Former skeptic Rachel embraced atheism until her intellectual curiosity regarding God’s existence led her to Jesus.
Learn more about Rachel and her book at www.rachelgilson.com
Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
Confronting Christianity by Rebecca McLaughlin
Welcome to the Side B Podcast, Rachel. It’s so great to have you with me today.
It’s my pleasure to be here. Thanks.
Wonderful. As we’re getting started, why don’t you tell me, and tell the listeners, a little bit about yourself before we get into your story?
Yeah. Well, I’m a California sojourner in New England. I currently work for Cru, formerly Campus Crusade for Christ, on the national theological development and culture team. I write a little bit. I speak a little bit. I parent a 7-year-old a little bit, so that’s a little bit of where I am right now in life.
And you’re pursuing a PhD at the moment as well?
Yes. I’m working on my PhD in public theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Okay. Wonderful, wonderful. Well, maybe we’ll hear a little bit more about those bits and pieces as we go. As we’re starting with your story, as you know, this podcast is talking with former atheists who found their way from atheism to Christianity, and sometimes that’s quite a long journey, from one ideology to the other and one life to another, but it all starts somewhere, and I’d like to start with your childhood and your culture, your family, your community, just kind of how you grew up. Shape that for us. Tell us how your journey or your story started. Was God in that story at all as a child?
Yeah. I love context. I was a history major in college, so these are my favorite.
Yes, context means a lot.
Context is a big one.
So the bigger context is my mother had grown up in a practicing Catholic household but not really serious. She ditched it at a young age, so by the time she was raising me, nothing of that was in her life. She had really gone far away from Catholic doctrinal teaching, moral teaching, all of that. My dad similarly didn’t have religion in his life when he was raising me. He had grown up not church going at all, like poor in the hills of Appalachia. He had met some Jesus people along the way, he says, but there was just no faith in his life, even as a young boy, so by the time my parents were bringing up my brother and I, we were just never in the church, not even Christmas or Easter. It just wasn’t a thing that was talked about. It wasn’t a part of our fabric. Now, the community I grew up in is north of Santa Barbara, California, and sometimes people here California and think really, really liberal, and obviously that’s true, but actually where I grew up was very rural, in a lot of ways conservative. My high school had a working farm on it and a place where you could tie up your horse, like that kind of rural. The town it was in literally had one stop light. And so I knew that a lot of people around me were churchgoers, but as a child, I didn’t really know what that meant. It was just sort of a fact in people’s lives, and I never really thought about it as a kid.
So there was no childhood belief in God, no prayer, I mean-
… there was nothing in there to give you a context for that kind of belief at all.
No. I did have some babysitters when I was a young girl who were Mormons, and I have a distinct memory of… they had a picture on their wall, you know, of that feather-haired 1970s white Jesus who’s staring softly into the middle distance?
And I remember sort of making fun of that picture and getting a timeout for making fun of Jesus. So that was my first real encounter with Jesus as a concept.
Wow. All right. So that was your childhood, and so, as you were getting older and going to school, still no cultural or contextual references, even for Christmas or things like that?
Well, Christmas I loved, but it was definitely that weird porridge of Santa and Rudolph and Baby Jesus and Frosty the Snowman. It’s a little unclear what Baby Jesus had to do with any of it.
It was just the full-on tree, presents, commercialism type of thing. And Easter, like I got an Easter basket, but to me, Easter was entirely a rabbit who laid eggs or a rabbit who carried eggs. It’s entirely unclear what exactly is going on there. Chocolate is heavily involved. The resurrection? Not even mentioned.
So no religious references at all to those holidays?
Okay. Take us forward a little bit. So you’re growing up in elementary school, and you know, middle school is a time where you start really looking around, questioning, and I imagine you would be a thoughtful, introspective kind of person, or you read that way. Why don’t you tell us about who you were and if you were asking big questions or thinking about those things.
I have a distinct memory of being in, like, the fourth grade and sitting up on top of a play structure, kind of looking down on the playground during a recess, and trying to work out whether fate existed or not. Like, “Are my actions all determined beforehand? And if so, does that limit my freedom? Or do I actually have real freedom?” Looking back on that, I think, “Well, that’s sort of a weird thing to be thinking about on the playground as a 9-year-old, but I do know that I’ve always been interested in big ideas.
