|A graduate of Yale Law School and a former journalist with The Chicago Tribune, Lee Strobel was an avowed atheist until an exhaustive attempt to discredit Christianity convinced him of its validity. That was more than 25 years ago. Today the popular author and speaker is among America's most respected Christian apologists. We talked with him about his own roadblocks to faith, modern cultural obstacles, and challenges facing parents as they attempt to pass on a life-changing passion for God's truth. |
You came to Christ by studying the evidence with an open mind. But what led you to embrace atheism prior to that?
I had learned Darwinism, which explained away the need for a creator, and I took a course from a skeptic on the New Testament. To be honest, in most cases like mine where there are intellectual barriers there are moral issues below that—a desire not to be held accountable for our lifestyle. In the '60s the sexual revolution was in full swing. It was a wild time. The country was in turmoil in terms of its values, with things being in transition and everyone questioning authority. Individual freedom was the highest value. All of that was a backdrop to my search for reasons not to believe. What I needed most was an adult willing to spend time with me, listen to me and walk me down a path towards spiritual discovery. James 5:20 says, "Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins." If I'd had someone back then reach out to me, I think I would have responded.
Today we live in a nonlinear, point-and-click, mix-and-match media world. Do you see young people applying that same buffet-style mentality to their spirituality?
That's syncretism, and it's growing exponentially. You have people like Oprah Winfrey who feed it by endorsing all kinds of spiritual systems that are in conflict with each other, but she doesn't quite see that in her own mind. And we are seeing kids who paste things together, picking and choosing which aspects of Jesus they like and which they don't. It creates all kinds of pictures of Him that are in conflict with who Jesus revealed Himself to be. Relativism feeds that. People not anchored to any one particular truth feel much more free to pick and choose what they want to believe. It's as if they're in a grocery store and only put into the basket things they want. They walk away with a belief system that may bear no resemblance to reality, but it fits their own personal preferences and tastes.
How do you see entertainment contributing to the confusion?
Pop culture—fed by the Internet, best-selling books, TV documentaries and so forth—has been injecting extreme skepticism into the culture at large in the last few years. There's a proliferation of theories about Jesus which conflict with what the Bible teaches. They're defended with great ferocity, yet lack any historical basis. We're at a time in our culture, and I think the door was opened largely by The Da Vinci Code, when publishers realize they can make money attacking Christianity. We're being influenced by a new breed of militant atheism.
After the success of The Passion of the Christ, the media couldn't dismiss Christians as the "fringe" anymore. Is what you're referring to backlash from an industry subculture that feels threatened and wants to marginalize us again?
Well, I think it's some of that. I also think the rise of militant Islam has put a lot of these people in the position of saying all faith is bad. Instead of distinguishing between Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or any of these other radically different belief systems, they are branding all faith as being dangerous. As for The Passion of the Christ, even though we've seen some positive developments, I think Hollywood is still trying to figure out how they can reach the faith-based market. But these are not films growing out of a passion to inculcate Christian values; it's an effort to make money by tapping into a market they think they can exploit. That's the cynicism of Hollywood.
As an unsaved journalist, didn't you expose the Ford Pinto scandal? How did the reporter-sleuth in you later hunt down spiritual truth?
Right around 1980 I came across secret documents from Ford Motor Co. They knew [the Pinto] had a propensity to blow up when hit from behind in a low- or moderate-speed crash. Well, you need to authenticate documents like that. Later on I used some of those same investigative skills in spiritual areas to try to determine the reliability of, for instance, ancient documents. We have to use that same persistence when we investigate our faith, because we don't want to put our trust in something that's wishful thinking or make-believe or legendary. Rather, we want to invest it in something that is true and enduring and based on historic reality.
How did you lay a foundation for Christian apologetics in your children's lives?
Well, as you know, I came to faith myself through apologetics. I was an atheist who investigated the evidence and was convinced that it points to Jesus being the resurrected Son of God. So I sort of modeled an openness to intellectual inquiry and a persistence in trying to ferret out what is and isn't true. I think that gave them a confidence in their faith and a willingness to check things out when they run into questions. The more we investigated the historical bedrock of Christianity together, the stronger we found that it is.
I know you're proud of them. Tell us a little about your children.
I have two great kids. They're grown now. My oldest, my daughter Alison, is a Christian novelist whose husband is a student of apologetics at Calvin Seminary. As for my son, Kyle, we had a difficult time with him in high school. He had mediocre grades. He was starting to hang out with the wrong crowd and got into some minor scrapes with the police. We were frightened as parents. Here we are trying to raise our kids to follow Jesus, and it seemed like it was having the opposite effect on him. That's a really frustrating position for parents to be in. Kyle lacked direction. He didn't quite know where he was going. But things really kicked into gear when he got into college. He earned a degree in Biblical Studies, got a masters in New Testament, got another masters in Philosophy of Religion, and is now getting a Ph.D. in Theology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. He hopes to be a professor at a seminary someday.
That's some turnaround. What made the difference?
Often with teenagers, when they lack purpose and a vision for their lives, they feel unmotivated to learn because they don't see the relevance to everyday life. "Why should I study Spanish or algebra if I'm never gonna use it?" Kyle was a very pragmatic teenager who saw no need for this stuff. What really changed things for my son was that he went on a short-term mission trip with the church. He was on his own in a very difficult third-world country and faced some challenges that opened his eyes. He emerged with a new sense of purpose and vision, and caught fire for what God wanted for his life. There's been no stopping him. It doesn't always work out like it did for us, but I can relate to parents who are struggling. You need to pray. Ask God to give your teen vision. I've seen kids bounce back from things in amazing ways.
What would you say to the parent thinking, "I want to help my teen develop a passion for apologetics, but I'm no Lee Strobel"?
It starts by not panicking when questions come up. All kids have doubts. All kids have questions. That's natural. It's part of faith. No question should be out of bounds. If we signal to them that it's inappropriate to ponder those issues and find answers to things that are troubling them, then we're suggesting there are no good answers. It just reinforces in their minds that they'd better not dig too deep or they might find that this whole thing is gonna collapse. On the other hand, if we encourage them to pursue answers to tough questions, their faith is going to be stronger. And so is ours.
Has that inspired your writing?
Absolutely. It's one reason I wrote The Case for the Real Jesus and create student editions and even children's editions of my books. I'm really excited about our Web site, leestrobel.com, because we have video clips there from leading experts on Christianity—scholars, pastors and evangelists who define and defend the Christian faith. We've loaded literally thousands of videos. And it's totally free. You can go in and type in tough questions—whether they're about the Trinity, the resurrection, Islam or whatever—and have a video pop up. It gives teens highly credible answers that will bolster their faith and prepare them to reach out to friends and classmates, both now and when they leave for college.
Spiritually, what are teens encountering when they step onto a college campus these days?
There are three times as many atheists and agnostics among college professors as in the population at large. There's a lot of skepticism and what Christian students feel are attacks on their faith. A lot of these college kids go away to school and call Mom and Dad to say, "I've decided I don't believe this stuff anymore."
Which is why we need to equip them now. And yet following Jesus involves more than just head knowledge.
That's right. It's a willingness to submit to God's authority and leadership in our lives at a profound level. Part of being born again is seeing our values, philosophy, worldview, attitudes, relationships and priorities change over time. John 1:12 says, "Yet to all who received Him, to all who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God." Believe plus receive equals become. Becoming a Christian isn't just being in general agreement with some Christian doctrine. It's receiving forgiveness, Christ's leadership of our lives and the Holy Spirit as our guide and transforming agent. That's where the real adventure is.
Published January 2008