28 February 2008


I'm not sure I ever told the story about how a fundamentalist Christian once tried to earnestly and intelligently convert me.

A couple of months ago, I was in Barnes and Noble, browsing through the philosophy section, looking for Heidegger books that I hadn't read. Picking among the stacks of pop philosophy (Star Trek and Philosophy, The Te of Piglet, Jews for Satan) I was surprised to hear a breathy kind of voice behind me murmur, "That one is good." I turned around, startled, to see a short and squat guy behind me. He looked about twenty or so, a little greasy and unshaven... essentially your mental picture of the epitome of "internet nerd." He was smiling slightly at me.

I glanced at the book under my fingers - The Search for Christ - and turned back to him. He was a little too close, so I also kind of edged away as I turned. "Yeah, I read it once. But it doesn't really hold up... it's hard to build an empirical case for Jesus. But there's never any harm in information," I said. "Ah, well."

That "Ah, well" was intended to be a closer to the conversation, as I smiled and shrugged, grabbing the nearest thing that looked tolerable and moving away. The guy was pretty creepy, but I didn't want to be rude.

I slipped away as quickly as I could while still being casual, and headed to the little Starbucks-cafe section of the bookstore. It was a very strange encounter, but I figured he was just some socially inept guy. I sat down and began to read the book I had snatched. It was something on Satre, and too deep for me.

"So you live around here?" came the voice again, from behind me.

Wait.. seriously? Internet Guy is seriously following me around this place, trying to make friends? He even had an anime shirt stretched over his big stomach, resplendent with a red sauce stain near one armpit. It was like I was being followed by a living cliche... I could not think of anything that would make this guy goonier.

"Uh, no," I replied, turning around to see the same guy, sitting at the little table next to my own. "I don't... I live in Clearwater." I was trying to walk the narrow line between unfriendly and encouraging.

"Yeah, but this is a nice bookstore. I see... I see you got something on Sat-ray there, he's pretty good."

"I don't know, I haven't read it."

"Hey, maybe I could get your number?"

Oh. Ohhhhh. But shit, this isn't even flattering. What, am I going to tell my friends that I was hit on by the least attractive guy in Christendom? It's one thing to be hit on by a good-looking guy, that's pretty sweet... let's you know you've always got options. But this guy? Still, I guess everyone needs love.

"Nah, I don't think so," I replied after a too-long hesitation, feeling really sorry for him. It really is very brave to put yourself out there like that in hopes of making a connection, and I know well enough that it feels like a punch to the gut to get rejected. I decided to make it a little easier on him by getting up, smiling at him apologetically, and heading back to the philosophy section. I didn't want him to have to retreat out of the store while I might be watching.

I was only back there for a few minutes, shuffling through books awkwardly, however, when I heard another voice say, "Excuse me."

I was a little weirded out, but I looked up to see that it was definitely not the same guy. Instead of the Internet Guy, it was a guy almost my height, in nice clothes, and with a well-trimmed black mustache. He reminded me immediately and very strongly of a guy I knew from many years ago, who had been the father of two home-schooled guys on my brother's swim team and Scouts.

Hardcore Christian. I knew immediately he had heard my earlier comment. He didn't look pissed, however, so he must want to witness. The only question was whether or not it would be boring witnessing - I didn't want to have to stand there and listen to how Jesus intervened to save him in a car wreck.

But instead, he held out a book to me, saying, "I heard you say that information never hurt anyone... maybe you might want to read this one." It was The Case for Christ, which by happenstance I had also read when I found it among Ruri's books some time ago.

I smiled, taking it, and replied, "That's true. But I already read this one, too." I didn't want to seem like I was lying, since he was being much more tolerable than Internet Guy, so I added, "The reporter in the book, who investigates Jesus in the various lines of inquiry, doesn't build up any kind of philosophical case, though." I really did read it.

"Well, you want to sit down and talk about it?" he said, gesturing at the two easy chairs nearby. They were both full, one with a pregnant women and the other by her child, but since at his gesture they both stood up, I realized they were this man's wife and son.

This put me into a difficult position. On the one hand, I knew where this would be going, in all likelihood. There are only a good dozen arguments for the existence of God and validity of Jesus that any person is likely to use (as the easiest to use and understand), and I had heard them all. People like Richard Dawkins address them individually and very thoroughly. On the other hand, I really did believe that information couldn't harm anybody, and that this guy deserved his chance to say his piece. And if I am honest, I must admit that I find the idea of God very comforting, and would be delighted if anyone could prove to my intellectual satisfaction that he exists.

I said, "Sure," and sat down.

We talked for three hours. He was a very kind and intelligent man. He genuinely wanted to help me see the truth, because he was concerned with my soul. He was, in fact, all that is best about modern Christianity. Bizarro Jerry Falwell.

In the end, unfortunately, he had gone through most of the usual arguments: the Watchmaker, popularity of religion, Pascal's Wager, and so on. I answered them as politely as possible, but it was nothing new. How many times can one hear about how complexity indicates a sentient creator and pretend it is new, after all? I read the Kitzmiller brief, so it was easy to quote.

When we finally parted ways, I asked him something.

"So we have gone through all of this... but in the end, aren't you left to conclude that there really is no solid reason to believe in God? Other than faith, which is not reasoning at all?"

He thought for a moment, and replied gently, "Yes, that's true. It's not fair, is it?"

"No," I said. "According to Christianity, I will be going to suffer eternally for failing to ignore my powers of reason. Does that seem right?"

"No," he said. "But then, our judgment isn't important. I trust in God."

And I guess that's where we differed.

Oh, and one last interesting bit... the man was a lawyer in the area, but had never met my father. He decided to demonstrate the power of prayer, but joining together with his family to pray he ran into my father while doing legal work. That, he said, would be testament to the intercession of God. I reminded him that he shouldn't test the Lord his God, but acquiesced. I took his card, and he said he would pray daily to meet my father through the course of legal work within the month. Neither of us, of course, would be swayed no matter the outcome.

Three months later, I asked my father if he had ever met the guy, and showed him the man's card. My father said he'd never even heard his name, and wanted to know why. I didn't tell him.