Two things converged on me today that have me thinking about evangelism. The first is earlier today I was reading Jane Williams‘s article on the Guardian website discussing Genesis (5 part series beginning here). While Jane Williams is always excellent to read, what caught my attention were the comments. They were primarily atheists (with a smattering of people interested in religion generally). One particular commenter kept asking could Jane prove God exists and if not why should we take any notice of Genesis if there isn’t a god.
The second thing was tonight at our Circuit Meeting, I read a reflection by Ken Carter on the church’s liturgical year that compared it with other calendars we use (e.g., the sports calendar and civic calendar). On the sports calendar Carter writes:
There are sacred spaces (Fenway Park and Cameron Indoor Stadium are but two examples), secret societies (betting services, fantasy football), and remembrances of shared history (for example, the remarkable Ken Burns PBS series on Baseball, updated last fall). It is not unimportant that parents pass the importance of the sports calendar along to their children.
Passing along sports tradition is a way of passing down shared memories. I grew up on stories of Bear Bryant, the legendary foot ball coach at the University of Alabama. I have been known to use ‘we’ when talking about Alabama memories, even when talking about what happened to ‘us’ at the ‘Punt, Bama, Punt‘ game, which happened two year before I was born. The stories of Bama football rank only second to the stories of Jesus in quantity and influence in stories my dad told me growing up. The sports stories have been included me into a family that makes their memories my memories, too. But, I have always grown up with these stories.
As I was reflecting during the Finance report (my apologies to our extremely capable circuit treasurer), my mind drifted to those commenters on the Guardian’s articles. I realised what a strange task Christians have when it comes to a very secular culture. Maybe the commenters on the Guardian website are a small sliver of British culture, but it did make me realise their very secular nature. And then we want to ask them to take on a book like Genesis as their shared memory with us! I tried to think about it as if I was one of those commenters who grew up not taking it for granted that Genesis has something to say to us about God (or indeed that God exists)! The question kept running through my mind, ‘why would they take Genesis in as scripture?’ It really is an odd thing to go from not believing in God to a belief in not only God but that these stories shape your identity in this God.
Back to the sports memory, often one will adopt the shared memories of a sports team and at times change ‘allegiances’. Usually this happens through participation. For Valentines Day a few years back, I got April tickets to the Duke-NC State game. When I told her this in November, she was unimpressed. Just after Christmas, she went to her first game and realised what a game in Cameron Indoor Stadium meant: joining in the cheers, the community of other fans, and of course the game. All of a sudden, Valentine’s Day couldn’t get here fast enough, and she has been a committed Duke fan since that night. She took on the memory of Duke’s past. But it was through participation, not from stories handed down to her from birth, that Duke’s memories became shared.
It may be a loose analogy, but it reminded me of something Will Willimon said in an interview,
From my experience and as the gospels portray it, following Jesus [comes before knowing Jesus]. The first thing Jesus says to people is, “Follow me.” He doesn’t say, “Understand me, think about me or get a good concept of me.” He just said follow me, and the amazing thing is people did, even when they didn’t know who he was or where he was going. Jesus unpacks that in the gospels.
In other words, knowing Jesus comes from participation in him. I don’t know if this would bring the atheists on the Guardian website closer to thinking about God, but it may signal that if we start with Genesis and expect full belief in it, that may be the wrong way to go about it. The point where anyone gets to know Jesus will be in the participation, and that may begin at birth or through some in-breaking where one hears the call to participate. In any case, it will have to be God that does the drawing to himself. We are to testify to God and model what it means to follow Jesus, while we are still getting to know him.