I’m a podcast addict. Some people like to put on music while they drive or clean or perform other mundane tasks…I put on talking. I’m a voracious listener of anything that will make me laugh or teach me something. I particularly enjoy hearing thoughtful discussions on “third-rail” topics. Unfortunately those types of discussions too often devolve into shouting and name-calling. As someone who earns a living in an industry that thrives on outrage, I find myself avoiding any entertainment that might end in indignation. I just don’t have the tolerance for it anymore.
So I was thrilled to discover a podcast that broached all of my favorite topics – philosophy, theology, religion and history – without leaving me with a “rage hangover”.
Unbelievable bills itself as a place for Christians and non-Christians to meet to discuss and debate. The show began as a regular Saturday morning broadcast on the British Christian radio station “Premier Christian Radio”. Host Justin Brierley created the show as an opportunity for Christian listeners to hear their faith challenged and explore the case for a Creator.
Over the years the show has expanded into the podcast form and has boasted guests with huge (and sometimes controversial) names in the fields of philosophy and the sciences, such as (in)famous pastor Rob Bell, astrophysicist Hugh Ross and Jordan Peterson.
As a host, Brierley has a unique (and enviable) ability to quietly moderate passionate discussions on some of the most heated topics of the day. Rarely will a listener hear the debate between two diametrically opposed parties devolve into shouting and name-calling. With skilled professionalism and a healthy dose of British wit, the father of four keeps the dialogue on track and isn’t afraid to remind guests that the forum is about debating ideas and not personal merit. It all makes for an enjoyable listen.
Those very polite British accents don’t hurt either.
As an avid listener of the podcast I was thrilled to discover that Brierley and his colleagues at Premier Christian Radio host an annual one-day apologetics conference in London, aptly named Unbelievable: The Conference. Deciding there’s no time like the present I cashed in a travel credit and headed off to London with a friend. To my utter delight, Brierley responded to my post about the conference on social media and invited us to his studio to sit in on a recording.
We were riveted by the discussion on the origin of the universe between Dr. Hugh Ross and atheist biologist Peter Atkins. Afterwards, Brierley sat down with me for an interview in his studio.
We spoke about the beginnings of the show and how, after three years with the network Brierley approached the CEO about creating a program that would invite non-Christians into the space and spark dialogue. Unbelievable would launch as a place for Christians to hear debates about core values and key points of their faith.
“In the process it could model for Christians how to have those kinds of dialogue,” says Brierly.
What he didn’t envision, however was how the show would take off as a podcast. Over the years it has gone from being a Saturday afternoon treat within English borders to a global platform capturing listeners from all over the world. With an impressive backlog of radio programming, the podcast was able to hit the ground running with dozens of shows already recorded that simply needed to be uploaded. As technology improved so did the platform, and with the older pre-podcast era episodes becoming available Unbelievable currently has an iTunes catalog of over 300 episodes dating as far back as 2010.
That’s a lot of food for thought.
Brierley says that while some people (atheists) in the social media sphere may tend to be antagonistic about Christianity and faith, he would still rather engage with a passionate, antagonistic atheist than someone who just didn’t care at all. In fact, the intellectual analysis of God and the origin of life can be important in giving people “permission” to believe. However, in the end the final decision is an issue of the heart.
“C.S.Lewis said when it comes to adult conversions there was some level at which some issues had to be resolved. Apologetics is that process by which people are given permission to have faith, because they may have come and they’ve got some issue with the problem of suffering, let’s say…It may be useful for removing some of the obstacles but you still have to want what’s at the end of the road. You have to still want Jesus Christ. If you don’t want to believe there’s always another objection to reach for…there has to be something going on in the heart in order for that person to want what’s on offer”.
The seasoned podcast host said that although the debate format is set up to be confrontational, he makes a concerted effort to center his discussions around personal experience.
