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Saturday, April 28, 2007

I won`t listen to your voice of reason trying to change my mind

I have mentioned more than once recently that I was reading I'm OK - You're Not (subtitled The Message We're Sending Nonbelievers and Why We Should Stop) by John Shore. I even bought a friend at church a copy so that we could discuss it while we talk about mission. Following is my review of the book.

The gist of I'm OK - You're Not is simple - we Christians in America should focus much less on the Great Commission and much more on the Great Commandment. John's reasoning is that in the United States at least, pretty much everyone has heard of Jesus Christ, and all the hard-sell proselytizing we push on "Normies" (his word for the unconverted, i.e., there are Christians and then those people in "normal" life, hence Normies) is actually doing more harm than good. Why? Because Jesus in the Great Commandment tells us to love all people and treat them as we would be treated ourselves. If you'll note, you rarely want to be told, "I love you - but you're really messed up and need to change". In fact, for someone who doesn't even know you to tell you that out of the blue, unasked and unwelcomed, is pretty much the height of arrogance and rude behavior. Worse - it doesn't work. People can't be browbeat into conversion - God doesn't work that way. "For God so loved the world that He sent obnoxious people door to door with pamphlets" is not quite how John 3:16 is translated in any of my Bibles.

Note that Shore is not saying we shouldn't share our beliefs with others when we are asked. The Spirit leads people to Christ all the time, and we may very well be up to bat at any moment when a friend, a coworker or some other acquaintance starts questioning us and prodding about our beliefs. I look back to my time when I was slowly, slowly, slowly circling back to the faith and remember asking probing questions (more like picking fights, really) with a couple of my friends who I respected, trusted and knew were strong believers in Christ. We had some very interesting and intense discussions from those questions. That an immediate conversion experience didn't arise out of them is not their fault, nor do I think it was God's intent. He knew I needed to be led back in slowly, like a skittish dog that would run away at any aggression, so He led me to friends who could talk about their beliefs in ways that matched what I needed, a little at a time. Really, because we were friends first, and I trusted that they weren't trying to convert me, I was then able to open up and share my doubts and desires and questions in a way that helped lead me back to the faith. And this is a vital point of I'm OK - You're Not - when we love others as we would be loved, when we make friends with Normies, it cannot be with the hidden, ulterior motive of "As soon as I lure them into friendship, ha! then I will convert them!" No. We have to love them just to love them, as we would ourselves be loved. Full stop.

He is also not saying we shouldn't spread the word to the world, since there are still people throughout this planet who have not heard the story of Jesus and the Good News He represents. Instead, Shore is discussing how evangelizing in the United States is actually turning many people away from Christ because of the tactics they used, and it is time to stop and do what Jesus said we should do.

Every chapter ends in a section entitled "Ouch", in which non-believers talk about their experiences with having Christians rudely push their beliefs on them. Lots of them hit close to home, but as a former Normie myself, I would say the one that struck me as completely correct was very short and to the point:

"Religion always seemed too personal for me to take advice about it from people I don't know."
Indeed. We may feel we have the Best News in the Whole World (we do) and want to tell everyone about it. But think about this - how would you react if some stranger came up to you touting the world's best investment plan? The world's greatest sex advice? All of it for free? You already know how you'd feel. You get emails with these very pitches every day - they're called spam. Well, when we think we have the right to tell some stranger how they need to get right and find God, we've just taken a very good message and spammed them with it. And guess what? Their spam filters are going to do with our message what we all do when whacko strangers offer us unsolicited advice - delete it, and quarantine themselves off from us. Perhaps it is time to stop pushing people as if we had any say in their conversion at all, and trust the Spirit to do His job.

As I have written before, I am not a big fan of apologetics - at least not as a way of converting others by force of logic. I think most apologetics are actually more helpful to those that have already converted and are looking for deeper understanding of their own faith. However, John does end his book with a short and useful chapter on some questions we may get asked by a Normie at some point when they've learned we're not going to push Jesus on them, and trust that we respect and love them as a friend. At that very point, the Spirit may lead them right to us to talk about God, and they are going to have some questions. The last chapter is a good, brief starting point for those questions.

One part I really liked was John's riff on Jesus's first miracle, turning water into wine. To get a flavor for the book, I am going to simply give an extended quote from this section:
What Jesus did that afternoon at that wedding was, to my mind, as powerful a testament to how much he loves people as was his very sacrifice on the cross. I believe that his choosing to make his first miracle turning all that good water into all that good wine says everything any of us will ever need to know about what Jesus wants our attitude to be toward not just fellow believers, but toward virtually everyone.


He didn't lecture the people at that wedding. He didn't frighten them. He didn't try to convince them of the error of their ways. He didn't start dividing them into groups of good and bad. He didn't in any way interfere with what they were doing. He quietly and without fanfare enhanced what they were doing - and that was all.

And what were they doing? Dancing, singing, hugging, whooping it up, crying, and in every way acting like people usually do at wedding receptions: Like they're celebrating all the things about being human that deserve to be celebrated.

In a real way that we all understand, there's nothing more gloriously human than a wedding reception.

And that's where Jesus decided to launch his ministry.

And that's how: By doing nothing more dramatic than making sure the lovely couple and all their lovely guests didn't run out of wine.

And not that cheap, comes-in-a-gallon-jug wine, either. He gave them good wine. He gave them great wine.

Because he wanted them to just keep doing what they were doing when he got there.
If I have one fault with the book, it is that sometimes Shore pushes the humor angle a bit too hard. John's a funny guy, and there were times where I laughed out loud at some of the scenes in his book. But there were also times where the puns were a bit too much - it wasn't that they weren't funny, just that the message he was getting across was so good, so right on the money, that the jokes would get in the way. There were times when I wanted to say, "OK, I get it, I get it - now get on with the story". If you have a friend who always kids about everything, no matter how serious, then you'll know what I am talking about. But this is a small criticism, really, and don't let it deter you from the book. All in all, I think it is well worth the read.


tina said...

Great thoughts; let's just live Jesus instead of selling him.

Sola gratia said...

Tina, I agree completely!