- A surprising conversion, an unusual childhood, & an apologist’s apology (below).
- Can a loving God judge evil & hold people to account?
- The Ring of Truth, the Keeper of the Holy Quran, & a Visceral Struggle.
Justine: From the Centre for Public Christianity, you’re listening to Life & Faith. I’m Justine Toh.
Amy Orr-Ewing is the director of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics. She’s addressed audiences from Westminster, to the White House, speaking about the truth and beauty of the Christian faith. But her story starts right here, in Australia.
Simon: You were born here we understand?
Amy: That’s right.
Simon: But you did leave when you’re two years old so I’m going to say, “Welcome home!”
Amy: Thank you!
Simon: Great to have you here. So tell us about…
Justine: Amy was back in Australia as a speaker for our annual Richard Johnson Lecture and while she was in town, Simon and I couldn’t miss the chance to have her on the show. Next week Amy will be back this time telling us about her doctoral studies on a remarkable woman—who was a contemporary of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis and deserves to be much better known than she is—Dorothy L. Sayers. But this week we’re focusing on Amy’s story and it turns out in the years that Amy’s parents were in Australia they experienced a couple of life-changing events. Yes, one of them was the birth of their daughter but they also experienced an unexpected challenge to their faith, or rather their atheism.
Amy: My dad had grown up in a very strongly atheistic home. My grandfather was an East German scientist and absolutely committed atheist who forbade any talk of God in the home and forbade anyone reading the Bible even. So my father had grown up in a strongly atheistic context with no sort of churchy conditioning and whilst here (in his thirties, happily married to my mum, two fantastic children, great lifestyle, loved the life here) he began to just ask questions (“When I get to the end of my life, when I’m retired and I look back what will it all have been for? Is this enough?”), and that sort of question worried him. A colleague at the University took him along to hear a Christian speaking—an apologist actually—speaking about the resurrection of Jesus. He said that it sort of struck him as quite odd frankly but that there was one thing that this guy said that sort of was like a bit of a dagger to the heart, which was, “The only reason you should be a Christian is because it’s true.” My dad thought religion is about superstition, it’s about wish-fulfilment. Truth and God are opposite categories—it’s a category mistake. But that worried him and then a few weeks later he had an extraordinary personal encounter with Jesus Christ and ended up kneeling on the floor thinking, “I need to say something to respond to Christ, to his offer of forgiveness to me” and thought, “I don’t know what to say I have no religious upbringing”, and he found himself just saying, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” Later he bought a New Testament and found himself reading that in Mark’s Gospel, which was slightly surprising.
The only reason you should be a Christian is because it’s true
Simon: Wow! Coming to Australia for spiritual enlightenment—that’s the path that people come on in the tourist brochures. Now you are also a believer these days, you just believe it because your parents were?
Amy: That is a great question. I think because my mom and dad were intellectuals—and none neither of them were kind of conditioned by the Church—I had a slightly unusual upbringing in terms of a Christian family, in that they encouraged us to question, to read, and to come to conclusions ourselves—both my sister and I. Growing up in Britain as a Christian I was always the only churchgoer in my class at school, there was a tremendous amount of peer pressure to disbelieve. So I think that that encouragement from them to own this yourself, or not, was incredibly important. And for me that journey of questioning took me to Oxford—to university to study theology—where every presupposition about the Bible, about God, about faith was challenged.
Amy: And to the nth degree! And it was my experience that the Christian claims and the Bible stood up to that scrutiny. I remember sitting with the Dean of my college—I was at Christ Church towards the end of my degree—and him saying, “We haven’t cured you of your religion have we Amy? We’ve tried everything but it hasn’t worked!”
But seriously, for me it has been my experience that if something is true, it stands up to scrutiny and questions are not to be feared—that the pursuit of of truth ultimately, for me, has led me to Jesus Christ.
If something is true, it stands up to scrutiny and questions are not to be feared
Justine: Before we get more into that question, can I just rewind you a little bit? I read that when you were 15 you actually had cancer. You’ve talked about how you were the only believer in your disbelieving class so when you’re 15 and get this diagnosis, all the other girls your age are mooning over rock stars or something like that but you’re grappling with the experience of disease and thinking about God in the midst of all that. What was that like?
Amy: I think the strongest memory I have from that time is the contrast from the fear and anxiety that was absolutely overwhelming. When the consultants sort of blurted out this diagnosis I was with my mom in the hospital and it was not done kindly at all—I mean she was horrified, and the shock of that and the sort of sense of just waves of blackness overwhelming me. And then over the next few days processing that and actually reading the Psalms, I found to be an extraordinary experience because here was an opportunity to vocalize what I was feeling: frustration with God, questions, fear. And then to experience actually meeting God, or God meeting me, in that place.
I think today, certainly in the context where I am, there’s an epidemic of anxiety related experiences, particularly for young people. In my life it was through that that the God that I was questioning and had kind of an intellectual path to come to know about him (“Was this really real?”, “Was this substantial?”), that that actually then overlapped and intersected in my own experience, and God met me in the pain and suffering of this world.
Justine: And so these days you must draw upon that union of that intellect but also that life experience, in order to do your work as an apologist? Now, can you take us through that because it sounds like you go around apologizing for things but it’s not quite like that is it?
Amy: No. Yeah, it’s a slightly unfortunate word, I think, “apologist”. It comes from the Greek word apologia, which really means to give a reasoned defense. It’s what a defense lawyer would stand up and do when you’re in court in order to persuade people of your case. So yeah, apologetics is really about grappling with the intellectual dimensions of the deepest questions: about whether God exists, about whether this is fair and just, does the way the world is cohere with the Christian worldview? But it’s not only intellectual because we as human beings are more than just brains on legs—we think (and obviously that’s really important) but life has other dimensions. How we feel, what we experience, the capacity—the possibility—of relationship, that desire, that thirst for meaning and purpose and fulfillment. Those different dimensions of human experience, Jesus speaks into all of them. So for me, any apologetic—any reasonable defense of the Christian faith—needs to engage at those different levels.
How we feel, what we experience, the capacity—the possibility—of relationship, that desire, that thirst for meaning and purpose and fulfillment. Those different dimensions of human experience, Jesus speaks into all of them.
Simon: Now despite that clarification of the definition, there are nonetheless plenty of things that Christians ought to feel sorry for or be apologizing for. What do you say to people who say, “Well, yeah, I’m okay with Jesus but gee, Christians have been rubbish!”
Amy: I’m right there with you. My friend is a brilliant Christian writer in the UK—called Dr. Elaine Storkey. She says, “The Church recruits from the human race.” There’s no expectation in the Bible that there’s a sort of moral bar that we have to have reached in order to own the name Christian. A Christian is simply someone who’s recognised our own brokenness and sinfulness and need for forgiveness. And therefore it ought not to surprise us that a lot of the brokenness that is in the world is also in the Church. So I think as the Church we do have a lot of apologizing to do for things that have been done in the name of Christ and in the name of the Church that do not legitimately represent Him.