“Fallout” may be too strong, but there definitely is some dissatisfaction being voiced from the atheist guests — David and Andrew — on our recent appearance on Unbelievable. While I heard complaints from David and Andrew after the show was recorded, a fuller picture is provided by a long comment that David posted just today at the program’s website (linked above). I’ve posted David’s comment below and then offer my own comments below that.
So you want to know what it is like to do an episode of Unbelievable? For us, it started a year ago. Both Ed and Phil went to the Unbelievable conference 2017. They both met up with Justin and did some subtle politicking and arm-twisting. The upshot was they squeezed out a verbal commitment from Justin to do a show with the response book team.
We wanted to talk about it publicly from that moment. But we couldn’t. Also, Justin was none too sure about doing this show. He was worried that he would be theologically outgunned, and that we would be too tough of an opponent for him. In his defense, he had just gone public as an apologist in his own rights. And he hadn’t yet started the heavy appearance schedule he now has.
It was something to be worked out. At that time, we hadn’t even completed the book. There were a number of internal delays with the book. I contacted Justin in the fall to plan for the show as I thought we were almost done with the book. I was wrong. But that was the first time Justin and I talked about the show as if it were a done deal. Even then, it wasn’t.
We got the book out the door in the spring of 18. We started talking to Justin about possible ways to do a show. I offered a number of options, including an option to ignore the books and talk about other topics. We assured Justin that the tone of the conversation would be, well, conversational rather than argumentative. We practiced for that.
We eventually got a tentative date for the program. That came and went without mention. Andrew and I were on edge. We kind of thought Justin was prepared to back out of the show all the way up to the last moment. We were never really on solid footing.
We learned that Justin still didn’t have a partner for the show. It was only about 10 days before the show that we learned who our opposition would be. That didn’t give us that much time to prepare. But we made it work. There is the day job to consider.
It was also about that time that Justin and I agreed on the topics of discussion. We prepped like crazy for those topics. Thanks to Ed and Phil who had sessions with us on Skype getting us ready. It was like training for a boxing match. Ed and Phil beat the stupid out of us over and over.
To get you further inside the baseball game, Andrew and I had behavioral notes, not just notes on what to say. We had reminders on tone, short replies, sharing the time, and the whole nine yards. It was silly. Those notes went out the window from the first moment. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Less than 24 hours to show time, I get an email from Justin confirming the time, but casually mentioning a change in topic. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The main topic had been tossed at the last minute, and replaced with the moral argument. I was livid. We were livid.
You should know that during practice with Phil, he told me several times to be prepared for the moral argument. He said that it didn’t matter what the topics were, Justin would turn it to the moral argument. I argued with Phil and insisted that as a radio host, Justin wouldn’t dare change the topic for which everyone had been preparing. He wouldn’t do it as a matter of professional ethics.
Phil was right.
The moral argument is a big topic. We can spitball on the topic all day. But that is different from debating a theological professor of Randal’s caliber on an international program. We were not ready. And we were furious. Justin never knew this. And we did politely object in our correspondence. But I was off my meds with anger. I don’t think Andrew was much better.
So after a sleepless night, we are finally ready to record. Justin put us both on the same Skype line. He warned us about technical problems we might encounter. And sure enough, we encountered them. Randal was on a separate phone line and didn’t have the problems Andrew and I did.
Every now and then, we would have to stop the recording to let the Skype issues pass. This was extremely disruptive to the flow of thought and speech. There were times when Andrew and I couldn’t hear what was being said and just soldiered on to preserve flow. At times, I was literally guessing at when it was my turn to talk, and what I was responding to. I am amazed it worked out as well as it did.
The fantasy of a less confrontative exchange went out the window with Randal’s first attack. I practiced very hard to be tamed. And I was also coached on not letting Randal get under my skin. Apologies to my coach. I felt unchained and off-balanced from the first moment. Randal is really good at his schtick.
Still, I didn’t think Randal did anything wrong. He was prepared for the battle that I wasn’t. But Andrew and I recovered well. And again, I am shocked that it turned out so well. I was in knots about the show, and was scared to listen to it when it finally came out. I really had a distorted notion of how it went. I was so angry about the last-minute topic change (and still am) that I was seeing red and not thinking clearly.
I’m glad I had Andrew on the other side to be the voice of calm and reason. We helped each other. And we absolutely needed the help.
The time went by so fast, it is hard to describe what it was like in real time.
