The following transcript is from an Apologetics 315 interview with Ravi Zacharias. Original audio here. Transcript index here. If you enjoy transcripts, please consider supporting, which makes this possible.
BA: Hello, this is Brian Auten of Apologetics315. Today’s interview is with Ravi Zacharias. Ravi is perhaps one of the greatest Christian apologists of our time, and is a notable author, speaker, and communicator. He has spoken all over the world, and numerous universities, to heads of state, and to government officials around the globe. He is the author of over twenty books, including Can Man live Without God?, The Real Face of Atheism, Has Christianity Failed You?, and his most recent, which we’ll be talking a bit about today, Why Jesus?: Rediscovering His Truth in an Age of Mass Marketed Spirituality. The purpose of today’s interview is to learn a bit more from Ravi’s experience as an apologist, discuss his most recent book, and get his advice for being a better apologist. Dr. Zacharias, thank you so much for joining me today.
RZ: Happy to be with you Brian, thank you for having me on.
BA: Well Dr. Zacharias, I’m sure that for many of our listeners, you need very little introduction, and you’ve spoken at some very notable places, universities, and groups of people. I wonder, how do you typically introduce yourself and your travels, and how do you describe your work that you do presently?
RZ: Ah, that’s interesting, I think a lot of it depends on the setting and whichever credentials are more relevant for the moment, that’s the ones that the inviting body will generally use. But, you know, basically, what I do is Christian apologetics. I’m a Christian apologist, presenting a defense of the Christian faith, and challenges to the Christian faith. So of course, that begins with subjects like world views, philosophy of religion, the religious-cultural-ethical issues. If I’m in an academic forum, then the fact that I’m a senior research fellow at Wycliffe Hall Oxford University, that’s a credential with which I work in the academy. And many times basically they’ll tell people I’m an author – writer on issues of social significance or religious matters and so forth. So, that’s the length and breadth of it; however, whatever they choose to identify is chosen more for the moment I think.
BA: I know so many of us have benefited from your lectures and your books, and one of the things I’d like to talk to you about today is your most recent book, entitled, Why Jesus?: Rediscovering His Truth in an Age of Mass Marketed Spirituality. What inspired you to write this book, and what would say is your main goal?
RZ: I think it’s a book that needed to be written, and I would have been very happy is somebody else had attempted that. There has been such a shift in the cultural way of thinking about religion and spirituality, and people will say things like, “I’m not into religion, I’m into spirituality.” As if one is a pejorative term and the other very laudable pursuit. The fact of the matter is, the two of them mutually feed each other. There are religious ideas, there are religious dogmas in the world of spirituality, there’s the addressing of the spirit and spiritual matters when you’re dealing with religion. But, what prompted me to write it is the fact that the new spirituality, some call it new age, some call it new, some call it modern, however they qualify it, the bottom line is, the pursuit of answers that a person hungers for within and are not just answers to our material body, our longings, our spiritual search. And somehow, the new spirituality has become a smorgasbord of ideas, pulling together this and that, from ancient and modern, sometimes mythological ideas, and in the process, made to look very sophisticated. They’ve also blended the sciences, and wellness, and marketed it that way, and the new icons of our time on television market these ideas. So, I think it is important for people to understand what are writers like the new spirituality actually offering? Isn’t it true that ultimately, while secularism evicted God, the new spirituality basically is a different path to self-deification and the end result is the same?
BA: When I read through the book, I immediately saw this book as something I could give to certain friends or family members. You mentioned that sort of smorgasbord approach to spirituality, or picking and choosing a little bit of this and that, and maybe mixing them together, but to whom would you say this book is written in particular?
RZ: You know, C. S. Lewis’s entire starting point for his apologetics was what he would call, “the longing,” the longing in the human heart, for that which is beyond yourself, that which is for the want of a better term, “relationship with the transcendent” or the “divine,” or the “absolute,” however we word it. So, anybody who longs for answers on the ultimate meaning of life, and has at some time given thought to spiritual matters, and wonders, “What is it that is really flawed in the spiritual pursuits of people like Deepak Chopra, and Eckhart Tolle, and so on?” “What is it they are really offering?” “What is systemically flawed about them?” “And why the answers of Jesus Christ have withstood the test of time on the four fundamental pursuits of origin, meaning, morality, and destiny?” Anyone who longs for answers, from the depths of their soul, this book is for them.
