We need to talk
The broadcaster Justin Brierley talks to Stephen Tomkins
Justin Brierley is the host of Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable?, which for 16 years has been curating conversations between sceptics and believers on questions of faith, science, life and other big subjects. Starting, and continuing, as a programme broadcast weekly, it reached a wider audience when it launched as a podcast in 2007. In 2021, the show had 4m downloads.
In 2018, Unbelievable? launched a video series, called The Big Conversation, which has completed three seasons. Guests who have appeared on the show include Jordan Peterson, AC Grayling, Susan Blackmore, Keith Ward, Steven Pinker and Giles Fraser.
Justin’s book Unbelievable?: Why after talking with atheists for ten years I’m still a Christian was published by SPCK in 2017. He is married to Lucy Brierley, Minister of Woking United Reformed Church.
We’re going to be talking about apologetics. Can you tell us about your own conversion experience?
I grew up in a Christian family and went to a charismatic, evangelical church as a kid. It became real for me in my mid teens. Perhaps this isn’t a terribly unusual story, but it was through a great youth pastor at our church. There was quite an emphasis on there being a definite point at which you cross that line. I realise now that’s not the way everyone comes to faith but, for me, there was a ‘wham bam’ moment at a youth retreat, about the age of 15, while I was being prayed for, when the whole thing fell into place. I felt like God met me in a special way and from that moment on it stopped being something that was just inherited from my parents and was my own faith. I felt very different from that moment on, like something had come alive in me.
Where did the idea for Unbelievable? come from?
Through university I was aware that the vast majority of my peers did not share my faith and I went through seasons of doubt myself. I was also into creative arts. So when I started working for Premier Christian Radio I wanted to connect the creative work of broadcasting with making the intellectual case for faith. Premier was primarily encouraging Christians, and that’s all well and good, but they weren’t doing an awful lot to reach out to non-Christians.
So I had this idea for a weekly program where, for an hour or two each week, we would bring a non-Christian on to tell us what they believed and what their problems were with Christianity and have a Christian opposite them to have a good dialogue. I wanted people to listen to a different point of view, help Christians to engage with a non-Christian perspective and give a good example of dialogue, to help them have those kinds of conversations themselves.
And to convince people there is a case for Christianity?
Absolutely. I am a Christian and I don’t disguise that. The show is, in a sense, just doing apologetics, the rational defence of the Christian faith, but it’s doing it in a very specific way. It’s not top-down, five reasons why you should believe that Jesus is the Son of God. It’s a much more open-ended discussion. It’s still apologetics – that’s the way we have normal conversations, so I think it’s helpful to hear it with someone responding on the other side. In our everyday interactions, we don’t get to just read out a list of evidences to someone, we have someone asking awkward questions on the other end.
While it was initially aimed at Christians, because we are a Christian radio station, we were very early adopters of podcasting and that quickly started to pick up a lot of non-Christian listeners, because when I had a well-known atheist on, they might share it to their followers. That really changed the dynamic of the show: I have to represent both sides fairly, I need to be as neutral as I can be, and just let both sides have their say. It’s respectful. It’s a genuine meeting of minds. One of the best compliments I ever have is when non-Christian listeners say: ‘It took me three or four shows to realise you were a Christian.’
It shows considerable confidence in Christianity to do apologetics simply by getting people to listen to a dialogue for and against. When CS Lewis did his broadcast talks and wrote Mere Christianity, it was only his voice. What you do is more open-ended, isn’t it?
Exactly. Confidence is not just about being able to fire a set of facts off at someone, it is about being able to hear someone else’s perspective that you may disagree with, but not run away or duck the issue. Even to say ‘I don’t know the answer to that question’, but being willing to hear it and take it seriously. And sometimes to change your own views in the process. There’s been plenty of conversations where I haven’t had my own views confirmed, where I’ve had to go away and rethink. That’s a far more robust kind of confidence than lobbing my verbal grenades from behind my barricade.
I suppose this is less so now in the age of the podcast, but a radio show presenting a 90-minute serious conversation on a single subject – there was something quite countercultural about that.
I agree. We have become a soundbite culture. You get one extreme on one side, one extreme on the other, let them loose for three minutes, then move on to the weather. With Unbelievable? we tried to give time for nuanced discussions.
In many ways, it’s only got worse with social media, big tech trying to get as many clicks as possible, algorithms feeding you the views that you already agree with, attention spans getting shorter. There’s more need than ever for these longform dialogues. I think there is an appetite for it, because people are not being served well by the way social media works.
Is there a tension between good conversation and good ratings? The kind of clips that go viral are the ones where ‘Jordan Peterson OWNS Cathy Newman’.
