**Can atheists and Christians find common ground?**
This continues my interview with Ian J. Keeney, director of the film The Meaning, a documentary made by Christians and atheists about the “War on Religion.” Ian is a former “Satanist” who became a Christian. This interview discusses his conversion, atheist/Christian relations, and more about his documentary, The Meaning.
(Read Part 1 of the interview here.) (Watch The Meaning trailer here.)
Steve: Tell us about your own journey from atheism to Christianity. I know you used to refer to yourself as a “Satanist,” which isn’t the same as a Satan-worshipper, but an atheist extremely hostile towards Christians. Why did you come to Christianity and not another religion? Would you say it was a sudden change or a gradual change?
Ian: It was a gradual thing. 2005 is when I opened my mind, visited some churches and began studying. I was by no means a believer then though. Only mildly curious. Since it was such a gradual process, it’s hard to pin a day on, “this is the day I became a Christian.” I’d say that when I decided I fully believed in Jesus was in 2010. That’s when I decided for sure I wanted to live for Him. I had toyed with the idea, believed but not too seriously. It was then that I saw my life changing, when I really decided to live for Him. Then I had that crisis while making the movie where I went from 100% sure of myself that Jesus is real to nearly becoming an atheist again. I took a break from filming for a while to just get my head straight and recalibrate myself and reevaluated everything. That’s when I decided, yeah. This is real to me. Then on April 8, 2012, I was baptized.
To be quite honest, I’m not even sure how I feel about using the word Christian to define myself. I’ve come to accept Jesus as God for many reasons but it was a process as slow as the continental drift. The reason I’m hesitant about that “Christian” label is because nobody really has a clear picture on what that means, especially people who are not Christian. Does saying I’m Christian mean I’m a Republican? Does it mean I hate gay people? Does it mean I believe the universe is only 6,000 years old? Does it mean I’m intolerant of other people’s religions (especially Muslims) and think all atheists are going to Hell? No. I’m the opposite of all those things. I don’t believe any of that, but often, that’s the first thing that comes to non-Christian’s minds when they hear that word “Christian.”
Also, what about what Christians think of each other? Is it enough that I believe in Jesus? Well, for Jesus, yeah – it is. For a lot of Christians, no – it’s not. I’ve been told that if I don’t speak in tongues, I’m not a real Christian. I’ve been told that I shouldn’t believe in Evolution if I’m a Christian. I don’t want to be associated with that sort of thinking. It gives Jesus a bad name and Jesus never said anything about the Earth revolving around the sun, the world being created 6,000 years ago, etc. I think throughout history and through today the Church has done itself a lot of harm when it takes a firm stance on these extra-biblical ideas based on things Jesus never said.
Jesus said, “Follow me.” That’s what I do. Does that alone make me a “Christian?” I don’t know. Jesus was Jewish. He said, “Follow me.” He didn’t say, “Be a Christian.”
Now to answer your question as quickly as I can, because I could literally write a novel based on this question alone: I came to Jesus rather than any other religion because as an atheists, I didn’t see a god. With Jesus, I see God. If there is such thing as a God, what Jesus did, that makes sense to me. Why would a God create some universe and then just walk away and have no interaction with it whatsoever? That makes no sense to me at all.
If God made this creation, it only makes sense to me that he would want to show up here at some point. Sure, other religions have their saviors (don’t mistake prophets for saviors), but reading the words of Jesus, it seemed most real to me. People make fun of Jesus about those stories being fantastical. Try reading some other antediluvian holy books, especially those that predate the Bible, like the Egyptian Book of the Dead. They make Lord of the Rings seem more realistic.
I do have a hard time believing the miracles in the Bible, but for me, if they happened or not, they really don’t matter to me today. What matters is what Jesus taught and how those words apply to my life. Even if you don’t believe that Jesus ever existed, if you read his words, he’s not telling you to hate gays and shun science. He’s telling you to love everyone, forget about eye for an eye and learn to truly love one another with forgiveness, he wants us to be good to one another, be good to ourselves and be the best we can be. He’s not someone we should be afraid of or get so angry when his name comes up, but that’s the reaction a lot of people have just like I did for most of my life. Jesus is a cool dude. He revolted against the authority of his day just like so many young people do today, but the irony today is a lot of the revolutionary young people don’t want to hear about Jesus and it’s the elite authorities who want to shove this misrepresented image of Jesus down your throat.
Once I really opened my mind and focused on who Jesus really was, that’s when I began to think I may be able to believe he was more than a fairy tale. I know there’s Christians shaking their heads at things I’m saying who want to just tell me how wrong I am but rest assured, many Christians have already told me how wrong I am. That’s why so many people are turned off from Christianity. The thing is though, there are many amazing Christians. There are Christians who think more like me. There’s quite a lot actually, but they’re not as boisterous. That, again, is why I chose to make this film – to give a voice to the people who aren’t standing outside with signs saying, “God hates gays,” but saying, “I’m Christian and I love my gay friends,” or even, “I’m Christian and I’m gay.”
