Henderson asked Mehta to attend 10 or 15 services, blog about his experiences (at www.otmatheist.com), and handle any media interviews that arose out of the experience. "I am not using this particular project to convert Hemant," Henderson said. "I am hiring him to help me gather information so that Christians can get better reality about how to approach people like this." Having visited about seven churches so far, Mehta said he has been surprised to find church "a nice place to be."
Henderson is executive director of Off the Map (off-the-map.org), an organization aimed at "helping Christians not be jerks, or helping Christians be normal," he said, especially when it comes to evangelism. "
Excerpted from Religion Bookline, March 29, 2006
Amazing the kinds of bargains you can discover online if you look hard enough. Kudos to Henderson, who forked up the money to meet Mehta's challenge. But even more credit to Mehta, who was willing to have his convictions tested.
How many atheists can you claim as friends? I am embarrassed to say that I'm not sure I know any! Agnostics, yes. Atheists? If they are prominent in my life, they are pretty quiet. Having moved in Christian circles for a very long time, I am pretty much indoctrinated in the language and practice of belief. But I suspect that it's about time for me to start getting out there and meeting some.
Because I believe that God works through the world, and through us as His children, I would like non-believers to experience the power of life-changing grace. But before that, well before that, I would like to have the opportunity to understand the real-life experiences of women and men who don't think of God every day, who don't pray, who don't make my set of assumptions.
I grew up in a house of gentle skeptics and flat out agnostics. Although I suspect some of my extended clan on my mother's side were conviced atheists, and others quietly observant, we enjoyed each other's company way too much to talk about matters of belief. You were embraced whether you were a socialist or a socialite. Other topics, like civil rights, the arts and whether there was any future for the Democratic Party seemed a lot more compelling. Politics was our blood sport of choice. Being a rabbi, or being a priest, or being a Catholic (of the liberal ilk, of course) was another lifestyle option.
My dad's ancestry encompasses centuries of rabbis. Although many of my cousins on his side are faithful Jews of various affiliation and practice, there have been, at least as far as I am aware, no more rabbis in this generation. As proud as he is of his rabbi father, who died before I was born, my dad seems to view belief with through the sympathetic (if only it were true) but skeptical lens of the scholar (see previous post) .
Although I'm proud to have come from such motley and tolerant stock, it certainly didn't equip me to engage a religiously pluralistic culture of competing beliefs and ideologies.
In my more recent experience as a church member and leader, I have found that many of us are imprisoned by our context, by our assumptions, and often by our fears. Christians, as Henderson notes, can indeed be"jerks." It may be human nature to retreat behind doctrinal or social walls in times of cultural ferment. But it doesn't speak well of those of us who claim a desire to be winsome examples of lives changed.
Who are we trying to impress? Each other? The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God Christians believe was incarnate in Jesus, constantly breached the boundaries of his own culture to reach those who were different. He seemed to do it without condescension, opening the door to belief instead of sneaking converts past the barricades. If he is our role model for fruitful dialogue, we've got to be both more sensitive and more comfortable with ourselves.
I have to admit that the whole question of outreach, evangelism and conversion (there's been dialogue about this in Jewish denominations, too) puzzles me deeply. Like many of you, I have heard that the new Pope, Benedict, has made it one of his goals to re-evangelize the largely indifferent peoples of Western Europe. I am going to be very curious to learn more about his plan of action. How does this ancient faith meet the challenge of putting old wine in new bottles?
As for the Christian community- any E-Bay volunteers out there? Surely there is a group of atheists online with a couple of bucks burning a hole in their pocket- and just longing to meet you.