Justin Brierley is the host of the very popular radio show and podcast Unbelievable? on Premier Christian Radio. Justin is also the senior editor of Premier Christianity, a UK based magazine that is similar to Christianity Today as a general Christian culture publication.
When I first became interested in apologetics, his show was one of the first I encountered. What makes Unbelievable? stand out is the civil tone that Justin helps create. Even when discussing extremely controversial issues, this show has a different tone than most of the debates I see online or on TV.
As a result, since this website is dedicated to the discussion of the Christian worldview in the public square, I wanted to talk to Justin and learn a bit more about how he is able to encourage this civil dialogue.
Thank you Justin for joining us on Entering the Public Square!
ZS: First, how did you originally get the idea to host a radio show centered essentially on debating various aspects of the Christian faith?
JB: I had been working for Premier Christian Radio for a few years at the time I went to the CEO in 2005 with the idea of starting a new weekly show that brought Christians and non Christians together. As a Christian station we were good at doing the whole ‘Christians talking to Christians about Christian things’, but I was aware that most of our audience will spend a lot of their time interacting with their non Christian friends, family and acquaintances. I wanted a section in the week when they would be able to hear an example of how to interact on issues of faith, belief etc with a non Christian. That was how the show started. Originally it was a live programme, and we took live calls form listeners as well as hosting the dialogue in studio. Then we moved to a re-recorded format and would take listener interaction by email in response to the discussion. This had the advantage of making the conversation in studio a bit more focussed. Over time the show became very popular as a podcast, so we now have listeners all over the world.
ZS: Are there any things you specifically try to do as moderator to create the civil climate that characterizes your show?
JB: I try to make sure both guests get a fair hearing, both in terms of the time they have to speak and making sure their points are adequately addressed. Sometimes if I feel either guest hasn’t really answered a question, I may press them myself. The fact is that it's harder to be rude to someone face to face in an discussion than it is online where dialogues can quickly get heated and bitter because of the anonymity and the lack of being able to express tone that comes with that medium.
Part of what keeps me focussed is knowing that the show is listened to by both Christians and non Christians. I try (albeit imperfectly) to try to think of what both those different listeners are thinking as we carry out the discussion.
ZS: Christians sometimes must take positions that are contrary to general culture and might be unpopular. What advice do you have about approaching these issues unapologetically and honestly but also tactfully?
JB: It's all about the way we deliver those views in my opinion. If they are delivered in a shout-y or incendiary way then that will mean they are not received well. I think Christians have to learn more to honestly listen to opinions they disagree with rather than shout down the opposition. That’s why I think Unbelievable? can be a good forum to express those opinions because it is being heard in the context of a contrary view and so people who may not normally be inclined may be willing to hear something because they feel they aren’t hearing just one side.
ZS: You recently had a live event in California with Sean McDowell and Ryan Bell. Do you find in-person discussions have a different dynamic than for example online conversations or discussions over the phone? If so, does this change our approach when interacting in these different contexts?
JB: Yes – getting two people face to face is always the preference. It's harder to be rude to someone who is sitting opposite you! But doing the conversation in front of live audience (as we did in California) adds an extra dynamic. Each guest is then also responding to the vibe they are getting from the people watching as much as what the other person is saying. I think Ryan was aware he was addressing a largely Christian audience (though there were a number of non-Christians present too) and so he was sensitive to that in the way he brought things across. I thought both Ryan and Sean did an amazing job and were very down to earth. It was one of my favourite discussions on the show ever.
ZS: Should Christians be afraid of opposition in the public square? What should we expect from your experience when we make our faith public and how should we respond?
JB: I don’t think Christians should ever be afraid. Perfect love casts out fear. If we have Christ then why should we fear? However, too often the way we speak is driven by fear instead of love. When I see Christians being harsh, insulting or inflammatory I see that being something driven by fear rather than love. When we encounter opposition in the public square we have every right to stand on our principles but to do it with grace and love even in the face of hostility sometimes.
When we make our faith public it may well result in ridicule or opposition. Often however, that is coming from those who ‘shout the loudest’. There are many more who will be reading your response and it’s wise to think of how you conduct yourself when you do respond.
ZS: What do you think should be the goal of Christians speaking and debating in public squares like you provide? I suppose ultimate conversion would be ideal given that Jesus is the greatest need for all, but should we consider our engagement a failure if we fail to convince anyone?
JB: The first goal should be the pursuit of the truth. Whatever worldview we inhabit, we lay claim to the truth, and it's right for us to seek to defend that. Of course as Christians we want to see people come to faith in Christ. But I don’t put on Unbelievable? with the aim of converting the guests who I feature one way or the other. I don’t anticipate one hour of conversation will change their mind! However, I am aware that there are plenty of people listening who are open to being convinced one way or another.
I can’t control how people will respond, I just have to let them make up their own minds and leave it to God. Some people get in touch to say Unbelievable? was somehow involved in their coming to faith, others say it confirmed their loss of faith. People are travelling in different directions most of the time, and the show probably intersects with them in different ways.
In the end there is much more going on in people’s decision about faith than just rational arguments. I would challenge any Christian who engages in apologetics to spend as much time praying for the people they engage with as debating with them!