Jesus taught his followers that loving God with all of the mind was part of the greatest commandment.

Historically, believers have taken this to heart, pursuing God’s truth in all its forms, whether theological, historical, scientific, artistic or ethical. Christians founded universities, developed modern science, spearheaded social reforms, and produced creative and cultural excellence to the glory of God.

The picture has shifted, however, over the past century or so. In the face of advancing secularism, Christians have largely retreated from the arena of public ideas, ceding their former position of cultural influence to the secularists. In turn, the secularists have done their best to portray Christianity as an outmoded, anti-intellectual belief system, and embattled believers have too often done little to counter that perception.

But God never leaves himself without witnesses. Even now, there are bright stars in the intellectual expanse, engaged in persuading believers and skeptics alike that the Christian faith is in perfect harmony with the life of the mind. One of the brightest of these current stars is Rebecca McLaughlin, a British academic living in the United States.

Supporting Christian academics in every discipline

McLaughlin holds a PhD in English literature from Cambridge University and a theology degree from Oak Hill College in London. She comes from an academically oriented Christian family. Yet despite her sharp mind, her faith made her an oddity when she entered university. She recalls her first year at Cambridge:

“Most college freshmen try to blend in. I stuck out. My English-major classmates were preternaturally cool. Some modelled; others starred in films. I did neither. But it wasn’t just my lack of time in front of a camera that set me apart: I showed up to college with a three-inch wooden cross around my neck.”

Even so, the extroverted McLaughlin wasted little time in making friends on campus, both among fellow believers and non-believers alike. It’s a practice she has cultivated throughout her life and it has served her well in her work as an apologist for the faith.

As she pursued her studies, McLaughlin made a startling discovery. Contrary to popular assumptions about secular academia, she found more than a few leading scholars at the world’s top universities who were also followers of Jesus. Many of these scholars are acknowledged world-class experts in their fields. Some are in fact pioneers in their respective branches of study.

After earning her PhD, McLaughlin relocated to the United States and spent nearly a decade with the Veritas Forum as vice-president of content. One of her roles was to connect with Christian professors at leading universities and equip them to speak about their faith in relation to their work.

Since leaving Veritas, she has continued to give online exposure to Christian academics via interviews and biographies. These scholars represent some of the world’s most prestigious institutions: Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Berkeley. They work in a broad range of disciplines: physics, history, chemistry, philosophy, engineering, computer science, economics, psychology, education. The stories of their work and faith offer a potent antidote to the myth that Christianity and academia don’t mix.

Engaging the hard questions of skeptics with grace

As a popular apologist, McLaughlin is a frequent speaker at conferences, in churches and on college campuses. She’s active on social media and maintains a web presence with a blog, podcasts and videos of her interviews and speaking engagements.

Across each of these platforms, her personality is readily apparent. She’s energetic and articulate, using colourful metaphors and forceful reasoning. But she’s always gracious, never harsh or defensive. She’s one of those happy few who can defend their faith with easy, disarming enthusiasm, as refreshing as clear water bubbling from a spring.

These same qualities are on display in McLaughlin’s first book, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion. True to her title, she engages the toughest objections of contemporary skeptics: Christianity’s exclusive truth claims; the reliability of Scripture in light of modern science; questions about sexual ethics and social justice; the reality of suffering and hell.

But she does it all with fairness and compassion. She’s honest about the ways Christians have failed to live up to the teachings of Jesus, never minimizing or dismissing legitimate criticism of the church. She’s even-handed in citing both Christian and secular sources. Her goal is to persuade thoughtful skeptics and help her fellow believers do the same.

The dedication of McLaughlin’s book reads, “For Natasha, and for all my other fiercely intelligent friends who disagree with me, but will do me the honour of reading this book.”

Contrary to the prevailing cultural attitude, McLaughlin doesn’t equate disagreement with judgment. She refuses to patronize her non-believing friends – or readers – in this way. She respects their intellect, takes their objections seriously and affirms their moral agency to change their views as thinking people made in God’s image. To that end, she sees debate and persuasion as expressions of mutual respect between people who disagree.

Reclaiming intellectual territory lost to secularism

“The sands aren’t running out on Christianity, but . . . there are four things that we must do. We must reclaim diversity. We must reclaim the university. We must reclaim morality. And we must reclaim sexuality. But we must do all these things with humility and not by watering the Scriptures down, but by lapping them up.”

This is McLaughlin’s mission statement – or rather her call to action – for followers of Jesus who seek to share the Gospel in a secular climate that has a distorted take on Christianity.

“When our non-Christian friends glance over at the Christian faith,” she explains, “they see a white-centric religion with a history of racism and Scriptures that condone slavery. They see an anti-intellectual mindset and a contradictory Bible that’s been disproved by science again and again. They see homophobia, denigration of women, and a refusal to acknowledge that love is love.”

But McLaughlin flips the script on all of these assumptions. She argues that from the start, Christianity has been the most multicultural, multi-ethnic and women-affirming movement in history and remains so. She points out that Christians created the university to glorify God and invented modern science to study the works of a Creator who is rational and free. She demonstrates that human equality and social justice are by no means self-evident virtues but are in fact rooted in a Christian world view. And she stresses that the Christian sexual ethic, far from being restrictive and oppressive, reflects God’s love for his people and makes room for other kinds of intimate, non-sexual love.

In short, McLaughlin urges that if Christians are to represent Jesus effectively in the current cultural moment, we need to reclaim the intellectual territory we’ve lost to secularism. But she reiterates that we must do so with humility and fidelity to the Scriptures, ready to repent of the ways we’ve failed – often horribly – to reflect the teaching of our Lord.

More than anything, McLaughlin models how believers are to engage non-believers with grace and truth. She calls Christians to re-enter the public arena of ideas and intellectual discourse, in her words not as a hostile takeover, but as a homecoming.

“Christ calls us to love God with our heart and our soul and our mind and our strength,” she reminds us. “He is not content with three out of four.”

Following the path of the most winsome apologists

As a public intellectual, Rebecca McLaughlin walks in the footsteps of Christian apologists like C.S. Lewis and Timothy Keller. She speaks and writes to persuade informed skeptics of the validity of the Christian faith and to equip her fellow believers with the tools to engage the criticisms levelled at Christianity.

But her work never sounds like a dry academic lecture. Her style is vibrant and appealing. She combines world-class research, gripping personal stories, illustrations from popular culture and faithful biblical exposition to present a compelling case for the Christian faith and answer the objections of non-believers with grace.

Like Keller and Lewis, the word that best captures McLaughlin’s approach is winsome. She’s compassionate, energetic, fair-minded, and never less than intellectually stimulating.

In all of her writing and speaking, it’s clear McLaughlin is serious about the command to love the Lord her God with all of her mind. For followers of Jesus who want to do likewise, they would be hard pressed to find a better contemporary model for their efforts.

Sources and further reading

Rebecca McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion, Crossway, 2019.

Biographical information and a variety of resources, including blog posts, podcasts and videos are available at Rebecca McLaughlin’s website.

Collections of McLaughlin’s articles, as well as various podcasts, videos and interviews, can also be found at The Gospel Coalition, Crossway Books, and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

© 2020 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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