Christian Book Previews' founder, Stacy Oliver, interviewed Randy Newman about his book, Corner Conversations:
CBP: I wanted to talk about your new book, which is awesome, “Corner Conversations.” The way I understand your premise is to use difficult situations and difficult topics to evangelize. Does that seem right?
Randy Newman: That seems good.
CBP: Rather than avoiding them.
Randy Newman: Sure. Certainly not avoiding them but using them. The more difficult the better in some ways because those difficult questions really cause people to think deeply. What I wanted to try to do was to answer a lot of those questions with a dialogue rather than just with an answer. There’s a lot of books, “Answers to Common Questions.” Here’s the question and then a 10-20 page answer. Those are good. They’re really helpful tools, but what I wanted to do is instead of giving someone an answer, have them eavesdrop in on a dialogue. So each chapter is a different pair of a Christian and a non-Christian discussing some issue and going back and forth. Sometimes the non-Christian makes the better point. So that was my approach.
CBP: And it’s based on conversations that you’ve had, in fact, in the university with students?
Randy Newman: Yeah. I’ve worked with Campus Crusade for 26 years, so that’s a lot of conversations with students. For the last almost 10 years, I’ve been focusing more on professors - which are even harder.
There’s been a lot of conversations. None of the ones that I wrote in the book are transcripts of conversations. They’re composites and I’ve kind of woven together different things that have happened. But they’re very realistic, I hope. A lot of them are exact words I’ve said or exact words that a questioner has asked. So it’s based on a lot of actual dialogues and discussions.
CBP: Since this is based on your experience, do you see that people respond – and I’m not saying what’s your conversion rate – but in terms of “Randy, that is a good point; I never thought of that and you really made me look at it differently.” Do you find that having these open dialogues really does make them open to new possibilities?
Randy Newman: Yes. I think much more than the standard approach which is – nobody would ever say it this way, but the approach is kind of, “Okay. You sit there and be quiet, I’m going to do all of the talking because I have all the answers and I have the truth. So just shut up and listen.” Not quite that blunt ever, but that is kind of the approach. I have a presentation to make or an outline to show you.
So I think more of this dialogical kind of thing where you give people an opportunity to process what you’ve just said and for them to ask questions. I do think it has a better effect. It’s a longer process though so it doesn’t have immediate results. So for people who want immediate results this is very frustrating and they should find another way.
CBP: So you have to put the effort into actually having real conversations over time.
Randy Newman: Yeah. And it is effort. It requires listening. I think it certainly requires a lot of respect because if a person is going to ask something and you seriously consider their question, that’s an important incarnating of the gospel where you’re showing someone graciousness and respect. I was trying to push people in that direction of being respectful with each other.
CBP: I think a lot of Christians avoid it because if they’re not firm on what they believe then that can be a little intimidating. “Oh, well, I don’t know. I should have that answer; I don’t have that answer; maybe I’m not a good Christian.” It’s kind of a scary door to open for some people.
Randy Newman: It’s very scary. It’s still scary for me. People think, “Oh, you’ve worked for Campus Crusade for 26 years, you must be fearless!” I’m just an evangelistic chicken. I’m just as scared as ever.
Bill Bright wrote this great book, Witnessing Without Fear. I thought about calling my first book, Witnessing With Fear because that’s more of what I deal with. It’s a great book; it’s very helpful, but I joke with people – in my library it’s under fiction. Witnessing without fear, that’s never happened to me.
CBP: Does it exist?
Randy Newman: It does for some people. I think there are people with the gift of evangelism. And for them, it’s as natural as breathing. They can’t sit on a plane next to somebody and not witness. They just can’t.
CBP: You talked about the gift of evangelism and a lot of people say, “That’s good, Randy, because you have this gift, but I’m just a regular person. That’s not my gift so I’m not going to do these things.” Is that the approach? Are some people called to evangelize and some of us are called to do something else?
Randy Newman: Um, no. Next question? Not really. Some people have the gift of evangelism and that is going to be their primary ministry. Most people do not have the gift of evangelism but still are called by God to do it. The way Paul called Timothy, “Do the work of an evangelist.” Even though we know Timothy was timid and shy and he had the gift of teaching.
