Ever since I asked David if he wouldn’t mind helping me answer an atheist on my blog, I have been fascinated with his writing and engagement with others in the public sphere. From being attacked for his views on social media to being banned on Twitter, David is no stranger of being at the centre of controversy and debate. Have a read of our conversation below to find out a bit more about the Dundee minister that Richard Dawkins once described as a flea living off a dog’s back…
Tell us a bit about your background and how you came to faith in Jesus.
I was born into a Christian home. My father was a farm worker and my mum was a nurse. They were Christians and churchgoers. At about 10 or 11 years old I decided I wasn’t and basically determined not to go. I tried hard to be an atheist much to the annoyance to my atheist friends when I say that to them. I just couldn’t because it was so irrational. I stopped going to church and I wasn’t a Christian but I couldn’t be an atheist either. And then at about 15 or 16 years old I became a Christian through a variety of circumstances and since then it’s pretty well been the same.
You do a lot of writing, in particular for your blog ‘The Wee Flea’. How did you get into writing and blogging?
I became a minister very young. In 1979 I went to university and in 1983 I ended up going to the Free Church College. In 1986 I became a minister when I was 24 years old – six years up in the Highlands and then came to Dundee in 1992. I came to a church that had virtually nobody. I wanted to do outreach and I did lots of different kinds of outreach. I did write, but I wrote for myself and then I ended up writing a response to Richard Dawkins which was published in 2007 which is called ‘The Dawkins Letters‘ and that bizarrely became a bestseller – I think it sold over 40,000 copies. What I realised was I might not be the world’s greatest writer in the sense of stylistically; I write in the way people read so I found that people did read.
I’ve since written a response to Christopher Hitchens called ‘Magnificent Obsession‘ which is probably the book I am happiest with. I’ve written a book on ‘Engaging with Atheists‘ and a history book called ‘Awakening: The Life and Ministry of Robert Murray McCheyne‘ which is the church I am in.
I guess more recently, I do write more articles for newspapers and magazines. I’ve edited the Free Church monthly magazine. But about five or six years ago, I heard of this thing called ‘blogging’ and I thought it was utterly ridiculous. I used to do a lot of internet debates which are also even more ridiculous and I was helping with the Free Church website and we decided to stop doing that. I just thought I’d blog now.
For me, blogging was like a private diary that anyone who’s interested can read. I’ve always kept a diary so the way I best express myself is by writing things down. What surprised me was, not instantly but, it kind of grew and grew and grew. The first year there was about 55,000 views and then last year it was like 1.3 million.
I just do everything. I think it was Justin Brierley of ‘Unbelievable?‘ who said in cricketing terms, I’m an all-rounder – to which I think, yeah, a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none. I write about politics, Christianity, church life, personal stuff, history, book reviews, film reviews… That’s very interesting because you get people that come on [the blog] because of the political stuff and then when they get a Christian article they’re like ‘where’s this come from?’ You get people who come on for the Christian stuff and they get an article about Brexit and they’re like ‘what?’ It confuses people!
The other bizarre thing is it’s all over the world. I think last year every single country in the United Nations, apart from North Korea, there were people who read it. Because of the blog, newspapers pick it up and will sometimes unashamedly use my article and do it like they have done an interview. Quite often they will contact me and ask if they can use it or if I can re-write it for them.
On your blog, you mention that you have a burden for the church in Scotland, the UK and Europe. What do you see as the greatest challenge(s) to the church in the West today? What are the opportunities?
I’d put it simply – to remain biblically faithful to Christ and apply it to a contemporary culture. You get people who apply things to a contemporary culture but what they apply is not the bible and they get taken over by the culture; and people who think that they are being biblically faithful, and possibly in doctrinal terms they are, but they have no idea about the culture.
In the UK and possibly western Europe, I think the society is more open to the gospel than I’ve known for all my ministry which is over 30 years, but I would say the church is less prepared to communicate it. To me the church seems very confused. I just put a piece out on the blog about the situation in America with President Trump. I was sent this video of an evangelical pastor saying we should pray for Trump which was correct, but then describing him as ‘God’s warrior’. That’s the key issue – to remain biblically faithful to the bible but apply it to contemporary society. The strap-line I often use is ‘you don’t need to make the bible relevant.’ It is relevant but it takes a particular skill to make it irrelevant, but that’s a skill the church seems to develop quite well.