Steve: You said a lot here, so let me share some quick thoughts:
I think there’s a lot of wisdom in what you’re saying. I think it’s difficult for someone who grew up in Christian culture to relate to what you’re saying, so I’m glad you said it. Someone who is coming from a place of hardcore skepticism, like the two of us, is going to continue to question things and wrestle with the Bible for the rest of his or her life, but I would argue this is what we’re all meant to do as Christians.
I would also say that there are two miracles that one must definitely accept for salvation: That God became flesh as Jesus of Nazareth, and that Jesus died on a cross and returned from death for the atonement of our sins. Beginning with Jesus’ teachings on how we should live with others is a great way to introduce Jesus to others, but we can’t ignore that he spoke primarily about repentance from sin and salvation through his death. If we only focus on Jesus as a wise teacher, we’re overlooking Jesus as savior, which is the main reason he came.
So, I understand what you’re saying, but sometimes I get a bit nervous with this talk because it sometimes (not always, but sometimes) leads to this “Jesus is my homeboy” or “Jesus is my hippy friend” mentality. Whenever I find this attitude towards Jesus, it needs to be pointed out that Jesus spoke about hell more than anyone else in the Bible, so Jesus understood the dangers of sin. If anyone understands the dangers of sin, it’s the person who was tortured and crucified because of it.
Also, I find once you understand Jesus, you start to understand the rest of the Bible more clearly and you start taking it more seriously. Jesus constantly refers to the Old Testament to prove his arguments, and once you understand who wrote the New Testament, it’s impossible to pit the rest of the New Testament against Jesus’ words. There’s unity to it.
Finally, I’d like to build on what you said by agreeing that Jesus was totally countercultural. When I first started reading the Bible on my own, I was struck by Jesus’ anger and harsh words towards the religious leaders of his day. It struck me how much of what Jesus was saying to them could be said to the modern church today.
Did you learn anything about your own faith while making this film?
Ian: Of course. Making this movie was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do; not only because I had to stay awake for days straight and spend my life savings to fly around the country and get interviews, but because it was the biggest test of my faith I’ve ever had. I was going back and forth while filming, sometimes affirming my faith and often thinking I might still be an atheist after all. I was having terrible nightmares just not sure what I believed anymore. I was on information overload.
I’m still not even sure to this day but that’s part of my decision. I’m not really willing to hammer my feet in the sand and say this is what I believe and I’m never budging. As I learn more, I grow more and will move in a different direction on certain things. I’m stuck with Jesus. As far as everything else, I’m a man of science and science is fluid and grows as we learn more things and I want to be part of that growth.
Steve: Some mistakenly think to question and look for answers is a sign of weak faith. I think it’s the opposite. Confidence comes from asking the tough questions, and as I learn more, I grow more confident. Faith doesn’t mean blind, mindless faith. It means trust. And trust in God, just like in any other relationship, grows.
Now that I’ve been a Christian for 8 years, I’ve realized just how badly Christians are stereotyped and how little critics of Christianity actually know about what we believe. I’m not sure about other parts of the country, but this seems to be the case in New Jersey and the mainstream media. In New Jersey, I would say skepticism is the norm, and Christianity is outside the mainstream. Do you agree with this assessment? Since, like me, you have been on both sides of the fence of belief and unbelief, have you made any discoveries you wouldn’t have had otherwise?
Ian: The biggest discovery I’ve made is that as an atheist, I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I knew. I’m never one who is quick to tell people that they are wrong but after doing this study, I’ve come to realize there is just so much misinformation out there. People boldly speak this misinformation with a strong belief that it were true. This happens with both Christians and atheists. That’s why I keep insisting people do their own extensive and balanced research on any topic they want to boldly stand for or against.
Regarding demographics, I have noticed that out here on the east coast, things are definitely much different regarding Jesus than it is in many areas of the mid-west. Jesus seems to be more predominant out there than he is here. There’s definitely no shortage of the hell fire billboards on the NJ Turnpike though. It just gets lost in the noise of everything else. People here seem to look away and just shrug it off. Other places in the country do seem to be more Christian than out here.
Steve: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing Christians in a growing secular culture?
Ian: I think this points to what I said earlier. Christians need to keep up with the times and be willing to educate themselves fully on topics regarding things like stem-cell research, evolution, homosexuality or anything they choose to take a stand against before they speak out against it. I’ve heard so much false information coming from Christians who oppose these hot topics and that only does more harm. Of course they then will try to tell me I’m wrong based on their one source they found on some suspicious page on the Internet. If you don’t have your facts straight and you’re trying to oppose people who do believe these things, it’s just going to make Christianity appear silly and irrelevant.