I think I have the gift of teaching, not the gift of evangelism. All Christians are called to evangelize. There are a number of places in Scripture that call all of us. Just in the same way that all of us are called to be merciful, but some people have the gift of mercy. That’s going to be their ministry. With every gift it’s like that, I think. I think just about every gift has some people that that’s what they should do. And other people – everybody is supposed to do some kind of teaching and building one another up, but some people are going to be gifted teachers, etc.
So the problem, I think, is – I haven’t done a study of this, but a lot of people who speak or who write about evangelism are gifted evangelists. So for them, it’s easy. And they get up and they talk about how they’re so burdened for the lost and they get on the plane and they must witness to the person next to them, and for the other three percent of the audience who also have that gift, they go Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. And they don’t really need to listen to that guy because they’re out evangelizing. But the other ninety-seven percent of us just feel guilty.
I sit on the plane and think, “Lord, please have there be an empty sit next to me.”
CBP: So it’s okay to have a struggle with this but to still push ourselves to do it?
Randy Newman: I think so. At least I really hope so, otherwise I’m really terrible. I’d rather not face that. So I wrote Questioning Evangelism, the first book to try to be an evangelism help for non-evangelists, written by a non-evangelist.
CBP: Thank you. That was a good book. Read that one too. I noticed that the chapters you have broken down into different topics that are common or discussions that people would have. “Evil and Suffering” is a universal roadblock to a lot of people to entering Christianity. How do you address that?
Randy Newman: And I decided to have that as the first chapter, so I figured, let’s just dive into the deep end of the pool here. How do I approach it?
CBP: Or how do you respond when someone says, “If God is a good God, then why . . .” I mean, that question is almost memorized.
Randy Newman: Sure. It is. And I think we should ask that question. I think that a person who never asks that person is not dealing with reality. There’s a lot of terrible stuff that happens in our world and there are no adequate explanations that totally satisfy us intellectually and emotionally. So what my approach to this question is, I want to say, “You know, I think this is the toughest question because we don’t have an adequate answer. We have parts of an answer, and those parts are very helpful and they point us in the right direction. They point us in the direction that God is a loving God; that there is a sense of purpose and meaning in life, but there is a sense of our world being terribly broken. And it’s that tension between the broken world and the good God that we need to live in and wrestle with. And that points to the goodness of the gospel, I think. But we don’t have an adequate answer.
So part of my motivation in writing that chapter and the corresponding chapter in the first book was, I was trying to react against a simplistic approach that a lot of Christians take. It’s a simplistic answer that seems to have it all taken care of. “Well, the reason we have evil and suffering in the world is because there’s a devil and the devil causes all sorts of havoc. That’s why.” Well, there is a devil and he does cause all sorts of havoc and he’s amazingly evil, but that doesn’t totally explain the haphazardness of it, you know?
Okay, another partial answer is, “Well, we live in a fallen world. Adam and Eve rebelled and the world has been fallen.” Yes, yes, yes. But again, why is it that some people experience an aspect of the fall that is so much worse than others? So what I wanted to take is a Job approach. You get to the end of the book of Job and you still don’t have an answer. But what you have at the end of the book of Job is God saying to Job and to us, “Are you willing to live without an answer? Are you willing to get up off your high horse and accept that you’re not the center of the universe and there are not answers for all of your questions? Or at least not that I’m going to give you.” Which is very painful; but it’s liberating. If you give up this idea of, “I must understand everything!” and you can move to, “Okay, I don’t have to.” Okay, so I move from why to how. How do I live? How do I live in a broken world with lots of problems and how do I work for justice and work for healing, and bring about graciousness in a world that desperately needs it? That’s a very different set of questions.
Maybe that’s as far as some people will get in the book because they’ll say, “He doesn’t answer the question. I’m not reading this book!”
CBP: But I think is what you demonstrate in the dialogue too is that it’s a give and take. “That is a good question, and that’s something that I struggle with as well and this is how I worked through this.” And that’s kind of more realistic. It’s more helpful to people than giving them the pat answers that you list.