You have written about sexuality, politics and often find yourself on the front line of debate with atheists. How do you think Christians can best engage with culture and address controversial issues?
What I would suggest people do is try not to get involved in internet arguments. That’s mainly because about 70% of communication is body and tone. The internet does not convey that no matter how many emojis you use. Use the internet to make contact, to point people to articles, to provoke, but then what happens with me is I say ‘Come and meet us’ – I’ll talk with people. You no more communicate the gospel through the internet than you have lots of real friends on Facebook. I’m not decrying Facebook – Facebook is wonderful for making contacts and keeping in contact and that’s a really good thing. But if the only friends you have got are on Facebook and you never leave your room, you’ve got a very sad life. I think it’s the same with communicating the gospel – you need to meet with real people and talk to real people and use the internet as a tool. The internet, for me, makes a very good servant and a very bad master.
If you’re talking about writing, you need to find out fairly quickly if you can write. We can all speak and most of us can write. But not everyone who can speak is called to be a preacher or public speaker. There is a kind of writing that is very personal just for you and there is a writing that is for other people. Are you writing in a way that other people can read? There are some people who have a tremendous gift for writing and that should be used. I think social media, personal letters, letters to newspapers – if you do have a gift for writing, writing articles is a great way to communicate.
You have experienced backlash from Christians and non-Christians, personal attacks and even a Twitter ban. How do you respond to that?
Most people think it doesn’t matter because you can just take it. Actually when it becomes very personal it does become quite oppressive. It first began with the Richard Dawkins thing because I wrote an initial letter – an open letter to Richard Dawkins in response to his book ‘The God Delusion’ – and this is how the Dawkins Letters came out. What astonished me was, first of all it got published on his website which I didn’t know existed, and secondly the comments, the vitriol was unbelievable. We put some of them in the actual book because people were just utterly amazed. It was a great selling point. But that got exhausting. The hate mail is a horrible thing and it happens all the time. It’s almost the nature of social media – that it’s going to happen.
Haidt’s book ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’ [where it] talks about one of the great untruths being that there is good people and bad people, there’s them and us all the time. Some people would say that’s a Christian thing but actually it’s not – it’s an anti-Christian thing because Christianity says that there is good and bad in every one of us. The trouble is you immediately get demonised.
In my early years on the internet I was part of a group called the Scottish Secular Society. I have this quality/fault that I don’t let things go. They would argue with me and I would just keep going and keep going and keep going. It’s quite astounding the responses that come because of that. Eventually after several years I came off the Scottish Secular Society because it was taking too much time.
Over the years, individuals from that group have contacted me to say how thankful they were including individuals who absolutely roasted me. We had a couple of atheists come to the church and they were very much involved in an atheist society. I recognised them and asked ‘what are you guys doing here?’ They said ‘please David, don’t tell anyone.’ I said ‘it’s fine, you’re not here to heckle?’ And they said ‘no, we’re just interested.’ Afterwards they said ‘we really enjoyed it but I just need to warn you, I’m going to trash you.’
It’s hard. From a Christian point of view, from my point of view, there is a spiritual side to it as well. I got it most initially and still, if I go and do discussions or talks or debates, I would tend to do them in hostile environments. It’s utterly exhausting doing that. People think I like a good argument but actually I don’t. The danger is if you do just like a good argument, you want to stick the boot into someone and beat them. But equally, the other danger is you say ‘I just want to win people by being nice.’ I remember as a non-Christian it was nice Christians who really put me off as well as the legalistic nasty ones. I want someone to care for me enough to tell me the truth, but to do so in a way which is respectful. That’s what I try to do. It’s not easy. The biggest enemy is often yourself.
What sustains you in those times?
A number of years ago, not long after the Dawkins Letters (a couple of years after – I thought things would have died down and they never did and they never have done), I got up one morning and I’d normally switch on my computer, look at my emails and I got up and thought ‘you idiot, what are you doing?’ I would read my emails, get my breakfast, read my bible and pray. I’m a farm boy so for me my optimum time is early in the morning. I normally get up about 5am so the hours between 5am and 7am are worth 4 hours of any other time of the day.
What I do now when I get up is I get myself a coffee, I do not put on my computer or my phone, I make sure I have a bible sitting at my chair and I go downstairs and I read things like the Early Church fathers, I read the bible, I pray. That keeps me going.
