A Conversation About Collision

Desiring God 2009 National Conference

With Calvin in the Theater of God

Begin at the end. What do you think Christopher Hitchens meant when he said that he wouldn’t convert the last believer into an atheist? What was going on in his head and heart there?

Some of it was scotch, but the rest of it, actually, I think was him speaking a genuine sentiment. I think he was speaking in an unguarded way there. You saw all the way through the film that his central enemy is the vicarious atonement of Christ. He keeps bringing it up. He can’t get away from that. And I believe that he is not wanting to win. That’s what it boils down to, and I think in an unguarded moment, he let that slip. So that’s what I think it is.

Your most common argument to him was that he must use an alien standard borrowed from Christianity in order to make all the pronouncements that he makes so effectively, and you came at it in this debate a dozen times. The only answer I heard was human solidarity. What is his best shot at that argument because that’s clearly your main agenda?

Yes, he keeps saying “human solidarity” and “innate impulses that we have”, and he has no argument beyond that. In the book, he doesn’t have anything beyond it. It’s just innate. It’s just happening. Well, the problem is that in an evolutionary system, other things can be innate. Innate things change over time. Are you going to be good with that? Well, he necessarily has to be, although early on he says he’s not a relativist, so he wants certain things to stay put. But they can’t, not in his universe.

Right. I want to get into the nature of apologetics and what they’re good for. In other words, what are you doing in these exchanges? Why are you spending your time this way? Suppose you won that argument, where would that take him? How does that get him to Christ? What’s the relationship, generally, between apologetics, argumentation, repartee, and gospel presentation, faith, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the new birth? Talk a little bit about the function of apologetics and this way of doing it in particular.

There are two things. First, my father, a gifted evangelist, taught me many years ago that the point is not to win the argument; the point is to win the man. You want to win the person you’re talking to, not win the argument. So then, the question is, what’s the argument for? In the book of Acts, it says Apollos was a great help to those who by grace had believed, for he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 18:27–28). So the edification of apologetics frequently is for the believer. How many Christians are in secular universities getting beat up by that kind of nonsense day in and day out in their classes? And they’re holding on, they’re hanging tight. Their faith is okay but wobbly. It’s got a bunch of dents in it. And then they go to a debate like this and they say, “I’ve heard that before. And he doesn’t have an answer to that. You don’t have to check your brains in at the door to be a Christian.”

And so, Apollos was a help to those who by grace had believed. So the first objective in apologetics is to strengthen believers, to defend the flock. It’s a pastoral function. It’s to defend the flock against the arguments that are brought against them.

But the second thing is this. With regard to Christopher, at another event in Dallas after this film was made I told the people there that Christopher and I, if we didn’t watch our step, were in danger of becoming friends. And that is very true. It had to do with what was going on is after the debate was over. I sent him a Christmas gift, which was a book by P.G. Wodehouse. Winning Christopher was operating on a completely different level than the argumentation. The argumentation is for believers, it’s a pastoral thing. For Christopher, the reason he’s staying away from God is not those arguments. He doesn’t have an argument. He just keeps saying the same things over and over again. He just doesn’t like God. He’s an anti-theist. And so, what I want to do is get through and around those defenses with regard to Christopher, but I don’t think it’s going to be argumentation with him. That’s not the issue.

Relate this to your pastoral life. You did, but most of us out here couldn’t do what you just did. Talk to us. I heard you talk one time about copiousness. If you’ve been reading and giving real answers to questions that come up here and there long enough, a certain copiousness develops in your life. Describe how that happened for you and whether you think it’s a good idea to cultivate that for other pastors.

Yes, I do. For those who are in a pastoral role, teaching role, and that sort of thing. I think a cultivation of copiousness is important. I don’t think it’s important for every last person.

Say what it is again in case it went by those people.

Copiousness is fluidity of expression where you learn quotations, situations, anecdotes, particular words, and turns of phrase so that when he says something, there’s something right there in your mind, either right there from the Scriptures in the first place, or from Chesterton, Oscar Wilde, etc. It means you’ve got a ready storehouse to answer. And I think people who are in public exchange back and forth need to cultivate that and hone that. That’s one of the tools in the tool chest. But — and this is very important — I believe that God has given the body many varied gifts. Paul says that not everybody should be an eyeball. Not everybody should be an ear. Different people gravitate toward different things. And I’ve gravitated toward this sort of thing since I was a little boy. I just love it. And I’ve told people that I write books, for example, for the same reason that dogs bark. You don’t ask the dog, “How do you do that? Why do you?”

