In today’s episode author and scholar Dr. Carolyn Weber tells her story of moving from a busy place of survival to a place of contemplation at Oxford University. There she met authentic Christians and was able to investigate Christianity on its own merits for the first time.
You can find out more about Carolyn’s work and writing by visiting her website at www.carolynweber.com.
If you’d like to read more about her story, Carolyn’s award-winning memoir describing her journeying from atheism to Christianity is Surprised by Oxford (2011) https://www.amazon.com/s?k=Surprised+by+Oxford&ref=nb_sb_noss.
And, her newly released book Sex and the City of God (2020) explores what life looks like when we choose to love God first. https://www.amazon.com/Sex-City-God-Memoir-Longing/dp/0830845852/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=Sex+and+the+City+of+God&qid=1607450263&sr=8-1
Hello, and thanks for joining in. I’m Jana Harmon, and you’re listening to the Side B Podcast, where we listen to the other side. We talk with people who have believed and embraced atheism as the best explanation for reality but then changed their minds and came to believe in Christianity. From childhood, our beliefs about God, whether or not he is real and what God might be like or not like, are often shaped by our family experience. It works both ways. Some families teach their children to believe in God. Some teach their children not to believe. And some just don’t talk about it at all. For others, their childhood experience of their family or perhaps with their father may shape the way they may or may not believe in God.
Whatever the case may be, there are several different theories about if and whether a child’s relationship with their parents affects whether or not they’re drawn towards or away from God. In my research of over fifty former atheists, about one in every five rejected a God imaged as a heavenly father because of a negative or even a positive experience with their own earthly fathers. That wasn’t the only reason for their disbelief, but it was generally part of their narrative. Again, that was true for some but certainly not for all. Here, I believe it’s important to recognize that, although theories are out there regarding the nature of atheism and the reason for disbelief, it’s important not to broad brush an assumption about anyone before you actually listen to their story, and that’s what we’re going to do in our time together today.
I’m so pleased to have on the podcast today Dr. Carolyn Weber. She’s a bestselling, award-winning author, speaker, Oxford University scholar, and literature professor. She’s also a former atheist who came to belief in God. Her book, Surprised by Oxford, talks about her journey from atheism to Christianity. It has won several literary distinctions, including the Grace Irwin Award, the largest award for Christian writing in Canada, and I must say, on a personal note, that Surprised by Oxford is truly an excellent piece of writing, beautifully crafted, a compelling story that’s just hard to put down, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly. She also has another book, her fourth, just being released called Sex and the City of God, and we will hear more about that today on the podcast as well.
Welcome to the podcast, Carolyn. It’s great to have you on the show.
Thank you so much, Jana, for having me here and for the very gracious introduction.
As we’re getting started, Carolyn, why don’t you tell me a little bit about your new book that’s just being released.
In a way, the title’s really quite serious, so it pokes fun at our culture, and many of us have heard of Sex and the City in terms of that notion of how we see sex in the media, but I wanted to contrast that with Augustine’s idea of the two cities, the City of God and the City of Man, and how that really is the ultimate line in the sand of our citizenship. Which city do we belong to? Do we choose to belong to the City of Man and the temporal or do we choose to belong to the City of God and the eternal, and those cities are called to live in peace, as Augustine identifies in his famous work City of God, but they also have very different ends, and that kind of teleological difference makes all the difference, really, in the world. And so I wanted to set those two side by side and explore that concept in terms of how I’m trying to live that out and use personal story to look at relationships but also looking at how, when we choose to be citizens of the City of God and we’re extended grace and we receive that grace, we’re also married to Christ first, regardless of our relationship status. So it doesn’t matter if we’re single or married or whatnot according to the world, we’re married first to Christ and how are we ordering our love, as Augustine would say, according to that first love, that first commandment of what we love first.
And so that intrigued me, bringing those kind of two, what might seem like very much a metaphysical conceit, actually kind of bringing them together and holding them together in that title and then exploring that throughout this new book.
That sounds fascinating, Carolyn. I can’t wait to get my hands on it.
Yes. And much success to you there. But today, as you know, our focus is on story, on your story, on the story of your journey from atheism to Christianity, and I want to set that, as a literary professor and understanding the value of context, you’ll value this question, and that is: I want you to set the context for the story of your life. What context were you raised in that formed your atheism? What was your community? What was your culture? What did they think about God or religion or those kinds of things? Let’s kind of start broadly, and then we’ll narrow down to your family.
So yes, I would’ve defined myself as agnostic, in that I couldn’t disprove God but I didn’t really believe in a god, and I didn’t have any sort of structure. I didn’t attend church, anything along those lines, and having grown up in a home with a father who had ended up being quite absent from my life, and when he did return, he was sometimes really violent or aggressive. My father had been a self-made man. He had grown up in a lot of poverty himself and had become quite successful, and then due to some circumstances in life, he lost that, and he really sort of lost his rudder and his sense of self, and he ended up having a significant breakdown as well, and so my mom largely raised us as a single mom, so I was also really hesitant about trusting fathers in general, let alone a Heavenly Father, and so that really also, I think, informed, as it does, that sense of trusting that kind of figure or wanting to explore that kind of figure. I had a lot more anger than I probably would have admitted to and nervousness about depending on anything or anyone other than myself. And in the sense that things could be achieved if I just worked hard enough, pushed hard enough, pushed through hard enough, things could be achieved, security or whatnot.
