Former non-theist Mary Jo Sharp found answers to many of her questions through Christian apologetics. She is now passionate about sharing this with others, despite the great personal cost at times. She shares some of her story with Joel Furches here
Before becoming a Christian, Mary Jo Sharp described herself as a non-theist. She did not hate Christians or religion in general, she simply didn’t see any relevance in these things.
Once she became a Christian, Mary Jo describes a disturbingly similar attitude she saw in fellow believers:
“I began to notice a problem in the Church: the people who professed that the Bible was true didn’t much live like it was true. I don’t just mean a misstep here or there, but rather an overall attitude that didn’t reflect the truth of God’s Word. I began to question if there were any real believers in God. My experiences led to emotion-based doubt. That emotional doubt eventually spawned intellectual doubt as well. I began to question why I believed in God.”
As Mary Jo searched for answers to these doubts, she stumbled upon the field of Christian Apologetics. Finding answers to her questions inspired Mary Jo to share those answers with others:
“I realised that if I had doubts about belief in God then other people in the Church most likely had doubts as well. Therefore, I began to teach a class in my church on apologetics. This is how my interest in apologetics began.”
The indifference many Christians seemed to fall into with respect to their faith continued to be a focus of Mary Jo’s efforts:
“As I gave more presentations within the body of Christ, I began to see that I must first establish the need for apologetics in the life of the Christian disciple. For a while, my focus shifted to an apologetic for apologetics. Along with this defence, I saw the necessity of training believers to think critically about their beliefs.”
Life as an apologist
Buoyed by her natural talents, Mary Jo’s interest in apologetics has taken her far. She is now among the most respected apologists in the field, holding the position of assistant professor of apologetics at Houston Christian University and the founder and director of Confident Christianity Apologetics Ministry. She is also the author of several books and Bible studies.
Mary Jo’s expertise in the field of apologetics is manifold, but her primary focus is on answering objections to the existence of God with the intent of uplifting Christian believers:
“Originally, I would say my focus was on the resurrection of Jesus. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then I have no faith to defend. As the apostle Paul said, my faith would be ‘useless’ (1 Corinthians 15:14). Most of my apologetic endeavours, whether debating with Muslims, answering the Christ myth theory, or discussing the problem of evil, have really been centred on the foundation of Jesus’ resurrection: directly or indirectly.
A more recent focus of mine has been in training others to make good arguments, avoid logical fallacies, and offer a solid defence of their beliefs. In addition, I’m currently training believers on encountering the problem of evil in everyday conversation.”
Mary Jo’s competence and the respect she has earned in the field have not come without obstacles, though:
“Just within the past year, after one of my presentations at a large church, a gentleman approached me and said: ‘When I saw you on the stage tonight, it was very difficult for me to think of you as having something intellectually sound to say. My culture views women as objects of beauty, not as having intellectual value.’
The other comment I hear frequently is that a woman of marked intelligence may come across as intimidating. I do not know the source(s) of this intimidation. I make an intentional effort to be approachable per my background in public school education, but I still hear these comments. Perhaps this comment is more indicative of lingering societal expectations of a woman rather than anything specific to an individual woman, but of this, I am uncertain.”
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Women in apologetics
An expanding population of active women apologists would only enrich the field in Mary Jo’s mind. Women offer a fresh perspective and value that is somewhat lacking in the current apologetics landscape:
“I have seen that women desire to know the truth from a deep-seated concern for other people. This desire is enriching to the field of apologetics, a field which can sometimes get a tainted reputation as being more concerned with arguments than with people. Women usually want to help someone when they look into an argument. So I see a missional mindset to their apologetic endeavour. Women also seem to approach the study of apologetics through a desire for personal transformation. Many women tell me that their doubts about God keep them from studying, praying and growing spiritually.”
Even so, Mary Jo sees that modern culture, both within and outside the Church, tends to restrain women from pursuing this venture. MaryJo analyses the problem:
“This is a society that should have transformed its view of women since the women’s suffrage movement; especially since we have more access to knowledge and education than ever before. However, our society appears to be reinforcing a view of women as sexual objects, in part due to overexposure: metaphorically and literally. The more access we have to pornographic and overtly sexual imagery associated with women, the less our culture seems to care about her mind and soul (even considering recent positive image campaigns targeting women). Those women who choose to engage in the marketplace of ideas will open themselves up to ridicule and attacks that are not just based on their body of work, but those that are based on their body alone.”
Coping with personal attacks
Mary Jo has encountered vicious attacks on her blog and Facebook page aimed not at her arguments or ideas, but rather at her looks and her femininity; attacks which pinpoint the problems women apologists might sometimes encounter.
Despite these, Mary Jo does not villainise those who differ from her worldview:
“Before I became a Christian, I was not an angry atheist, out to get all those ‘awful Christians’. I was more of a non-theist; not having been raised in any church tradition nor having much exposure to church culture. I just didn’t see a need for God. Therefore, in my current conversations, I can relate to those who have a similar perspective, as well as to those who are distrustful of and /or hurt by the Church (due to my own hurtful experiences in church). Plus, I do not tend to distrust atheists, or their line of reasoning, just because they are an atheist. I remember thinking along the same lines.”
The challenges Mary Jo sees for women apologists demand more women enter the field, not less. As she says:
“By aptly handling these image attacks and carrying on with their work, women in apologetics could resoundingly disrupt the above mentioned cultural flow; resulting in what some would perceive as ‘intimidation’. However, we are not interested in a show of intellectual prowess for the perception of power. Rather, we are creating a different path for women in our culture, one of thoughtful engagement with ideas. We are those who are concerned about the consequences of ideas; ideas which profoundly affect our souls. It is a path of loving others in spirit and truth.
Though current women in apologetics are not the original trailblazers, we are clearing the old path of those who came before us. I thank God for my fellow apologists!”
Joel Furches is an apologist, journalist and researcher on conversion and deconversion, based in the USA.