If someone wishes to take a certain stance on something, just know very well where it is you stand. Read several books from different perspectives, talk to scientists personally (many of whom are Christians), take a class, watch documentaries. Listen with an open mind to what both sides of the debate are saying.
Steve: Is there advice you would give to Christians about interacting with atheists? Is there any way to share your faith with an atheist without things getting awkward, unfriendly, or preachy?
Ian: Let an atheist tell you about their beliefs or lack there of first. Most atheists will have something negative to say about the Church. Most of the time, it’s something that the Church has done to misrepresent Jesus, such as the choir boy molestations, embezzlement of donations, etc. Then you can address those issues by saying how Jesus actually opposed those things about the church too.
People have more common ground with Jesus then they realize, or at least I know I did when I was an atheist. Atheists blame Jesus for the things the Church got wrong, but they’re willing to hear how Jesus would agree with them that the Church is very wrong for doing these things. You’re never going to “win” an atheist to Christ by having a debate about creation.
Like I said, you never want to “sell” Jesus. Most (if not all) atheists will not believe the stories. Did Jesus really walk on water? Did he really rise from the dead? I try to avoid these sorts of debates. These are things they have to figure out on their own. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. I didn’t see Jesus walking on water so I have nothing to say about that. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. If he was really God, he could have done whatever he wanted to, including rise from the dead. If he created the laws of physics, he’s obviously able to break them. Before an atheist would even consider these things, I just talk about Jesus and what he taught. He’s not all hell fire and brimstone like the church has made him out to be so often. They like to hear about that stuff.
Be careful not to give misinformation though. Atheists deal in facts. If you start grabbing information from outside the Bible to back up what you’re saying, make sure you know well what it is you’re saying. If there is one hole in your story, the entire thing will unravel. For example, many Christians like to quote Josephus for proof that Jesus existed outside the Bible; however, an atheist will dismiss this immediately – and then probably dismiss everything else you said. Josephus wasn’t even born until about four years after Jesus died. Josephus is not a reliable source for an eyewitness account, if what he wrote about Jesus is even real. It’s possible it was a forgery.
Atheists know a lot more than a lot of Christians realize. In fact, a lot of people become atheists because of how much they know. Keep that in mind. It’s not about winning an intellectual debate over an atheist to convince them you’re right and they’re wrong. It’s just about opening up to each other and getting to know each other. They will find their path without a leash. We need a new approach. The Christian catch phrases and slogans on bumper stickers and billboards are out of style. It’s time to preach with love.
Steve: When I started looking into Christianity, I was surprised how many good arguments were out there in support of it. Since I was an atheist for so long, I knew all the reasons to doubt and I really believed there was no way to defend belief in God and Jesus. Now, I’m not saying these are bullet-proof arguments, but neither are the skeptics’ arguments. But what really struck me was how well Christian scholars could defend their views. If Jesus and the events in the Bible were just made up from thin air like Zeus or Thor, there would be no way to put together an intelligent, research-based article or book about it. Can you imagine someone trying to write a historical defense of the existence of Thor? There are a lot of good reasons argued by people a lot more informed and intelligent than the two of us who believe the Bible is 100% accurate. If nothing else, they show it isn’t absurd to believe in the Bible like so many skeptics make it out to be.
What advice would you give to someone who is drawn to Christianity but has intellectual reservations about it?
Ian: I would say not to draw any conclusions too soon. You’re certainly going to hear a lot of goofy things from some Christians, and you’re going to read some pretty unbelievable things. If you’re really interested in learning, keep going. The journey is exciting. There’s more to it than I ever realized.
Make sure you get your information from various sources. Don’t just listen to what atheists have to say and don’t just listen to what Christians are saying. Read the Bible but don’t dismiss something right away. A lot of it is hard to understand. To fully understand it, we have to know the culture in which it was written.
If you arrive at something you have a concern about that makes you furrow your brow, write it down and ask someone to explain it. Connect with us on Facebook or email us your question (firstname.lastname@example.org) and we’ll be happy to get it answered for you by a pastor or scholar. You may be surprised. Often times there is a very reasonable explanation.
I can’t lie to you though. Even I have a hard time with a lot of the Bible. I don’t take it all literally word-for-word. The Old Testament is especially difficult for me. I know which books to never read again, otherwise they’ll probably make me an atheist again. There’s a few really good books in the Old Testament but I mainly focus on the words of Jesus. Read those. You don’t even have to read it believing that every word is 100% true to what happened, but if you’re curious, start by skimming those red letters (the words of Jesus) in the Bible. Take it from there. You’ll either believe it more as you go or you won’t, but if you’re seriously drawn to Christianity, it’s not a journey you should do alone.
