“Jim and I have been called America’s Spiritual Odd Couple. I thought about that. Why are we an odd couple? We’re never at odds. We’re not arguing. We may be different but we’re not arguing. I’d like to help people stop throwing down the gauntlet on these issues. When someone throws down the gauntlet, I usually just pick it up and throw it in the trash. I’m not interested in fighting. What we hope to show people is that it makes your life a lot more interesting when you embrace the differences of various people.” Matt Casper
Gayle Trotter: I’m speaking with Jim Henderson and Matt Casper about their new book, Saving Casper: A Christian and an Atheist Talk about Caring Versus Scaring Evangelism. Jim and Matt, thank you for joining me. Jim, you and Matt go off on this adventure together to do research in the belly of the beast for an atheist – in the church – to find out exactly what churches are projecting that they might not even know that they’re projecting.
GT: Jim, you are from a Christian background and you would call yourself a believer. What do you mean in your title of “caring versus scaring evangelism?”
Jim Henderson: That idea grew out of my frustration as a believer and later as a pastor around the lack of practice of evangelism. I decided to start to explore and experiment with new ways of approaching it since I wasn’t running into anything that worked for the people I was pastoring. I started exploring ways that evangelism could become a spiritual practice along the lines of prayer or reading the Bible. It’s just something that we do. It takes work. It takes commitment, etc. But we don’t have the anxiety around it, and it’s virtually impossible for Christians to imagine, still today.
GT: Matt, you describe yourself in the book as currently an atheist. Part of the book’s aim, and was to describe what an atheist sees as he approaches the doors of the church, as he walks in the doors of the church, as he sits and listens to the service, and all of the interactions in the church. You bring up church signs and your take on what church signs say currently and what you think could be a better message. Atheists are paying attention to these church signs.
Matt Casper: They certainly are. What we see in a lot of these church signs is a lot of wasted real estate, frankly. Churches tend to use them sometimes to test their punning abilities. What you want to do is to be much more targeted in the people you’re trying to reach. It’s very much what churches have out there. The signs typically use “me” language, and it needs to be new language. Their signs are basically saying here’s what we are going to be talking about, not here’s what we want to do for you.
GT: Is that what you see?
MC: Or sometimes, you see on these signs a couple of threats – you know, repent or whatever – and that’s not going to get everybody to come in. They could probably do this a little better if they really thought more about how a local farmer’s market gets people to come there. They’re not threatening people. They’re saying, “Here’s kind of what we have to offer.” I always felt that if I went by a church sign and saw that it was offering something unique like a double espresso for every atheist that comes this Sunday. That’s something that wakes up my mind. Instead of just another church sign, it’s a very targeted and interesting message that’s relevant and unique.
GT: Matt, you write about your parents’ faith and journeys with different denominations. You go detail your mom’s faith journey and how towards the end of her life, she was involved with the Catholic Church and ended up being drawn into the Catholic Church. You give a lot of credit to the Catholic parishioners who, when she came down with cancer, took her into their homes and took care of her and loved her and didn’t put any conditions on it. Do you see that that is a symbol of God’s unconditional love for us? Or do you see that as those people using their faith to allow them to love someone unconditionally?
JH: That’s a great question, Matt.
MC: I’d have to go with the latter because the first would mean that I believe there’s a God who has unconditional love for us. I think that their faith was part of what drove them to do this amazing thing. I’d like to know from them, “Do you think you would’ve done this were you not Catholic?” I think that they would probably say that question is irrelevant because we are Catholic and nothing is going to change that. But I would want to know. I’m sure we can find examples across every faith – and non-faith, too – of people who do these extraordinary things, who do make sacrifices for the wellbeing of others that they don’t even know all that well.
I think in this case, though, a lot of it was fueled by this community, this centered community and the purpose that these people had by belonging to this church drove them to do something. They’re ultimately selfless. I give credit to their faith and their belief in God’s unwavering love for helping fuel their actions.
I think that religion is a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people. I’m not in any position to judge who’s good or bad. But here we have good people who speak up and do something beyond good.
GT: Jim, you tell a really fascinating story where you and Matt go to speak to a group of young people and you share with them about what you’re doing and what your background is. You ask them this really harsh question. You put them on the spot. You both seem upset at the response
JH: Right. I asked them how many of them thought Matt was going to go to hell, correct?
GT: Yes. What was the response?
JH: Matt, you’ll have to help me remember – but I think most people raised their hand confirming it. Is that right?
MC: I remember that very clearly.
JH: Yes, you probably would. [Laugh] Let me just tell you. You want to know why I asked the question, Gayle?
JH: You know enough to know that the general proposition that evangelical Christianity, which is functionally the civil religion of America over the last forty years, the central offering it is making in the marketplace is accept Jesus, you go to heaven, you don’t, you go to hell. That’s much how it’s understood, particularly without the nuances. That’s the pitch. Now I’m not commenting on if it’s valid or anything.
GT: Right, right.