Actually, the summer after my eighth grade year, my grandfather, my mom’s dad, so a very not-practicing Catholic, gave me a bunch of books to read to earn money, and I was really into this. And one of the books was—I think it was popular in the 1950s. It was called The Robe. It was a historical fiction about one of the centurions who was at the crucifixion of Jesus, and so I read this book just because Grandpa assigned it. I remember reading it and thinking, “This is a really interesting story,” and at that point, right on the hinge towards high school, I did start asking a couple of my friends who I knew were churchgoers vaguely religious questions. I don’t remember now what they were, but I was sort of like, “Oh, well they must know some sort of things about this,” and I remember the answers I got just being utterly disappointing, shallow, like not really knowing what I was talking about, and so fairly quickly, I had an association of, like, “Well, maybe Christians aren’t people who think for themselves? Maybe they aren’t people who know what they’re talking about. Maybe it’s just a thing that’s sort of a crutch when you need something happy.”
But at that point, my freshman year in high school, I wasn’t necessarily thinking of that in a cruel way or a dismissive way, but it was just where my interviews led me. And I remember even being invited to… The Presbyterian church had a youth group on one of the weeknights, and there was pizza and basketball, and so I would go because that’s where other kids were, but I remember often sitting in the back of the room during presentation time, thinking, “I don’t understand why you need Jesus and God,” so there was a little bit of exposure, but my early exposures really only hardened me against it. I could put it that way.
It seemed rather nonsensical, and there was no one there to provide any kind of substantive answer or explanation for what it was or anything like that. So you lost respect for it, essentially.
Yeah. I did lose respect for it, and over time in high school, I also lost respect for the Christians my age, so on the one hand, I started to think more and more, “I think the big ideas deserve real answers, and I’m not seeing those in Christianity.” The other thing that I was discovering about myself in high school, which was interesting that’s based on a cultural change we’ve had, but I realized, “Gosh, the way that my peers feel about other young men really is how I feel about other young women.” This was in 2001 when I first realized this and started having romantic and sexual relationships with other young women. This is right before Texas struck down its sodomy law in 2003, right before Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2004, so it was just a weird little hinge period as we were moving, but I was also like, “Well, I’m pretty sure that Christians hate gay people, and I want to marry a woman someday, so not only is this intellectually dis-respectable,” is that the way to put it? Intellectually silly. “But it’s hateful for no reason,” and I saw the kids who identified as Christians also at some of the parties that I went to, doing some of the same stupid [UNKNOWN 9:21] things as me. I was like, “Well, at the end of the day, what really is this? It seems to be nothing.”
So it was a combination of a lot of things, it sounds like, that really pushed you away from Christianity. It wasn’t intellectually respectable, morally respectable, I presume-
… and also those who believed were hypocritical. And what was it pushing you towards?
That’s a great question. I really wanted to know what was true. It’s sort of cliché, I guess, but sort of like the true, the good, and the beautiful. I wanted to know what those things were. I took a lot of cues from culture. The kind of things that you read and watch and listen to. There were two high school teachers I had who both identified as atheists, which was kind of cool in my little small cow town, and they were warm, nurturing, wonderful people. And people who took interest in me, who invested in me, who listened to me. I really adored both of them. And so I think that having those type of role models who were so appealing also really helped me think about the fact that a humanistic life, an atheistic life, could be a life of virtue and goodness and of true living.
And obviously you respected them. They invested in you. Did they provide, did you think, the answers? Those intellectual answers that you thought were true with regard to atheism? Were you reading?
I don’t think they were interested in providing me any types of answers. I think they were interested in just providing me a scaffolding for how to become a thinking person. Which I think is ultimately probably why I respected them. I wasn’t necessarily even asking them the questions. I was looking to them as models for a way to live.
So it was during high school, I presume, that you took their role model and you embraced it as your own.
And you would consider yourself an atheist in high school?