BA: Hmm, that’s good. A lot of people might look at the culture and see on one hand this rise of secularism on a number of fronts, but, while at the same time there’s this very religious element with people, and they have a real hunger for the transcendent, and you mentioned just a moment ago and in your book you also call it, “this deep irrepressible spiritual hunger that we all have.” Do you observe that in the culture, and what do you see as the underlying reason for that?
RZ: Well, you know, I have a friend who’s a professor in China. And a Communist professor said to him, he said, “You should be thankful for communism, because it left the soul empty, and paved the way for you to be able to present the Gospel to them.” Fascinating comment from a convinced Marxist. The same thing applies to Secularism, with a big “S” here, what we have done is in our academy, and our business pursuits, we have sort of blocked God out. Politics, intellectual arenas, and so on, we become so radically materialistic, that life has become empty. Even as I talk to you, just a few days away from the death of Whitney Houston, a tragic life for a woman of such extraordinary beauty, and skill, and talent, with a magnificent voice, but just spiraled down in a habit, into relationships and all, why? Somehow looking for a high in life, looking for a relationship in life, that’s what life becomes pursued about so often. But, outside of a relationship with God himself, that personal relationship, all these others end up leaving you empty. So, I think that pursuit is there in the West, because the soul needs to have, as they say… G. K. Chesterton said, “Whenever you open your mouth, the hope is to close it down on something solid.” Well, the same is true for the soul as well. Not just to be searching and searching, but to find something that brings you harmony within, both rationally and experientially.
BA: Hmm, kind of that “God-shaped vacuum” if you will, then.
RZ: Yes, that only God is big enough to fill.
BA: One of the main things that you’re dealing with in Why Jesus? is what you just mentioned there a moment ago, new spirituality. So, what is that, how do you describe that, and can you contrast it with maybe the old spirituality?”
RZ: Yes, actually, Elizabeth Lesser in her book on this kind of an omnibus of spirituality goes to that, gives you various differences. The basic idea that comes across, is that in the old spirituality there was an authoritarian structure, there was an over and above and outside you objective point of reference, but in the new spirituality, that is not so. You sort of make your own rules, you make your own laws, you make your own belief. It’s a pick and choose, if you will. So, she basically says really there are five areas – authority, spirituality, the path to God, the sacred, and truth. She says in the old, authority is held by the “Church.” But, whether that is right or wrong, or extrapolated, is another matter. In the new, the individual has authority to determine what’s best for him. In spirituality, the old God and the way of worship had been divined, and worship for people to just follow the rules. In the new spirituality, the worshiper defines spirituality, so here it is, self-made. In truth, the old spirituality is knowable and constant, in the new spirituality, you never quite arrive at the truth as it is constantly changing “to accommodate your growth.” So, it is this glorification of a relativistic world view, that is what it is all about.
BA: In the book you also talk a bit about movies and television, and different messages that they convey, and you say that it’s this medium that was a key means by which the truth came to be seen as a lie. I was wondering, can you unpack this idea a bit, perhaps talk about how the media has shaped and is shaping our thinking?
RZ: And conversely, how it can make a lie appear like the truth. I think it was Malcolm Muggeridge who was an expert on the media, who quoted Simone Weil in saying, “In reality nothing is so beautiful as the good, nothing is so monotonous and boring as evil.” But in our imagination, it’s the other way around. Fictional good is boring and flat, he said, while fictional evil is varied, intriguing, attractive, and full of charm. So, I think what the media does is, it caters to the imagination, to the visual, if you will. And when you are catering to the imagination, you can bypass reason, and what is good can appear to be boring, what is evil can appear to be intriguing and full of charm. So, I would say the media has lent itself very well in shaping the way the listener is actually examining truth claims.
BA: You go on to describe television with four different words, and you list them as induction, seduction, deduction, and reduction. Can you talk a bit about that and what you mean?