There will definitely be intellectual reservations and you’ll need someone to talk to you about them, preferably someone who’s done extensive study like a theologian or pastor, but be careful to not settle on one answer. Ask a few people. The answers most likely will vary. Then you have to decide what YOU believe.
Steve: Since Christians call themselves Christians because of Jesus Christ, it’s not a bad idea to start with Christ. But I would say, once you’re familiar with the words of Christ, don’t stop there. All scripture leads to understanding God.
The Old Testament is definitely difficult, but much of it needs to be understood in context of the time period it takes place and in the context of the biblical story as a whole. A great book I’d recommend that addresses these difficulties is “Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God.”
What advice would you give to someone who has been wronged or hurt by Christians or a church?
Ian: Who hasn’t been wronged by the church in some way? It’s sad how commonplace that is. Some crimes are definitely worse than others within the church. There’s no worse crime than some trusted man taking a child’s innocence. Jesus has harsh words against that. He has harsh words against everything the church has done to harm people. I would tell them that Jesus is hurt by their actions too and give them his words that speak for that person who has been wronged by that church who strayed from the teachings of Jesus.
Steve: What are the biggest challenges to making an independent documentary and getting it in front of audiences?
Ian: The biggest challenge is financial. People don’t understand how much money something like this takes. Keep in mind, Hollywood spends tens of millions of dollars to make movies. I’ve spent only a fraction of that, but since I’m not a millionaire, I really feel the major dent in my bank account. I’ve made a lot of sacrifices to make this film. I was in the process of buying a house when I really felt I had to make this movie. I told the mortgage company and my real estate agent, never mind. I have something to do. I took the down payment for my house and used it to make this film. It wasn’t nearly enough. I live paycheck to paycheck and my account gets overdrawn almost every week trying to keep up with this film. I’ve done a few fundraisers and though we did have a few very generous people, overall, the response wasn’t very big so I have had no choice but to spend my own money.
I think to a lot of people, the process of making an independent documentary is very ambiguous. Just today there were several big and important film festivals I wanted to enter to get this film out there. People keep asking me, “When do I get to see the film,” but I wasn’t able to enter these festivals because I don’t have enough money in my account. Festival application fees vary but could be anywhere around $40 – $100+ a piece. If the movie is not accepted to the festival, these fees don’t get returned. If it does get accepted then I have to print posters and flyers and prepare the media for projection (also costly). That’s been the biggest challenge is trying to get this movie out there without the necessary finances. There are other filmmakers but they’re working stiffs who have obligations and families to take care of. We just don’t have the means to move this forward like it needs to.
I decided it was time for one more fundraiser. To put everything I’ve got into this film only to have it collect dust on my shelf doesn’t make sense. It’s something that’s meant to be seen widely. If anyone is interested in helping us get this movie out there more, they can contribute to our campaign and get some great perks in return.
Steve: Future plans for the film? For other projects?
Ian: The future plans for the film is to right now get it in front of as many eyes as we can by whatever means we can. We’re trying to set up more screenings of the film and get exposure through film festivals. As far as other projects go, I’m not quite sure. I just released my second novel A Better Tomorrow and I’m working on some music in the studio.
Sometimes I get very discouraged because I put my entire life, my heart and soul into these projects. It takes a lot out of me, not only financially, but physically and mentally. I’m putting my heart and soul on display through my artistic endeavors. I do have a handful of very hardcore fans and supporters and I wouldn’t have come this far without them. They believe in me wholeheartedly but lately even they seem to be getting frustrated that through everything I’ve done, it still hasn’t broken through into more popularity yet. I say all this because, I’m not sure what lies ahead in the future for other projects. I’m not sure how much I have left in me. I’ve done a lot. Four feature films, two novels, short films, television, poetry and now I’m recording my music. Unless something I’ve already made reaches some level of success, I may not have it in me to go forward with something else. It just won’t be possible anymore.
Don’t get me wrong. When I say success, I don’t mean I’m looking to be a millionaire. I’m not in it for the money. I just want enough to have the basic necessities that everyone needs. I want my work to reach more people. It’s just hard to get noticed these days in such a noisy world. Hopefully with this film people will help me get the word out there and help me get it to a larger audience.
To learn more about The Meaning’s fundraising campaign, click here.
Steve: Give us info on the upcoming The Meaning showing in Paterson, NJ.
Ian: Our next showing for the meaning is in Paterson, NJ. All the info can be found on our website here: http://discoverthemeaning.com/index.php/events.html
Steve: How can people contact you or learn more about The Meaning?
Ian: They can contact me through Facebook/DiscoverTheMeaning or Facebook.com/ianjkeeneypage, find me on www.ianjkeeney.com or through www.discoverthemeaning.com.