A Rebel’s Manifesto: Sean McDowell
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Dr. Sean McDowellDr. Sean McDowell is an author, speaker, and Associate Professor at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, with a Ph.D. in apologetics and worldview studies. He has authored or edited numerous books, including Chasing Love: Sex, Love, and Relationships in A Confused Culture and So the Next Generation Will Know. Sean is a gifted communicator with a passion for equipping the church, especially young people, to make the case for the Christian faith. He regularly engages nonbelievers in though...more
Sean McDowell knows Christians get defensive about faith. Listen in on his thoughts on listening well while remaining calmly grounded in biblical truth.
A Rebel’s Manifesto: Sean McDowell
Sean: You learn typically within about 15, 20, sometimes 25 minutes, Christians get defensive. They get angry; some get hostile. I'll ask audiences, I'll say things like “Why do you think you got so defensive?” And pretty quickly somebody says, “When we don't know what we believe and why, and somebody presses us, it's human nature to get defensive.”
Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I'm Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife—
What would you say—don't be looking at your notes.
Ann: I’m totally looking. [Laughter]
Dave: I don't want you looking at your notes. I want from your heart. What do you think the issues that are dividing the church today? dividing the Christian community? the topics that we can't get unity on?
Dave: Oh yes.
Ann: —sexuality, any kind of gender issues. Those are the ones that come to my mind.
Dave: —definition of marriage.
Dave: First time in 4000 years we have a new definition of marriage.
Dave: I don't know, there's probably several others, but I knew you'd probably say the same thing.
Ann: As a pastor, what does it make you feel, though, when those issues are at the forefront of people's minds?
Dave: My first thought is 30 years as a pastor, it's harder now than it ever was. I mean, it’s always been difficult and there's always issues, no question, for the last 30, 40, 50 years. But the last ten and the last five, I can't tell you the number of pastors I've talked to that said “I am exhausted. I just sort of want to quit. Because today I'm wrestling with people that cannot get along. They have absolutely different opinions on very important issues, and they can't talk about it.”
We need a book, or we need an authority—we need an expert.
Ann: We need a friend.
Dave: And we've got a friend. I like that; we need a friend. Sean McDowell is back at FamilyLife Today. Welcome back, Sean.
Sean: It's always good to be back, you guys; thanks.
Dave: I mean, obviously you've wrestled with these issues, not just as a man and a husband and a dad and a teacher. Tell our audience what you do. You teach high school and college kids, right?
Sean: Yes, so I'm a full-time professor in a grad program at Talbot School of Theology, teach an undergrad class at Biola, and still one high school class at a private Christian School.
Dave: Oh, really?
Dave: Between both of those, what do you like the most?
Sean: You know what, that's a tough question. I like them for different reasons. My grad students show up hungry, ready to learn because they're paying their own way. [Laughter] If I stop five minutes early, they're like, “Hey, you're still on the clock, man. I'm paying for this.” High school students don't show up with that attitude but they're just in the middle of asking questions: “Who am I? What do I believe? What's my life about?” They're just so much more impressionable in that sense.
Dave: You delve into these topics in the classroom—
Ann: —and on your YouTube channel.
Sean: I do, yes.
Dave: I love what you do on your YouTube channel because sometimes you will almost—well, don't you walk into the classroom sometime pretending to be an atheist?
Sean: So not so much in my classroom but I do this sometimes when I speak in different audiences. I'll always tell people now that I'm a Christian and I'm going to role play.
Dave: Oh, okay.
Sean: I haven't always in the past, but I decided to do that moving forward. I think it helps frame it better. And then you just start taking questions and giving challenges. I did this yesterday in fact. You learn typically within about 15, 20, sometimes 25 minutes, Christians get defensive. They get angry; some get hostile.
I'll ask audiences, I'll say things like—I'll take the glasses off and we debrief, and I'll say, “Why do you think you got so defensive?” And pretty quickly somebody says, “When we don't know what we believe and why, and somebody presses us, it's human nature to get defensive.” If we want to be able to have thoughtful conversations with people, we need to know a little bit what we believe and why we believe. It gives us a certain confidence to engage.
Dave: So obviously one of the reasons you've written 15 books and counting.
Sean: Yes. [Laughter]
Dave: I'm sure there's a lot more coming about, a lot of different topics. Today we're going to talk about A Rebel’s Manifesto and the subtitle is Choosing Truth, Real Justice, and Love Amid the Noise of Today's World. So obviously, what we opened up with—all these issues that are dividing the church—you decided, “I’ve got to write about that.” What were you thinking? Why a rebel?