RZ: Yes. Induction—you’re leading to something, you’re taking ideas from which you are drawing, what is being said. And the inductive process takes place whether it is in a lab, or in a history book, or whatever, and you can easily make false inductions because of the visual. Sometimes they come in sound bites, sometimes they come in images. You can take a whole world situation and put it down in one or two sound bites, one or two visual images. You think while you’re getting a little bit of the text, that you’re actually getting the context, which is not so. And then in the process, the visual can seduce you, leading to false deductions, and ultimately, even the finest ideas can be reduced. Take for example, sexuality. If it is reduced down to the moment and to pleasure, things like that, that’s not what sexuality is all about. Sexuality was to be in tandem with the sacred, not amputated from it. So, if you start off from a false induction, you will ultimately lead to an inevitable reduction. And I think the media plays into the hands of false induction, genuine seduction taking place, wrong deductions, and the inevitable reductions. That’s the way and the path of the visual.
BA: Looking at that sort of logical chain of how television works in that way, I want to ask you about the timeline that you see in your mind when you see sort of this old spirituality moving to where we are today with the new spirituality. I guess, the easy way to say that would be, “How did we get from there to here?”
RZ: It was the perfect storm, I think. Culturally, there was a mood of rebellion in the 60’s, and there was a disillusionment with sheer material success. Vietnam was in the news, and America sort of was being hoisted on some petard, we were critical of what had gone on, at least culture wars, and wars were being fought in the living rooms and the family rooms, so there was a disenchantment. At the same time, there was a heavy inflow, or influx, of other ideas coming for the first time, the West was being exposed to these. The way had been set by people like Vivekananda before bringing in the Eastern world view. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi capitalized on the fact that he said, “You know, we’re all stressed out, you really want to rest, you want to relax, you want to be at peace, here’s my formula for being.” And this is not an exclusive religion, so it became all inclusivistic. All these things came about in a perfect storm, and then you had people getting disenchanted mass marketing and the prosperity gospel and evangelism being reduced to simplistic platitudes and so on. And So people thought they were rejecting Christianity. What they were really rejecting was a caricature of Christianity. So, it all came together, and before you know it, the bible was mocked, Christianity was mocked, and the sophistication of Eastern spirituality came front and center, and today with nice sounding foreign terms, it becomes the way to go.
BA: You know, just looking at the media today, we see this new spirituality, and in your book, you look at Oprah, and Deepak Chopra, different ones, and you devote chapters to them. What are you trying to tell the reader? Is your goal to critique their ideas?
RZ: In Deepak Chopra’s case, definitely, to critique his ideas. In Oprah Winfrey’s case, to show how it is not just the medium, but the medium made her, and how from being a young gal, talking about the Bible, and singing gospel songs, and quoting the scripture, ultimately to seeing herself as some kind of a medium for inspiration to almost any kind of new thought and new spiritual experience. She became the mass marketer of people like Eckhart Tolle, Gary Zukav, and so on, whose books are these esoteric type writings. Once she endorsed a book, it would sell in huge numbers, such is the capacity of influence she had. And Deepak Chopra of course, capitalizing on this wellness kick and so on, as a spiritual guru and master. Frankly a lot of his stuff is intellectually untenable. But my, he was a medical doctor, successful at it, and transcendental meditation instructor, and all of a sudden, he supposedly had all the answers, could write on Islam, could write on Christianity. His book, The Third Jesus is actually a very pathetic book, very poorly done in terms of any intellectual coherence. But, he became very popular in that, and so his books were also being written and sold out to the mass consumer.
BA: Well, even many Christians have kind of embraced Oprah or perhaps Eckhart Tolle, and their teachings. What’s the danger, and how should someone maybe communicate to their friends or family members who may be taken in by them?
RZ: That’s what this book is about. What is it these writers are really saying? It is very seductive, and very very attractive, but deep inside, it is flawed, and I’ll tell you why. They do not understand the depth of human depravity. It is interesting, even as these spiritualities are becoming popular, the BBC at the end of 2010, over a year ago, did a research globally on what is the number one problem facing the world, and for the first time, in years and years of research of this same question, poverty and the environment were displaced from one and two to be made two and three; the number one problem was on corruption. Well, isn’t that what depravity is all about? So, it totally ignores the depth of human depravity. It ignores the bankruptcy of a relativistic ethic. You cannot live ultimately without some absolutes on the essence and value of life. It has no way to deal meaningfully with the very person of Jesus Christ, who offers grace, who offers forgiveness, who offers the transformation of the human heart, who explains our condition and provides for this malady. So, it actually does away with this message that’s enormously significant and unique for humankind. And then of course, it violates ultimately, the very laws of reason, the law of rational inference, and so on. So, I think a person wants to truly hunger after what life is meant to be. That new spirituality is the wrong way, and this book shows you why. The answers are really in the person and the work of Jesus Christ.”
