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For me, speaking at the 2007 National Conference on Christian Apologetics was like attending baseball fantasy camp. There I was, surrounded by my heroes. Lee Strobel. Chuck Colson. John Ankerberg. Dr. Norman Geisler. Josh McDowell. What a thrill to minister alongside men whose books had challenged me as a young Christian. But the thing I remember most about that conference is how one of those apologetics all-stars seemed to be passing the baton. Even though Josh McDowell shows no signs of slowing down, his son Sean confidently took the stage, poised to carry on his father's impressive legacy. When the three of us sat down recently, we began our conversation by revisiting that special night in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Hearing the two of you speak, I remember thinking what a thrill it must be to minister side by side like that, father and son.

Josh: Well, let me tell you, as a dad I can honestly say that, in the time I've spent speaking with Sean, I've learned more from him than I've learned from any other speaker in fifty years.

Sean: It's a treat for me. I think it really resonates with both generations that I have a father who's been around a long time…

Josh: Careful now, careful. Half a century.

Sean: …And someone who's coming up and shows he's done it right. And yet I resonate especially with this younger generation, so it's a real neat dynamic.

Anyone who has read your books knows that young people and Christian apologetics are subjects very near and dear to your hearts. Why is that? How did that become your calling?

Sean: I picked it up partly from watching my dad's passion for truth, whether it's on apologetics issues or politics or business. I've always been kind of philosophical in my thinking, and I went through a questioning period when I was about 19 or 20 years old. That's when I really started reading and owning my own faith. Kids tend to accept the passions of their parents, and my parents were passionate about it, so I kind of picked it up by default.

Josh: I think for me it was because I set out to write Evidence That Demands A Verdict against Christianity, and became so convinced, intellectually, that it was true that it brought me to Christ. Of course, the Holy Spirit was operational in all of that, but I was kind of born running with a desire for truth and the defense of the Gospel. So I think that it just became part of me when I came to Christ.

I'm reading a great book now by Nancy Pearcey, Saving Leonardo. Are you familiar with that one?

Sean: I've read it twice. It was that good. Deeply insightful. She has some of the best analysis of this culture and young people in terms of their view of truth that I've heard anybody talk about.

She has a lot to say about the dehumanizing impact of secularism on society. I was hoping to get your take on something she wrote: "Influential worldviews are born in the universities, but they touch all of us through the books we read, the music we listen to and the movies we watch. Ideas penetrate our mind most deeply when communicated through the imaginative language of image, story and symbol." Your thoughts?

Sean: I agree one hundred percent. Many people might not understand what existentialism means, or postmodernism or nihilism. These are philosophies that are deeply against the biblical worldview, yet they subtly come through. And subtle is the key. The most powerful persuasion is when somebody doesn't even know they're being persuaded. They come through in movies, and in my study of film, actors and directors know exactly what they are doing trying to get a worldview across.

In the late 90's, everything was about being raw, real and authentic. In more recent history, however, it seems we've become more pragmatic as a culture. From doctored photos to "reality" TV, it's getting harder to tell what's authentic. I'm concerned that young people are throwing their hands in the air and asking, essentially, "Does it matter if it's real if it meets my need?"

Sean: I think where we are headed is a continual breakdown in the ability to recognize the difference between what is true and what is false as the Internet gets more and more ingrained in everything we do. I heard someone talking about technology where the Internet can be placed on somebody's retina and they see the world through this false image. You don't ever have to escape this false world that you live in. We can live in this continual artificial reality.

A lot times at Plugged In we hear this argument: "Oh, it doesn't affect me. It's just entertainment." Josh, how would you respond to that?

Josh: If it's just music, just entertainment, then why do corporations spend billions of dollars using music and entertainment to influence you to buy things, to do things and to act a certain way? They're not dumb. They're not idiots. They know that music and the lyrics, the subtlety behind it literally affects the way you behave. That's why they spend billions on it.

Sean: With my students, I'll ask them for definitions of love. Then I'll show them the scriptures and also compare their definitions with a movie. Almost across the board their definition is a lot closer to movies than it is to Scripture. … I often ask my students, "Do you think movies affect your generation." They'll all raise their hands and say yes. Then I'll ask, "Do you think movies affect you?" About half the hands go up, and I say, "Wait a minute; what makes you so special? Really?" I'll kind of make fun of it and laugh. They see it and go, "Alright, yeah, maybe it does."

What about the way you deal with media in your own homes? Josh, you and Dottie approached films a certain way with your children. A generation later, Sean, you and Stephanie may be using film a bit differently with yours.