And so, by the time I had gotten to college, I think I would be the perfect example of someone who had gone through twenty years of public education and had never cracked open a Bible, which I find really stunning. That we’re not taught it even as a book or as history.
And when I finally did read it, I was really amazed at it, actually, as a piece of literature and just as a story that unfolded from Genesis to Revelation. I couldn’t believe how intricately the story worked itself out, and as a lover of literature and a student of literature, I could see not only all the literary devices but also just how amazingly, beautifully put together this book was. Overall, but also in it’s phrasing, and that you just couldn’t make this stuff up. And once, I think, the gospel is planted, you can’t unhear it. Even if it really bothers you, it’s like this big elephant in the room, and so by the time I was approaching graduate studies, that door had been kind of knocked open for me, and I had this longing. I was studying world religions. I was studying world religions as part of my M.Phil. thesis, so I was looking at all sorts of different religions, but I was drawn more and more and more to Christianity because of really how unique it was and it’s emphasis on grace and this Bible that just blew me away when I finally read it cover to cover, that it was life changing.
And I didn’t grow up with any of that.
So, Caro, you’re telling me that the read the Bible for the first time when you went to college, and I want to get a little bit of a retrospective on that. What did you think the Bible was before you read it the first time? You said you had had very little exposure. Had you never been to church? Or your culture hadn’t introduced you to much about the content of the Bible or anything like that?
Very much so. I had been to church on and off, a couple of times a year, Easter and Christmas or whatnot, as a child, and I tended… My grandparents that I was closest to were Hungarian, so I would actually go to a Catholic church, but all of the services, the Mass, were in Hungarian or Latin, so basically it was my sister and I sitting in a pew trying to stay awake until we got to the desserts.
Oh my! Okay.
I didn’t understand much. And I knew bits and pieces, I’d heard bits and pieces of scripture, like you would in maybe mainstream media even now, but I think so many of us cite scripture or hear it. We don’t really even know that it’s come from the Bible. I teach now secular students all the time that say that. And so there really wasn’t a lot of room for thinking faith questions. I was going to school, trying to get good grades. I was enjoying school. I was busy there. I was working several jobs to help support the family, which is also I think very common in North American culture, to be working a lot as well while you’re studying, and I felt like the first time I heard the gospel it was like I was a hummingbird that hit the glass hard. Kind of how I put it in my book was I had been so busy up until then that I had never really thought about who God was to me until someone posed that question to me.
So you had very little exposure to the Bible. What did you think the Bible was? Or God or religion or Christianity? As an agnostic, what did you think it was? Was it just something made up by man to satisfy some kind of psychological or social longing or belonging?
Well, for a long time, I didn’t really hold any sort of opinion either way. Religion didn’t seem relevant, and I think people are always drawn to, “How is Jesus relevant to me?” or, “How is faith even relevant to me?” As I got older, I guess my main exposure, Jana, would have been to just Christianity through the media, which is horrible! I sort of thought Christians were big haired TV evangelists who took your money.
And that you would make fun of. I didn’t grow up with Christian friends or knowing a lot of Christians. The few that I did at school seemed to be socially awkward or they seemed to make these life choices that seemed very, very alien to mainstream thought. I hadn’t ever really had someone articulate the gospel to me, and I always am amazed at that. I remember William Drummond saying, “Never give people a thimble of the gospel. Give them the whole thing,” and sometimes I think we hold back sharing the gospel because we think, “Oh, it’s going to sound ludicrous,” or, “I don’t want to alienate people,” or “They won’t be able to take it all in,” but that’s really quite condescending. Because I think the first time I just had it explained to me, just very objectively, I thought, “Wow! No one’s ever said that to me before. I’ve never actually thought about that as a viable truth that I can either roll around and accept or reject.” A lot of times, we think we know what Christianity is, but it’s this watered down or undiscussed or media version that really has nothing to do with the clarity of the gospel, and so it really wasn’t until I was in graduate studies and that had been presented to me, where I thought, “Oh, okay.” You know, the old liar, lunatic, or Lord, right? This is either crazy or this is ridiculous and unfathomable, or, “Wow, if this is true, I’ve got something I need to think through here.”