JH: Given that, when people are raised with that, I think that they are responsible to take a stand if they’re going to be consistent with their beliefs. Regardless of how moderate evangelicals are, this is ultimately the position they’re assigned to. In fact, Catholics actually believe this, as well. I don’t understand why anyone would be reluctant to admit ownership of that and why they can’t be held accountable for giving an answer about that. In fact, what I wanted to do was create a dilemma for them. I had this other theory that, in fact, when people like each other, the rules change. When it doesn’t touch our beliefs, then it doesn’t go to the foundation. It doesn’t get past that. It’s like, “Well, I like Matt but he’s going to hell so too bad.” I want people to feel the cognitive dissonance around that so that was my purpose in asking that question.
GT: What do you think is the end result of posing that question? Obviously for Matt, from what he wrote in the book, it was very painful to hear that. It wasn’t necessarily for his benefit. For the people in the audience, what do you think they received from that question?
JH: I think they’re still thinking about it. I think they’re still thinking about it today because no one else has ever asked them that question.
MC: I think that Jim said he doesn’t have to guess at their motivations. I do. They are not trying to reach Jim; they’re trying to reach me. To have the person you’re trying to connect with in a position where they’re guessing about your deeply held beliefs and your motivations is a nonstarter. What that question does is it forces transparency. Think about a different issue that’s not related to faith like racism. You can’t have a discussion about racism without first kind of being transparent about your take on it. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that people of different races are different. It’s being transparent about these kind of complicated issues that I think helps us kind of come to find some common ground. I personally don’t think it’s unfair to ask somebody about their deeply held beliefs, especially when they want to share those beliefs with you. Some of the thorniest parts of those beliefs have to come in a question. What we do with a question like that is we force them to be more transparent about their beliefs with themselves and with us, and with the people they’re trying to reach. It’s a good question because I do think it is a cup of cold water in the face. That can be a good thing for a lot of folks.
GT: A good thing?
MC: The question should make me more uncomfortable than it does. This answer, basically that I’m being condemned to hell by a roomful of strangers and they’re the ones that are uncomfortable with that, not me.
GT: I’ve done a lot of reading of Christopher Hitchens and other people whom I don’t think resemble you at all. They do seem to have a visceral reaction to that doctrine. I’ve never understood that because as an atheist, hell does not exist. Maybe I’m asking too personal a question, but is the reason there’s a visceral reaction to it is because the person who hears that thinks that the people wish that for them? Or is there something else going on?
MC: Yes, that’s part of it. I think that it’s insulting. When you, as a believer, tell a nonbeliever you think they’re going to hell, it is insulting and judgmental. It’s condemning. There’s nothing positive about that statement. That’s why there is such a visceral reaction, even though we don’t believe it exists. Someone tells you to shut the hell up, it doesn’t mean you have to be quiet. It’s still insulting, though.
MC: Someone tells me I’m going to go to hell, but it doesn’t mean I’m going there. It’s still insulting. I’ve heard it enough times that I’m no longer insulted by it perhaps and therefore, it’s absolutely lost its effectiveness. That’s why it’s the scaring thing. Scaring is both wrong and it doesn’t work. That is why we’re trying to show people a different way of doing it. If Jim came at me with that message, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you right now.
JH: I consider it lazy evangelism. I consider it for people that don’t know what else to say. It’s like I’m going to yell at you and call you a name. The interesting part is that Christians are hardly talking to non-Christians anyway and they’re particularly not talking to them about their faith. Just statistically and anecdotally, we know this is not a common thing. They’re really not out telling people they’re going to hell. When I first became a Christian, I was told to go tell people they were going to go to hell. I lost a lot of my old friends and I made new friends who thought I was being brave and told me I was being brave for doing that. That’s the chaos inside Christianity. Then we play that they’re persecuting you and shake the dust off and all that stuff. And it’s just childishness.
I understand why people disagree with me. That’s fine. Many people would say, “Matt shouldn’t be on this call with us because I should’ve confronted him.” The fact that I didn’t proves I’m not a Christian. We can disagree about that. But to not admit that what we’re doing isn’t working is, to me, not to really be on a mission. Atheists don’t have a book saying go make disciples all over the world. We have the Book. We have the Book that tells us to love our enemies. They don’t have their book. They’re not held to the same standard as we are. If we don’t like it, we can resign and drop out. But as long as we want to say we’re going to follow Jesus, then we’re going to have to suck it up and say, “That’s right.”
We have our own motives. Mine is to say to Christians, “You really don’t have to hide yourself. You can talk out loud about who you are. Just don’t be a jerk about it and more people will talk with you.”
GT: In church on Sunday, they read a verse that I thought of in the context of your book, Matt. It seems like Matt loves the peaceful parts of Christianity. But this verse was about how Jesus did not come to bring peace but to create division. What does that mean to an atheist that all these people are following someone who said he came not for peace — which seems to be the only appealing part of Christianity to atheists — but that Jesus said he came to bring division.
MC: Peace appeals to people in general, so that makes that part of the Christian message appealing to anybody. I’ve not heard that verse before. I didn’t know that Jesus came to bring division. Here’s one thing. He was right about that. The peace hasn’t come but division is certainly here so well done on that one, Jesus. We’re all completely divided. Even in Christianity, it is splintered, shattered. How many sects of Christianity are there? Hundreds? Thousands?
