After twenty years of listening to the punk band Bad Religion, I sent the group's front man a note. I greeted Greg Graffin, told him that he had fans among Christian college professors, and I asked about his doctoral work at Cornell University.
I was surprised to get a note backand then another. After a few months I printed our emails. They came to over 100 pages.
Very little of the written conversation between Greg and me concerns the music of Bad Religion. He gets enough fan mail. Instead, we discussed what my students would call the "big questions." What is life for? What are people for? Why do people think God exists? If you listen to Bad Religion's lyrics, you know that these kinds of questions are important to Greg, who is an atheist.
In time, Greg turned his focus to recording another Bad Religion CD, and I had to face the mounting number of students in my classes. Our correspondence became casual and remains that way. But I learned a lot in those intense months.
For one thing, I realized that the kind of sustained written conversation Greg and I had is rare. It's rare because it takes time and mental energy. It also takes a commitment not to let the discussion turn into a debate. I've held to this commitment through radio interviews that followed the publication of Greg's and my correspondence. I've tried to resist the construal of our correspondence as a "debate." Yes, we disagreed and went at each other, but we didn't debate.
Debate is about winning, and that's important in many contexts. But I didn't care about winning. Nor did I care about "listening" in the gushy, politically correct sort of way associated with people-friendly evangelism.
Mainly I cared about learning. I wanted to learn how Greg sees the world, and I hoped that he learned about a Christian vision of the world.
In the process I found my relationship with Jesus strengthened. Not because I was stretched intellectually by the challenges of atheistic materialism, in which (it seems to me) there's a lot more bark than bite. Rather, my relationship with Jesus was strengthened because my conversation with Greg led me to see some things more deeply.
Sometimes I'd hear radio preachers, and I'd wonder to myself what Greg would say if he were listening. "No wonder Greg thinks the way he does about Christians," I'd say to my wife, as we listened to a grown-up sermon that rehearsed things we'd heard since the third grade.
But then I remembered the short stories of Flannery O'Connor, where wacky people become vehicles for grace; and I thought about Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited (which Greg and I discussed), and the way God drew troubled people to himself; and I recounted the people who've had the greatest Christian influence on meamong them, a tobacco-chewing janitor and a patient in a psychiatric ward. And I remembered that Jesus said that only the sick need doctors. I remembered Paul saying that, whatever an evangelist's motives, it's good for people to talk about Jesus. So I concluded that I didn't need to worry about the preachers; I just needed to ask Jesus to find a way to meet with Greg.
In those months of dialogue I also saw the devastation wrought by the passion for pseudo-scientific theories on natural history among some Christians. Many of my students believe that six-day creationism is an essential Christian beliefthat if the first chapters of Genesis can't be taken literally, then the whole Bible is a fraud. What tragic nonsense!
Before Greg and I corresponded, I didn't care. "You wanna believe the earth was created six thousand years ago? Whatever." But Greg helped me see that this kind of gaping ignorance promotes the perception that theologically conservative Christians are the enemies of learning.
I don't believe that scientists, the overwhelming majority of whom conclude that some evolutionary process has been underway, are part of a great demonic plot to undermine the Bible. I don't believe that scientists are lemmings, chirping the same supposedly anti-God tune. Greg's own doctoral dissertation shows that most leading evolutionary biologists don't think that religion and evolution are incompatible.
Yes, there are materialist fundamentalists like Richard Dawkins and William Provine (Greg's advisor) who claim to be stating facts when they're really stating atheistic opinions, but they are easily matched by Christians of high academic stature who acknowledge the evolutionary workings of the natural worldI'm thinking of John Polkinghorne, Kenneth Miller, Owen Gingrich, and Francis Collins.
I really think that Christians need to get over being hung up on evolution, mainly because it seems to have happened, and because there's nothing anti-God about it. And our theologians need to face the implications of evolution for how we think about the Fall and providence, among other things.
My own thinking on evolution (which Greg forced on me) has led to reflection on questions about God's interaction with the world, as well as on the relevance of the cross and of Jesus' identification with people who live in a natural world pervaded by suffering. This reflection, in turn, has deepened my commitment to Jesus.
Did the lead singer of Bad Religion challenge my faith? Yes, in the best way. He forced me to think more seriously about it. He is, in his own way, a sophisticated theologian--and he's a good gospel singer: he included a gospel song, "Talk About Suffering," on his new solo CD, Cold as the Clay.
Did I challenge Greg's faith in pure materialism? I don't know, but I was gratified when things we discussed came up in the lyrics of the Bad Religion CD, The Empire Strikes First (2004).
Would life be better if the kind of conversation Greg and I had were less rare? Yes. But even as I write that, a heavy feeling in my stomach reminds me of the many projects I must get to.
My main hope is that Greg's and my correspondence will spark other conversations on walking trails, at churches, in bars, and in classrooms.
Preston Jones teaches history at John Brown University. He is the co-author, with Greg Graffin, of Is Belief in God Good, Bad or Irrelevant? (InterVarsity Press). This article, as with all "Speaking Out" pieces, does not necessarily represent the views of Christianity Today.
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Preston Jones's site at John Brown University includes information about his history work.
Jones's earlier articles for Christianity Today include:
We're Still Supporting Slavery | New efforts to stop U.S. troops from visiting prostitutes abroad are a good step, but let's not whitewash what's happening. (Sept. 28, 2004)
How to Serve Time | There is a Christian way to study the past without weakening the truth. (Mar. 23, 2001)
Jones is also a regular contributor to Books & Culture.