And so I didn’t… in my upbringing, is anybody actually overtly trying to keep me away from faith or anything like that. I would have described my family as loving enough to get by, Jana, but broken enough not really to deserve God’s attention. And my mom had turned to drinking to manage a lot of her depression, and my father, as I said, was in and out of our lives, but you know, I was happy enough at school and I was close enough to my siblings, and I wouldn’t have described myself as really despondent or really joyful. Very, very busy as well. I think very sort of everyman. I’m open to all of our journeys and stories, but there was this longing, which was why I was drawn to that notion of longing in this last book I wrote. This longing, this desire for something. I guess later when I read Lewis’s description of it as sin-soaked, I was like, “Wow! That’s it.” This longing in us that’s human, and that’s why I studied the romantic writers. Before I became a Christian, I was even drawn to that period of writers in the 18th and 19th century that are drawn to the notion of infinite longing. That’s planted in us. That makes us very human. And as I began to explore Christianity more, it was definitely more in line with that longing and explained why I had that longing and fulfilled that longing, or pointed me towards why I had it.
And so I would’ve said it was a long percolation. I was really resistant to the faith for a long time, too. Because I felt that… I think it’s very scary to think you don’t have control over something. Grace is a real leveler. It’s not karma, and it’s not something you can mete out or control or work hard enough for, and it blew apart all my categories of being self sufficient, particularly so as a child of my circumstances. And when you strip that away, it’s quite terrifying, really, to trust in that way and to also realize where we fall between sin and redemption, but I do remember reading Genesis and thinking, “Wow, this just makes sense.” The fallen world made complete sense when I looked around at me. And there were so many things in the Bible I was prepared to knock against them cognitively and to take them down intellectually, and yet, they rang really true. Not because I necessarily agreed with them but because I really could see the evidence for them around me and in me.
So once you became open to the Bible and you were really taking it in, reading it, perhaps seeing what was in it for the first time with open eyes, and you stumbled upon Jesus and you stumbled upon the gospel, you say, can you, for those listeners who really don’t understand what the gospel is when you refer to that, could you perhaps talk a little bit about what the gospel is? I know you mentioned something with regard to grace but perhaps paint a clearer picture for those who don’t know the term.
Oh, absolutely! Well, I didn’t know the term. I didn’t even know what the Old and New Testaments were. I had no idea how many books were in the Bible. All those kind of things. And I remember my grandmother praying and my grandmother talking about Jesus in Hungarian, so going back to that felt a bit like a homecoming, but the gospel itself just means the good news, which I thought at first sounded awfully condescending. How does somebody have the good news and that means I must have the bad? But to really understand, when I was asked the question, “Who is God to you?” I had never really thought about answering that question, and I love how invitational questions are, and it made me think who was God to me? And the gospel shows God as a being that is close to us, that cares for us, that loves us, somebody who’s entered into our state of being, who brings us the good news that we have been saved by Jesus coming and being here with us, by Jesus giving His life for us, that death is not the end, death is not all, that we have an eternal life and a whole life made for us, offered for us through grace, through God coming and dying for us and extending His life to us in that way. And to reconcile us for the ways that we can’t measure up, the ways that we can’t be perfect, can’t ever measure up to his holiness. And I was amazed at that kind of love.
My grandmother’s favorite Bible verse. I mean, we didn’t talk about the Bible a lot, and she didn’t speak much English, but her favorite Bible verse was “Love one another.” Those were actually her dying words, and when I began to learn where those words came from and what they really meant, “Love one another as I have loved you,” I was blown away at what the gospel is. It is so different from any other religion. No other religion has this God that has fully entered into what it means to be human and every element of suffering and has died for us and walks with us and restores us to being whole with Him, and within all of creation and with the vastness of everything. And it’s really mind-blowing to hold that in one’s thought but also to know that it’s really also not complicated. It’s one of those paradoxes. It’s immensely complicated and mysterious and it’s not.
And we can’t earn that grace. We can’t make that grace happen. It’s not in our control. It’s not ours to give. But it’s entirely ours to receive for having done nothing except believing that it’s being given to us and who’s giving it to us. And that’s incredible. And it changes everything. It gives you a whole different lens through which to see and hear.
As someone, obviously again, a literary scholar who understands story, this is a wonderful story. It is good news, and you said that it rang true. It seemed to ring true to who you were in your human condition, but was there something more than an existential sense of felt truth about it? I mean, we’d all love to believe something that we want to be true or that sounds true. Did you do any investigation in terms of its historical veracity? Or how would you know that the story of this person of Jesus and the story of Jesus is actually true beyond just a story?
Right. Or just a feeling. Or just a… Yeah. I mean I wouldn’t underestimate the power of knowing something is true in a way that you can’t quite explain the knowing, and that sounds like a cop-out, but I think that’s why it’s such a powerful word in the Bible, knowing, because I remember when I did first hear the gospel. It was like a little combination lock clicked on my heart and sort of clicked open, even though I never in a million years would have wanted to admit that. But I think that’s the reason why it does get people’s attention. People get their knickers in a knot over Jesus and no one else, really, to the same extent. If you want to get people’s attention, right, you say that name, and you know, people are mad or they’re joyful. It’s definitely the line-in-the-sand word and name. There’s no other name like it. And so there was something knowing about it, but I did do a lot of research.
