'At such times, people are more open to think about those big questions'
The latest book from Nick Megoran, minister of Wallsend Baptist Church in north Tyneside, is a timely one. Entitled Big Questions in An Age of Global Crises, it revisits apologetics questions through the lens of recent crises like the pandemic, war, and financial collapse.
He explains more in this interview.
Can you briefly explain the book's premise?
Human beings have always asked big questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, the reasons for suffering, how to make sense of death, and how to live well in the meantime. We have also always found ways to avoid these questions.
However, global crises like pandemics or wars, or personal crises like a serious illness or bereavement, make them seem more urgent and harder to avoid. I wrote this book as an accessible and engaging introduction to these questions.
So how and why did it emerge?
It began as an online discussion group right at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns. At a time when normal life was shutting down, rather than press pause on the great commission our church saw it as an opportunity to use this new technology of Zoom to share the gospel and connect people together.
The discussion groups worked really well bringing together church people and non-Christians, young and old, students and those without much formal education. The book emerged out of that.
Who did you write it for?
That’s easy to answer – for Christians to give to friends in order to start good conversations about faith and life. It’s written as a non-cringey book, devoid of churchy jargon and making no assumptions that the reader shares Christian faith or knows anything about the Bible. It gently suggests that Christian ideas can help make sense of life and live it well during difficult times. So it’s a book for the thinker, the inquirer, the sceptic, and the doubter – for anyone who is open-minded to stepping up and grappling with these big questions.
Since its release I have also found many Christians have contacted me to say it helped them in both dealing with doubts and questions, and also inspiring them to live more faithfully for Jesus.
It’s also the sort of book that I as a preacher like – lots of engaging and amusing examples that can be readily ‘borrowed’ for sermons!
To make it accessible I kept it short. In fact, at about only 80 pages, it is exactly four times shorter than my previous book.
Unusually for an author, you aren’t taking royalties on this book. Why not?
I wanted to keep the book as cheap as I could so that as many people as possible could read it and engage with the message. I’ll just have to fund my retirement in the Bahamas from my next book instead!
Do you believe there is a new or renewed openness to exploring life's big questions in light of the pandemic?
Absolutely, I sense this spiritual openness in so many people. The church has experienced this so often before in our history. For example, in 1939, as Britain faced invasion by Germany, CS Lewis preached a sermon about why Christians should not be too freaked out by the threat. With characteristic bluntness he observed that the war doesn’t increase our chances of dying – they remain exactly 100 percent – but “war makes death more real to us,” so we are more likely to face up to life’s big questions.
As he put it brilliantly: “The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.”
The same is true of the pandemic. Suddenly our ordinary lives were brought to a grinding halt, and we were stalked by the shadows of fear, sickness, bereavement and death. The news was dominated by the daily grim statistics of infection and death, and harrowing stories of hospitals and care homes overwhelmed. Every friend or stranger could potentially be passing on a mortal virus to by single breath or a passing touch.
At such times, people are more open to think about those big questions. That’s because our usual avoidance mechanisms – busyness, shopping, sex, work, drinking, or whatever else – stop working as well.
Why did you feel it was important to include stories from films, TV, music and novels, and the lives of real people over time? Can you give us a taster?
These help the reader think through the weighty issues in an engaging way, for two reasons. Most obviously, we remember stories more easily than we remember abstract arguments. But also, it respects the reader’s freedom to disagree with the author.
For example, I begin the chapter on ‘Can we know whether God exists?’ with a wonderful Monty Python sketch a debate on the existence of God, called “The Epilogue: A Question of Belief.” John Cleese plays a smart presenter introducing the two participants in his clipped BBC English accent. One is an eminent cardinal and theologian, the other an acclaimed humanist author. The scene is set for a serious debate.
However, Cleese continues, “Tonight, instead of discussing the existence or non-existence of God, they have decided to fight for it. The existence, or non-existence, to be determined by two falls, two submissions, or a knockout. All right boys, let's get to it.” The two participants stand up, disrobe, and thrash it out in the wrestling ring.
It’s very funny, and it allows me to pick up on the Richard Dawkins-type argument that belief in God is delusional, or beyond the realm of rational, evidence-based discussion. The chapter goes on to challenge that in different ways.
The sketch also keeps the reader wondering, as I promise to reveal the outcome only at the end of the chapter. In the final paragraph I recount that, as the episode ends and the credits roll, a voiceover announces: “And here is the result of The Epilogue—God exists by two falls to a submission!” I end by saying that I think that there are better reasons for being able to conclude that God exists! It makes people close the chapter with a smile and hopefully they’ll remember the point. But it also respects the reader by not insisting that they agree with me – too many apologetics books are patronising in this way and I wanted to avoid that at all costs.
This technique also works well for in-person presentations – I did one recently at a Baptist church in Exeter, for example, to which non-churchgoers were invited for a meal, talk and discussion. Finishing with a laugh is more appropriate for such events, it’s more welcoming and less threatening.
What did you learn about the digital space when running the apologetics course? Was it conducive to open discussions?
We learnt three things. First, digital evangelism is a great way to reach people who might not otherwise come into a church building. Second, talks have to be shorter and crisper than in person, as it is harder to keep attention when ‘participants’ can be checking email but still look like they are listening! Finally, small talk before a zoom meeting begins can be excruciatingly embarrassing for some people so don’t force it!
I’m not yet sure of the use going forwards, though. People quickly got sick of Teams/Zoom as the novelty of lockdowns passed. So for me a lesson is this – seize opportunities quickly and don’t assume that what worked one season will work the next.
Would you be open to invitations from churches and other groups to talk about your book?
Oh yes, I’d welcome them! Chapters like, ‘Does life have meaning, purpose and value?’ and ‘How can we make sense of death and face it well?’ work really well for a general audience. People can invite their friends who don’t usually go to a church, offer refreshments, and make an engaging, welcoming and thought-provoking evening, in the hope that good conversations will lead on afterwards. Just get in touch and I’d love to see what might be possible.
Nick Megoran is minister of Wallsend Baptist Church and Professor of Political Geography at Newcastle University
His new book Big Questions in an Age of Global Crises - Thinking about Meaning, Purpose, God, Suffering, Death, and Living Well during Pandemics, Wars, Economic Collapse, and Other Disasters is published by Wipf and Stock
Contact him here: email@example.com
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