Loving Others Who Believe Differently
About the Guest
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Rebecca McLaughlinRebecca McLaughlin holds a Ph.D. in Renaissance Literature from Cambridge University and a theology degree from Oak Hill College in London. She is the author of Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World's Largest Religion (2019), which was named book of the year by Christianity Today, and of 10 Questions Every Teen Should Ask (and Answer) about Christianity (2021), The Secular Creed: Engaging 5 Contemporary Claims (2021), and Is Christmas Unbelievable? Four Questions Everyone Sho...more
It is good to ask questions and to even disagree at times. Rebecca McLaughlin discusses loving others from the ground up, showing respect and humility toward those who disagree with what we believe.
Loving Others Who Believe Differently
Ann: I have a distinct memory of our first year of marriage. We were on staff, full time, with Athletes in Action; we were at the University of Nebraska.
Dave: You’re just reminding me of where we were. I remember all of this; I don’t remember very many good things about our first year.
Ann: Do you remember this though? You are sitting on the couch, and I come down. You seemed really deep in thought; and I say, “Hey, what’s up?!” You have your Bible in your lap; and you say, “I don’t know if any of this is true.” I said, “What? What are you talking about?” He goes, “What if none of this is true? What if Jesus really wasn’t who He said He was? What if He didn’t rise from the dead? What if none of it’s true?”
Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: I remember that distinctly, because you had a look of fear on your face. I mean, you were shocked.
Ann: I said, “These are the questions you are asking now?! We’ve kind of given our lives to this work.”
Dave: Yes, I remember we were almost three years into my Christian walk; and it just hit me. We had given our life to Christ—but now, our vocation full time—I’m like, “We could make a lot more money doing other things.” [Laughter] I just remember it started to hit me; and I remember thinking, “I don’t know if this is even true. If this isn’t true, I’ve got to find out.” I remember, because that’s what you said.
Ann: Yes; I said, “You better find out for yourself what you are thinking.” I really didn’t have problems with believing, but you were more skeptical in nature.
Dave: Yes, and I did; I went on a journey. There were questions that I needed to ask, and there were questions that I needed to get answers for. Guess what?—I got the answers that did prove—I needed some help; I needed some evidence, and there were some great tools.
And we’ve got a great tool today for teens.
Ann: We are excited to have Rebecca McLaughlin back with us today. Welcome Rebecca.
Rebecca: Thanks for having me.
Dave: Your [newest] book is really written to teens—but it’s part of a book you wrote to adults, a few years back, Confronting Christianity—it’s really full of the questions that I had to wrestle with. You’re saying, “Teenagers need to wrestle with this”; it’s called
10 Questions Every Teen Should Ask (and Answer) about Christianity. Obviously, you believe it’s good to ask questions—
Rebecca: I do.
Dave: —and get answers.
Dave: There are answers.
Rebecca: Yes. [Laughter]
Dave: I’ve got to tell you, as I read it, I found it just so well-written. I mean, I haven’t read Confronting Christianity; I want to know: “Did you use Moana and Aladdin and Harry Potter in Confronting Christianity? [Laughter]
Rebecca: I used a lot of Harry Potter but no Moana and no Aladdin;—
Rebecca: —so yes. [Laughter]
Dave: I mean, you are writing to a younger audience. Man, you talk about grabbing their hearts and grabbing their imaginations, it was so well done.
Here is your background—I mean, you can tell us a little bit more about this, because I don’t know what a degree—I know what a PhD is—but in Renaissance Literature from Cambridge—what is that? Is that Shakespeare?
Rebecca: For me, it was Shakespeare. It was three years of writing about prisons in Shakespeare. It was fun. [Laughter] I haven’t used it a whole lot since. [Laughter] Although I will say, as I write, I love understanding things by hearing them. When I write, I mostly hear what I’m writing and see if the rhythm feels good to me. I think the only reason I know whether it does or not is because of all the years I spent with Shakespeare.
Dave: Well, that’s good.
Here is the thing: when I was wrestling through my—you can call it a crisis of faith or whatever—but it was a great journey. It was pretty exciting for me to dig into—again, it was a couple years after I’ve already committed to Christ; but that’s okay—because it’s like, “I’m going to dig in.” I was looking for evidence; I wanted to prove that Jesus lived, died, rose from the dead. You know, I’m reading books like Evidence That Demands a Verdict and The Case for Christ and different things.