Sean: Well, I started thinking about: what does it mean to be a rebel? Like, typically when you think of rebel—we had a chat before—you think about, like, rock music, whether it's the dress, whether it's the lyrics, the sound. It kind of represents being a contrarian, right?
In the 60s, against certain kinds of war that were starting, into the 70s, you have racial injustice, people rocking against, et cetera. Well, what does it mean to be a contrarian today when everybody has a voice, and everybody has a microphone? So, what's happened, it's not just the rock star who's yelling. Everybody's yelling in caps on Twitter, on TikTok, on you name it, to try to get attention.
It's actually the rebel who says, “You know what, I'm not going to play that game. I'm going to find common ground. I'm going to believe the best in you. I'm going to reach across the aisle and try to have conversations on the thorniest issues that are out there.” I've actually found that's rebellious. And frankly, in many ways, that is Christian charity towards people.
In our cancel culture that wants to cancel you for saying the wrong thing, I want to lean into these conversations and say if we prepare ourselves a little bit, you choose the right place and you have the right attitude, it's amazing how many people would be willing to have these conversations in person, on YouTube, etcetera. I just think Christian should lead the way in doing so.
Ann: That's so good.
Dave: I mean, you know, when you pick up the book and you see the title, that is not the first thing came to my mind. [Laughter]
Dave: But I've heard you talk about that and I'm like, “What a beautiful picture that to be a rebel is to be a grace giver”—truth as well but there's a balance, right?
Ann: Well, and it's hard to do that because as you were talking about your students, how anger stirs up when somebody's pushing us on things that we believe and we hold so dear to our heart, why do you think we get mad?
Sean: Well, one thing I've realized is so often behind a position that somebody holds is an experience that they've had or a relationship that they have. I think about trying to get to the issue beneath the issue, like the heart of the issue. This is more obvious in some issues than others, right? And we could—there's a chapter in there on race. You talk about that this is not just an abstract topic that somebody's writing on, this is very personal to people in different ways.
Sean: And so, if I disagree with your position, I might not be intending to, but I could be invalidating your relationships, your experience. This is true on issues, say tied to the environment, tied to gun control. So oftentimes we just debate the issue level without awareness of: why do you hold that position?
Ann: That's a great question.
Sean: How would changing your position affect your relationships, your job, your self-identity? I mean, there's a proverb that says, [paraphrase] “The purpose in a man's heart or a person's heart is deep and a person of wisdom draws it out.” I'm often thinking people get upset because there's a deeper issue that's going on. And if we don't get to that, we're never going to make any real progress.
Dave: Do you feel like as followers of Christ, we do a good job of listening? Because if I've watched anything I've really loved about how you interact with people that have different opinions and viewpoints, you listen really well and you give grace. I just don't see that often so I'm sort of loading this question. Do you think we're bad listeners?
Sean: I think some Christians are.
Sean: My mom is the best listener on the planet. She will sit down, look you in the eye, cry with you, ask you questions and just try to understand. There are some Christians who do that well. Most of us, no, I don't think we do it well. Just look on social media comments, click on discussions that are online, watch the way Christians communicate.
In fact, I've done this atheist encounter, I don't know—I mean, I don't want to exaggerate, but somewhere between maybe a couple hundred times plus, at least. From youth groups of ten to a stadium in the Philippines with literally eight thousand people, which I think was too many. The bottom line is it's very rare to have somebody have a question where they just want to understand. Rather, people frame questions, assuming things about me they don't know and then trying to catch me. Why don't you just listen first? In fact, my dad said it to me one time. He said it's more important to understand than to be understood. I don't think we do that super well as Christians.
Ann: Sean, give us some examples of some discussions that you have had where you've listened. Have people been surprised as you've asked questions and kind of entered into their world?
Sean: Well, I've had a lot of offline conversations with people. Some of the online ones I actually carefully select people that I interview ahead of time who I think want to have genuine conversations. A lot of the success of a conversation is it goes both ways. Now, if I was somebody who doesn't want to listen, there's ways you can disarm somebody by listening and modeling and just trying to be humble and gracious. But like a recent conversation that I had, was with a fellow who reached out to me—he's written for New York Times; I think The Atlantic, MSNBC—described himself—this is his term—an atheist New York media elite.
Sean: That was his designation, somewhat tongue in cheek, but he reached out and he said “I sense something different about the kind of conversations that you have. You listen to people. You try to find common ground. You believe what you believe but would you be willing to have a conversation with me?” Partly because my experience with media—it took me a lot of steps to get there—I thought, “This guy must have an angle,” “He must have an agenda,” which is probably more me than obviously him.