Josh: Yeah, when I was raising my kids there wasn't the availability of DVD like today. Back then you had to go to the theater. I don't think I ever went to a movie with my kids where they didn't realize what was going through my mind. I was always asking, What is the truth here? What is something of value, or maybe something negative I can bring out later in a conversation with my kids as an illustration? I may get criticism for what I'm about to say, but I took my three oldest and Sean's girlfriend—now his wife—who got permission from her mother to see Schindler's List, with the violence, the killing, and the sexual scenes. We went to the theater and afterwards went to the Sizzler steakhouse. We sat there for three hours. I started out with "What did you think of the movie?" The four of them interacted for a while and then I said, "Was the Holocaust wrong?" Everyone said yes, so I asked why. Nobody could answer it. I just started asking the right questions. By the time we left they had a greater conviction of why the Holocaust was wrong and why those sexual scenes were wrong. I remember when Sean went off to graduate school, he called me up and said, "Dad, [as I watch films now], my moral fabric is so much more developed. Do you know when it started? Sitting at the Sizzler when we discussed the Holocaust."

Teachable moments

Josh: Teachable moments. And sometimes I might wait a week and say, "Remember we saw that movie? Well, what do you think of this or that?" Or "What negative consequences might result from that particular choice?"

Sean: I think my parents' overall philosophy was, number one, make sure the movie wasn't pushing the limits—except in the case of Schindler's List, where there was a real teaching lesson there. Otherwise, they would shut it off. We walked out of many, many films.

Josh: [Laughter] Oh, I bet we walked out of fifteen or twenty films as a family.

Sean: We probably have. One time my wife and I went to some movie and I remember turning to her and saying, "This is filthy. Let's walk out." It just seemed natural and a habit to me. And I still do that with movies. But what's really hard for young people to recognize is that [everything in a movie is there for a reason], from every word to every scene. Everything that happens works together to embed an idea in my mind. … I told my students that every song in the background, every piece of clothing somebody's wearing, even the lighting [communicates something]. So now I get emails from students saying, "Oh my goodness, I was watching this movie and you brainwashed me. I can't watch a movie without recognizing this." That's such an incredible way to teach a biblical worldview.

You talk about how you interact with your students on this level, Sean, but you have younger children yourself. How do you do it in your home?

Sean: Well our home is a little bit different. My kids are seven and four, so at this stage we feel like we're doing everything we can to protect them from some of the ideas of the world. But on the other hand I may show my son some PG movie—or parts of it, depending on what it is—and I'll talk to him about them: "How do you think these kids treated their parents? Do you think that's okay?" "How do you feel about this scene?" "What do you think the author was trying to get across?" On his 7-year-old level he can already start to see basic things about a movie. So I protect my kids, but I also use it as a conversation starter.

Josh: You've got to let kids make mistakes. One of the things that caused me the most anguish as a parent was how far do you let a child go in experiencing a mistake? Will it be a mistake that will pay negative consequences in the future? Then you can't. But is it a mistake they'll learn from? As they get older, I find myself going a little farther, a little farther and a little farther. But it's always a matter of what the consequence will be.

How did you know that Sean was ready for your Sizzler experience? This is a tension I think a lot of parents feel between protecting kids and preparing them to engage a culture that's often hostile to our worldview.

Josh: A lot has to do with your parenting approach. You have to understand I raised my children differently than most Christian parents do. Most Christian parents are overly protective: "We don't talk about that." No, to me the best thing to add to purity is not ignorance; it's knowledge. So I started with my children young. I had built in a moral reservoir that, if it hadn't been there, I never would have taken them to Schindler's List. … Our devotional time wasn't sitting around a table reading a verse—nothing wrong with reading a verse and praying, but we almost never did that. My devotional time was driving to school, going to a movie, five minutes here, ten minutes there, posing the question, interacting. Well they never even realized I was teaching truth from the scriptures. If you raise a child that way, then at a younger age you can confront them and it won't be negative. It will be a positive. But if you have a child who's a high school senior and you've never interacted with them and they've never internalized a moral value, oh, it can be devastating.

Sean: I think the real clue to parenting is in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, the Shema, which says, "The Lord our God is One. Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and teach these to your kids when you lay down, when you get up, when you walk, when you're sitting at home." Then it says, "Pass these to your son and your son's sons." In other words, think about our parenting, not just for us in this generation but for multiple generations to come. [To Josh] I'm gonna look at you, Dad, coming from your background, just one person who stands and says, "I'm going to faithfully follow." That echoes into my life and Scottie's life and to generations to come. And it's not because you're Josh McDowell and had all these perfect answers. It's because you lived it, and every day tried to incorporate, like Deuteronomy says, the scriptures into the way we lived, whether it be movies, what we eat or what we do with our time.

Josh: Or sitting in the Jacuzzi.

Sean: Or sitting in the Jacuzzi. That consistent worldview throughout all of life. I think that's what the biblical pattern is.

Author and speaker Josh McDowell has written dozens of books and addressed more than 12 million people in 118 countries. His classic work Evidence That Demands a Verdict has been ranked among the most influential evangelical books published since World War II. A film chronicling his early life, Undaunted, is scheduled for release in 2012.

Just as evangelist Franklin Graham has carried on his own father's remarkable legacy, Sean McDowell is doing the same with his astute exploration of apologetics and a defense of the Christian worldview. Sean is a respected author, teacher, and head of the Bible Department at Capistrano Valley Christian Schools in California. He and his father have collaborated on the book
The Unshakable Truth: How You Can Experience the Twelve Essentials of a Relevant Faith.

Published April 2012