Apologetics and paper planes
More than once during a particularly long sermon, I’ve dreamed of throwing a paper plane past the preacher’s ear.
So imagine my delight during the July holidays when I finally got my dream, turning the normally sedate upper Chapter House of St Andrew’s Cathedral – with its portraits of mostly frowning old archbishops – into a loud, joyful and mischievous version of the airport at Mascot.
The wettest behind the ears of the Cathedral’s four student ministers, I was teaching the Kathedral Kids about persistent prayer by inviting the 30 children to pen their requests to God then fold them into paper planes.
One of our Nancy Bird Waltons wrote “forgiveness” while another scrawled “$90,000,000,000,000” and was still adding zeroes five minutes later when I asked everyone to line up without – oi! – throwing their planes.
First, the kids had to turn their backs on me and toss their planes over their shoulders. This represented how most people treated God’s call to prayer.
Second, they were to grab hold of their throwing wrist with their other hand and try to launch their planes, which predictably all fell short. This represented prayers handicapped by doubts or disillusionments.
Third, I stood above the kids in the mezzanine level and asked them to throw their prayers for me to catch. All but one missed. This showed our wrong belief that only a few prayers reach God.
Finally, I had the children line up one last time and I collected each of their prayers face-to-face, illustrating how God not only receives all our prayers but that he does so personally.
Afterwards, as the planes were put away, with none found lodged up the late archbishop Howard Mowll’s nose, two brothers aged 13 and 11 approached me to lead an impromptu Bible study as they were too old for the main group.
Unprepared but keen to support their eagerness, I sat them down and posed a question off the top of my head that has subsequently forced me to rethink how to approach Bible studies for young adults: “Rather than me picking a passage, is there anything you’ve ever wanted to know about God but you’ve been too afraid to ask?”
Immediately, the brothers leapt at the chance.
“How can I keep believing in God when all my friends say that I’m stupid?” the older brother asked.
His younger brother was just as blunt. “If a baby dies and never knows Jesus, does it go to hell?”
These weren’t your normal questions from your teen study booklet splashed with Banksy hipster covers. This was real frustration yearning for real answers.
And they’re not alone. In 2011, a five-year research project by US faith-based research firm Barna Group uncovered the six main reasons why American teenagers disconnect from church after turning 15 – and one of those was church being a safe place to ask questions.
“Young adults with Christian experience say the church is not a place that allows them to express doubts,” Barna reported. “They do not feel safe admitting that sometimes Christianity does not make sense. In addition, many feel that the church’s response to doubt is trivial.”
Of those polled, one in three said they felt unable to “ask my most pressing life questions in church” and almost a quarter said they had “significant intellectual doubts” about their faith.
As a journalist and a Christian, the older I’ve grown in my Christian faith the more confident I’ve become about the reality of God because of what I call the Alice principle: when faced with an unanswered question, go down the rabbit hole. Stop sitting fearfully on the riverbank. Chase after the truth, even if you have to tumble down a very deep well to eventually find it. And the remarkable thing is, for every bottle labelled “Drink me” or cake marked “Eat me” that is fawned over by secularists, atheists or the media, none has ever disproved the existence of our Almighty God. There is no Queen of Hearts ready with an axe to chop our faith in half – and there never will be.
For the two brothers, when we were faced with no black-and-white answer in the Bible as to what happens when children die, we followed the breadcrumbs through the character of God, the Jewish concept of the age of accountability and David’s lament for his dead child in 2 Samuel 12:21-23.
As for the older brother, we pulled about his friends’ claims by explaining God’s general revelation in nature (Psalm 19:1-4, Romans 1:20), the four Gospel writers as accurate witnesses, the writings of Josephus and Tacitus, as well as exploring the motivations behind Christ’s disciples to continue to proclaim him Lord even though they were tortured, beheaded or crucified.
At the end of the 20-minute study, both brothers were clearly reassured. I thought that was the end of my little experiment but the Lord had other plans. With the youth leaders away for the next two weeks, I volunteered to run a proper apologetic teenage Bible study again, with no preparation, that this time lasted a full hour and attracted six sharp-minded teenagers.
The rules were simple: ask whatever question you want and we’ll try to find the answer in the Bible. If we can’t, then we’ll go away and research it.
Again, the teenagers didn’t hold back. “Why does a loving God allow suffering?” “How can God send people to hell even if they’ve never heard of him?” “If God created Satan, then doesn’t that mean that God created evil?”
There was also an old atheist trap of logic, albeit with a different sheep’s clothing. “If God is all powerful, then can he make a chilli that’s so hot that even he can’t eat it?”
There were a few light-hearted ones: “If you fell off a building when Jesus returns at the Second Coming, will you keep falling?” and “Did Adam and Eve go through puberty?” (to which I suggested that God left a copy of Where Do I Come From? somewhere behind a tree in Eden).
For a bit of fun, I even threw in my own question: “Did Adam and Eve have bellybuttons?” This lit up the group because they’d never thought about it before but, using logic, humour and Genesis, they came to the consensus: no, because neither Adam nor Eve were formed in utero.
For each 60-minute session, the entire group was fully engaged and answering each other’s questions with Bible passages. Teenagers I’d witnessed say virtually nothing in normal Bible studies were suddenly animated and vocal about their faith.
There were no chips, no chocolates nor any other bribe. They had a different kind of hunger: a safe place to have their greatest questions answered without condemnation or fear that their entire faith would collapse because of a single question. Alice had gone down the rabbit hole and found the ageless and simple truth: God still is God.
Now, teenage apologetics can never replace the weekly Bible studies, or – just as importantly – relationships with other Christians, but modern churches need to cater for inquiring minds and the combative culture young adults live in.
Atheists, whether in the media, in front of a whiteboard or even the playground, never play fair. Their goal is to ridicule not to engage, and we must build up our young Christians in the open safety of our churches and family homes first, to help them respond with fair, intelligent and proper responses.
Only then will the smug, purring Cheshire cats of secularism fade into insignificance.
Feature photo: Celine Celines