Finally did a little research; looked into. I was like, “Wow, this guy’s not only smart; his life experience is about as different from me as you can get.” He grew up in Greenwich, which is the heart of really the LGBTQ revolution, and basically go back to the 60s, my dad started going against the free love movement. He grew up in the very city in Manhattan where this started. I mean, it's kind of hard to think of more opposing experiences. He said, “Sean, 40 percent of the men that I knew were gay growing up, I didn't know a single evangelical Christian.”
So just the fact that I interviewed him on my channel and then I invited him back and said, “Why don't you interview me and just ask whatever you'd like to ask an evangelical Christian.” It wasn’t a debate. It was both those conversations.
Ann: You’re so brave.
Sean: I don't know about brave. It was fun, it was interesting, and people were just fascinated by a civil conversation. If we listen—
Ann: Yes, just being a rebel.
Sean: —and—well, there you go. It worked because he is that way too. He's the one who reached out to me, not me reaching out to him but it's possible and it works. In fact, by the way, I was told on YouTube by some people, “Hey, this way of reaching out is not going to work. You’ve got to be provocative. You’ve got to be edgy.” I thought, “You know what, I think you lose more than you gain by doing that.” But that person was wrong. It has worked. There's a lot of people hungry, not everybody, but a lot of people hungry for civil conversation and models how to do so.
Dave: Well take that conversation into a kitchen with a mom and dad, or a mom or dad, with their teenage kid about anyone of these issues that you list throughout your book. You're talking about racism and sexuality, judging, you name it. How does a parent step into the world where their son or daughter may have a totally different opinion even though they've been raised in a Christian home?
Ann: Dave, let me give you an example. Let's say your son or daughter comes home from middle school and they say, “Hey Mom, Dad, there are two kids in class that identify as furries which they believe they are identifying as an—
Dave: You said before we started you weren’t going to bring this up for Sean. [Laughter] You were going to give him a break.
Sean: I’m okay. I’m okay.
Ann: This is happening in schools today. I've heard many—
Dave: And a furry is?
Ann: —a person that identifies as an animal, and so the teacher has brought in a litter box to the school. Now, I'm just imagining my son or daughter coming and saying that. My first response is “That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard.” That would be my response because that's what I would think, like, “What are you talking about?” But that probably may not be the wisest way to react.
Sean: It's a completely human response. [Laughter] I get it. There is a time today when crazy stuff happens, to call it out for what it is. So my call to be a rebel and generous doesn't mean there's not a time to say, “That's crazy, that's ridiculous, and that's wrong.” We still need a prophetic voice.
Sean: But this fear is with our kids. One of the things my dad trained me to do is I view that as an opportunity. I would love it if my kids came home because I'd say—because number one, they're interested. They care what I think. We're talking about issues that matter.
I'm going to say, “Hey, let's find some time and talk about this. What do you think? What do the rest of your classmates think? Do you think scripture says anything about this? Why do you think they're doing that?” I'd ask some questions like, “Hey, what does it mean to be a friend to this person? How have other kids treated them? As a Christian, how can we love them?”
I mean, that's an opportunity to me. That's what we miss is we see some of the craziness in our culture, and that is somewhat of an extreme example, but these things are popping up like that. We find ourselves in these situations as parents. Rather than run away from them and close the door—I think by being reactive sometimes they can do that, which is understandable—I want to open up the door for conversation. I want to engage and talk with my kids through this.
Now, by the way, you said a minute ago, Dave, you said “What if your kid comes to you and believes something different when they're a teenager?” The question is: have you been building a relationship with them from day one before they're a teenager? Now what I’ve found is if you have that relationship built up, then they're much more likely, not guaranteed, much more likely to engage at that point. And even if they're not, they know in their heart that you love them, and you just keep going on trusting that they're going to come full circle in due time.
Dave: Take that to the next level. You write about it in your book: transgender—say your teenage son or daughter comes home, junior in high school, maybe—and you've got kids. I mean, a little older than that, but you've got three at home, so maybe you've had these conversations—and they have a friend or a person in their class that identifies as a, you know, she's a woman that identifies as a as a boy, or vice versa, what do you do?
Sean: Well, I have had these conversations with my kids and I just—first off, you’ve got to find the right time and the right place to have these conversations. I've had plenty of conversations go south and usually it's because I have the wrong attitude, usually because it's at the Thanksgiving dinner table. [Laughter] Or like, you know, they walk home from school and it's like they're tired. They maybe just want a break. It's like, “Hey, let's talk about this.”
Ann: They need a snack.