Oh, definitely. By the time I was a senior in high school, my senior year English teacher, who was one of these teachers, I started affectionately turning in my English papers to her with, instead of my name at the top, I just wrote the word Satan.
Kind of antagonistic. Condescending, perhaps?
Maybe a little contentious?
Arrogant for sure. Yeah, yeah.
I was a jerk, basically.
And what do you think informed that sense of condescension or arrogance towards Christians?
Part of it’s a personality defect. I think I’m arrogant by disposition. And so if I don’t have any moral check on it, that’s the direction I’m going to go. I’ve heard my whole life that I’m very funny, and one of the things I can absolutely do quickly is decide to use that against people. And the obvious targets in my context were sort of this picture I had of dumb Christians. People who weren’t thinking. That kind of thing.
So you embraced the identity of not only same-sex attraction but also atheist.
And so that identity moved you into college?
So tell me about that.
And I was really excited. Again, I grew up in sort of an unimpressive place, but I got into Yale, which was really exciting for me. I thought, “Finally, I’m going to be at a place where I can explore big ideas with like-minded people. Finally, I’m going to be in a place where I can give some elbow room to my sexuality a little more.” I had never actually faced any persecution or anything like that related to my same-sex relationships, but it just—it wasn’t a lot. There wasn’t a big market exactly. I was just like, “I want to get to the broader world.” So I was excited. I showed up in New Haven kind of ready and raring to go, for sure.
And what did you find there? Did you find those people who were willing to explore those big ideas? Did you find like-minded atheists?
I found everybody who was smarter than me.
I imagine there are a lot of smart people at Yale.
Everyone who had received better training or was just naturally kind of further ahead than I was. But I did. I found people who were interesting and exciting and wanted to talk about this stuff and also just wanted to have fun. You get assigned in groups each to your freshman counselor, and they make you go to all these meetings at the beginning of the year, so you can talk about things, and we all just liked to complain about it, really.
But I remember being in one of these freshman counselor meetings very early in my freshman year, and my counselor was leading us through a conversation. He must have asked something like, “What’s your experience here been like so far?” I’m not exactly sure what the question he asked was, but there was a classmate of mine, a young man, who responded, “You know, I get the sense that a lot of people think that faith or religion is only for stupid people, and I don’t think that’s true at all.” He was clearly speaking from some sort of faith perspective, and he offered that up, and my first response was like, “Yeah, we’ll you’re wrong,” and my freshman counselor was like, “Yeah, can’t you believe how silly and ignorant that is?” So I remember being like, “Wait a minute. Oh, is that not a thing we’re supposed to think?”
So that was a weird first little entry point into having my assumption that religion was for idiots questioned. Now, over the course of my time in Yale, I absolutely encountered anti-Christian, anti-religious, sort of condescension or bias or these types of things, so I’m not trying to say that it was a beautiful and only open and affirming type of environment for people with faith, but that moment was really important for me, and there was more toleration and more encouragement of free exchange of thoughts than I think is sometimes portrayed of campus life in places like that.
So this was an intellectual place, but obviously everyone did not have the same worldview or ideology.
Because these are thinking people and were willing to explore ideas, did they really explore—those who were naturalistic or atheistic or materialistic in their understanding of the world—did they explore those, do you think, in depth? Looked at the implications of their worldview?
That’s a great question. I fell in quickly with people who were similar to me, and usually, when you’re in groups of people who are similar to you, you don’t spend a lot of time talking about your presuppositions necessarily. You end up more having a lot of stupid, fun conversations, but a lot of conversations more about implications sometimes, you know? Like what does it mean to live well? I’m not sure we phrased it that way. But like who are we supposed to be? What are we supposed to choose? What are the right kinds of things? And mostly refracted through politics. Or maybe not mostly, but politics was definitely a piece of it. Kind of Democrat/Republican types of things. Or policy types of things. Sometimes ethical types of things.
I was in a program for freshman. You had to apply into it. That was sort of an intensive course through the humanities of the Western world. So you did philosophy and literature and politics. So a lot of really fun conversations over the classic texts of the Western tradition. So that was fun, too. It was a little more detached from everyday life but still interesting. I remember trying to read John Locke and just, like, throwing it across the room, because I was like, “What is he even saying?” It was pressing the edges. It was what I needed. What I’d encountered in high school was actually too easy for me, and so it led me into a false confidence.