[Are those] the questions our teens are asking today? Has apologetics or defending the faith changed in 30 or 40 years?
Ann: Yes, and are they asking the same questions?
Dave: The generation today—it feels different—is it?
Rebecca: Yes, I think it’s changed a lot, not because those questions don’t still matter—we do still need to know: “Can we trust the Gospels?” “Is Jesus who He claimed”/like: “Is there any evidence that Jesus even existed?”—or all of these things—but the questions that are front and center to people today aren’t anything to do with “Did Jesus rise from the dead?” or “Is the Bible authoritative?” or even “Has science disproved Christianity?”
They are: “Isn’t Christianity homophobic?” “Isn’t Christianity against diversity?” “Aren’t Christians racist?” “Isn’t this just like a white-centered, Western worldview that we are trying to impose on other people?”—those kinds of questions. The moral questions, really,—
Rebecca: —are front and center for people.
I think one of the transitions that folks may have been aware of as they go from being the teenager or the young adult, who was grappling themselves, to being the parent now, raising teens—is that, whereas 20 or some odd years ago, maybe, depending on where you lived in the US; but certainly, where my husband grew up in Oklahoma for example—he said that, even if people didn’t go to church, they respected the fact that he did. It was kind of considered like you had a little bit of a moral high ground—
Rebecca: —if you were a Christian who went to church.
Today, in most parts of the country at least, if you are a Christian who goes to church, and really believes these things, you kind of have a moral low ground. People see you, not just as sort of deluded and foolish, but actually as immoral in a lot of spaces. That’s really, I think, where the main front is for us now and where we need to both grapple with the questions for ourselves but, also, help our kids to navigate those questions.
Dave: Yes, I do know that in the ‘90s—we started our church in 1990—it was/you were respected when you used the title, “pastor”: “Oh, what do you do?” “I’m a pastor.” “Oh, that’s nice.” Now: “You’re a pastor?”—it’s almost like you’re afraid to say it.
Ann: Yes, you’re judged.
Dave: There are beliefs about you, if you call yourself a Christian, that may not be anywhere near true; but [those] are some of the questions we’ve got to answer. Yet, in your book, you still go after some of the questions I had to answer in the ‘70s and ‘80s; because they still are really important questions; right?
Rebecca: Yes, absolutely.
Dave: Let’s talk about some of those. One of them—third chapter: “Can Jesus Be True for You But Not for Me?” Talk about that a little bit, because that is an important question for a teenager or an adult.
Ann: I think, as you talk about it, think about the parents that are listening. They are wanting to know how they can answer these questions with their kids.
Rebecca: There is a popular story that is often told to help people supposedly understand the different world religions; because people will say: “There are so many religions out there. It’s fine if Christianity is true for you, and it works for you—it fits with your cultural background—but you can’t possibly say it’s true, regardless of where you come from or what your background is. It’s actually really offensive to say, for example, that Hindus are just mistaken in their beliefs and that they would need to, in fact, convert to become followers of Jesus.”
People will sometimes tell this story of like an elephant that walked into a village of blind people. Different people came up to the elephant and felt different parts of it. One guy felt the leg and said, “Oh, this elephant is like a tree.” Somebody else felt the ear and said, “No, no, no; it’s not like a tree; it’s like a fan.” Someone else felt a tusk and said, “No, no, no; it’s not like a tree or a fan; it’s like a spear.” People tell that story to say really the different world religions are all kind of grasping at different truths about God; and really, if we could see the full picture, we’d see there wasn’t real contradiction between these different beliefs.
Now, that seems, at first, to be a really kind of humble attitude—to say, “My religion doesn’t contain all the truth there is to know; so maybe, we have to take truth from different places.”
But if you think about it, the story is told from the perspective of someone who can see the whole elephant. [Laughter] It’s actually kind of condescending to say: “All you different religious people, with your little ideas about God, are like blind people kind of trying to figure out what an elephant is.” I think the more we work through this mentality people have about saying: “You can’t possibly say that one religion is true and that others aren’t,” the more what felt like it was maybe very respectful in the first place actually becomes disrespectful.
