At UMBC, I had talked to a lot of non-Christians, and had had difficult conversations with them about God. One time, an atheist got spitting mad at me, because I had the gall to believe that the Israelites had been enslaved in Egypt but had become free; this atheist was expecting some historical evidence for millions of people escaping slavery, and, given that there isn't much outside of the Bible, he wasn't compelled by Christianity. I had talked with that spaced-out guy with long hair who waved his hands over his yogurt and prayed before he ate it, this guy had a spirituality that was made out of several parts, including Hinduism. I had a classmate who was a militant atheist, but converted to Islam. I even had a roommate who thought God exists, but didn't want to become a Christian; he's happy just being an ethical person.
I had read a lot of books on apologetics, so none of these people were particularly troubling for my faith, I knew how to rebut their arguments. The difficult non-Christians were a couple of guys, Zach and Graham, who wanted to hang out with me and a fellow Christian every week and talk about why we believe what we do and why they believe what they do.
Most non-Christians were so ambivalent about Christianity that it was difficult to get them to talk about it at all; most of the rest were so angry that it was difficult for me to be friends with them. Either way, until I met Zach and Graham, I hadn't been friends with smart, independent, non-Christians who would give me challenging, original things to think about on a regular, long-term basis.
Zach was interested in talking with Christians because he had taken a class on the history of genocide. He saw how much of it was motivated by religion. Not only that, but the stories in the Old Testament about the Jews entering Canaan and driving out its inhabitants, Zach saw those as being stories that glorified genocide. With the war in Iraq in full swing, and with the religious right largely supporting it, he wanted to make sure that Christians weren't plotting a fascist take-over. Most non-Christians would avoid deep conversations with Christians, but Zach realized how important understanding us is. I think Graham's interest wasn't too different, but who can say?
I had been trained to focus on connecting non-Christians with experiences of God, rather than getting stuck in quagmires about fossils and manuscripts. I tried to tell stories about God leading me in my life. I didn't think that God talked to me with word-for-word clarity, but that God did work on me in substantial ways. However, when I tried to tell Zach and Graham these stories, they weren't persuaded. I didn't blame them; what sort of profound spiritual experiences has a grad student had that demonstrate God's existence in a powerful and new way? My stories could just as easily have been explained by natural maturing and personal development, or confused by the complexity of human emotions. I didn't have any secret knowledge.
We wound up talking a lot about things like intelligent design. We read together Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman; we talked a lot about textual analysis of the earliest Greek manuscripts of the gospels. I was having some doubts, not because they had great arguments that dismantled my belief in God, but because the only demonstrations of God that I could give them were very pedantic.
In our conversations, we were all talking about God in such a cerebral way that belief in God couldn't have seemed compelling to them. If God's existence couldn't be demonstrated in a concrete way, why should I expect Zach and Graham to be convinced, if that would have meant anything risky? I was realizing that everything that I'd tried in evangelism, ever, had led to zero conversions, and this was threatening to me, because I thought evangelism was very important and I had a big zero, which meant I wasn't doing very well at all. (Well, I knew that it wasn't me, but the Holy Spirit, who saves people, that I didn't have too much influence on the process. On the other hand, I was expecting the Holy Spirit to be doing everything that he could; if you had to pick one of us to blame, would you pick me or the Spirit?) People were going to hell and there wasn't anything that was changing.
I was thinking about all of this as I left my lab one Monday night in November. As I walked up the big hill to my car, it was dark, but just a little foggy, so the streetlights had clouds of light around them, they weren't just points of light. I thought, "What of Christianity is really real? What is a good reason for my friends to believe?" Then I thought about the disagreements that all sorts of Christians have with each other. "If I were to expect God to be doing anything real in the world, wouldn't I expect God to be doing something sensible in the church? If God can't keep us together, what can he do?"
At that point in my life, I would often go alone to the theater to watch movies. I figured, I have to be quiet for an hour and a half to two hours, so what's the point in being in a quiet, dark, room with your friends as opposed to anyone else? I drove from my lab that night to see Stranger than Fiction, the Will Ferrell movie in which he plays Harold Crick, a man who finds out he's a character in a novel. Harold Crick finds the manuscript for the novel that he's in, and finds out that it's a tragedy, that he's supposed to die at the end of the story. It's a very existential movie, I was in the mood for an existential movie because I'd been going through an existential crisis the previous few months.
After I saw the movie, I went to Giant, the good Giant, not the one right near campus, but the one with the olive bar and the big produce section. I had just become a vegetarian as part of the existential crisis, and I was looking for soy sour cream so that I could make some sort of casserole involving tofu and peas and chow mein noodles. (I didn't find the soy sour cream. It wouldn't have made a difference, I don't think, the casserole was disgusting. It wasn't my idea. I was just following a recipe as well as I could; I didn't really know how to cook vegetarian food then.)
Anyway, I was at the Giant at about midnight, and I was thinking about the movie. At the end of the movie, Harold Crick decided to jump in front of a bus to save a boy; he knew that this would happen, he knew that he would die as a result, because he had read about it in the manuscript of the novel. I thought a lot of thoughts like, "Did Jesus know that he was going to die? Did he know that he would rise again? What intentionality did he have about his own death? How human was his death?" And I felt very quiet and humble, wandering from aisle to aisle in Giant. It wasn't the Giant that I normally went to, so it had all of the same things I was used to, but they were all in different places, so I walked back and forth across the store looking for the groceries I needed; I was thinking about Jesus, or, more, feeling about Jesus. I didn't have any new ideas about Jesus that I needed to figure out, I just had a very strong sense that he is deeply good and loving.
I had started that evening feeling afraid about how I would show Jesus to Zach and Graham, what evidence did I have? By the end of the night, I felt a deep tranquility and beauty. What happened in the middle wasn't any facts about Jesus, but a movie that maybe wasn't even trying to be about Jesus, but that had some ideas about beauty and meaning. I didn't have any good answers to that theological riddle about how much Jesus knew, but it didn't matter: Jesus was human like Harold Crick or me, he would have washed dishes and eaten fruit and pooped. That idea still makes me tingle.