I was encountering some texts and some ideas that were stretching for me and helpful for me, and it was just good. It was rich. But it was also really, really destabilizing. So on the one hand I look back on it now and I see the trajectory that I’ve been on, and I feel so thankful for the ways that I’ve grown as a thinker and my ability to approach texts and approach ideas, but in the first throes of it, ultimately I was feeling just a little bit lost. A lot of my peers had been trained already in seminar contexts, already interacting with primary sources. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, and so I was flying around on instinct and my lack of training, which ultimately gave really checkered results academically.
So you were becoming a critical thinker.
And perhaps your presumptions were being questioned, destabilized, whether it would be through academic study or even that one moment where your presumption was questioned as to whether or not Christianity… Was it really all that ignorant and silly? Or is there something more? So you’re moving through this process of learning and growing, as we all do when you expose yourself to other ideas and other people, right? Somehow those engagements and those interactions cause you sometimes to stop and question.
Yeah. And they should.
What else happened at Yale? Were you being further destabilized by ideas and people? Or were you being more affirmed in your atheism?
I think I was being affirmed in my atheism but destabilized in my position as a thinker. I was just immature. I wasn’t probably as ready as I should’ve been. Which is okay. And people there were legitimately smarter than me, which is also okay. But one of the big rocks of my freshman year was the fact that my really important romantic relationship with my girlfriend at the time just exploded. And there were a lot of different reasons for that, but also it was a contributing factor to my emotional slump. Teenage breakups are hard. I resorted to plenty of drinking. I mean not like irresponsibly, not like not going to class or not doing my homework, but just sort of that’s what seemed to be the acceptable way to deal with sadness, and by the time I came back to the beginning of the spring semester, which is really the dead of winter, January, I was cold for the first time. I was heartbroken. I wasn’t sure that I belonged at this place. It was a lot of instability.
I cannot underplay, too, how growing up in southern California does not prepare you to be cold for the first time. I was so miserable! I was miserable.
So you were being thrown off your feet, not only with regard to your thinking a little bit but also relationally. That’s always, like you say, difficult and destabilizing. So what happened then?
So what else are you supposed to do? I needed some identity, and I remember trying on, like, “Oh, should I go to the gym more? No, I’m really lazy. Should I write for the school newspaper? No. That doesn’t even interest me. I’m not smart enough.” So I just kept going to class. It’s like you put one foot in front of the other, and I happened to be in a lecture one day where they were introducing us to René Descartes, you know the old dead French guy who coined the phrase, “I think, therefore I am,” and developed from a phrase a whole proof for the existence of God. So I remember sitting in the audience, hearing the lecturer sort of explaining how Descartes was working through his thought, and I remember sitting there, thinking, “This is a really stupid proof for the existence of God,” like, “I don’t buy it.” And I still don’t buy it, really.
But while I was sitting there, I did think, “What if there are other good proofs for the existence of God?” which immediately made me tense up and sort of want to push it away. Like, “No, that’s not what we think about. Faith, Christianity, that’s for stupid bigots. We don’t go there.” But at the same time I couldn’t really shake the interest that had been stirred in me. I was like, “Well, shouldn’t I know the better ones even so I could refute them?” or, “What if there’s something there?” I don’t know. I just felt like a good angel/bad angel but atheist angels? I’m not really sure exactly. Sort of pulling me.
So I’m a Millennial, right? The natural thing to do when you have serious and secretive questions is to ask the internet, you know? So I would go back to my room, open my gigantic Dell laptop. You know, you needed an upper body workout thing just to lift those. And I would just type religious search terms into Google, doing that whole internet rabbit trail thing, you know? Where you don’t even know how you ended up in a certain place. You’re just following hyperlinks and reading different stuff. And I definitely did that way more than I should have. I definitely did that way more than my French homework, for example, and my grade absolutely reflected that. And that was a really interesting time I was encountering ideas.