I think we most respect our Muslim friend or neighbor, for example, by being real about the fact that they believe different things than we do; and to say, “Do you know both of us are making real claims about God?” There is some overlap—our Muslim friends would also believe that God created everything; certainly, there is some overlap—there are massively important differences.
If you look even just at the three religions in the world that are closest to each other—actually, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—at least, all believe there is one Creator God and share some of the Old Testament Scriptures. If we look at what people of those three different beliefs say about Jesus: Christians say that Jesus died and was raised from the dead; Muslims say that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross but that He just seemed to, and He was just taken into heaven: Jews—and for that matter Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists, and agnostics—say that Jesus died and was not raised from the dead.
Now, we may not be able to go back 2,000 years with a video camera and kind of see exactly what happened in the tomb; but those three explanations are incompatible. It cannot be the case that each of those are all correct. So we are not being respectful, if we say: “Well, all of these different religions—even the most sort of similar ones in some ways—are really saying the same thing,” because they are not. This isn’t just kind of detail on the edge of a religion. This is the absolute central claim of the Christian faith; without which, Christianity is dead in the water; right?
Rebecca: I think, as we walk through these questions—you know, both for ourselves and with our kids—we need to help to make the distinction between being disrespectful in our attitude and our manner toward somebody, which isn’t something that Jesus calls us to at all; actually, He calls us to always be loving, especially to those who are different from us. Peter said we should always be ready to give a reason for the hope that we have; but to do so with gentleness and respect. That should very much be our posture—love, gentleness, and respect—but at the same, making very clear that we do believe different things.
We know, in different spheres of life, it’s not the case that your truth can just be your truth and mine can just be mine. That’s fine if it’s like whose cooking is best: I’m sure your wife cooks better than my husband in your eyes; and I’m sure my husband cooks better than your wife in mine. But when it comes to matters of more universal truth—matters of history, whether something happened or not—whether it is in our own lives or in broader history, and that’s truly relevant to today—we all know that we can’t just say: “It’s fine if you think the Holocaust didn’t happen—that can be your truth—but my truth is that it did.” No; we know that that’s not okay.
I think we need to help people see that actually there is no special category of religious truth that makes it something that could be true for you and not for me. Actually, Christianity, in particular, is making very real historical claims that are either true or false.
Ann: You are an evangelist in my eyes, because you basically have been sharing Christ with your friends. One of the reasons you have written some of your books is to share Christ with your friends and just showing them what you believe. As we talk about that, what would you say to your friends about this point? I bet you’ve had a lot of great conversations about this.
Rebecca: I think one of the really helpful things to bring up actually—again, with our kids or with friends is—far from being a primarily white Western religion, Christianity has always been, from the Scriptures onwards, a multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural movement. Actually, today, Christianity is the largest global belief system—and it is the most diverse, whether you are looking at race, or geography, or culture—in all of the respects that you could look.
Ann: Do you think most people are aware of that?
Rebecca: I don’t think they are;—
Ann: I don’t either.
Rebecca: —I really don’t.
I think it just changes the framework in which a lot of people think about this question, in particular actually; because once you realize that there are soon going to be more Christians in China than in America; or when you realize that, by 2060, experts think that 40 percent of the world’s Christians will be living in sub-Saharan Africa; or when you realize that actually, from literal day one of the church at Pentecost as we see in the book of Acts, we see the Spirit poured out, and then people from all these different countries—including places like Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt to Libya coming to put their trust in Jesus that day—we realize Christianity—sure, it’s shaped West whites, European folk like me, and sort of the white European West; but we don’t own it. [Laughter]
Rebecca: It’s been around the world, from the get-go—and increasingly so today—is a multiethnic, multicultural, multiracial faith. Actually, the demographic, globally, that is where Christianity is declining is white Western men.
Dave: How is it that we don’t know this? The general population thinks it is a white more European-centered religion. Where is that coming from? I don’t think it’s just in America that we think that.
Rebecca: Yes, I think part of it is just that—even in the last 40 years—sociologists of religion have kind of studied religion. They used to think Christianity was just going to decline; because as the world becomes more modern, and more educated, and more scientific, religious belief naturally declines. Because that is what had happened in Western Europe, they thought the rest of the world would follow on. They really weren’t paying as much attention to the growth of Christianity across the world.
