Who is Donald J. Johnson?
Donald J. Johnson “has served in vocational ministry since 1993, including extensive experience as an inner city youth worker and young adult pastor. He has a B.A. in Theology, Missions and Intercultural Studies from San Jose Christian College, an M.A. in Christian Apologetics from Biola University, and an M.A. in Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. He has also done graduate work in the evangelism program at Multnomah Seminary and the philosophy of Religion program at Talbot School of Theology.” He is President of Don Johnson Evangelistic Ministries. How to Talk to a Skeptic is Johnson’s only published book available on Amazon.
The Book’s Purpose
Don Johnson has identified a “larger cultural shift toward religious skepticism in general.” In the course of his ministry, he has been called upon by many believers for assistance in dealing with this shift. “Christians are running into more and more friends, family members, and co-workers who not only question the faith, but are antagonistic toward it, and they aren’t sure how to interact with them.” How to Talk to a Skeptic seeks to equip Christians to be more effective apologists by equipping them to practically interact with those who are skeptical of religion. In the book, the author identifies three specific areas in which, he believes, people require assistance in responding to skeptics: (1) how to respond to challenges to Christianity, (2) learning how to explain the Christian faith clearly to unbelievers, and (3) understanding the philosophical foundations of Christian thought.
Part One: A Framework for Fruitful Conversations
Johnson begins How to Talk to a Skeptic by discussing the nature of religion and how that nature affects the evangelical enterprise, doing so “because the philosophical provides the foundation for the practical.” Among apologetic works, this type of foundation-building is not unusual. However, the way Johnson approaches it is. Johnson makes the claim that most apologetic resources “require immense amounts of memorization and expertise” and “leave the Christian on the defensive, always at the mercy of the next question or objection of the skeptic.” This is not the case with How to Talk to a Skeptic. In Part One of the book, Johnson doesn’t present a list of deductive arguments to memorize and regurgitate but rather a framework for talking about worldviews. He instructs the reader how to effectively frame a conversation with the skeptic so that the believer can direct it. Part One is not unlike a manual for professional salespeople on how to steer conversation. Ironically, the title of the first included chapter is “No Selling Required.” Johnson titles the chapter this way because religious belief is often seen as a consumer choice rather than an affirmation of a worldview. Johnson advocates steering the conversation towards the importance of picking a true worldview, ignoring the rabbit trail of discussing choices in the religious marketplace. The entire world in view is a big-picture place, and Johnson advocates keeping that in mind when framing the conversation. There are a plethora of small-picture, particular objections to Christianity that the Christian is tempted to refute. Johnson encourages framing the conversation based on the cumulative evidence for the Christian worldview and not in terms of one-off objections. This type of conversation that requires doing so isn’t short, it’s long (intermittently continuing over days, months, or years) and involves relationship-building. Building a relationship involves asking questions, listening, and understanding what the skeptic really believes. It’s futile to refute a worldview the skeptic doesn’t hold, thus “the first step must be to ask questions and learn what it is the unbeliever actually believes.”
Part Two: What Skeptics Need to Know About God
Part Two of How to Talk to a Skeptic addresses “the most common misunderstandings skeptics have about God” and how the believer can correct these misunderstandings in a genial way. Johnson notes that the typical skeptic has a skewed understanding of Christianity which claims that “God seems to be some sort of egomaniac who created people to tell him how great he is,” or some other such nonsense. Johnson elegantly explains both the nature of God and the nature of love, tying these natures into the ideas of worship and sacrifice. Through the lens of these ideas and natures, Johnson makes apologetic cases to refute skeptical misconceptions of God’s law, salvation, eternal destinations, and the way scripture should be approached. These biblical understanding of these concepts is often a hard pill for skeptics to swallow. Johnson essentially turns love into the spoonful of sugar that helps that medicine go down. Johnson states that “The goal of evangelism is to get people to know God.” The best way to do that, as Johnson demonstrates in Part Two, is to demonstrate that God is love.
Part Three: Dealing With the Data
Part Three of How to Talk to a Skeptic addresses alternate worldviews and how they compare to Christianity. There’s no wiggle room for the unbeliever when a conversation with a skeptic gets to this point if Johnson’s model has been followed. The importance of affirming a true worldview has been established and misconceptions about Christianity have been corrected. The story of Christianity is presented as one of Creation, the Fall, Redemption, and the coming New Creation. The question for the skeptic is, “How do other worldviews hold up to this one, especially in terms of their explanatory power?” To answer the question, Johnson gives a list of indisputable facts which indicate that the Christian worldview holds up best to scrutiny (many of these indisputable facts will resemble arguments from natural theology to those familiar with that area of thought). Johnson goes on to extensively explore the difference between Christianity and pagan myths, presenting Jesus in an accurate light. From there he goes he address more superficial charges of skepticism, such as the charge that Christians are sexually repressed hypocrites. Johnson concludes by encouraging the reader; quoting Richard John Neuhaus, he states, “At this beginning of the third millennium, there is only one comprehensive, coherent, compelling, hopeful story of the human project being proposed to the world, and that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Johnson has prepared and exhorted the reader to tell that story.
How to Talk to a Skeptic is laced with relevance; stories from new reports, personal perspectives, and tales of interaction with skeptics. As someone who reads a great deal of apologetic material, I found this both refreshing and practical. It lacked the dry and technical philosophical language of other apologetics books. That’s what made it refreshing. What made it practical is that it helped me understand how to effectively communicate the dry and technical philosophical language that I’ve learned from other apologetic books to the people who need to hear it. This book is a great supplement to ones apologetic library. It’s a good resource but not all good. After finishing this book, I was left wondering whether or not I was the skeptic. There is no specific statement of Johnson’s faith in How to Talk to a Skeptic nor is there such a statement on the Don Johnson Evangelical Ministries website. However, Johnson is implicitly Roman Catholic. He cites “Joseph Ratzinger” in his book twice. Ratzinger is more popularly known as Pope Benedict XVI. Johnson completed his theological studies at a Franciscan university. How to Talk to a Skeptic certainly isn’t a theological book but its author certainly takes some theological stands. Thus, the reader has to extricate apologetic principles from the Catholic mire. Johnson’s implicit Roman Catholicism would keep me from recommending the book to those people interested in apologetics but less studied in biblical, evangelical theology.
Don Johnson Evangelistic Ministries. About. http://donjohnsonministries.org/about/ (accessed February 9, 2014).
Johnson, Donald J. How to Talk to a Skeptic. Bethany House Publishers, 2013.