I was, at the time, researching world religions, and I was looking particularly at different theologies that were shaping 18th and 19th century British and European thought, so I was really interested in the development of the church, as well as other… I was actually working on metempsychosal and transmigration theory in the East because of how it was influencing this group and writers, and it did, it really threw into my face a lot of doctrine. I did read a lot. I really wanted to poke holes in it. I remember when I read Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ, I thought he and I would’ve gotten along great on a bus ride. I was absolutely going to poke holes in it, and it irritated me, and the Christians I knew, they had something I wanted, but I also just really wanted to take them down. And I realized that that was coming from a place of great wounding for me, that if I really wanted to be objective and thoughtful here, actually much of the historical and biblical, let alone Holy Spirit, just leaving that element out, was very, very convicting around the faith. Ultimately, there is a leap. Ultimately, you can only reason yourself so far into a corner, and it does come to a leap of faith. There’s no way around that, but I think that that’s actually one of the most powerful and convicting things about Christianity, is that we can’t put God in a box. He won’t stay in it, and he doesn’t operate in that way, and we can’t even control how it all works, and there still is a supernatural element that defies our understanding.
Yes, there certainly is.
I find that actually quite convicting, intellectually convicting. They don’t have to be at opposite ends at all. There’s a lot to be said about believing wisely or spiritual thinking, and the two are not contradictory at all. A paradox is only a seeming contradiction, an apparent one, not a real one. And I’ve always found that the most powerful truths lie in those two being held together. And that’s really eventually what drew me to make that leap. It’s the difference between everything.
You’ve said a couple of things I want to explore for just a moment. One thing that you inferred was that, when you were pushing back against Christians and Christianity, you were doing so because it was a place of great wounding for you, that you felt there was something that was causing you to push back. Can you… Or would you mind talking about that? The relationship between this push and perhaps whatever that was deep inside of you that didn’t want it to be true.
You know, Jana, I actually think, deep inside of me, I wanted it to be true, and I just felt that that would be too dangerous to allow that to happen.
In what way?
In that this incredible love story that has been written for everyone in the world, and nobody is exempt from it, nobody’s beyond it, it doesn’t belong to just a certain group of people and it doesn’t just come through generation or adoption. It’s entirely open to everyone. It rang so true, and as I began to realize that it shaped my lens of thinking, that transformative thinking, that at first it was easy, for example, to think, “Oh, these crazy Christians. They’re touting chastity. They’re touting not sleeping with someone before you get married. And really how believable is that? And how practical is that? And have they never really been in a moment of temptation? And have they never really woken up and smelled the coffee, as to what needs to happen in this day and age?” and blah, blah, blah, and, as a feminist, you know, “We’re no longer property or chattel or anything along those lines,” completely unaware of a concept like my body being a temple. That had never been taught to me or shared with me or even discussed with me among friends that there might be something holy about my body, as well as Spirit-filled and connected, that there might be a larger design and a larger purpose and a larger plan that I was part of and all my decisions affected not only me but others in that, and that there was a tremendous beauty and responsibility and investment and the distinction between new wine and old wine, and the old wine tastes better because of what’s gone into aging and experience and wisdom.
And our culture doesn’t… It gives us a lot of information but not much wisdom, and I think that that’s the big arc, the big journey between Eden and heaven, is experience and wisdom, the accumulation of wisdom, and as I began to think about, “Wow. What if I did think of my life as the Bible talks about? What if these things are true? What if my body is a temple? What if God wants me to be holy as He is holy? What if there’s actually something really beautiful and design filled and purposeful in that, as opposed to all these other messages that are really quite empty? What are the repercussions for me in that?” And I began to see that it had nothing to do with high-handed purity or the politics of the body or being chattel or any ways that the world has twisted things from the fall, which just makes so much sense. Obviously, the first sin to me just seems like consumerism.
You know? Consumption of other. In terms of preferring the love of self. And I was really moved at that deep, deep love of God for us, that if we put it first, that helped us love ourselves and others, and it was transformative. Transforming your thinking. It was transformative. And it just seemed like, when you started to look at things from that access, I began to realize, “Wow! This is a different way of thinking. This is a different way of being.” We’re not taught this in schools. We don’t turn on the news, and it’s available. It’s often… If you don’t have Christian friends or Christian community, it’s not even talked about at all. But there is another way of being. And we talk about it, as Christians, as the way, Christ being the way, but it’s another way that isn’t often shown or talked about or discussed. And I was really amazed at how it made me really, truly see so many things differently. And that there’s a heart and mind and soul connection in all of that that no other path really shows or calls you to combine.
So those really deep longings and those desires that you had early, you found as you were exploring Jesus and the Bible and the gospel, you found something that was true and good and beautiful and, like you say, life transforming. Something that would give you a very different way of thinking about your own life and the way that you live and the way that you understand it. Were there people… You’ve spoken about maybe dots or interactions with Christians throughout your upbringing, but did you enter into a time in your life, as you were exploring, where you actually encountered those Christians who embodied what you’re just speaking of, this other way of living, this different way of understanding life.
