Theodicy: A post-modern approach to Adventist Evangelism

November 2, 2014

We all have a story. No matter how insignificant you may consider it to be, your story matters because it is a narrative that is unique only to you. Stories are an integral part of what it means to be human because we all love them! I don’t think it is a coincidence, therefore, that the Bible is written in primarily a narrative-story form instead of an encyclopedia. If God exists and inspired it, it would make sense that He would speak to us in a manner which we would be able to easily understand.

Why is it, then, that in traditional SDA outreach, our way of “conveying truth” is a 4-6 week prophecy series with almost two-hour long presentations that give people information overload in a proof-text format?

Ex: What does the Bible say about the Jesus, Death, Heaven, etc? See texts: A, B, C, D.

Besides that, I also find circular reasoning that many would immediately find suspicious.

Ex: Let’s talk about the validity of the Bible… using Bible texts to justify itself.

But what about people who don’t believe there is a God to inspire any book to begin with?

The traditional approach may have cut it several decades ago when most of America was more of an overtly “religious” place… or like my wife says, “when Billy Graham ruled the land.” And it still might work in parts of the country like the Bible Belt where Christianity is an accepted part of the social fabric. This may be why people that come into church through the typical approach are Christians from other denominations or people already familiar with the Judeo-Christian worldview.

Sorry, but we have moved beyond the heyday of those approaches.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for them. My point is that they will not work as well with today’s “modern American” as they did back then. The traditional way will not speak to today’s postmodern, skeptical world because it doesn’t speak in today’s secular language: namely, stories or narratives.

Then comes the pilot approach that my friend Henry Johnson and I tried out (and have loved) a few weeks ago: Theodicy.

The word theodicy is a philosophical term derived from the Greek words “theos” (god) and “dike” (justice). As some research will probably show, it has most often been used to try and explain the existence of God in a world of suffering (a fundamental question that has followed humanity as long as anyone can remember).

Yet, this series tried to broaden the term from this narrow focus to a more broad justification of the God in the Bible in opposition to common Christian and secular caricatures of Him through narrative, story, and comparison with the three universally-accepted philosophical tests of any truth claim:

  1. Any claim must be based on empirical evidence.
  2. Any claim must possess logical consistency.
  3. Any claim must be relevant to present, real-life conditions no matter the time/place.

Ex: “Will you burn your bare hand if it touches a red-hot stovetop?” This will probably pass the truth test.

So we tried to put the God of the Bible on trial by presenting the narrative of Scripture in light of the larger existential human story. Now, the final version of this series is still in development, but here is what we hope it looks like.

A two-night outreach event no less than 4 weeks before the series to tackle point #1.

Beginning with the “big picture,” we would trace the philosophical, existential, and religious narrative of the human race from the time recorded history began. We would also survey how the major world religions and philosophies have tried to answer the major questions of the day.

This is not a critique of any philosophy or worldview, nor is it the intention to show which one is “true”.

All we hope to do is cast the narrative net as large as possible to say, “Hey, no matter your background, you are also on the journey, too.”

The second presentation would probably be an introduction to the Judeo-Christian narrative and sacred texts in light of truth test #1: empirical evidence. The idea of this second presentation will be to show why, even if not accepted as “truth”, the biblical narrative deserves consideration based on its credibility.

Here is the short answer: One should not reject any worldview based on its abuses. 

The ten-night series to focus on points #2 and #3 by presenting the Biblical narrative.

In these presentations, we tackle the major themes of Scripture like God, evil, creation, suffering, Old Testament, the Jesus event, New Testament, 2000 years of church history, and end-time events, all in story from.

I have a page with the audio of 9 out of the 10 audio presentations here. These are not the final product, though. In the future, we hope to have study guides and more refined presentations. This is just an idea of what we did this first time.

We are still trying to figure out how we can tie this into a follow-up for people who want more (so far, Ty Gibson’s series [truth]LINK has lined up incredibly well with the themes we’re presenting).

