Erik Strandness explores the apologetic lessons from Mikhaila Petereson’s Big Conversation
Unbelievable? recently featured a series of shows exploring the reasons for Christian conversion including those of Paul Kingsnorth, Guilliame Bignon and most recently Mikhaila Peterson. Kingsnorth and Bignon represent Generation X while Peterson is a Millennial. It appears from these conversations that Christianity has something interesting to say to Gen X, but does it have anything to say to Millennials and Gen Z? Mikhaila Peterson, YouTube and podcast celebrity and daughter of psychologist Jordan Peterson discussed this issue with Jon McCray, host of the YouTube channel ‘Whaddo You Meme?’
Peterson described herself as agnostic prior to her conversion. She wasn’t hostile to Christianity but was turned off by its evangelical sloganeering, judgmental attitude, and its inability to make a compelling case for faith. Experiences with psychedelics had opened her up to the possibility of the existence of God but it wasn’t until she did battle with a formidable triumvirate of pain consisting of a personal divorce, her mother’s cancer, and her father’s struggle with Akathisia that she began to take it seriously. One of the most transformative influences was her mother’s religious conversion during her cancer diagnosis and treatment. It was during this time that she met her future Christian husband. He told her that she needed God in her life and encouraged her to pray and ask God to reveal himself. The next day she woke up feeling a calm she had never experienced before which she attributed to the Holy Spirit.
Christians are constantly berated for their blind allegiance to a God that at best allows evil, pain, and suffering, and at worse promotes it. Yet, it was in the midst of suffering that Peterson encountered the Divine, and rather than being repulsed by a God who allowed it, she felt embraced by a God who redeemed it. How can a problem that many feel is the most vulnerable regiment in our Christian line of defense actually spearhead God’s victory?
Welcome Mat of Suffering
Pain and suffering are universal problems. Religious and irreligious alike, must both present a plausible explanation for its pervasiveness and offer an intelligible solution. Traditionally, the burden of proof has been placed on Christians, but it is clearly everybody’s task. The atheist/materialist has nothing to offer but inferior genes that can’t quite outwit, outlast, and outplay its competitors in the game of evolutionary survivor. The Buddha astutely recognized that suffering was the problem but rather than engage it head on, he encouraged detachment. The Hindu attributes it the work of a nebulous Karma police force who patrol the world and issue tickets for bad behavior but have no headquarter where you can file a complaint. New Age religion suggests it is due to a lack of positive energy and encourages us to think happier thoughts.
Isn’t it interesting that when tragedy strikes nobody blames Buddha, Brahman, Darwin, or Deepak, yet they seem quite ready to blame God? Why is it that when you round up divine suspects the only God in the lineup is the God of the Bible? While we may think it unfair, we need to remember that the reason He gets dragged into the court of public opinion is because He had the nerve to embrace it as salvific. Christianity, as it turns out, has the best explanation and remedy for this pernicious problem so rather than see it as a theological stumbling block we need to embrace it as the strongest piece of evidence for the truth of the Gospel. Suffering rather than a “do not enter” sign turns out to be a redemptive welcome mat.
Taking a Beating
Critics of Christianity prematurely think they have driven the final nail into God’s coffin with the issue of pain and suffering but forget that Christianity has a three-day waiting period on all claims to God’s death. Interestingly, demanding that God explain His stance on pain and suffering isn’t limited to the detractors of Christianity but is also a hallowed part of scripture. Job, the prophets, the apostles, and even Jesus Himself ask God, why? It appears from all available evidence that the God of the Bible is the only deity who has the guts to step into the ring of suffering with us. The Good News is that when we answer the bell we will find Him in our corner, bruised and bleeding, because he already took a beating on our behalf, and as we draw near and touch his wounds he whispers, “It is finished.”
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You Can’t Separate the Suffering from the Servant
Jesus famously asked his disciples who they said He was. Peter confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus, pleased with his response, declared Peter to be the rock upon which the church would be built. The story, however, didn’t end there because Jesus then went on explain what it meant to be the Christ.
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. (Matthew 16:21)
Impetuous Peter told Jesus that He was mistaken. Messiahs don’t suffer and die! After uttering those satanic verses, Peter was then rebuked by Jesus and went on to explain that a Messiah who doesn’t suffer isn’t a true Messiah.
And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Matthew 16:22-23)
Jesus not only clarified what it meant to be a Messiah but outlined the expectations for those who chose to follow One.