Absolutely! I think those were the people that really drew me to the faith to begin with. Just like Hannah Whitall Smith said, the best testimony is living the Bible, is looking at your life as a living testimony, and being a lover of literature… I really think, Jana, that God speaks to us in our various love languages, that He knows are most beloved to us, and I love literature. I love words. And I remember reading the Bible, and there was just nowhere to hide. Every stripe of person is found in the Bible. Every stripe. And I remember reading the New Testament, too, and thinking, “Wow! Here’s the guy… He doesn’t have enough belief, and he’s praying for belief.” “Here is the person with immense belief, and he’s wanting someone healed on his behalf.” “Here’s a woman who’s bled for 12 years, and that’s being healed at the same time that Jesus is traveling to another girl, who’s 12 years old and about to enter the exact opposite time of her life.” It was just so intricate. There was something for everybody. Every type of person I knew, but also every type of person within myself, that I felt in scripture I kept meeting facets of myself in all of those people.
And then, the “real people” I was meeting, I was meeting Christians who were willing… First of all, they were really good at asking questions. And I think questions are so important. They invite you to the table. Jesus uses them all the time. Parables and questions, stories and questions are so important. They’re so inviting. There’s lack of judgment. There’s opening of conversation. And I was moved by their genuine interest in hearing where I was at, what I was thinking, what I was longing for, instead of hitting me over the head, as I feared, from maybe what I had seen on television or whatnot, with trite phrases or rote swirls-for-eyes passages from the Bible.
They were very real, genuine conversations. People who were really interested in meeting me where I was at, which is how Jesus is in when he interacts with people in the gospel. He never walks up to anybody and says, “You suck,” or, you know, “Pull your life together. Too bad you had a difficult childhood.” He doesn’t do that to anybody. He entirely meets them where they’re at, and I really had the blessing of meeting Christians who were, not perfect themselves, by any means—no one’s perfect. But they were inhabiting that, that were incarnating that essence of Christ in their conversations with me and in their welcoming of me to the table. And that really genuinely spoke to me. And it’s a very powerful thing to be met in the real. And Jesus is the real.
Yes, He is, and to be met with people who actually live like they know Jesus and live like Jesus is in and through their lives, it can be surprising. Your book is called Surprised by Oxford. I presume a lot of these changes or revelations were happening as you were on that campus. Is that a place where you actually were able to move from this place of busyness and survival to a place of contemplation and study and pursuit?
Exactly. On a very pragmatic level, I went from the very, very busy, typical North American student life of lots of spinning plates, with studies and with jobs and things, even more so with the background I came from of having to provide for my family and myself, and my father, as I said, had struggled with mental illness and had, as well, a lot of debt. A lot of financial pressures and concerns. I grew up with times of immense poverty, and I have a heart for students in that in that way. A lot of times, we don’t know what someone is facing when we meet them. We have no idea whether they’re hungry or not. We have no idea. And again, that’s where I love the Bible, the symbolism of poverty, all sorts of different forms of poverty, and I think, when I got to Oxford, for one, I wasn’t allowed to work. And so I finally had this time, and at Oxford, they want you to have this time, to percolate your ideas and to make friendships, and I would go to tutorials, I would go to lectures, but then I would have time to go on a walk through a garden with a friend or go to a pub and talk about ideas, and there was much more of this contemplative, conversational lifestyle that was expected, and it was not just this elitism. It was actually considered very much part and parcel of studying, and it seemed very alien to me at first for a while. I actually felt really strange. I felt like I had all this time. I wasn’t running to these two or three jobs or everything else, but then you realize, “Wow! It’s actually this breathing space, about being still, and about thinking through your ideas, and actually thinking through why you’re here,” and a lot of that, we’re not allowed to do and it’s not cultivated. I think, actually, many powers that be in the fallen world would prefer that we don’t meditate and we don’t contemplate. And distraction is, I think one of the devil’s greatest tools, losing that traction.
And I think being able to talk with people, people whose example I grew to trust more and more. They were really living their walk and talking their talk, and they were sincere and open, and the more I was reading and studying myself, it was a whole difficult experience than the harried white rabbit.
And it can sound idealized, but I think, actually, Christians, even in a very busy culture, know… We now know, we on the other side of the looking glass, now know that that’s actually a very important spiritual discipline to have in my own life, regardless of how busy it is. But when you’re coming from the other city, when you’re traveling from the City of Man towards the City of God, it’s a very alien thing to put aside time for devotional or time for scripture or to read hermeneutically or to pray. Those are not things that the greater fallen world teaches us to do or wants us to do. And so I think that shift was really life changing for thinking through. Because, for a while, I went through the cynicism, and I thought, “Oh, I’m sure I’m just being drawn to this Christianity because I’m now here, and I’ve got all this time to think this through, and isn’t this great? And when I actually go back to real life, it’s not going to be relevant at all.” Or is it a crutch? I was wary that it might be a crutch for things I had wanted in my life that had fallen through.