I think that’s what you demonstrate in there.
Randy Newman: Oh, great! That’s good to hear. That was one of my goals.
I have a very big frustration about this issue of evil and suffering. I think a lot of Christians come across as very cold and callous when the issue of suffering comes up. They seem to come across as if this is a simple problem. “Okay. Well, here’s why September 11th happened; because people are fallen and they make choices and they do evil things and God allows them to.” And it almost comes across with a shrug of the shoulders and – You don’t wrestle with this? This doesn’t drive you a little bit crazy? That this one guy who was on his way to work that day to the World Trade Center got stuck in traffic and he just doesn’t make it and he lives. And somebody else who never works in that building just happened to be there on an appointment and that person got killed! Doesn’t that drive you a little batty? The way it did for Job. And Job’s friends had very simplistic answers to Job’s problem and Job had some pretty nasty things to say to them, and so did God. But God rebuked the friends and said, “You weren’t right. You spoke of Me in ways that weren’t correct.”
So I’m hoping to motivate Christians to not be so flippant or callous about an issue that’s – we shouldn’t claim to have more of an answer than we really have.
CBP: Well, I don’t know if this is the same issue, but it feels like it’s not a Christian issue but a cultural thing where we’re so overwhelmed with suffering on the news every night that one more thing just doesn’t affect us. Do you know what I mean? I feel like I can’t carry anymore of the world’s burdens because I see so much of it. But each one is tragic in itself – a kidnapping or a murder or anything. But because we’re inundated with it, the only way to deal with it is to not deal with it as a whole. And I wonder if that’s part of it is that, in general, we have to just kind of set aside suffering as – unless it personally strikes us – we can’t feel it.
Randy Newman: Oh, I definitely think that’s part of the problem. Part of the problem also is – it’s very upsetting, it’s very disturbing to hear some things and so if we feel like we have a way to explain it, it’s not quite so upsetting. Okay, I can put it in this little box and it doesn’t bother me anymore.
CBP: That’s true.
Randy Newman: But it does bother, it is disturbing.
CBP: The Bible itself says that Gods causes suffering. People can’t just say it’s the devil, you know. I get a lot of those questions . . .I live in a region where there’s many different cultures and many different religions.
Randy Newman: Where is this, by the way?
CBP: San Jose. So Christians are regarded as being closed minded because we think Jesus is the only way. Buddhists and Hindus are very willing to embrace Christianity as partially true because they’re okay with everybody finding their own path. But we’re kind of unique in that. How do you deal with that? With people feeling we’re closed minded or elitists or whatever the term is?
Randy Newman: Tolerance is the buzzword. I think the challenge for us with that question is to try to gently push people to think more deeply about that issue. Because the way it’s presented is as if it’s a very easy issue. Obviously, anybody with a half a brain in their head, should see that there’s many different paths that all lead to the same place. So to claim that only one path leads to heaven is just so stupid and simplistic. And that’s the end of the level of thought. And so what we want to do is to push it further – Is that really the case? Because if that is really the case, then, yeah, we are rather foolish in our belief. But, is it really that simplistic? Do all of these different views really say the same thing? Some are saying the exact opposite. Is heaven – is there such a place? And if so, why would anyone want to go there? What does it mean to go there? What is heaven? See what I mean? We want to push people further, “Do you think that everybody goes to heaven? Are there some people who don’t? Is there such a place as hell? Is there such a thing as divine judgment? How does God make the standard of it? Is Hitler in heaven?" That sounds crazy – repulsive. Well, alright, if not . . . Do you understand what I mean?
So what I think our task is, in a similar way to the evil and suffering thing is to push people to think more deeply. The difference is -- I don’t think we have a totally adequate answer for the evil and suffering question. I do think we have an answer for the is there one way to heaven. I think we have a very clear and adequate and intellectually satisfying answer, but most people are not ready to hear that answer yet. So they have to go through several intermediate steps first before they get to, Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the light. No one comes to the Father but by me.” They have to go with well, “Who was Jesus and why would He say anything like that? And what way is there, and how do the different paths compare. Are they really all the same path? Different paths up the same mountain? Or are they so very different, they’re not even on the same mountain – the same globe.” That’s what I think it is. I think they’re saying very very different things. But most people don’t want to think that thoroughly or that deeply. So again, it’s this process of trying to make it more – let’s push this a little bit. Which is sometimes a longer and more tedious process.
