Christian Living

Evangelism Through Making Christianity Strange

The World Next Door by Rory Shiner and Peter Orr

Is secularism all bad? Does it always have to mean an increasing hostility to Christianity and resistance to the gospel?

Maybe not. One possibility is that it might be (at least partly) a blessing in disguise. As Perth minister Rory Shiner put it a few years back:

People are so post-Christian that the gospel is fresh and interesting. They know so little that there’s less prejudice. And if they have an impression of Christians at all, it’s so outrageously negative that all you have to do is offer them a cup of tea and not punch them in the face, and you seem like Mother Theresa.

In The World Next Door: A Short Guide to the Christian faith, Shiner and Peter Orr (NT lecturer at Moore College) have turned this theory into a book; a book that celebrates the weirdness of Christianity; a book that aims to intrigue and surprise non-Christians as much as explain, challenge and persuade.

The pattern begins with the first words of Chapter 1:

Jesus was an exorcist. He once cast a legion of demons out of a man and into a herd of pigs. They ran off a cliff and into the ocean and were drowned. True story.

Most Christian books addressed to modern, scientifically-inclined Westerners don’t begin here. The average secular person is unprepared to take such stories seriously. And evangelists have plenty of other material to work with. Who knows? It’s even possible the average modern Christian finds these stories faintly embarrassing.

But I propose we start exactly here. Consider it training at altitude. If you’re still with us after the demon-and-pigs story, the rest is going to feel pretty sane.

Of course, there is a method in this madness. Shiner and Orr want to make Christianity unfamiliar so they can show us how different it is from its too-familiar caricatures. They also want to help us see how it stands apart from the familiar world we inhabit today – and that difference can actually help us live in this world. By the end of the chapter, we are considering how belief in unseen realities makes for a more compassionate perspective than look-within-yourself ideas of pop psychology:

Modernity has put a burden on humanity we don’t have the capacity to bear. We simply were not made to generate our own meaning. We were made to be part of something bigger. Something cosmic.

There is much more of this to follow. Structuring their chapters around the statements of the Apostle’s Creed, Shiner and Orr offer Christianity as “glasses through which you look at the rest of life, the universe, and everything.” Going both wide and deep, they: 

  • Help us to see the radical difference between the ‘God’ of Christianity and the ‘gods’ of mythology; 
  • Explain how the doctrine of the Trinity “sits at the centre of our faith, like the sun at the centre of our solar system”, making sense of everything else; 
  • Explore the significance of Jesus as a true historical figure (and his meaning for Israel’s story);
  • Consider the outsized attention given to Jesus’ death in the Gospels and what it means;
  • Compare the Jewish/Christian vision of history with the despairing theories of atheism or cyclical notions of paganism;
  • Introduce us to the wonderful hope given to us by the Holy Spirit and the Church;
  • Challenge us to face up to our need to forgive and be forgiven;
  • Celebrate the idea that God cares about his creation enough to judge and renew it. 

Maybe that sounds like a lot of information, but Orr and Shiner carry us through with stories and images that are always thought-provoking, frequently hilarious and sometimes very moving. Along the way we hear about thirteen-year-old Rory being recompensed for two days of hard physical labour with $40 cash and two bottles of beer (what?); Dolly Parton’s astonishing forgiveness of the man who once tried to ruin her; and – in the section I found most affecting – Peter’s childhood connections to the Enniskillen Remembrance Day bombing of 1987 (you can see an early version of this chapter here).

There is a deep sense of good cheer that shines through here. It is clear that Shiner and Orr really believe what they are saying and it is hard to escape the conclusion that believing it has made them happy, generous and thoughtful. Their joyful enthusiasm for Jesus is disarming and infectious. 

This would be a great book to give to both teens and adults (Christians and non-Christians) who would like to find out more.