And instead realizing, “Wow, those epics run deep.” Those mono myths that search for the father run really deep for a reason. Which is what led to this last book, writing it after losing my father, because I think our cosmos tilts when we lose our parents, regardless of our relationship with them. And it’s just… I think that having that chance to look at, in retrospect, those points of light and how God has been there for you or connected them for you, having the time… Not that you have to always be thinking or that it’s a crutch, but I began to see that it wasn’t a crutch at all. It was actually something I very much not only needed but would be nothing without.
It was a total juxtaposition of your prior understanding and perspective of God, especially God as father. That’s quite amazing. So, along your journey, I guess all of these pieces started coming together. You were reading the Bible. And you found yourself in the scripture, that there was really nowhere to hide. You were finding truths about Jesus, about the historical nature of the Bible and how it’s not only historical, but it matches and meets every longing and desire of your heart, all of these things were coming together. You were meeting Christians who were embodying this authenticity, a life that was attractive, which was again just such a surprise, so you… I guess all of these threads started becoming woven together in a sense into a tapestry towards a place of belief. Was there like a tipping point in which you said, “Yes, I believe this is true, and I can’t go back”?
I love your use of the word tapestry. Because very much so, I feel that’s how all our lives are, and you know, with a tapestry, the design is so beautiful and clear on the top, and then underneath you see all the knots and everything else.
And the handiwork, right? The hard work that goes into it. Yes, I would say all those things worked together. A lot like Lewis. Feeling like, in some ways, a very reluctant convert, and yet, there is this moment… For me, there was a moment. I remember it was actually Valentine’s Day back in 1994, where I got to a point where I thought, “Okay, I’ve kicked against this.” I kicked against this, and it wasn’t necessarily that they were all intellectual answers, although many of them were. As I mentioned before, the Bible just makes common sense oftentimes, or even the things that are complicated or difficult, there’s a lot of practical feedback, but as an academic, I also get frustrated with people who denounce the Bible or drive around with their Darwin inside of their Christian fish bumper stickers, and they probably never cracked open a Bible. And I think, “You know, I’ve been like that, too,” so just read it. Just read it, cover to cover, and then see. At least you’ll have the fodder to make an argument. That’s probably the academic in me, you know. Know your sources and at least have read the book before you criticize it. But you might have something that you respond to or your heart responds to.
But I think… Yeah, it eventually got to this point where, at least for me, there had been this slow recogning and reckoning, and a lot of things sort of graciously answered for me because my love language is words and literature and probably argumentation, even. But getting to a point where I thought, “Okay, is this true or is it not?” And I think it comes down to that point of light, Jana, a lot like… I’ll give you an example. One of the stories that really irked me in the Bible was the thief on the cross, when Jesus is crucified, and there’s a thief to his left and a thief to his right, and the one that denounces and the one that asks Him to remember him that day. And before I was a Christian, that story used to bug me like crazy. It drove me crazy, because I used to think, “Gosh! There’s that guy. He’s been a sinner his whole life. Now, he’s asking to be forgiven. What a jerk!” And of course I love him now, you know? Things are looking desperate, and he’s probably thinking, “I’ve got nothing to lose,” and Jesus is right next to him, and oh, my goodness!
And I remember saying this to someone who had actually really articulated the gospel to me and was somebody that I very much cared for and respected their opinion, and I told them how much this story irked me, and he said to me, “Well, thank God for that story!” And I said, “What? Are you kidding me?” and he said, “No, absolutely thank God.” He goes, “We’re all that thief on that cross.”
We don’t deserve it, and we can receive it at any time, but we never deserve it. And there’s that moment where you have to be accountable for your soul. No one else can be. You can’t slough off that responsibility. You don’t stand before God at the end of time and say, “Hey, what about him?” You know? And that’s when the penny dropped. I was like, “Wow! That’s personal relationship.” And not that it’s necessarily just heavy handed and… Phrases like “blessed assurance” used to bother me because it always appeared in a heavier font. Just all this stuff that Christians throw around that seems so trite and empty or canned, and I was like, “Wait a minute!” It’s like Shakespeare now. We all think, “Oh, everybody quotes Shakespeare,” but there’s actually such immense beauty in it. We’ve lost sight of it. We’re looking at the wrong side of the tapestry. And it seems threadbare to us and not relevant, and I do remember thinking, “You know, it’s game time. Do I say, ‘Remember me,’ or do I mock him?” Because that’s really the only two answers that there are. And even saying nothing isn’t going to be the truth and the grace that I desperately need and I know is there for the taking, and so I do remember, late at night on that evening, accepting the Lord. And all those phrases used to make me really uncomfortable. “Accepting the Lord as my Lord and Savior,” all those kind of phrases I would hear tossed around or used, but they’re really so deeply entrenched with meaning that sometimes I think all we can do is feel like we mock them because we’re so afraid of them, of what they might really mean if they’re true.
