Wednesday, May 29, 2013

How to witness to an atheist

The obvious answer is "don't," but that's not particularly helpful.

I don't mean to discourage my Christian brethren, who are called by their religion to preach the Good News to everyone, from attempting to fulfill their great commission as Christians.  But let's be honest.  Someone who has declared for the atheist* squad, in our hyperreligious American society, in which our political leaders must end every speech with a reference to God, is probably (a) pretty aware of the basic Christian proposition, and (b) not going to be convinced by any reference you're likely to advance.  The tools you need to be effective are just not in your toolbag.

* - In this entry, when I use the term "atheist," I am referring to people who reject the concept of spiritual religion.  Technically speaking, Buddhism is an atheist religion, but I am not including Buddhists in the term.  I might just as well have referred to "secular humanists" or "freethinkers."

(I assume, of course, that you are genuinely interested in actually convincing your target to believe.  If your goal is merely to expose, it really doesn't matter what tactics you use. You can stop reading now.)

Most of the atheists I know--which is a secretly large number--know Christianity better than many Christians.  They've read the Bible, and maybe even studied it.  Many of them are former Christians who saw too many contradictions in the religion.

The fundamental problem is that atheists simply don't accept what Christians must take as their first article of faith:  that God exists and is knowable through the Bible.  Whether or not you accept the Bible as the infallible word of God, Christianity requires at least some belief that at least some of what the Bible says is true.  There is very little that all Christians agree upon, but that bit is universal.

That is something that atheists simply cannot accept as a first principle.  Atheists believe in what can be observed and deduced and proven.  If faith is an essential step in a belief, atheists will not accept it.

Some people suggest that atheists should at least make Pascal's wager--choosing to believe on the chance that the Bible is right, on the basis that making the wrong "bet" will mean the loss of everything.  The atheist turns that wager around and suggests that if the Bible is wrong, and there is nothing after death, and this life is all we have, then making the wrong "bet" means the loss of everything anyway.  It's not a winning argument.

So, how can Christians witness effectively to atheists?

It doesn't start with the Bible.  It doesn't take words at all--in fact, words are hurtful to the process, not helpful.

Well, it sort of starts with the Bible.  In John 13, the story of the Last Supper is told.  Just after Jesus tells Judas Iscariot to go and betray him, Jesus acknowledges that his time on earth is drawing to a close.  At verse 34, he says, "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another."

Then, at verse 35, "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."

Very few of the atheists I have known wish to tread on others' sincerely held religious beliefs.  But virtually all of the atheists I have known despise hypocrisy.  They look at Christians who speak the language of hate, of scorn, of separation and division and condemnation, and they repay it in kind.  They see Christians who post all sorts of prayers, or statements about prayers, on social media sites, which are the modern-day streetcorners, and they see Christians who cannot follow even the most basic tenets of their religion.  They see Christians who preach prosperity theology and drive expensive cars and live in expensive houses and send their children to expensive private schools, and they shake their heads.

Christianity is supposed to be a religion founded on love, and there is precious little Christian love evident to the average atheist.

So if you want to witness to an atheist, it begins and ends with acting like a follower of Christ, focusing your conduct on love, so that everyone will know of your Christianity, just as Jesus said in John 13:35--not because you said it (because you didn't say it), or because you talked about Jesus to someone (because you didn't), or because you prayed on Facebook (since that's the modern-day streetcorner (Matt. 6:5)), but because you lived the philosophy that Jesus espoused.
You may never manage to convert an atheist, and that's fine.  Very few atheists are interested in, or even open to, a religion that requires faith in the unseen (Heb. 11:1) and discourages reasoned inquiry (Prov. 3:5).  But virtually all of them are interested in the existence of better Christians--and by "better Christians" I mean "people who are better at following Christ's example" and not "people who are good at scaring people into submission" or "people who like to criticize others' faults."  Come to think of it, pretty much everyone would be better off with more of those around.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Star Search? I think not.

Let's be honest:  I have never been particularly impressed with celebrity.  Only once in my life can I remember ever having been starstruck.  As a kid, probably 13 or so, I was at an event where Bill Clinton gave a short speech.  He was the governor of Arkansas at the time.  Afterward, I went up to shake his hand, and my dad had to remind me to introduce myself.  I'm not sure how much of that is attributable to celebrity and how much was just being shy.  I was embarrassed by the experience.

Every once in a while, I come into contact with a genuinely famous person.  I have a hard time not feeling disgust at the way ordinary people fall over themselves to get at celebrities.  Not surprisingly, given what I do for a living, these encounters occur at airports.  I could tell you about the time I saw Ted Danson browsing in the DFW airport bookstore, or the time I was behind Jerry Rice in the Southwest check-in line at LAX, or the time I was behind Joyce DeWitt ("Janet" from TV's Three's Company) in the security line at LIT.  I could even tell you about that time I ran into Kenneth Starr while arguing at the Court of Appeals.  (He was terrible, by the way.)

But those things seem kind of boring to me.

In all four of those instances, at least one person approached the celebrity for an autograph.