But I also sort of kept coming back to reading about Jesus, like stories about Jesus. I don’t know if I was reading the gospels or reading what talked about the gospels, but His character was becoming more interesting to me. Like, “Oh, He’s clearly quite intelligent. There’s a lot of moral dignity here. I can see why He’s an interesting person.” I felt sort of drawn to Him. I also remember reading a lot of articles, maybe not a lot but at least articles that made an impression on me on the historical reliability of the resurrection account. I guess I always assumed out of hand that that was ridiculous, and I was reading different defenses of it. I was like, “Whoa! There’s some interesting evidence here. I’m not saying I believe it, but there’s some really interesting evidence here.” So kind of dancing around mostly the person of Jesus, with some other random topics thrown in. But really quickly, with that, I was like, “Well, I want to marry a woman someday. Am I even allowed to be interested in Jesus as a character? I’m not saying I want to be a religious person, but isn’t this against everything?”
The only two Christians I knew at Yale, or at least people who identified as Christians, were these two girls who were dating each other. And one of them was actually training, en route to be a Lutheran minister. I knew this because she and I were in marching band together, which is the lamest thing you could possibly admit to in some contexts, but it’s true.
So I remember thinking, “Well, I should go to my friends and just ask them what they think,” like, “Clearly, they don’t think that. Otherwise, their whole lives wouldn’t be the way that it is.” So I went to them. And they were sweet, lovely girls. I was sort of like, “Well, this doesn’t make sense to me. How does it make sense to you?” They were like, “Well, it’s all been a big misunderstanding. The Bible actually supports monogamous same-sex relationships,” and I was like, “Really?” Like, “If you believe that—you’re smart people. You’re here. Maybe it’s true.” And so I remember them giving me sort of a packet of information explaining how the Bible actually affirmed monogamous same-sex relationships. And I was kind of excited. I’m like, “If this is in the Bible, that’s super interesting. That opens up some other doors.”
So I remember taking it back to my room and reading through it. I love packets to deconstruct and look for evidence for and stuff like this. So I remember reading it and finding it pretty persuasive. Like, “Ooh! These are really good arguments. I could see how this makes sense. Maybe they’re really onto something. This is good!” But I also thought, “Well, I probably should actually read the text of the Bible it’s talking about. I mean, I’m not a Bible scholar, but it does seem, in general, that you should read the primary sources.” So I didn’t have a Bible, right? So I just pulled up these texts on my computer screen. I remember looking at my computer screen, down at the packet, comparing, working through, and then ultimately, it’s like, “Well, I don’t think these arguments look as good actually compared to the original text as they did just on their own.” Like, “It’s really nice that these girls want to believe that, but this just seems to have too many problems to get around.” And I remember feeling, on the one hand, sort of relieved, like I didn’t want the Bible to actually have a hold on me, but two, also sort of stupid for even having pursued it and kind of disappointed. I remember just throwing it in my cheap dorm trash can and being like, “Whatever. This isn’t even a thing that should be pursued.” And I’m pretty sure I just never talked to the girls about it again, and they were polite and didn’t harass me about it, you know?
So it seems like you would be at a very interesting crossroads, looking at some things intellectually, finding them interesting. It’s pulling your interest. But yet on a personal level finding things about Christianity that may not cohere with your lifestyle.
Right! With what I wanted for my future, what I assumed was going to make me happy.
Yeah! But in a sense, as someone who’s a pursuer of truth, as you were, and you can’t kind of unsee what you have seen or unhear or unread or whatever what you had already started being exposed to, what did you do with that? You had a choice of moving forward to continue to explore or to disengage.
Well, I was confronted with a different circumstance. I’d kind of let it go a little bit. Also, frankly, I was behind on my homework. But I remember being in the bedroom of one of my acquaintances. So she wasn’t necessarily a friend. We didn’t hang out a lot. We’d have breakfast a lot together, but we weren’t buddies, but for whatever reason, this day I went to her room. She had a bookshelf next to her doorway, and one of my favorite hobbies is looking at people’s bookshelves and judging them, right?