And they change everything. Because they are true. And then I think there are times in our walk, our spiritual walk, where faith is a form of sacrifice. Obedience is a form of sacrifice. We choose to believe even when we feel empty or when we feel we can’t. We still put that on the altar, and He always blesses it. Like Lewis said, “The driest prayers please Him most.” The prayers from that really dry place are still forms of trusting.
Well, it sounds like, in your life, everything has changed, and your place of trust is in Christ and that it is something that is not something to be afraid of but something to embrace, something that is life giving, that is true and good and beautiful and all of those things. You express it with such grace and with such wisdom. It’s obvious to me that you’ve been living in this, what you call the real, for a while.
I hope we all are. I think that’s the wonderful thing about Jesus is you don’t know… I love the fact that we can pray for wisdom and it’s given to us, but that we can speak like this, Jana, as sisters in Christ, that there’s a whole other level of communication and understanding, and I think the big one for me is to know that I’m not alone. Even when I do feel very painfully alone, I know, as a Christian, I’m not. No matter what. And that makes all the difference. In a spiritual walk.
It is. It’s an amazing gift.
This community of those who are, in Christ, as they say. As we’re kind of winding this down, it’s just been so rich. I wondered, Carolyn, since you are so wise, if you could.
Gracious company goes a long way.
Yes. If you could speak to perhaps a curious skeptic who might be listening to this podcast, who might find themselves where you were at one time in your life, skeptical, pushing back for whatever reason, what would you say to that person to encourage them to perhaps listen to the other side, to give Christianity a chance, to perhaps take a moment to actually consider those big issues, like you have.
That is such a wonderful question. I mean almost, thinking what I would have said to myself years ago, is first to really sit with what is the reality of you being all? If you are all that there is, where is that getting you? How is that working for you? How will that always work for you? E.M. Forster has this wonderful line that says, “The reality of death kills a man, and the idea of death saves him,” and as Peter Kreeft says, “Life is fatal.” It’s fatal for every single person, and the great philosophical question is, “What happens to us when we die?” And I think it’s so easy for atheists or whatnot to say, “It doesn’t matter. Nothing happens. I’m gone,” but it’s so connected to so much more purpose. Not just this existential anxiety but so much more about our worthiness and our dignity and our being made for and in love and to love, and I would just sit with that question. What if it is all about me? And what if it begins and ends with me? Where does that leave me? And then what? And is that a reality that I want to ascribe to and believe in? Or is there another way?
And if Jesus calls himself the way, what does that mean? And I would really challenge someone who hasn’t read the Bible to read it, to just read it. Even if they read it objectively, cynically, whatnot, read it. And there’ll be tough parts, and there’ll be boring bits and all sorts of things, but actually who knows what speaks to whom. Just read it. And see if you are unchanged by the end, which I highly doubt. Because I think we’re changed by everything we read. But once you hear the gospel, you can’t unhear it. And how is it going to sit with you? And then is that going to be a full rejection that you can package up and set aside? Or is there something there that you want to explore, that speaks to you, that you feel leads you to a more abundant life and death and life again? And will change the way that you love yourself and will change the way, dramatically, that you love others, even when you’re not in the mood and will have a place in an eternal story and purpose. That is so much bigger and more profound than our own little selves.
And I think I would just challenge someone to do that. And not to have to do it in an overwhelming way, but just to give in to that longing. I’ve never met anyone, Jana… Just like I’ve never met a child who as an atheist, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t shaped by some sort of longing. Who didn’t long to be loved or long to be accepted or long to be cared for or long to matter. It’s the essence of every enduring work of literature, right? Everybody, like Harry Potter, wants to get the letter that says they’re special.
Hence, that’s why I think the Bible is so full of missives, but there’s… Where does that longing point us? And I do agree with Augustine that it’s a longing that can only be fulfilled by God. It points us to God to be fulfilled by him. And that’s actually a really beautiful and freeing thing. It replaces terror and panic in the empty world with the fear and reverence of holiness in the eternal one. And it’s a different type of fear. And it’s a different type of fulfillment. And it’s one that lasts and endures, and it’s immensely rich. And it’ll wane, and it’ll be consolation and desolation, and you know, you could feel close to God and as far from God as you can get, but the line is always open, it’s always there, in spite of ourselves, and I just think that’s an immeasurable gift, and a gift becomes a real gift when you appreciate it, when you recognize what you have.
Yes. If someone were to take your advice and pick up the Bible, where would you recommend that they open it for the first time? Would they start at the beginning?
Yep. To cite my favorite musical again, the beginning is the only good place to start. I always say just start at the beginning. Just read it through.
