Rebecca McLaughlin: A Curious Faith—Part 1

Rebecca McLaughlin has been busy. But that’s nothing new. After earning a doctorate in English literature from the University of Cambridge and a theology degree from Oak Hill College in London, she served for nine years as vice president of content for The Veritas Forum. In 2017, she co-founded Vocable Communications, and in 2019, her first book, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion (Crossway), was featured on the TED summer reading list; in 2020 it was named the Outreach Resource of the Year for apologetics and the Beautiful Orthodoxy Book of the Year by Christianity Today. 

But all the activity has a purpose, and it’s a powerful one. “I love exploring the message of Jesus with broken people (all of us),” she writes, “and I long to be part of the rediscovery of the Christian faith as an intellectual movement.” Outreach Editor-at-Large Paul J. Pastor caught up with McLaughlin to hear more about her story of faith and intellectual pursuit, what Christian leaders can do to better prepare themselves and their congregations for the concerns and confrontation of non-Christians, and why our advocacy for our faith must begin with listening and center on love.

Sketch your story for us.

I was born into a mixed-Christian family, my mum coming from a Catholic background and my dad from the Church of England. During the course of my childhood, my parents were very much finding their own faith as well. One of the advantages of that has been that I’ve always felt my faith was truly my own. I was able to receive the Lord and grow in faith independently, in some sense, even though we were a “Christian” family.

I attended secular schools, so I never felt as if I were in the majority in any room as a Christian. Most of my friends were not Christians at all. I grew up sort of naturally contending for my faith in academic and somewhat hostile environments. From the age of nine onward, I was totally defined by Jesus and trying to engage with hard and legitimate questions or the overarching feeling from my classroom environments that Christianity was irrelevant and untrue.

So in one sense, I feel as if I’ve been doing what I’m doing now for as long as I can remember—trying to better understand my own faith and speak with people who aren’t even considering Jesus. Trying to help them to see that not only is he worth considering, but that faith in Jesus might be the most compelling way to understand the world.

Cambridge was more of the same for me. Fortunately, I was able to find my feet in a strong Bible-teaching church. In the early 2000s, we Christians felt we were in a curious minority. Our friends were not only skeptical of our faith, they were bemused by it. But our Christian community was vibrant and focused on outreach—every year we would go and give the gospel to every undergraduate student, if possible, in a weeklong mission and outreach event. 

Alongside all this, another important piece of my story is that while as long as I can remember I’ve been a Christian, also for as long as I can remember I’ve been attracted to other women. That was something that, growing up as a Christian, I didn’t really talk to people about and didn‘t have a category for. I knew that same-sex romance was off-limits for Christians, and I thought I would just grow out of it. It wasn’t until I got to grad school that I thought, Once you’re in grad school, it’s hard to convince yourself you’re going to grow out of something. You’re a proper grown-up at that point, wouldn’t you say?

“There are a lot of things that look like roadblocks to faith, but if you look more closely, they become signposts to Jesus.”

So that reality was a significant part of my experience, and it has strongly played into the kind of thinking and work that I’m doing now. Because I think—to paint with a very broad brush—churches have done a pretty poor job of loving and caring for Christians who experience same-sex attraction, and at the same time, churches have done a poor job or increasingly a poor job of upholding Christian sexual ethics. I don’t think it’s an either/or; those are actually two things that we can and should do in tandem. But that conversation should be part of a much larger understanding of what sexuality means from a Christian perspective and the gospel logic behind why the Bible so clearly limits sex to male-female marriage and prohibits same-sex sexual relationships. Too often, we’ve missed the big picture of what the Bible is trying to tell us—that the primary purpose of marriage is to point us to Jesus’ love for his church. And so many casualties have risen from that failure.

One interesting development during that time was that I began dating Bryan, a guy from Oklahoma who was doing his Ph.D. in engineering. I always joke it’s very hard to find a good evangelical Christian in England, so we have to import them from abroad. He found himself suddenly in a highly secular environment, which was both a little unsettling and quite refreshing. He’d go to church on a Sunday and think, Nobody is here because it’s the cool thing to do. Everyone is here because they’ve counted the cost

Tell us about your decision to go to seminary.

The reason I went partly sprang from a conversation I had with a friend who was also doing a Ph.D. She was one of my sort of “scariest” non-Christian friends—in the sense that where other friends would politely make an excuse as to why they couldn‘t come to an outreach event at my church, this particular friend would explain to me why she was ideologically opposed to everything that I was going to hear at my church. 

As we were talking about what we would do after our doctorates, she said she was planning on continuing in her area of study (she is now a history professor). I found myself saying that while I really enjoyed studying Shakespeare, I knew it was not something for which I would want to sacrifice things, that I knew I was not half smart enough to be an English academic without sacrificing basically everything in my life on that altar. She asked, “Well, what are you willing to sacrifice for?” And I said, “Telling people about Jesus is the thing that I’m most passionate about and would actually want to sacrifice things for.” And as I said that I thought, You know what? Maybe I should do that. 