But actually, in the last 40 years, what we’ve seen is an increasing diversification of folks, who are putting their trust in Jesus. They’re expecting that, in the next 40 years, Christianity is going to continue to be the world’s largest religion and the most diverse. It’s going to increase slightly globally rather than decreasing.
For too long—I think this is true honestly, both in my country, the UK and in America—there has been this sort of marrying together, in people’s minds, of Christianity with sort of a white-centered nationalism. That is not something we see in the Bible at all; it’s almost absurd from a biblical perspective. We’re late-comers to the Christian family, from the Bible’s perspective; but it also it just doesn’t align with the reality of the church today.
Dave: Yes, the truth is—as you say all of this—and you have a chapter about Christianity and diversity, it’s not known.
Dave: As you answer this question, and you write about it to help teens answer this question, this needs to be known and understood, not only for our own faith, but as we seek to share our faith with others. These are truths we have to have so that, when they do have questions or push back against it, we can answer like you just did.
Rebecca: Yes; I mean, I think a lot of kids today have become very disillusioned with Christianity; because of their history with racism in the white church in America. I understand that. I think there are real things to grieve, and lament, and repent of there. I think what the/information that those kids are missing is that God has been growing the black church in America for centuries. Actually, rather than if we only align Christianity in our minds with sort of the white Christian slaveholder, or the white Christian segregationists, we are actually ignoring the voices of the millions of black Christians that God has raised up through the centuries down to today.
Dave: Yes; and it is interesting—again, I can feel it in your book and the way you answer, even in this interview, your gentleness and respect, which is so key—as we are interacting with people that are on a journey toward faith, and maybe don’t believe what we do, it’s like we are not answering their questions; we are answering a person with gentleness and respect.
I’ll never forget one time, early in the beginning of our church, I made a comment in a sermon—something like/it was early ‘90s. I don’t remember—but I got confronted by somebody—and that’s why I remember. I said something to the effect of—making a comment about a Muslim or someone who would be of the Islamic faith—and I was trying to debate different things; and I said, “Can you imagine somebody actually believes that?” and just went on; right?—just a flippant little comment, and just went on.
This young man came up to me, right after, and waited patiently. He says, “Hey, dude,”—and I knew him; so he was part of our arts team; so we had a little bit of a relationship—but he said, “Hey, Dave, I just wanted to make a comment on something you said in your sermon.” I’m thinking, “Oh, this is going to be a good thing.” He goes, “You made this comment that: ‘I can’t believe somebody would/how could they believe that?’”
He goes, “My mom is a Muslim, and I think she’s coming next week to church. That comment/it just destroys her as a person. She is not less than you, because she believes something else. Please, don’t make a comment like that.”
I was like, “Thank you; that is so true. I need to hear that.” That’s the attitude part—right?—it’s like I’m making a flippant comment, like totally dissing somebody, who is made in the image of God, who has a different belief than I do.
Rebecca: Let’s be real. We believe crazy things. [Laughter] We believe that a first century Jewish man died on a cross and was supposedly raised from the dead three days later; like that is crazy! The thing is, the more that I have read, and learned from atheists and agnostic authors, and thinkers today: “We are not choosing between Christianity, with all its crazy beliefs, and a perfectly coherent kind of secular worldview, that does all the things that Christianity does, but without having to believe the crazy stuff. We are choosing between Christianity and utter incoherence.”
Ann: Well, I think, too, the way we talk about other people—other religions, other beliefs—is critical for us in the home. I mean, you are on the stage at a church; but what are we saying around our dinner table, and how are we viewing people, and how do our tones come across or our biases come across? I think—as parents/as followers of Christ—we need to be loving; because as we watched Jesus encounter various people of all different kinds of faith, He is loving. He sees them; He speaks to them; He acknowledges them; He acknowledges their pain; and He loves them. Don’t we all want that? I don’t care what your background is; we all want that.
Dave: As we know, He is also full of truth.
Dave: So He is full of grace and truth. He isn’t withholding or hiding the truth; He is blatantly speaking, “This is the truth”; but He is doing it with such a grace package. It’s appealing; we should be that.
