"Unlikely Converts" by Randy Newman: An Excerpt (Guest blog 2 of 4)

From Unlikely Converts, pages 13 to 15:

“Don’t you just love stories? We sit on the edge of our seats to hear them. We download podcasts that feature them. We pay money to hear comedians tell funny ones. We wake up when a longwinded speaker breaks from explanations, elaborations, and emendations and says, “This reminds me of a story.”

Stories form the backbone of this book. I retell how individuals’ narratives intersect with the grandest story of all—the gospel. Allow me to begin with one of my favorites. It’s about Lawrence and the pigs. If I were a betting man, I wouldn’t have put a lot of money on Lawrence’s ever attending a Bible study. In fact, I would have wagered against his ever going to anything connected with faith or God or the Bible. Like all the people I write about in this book, Lawrence was an unlikely candidate for a Christian convert. But in his freshman year in college, Lawrence did go to an event where students could ask “some Bible expert” any question they wanted. Lawrence went because he heard there’d be pizza. And the girl who invited him gave out cookies to anyone who said they’d come.

He had virtually no church background to speak of. When he filled out the part of his college application that asked for his religion, he had to ask his mother what he should write. She told him, “Methodist,” and that’s what he wrote, although he had no idea what that meant. His mother had taken him to church a few times, but he doubted whether God existed. When I asked him how he would describe himself as he began college, he offered the words “lonely, angry, and apathetic.”

So he went to the ask-the-expert event to be “obnoxious” and “have fun” and to try to show the speaker that the Christian faith had “obvious issues.” What he remembers most was that the speaker and the Christians were nice to him even though he “was being really mean.” He asked the speaker, “What about aliens? What does that mean for Christianity?” The speaker responded brilliantly, admitting he didn’t know much about aliens, that he didn’t think their existence would affect Christianity all that much, and that if Lawrence wanted to know about Christianity, he should attend the eight- week study of the gospel of Mark that would start the next week.

So Lawrence went, with an attitude of “whatever” (a word he used a lot during the first fifteen minutes of our conversation). He asked many questions during those eight weeks and was impressed that the leader answered thoughtfully and respectfully. He learned a lot about God’s righteousness and his own sinfulness. For a few weeks, he was baffled about how “unfair” it was for Jesus to pay for his sins. But he found himself believing more and more as the weeks passed.

At one point in our conversation, I asked him if there were any major objections or questions that needed resolution. Was there a significant roadblock, I wondered, that, once removed, would pave the way for belief? He paused and shook his head no. But then he remembered and said, “Well . . . the thing that stands out in my head mostly . . . was about the pigs and Jesus casting the demons into the lake.”

I must confess. At that point, I wanted to say, “Really? That tripped you up? Even if I wasn’t Jewish with my innate disdain for pork, I’m not sure that’s what would hold me back from God’s offer of eternal life.” I tried to clarify by asking, “What was your question about the pigs?”

His answer didn’t help me much. “What the heck was that? Jesus just killed all those pigs? They didn’t do anything.” But then he just started laughing and made a face that seemed to say, “That story makes no sense.” So I asked him how the leader answered his question, and Lawrence’s laughter came to a sudden stop. He told me the Bible study leader took his question seriously and started by admitting that he wasn’t sure. That impressed Lawrence as humble and sincere. And then he suggested there really must be some things that are evil, that we shouldn’t mess around with demons, and there must be a big difference between being a pig and being a person.

I asked him if that satisfied him and he said it did. “I was amazed that he had an answer,” he said and added, “people I had dealt with before in churches that I had been to didn’t know how to handle the Bible.” They just told him to believe in Jesus and stop asking all his questions. That didn’t sit well with a fairly intelligent guy, and so he dismissed Christianity as a stupid person’s religion. However, a thoughtful answer about pigs persuaded Lawrence that there probably were good answers for his other questions.

There’s much more to his story, a beautiful and gradual one that included a lot more Bible studies, a major conference for Christian students, attending a good church where people did know how to handle the Bible, and a lot of conversations where he learned more and more about Jesus’s “unfair” sacrifice for sinful people like Lawrence.

His experience highlights at least four important lessons:

First, the process of coming to Christ takes time. While God certainly can work instantaneously, most often he does not. People tend to come to faith gradually.

Second, God uses a large and diverse cast of ordinary people to accomplish his extraordinary purposes. People tend to come to faith communally.

Third, layers of dramas lie beneath the surface. People’s stories reveal a tapestry of experiences, struggles, realizations, and transformations. People tend to come to faith variously.

Fourth, nothing is too difficult for God. He can and does draw people to himself miraculously. People always come to faith supernaturally.

My conversation with Lawrence was part of the dissertation research I conducted toward my doctorate. Hearing his story was just one of forty deeply moving and exciting experiences I had along the way. I know: we don’t usually expect the words “dissertation” and “exciting” to appear within a thousand paragraphs of each other. But as I heard from recent converts about how God worked to transfer them from the domain of darkness to the realm of saving light, I went through a lot of tissues. I have since listened to several other conversion stories that weave their way into this book.”

(To be continued…)


For further reading (besides buying and reading Randy’s latest book), check out his website, where he has a great blog addressing a range of issues helpful to Christians seeking to grow in Christ and be salt and light in our world.