25 June 2008

Evangelism experienced

At the tail end of the Evolution 2008 conference, I bumped into a character from my childhood in conservative Christian country: I got evangelized. I was hanging out with two colleagues from another lab at UI, whom I'll call V and B - we'd had dinner, and were sitting on a bench in the park around the University of Minnesota alumni center, thinking about going for a beer once the sun set. When up come two fresh-faced undergraduate-looking types, and one of them says he wants to ask us some questions "for his blog."

I smelled an overly-friendly rat immediately, and I think B did, too, as he's another Mennonite-turned-biologist. V is a good secular Frenchwoman, and was, I think, less prepared to guess where this was going. The first fellow (he never actually introduced himself - I'll call him the Talker) started in with a painfully obvious line of Socratic questioning about what we thought would happen to us after we died. He pretended great interest in our responses, then started on a we're-all-sinners-but-good-news-Jesus-came pitch. Except we didn't play by the script.

The Talker wanted to define sin (in a pretty traditional move) as basically nothing more than violating the Ten Commandments ("You've told lies, right?" he said. "So have I." This is the whole of his argument for original sin.) I happen to object to that kind of moral reasoning. I said as much, pointing out that Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment that fulfills and transcends the Old Testament law; that it's extremely dangerous to define morality purely in terms of divine fiat; and it's clear that Jesus expected his disciples to make actual moral judgments, not follow some list of rules.

B pitched in to ask about the ultimate fates of the victims in the recent Chinese earthquake; V. expressed puzzlement. I pointed out the Talker and his friend, who (upon direct inquiry) admitted to being named Noah, seemed to have recently shaved their sideburns, and asked when they'd last had a ham sandwich. ("That's Catholics," said Noah. "No," I said, "That's Jews." But it comes from the Old Testament laws they were setting up as the foundation of their theology.) We scientists quoted Scripture and church history and basic, humane moral logic. The Talker responded by trying to drag the conversation back to his script, until, I guess, it became clear we weren't going to let him. At which point he claimed a pressing appointment, made sure I knew the address of his blog, and left with his wingman.

On the whole, I'd actually thought it was a pretty friendly not-quite-conversation, and I'd fancied we might have made the two of them think a bit. The Talker's blog, however, indicates otherwise. It's astonishing how little you can hear when you don't want to. And it's maddening that this fellow thinks that he's practicing Christianity by accosting strangers in public like this. He couldn't even get to the Good News because he was so busy trying to ram his theology of sin down our throats.


  1. I'm sorry. I guess Christians are just like everyone else. You get the bad with the good...and occasionally ugly. But it allowed you the opportunity to analyze and further your own belief in God so I think in the end you won!

  2. Krisa - So it was actually pretty lucky that I'd just written that post about Mennonite perspectives on Jesus that you requested; I had things right at the tip of my tongue. I don't know so much about winning. I didn't mean to devote so much blog-space to the whole affair, but the guy really pissed me off.

  3. Hey Jeremy,
    I'm glad you were able to defend your own beliefs. I viewed that guy's blog and his unbending ambition that he is right because God said so is infuriating. I wonder what his response would be to the question: If God didn't want us to ask questions,why would He give us the ability to reason?