Two years into seminary, I married Bryan. The complication there was that the Church of England was paying for my education. And my husband is one of the only Americans I’ve ever met who doesn’t want to live in England. We had some discussions about that in advance of getting engaged, and I decided to leave my homeland, even though I was very committed to gospel witness there. I decided, all other things being equal, you can’t make a sacrifice for another Christian and go far wrong. I decided that I would marry Bryan and move.

Once in the United States, I began working for a ministry called The Veritas Forum, where a big piece of what I ended up doing was identifying Christian professors at leading secular universities. It included helping them think through how to talk about their faith in relation to their work, and giving them a platform for doing that, whether it was through live events on campus, or having them write articles for us, or different formats like that. After nine years, I felt I had a road map for where the conversations really are in terms of all sorts of apologetics questions, in terms of Christianity and philosophy, physics, psychology, whatever, from talking with these people and understanding a little more of their research and how they saw it. So I wrote Confronting Christianity to share that road map with the broader church and with nonbelievers who were curious about Christianity. 

It strikes me that many people likely have a story similar to yours, yet at some point in the process of growing up and getting an education, they lose their faith. What do you feel held you to your faith during those formative years?

I think there were a number of factors. One was that my parents gave me such a strong sense growing up that Christians should be the most intellectually curious people in town. I was not in any way raised with the anti-intellectualism that can be characteristic of American evangelicalism. My dad in particular is extremely broadly read and always interested in how Christianity relates to everything, from science and history to art and music. So I was not given a false dichotomy between growing intellectually and growing spiritually. 

I also wasn’t raised being taught things as gospel truth that weren’t necessarily gospel truth. Some folks are taught early on very specific and rigid views—perhaps, for example, not just that God created the universe but precisely how he did. Actually, Christians have always disagreed about exactly how to put together the discoveries of science with the Scriptures. If you look at any of the major sort of science versus Christianity controversies in history, you usually find Christians on both sides of the question. I didn’t have the baggage of those paradigms, which can be troubling to people. If they’ve been told they can’t have Jesus and believe this, well, what will happen when, later in their education, they become convinced by believable evidence of what they were taught was incompatible with their faith?  

So you do not see honest intellectual inquiry as a threat to belief?

People sometimes ask if I find that reading atheist or agnostic thinkers is a challenge to my faith. I find it is the opposite. The more that I read of today‘s intellectuals, the more persuasive Jesus becomes. 

One thing I’ve noticed especially within the New Atheists is they don’t actually believe in human beings any more than they believe in God, if you scratch the surface. They may present themselves as humanists, saying the essence of humanity is central to that whole framework, but in a real sense they don’t have a model that can persist beyond this present moment. Increasingly folks are open about that, whether it’s Richard Dawkins saying that moral beliefs depend on “something in the air” and change from year to year, or someone like Yuval Noah Harari, who says in Sapiens: A Brief History of Human Kind that human beings have no natural rights, just as chimpanzees, hyenas and spiders have no natural rights. He says that human rights are a figment of our fertile imagination.

“The basic moral beliefs even of the most secular folk today actually came from Christianity.” 

It’s easy to think you’re comparing Christianity to a perfectly coherent secular worldview that does all the work Christianity does for us except without having to believe in any crazy things like the resurrection. But in fact you’re not—you’re comparing the seemingly crazy beliefs of Christianity with even more craziness. And when you look closely, you’ll find that the basic moral beliefs even of the most secular folk in the West today actually came from Christianity and don’t have a solid foundation without it. 

At the same time, we Christians can’t just assume the moral high ground. For example, something that I’m writing and thinking about a lot is the history of sin among white evangelicals (like me) when it comes to the treatment of our Black brothers and sisters. This is something that has very legitimately caused many people to be shaken in their faith. Because when you realize that your tribe has sinned grievously, and in many instances not actually repented, certainly not in a public and meaningful way, you can start to think that Christianity is inherently a white, Western religion that has enabled people to wield power over others in horrible, destructive ways.

Now, as with every other area of research, the more you look into that question, the more you realize that Christianity started in the Middle East, and the New Testament explicitly calls us into multiethnic, multiracial, multicultural community. Today, Christianity globally is the most diverse belief system in the world and, objectively speaking, both the largest and the most diverse belief system. 

I think it’s easy for people to only anchor Christianity to one particular group, i.e. white American evangelicals, then to become disillusioned by the ways in which that group has at times acted, then throw Christianity out with that. They fail to recognize that actually Black Americans, and Black women in particular, are demographically most likely to identify as Christians, and are far more likely to go to church, pray, read the Bible and hold to what we would otherwise call evangelical beliefs, even if they don’t normally identify with that label. 

There are a lot of things that look like roadblocks to faith in Jesus, but if you look more closely, they stop being roadblocks and become signposts to Jesus.

Read Part 2 of our interview with Rebecca McLaughlin where she discusses why our apologetic endeavors must be grounded in love and respect, cultural shifts that affect the ways we share our faith, why repentance is key to building bridges, and how church leaders can cultivate the life of the mind in their congregations.

Read more from Paul J. Pastor »