Yeah, that’s the danger, to take something out of context and use it for a bit of clickbait. There’s always this balance. I’m not there simply to have terribly earnest discussions, I want them to be entertaining, I want them to engage as many people as possible. I tend to keep the personalities and topics varied, some heavier, some lighter. But at the core of it, there is always a good hour of discussion, and even then you’re only scratching the issues. A good little quote can be very effective at pulling people in, but when all you ever do is create clickbait, then you’re not inviting people in to something bigger.
Is there a lesson here for what conversation can achieve in local churches? Not necessarily podcasts or broadcasts, but putting on events based on dialogue?
I think so. We are only catching up with the way people have now been learning in school for a long time. I’m a great fan of a good sermon, but that top-down model of learning is not one you find in many other places. Schools encourage children to learn in a whole variety of different ways.
A good conversation on stage is just as powerful, if not more powerful, than a sermon because it engages people’s imagination and understanding in a different way. It doesn’t need to be combative, though I think there’s also a place for doing oppositional kind of debate.
How many people, these days, turn out to listen to an evangelistic sermon? But something where they feel they’re engaging with an interesting conversation, that’s a different prospect. It can be a very powerful evangelistic tool – not in the conventional sense, because you’ve got less control over the message. But if you are showing that you are confident enough to put a sceptic and a Christian opposite each other in a church setting, as I have frequently done, it can be very empowering actually, and really create a buzz and an energy. And a sense that this is real, not just prepackaged stuff. Just trust that God is there, God will be moving. I’m a fan of churches living a bit more dangerously.
How has your own thinking changed or been challenged in the years that you’ve been doing Unbelievable?
In many, many ways. My understanding of the case for Christianity from a historical/philosophical point of view has been honed and developed. I feel far more confident about the objective reasons for Christianity than when I started. But there’s also been preconceptions about Christianity that have had to be challenged, dismantled, sometimes rebuilt – because they were never terribly well constructed to start with. Assumptions I’d taken through from childhood. I grew up in a church where there was a black-and-white understanding of salvation, of heaven and hell. My views on that have changed quite significantly through doing Unbelievable?
This is the first issue of our anniversary year. What does the URC means to you?
I didn’t grow up in the URC but much of my adult life has been spent there. Meeting Lucy at university opened my eyes to the breadth of the Christian Church. I had come from my specific background and thought it was the only and best way of being a Christian. Lucy was very open to exploring all of the Churches and I learned an awful lot in the process. One of the great joys of being part of the URC is that it is a broad Church, with unity in diversity. There’s a lot to be learned from living together, with differences, but still recognising our common calling as brothers and sisters in Christ.
I’ve come to appreciate the ecclesiology that has been handed down, the conciliar decision-making: I think that’s a really helpful way of doing church, for congregations to decide what makes sense for them in their situation. And for that to be decided by the body of the Church, rather than just a select few, or a bishop imposing things. I think there’s a lot to be said for the way that that puts a real sense of control and mission into the hands of the people in the local church. I’ve been really encouraged at our local level, seeing the way that God is able to move. I hope that there is much that God can do with our denomination.
I think the URC would like to be better at evangelism than it is. Do you have any wisdom from your experience that you can share?
I think so. I was at a talk by the historian Tom Holland* the other day. He lost the faith he had, when he was in his teens, but has been drawn back through an intellectual/spiritual journey. He was asked: ‘What should the Church do to be evangelistic?’ He said: ‘The Church should stay weird.’ Don’t just look like the world around you, because then you just become another mouthpiece for the culture that already exists.
Part of that is not being ashamed and owning the weirdness of these strange beliefs in God, in the Holy Spirit, in the idea that we are not here by accident, and that there’s a God who loves you and came to die for you, who rose again for you. I think very often we’ve felt like we have to dumb that all down or we are slightly embarrassed about it, the fact that Christianity makes supernatural claims about reality. But increasingly I’ve come to see that everyone has a worldview, and the secularist materialist is actually making a number of faith claims of their own about the way the world is.
We might as well be upfront about what we believe and invite people to consider it for themselves. We need to do that in ways that are engaging and creative. We may need to rethink our model in favour of something that engages people where they’re at. But for me it is about regaining our confidence and saying we have an extraordinary message to proclaim.
And one that I think that people are on the cusp of being ready to hear again. We are in the trough of a post-Christian, secular culture right now, where, since the 1960s, we’ve had the cultural assumptions of Christianity taken away. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because Christianity has always had these peaks and troughs, spiritual revivals which turn into dead tradition; people forget about it and then something new happens. I wonder if we’re just on the verge of something new happening again, because I get the sense that people are getting really tired of the materialist culture that become the norm. It has provided entertainment but hasn’t really answered any of the deepest longings of our soul.
The Church, if we are willing to catch the wind of the Spirit, could be on the verge of the next great revival. Because it happens. God works, even when we think no one’s listening and everyone’s lost interest and we couldn’t be more irrelevant. I think we’re often caught by surprise at what God is able to do.
This article was published in the February 2022 edition of Reform