“I’m not going to pretend that the kind of conversations we’re having in a studio are the same conversations people are going to have in a pub or a bar. [But it] moves beyond simply about being a debate about ideas to actually engaging with people as they are, the issues they’re going through and the experience they’re living because that’s when I think you really touch the core of who someone is and what really matters to them. As long as it’s just intellectual ideas it’s just a game of ping-pong. There can be value in that but at the end of the day the point at which people really experience a change and have come face-to-face with God is somehow when they’ve gone beyond that”.
Brierley says that when he first started broadcasting the program he knew very little about the subjects being broached. It was sort of a learn-as-you-go situation, which has had the very pleasant effect of making him a “translator” for some of the more complicated, academic subjects. It has become one the hallmarks of his podcast and an oft-praised quality by new listeners.
Unbelievable listeners also tend to appreciate his effort to give his guests equal, uninterrupted time to peacefully make their points. In the beginning, some Premier Christian Radio patrons didn’t exactly approve of all the air time he was making available to atheist guests in particular.
“One of the earliest problems that we had was some listeners saying, ‘Why are you letting atheists on a Christian radio station? We’ve got enough of them on the BBC!'”
But Brierley was undeterred, believing firmly that there was a way to hear out both sides of the conversation that would lead to a better understanding between people of diametrically opposed ideologies.
“In the long course of doing the shows it would be hard for an atheist to listen and come away thinking, ‘Oh, christians are just a lot of deluded, brainless people’, because you will have heard a lot of intelligent, thinking Christians making their case for faith. Likewise, Christians will have heard a lot of cogent arguments against God and faith and realize atheists are not all draconian, humorless baby-eaters. The show serves as a way to move away from stereotypes”.
That doesn’t mean the show hasn’t had it’s fair share of intense confrontations. Brierley recalls one particular discussion between a Muslim and a Christian that quickly degenerated into ” a lot of heat and not much light”. He had to stop the recording and implore the men to keep the personal attacks to themselves. Another tense debate came when he had two Christians to debate same-sex marriage and sexuality. The subject soon devolved into both parties attacking the person rather than the argument.
So has Justin Brierley’s faith or point of view changed after interviewing atheists for a decade?
He says no, that he’s ended up feeling more confident in his faith as he’s become more aware of the complex issues of life. That is actually what drove him to write a book based on his time as a broadcaster, Unbelievable: Why After 10 Years of Talking With Atheists I’m Still a Christian.
“I’ve come across more things that point toward God rather than away from God”.
While he’s come to appreciate many of the salient, intellectual arguments from his non-Christian guests, Brierley maintains that the real irony is that they are all arguing from the comfort of living in a society which rests on the foundations of Judeo-Christian ethics and values.
“The whole of Western thought and culture is based on Christianity. It’s just crazy to dismiss it as intellectually lazy. Every atheist I meet…the irony is that everything they hold dear is based on the Jude0-Christian foundation and that for me is one of the great ironies.”
While his podcast popularity continues to soar, Brierley is reaching beyond the platform to engage even more minds. There are rumors that “Unbelievable: The Conference” may be expanding to the United States very soon, and his video series “The Big Conversation” launched in June as a sort of off-shoot of the podcast. His first guest was sudden intellectual superstar Jordan Peterson, who debated atheist scholar Susan Blackmore on the question, “Do we need God to make sense of life?”. The video has already racked up nearly half a million views on YouTube and Brierley is already preparing for a recording in front of a live audience.
One of Brierley’s favorite questions of his guests is, “Is there any kind of evidence, anything that you could see or hear that would change your mind?”, so I took the opportunity to turn the question on him. Without hesitation he replied that most certainly he felt Christianity is a “falsifiable” religion that rests completely on the belief that Jesus rose from the dead. Were there to be some incontrovertible evidence that the resurrection didn’t happen, the Unbelievable author admitted he would be forced to reconsider his faith. However, he sees that as simply a risk involved in taking on any kind of belief with intellectual honesty.
“I open myself up to the possibility of being wrong every time I open my microphone.”
After all these years of moderating heated topics, Brierley firmly believes we should be a “1Peter 3:15 people”:
But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.
Imagine how the world – and discourse in our own country – might change if we all decided to follow suit. Of course, adopting an adorably polite British accent couldn’t hurt either.