Anyway, here is why I think this series will be AWESOME once it comes together:

1) It speaks to people in the language that all backgrounds will understand.

Its final form would be a telling of the Bible narrative in a story form with Q&A afterward to clear up any unanswered questions. Many times, those Q&A sessions were just as good as the presentations (and no, we did not have pre-fed questions. It was an unrecorded open-mic approach which works when you have a moderator and a knowledgeable presenter).

 2) It doesn’t sacrifice logic at the expense of “truth,” but instead, it affirms both.

I’ve found that in some circles, when it comes to the subject of faith and reason, some people exalt faith in order to excuse their lack knowledge. Instead, we try to say, “Even though we will not definitively answer any and every question presented, we want to give you as much information as possible to know that faith can be substantiated with evidence without having to sacrifice either belief or logic.”

 3) It presents the important truths of scripture in a systematic, easy-to-understand way.

Many times, for both believers and non-believers, it’s hard to understand how individual doctrines fit together. But this series attempts to show (in brief detail) how each point fits into the overall theme of scripture. If they want more info, the truthlink studies look like a good follow-up.

 4) It is a safe place to bring both religious and non-religious people alike.

We don’t do prayer (although we did pray a lot behind the scenes), and we didn’t shy away from the abuses of religion and Christianity (we actually might have come down pretty hard on it). For example, one statement we say is that the worst thing to happen in this world isn’t Atheism, it’s bad religion. After all, a coalition of liberal and conservative religious people are the ones who killed Jesus.

Still, showing this honest, sometimes brutal introspection and self-awareness actually built trust and confidence from both our religious and non-religious crowd alike. We had no appeals and while we shared in the end who the series was sponsored by, we didn’t say things like, “Come join our church or be baptized.”

5) It is a practical step in reclaiming Christianity’s abdicated relevance in today’s world.

This quote speaks for itself:

“But what is our society longing for? Peace; justice; freedom; a voice and a vote which will count; health. Around and above all of those, love. Inside and through all of those: to satisfy the hunger of the heart, a hunger which no amount of money, fine houses, fast cars, luxury vacations and love affairs will ever begin to reach. And the task of the church, though it certainly goes much wider and deeper than this, at least includes the following: that we should, in prayer and with wisdom, be able to tell the story of our world, our increasingly neo-pagan society, in terms of the long history of promises we have clung onto and pledges we have made and broken. We should be prepared to think it all through so we can tell the story that people know is their story, the one they always knew they wanted to hear. And we have to tell it so that, like Paul telling the story of Israel, it ends with Jesus, not artificially or like a conjurer pulling a rabbit out of a hat, but so that he appears as what and who he is: the truly human one, the one in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, the living bread through whom all our hungers are satisfied.

“And of course it’s no good at all simply trying to say it. We have to live it. We have to create, and sustain, communities where this life is being lived in such a way that when we speak of it we are obviously telling the truth. That is the hard part. As long as our churches are places where we struggle to sustain an hour or two’s public worship per week, with ‘real life’ only minimally affected by it, we will indeed end up like a bunch of vaguely religious cows in a field, mooing on Sunday mornings and chewing the cud the rest of the time. No highs and no lows. But if we really worked at trying to be for our world what the apostles were for their Jewish world, things might change. The gospel might come alive. Vested interests would be challenged, and they would bite back. But we would be on the map once more…” – N.T. Wright, “Acts for Everyone, Part 2”, pg 26,27.

If evangelism is sowing and reaping, we see this event as a primarily sowing event (it seems like all Adventism can do for large events are reaping series, but I guess that’s another topic).

I’m not going to say that Theodicy is the solution to all of our problems, but I do think we are on to something special.  What I will say is that all Conferences would do themselves a favor to consider what a similar approach could do in order to reach out to the postmodern culture that we live in.

If you have any thoughts, questions, or feedback on how to tweak it and make it better, that would be great!