Rebecca: And we see it modeled, as well, by Paul actually, who often has a bad reputation in minds; because I don’t think we read Paul all that carefully sometimes. I love what he says in his first letter to Timothy, where he says, “This is a trustworthy saying, worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners of whom I am the foremost.” I think we so quickly forget that as Christians; we so quickly start thinking we’re on some sort of moral high ground, looking down on all those sinners out there, or all those foolish people, who believe other things, and don’t know who Jesus is.
No, no, no. We’re the people who, as Paul puts it for himself, it’s such an evidence of God’s grace that He would send Jesus to save someone like him, even as bad as Paul. We are the foremost sinners; we are probably the worst sinners we know. We need to have that posture always as we come to our non-Christian friends.
Ann: As you are with your three kids, and you’re talking, what is your dialogue about these kinds of conversations or people of different faith or beliefs?
Rebecca: Yes, it’s great. My kids are all—well, my older kids—who are in school, are in a public school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. One of the delightful things is that they get to learn alongside people who come from all sorts of different parts of the world. Sometimes, that means they are encountering Christians from Ethiopia, and Eritrea, and other parts of Africa and China, et cetera. Sometimes, it means they are rubbing shoulders with Muslims, or Hindus, or people from a whole range of different faith backgrounds. They have the privilege, I think, of growing up, knowing real people who believe very different things from them.
Ann: I like that you call it a privilege; I think that is important.
Rebecca: It really is. It’s an opportunity for them to learn, in real time, that God’s people transcend any racial, cultural, or national barrier from their Christian friends from all over the world; and to learn to love people—and not just sort of have this idea in their mind of: “What is a Muslim like?” or “What is a Hindu like?” or “What is a Jewish person like?”—but actually, to know and love people, from the ground up, who believe very different things from them or whose families do; and to some extent, having that passed onto them as we’ll know, often, people growing up in religious homes, not actually learning a whole lot about their religious tradition.
Yes; I try to talk to my kids, from the ground up, about these questions, and help them to engage at their level with their friends, and to stand for their faith in conversation with friends and with teachers at school.
Dave: The most beautiful thing, I think, would be if our neighbors and our kids’ classmates would want to run or come to our home because when they are around us/followers of Christ, they—maybe they can’t even articulate it—but they are like, “There is grace and truth. They are going to be totally honest. They are not going to fudge anything. They are going to be truthful, but they are going to be fully loving. I want to be at the McLaughlin’s house,” “I want to be at the Wilson’s house,” “I don’t know what it is about being there.” I don’t think that’s the way a lot of people feel about church people; they sort of want to run away, because there is judgment and those kinds of attitudes.
Yet, number one, pick up the book so we know the truth and we can articulate it for ourselves, and to others, and also then live it out in grace and truth.
Bob: The word that comes to mind for me, as I’m listening to Dave and Ann Wilson talk today with Rebecca McLaughlin, is the word, “winsome.” I think, as we present the truth of the Scriptures, we need to recognize that people are going to be as influenced by our demeanor—by our winsome, kind, caring, loving nature—as they are by the truth claims that we are making. As Dave just said, we need to be people who are full of grace and truth.
One of the things I love about Rebecca McLaughlin’s book, 10 Questions Every Teen Should Ask, is that, as she defends the faith, she does it winsomely; she does it in a compelling, kind, generous way. I think this is a great book for moms and dads to go through together with their teenagers. It may be that your youth pastor would want to take the youth group through a book like this.
We would like to make a copy of Rebecca’s book available to you this week if you can help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today with a donation of any amount. FamilyLife Today is listener-supported. It’s folks, like you, who have made today’s program possible; and when you invest in the ministry of FamilyLife Today, you’re making future ministry like this possible. Let me encourage you to join the team that makes the ministry of FamilyLife Today available in your community. You can do that by donating online at FamilyLifeToday.com or by calling 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Now, tomorrow, Dave and Ann Wilson will talk with Rebecca McLaughlin about some of the hot-button issues in our culture today; because our teens are facing these issues in school/with their peer group: issues about gender, sexuality, diversity, racism. How do we respond to those issues in a way that is biblical? We’ll have that conversation tomorrow. I hope you can tune in for that.
On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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