So I was looking through her bookshelf, and I knew that she was a non-practicing Catholic. She had a copy of Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis. The title of the book was really interesting, and I thought, “Oh! I want to read that book,” like, “Of course I should be reading books and not just the internet.” But I was embarrassed by my interest. I didn’t want to ask my friend to borrow the book. I didn’t want to have conversations with her. I didn’t want her to know that I was even remotely thinking about this, so I just stole the book off her shelf. She wasn’t looking. It’s a small volume. It fit right into my shoulder bag. So I just took it. Again, I didn’t also believe in any moral transcendence, so it was like, “You’re not really hurting anyone,” which stealing a book is kind of… obviously it’s her property, but anyway, “If you’re not hurting anyone and you don’t get caught, no big deal.”
So it was while I was reading. I just started reading this book. I remember being roughly halfway through it one day between classes. And I remember… I don’t remember what chapter I was in. I don’t remember the paragraph, even the point that Lewis was making. But I do remember sitting there, in the middle of reading it, and suddenly being… I don’t really know how to describe it other than overwhelmed with the sure knowledge that God existed. Not like a generic store brand God but the God Who created everything, Who made me. Very much… the God who was holy. I didn’t know that vocabulary word, but that was the pressing sense. Not only does He exist, but His existence in perfection has implications.
Really the front edge was just this, like, “God exists, and I am very bad.” Arrogant. I was a liar. I was sexually immoral. I made fun of people. I cheated on things. I was reading a stolen book. All of the chips were pushed into the guilty category. That was the thing that I felt. But with that—I was just talking to a friend of mine recently who’s been an atheist for a long time, and he’s like, “Tell me how you converted.” I’m like, “Dave, I don’t really know how to explain it to you.” On some level, the Lord moved. I also really understood right in that moment, when I was feeling my sin in front of a holy God, that part of the reason Jesus had come was to place Himself as a barrier between God’s wrath and me. That He would end up absorbing it, and the only way to be safe was to run towards Him, not away from Him.
I’m pretty sure that’s not what Lewis had written on that page. I just understood. And I remember thinking, “I don’t want to become a Christian! That’s so lame! Christians are lame!” But I also was sitting there thinking, “Well, I can’t pretend this isn’t true just because it’s inconvenient for my life. That also seems really stupid. I’m not going to get a better deal than this. I’ve got to take this deal.” Very transactional on some level. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I’ve fallen in love with the beauty of God.” I’m sort of like, “Ugh.”
Kind of the Pascal’s wager almost.
Yeah, yeah. Which I obviously didn’t know about at that point.
And so I didn’t have a nice pastor or campus minister sitting there with me, like, “Well, I’ll lead you in prayer,” but I kind of knew that I needed to pray. So I closed my eyes, and I was like, “Fine! I’ll become a Christian.” And it just was like, “Uh, well I guess I’ll go to class.” Like I didn’t really know what else to do, you know?
It reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s story, where he claims himself to be.
The most reluctant convert of all England. It’s not something he-
When I read his story later, I was like, “Oh, yeah! I resonate with that.”
Your story is very similar.
My old dead Anglican friend.
So that was stunning for you, and I imagine it was surprising for those around you.
Yeah. Yes, definitely.
So you went on to class. Were you a bit subversive about your new Christian identity? Is it something that you-
I didn’t know what to—the immediate aftermath, I was just sort of like, “Okay.” I don’t even remember what class I went to. It was probably one of my humanities classes, like a seminar, where you just go talk about your reading or whatever. But I know later that day I saw a little advertisement. Yale Students for Christ was going to have a Valentine’s party that Saturday. So I remember seeing that advertisement and thinking, “I didn’t even know we had a Yale Students for Christ.”
So Saturday, the 14th, Valentine’s Day happened, and I showed up at this party pretending I was there by accident, because I still didn’t even know what to do with myself, so I was like, “Oh, I just stumbled in here.” The first person I saw was this other freshman who was in my literature section, and back in the fall, when we had been talking about the Bible as literature, I mean I had a field day just sort of like stomping all over the Bible, and he had been in that section with me, and so when he saw me walk in, his face did sort of like, “Uh oh,” thing. And I saw him and recognized him and thought, “Oh, I’m in the right place.”