Plus the other thing that sustains me is my local church where I pastor at. Sundays are now an absolute joy for me. They have been for many years. It wasn’t always like that but it’s very rare that I don’t have a Sunday where I am not encouraged and strengthened. In a sense I have my ordinary meal at that time in the morning and I guess my feast is every Sunday. Sunday for me is the Lord’s day and that is just wonderful. I try not to do social media on that day. I try and just take a break and it’s really, really helpful.
Do you ever consider changing your approach online, for example with LGBT issues?
A transgender lecturer wrote to me quite angrily because of what I had written online and I wrote back saying that I don’t do this by email or online, but come and meet and we can have a coffee. We spent two hours together in a coffee shop and at the end she said to me ‘You know this David, I agree with 95% of what you say.’ We had a really good conversation.
People say that maybe online I need to tone things down and the answer to that is yes, probably in lots of things, and sometimes I need to tone it up. The trouble with tone though is it [tone] is always perceived. Someone might perceive that you are angry but you’re not. Whereas that is very difficult to get a false tone when you are actually talking to someone and seeing their expressions and so on.
I think what I try and do is a variety of different things. For example, for a while when the same-sex marriage debate was on I was the go-to person in Scotland for people coming to talk about same-sex marriage. I said ‘no way, I’ve got other things I want to talk about as well’. Quite often, if I go on the BBC, there’s always a message which comes in – ‘you can’t have him on because he’s homophobic’. I’m a chaplain at a university and the same thing happened. I’ve always said a simple thing: ‘The minute you show me one homophobic statement I’ve ever made, I’ll resign’, because I haven’t. That’s deliberately why I shoot lots of different arrows – I don’t stick to one subject. If people ask me about it in terms of preaching, well I preach through the bible. I think in 30 years I’ve preached on homosexuality about three times.
What is going on in our culture at the moment is sex and sexuality is being used to attack the Christian church. Now I think particularly with the gender issues, especially gender self-recognition, it is being used to attack humanity. I predicted that about three or four years ago and I got absolutely slated for it. And now even what I predicted is worse than what I predicted. I think the danger for Christians is you can get so focused on one issue, even though it’s a big issue, but the advantage you should have is to be able to set it in context and also to not take it personally.
For example, when I did a debate with a guy who was the government policy-maker on same-sex marriage – it was a big public debate down in London – he asked me what do I think of homosexuality? And I said to him ‘That’s not a fair question.’ He said ‘Why not?’ I said ‘because we’re here talking about same-sex marriage and there are homosexuals who disagree with it as well but the trouble is I can’t answer your question without offending you.’ He said ‘What do you mean?’ I said ‘Well for you, your sexuality is your identity. Let me guess you were bullied at school. Let me guess the church didn’t treat you well.’ All of those things were true. I said ‘For me, sexuality is not about identity. My identity is first of all I am a human being and then secondly that I am a Christian, then maybe thirdly a male or something, or a husband or a father.’ I think one of the key things for Christians is to try and see the bigger picture, try and deal with it biblically, try and realise you are not going to answer everyone’s questions.
The other huge thing is you really have to learn to listen because you could be answering a question that someone isn’t actually asking. I spend a lot of time reading non-Christian stuff and above all meeting with people, so that’s where a lot of my stuff comes from. That’s what encourages me because although it is not perceived as politically correct, I know that I am a puzzle to people because I’m not a right-winger – I can’t fit into a category. They try it but it just doesn’t work and that’s because I don’t think I should.
Another thing I do which is a bit unusual in this culture is I think out loud. In effect, my blogging is thinking out loud, not claiming to speak ex-cathedral like some kind of Protestant pope. I’m just thinking out loud and I have got things wrong. That’s how I learn because I say something and then people will correct me.
Do you need to have a good grasp of apologetics to be effective in your communication with people or do you think anyone anyone can do it?
I don’t like the term apologetics for two reasons. Number one, for your normal Christian it does really sound like you are apologising and that’s because too often it’s ‘I’m really sorry about the church. I’m really sorry about Christian history.’ I really caution people against doing that.
The other view of what is termed ‘apologetics’ – what people understand by it – is you’ve got to be an Oxford professor or something to be able to do it. It does tend to be philosophical. Whereas, I think if you understand apologetics in the sense of the first, second and third centuries where the Early Church fathers would have called themselves an apologist. What they meant was not apologising for the faith or even defending the faith, but teaching the faith and communicating the faith.