It’s because there’s somebody outside.

Yes, you may have a reason. So the thing is, it’s just the way it is. Other people should be cultivating other gifts. When you discover what it is that God’s called you to, you should throw yourself into that and ask God to use it at some point in his good time. So if it’s giftedness with service or government or administration or helps or words, then cultivate that to the glory of God.

What is your hope for this film? What are you praying God might use it for? And when does it release again?

It’s releasing next month. It’s releasing October 27, 2009. It will be available on DVD on Amazon, and there’s going to be a theatrical release in New York and LA and then the Amazon DVD on October 27th. And it’s available now for pre-order. What I hope has to do with the Columbia section of the debate. I was speaking to the atheist and agnostic group, and there was a sweet little atheist girl that was swallowing every reductio I would throw at her. And I would hope that in a lot of universities, there are kids that are not settled atheists the way Christopher is. They’re just trying it on, their religious upbringing was shallow. They didn’t have real answers. I’ve gone over and talked to the atheist group at WSU, a nearby university in Pullman, and one of my hopes is that this would shake and rattle unsettled atheists. And I would hope that many Christians in secular universities who don’t know how to answer their professors would be equipped in how to do that, at least in their heads.

I wrote Doug about the ending and the S word, asking if it would help or hurt the film in the final editing. And I saw a blog you wrote where you sent people over to The Onion to see a hilarious spoof and you said, “Get by the crudities at the beginning,” which was the same. So you believe that’s crude. So talk to us about that. I don’t think, even though you tend to treat your writing as barking, I don’t think you do much by accident so what’s going on there? You don’t like that kind of language and you wouldn’t want your kids to use it.


So what’s going on with that?

We disciplined all our kids for speaking that way growing up, and our kids would discipline their kids for speaking that way. I don’t speak that way in ordinary conversation. I don’t think that way. So then the point is, where did that come from? Did he finally get to you after three days and then, boom? And the answer is no. I was thinking of how to respond to him a day or two before that happened. That was on the third day of our tour, and this is what it was. I am, contrary to some popular perceptions, not trying to become the Howard Stern of evangelicalism. I’m not interested in that.

So that wasn’t there to shock the church ladies. It wasn’t there to offend Christian sensibilities. It wasn’t there to give the back of my hand to good Christian moms and dads who want their kids to have every word be for edification and so forth. So if that’s not what it was, then what was it?

Well, what it was, was if you saw that on a bumper sticker of a car ahead of you, what worldview is represented by that? Well, it’s nihilism. That’s the worldview. That’s nihilism and that’s Christopher’s worldview in principle, though he won’t admit it. He wants morality and ethics and high-mindedness to be suspended from this invisible sky hook — no support, no reason, no foundation, nothing. But that’s his worldview. What I gave him was not my worldview nor my way of expression. It was me speaking to him about where he needs to be, given his premises, and where he refuses to go. Not only does he refuse to convert the last Christian in the world, he refuses to be an atheist. That’s what it boils down to. If you’re going to be an atheist, be an atheist. And what I was doing there was rubbing his nose in it.

Why the upsurge in the new atheism? Why these recent books with Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens? What’s going on?

This is just me being an amateur sociologist but I think that — and I’m not weighing in on everything that I think about this, just what I think is making them tick — Dawkins and Hitchins are both Englishmen by upbringing. And Europeans and Englishmen were freaked out by what they saw as a resurgent theocracy in America. If you read their stuff, they’re just beside themselves at George Bush and the Ayatollah. And I’m thinking, “Good grief, I’ll show you.” They think that that’s radical theocracy and that’s what they’re afraid of. And I think they were honestly panicked at the general conservatism of the United States.

They thought there was a settled direction, but then came the resurgence of intelligent design in the academy. They’ve had the academy for 150 years. They’ve been pounding away on evolution, and most Americans don’t believe it. And then intelligent design popped up and blah. And I think they just panicked. For many decades, they would pat us on the head in a patronizing way, but this militant atheism I think arose largely from a sense of panic at what they thought was the religious right taking over America.

At 8:30 tomorrow morning, we’ll hear Doug not interrupted 50 times, a sustained sequence of thought, so the longer we stay here tonight, the more sleepy you’re going to be when he tries to get your attention tomorrow morning. So I’m going to pray and then dismiss us all to hasten home to get some rest. And I think Scott wants to say just one closing word to you when I’m done.