I want to thank Justin for agreeing to do the show, and Randal for bringing the fight. He is one of the best at what he does. And it was an honor to do battle with him and come out upright.
Nothing about the making of this show went as expected. It was a long, hard road getting there. Doing the show was nothing like we expected. And being in the after show on this board I love so much is also surreal. There is no show without the people who listen and engage every week. Thank you all.
First, let me say that I really like David and Andrew. To be sure, I hardly know them, but they were very polite and affable on the show and afterward. Both of them emailed me to thank me for the exchange and David invited me onto his podcast where we had an excellent conversation on the concept of progressive revelation. (You can listen to it here.)
Second, I’d like to address David’s suggestion that I made our exchange “confrontational”. As he writes: “The fantasy of a less confrontative exchange went out the window with Randal’s first attack.”
Wait. My first attack?
On the contrary, the adversarial tone of our exchange was set in Still Unbelievable, the book that David, Andrew, and their coauthors wrote as a response to Unbelievable. Here are some of the claims in their book (which, for simplicity sake, I will attribute to all authors collectively, though many/most come from David):
- In one section titled “‘Turn the Other Cheek,’ and Other Stupid Sayings,” the author writes: “Do you have two eyes and two hands? Jesus might wonder why. He famously said that if your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it right out of your head. And if your right hand causes you to sin, chop it off with a sharp blade. Why are there so few one-eyed, one-armed Christians who have self-mutilated? Because they are not stupid enough to follow the advice of a mad man.”
- In a section on the problem of Evil they write: :”God is the parent who gives his child a sick pet so she will experience the maximum grief.” They conclude, “god is a psycho-parent.”
- They refer to the theodicy from greater goods as “nauseatingly bad” and sarcastically strawman it with this observation: “Were you born spastically retarded? You don’t know how lucky you are.”
- After listening to “Unbelievable” for ten years, they observe, “I have listened to these kinds of explanations for the past ten years of programming. And I have become less satisfied with them as time progressed. I can no longer drown out all the suffering by closing my eyes, sticking my fingers in my ears, and crying Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!”
- They write that Christians “imagine winged creatures with cursed visage dominating the air and taking refuge within the bodies of atheists.”
- They write that “The Christian view of reality is like a spiritual never-never land where no one ever grows up, …. In the Christian view of reality, the worst thing you can do is learn to think for yourself, do for yourself, and rely on yourself. The most heinous crime you can commit in Christian never-never land is to grow up.”
- They insist that Christians “are incapable of thinking morally for themselves. They must consult god. Like children, they must mindlessly obey, not think for themselves.”
- They say of the Christian God: “This god is a smothering, overbearing tyrant of a parent who never allows his children to grow up. Their emotional development has been retarded by this god of theirs. They have come to be afraid of everything that goes bump in the night.”
- They say that having rejected Christianity they are “free from the cocaine of certainty.”
This is but a sampling of the disparaging comments about Christians and Christianity in Still Unbelievable. Set against this backdrop, it seems to me a bit rich to say that I set an adversarial tone in the exchange! I love generous, irenic conversation. But for the most part, this book did not aspire to that ideal, and I’ve never been one who was afraid to address the elephant in the room.
This brings me to my third point. It would seem that David and Andrew believe they were tricked somehow. So here’s my backstory for the show.
I received an email from Justin on July 10th inviting me to participate in the debate and listing six possible topics. However, I didn’t get a final confirmation that the program would go ahead until July 26th when Justin emailed me and mentioned he was thinking of going with three of those topics: the Moral Argument, the Resurrection, and choosing to live in Christian reality. I replied that I’d be fine with whatever he chose. We all received an email on July 30th in which Justin finalized those topics. I did not know the final list of topics for the show until it was confirmed at that time.
Granted, I can understand why some guests would prefer more notice, but Justin is a busy guy and that’s the way that radio is. I am sorry if David and Andrew felt ill-prepared for our exchange, but I think it is quite unfair to suggest that Justin was acting in an untoward manner. On the contrary, I think he showed his characteristic hospitality by inviting guests onto his show who were as unremittingly critical of his book as were David and Andrew.
To sum up, I think Justin Brierley is a great host and he wrote an excellent book. I also very much like David and Andrew and hope we cross paths again. “Unbelievable” is not a perfect show and it certainly won’t satisfy everyone. But it brings people together from across deep ideological divides and it gets them talking, and I, for one, am grateful for the opportunity.