Contextual Criticism & Communication

I regularly browse through videos of non-Christians criticizing and mocking the Christian faith. It is not particularly enjoyable, but it is edifying in a profound way in that it reveals the unbeliever’s perspective regarding the things I have easily and almost unquestionably asserted to be true.  Now this is not to say that I am moved to doubt the Christian faith, doubting in the sense of leaning on my own understanding. I prefer the term “reevaluate.” Listening to someone’s criticism of the Christian faith moves me not to reevaluate the what of my faith, it’s content, or what I believe; but it moves me to reevaluate how I ought to communicate and share my faith. Such a reevaluation has become critical to the understanding of my own faith and my desire to make disciples. This process of reevaluation practically works towards a few things, which is why I suggest that every Christian spend some time listening to the criticism of unbelievers.

First, it provides clarification. Listening to someone criticize my supposed beliefs naturally causes me to think on whether my beliefs match what that person is criticizing, which therefore sharpens and clarifies my beliefs. Secondly, having clarified my beliefs, I then proceed to ask whether I have good reason to believe what I believe. In specific regards to my Christian beliefs, this question of warrant brings me to the authority of scripture. Third, I measure my belief against the criticism raised by the unbeliever, judging between whether (1) they do not correctly understand the belief or (2) they rightly understand it but reject it from their presuppositional commitments. The first two practicalities can be expanded and further elucidated, but it is this third motion that I want to focus on as it offers an important principle for criticism and communication.
Most of my experience has demonstrated that the unbeliever correctly understands a specific Christian belief, but they do so only with a particular and decontextualized understanding. For example, it is popular for unbelievers to criticize the miraculous character of Christianity, mocking it by explaining such stories as Noah’s ark or Jonah and the great fish with a blunt and sarcastic tone. What they fail to recognize is that such a story is contextualized by a large Christian worldview that teaches that there is a transcendent triune omni-God who intervenes in history. The belief in this God provides a foundation for contextually understanding and accepting such a story – i.e. it is reasonable that an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, omnibenevolent God could perform such an act. The same principle applies to the unbeliever’s criticism of Christian ethics. One’s belief in a transcendent triune omni-God that has created and designed the universe and human life with a specific purpose and function therefore leads them to believe that his prescribed ethics will equip humanity with the maximal well-being, determining well-being by one’s valuation of glorifying and enjoying God. Christians form their opinions regarding moral issues because of the God they believe in, and it is only because they are contextually consistent within their worldview that they have a particular opinion on a moral issue. Furthermore, this principle works in reverse. Just as the unbeliever ridicules the supposed fairy tales of the bible or is disgusted with Christianity’s supposed moral code, we ought to understand their confusion and frustration in context. They are working from the presuppositional belief that the Christian God does not exist.
Now, how does this contextual insight play out in a normal conversation with an unbeliever? Say a Christian is blatantly asked, “So you believe I am going to suffer for eternity in a place called hell simply because I do not believe in your God?” The Christian could truly reply with a quick “Yes” and continue on his way, but that is not beneficial or loving in the slightest. I believe a better reply would be, “Well, let me tell you about the God I believe in.” The Christian could then work to provide a context for their answer to the unbeliever’s question and in the same motion arrive at the true cause of the unbeliever’s confusion and frustration with the Christian’s particular belief – i.e. their rejection of the existence of the Christian God.
“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles” (Rom 1:21-23).
In the current trend of our culture’s pluralization, Christians have become infamous for their ethical stances; and it has mostly adopted a negational character – e.g. anti-muslim, anti-gay, anti-democrat, etc. It is my personal experience in the fundamentalist bible-belt of America that Christians have done a great disservice to the gospel by their persistent anxiety to complain against unbelievers’ rejection of Christian values. Our democratic right to voice our opinions has obnoxiously turned into an excuse for grumbling and complaining, where it is like we are whining about dead people’s inability to see. Let us stop carping about their blindness and start being boldly compassionate about their deadness; they are blind because they are dead. There is a fine balance between the two, but this principle of contextual communication is one way to find it. As we continue to love our neighbors, let us make sure to be more eager to tell them about the God who saved us before we belabor them with ethical standards that they will never be able to rise up to; and we ought to tell people about our God by telling them the grand story of redemption that has reached its climax in the gospel of Jesus Christ. “Well, let me tell you about the God I believe in…”
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