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16:24-25)
The New Testament makes it abundantly clear that suffering is redemptive. James counts it all joy, Paul encourages us to rejoice in our sufferings, and Peter tells us not to be surprised by the fiery trial. Scripture clearly states that accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior means not only acknowledging His suffering but also sharing in it.
Truth in Advertising
Peter wanted to rebrand Jesus, but Jesus wanted truth in advertising. Jesus didn’t peddle a secret knowledge but a public execution. It appears that every other religion tries to sell a life without suffering, yet Christianity believes it is a down payment. Isn’t that stunning! As it turns out, the karmically well healed, the happy thought thinkers, the right behavers, and the detachers aren’t immune from suffering after all, therefore the issue isn’t how it can be avoided but whether it can be redeemed?
Think about this for a moment, our Christian “merch” consists of a cross, a symbol of suffering and shame, so if we characterize the way of Jesus as a path of least resistance and not a via dolorosa then we are engaging in false advertising. If we cannot find redemption in suffering, then maybe we never truly understood what Jesus accomplished through His sacrificial death. The beauty of the cross is that we can never accuse God of not understanding our personal pain because He hangs there with us. The critic may ask why anyone would want to sign up for a religion of suffering, but I would argue that everyone is already enrolled. It’s just truth in advertising.
Christians are often guilty of accusing those who reject their faith as never truly being Christians in the first place. But maybe we need to ask ourselves if the real problem is that we sold them a faux Jesus and now they want their money back. Did we advertise a better life or a redeemed one? Did we sell them a bill of goods or ask them to count the cost? While promoting awe and wonder can turn someone’s thoughts towards God, it is suffering that brings Him to their doorstep. Suffering may seem like a bad marketing scheme, but its ubiquity provides an inexhaustible source of consumers looking for the best product on the market.
We do a disservice to Christianity if we make it about safe spaces because we live in a very unsafe world. Christianity is appealing not because it provides shelter from bad things but because it equips us to meet them head on and transform them into something beautiful for God. True happiness is possible, but it comes from the costly grace of the cross and not the cheap grace of a church therapy couch.
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate…Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again… It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
Os Guinness, in his excellent new book, The Great Quest: Invitation to an Examined Life and a Sure Path to Meaning discusses the process of seeking God. He notes that conversions occur when one’s presuppositions are inadequate to meet the challenges of new life-altering events. Peterson’s world was rocked by a seismic wave of suffering which prompted her to examine the foundation of her worldview, and what she discovered was that not only was it cracked but it was in danger of imminent collapse.
As Guinness suggests, worldviews fall apart when they encounter important questions that they can no longer answer. I think, as apologists, we are too quick to give answers when what is really needed is more questions. We cannot just ask them “why” they believe the way they do because we will just get a pat answer, but if we take it a step further and ask a second “why” then their earth will begin to shake. One “why” won’t overcome agnostic inertia but two will cause their worldview to rattle and lead them to question the soundness of their foundation. If you want a tectonic shift in thinking, then you need to shake up their world with some Whyquakes.
While debates with our atheist brothers and sisters have certainly sharpened our understanding of our faith, it may have reached its Millennial limit, and now is the time to add new apologetic arrows to our evangelistic quiver. Millennials and Gen Z are deeply immersed in a postmodernism that detests authority, relativizes truth, and prioritizes emotions. Our youth aren’t interested in knowing if the Bible is historically reliable, archeologically verifiable, or scientifically compatible, they just want to know if it is experientially livable.
We can discuss Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, but our kids just want to know if God is moved when a sparrow falls. We can make the case that God is omnipresent but find that they really just want to be assured that He will shepherd them through the valley of the shadow of death. We can argue for God’s omnipotence by telling them that He can move mountains but find that our youth just want Him to extend them a hand and pull them out of the pit of despair. We can teach them that God is omniscient but all they really want to know is if He has counted every hair on their own heads. We can assure them that God is omnibenevolent causing the rains to fall on the just and unjust but find that they just want Him to send them a life raft when sorrow floods their lives. We need to be careful when we enthrone God on philosophical Mt. Omni because our young people are more interested in having Him come down to the valley and walk with them in the cool of the morning.
Gen Z and Millennials tend to navigate the world with their emotions and are exquisitely sensitive to the suffering others, therefore, we have an amazing opportunity to utilize Christianity’s vastly superior response to suffering as an evangelistic tool. Sadly, the postmodern horse has left the barn. We can fantasize about capturing it, placing a logical halter on its head, and redirecting it back home but it doesn’t seem interested in returning anytime soon. We should never make the Gospel postmodern, but we do need to preach it in a language our young people can understand.