Carl Medearis (left), in his recent book Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism, tells an interesting story about the time he was invited to participate in an interfaith discussion in his hometown. Here's an excerpt:
It was a funny night. Several hundred people crowded the hall as the introductions began. I sat at the far left end of the panel. On the other end were the two Muslims. In the middle were the two rabbis, then the bishop and me. The introductions went like this:
“The honorable Muslim sheikh, Imam Yusef el Ahmadi, leader of the
Next, “The doctor, sheikh, and leading thinker, Imam Ali bin Muhammad, president of the American Muslim Society of Imams”—and other really important things.
Then the two rabbis: “Rabbi Yossi Guren of the”—insert name of synagogue that sounds very important—and “the first woman rabbi in
,” founder and president of the most-amazing-something that I can’t remember. Colorado
Finally, they introduced the bishop, a man immortalized as the Catholic leader of the
area since the beginning of time. Colorado Springs
Then the host came to me and said—this is no lie—“And finally we have … uh …”
“Carl. The name’s Carl,” I said.
He was obviously embarrassed not to know my title or my great accomplishments—of which I have neither. So he just said, “Mr. Carl,” and everyone laughed.
Each of us was supposed to answer two questions, and we each had three to five minutes to respond. The first question was, “How does your religion get you to heaven?”
The two Muslim guys did a fine job articulating the various views within Islam on what it takes to get you to heaven, which all come down to the “will of God.” The two Jewish rabbis did a great job explaining the uncertainty of life after death within Judaism, hence the focus on this life within their faith. The Catholic bishop also did a very good job helping everyone understand the various Christian interpretations of the afterlife and how to get there.
Then it was my turn. Believe me, I was praying for wisdom and something significant to say. This is what came out: “Actually, my religion doesn’t get you to heaven.”
I probably should have explained or added to that, but that’s all I said. The other panelists shifted uncomfortably in their seats and the host asked if I’d like to explain a little more.
“Sure,” I said. “It’s just that I’ve never seen a religion save anyone. All religions are great at laying out some basic rules - dos and don'ts - that are good for our lives, but they don't really provide hope or any kind of eternal security. It seems religions end up causing more trouble than solving anything.”
“So then,” asked the host, “how do you get to heaven?”
This all seemed so basic, but I thought I might as well go ahead and state the obvious. “Well, it’s Jesus. He didn’t start a new religion. He came to provide us a model for life and a way to God. He’s it. Believing in and following Him is the way. He takes us to heaven, not a religion.”
On to simple question number two. “How does your religion deal with terrorism?” The two Muslims felt a little defensive about this question, but did a nice job denouncing all forms of terrorism and explaining how the Qur’an does not provide a place for it. The two Jewish rabbis spent most of their time trying to convince the two Muslims that they had misread their own book on the subject. The bishop gave a lovely talk about mercy mixed with justice.
Here’s what I said: “I don’t really know. I’m not sure how the religion I grew up in would or should deal with terrorism. But I do have some thoughts how Jesus might deal with terrorists because He had two with Him in His inner circle of friends. A Zealot and a tax collector. A political insurgent and an economic terrorizer of the common folk. What He did with these two was bring them in as confidants. As students. Disciples. And made them apostles of the early faith. It actually seems to me that the worse someone was, the more Jesus liked them. He didn’t just have ‘mercy’ in the way we think of it, as a sweet, sappy, lovey-dovey sort of thing. It was mercy with a bite. Mercy that led the people out of where they were into a new place. This is what Jesus did with the worst of His day. He was really only hard on one type of folks—people like us.”
I looked down the line and smiled. “People like me. Hypocrites and such.”
I’m sure at this point they were all wondering why they’d invited me. We did questions and answers for about twenty more minutes and then wrapped it up. Two things happened at the end of the night that made it all worthwhile.
I had a little crowd of people around me in the front asking questions. Some happy, others angry, and still others just slightly confused. One woman was more than a little upset with me. I’d obviously shaken up the box where she kept her faith and she needed to tell me a few things. Our conversation went something like this:
“You didn’t even mention the Trinity!” she said.
“True,” I replied, “but I didn’t think I was talking about that and it didn’t come up in the course of the conversation, so …”
That clearly wasn’t good enough. “But surely you do believe in the Trinity, don’t you? And there are some other things you didn’t mention as well that you should have, like the atonement.”
I knew I needed to tread lightly with her. Everyone lives in a context and it’s good to be sensitive to the American Christian context as much as any other. So I simply said, “You’re probably right, and of course I believe everything that’s in this book.” I held up my Bible, showing her that it appeared well read.
Right then, a young man, hardly able to contain himself, blurted out, “I’m a Muslim. I came with the imam tonight. I’m from his mosque and he invited me to come.” He turned and addressed the woman who had been speaking with me and said, “If this man had talked about theology or doctrine or even Christianity, I wouldn’t have been interested. I’ve heard all of that from my Christian friends. But he talked about Jesus in a way I’ve never heard before and had never thought of. I thought it was amazing.”
I looked at the woman, trying not to give her the “I told you so” stare. To her credit, she said, “Wow. Maybe you’re right. I wonder if I’ve confused my religion with my Savior?”
At that moment the local imam—who had been engaged in plenty of interesting conversations at the other end of the stage—came up and said, “Carl, Carl, Carl. You had an unfair advantage.” He was smiling but also wagging his finger in my face. I wasn’t sure where this was going.
“What’s that, sir?” I asked a little timidly.
“While we were all busy defending our religion and our positions, you simply talked about Jesus. You cheated!” Then he let out a huge laugh and slapped me on the back, said, “good job,” and walked away.
Any immediate thoughts and/or reflections on this story? I'd love have your take on it.
Speaking of Jesus is available on