BA: What dangers do you see coming from, if you will, the enculturation of this new spirituality with how people actually approach Christianity? What kind of damage does this do to people’s perceptions, or their approach to true spirituality?
RZ: Winston Churchill commenting on one of his nemesis’s in the House of Parliament said, “There but for the grace of God goes God.” We’re making gods out of human beings. My goodness, what a blunder, huge blunder. The twentieth century was the bloodiest century in history. What are we doing by claiming such self-transcendence and demonizing ourselves. The fact of the matter is it seems like no empirical evidence to the contrary seems to shake us off this very high view of ourselves given to us by the so-called new spirituality. So, the dangers are, it leads you into an insulated reality where you can become actually impervious to the truth, and that is a dangerous, deadly state to be in. It takes you away from the truth of who God is, and what He wishes to offer you in a personal relationship with Him.
BA: In the book, you also write about this new spirituality and its’ influence, but you’ve also written about atheism, for example in your book, The Real Face of Atheism, and you’ve spoken on the subject a great deal. So, I wonder, do you see one as a greater threat than the other, and why or why not?
RZ: They both are challenging, but I don’t know if, you know, what difference does it make if you change the label on an empty bottle? If somebody says there is no God, and deifies themselves implicitly, and someone says spirituality leads me to believe that I’m God, the end result becomes the same. So, I think the endgame is no different, the path to it is illusionary in spirituality, so in that sense it’s more deadly, because it actually plays word games, and equivocates on reality. So, I would say that, but you know, the truth of the matter is there is a greater danger than both of these, and a religious worldview that imposes its belief upon people by the millions, and has designs on a geopolitical dominance of that world view, that to me is the greatest threat facing the world today.
BA: Recently, a friend of mine gave his life back to Christ after a time of backsliding, if you want to call it that, and he mentioned it on Facebook, which immediately caused this huge firestorm of attacks against him, and against Christianity, and he said something. He said, “You know, if I happened to embrace any other faith other than Christianity, I would’ve gotten no such abuse.” So Ravi, why do you think this is the case? You know, the book is Why Jesus? but you know, further on with that question is, “Why do people seem to love spirituality, but hate Jesus or Christianity?”
RZ: Well, I think because in some ways, they have seen what Christianity has done often times, Christendom has done. In its institutionalization often times it’s been duplicitous, it’s been power hungry, it’s been extremely judgmental without being careful in how you reach people. They have not cared about the questioner, they have only answered questions. So, in that sense, it’s payback time. But, the second thing is the fact is they live under a false belief that Christianity is the only exclusive world view. It’s not true, Buddhism is exclusive, Hinduism is exclusive, Islam is exclusive, atheism is exclusive. Any time you lay claim to a truth, it is exclusivistic. So, they falsely assume that only the Christian faith is exclusivistic. And, lastly, I would say, it is because the Christian faith lays claim upon our lives. The sanctity of life, what we do with a life, is very definitive in the Christian faith, what we do with sexuality, what we do with marriage, all of the fundamental questions of life have points of reference for answers, and people just have an aversion for that. That I think is the biggest reason they feel hostile towards the Christian faith.
BA: Hmm, I thinks that’s some good insight there. Following on with “Why Jesus,” you also talk about how people distort Jesus, reshaping Jesus to suit our prejudices. Can you talk a bit about what you see happening with how people reshape Jesus?
RZ: Yes, I think Deepak Chopra is a classic example. In his book, “The Third Jesus,” how does he define the third Jesus? He says the first Jesus is the Jesus of history about whom we know nothing. The second Jesus is the Jesus manufactured by the Church. The third Jesus, says Deepak Chopra, is the Jesus who is the guru who came sort of looking for nirvana, and ultimately found it in enlightenment. How does he know the third Jesus is the third Jesus, because he quotes hundreds of supposedly relevant scriptures from the New Testament. But in the first instance, he had already de-bunked it by saying we don’t know anything about the historic Jesus. So, then he takes a text devoid of a context, makes it pretext, in order to manufacture his own Jesus. Classic example of a Jesus that had nothing to do with actual historical fact. He just doesn’t like the Jesus of history as represented in the gospels, or what the Church is presenting in Jesus being the Savior. So, the truth of the matter is, he’s manufactured a Jesus, a totally distorted one, but does it in such nice, benevolent terms and dresses it up in seductive language.