What I think is Christians should think and that they should know the bible and they should try and understand the culture in which we are living in. That’s now become the major part of my blog in that it’s helping and encouraging Christians. So I’m saying this is not the Christian answer if it’s a political thing; I’m saying this is what I think politically but it’s formed from a Christian worldview.
But there are other things that you stand up for that you know that are Christian. I think a time will come when people in a civilised society will look and say ‘did we really think it was OK to abort children in the womb?’ That will be regarded in the future I think at some point like slavery was regarded just now.
I think part of what I’m trying to do is because I read a lot – I probably read about 200 books a year and articles – I think how I’m going to apply this in a Christian sense. Most people are not able to do that and don’t have the time to do that, but what I would suggest is that you do have the time to think about issues. There are some issues that become pretty important for everyone to get a grasp of. I wouldn’t say be an apologist but I would say you have to be a persuasive evangelist.
How can we be more effective at communicating the gospel in the West?
At the end of the day it still comes down to prayer, understanding the bible, understanding the culture. I used to have a poster on my wall that said ‘You can’t talk to people about Jesus until you’re talking to people.’ The other saying is ‘It’s good to talk to people about God. It’s even better to talk to God about people.’
It’s just simple things like don’t buy your flowers online! Go to a flower shop and get to know the people in it. You’ve got to get to know people. Know the Word. Know yourself. Know your own gifts. Know the culture. A Christian is a disciple. A Christian is always learning but you learn primarily by putting it into practice. It’s a bit like riding a bike. I can read as many books as I want on how to ride a bike – I’m still not going to be riding a bike until I do it. To me that’s the same with evangelism. I’m not saying don’t read books or don’t do courses but reading books on evangelism and doing courses in evangelism isn’t evangelism.
What advice would you give to readers who want to stand up for their faith in Jesus in the public arena particularly?
In the public arena, if you’re called to be a politician you do not go out and say ‘Vote for me because I love Jesus.’ You do it because that’s your job and that’s what God has called you to do. But I think in terms of the public arena there are two ways. One I would just call your ordinary life, civil society, your job etc. There comes a point where some people are going to have to say ‘no I’m not doing this because it’s against Christ’s law, it’s not fair, it’s not good for human beings.’ You don’t need to do it in an aggressive way. I think sometimes people are really surprised when people have principles that they will stand up for in a gracious way.
In what I would call civic society which is more the area of media and politics, I would encourage Christians to be involved. But it’s the ‘salt and light’ principle. Salt you don’t really see and the salt preserves what is good. The light shows what is bad but it also points to a better way. Don’t end up being one of these frustrating, angry Christians who is always yelling about things. You are always trying to point to a better way.
Even in the same-sex marriage debate I remember a church ask me to go and do [a debate] and I said ‘OK but I’m doing it as an evangelistic event’. They said ‘That’s impossible’ and I said ‘No, it’s not impossible because you are going to have a 100 members of the LGBT community come to it and I’ve got to show not how nice Christians are, but I’ve got to show an alternative worldview, an alternative way of life which is actually very attractive – and that is the way of following Christ.’
You are always seeking to present Christ. That’s your key but not as a cliche and not in a meaningless way. That’s a hard gig but you pray and the Holy Spirit helps. And you don’t do it on your own. For me the church is absolutely crucial – being part of a living church where you can be fed God’s Word is really important.
Can you leave us with a piece of wisdom, maybe lesson you have learned when sharing the gospel?
Listen to people. Listen to God through his Word. Listen. Love. Learn. You have to love the people. You have to love the Word as well. I think you have to learn and you learn from people and you learn from God. I think if you do that then you will be able to communicate and you will be able to communicate Christ which is what we are trying to do. In order to communicate Christ, listen, love and learn.
David Robertson is the Minister of St Peter’s Church in Dundee, a chaplain at the University of Dundee and the Associate Director of The Solas Centre for Public Christianity. He has spoken at numerous debates, evangelistic meetings and regularly speaks at conferences in Europe and the USA. He is the author of five books, writes regularly for newspapers and online publications and is the editor of The Record, the magazine of the Free Church of Scotland. David is married to Annabel and they have three children. Twitter: @theweeflea