JH: Oh, thousands. Thirty-seven thousand.
MC: I think division is done. That’s one biblical prophecy I think we can all agree on. Unfortunately, I’m not sure what that means beyond that. It is evident that Jesus and Christianity have brought more division than unity.
GT: Some atheists like Christopher Hitchens think that religion poisons everything. Other atheists view Christianity as fine as long as it’s this kind of anodyne picture of Jesus as the person with the little children surrounding him, a good teacher, and a good rabbi. If you can accept that, the verse complicates the picture a little bit. Atheists who want to put Jesus in that box of he really did exist, he was a real person, but he didn’t have kind of the moxie that Christians give him. Christians struggle with that verse as well.
JH: There are a number of things that Jesus said that I find complicated. Not the least of which is to love your enemies and pray for those who spitefully use you. And ultimately, I have to look at the life of Jesus in its total story and what did he live out ultimately.
So based on his life, not to parse Scripture too closely, he was a leader and he brought division. He made decisions, he took stances, and in doing that, any leader is going to bring division. He even said if you don’t love me more than you love your father and mother, you can’t follow me in the context of taking up the cross.
That’s the nature of any kind of commitment of any movement and Jesus exhibited that clearly. What makes it unique, of course, is that I happen to believe He’s God and he was saying that. So to me that’s the context of what really matters out of why Jesus would say something like that. Because he did say it, clearly, but he took the story out of Peter’s hand. You can’t argue that Jesus actually literally meant to pick up swords. The metaphor spins both ways. It cuts both ways, right?
GT: So Matt, now that you’ve written two books together, what do you think the future holds for your relationship with Jim and what you plan to do in the future?
MC: At some point in time, I expect Jim will tell me to go to hell.
JH: We’re breaking up right after this phone call, Matt, I forgot to tell you.
MC: Jim and I have been called America’s Spiritual Odd Couple. I thought about that. Why are we an odd couple? We’re never at odds. We’re not arguing. We may be different but we’re not arguing. Sometimes people who may have differences will tune into Sunday morning talk shows and they’ll see people with differences sitting at the same table. They may think to themselves they’ll probably pick a side, but they may think I could never do that. I hope that what Jim and I can show people is that you can do it. It’s actually pretty easy. I’d like to help people stop throwing down the gauntlet on these issues. When someone throws down the gauntlet, I usually just pick it up and throw it in the trash. I’m not interested in fighting. What we hope to show people is that it really makes your life a lot more interesting when you embrace the differences of various people.
I’ll give an example. I know more than a few atheists. When they learn about this project of mine the question that they always have for me is, “Give me something I can use.” They think that Jim and I must be really, really good at taking each other apart. It’s just the opposite. We’re not interested in taking each other apart. Jim knows where I stand and I know where he stands and we do discuss differences. We realized that our differences are going to be the things that keep us interesting to each other.
I hope most discussions aren’t like this but should the hell question come up, it’s not a deal breaker for people. It’s not the end of a friendship. Jim lost friends. I’d like to see that never happen again. I’d like to see that we’re able to model a relationship that shows them how it can be done. It’s no secret that we’re more polarized than we’ve ever been before, whether it’s politics, faith, what have you. It doesn’t have to be that way. You talk about Christopher Hitchens as an atheist – he’s an antitheist. He wasn’t for anything. He was against things.
MC: I’m tired of being against things and I’m tired of Christians telling me what they’re against. Here’s what most people know about Christians: they’re against abortion; they’re against gay marriage. Okay, great, we get it. You hate some things. What do you love? What do you care about? Why can’t we talk about those things? I don’t want to sound like a hippie here because I’m not. I don’t even own a hacky sack. But I think that’s what I hope that we can model for people. When you look into stories about Jesus – and again, I hadn’t heard the divide thing before, he keeps talking to people outside of his comfort zone. He’s going out and talking to different people. He’s bringing people together. He’s bringing people of disparate lives and backgrounds together. And I guess what I’d like to see is to help people have their faith be more unifying than divisive. It doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree with me for it to be a unifying force.
I’m on a bit of a quest myself and the reason I always say I’m currently an atheist is beliefs can change. They change all the time for everybody. I still have questions. I want to make sure that when I have questions about Christianity, I’m going to talk with somebody who’s not going to insult me. Hopefully that is what we’re doing here with this book, with this whole weird thing that’s happened to me. Many Christians say that I’m “blessed.” I would say I am “lucky” but “blessed” works too. I’m not insulted by them saying I’m blessed. I know some atheists that respond, “Wow, I can’t believe someone told me to have a blessed day.” So what? Get over it.
MC: They wished you something nice just now. If you weren’t so intent on proving them wrong, then you would’ve seen that for what it was, which was a gracious gesture, a fine how-do-you-do. There’s a polarization that is, again, political, it’s spiritual, it’s just everywhere and I’m just so sick of it. It’s just so destructive.
I don’t know if I need faith to make that happen or not? I guess if I have faith, I have faith that eventually people end up doing the right thing. So my faith is that the glass is half full. And wow, I think I’m out of breath because that was a very mellow rant.
GT: You summarized it well. Thank you both for joining me.