BA: You travel around to lots of universities, and you give talks on campuses and at all kinds of different events and there’s always question and answer sessions. I’m sure you’ve heard practically every question and objection there is to the Christian faith. But, as far as misconceptions about Jesus, I wonder if there’s one that maybe you’ve encountered the most, and how you would want to correct that misconception?
RZ: Well, that the Jesus is just one among many nice teachers, that is simply fallacious. He laid claim to be the exclusive way to God, “I’m the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.” The massacre of that text by Deepak Chopra is a classic example of how to mutilate both language and scripture. But, no, He’s not just one among many options. He offers Himself to you and to me as the one prophesied for centuries, born of a virgin, living that pure, perfect life, dying on the cross so that to reveal to us that ultimately, the rebellion against God results in brokenness. We are broken within, that’s what life is all about. And then from the resurrection from the dead, shows how life continues beyond the grave. So, to me that uniqueness of Christ, that Jesus is the Jesus we need to understand, and not the Jesus that people like to distort and make in their own image.
BA: Well, very good. Your book is excellent, and I definitely want to point our readers and listeners to it on the blog, but I’m sure our audience would want to hear from you on a couple other things. So, I want to shift gears a bit, and ask you Dr. Zacharias, as you’ve been doing apologetics for a while, and many would consider you to be a real role model as a communicator and a defender of the Christian faith. So, I wonder what sort of advice you would have for those who would be the next generation of Christian apologists?
RZ: Do your homework. Study hard. Understand not only the questions, but the questioner. Know how best to articulate the answers, but do it with humility, because ultimately the answer is in a person, the person of Christ, not in an argument. So, do your work and know how to present the answer, but do it with gentleness and meekness. So, I would say, 1 Peter 3:15 and 16 would be the verses I would leave with that person.
BA: Is there perhaps maybe a hardest lesson that you’ve had to learn in being a defender for the Christian faith?
RZ: Yes, sometimes it’s not so hard to defend the faith and to present it in an inimical context, sometimes your worst criticism comes from within the ranks. And, you know, I remember an NFL player saying, “When you’re booed on the opponents field you expect it, but when you’re booed on your own,” he said, ”that’s very painful.” And, sometimes, the attacks people give you from within your own ranks are, I think, the most painful. But you have to disregard it, keep you eyes on what God has called you to, and answer Him with faithfulness.
BA: Also, you know you travel a lot as I mentioned, and in the midst of your schedule, which is busy and you do all of this travel, how do you keep your time of devotion and walk with the Lord from suffering, you know, that sort of taxation?
RZ: You have to plan it every day. And, the best time to plan it is before your day begins. If you don’t plan it, your day will plan you. And so, I make a disciplined life of the study of the scriptures, reading the word every day.
BA: Are there any pitfalls that are most common that you warn Christian apologists against?
RZ: Yes, that you can easily substitute the intellect for true devotion. Devotion comes from the heart, and from the will. The intellect, you can cerebrally answer things, but you make a big mistake when that happens. So, I’d warn them to keep a life of balance, and that’s why I think your devotional time in the morning is so important as a time of bible study and prayer.
BA: Thank you Dr. Zacharias. Finally, I wanted to ask you if you’d tell our listeners a bit more about the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, what it’s doing, how they might be able to get involved with the program that’s offered there?
RZ: The Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, a wonderful place in Oxford University, in relationship with Wycliffe Hall, Oxford – we have a one week summer institute in July, we have a two month program specializing in one or two authors, and then we have a one year program, a certificate in evangelism and apologetics. And now we’ve been granted accreditation for an MPhil and a ThM, and we are moving in that direction, but we need the faculty to be able to support it. So, do logon to our website, www.rzim.org and go on to check out the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, OCCA, it will give you more information there.
BA: Well, very good. Dr. Zacharias, I appreciate your time, thank you so much for your work, and God bless.
RZ: It’s really a very great honor, and joy to be with you. I trust that all goes well with you too. And may God continue to bless you. Thank you so much.