An updated version of this piece forms chapter 2 of my book, The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist
“I don’t believe that Sweden exists,” my friend suddenly declared from across the coffee shop table. He took a sip of espresso and stared intently at me, clearly awaiting a response. I paused, my cinnamon roll halfway to my mouth, as I digested what he’d just said.
“I don’t believe that Sweden exists,” he repeated. “I think it’s just a political conspiracy, designed to motivate other European citizens to work harder. All that talk of the best health care system, the highest standard of living, of tall and beautiful people. It sounds like a myth and I’m not buying it. I don’t believe in Sweden.”
There’s a scene a few chapters into the comedy science-fiction novel, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, where Zaphod Beeblebrox, the two-headed former president of the galaxy, is in a spot of trouble. A few moments earlier, he had been standing on the bridge of a starship, now he suddenly found himself mysteriously teleported to a café on the strange, alien planet of Ursa Minor Beta. Puzzled at what has just happened, Zaphod instinctively reached into his pocket for his sunglasses:
[He] felt much more comfortable with them on. They were a double pair of Joo Janta Super-Chromatic Peril Sensitive Sunglasses, which had been specially designed to help people develop a relaxed attitude to danger. At the first hint of trouble they turn totally black and thus prevent you from seeing anything that might alarm you.
What was science-fiction in 1980 when Douglas Adams wrote this passage has become reality in the twenty-first century. Augmented reality, to be precise, the new buzzword in computing. Augmented reality is a technology that allows computer-driven data to overlay your view of the real world. Originally developed for military applications (for example, projecting flight information onto the visor of a fighter jet pilot), augmented reality is now breaking in to the world of consumer gadgetry.
When I was thirteen years old, one of my favourite hobbies was conjuring. Every Saturday morning, I would faithfully trek across London to attend classes at Davenports Magic Shop, an Aladdin’s cave of a place which was all the more wondrous for being located in an underground mall deep below Charing Cross. There I learnt how to baffle people with card tricks, make money disappear, and pull rabbits from hats.
Of all the tricks I mastered, my favourite was the shell game. One of the oldest tricks known to magicians, its premise is simple: behold, three small wooden cups. Beneath one is placed a small ball. The cups are shuffled and some innocent bystander asked to guess where the ball is. No matter where they guess, their answer turns out to be wrong: the magician always wins.
At its heart, apologetics is beautifully simple and intricately connected to the heart of the gospel. As I’ve wrestled with people’s questions, I’ve learned there are a number of basic principles that apply time and again, no matter who I’m talking with.
1. Know what you believe
This is a challenge for those of us raised in the Church, or who have been Christians for decades. Too often we give how-shaped answers to why-shaped questions. If somebody asks you why you are a Christian, giving a narrative of how you became one isn’t always helpful. Many of our friends want to know why you’re a Christian now, today, with all of the challenges to your faith that daily attack you. What’s your elevator speech for Christianity?
Clearing out some old files recently, I came across this famous meditation, written almost a century ago:
He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in another village, where he worked in a carpenter’s shop until he was thirty. Then for three years he was an itinerant preacher. He never wrote a book, never held an office, never went to college, never visited a big city. He never travelled more than two hundred miles from the place where he was born. He did none of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but himself. He was only thirty-three when the tide of public opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. One of them denied him. He was turned over to his enemies and went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed to a cross between two thieves. While dying, his executioners gambled for his clothing, the only property he had on earth. When he was dead, he was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend … All the armies that have ever marched, all the navies that have ever sailed, all the parliaments that have ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned put together, have not affected the life of mankind on earth, as powerfully as that one solitary life.
The path through the trees was narrow and overgrown, meandering its way through birch, oak and elm, climbing gently as it wound its way up from the valley. A few minutes walking brought me to the ancient moss-laden wall that surrounded the forest, from which a wooden gate led out on the hillside. From there the track quickly steepened as it wound sinuously up toward the mountaintop. I paused every so often to catch my breath, turning to watch the cloud shadows chase one another across the flanks of the hills on the far side of the valley.
Onwards and upwards I climbed, as the first hints of dusk began to take hold and the shadows grew longer. I gained the summit ridge just as the westering sun was beginning to sink behind a bank of clouds hanging over the distant Langdale Pikes, among the most well known of Lakeland’s hills and loved by the poets, by Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey.
Suddenly, as the sun dropped completely behind the cloudbank, the whole sky turned the colour of burnished gold and the clouds themselves lit up as if on fire, a maelstrom of red, orange and ochre, with the occasional flash of silver. At that moment, through a gap in the clouds poured a great ray of sunshine, streaming into the valley below like a searchlight and throwing into stark relief the lines of fields, lanes and hedgerows.