Interview with Nancy Pearcey
As a Christian evangelical author, speaker and thinker, Nancy Pearcey has many credits to her name including her most recent book Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals and Meaning and Total Truth, the winner of the 2005 ECPA Gold Medallion Award for best book on Christianity and Society. As a wife and mother, her concern is to help others—especially young people—by giving them the tools to be better critical thinkers. Here are her responses to some questions we posed:
Q: What questions seem to be the most pressing for today’s non-Christian adults? How are we doing as the Church in applying the gospel to those questions?
A: If we take Romans 1 seriously, we have to conclude that woven through all their other questions everyone is really asking who God is. In that passage, we learn that humans are inherently religious. If they do not acknowledge the transcendent Creator, then they will deify something in the created order. They will create an idol.
We typically think of idols as concrete things, like the sun or a golden calf. But an idol can also be something abstract —like matter. Is matter part of the created order? Sure it is. The philosophy of materialism elevates matter into an idol. It claims that matter is the ultimate reality, the source and cause of everything else. And it reduces humans to merely material beings — complex biochemical mechanisms.
This insight into how idols work allows us to apply Romans 1 to modern secular philosophies. An idol is created whenever something immanent within the cosmos (or thought to be in the cosmos) is elevated into an all-defining principle — when it is absolutized. And every false absolute becomes the foundation for a complex and elaborate system of beliefs. It is deployed to explain where we came from, what it means to be human, what happens after death, the definitions of good and evil, and so on. The Marxist may claim that human behavior is ultimately shaped by economic circumstances; the Freudian attributes our actions to repressed sexual instincts; and the behavioral psychologist regards humans as stimulus-response mechanisms. But the Bible teaches that the core motivation that drives all humans is our ultimate belief or religious commitment. Our lives are shaped by the “god” we worship — whether the God of the Bible or some substitute deity.
One of most powerful ways the church can reach out to non-Christians is to help them identify what their idol is. Every “god” will be something in creation, and therefore it will be too small to fulfill their own highest hopes and ideals.
Q: Raising a family in today’s culture is disconcerting, if not frightening. What should Christian parents focus on while their children are at home to prepare them to face opposition to faith?
A: In Saving Leonardo I describe a multi-year study by Fuller Seminary asking why so many young people lose their Christian convictions when they leave home. In the process, the researchers uncovered the single factor most significant in helping young people keep their faith. And it’s not what most of us might expect. I would have guessed it was joining a campus Bible study or prayer group. But as important as those things are, what made the biggest difference was whether the teens had a place to wrestle with doubts and questions before leaving home. The study concluded, “The more college students felt that they had the opportunity to express their doubt while they were in high school, the higher [their] levels of faith maturity and spiritual maturity.”
In other words, the only way teens become truly “prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks” (1 Pet. 3:15) is by wrestling personally with the questions. Ironically, those who have never grappled with diverse worldviews are actually the most likely to be swept away by them. As G. K. Chesterton wrote, ideas can be dangerous — but they are far more dangerous to the person who has never studied them. The untrained person has no mental filter, no critical grid. Hence a new idea will “fly to his head like wine to the head of a teetotaler.” He is much more likely to be intoxicated.
The Fuller study gives empirical evidence that students actually grow more confident in their Christian commitment when the adults in their life — parents, pastors, teachers — guide them in exploring questions and grappling with the challenges posed by prevailing secular worldviews.
Q: A popular syndicated columnist recently defined faith as “belief that is impervious to evidence.” How can Christians correct this misperception of faith?
A: By giving evidence! Seriously, we should always couch discussions of Christianity in the language of reasons and evidence. We should be giving apologetics from the pulpit and in the Sunday school classroom. Every course in a Christian school should be an opportunity to show that a biblical perspective does a better job than any secular theory of accounting for the facts in that field, whether psychology, biology, government, or business. Apologetics should be naturally woven in to all our discourse.
Equally important, we should avoid language that reduces Christian commitment to a matter of emotions — such “deeply felt faith” or “sincere beliefs” or “cherished values.” In fact, the word values should be avoided altogether because it means something very different to anyone outside the evangelical subculture. In the secular world, values are taken to mean private emotions and preferences. Values are literally whatever you value. So when Christians talk about “defending biblical values,” what the secular person hears them saying is that they want to impose their own private views on everyone else.
This is a prime example of Christians shooting themselves in the foot — and it’s because we are not paying attention to the language of our own culture. In Scripture, we are called to be missionaries and learn the language of the people we are trying to reach. Even if they speak English, they may define words differently — and it’s our responsibility to learn their language so we can speak the gospel effectively to our generation.