There's a term for people who glom on to celebrities when they're "in the wild"--starf***ers.* It would never occur to me to introduce myself to someone on the basis that they happen to be famous.  It would make me throw up to seek an autograph.  There is literally no one in the world whose autograph I would want to keep.  I understand the impulse.  I just don't experience it.**

* - Several sources indicate that this term often has a sexual connotation, though not necessarily.  I am using it in the platonic sense.
** - I really don't have the luxury of being starstruck.  From time to time, my job involves dealing with people who are powerful, and often well known.  If I let that affect me, I would be less effective as an advocate for my client's interests.  I find that it helps to remember that they're just ordinary humans. Sometimes I just imagine them sitting on the toilet.

(I have this recurring fantasy that I am flying, sitting in first class, and my seatmate is a famous person.  We engage in the usual small talk throughout the flight--just a normal conversation, nothing about the thing that makes the person famous.  At the end, the person casually mentions who he is, and I smile and say, "Yeah, I know, I just figured you were tired of being recognized. Nice talking to you.")

What makes me bring this up is an experience Wil Wheaton recounted on his website today.  Now, I follow Wil Wheaton because I find that he's an intelligent guy with interesting things to say.  I wasn't particularly fond of his character in Star Trek when it was in first run.***  But as celebrities go, he's among the most accessible, down-to-earth people I've encountered on the internet.

*** - But remind me sometime to tell you about the time that my name was next to Jonathan Frakes's name on the Hertz board at LAX.

Apparently some Wil Wheaton fans weren't all that happy with their Wil Wheaton Experience at a convention in Calgary last year.  A lot of people wanted pictures with him, so there was a long line and each person only got about 5 seconds, and in these fans' photo (which was supposed to be the highlight of their vacation) he didn't look happy.  Then, the next day, he was charging $30 for an autograph, which they thought was inappropriate.

I just find all of that bizarre.  First of all, why would you want your picture made with somebody you don't know personally and who doesn't know you? And if Wil Wheaton can get $30 for an autograph, I think that says more about the people who will pay it than about Wil.  Bully for him.  (I often sign my name dozens of times a day, and to be fair, I get a lot more than $30 for it a lot of times, but they aren't paying for my name, just my analysis.)

To his credit, Wil was apologetic.  Apparently he was sick that day, and the convention was poorly organized, and he was emotional because he had just been reunited with the Star Trek cast for the first time in a long time.  He took the time to listen to the fan's complaint, to respond, and to make the conversation public on his website.  In his place, I doubt I would have been so accommodating.

But, really...celebrities are just people.  Being famous doesn't make them special.  It certainly doesn't make them better than ordinary folks, and believe me, some of them are a lot worse.  They have all the same bodily functions as the rest of us, the same insecurities; they make the same kinds of mistakes.  Many of them aren't particularly rich.  And, most of all, they don't owe your their time and attention, and you don't owe them yours. Don't be a starf***er.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Too cute by half?

We do a fair bit of our grocery shopping at Kroger.  We like the selection, the prices are reasonable, and it's a union shop, so I don't have to feel guilty about how they treat the people who work there.  One of the nice perquisites of shopping there is that they offer a discount on gasoline as a loyalty reward.

When you buy gift cards at Kroger, they give you double credit for the gasoline rewards.  (A couple of times a year, they give you quadruple credit.)  So, a $25 gift card to The Olive Garden, to pick a place at random, nets you 50 fuel points.  Cashing in 100 fuel points gets you 10 cents off per gallon.

One day I was in Kroger and noticed that they offer Southwest Airlines gift cards.  I fly a lot, and since moving, or semi-moving, back to Little Rock, I find myself on Southwest fairly often.  This morning, I was sitting in Phoenix, booking my flight back to Little Rock for tomorrow, and I had a flash of inspiration:  Go buy gift cards at Kroger (they call it "Fry's" in Arizona), and use them to get get fuel points.

My fare was $541.  (My client reimburses me for the flight.)  So I bought five $100 gift cards (the largest denomination) and proceeded to buy my ticket online. I was congratulating myself on how clever I was, and thinking about the 1,000 fuel points I'd just scored, when I hit a problem.

Apparently Southwest will only allow you to use up to four methods of payment on one reservation. This is a problem because I needed to use five gift cards and pay the rest with my credit card.  Sure enough, when I entered the fourth gift card, Southwest said, "Sorry, you'll have to remove a gift card to pay the balance with a credit card."

Undeterred, I called the reservations line.  No dice there, either.  "We use the same system you use for payments."  (By the way, they answered in 4 seconds, and the agent was as helpful as he could be under the circumstances.)

Now, I'm not one to take no for an answer, so I devised a plan to make it work.  Southwest doesn't charge any change or cancellation fees if you need to cancel a ticket.  They will store your funds for up to a year for later use.  So I looked around for a flight that was just over $300 (Phoenix to Fort Lauderdale worked nicely), and booked it using three gift cards and a credit card.  I then immediately canceled it, and Southwest helpfully told me that it was retaining my funds for later use.  I then went back to my original trip.

Success!  I used the $300 credit, the two remaining gift cards, and my credit card to complete the reservation.

I guess sometimes things just work out.  But I was sweating it all the way, and it may be a while before I try that again.