant vindication of several decades worth of prayer and evangelism. Mere moments from Death’s grasp, he was able to save his father-in-law from eternal torment.
But I wonder.
Told from Strobel’s perspective, to a Christian audience, that’s no doubt the most plausible explanation, but I heard a story about a long-suffering atheist who was able to tolerate and love a son-in-law who went from being a rational thinker to a faith-driven evangelist and apologist, and who spent an entire afternoon pleading with him to accept his worldview under the approaching specter of death. Perhaps Strobel’s father-in-law felt sorry for him and his daughter, knew the pain that they would feel if they thought that he died without Christ. Perhaps he chose to show one more kindness to a man who would soon need it much more than him, and simply pretended to assent. I don’t know. It’s possible, and there are several atheists I know who would do the same in that kind of situation.
Including atheists who’ve been exposed to so-called “faithbuster” classes, as Bock mentioned several times during his tenure at the podium. The unstated thesis of the weekend seemed to be that there is bad information being presented to our culture about religion in general and Christianity specifically, and if Christians simply became better educated with good information (as taught by DTS, natch), they’d be better able to resist the faithbusting influences in their lives, and potentially be able to win over their skeptical family and friends to Christ. This promise was tempting, and as someone whose faith had been “busted” about a decade earlier, in no small measure due to textual and critical analysis of the Bible, I was hopeful that there would be a plethora of new information that would prompt me to rethink at least some of my previous conclusions.
Although the weekend was enjoyable and informational, it was not as educational as I had hoped, at least not for me. Though the gathered scholars were clearly able to expound with much more sophistication and subtlety in other company, the introductory-level material they shared with the lay audience was known already to me. Oddly enough, an ongoing theme became apparent as Bock and his colleagues repeatedly dragged out the still-living ghost of Bart Ehrman, who through archived video clips savaged the worldview of the gathered Christian attendees. Indeed, so often was the straw beaten out of Ehrman over the course of the conference that I wondered eventually whether it should rather have been titled “The Bend Bart Ehrman Over A Table Conference.” I suppose it makes sense to target so much of their criticism towards Ehrman; the books he’s written for a popular audience are seeming to have as much of a cultural impact as Bock’s own. And as a highly-respected New Testament scholar with a deconversion testimony from Christian to agnostic, Ehrman is something of a mirror-image of the scholar archetype that DTS seeks to elevate. An “Antibock,” if you will.
I was of two minds during the lectures: on the one hand, these were the highest-level Bible scholars with which one could hope to spend time, but on the other hand, their presentations were awash with warmed-over apologetic tropes the likes of which had been hammered to death within the first year of my apostasy. Things like Lewis’ Trilemma, the analogy of multiple witnesses at a car wreck, implicit trust of Eusebius, heavy-handed harmonizations, defining early alternative Christianities as deviations, and interpreting possibilities as strong probabilities. In this last instance, Wallace, also Executive Director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (which itself had held its first conference a few weeks earlier and a few miles away, with Bock as a speaker), argued that since there is insufficient evidence to show that Greek was spoken in the region of Galilee during the first century C.E., there is thus insufficient evidence to show that it wasn’t spoken, therefore it probably was! And thus of course we can assume that Jesus himself spoke Greek, and thus of course we can assume that his disciples did as well, and thus of course we can assume that fully half of them could write Greek, and thus of course we can assume they wrote the autographs of the Gospels.
The other conference speakers took similar liberties with logic at various points during the weekend. Blomberg had no trouble claiming that since Luke’s version of Jesus’ anointing is so different from the other Gospels’ it’s possible that it happened twice, therefore it must have happened that way. Svigel noted that without a historical resurrection, the Diversity and Conflict model of the early Church development is most likely, but since we all know the resurrection had to happen, it’s not a viable option. And Hill suggested that the early canon was assembled because the early Christians were able to “recognize” authentic books from inauthentic the same way that one might recognize one’s mother in a crowded room.
The best thing by far that I experienced at the conference was the suggestion by Bock that Christians should be seeking out conversations with religious skeptics, approaching these with patience and kindness, and leaving the onus of conversion to the Holy Spirit and the skeptic herself. This was underlined at the end of the conference with a short skit by some of the DTS students helping to run the event. One pretended to be a religious skeptic, while the other acted out the Christian side of the conversation that Bock had earlier recommended. It was a little silly and ham-handed (as skits tend to be), but I couldn’t help but feel the irony of being an atheist seeking conversation with Christians in the middle of a conference where the only example of that on display required a Christian to play-act at being a nonbeliever.
Interestingly enough, this conference was held across the street from the massive Prestonwood Baptist Church where Christopher Hitchens had been invited years ago to provide students there with an actual atheist to listen to and engage with. That event, whatever the motivation of the Prestonwood organizers, presented students with a fair assessment of atheist objections, with Hitchens in his own words and in real-time, able to defend himself and mount his own attacks. Perhaps next year’s Table Conference will take that much-needed step of inviting Ehrman to speak on his own behalf, rather than quoted conveniently to play counterpoint to seminary professors.
Or even better, perhaps the Executive Director for Cultural Engagement would be interested in actually engaging with the cultural force of atheism in his own community that claims more and more Christians like me each year. It’s possible that Bock and his colleagues are still under the impression that the godless among them are little more than village atheists, opposed to Christianity for no better reason than a preacher looked at them crossways. To the contrary, we are more likely to come from Christian backgrounds than ever before, we’ve done our theological homework, and we tend to be better-informed about Christianity and other religions than their own adherents. We are a new breed of atheist, and we aren’t just in need of a kind Christian to patiently talk with us.
I don’t mean to sound too critical of Bock and his inaugural Table Conference; I very much enjoyed the lectures and helping with their photo booth during the breaks. And I agree that far too few Christians are aware of the information about the Bible and the early Church that one might learn at DTS or other seminaries. The weekend was, essentially, a series of 101-level lectures that all Christians (and atheists) should climb over each other to attend. But I do find it problematic that the information is presented with the conclusion already determined. As a Christian seminary, DTS is not actually interested in exploring other religious possibilities, it’s interested in providing intellectual support to a particular set of doctrine. I’ve met several former DTS students who’ve told me that in order to matriculate there, they had to sign assent to the Core Beliefs* of the DTS Doctrinal Statement, and they had to re-sign it in order to graduate. More than one have admitted that it was difficult to sign it a second time, and one individual flat-out refused to sign it, gave up his degree, and transferred to a secular university instead. He noted the irony of having to waive assent to a list of doctrines due to the education he’d received at the very institution which taught them.
If Christians are to remain relevant in American culture, they don’t just need to get smarter about the doctrines their pastors tell them they believe in. They don’t even need to become intellectually confident about their doctrines to the point where they’re comfortable discussing them with other Christians and religious skeptics. It really doesn’t matter how many proof texts you can provide for your belief in dispensationalism or eternal security when you’re talking with an atheist in line at a coffee shop. For both Watermark’s and this conference, I didn’t leave with a sense that my fellow attendees were well-prepared to have a casual conversation with me about the real issues that matter. Nor that they had any sense of what modern religious skeptics’ actual objections are to Christianity and other faiths. Being able to critique a handful of Ehrman sound bytes is a far distance from being able to engage with an real live atheist, especially a well-educated former Christian, right in one’s own hometown.
I’m hopeful that next year’s Table Conference takes its mission to engage with “those who see Christianity differently” a bit more seriously. Otherwise, Bock and his colleagues, for all their best intentions and highest expectations, are just play-acting.
*edited to specify “Core Beliefs of”, 5/8/2013