CBP: And you have to do your homework a little bit more too to understand what the other religions believe and why they are different from Christianity. Why it’s not the same mountain, as you said. A little more preparation, but, like you say, but more satisfying.
Randy Newman: I think so. At least then – I think a lot of people in our culture today cannot even fathom that there would be one right way and all the rest would be wrong. That seems implausible and it’s as far fetched as if that there’s a path that we could walk to the moon and find that it’s made of green cheese. It’s just ludicrous. So what we need to do is to build plausibility with steps along the way of well, is there such a thing as right and wrong? Is there such a thing as good and bad? Is there such a thing as righteousness?
Remember when the rich man comes to Jesus and says, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Now, if ever there was an opportunity for Jesus to give a definitive, easy, straight answer, there it was. And that would have been really great because then we would have had the perfect answer to how to share the gospel. Well, actually that would be bad because then nobody would write any books on evangelism and that would be bad for me. But then we would never debate anymore because here is Jesus’ method of evangelism. Who could argue with this? But Jesus didn’t answer the guy. Instead he messed the guy up. He answered, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” He’s giving the guy a headache! You see when you read the rest of the dialogue, you see that he already thought he was good enough. He already thought he was righteous. Because when Jesus quoted the commandments, the guy said, “All these things, I’ve kept them from youth.” Can you think of anything more arrogant?
But Jesus wanted him to grapple with what is goodness? And when the guy got it, it was very disturbing to him and he went away sad.
CBP: And Jesus didn’t chase after him.
Randy Newman: Yeah, He didn’t say, “Wait, wait, you misunderstood! Come back, I want to make you happy.” No. So, especially today, we need to grapple with what is goodness, what is righteousness? And then we have to grapple with uh oh, I don’t match up, now what? And it’s only then that the gospel can make any kind of sense to us. Because until you really grasp with what is righteousness and what is sin, the gospel seems kind of silly. People say, “Well, Jesus died for you sins.” And a lot of people who think that sin is not really all that bad. I’m not talking about pure moral relativism. People think, “Okay, I just lie a little, I’m a good person. I never killed anybody.” And we say to those people, “Jesus died for you sins.” And if people could really think about it and articulate it, they would say, “Why? What’s the big deal? Why would He go through all that?” People don’t say that because they don’t want to call into question Jesus.
I think that some people must have watched Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion” with a certain sense of “I don’t get it!” And someone says, “Well, He did that for you.” And they say, “Why, I don’t need that. I don’t deserve that kind of a beating.” So until we can get some primary definitions laid out: what is righteousness, what is goodness, what is rebellion and sinfulness? Again, it’s a longer and more of a piecemeal process.
CBP: You have to develop a relationship around that. It’s not just throwing something at someone and walking away. There’s much more to it.
Do you ever get discouraged because you feel like you’re not seeing any results? And what could you say to other people that maybe feel that same sense of discouragement?
Randy Newman: Yes, I do. Discouragement might be a little strong. I feel frustration. What turns me around a little bit is remembering two things. One is, this is in God’s hands, this is in God’s timing. He is the one who convicts people; He is the one who draws people. There is plenty in the Scriptures about God being the one who works – and He simply uses us at points along the way. So remembering that God has a greater love for this person than I do. God has more power and sovereignty and grace. That’s one piece of the puzzle.
And the other is, I think back about my own experience and I think that when I talk to almost every Christian I’ve ever talked to, they would say there was this conversation, and there was this conversation and there was this person. There was no person who did the whole thing. And maybe that’s the mistake we make in our understanding of evangelism. You know, the whole package deal is up to me. God very seldom works that way. He brings this person into the person’s path to deliver this piece of the puzzle and then this and then this. So I think it requires a level of trust and faith and more prayer and more humility.
That doesn’t totally alleviate the internal wrestling; especially when it comes to family.