So I went to them, and I was like, “Hi. So I became a Christian two days ago,” and they were all like, “What?” And they just sort of passed me to the other freshmen. And I was like, “Hi, here I am,” and they were like, “What?” They didn’t really know what to do with me. So they were like, “Okay, so do you want to come to freshman prayer on Monday?” And I was like, “Sure.” Then they were like, “Do you want to come to freshman Bible study on Tuesday?” I was like, “Sure.” I just followed them around like a baby quail, like copying them. Sort of like, “Oh, okay. So this is what we do. We raise our hands when we sing. We read the Bible together. We don’t ever cuss. Our music is pretty bad.” You know, just the things you needed to be a young Christian.
I started spending a lot of time with them. No time with my other friends. But definitely the excitement of discovering what the Gospel was overwhelmed me. It’s crazy to me now, thinking about, as a 17-year-old, I thought that Christianity was just for stupid people, when Christianity is one of the deepest and greatest intellectual traditions that has literally ever existed. I think it was such a gift to me that the first Christians I got to do life and discipleship with were thoughtful academic people. Not perfect people. And young people, like me. But people who really did care that it was true, not just, “This is what my parents did,” or any of those types of excuses.
Now it took me a long time to understand that my faith is so much more than just like memorizing a book, that actually our relationship with God is demonstrated in the lives that He wants to transform. That took a while. It’s like you learn math, you just learn math facts. You learn history, you learn history facts. So, like, Christian, learn Christian facts. I was slow on the uptake in a lot of ways. My life was so deeply imperfect as an early disciple. I mean not that it’s perfect now. A lot of failure. A lot of stupidity. But also real joy. Good answers to hard questions and good admissions to when the answers weren’t sure. Such, for me, learning about where the Bible came from and what a trustworthy document it is. Especially when you compare it to any other document in its class or time. That just gave me such a deep confidence to be able to pursue it, even in the places where there was confusion or tension, especially around what it had to say about sexuality, which is something functionally I’ve been working out for the past 18 years.
So it was an intellectual explosion for me, but also ultimately it just came back to the person of Christ. I had a moment early in my discipleship where my ex-girlfriend functionally offered to get back with me, and I could’ve left the good answers. I could’ve left my new Christian friends, as great as they were. Because I did still love her in many ways. But ultimately what I couldn’t leave was Christ. I couldn’t leave Him. And so it’s not just an intellectual thing, but that intellectual piece, it’s been really helpful for me in a lot of ways.
You found the substance, the riches, like you say, the depth of Christian thinkers and the Christian worldview, that many have no idea about. It, for some, seems very-
And I don’t blame them, frankly. The way that Christianity is lived out in our country would not ever give you a clue as to the depth of its intellectual rigor and joy. What’s comforting to me is when the Lord talks to His people in the scriptures, they’re just always failing, so I’m like, “Well, we’re not unique in the fact that we fail. I think our failures are grievous, and I do lament them, but I don’t blame people when they think of Christianity as all kinds of silly things. Because a lot of us have made it look silly.
You have come such a long way, it sounds like, in your life. Having that perspective on one side of thinking Christianity is silly, for ignorant people, it’s just nonsense, now to the place where you’re actually engaged in the riches of the intellectual depth of Christian worldview and deep in your relationship with Christ. I’m so impressed that you actually, at a very pivotal point in your life, actually chose Christ, and whatever relationship you had with Him and whatever He offered you was so much more important than your personal choice of how you would’ve rather lived your life. But it was… You wanted to live how Christ wanted you to live because, at some point, you made that conversion over from pleasing yourself to pleasing Christ.
It’s never easy. That decision. And that’s an ongoing choice for all of us, all of the time. Fighting against our own desires for the sake of the one who saved us, right? The one who is that barrier, the one who loved us so. That Gospel that you spoke of is transforming when you understand the depth and riches of His love for you. Wow. Your story has taken a great 180 change.
Well, the Lord has a good sense of humor.
Yeah, I would imagine you would’ve never seen yourself as being in this place.