I mean, maybe because I’m a literary person, I always read things through, and I trudge through chronologically. I can certainly see… For me personally, the book that was most influential, I think, in my ultimate conversion was John. I just loved the Gospel of John. And when I was reading John was when some things really became very clear for me, when I finally sort of made the leap. I’m sure that there’s some kind of scripture verse that speaks to everyone in some sort of special way, and there are probably more efficient ways at kind of dropping it to encourage people where to read or whatnot, but I’m always an advocate of just go through the whole thing. You never what’s going to speak to you where. You never know what’s going to tick you off. I tell my students, when they’re writing essays, always write on something that bothers you. Because that’s something that’s got your attention.
Something that you’re trying to work through. So I’m always amazed at friends of mine, when we read the Bible, and somebody will be completely bothered by something, and somebody will be completely fascinated by something else. I always thought the genealogy, for instance, was so boring, and it went on and on and on, and I remember Bono, one of my favorite rock stars, saying he loved the genealogy. He thought it was really fascinating, and it’s one of his favorite parts! And that’s what made me start to think about, even a theme like Sex and the City of God and our relationship to relationships and being married to Christ regardless of our status, but also, why is there genealogy in the Bible? And adoption and whatnot as well. Who knows what will speak to you, but I think if you can read the whole thing, you’ll also get a sense of the story, the moving from Genesis to Revelation, the absolute intricacy of the overall larger story and all the smaller stories within it, like ourselves, and I think everyone wants… They do want… A happy ending makes up for a lot. They do want the white stone with their name on it that only God knows. Everyone. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to be known. Fully and truly known. And acquitted and loved and loved in spite of and fully safe and known.
Yeah. Yes. And the last question for you, Carolyn, is, again, a bit of advice for Christians who might be listening in who… What would you tell them in terms of… You obviously witnessed some embodied Christianity that was very attractive, whether it was intellectually or their way of hospitality or the way they engaged you. You spoke of them inviting you to the table. How can we, as Christians, make Christianity more plausible or more attractive? What would you say to them.
Oh, that is a good question, too, and I feel I need advice on that. Because, by grace, we all go. I would really encourage people to not throw the baby out with the baptism water. And what I mean by that… Christians are humans, too, and we disappoint each other, and we fall short all the time, and we talk about all sorts of things, divorce rates and whatever, being just as horrible among Christians. All these ways that we tremendously hurt each other, and sometimes the pain is even worse because we think, “Oh, we should be answering to a higher bar.” There’s a lot of hurt and dissension among Christians as well. But to protect that initial first commandment between yourself and God, to really protect it. To guard our hearts. As Milton says, to have the upright heart and pure.
Guarding our hearts, having that protection of our hearts, I used to think was really naive and innocent, but there’s actually… It takes a lot of work cultivating an upright heart and protecting it and protecting that inner garden, so that, even when other people hurt or disappoint us, regardless of their faith or lack of faith, our first and primary relationship with God is there. It’s nurtured. We have that line of communication open with Him. He is Emmanuel with us. He understands that hurt. He’s held it Himself. He’s borne it Himself. And He’s also borne those same joys and things, too, and to just really cultivate that first relationship, because that’s what a personal relationship is, it’s something that… It’s actually a great relief. You’re not responsible for anyone else. And sometimes that’s actually very hard. I grew up in a very codependent home, and I want to be responsible for everybody, and you’re not. You’re not actually ultimately responsible for the other thief.
You’re responsible for your own heart and how you cultivate that relationship with God and how you treat and answer to other people, and no one can take that white stone away from you. No one, as we’re told, from any depth or any place can remove His love for us. And so focusing on that first relationship, regardless of what else you’re going through or have been dealing with, but you wouldn’t get to a place where you just think, “I’m going to toss that baby out with that baptism water,” because it’s all bad. Or it’s all frustrating. Or no one’s there. Regardless to keep that primary commandment, which is why I think it is the first commandment, to love God first alive.
Yeah. That’s beautiful. Sometimes that commandment is seen, especially by those who don’t believe or even those who do, it seems to be a difficult one, but at the end of the day, it’s in keeping that first command where life is actually found. So thank you so much. Thank you, Carolyn, for your story. It’s very inspiring. I love to hear someone so thoughtful, so pursuing and intentional about the big questions of life, and just to see where it led you. It led you to a place… I wish I could be underneath your teaching all of the time, but I do appreciate that you have books. Sex and the City of God, I can’t wait to read it all. Thank you again, Carolyn, for joining us today.
Thank you so much, Jana. I appreciate you, too, so dearly. And I think mutual admiration is a foretaste of heaven, so praise Him. That’s wonderful. Thank you.
You’re so welcome. Thanks for tuning into the Side B Podcast to hear Carolyn’s story. If you’re interested in finding out more about Carolyn and her work, I’ve included her website in the episode notes. For questions and feedback about this episode, you can reach me by email at email@example.com. If you enjoy it, subscribe and share this new podcast with your friends and social network. In the meantime, I’ll be looking forward to seeing you next time, where we’ll be listening to the other side.