Sean: Understandably, there's got to be some wisdom how and when you have these conversations. I'll just simply say, “Hey, tell me how you found out.” Again, “Why do you think this student is doing this? How's the teacher responded? Do you think the teacher should use the suggested pronouns? What do you think the school should do? How can you love this person through it?” I just want to ask questions and create dialogue. If I jump in and I'd say, “Hey, here's four things you’ve got to believe and do,” it's just like “Here goes Dad. He’s lecturing at me again.” But if I'm curious and I ask questions—and I don't want to show that I'm afraid of this because I'm not.
It's amazing. You know you mentioned the issue of sexuality; there's so much fear amongst Christians on this. The Bible says, “Perfect love casts out fear,” so I want to lean in with love at an opportunity like this and use it to teach my kids how to love somebody who's different, love somebody who's obviously restless and deep issues in their life. This is a great opportunity to do so.
Ann: As a mom and thinking of other moms that have come to me and said, “My child has come to me and said they're gay or they're same sex attracted. My response wasn't great.” I don't know if guys do this, but as a mom, what we can do is we're forwarding their future and our future as a family and what this will mean and what this will look like. We're automatically on the road to fear and how this is going to be so horrible and so we project those onto our kids. If you are talking and you've talked to many parents about this and their son or daughter comes and kind of opens up about this, which would be a huge step for that child, what is the best response? We've talked about this before, but I just feel like it's happening more and more. What is the best response?
Sean: Well, first off, if you haven't responded the way you wanted to, the most important thing is to give yourself grace. Cannot change the past. Christianity is about grace. We've all said stuff and done stuff as parents—myself first on the list that I've had to apologize to my wife, my kids for, etcetera—so just give yourself grace.
And second, if you did, I'd encourage you to go to your kids and say “Hey, when you came out to me, I'm guessing you were expecting this, and I gave you that. Will you ever forgive me? Can we start over?” That's just a humble great way to engage.
Now, what I would say—it's interesting. I was interviewing a lady on my YouTube channel, not a Christian. She's described herself as the OG lesbian YouTube creator for like a dozen years, creates content that people who follow my ministry would find offensive, just like those who follow hers would probably find my content offensive. But she had a conversation with me. I asked her a lot of questions about her faith, about spirituality.
At the end, I said, “You can ask me anything you want to ask a Christian apologetics professor.” She asked me the question that you asked Ann. She said, “I think there's a lot of people in my community who would want to know, ‘What would you say to your kids if they came out as gay?’” I had just made a social video/media video on this the week before, so it's fresh in my mind. I had been thinking about it. I said “What I would say is, first off, thank you for telling your dad about this. I can only imagine how long you've been thinking about this and telling your dad, who's written books and publicly spoken on a biblical view of sexuality, that there's a lot of fear in your mind. Thank you for trusting me with this.
Second, know that I love you no matter what. This doesn't change anything. My commitment to you and my love for you, let's work it through together. Now, she responds, she’s like, “This is great. I want to share this with my community.” There's a whole bunch of people, not Christians, in the LGBTQ community who've seen this video and some of my other ones, which is cool. That grace filled response just gave me some favor with people that would normally not watch my arguments for the Bible or the resurrection or something like that. But with our kids, that's the starting place.
Now, it gets sticky after that, where there's a lot of scenarios where we could break down if it's helpful, but I don't always have the answers how you balance grace and how you balance truth. But one of my friends—I'll end it with this thought. A good friend of mine who's wrestled this through with his daughter—he's an apologist—he said “What shifted in my mind is at the beginning, I felt the need to convince my daughter of a position. I realized what I need to convince her of is my love.” That should frame everything.
Shelby: Hi, I'm Shelby Abbott and you've been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Sean McDowell on FamilyLife Today. I'm guessing there's a parent or two listening who needs to have a conversation with their kid and apologize. Maybe that's you. And when you do that, your kid may or may not respond well, but acts and words that are drenched in love will probably be remembered by your kids. And that's really what we are aiming for as followers of Jesus Christ—to be a reflection of love, not only to the people who are outside our home but our kids in our home.
Sean McDowell has written a book called A Rebel’s Manifesto: Choosing Truth, Real Justice, and Love Amid the Noise of Today's World. You can pick up a copy at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you could give us a call at 800-358-6329 to grab a copy. Again, the number is 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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Now, coming up tomorrow, Sean McDowell is going to be in the studio again with Dave and Ann Wilson to talk about how we, as Christians, can get defensive and angry when we're asked about our faith. He's going to turn that around to help us engage in conversations where we listen well and show empathy. That's tomorrow.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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