No, not even remotely. Not even remotely.
Because I think you referenced at the very beginning, when you talked about who you are and what you do, that you are actually engaged in some kind of ministry. It’s not that this is just for you. You believe in it, and you live it, and you love it so much that you want others to know Christ in the same way that you do. Tell me about that.
I do. Absolutely. I want everyone to know there’s a God Who made them and forgives them and Who wants to actually—He wants us to thrive. And sometimes we just see the things God says no to, and we miss his bigger yeses. But also I want to approach the people in my life who do not know the Lord with the respect that they deserve. We need to prove. We need to show the evidence that God is good. Not because He’s shown himself bad, but because we’ve not done a good job representing Him. I always want to approach the people in my life invitationally and taking them seriously. I take seriously the objections and the arguments of other people. They’ve got really valid experiences. I really want people to know who He is, and if I don’t actually love the person in front of me, I don’t think there’s any way for that to happen.
I think there’s deep wisdom there. Also a heart for others and probably a lot of experience at engaging, especially at the college level. You’re a campus minister of sorts?
Yeah. I am a campus minister. I’m not on campus with students right now because of my PhD and my role with the theological team. I do different trainings of our staff and stuff, but honestly, even—the street that I live on. None of my neighbors know or trust the Lord. But I love them deeply, and I have real relationship with them, and it’s an opportunity to learn from them and also share with them. They’re delightful. It’s not just a thing that happens. In college, we’re all allowed to talk about big ideas. Actually, other people want to talk about big ideas, too, but they want to talk about them when they know that you actually care what they think, too.
I think that’s profound and so needed among our conversation and on our walk today as Christians. You do engage with those who don’t believe, and if someone is a curious skeptic actually listening in and listening to you and to your story, what would you advise someone who actually may be a closet curious skeptic, like you were at one time? Perhaps looking on the internet and all sorts of places, trying to figure out what Christianity is. What would you say to a curious skeptic?
Well it so depends because personality wise we’re all very different. The things that draw us are different. But you cannot go wrong with looking to Christ, like who is He? Who are His claims? Do they hold up? We have all the tools of the professional historian to be able to tell whether things are strong arguments or weak arguments, probable or improbable, and I think if you examine Christ, who He is historically, who He is ethically, He just holds up. And He came for us. He didn’t have to come. He came for us. I would even encourage people frankly to pray. I don’t think it hurts, “God, give me Your Spirit. Help me understand.” I mean you might feel stupid. You might not really believe it. But the Lord loves to answer weak and silly prayers sometimes, you know? He came to save the lost and to meet the seeker and to answer questions and to open the door to people who knock. So I think we’ve just got to keep knocking.
Perhaps even read Mere Christianity. Like you did.
Yeah maybe. Or perhaps read something great, like The Reason for God by Tim Keller or Confronting Christianity by Rebecca McLaughlin. There are some really good contemporary books that talk about some of these things as well.
Yeah, I think that’s great advice, and we will definitely include all of your recommendations in the episode notes. Is there anything else about your story that you would like to include here as we wrap up?
Just that I don’t want anyone to hear my story and laminate it onto anyone else. We each have our own experience in front of the Lord, and what happened in my life isn’t anything that I achieved or anything I should really be praised for. It was just the movement of the Lord, and so if we want the Lord to move in our life, we need to look for Him and ask for it, and if we want the Lord to move in other people’s lives, we need to ask for it. We need to be prayerful people and expect that God’s ways are going to be a little different than we might choose but that He is still good.
I think, at the end of the day, it looks like you actually found the One who is true, good, and beautiful.
I know you were searching for that, and there is a depth and a richness, riches in Christ that can really be found nowhere else, and so I thank you for your story and for the way that you’ve been transparent with your life and just deeply vulnerable. So I think that that’s incredibly important, too, as we approach other people that we demonstrate a life transformed but also we’re not afraid to show and to tell the ways that we were, the ways that we still struggle, and the ways that the Lord has brought us unto Himself. So thank you for your story today, Rachel.
Yeah, it was my pleasure. Thanks for having me.