I recently had the immense privilege to interview Justin Brierley who hosts the British show Unbelievable? bringing together Christians and non-Christians for fruitful conversations. Since the sound of our conversation is of very low quality, I transcribed it.
Hi Justin, thanks for accepting this interview. Could you please tell us your own background?
Certainly. I was raised in a Christian family and so I really grew up going to Church and during my early teens Christianity was kind of an experiential thing to me. It was only in my later teens that I began feeling an intellectual curiosity and I read people like C.S. Lewis and others. I was also involved in sort of creative things in the university in relation to my Christian faith and so yeah it was how it began. I was accepted to Oxford university and several Christian activities there strengthened my faith. And so yeah, it was my background. After a subjective emotional experience I saw the rational foundations behind my faith.
Thanks! Would you say you’re an Evangelical Christian?
Yeah…I mean…like many people I tend to call myself merely a Christian. I’m orthodox in the sense that I believe the historical creeds of the Church, in the Incarnation and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Evangelical is a label I’m happy to go with. I might not be the same kind of Evangelicals as others. Maybe if you want to nuance that, I might call myself a “liberal Evangelical” which might be more accurate.
Okay. Do you believe, for example, in Biblical inerrancy?
Again, that’s a really interesting area. My thinking developed over the year, especially through Unbelievable?, the show that I hold. Now, instead of “inerrancy“, I’d prefer to talk about the Authority of Scriptures. For inerrancy itself is a label which has a certain amount of baggage on it. If inerrancy means that the Bible should be viewed as a 21-st century science textbook, then I reject it. The Bible uses metaphors appropriate to an ancient Jewish context which would have been accurate for that time. So I’d prefer to say that the Bible is authoritative and reliable in that way. I don’t think that inerrancy is required to get what we need, which is the facts about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and His claims of Lordship in our lives. Having said that, I would stand up for the Bible’s reliability in all kinds of areas because I think it’s incredibly well founded in all types of different ways. Many difficulties in Scripture that Sceptics point to can be overcome relatively easily by considering them as literature of their days and not necessarily expecting a twenty-first century biographical precision. I’m thinking on examples in the Gospels where there appears to be differences in the time line of events. We’re learning more and more that the Gospel writers adopted the standard biographical methods of their days. Why should we expect that they should not use the same elasticity found in other documents of that time period? It does not mean they’re not reliable. It’s complicated, but in the end I prefer to use the terms reliable and authoritative rather than inerrancy.
Yeah. What is the spiritual background of Premier Christian Radio?
Well Premier radio is full of people with lots of different Christian backgrounds. So we’re pretty much a multi-denominational station and we seek to serve here in the UK as part of the Christian Church. Some people might be surprised to learn we’ve Protestant Charismatic programs and some Roman Catholic teachings as well. So we’re quite broad in the community we’re seeking to reach here in the UK. Having said that, you can characterize most of the content as being broadly Evangelical. The station was founded 20 years ago. At the time we were the only Christian broadcaster in the whole united Kingdom. We’re still one of only few. So the situation is very different to the US where you’ve plenty of Christian TVs and radio channels.
So our mandate has been to be representative of the entire Church and we’ve always tried to do that.
What are the main aims of Unbelievable?
Unbelievable? is really a show where I wanted to break out of the Christian bubble. Premier Christian radio is very good at speaking to and resourcing Christians for their daily life and worship, ministry and work. But at the time I began with the program, we didn’t have specific things which speak to non-Christians. So I went to a chief-executive and asked if I could start a specific program which would bring people of faith or no faith into the studio and so we had a discussion. It started out as a live-show. Not everyone was in favour of it. Some of the listeners felt that, you know, atheists and agnostics have plenty of time on public shows and on the BBC, so why should we have them on a Christian radio? But to his credit the chief executive stood by the program. Eventually those who liked the program learned to listen, those who did not appreciate it learned to turn off the radio at that hour of Saturday. Over time the program went online and the podcast became quite popular since we have many pretty interesting guests and touch on many topics. The main aim is an Evangelistic one and I don’t make any apology for that. We want to show, through good dialogues with people from various perspectives, that Christianity is a reasonable faith and that you don’t have to throw your brain in a bin in order to be a Christian. That’s not to say there are no difficult areas, that is to say areas where I don’t have a real answer. Still, over the years I heard pretty much every possible objection to Christianity but I still feel that Christianity is the best narrative, the best way of approaching life. So I hope that the program is doing that for other persons too. I’m not expecting the program to do that for everyone.
The second thing that the program does is creating a space of dialogue within the Christian community. So we often have had lots of programs over the years. We hope people view it as place where disagreements are allowed. They also should realise that once you become a Christian you don’t automatically get a set of absolute rules and regulations. There is room within the Christian community to hold different views while still managing to call ourselves brothers and sisters in Christ. We sincerely hope we’re providing people with this space for making up their own mind while having these sorts of discussions.
Thanks! I find that great. What’s your take on the American culture war?
Well, I think that the UK is inevitably a very different kettle of fish to America. America has its own unique issues and its separation of Church and State. Obviously, the powerful Religious Right there does not exist in the UK. There are far less tensions here between politics, culture and Christianity than in America where there is a far wider dichotomy, if you like, between politics and the average Christian. As for me, I’m saddened in a way by the American culture war because so many of the atheists from America that I do encounter are atheists not necessarily because of intellectual objections to Christianity but because of what they perceive to be an illiberal agenda on the part of the Christian Right. That is what is parking their vehement reaction to religion. I think that’s a great shame. It is when Christianity is merged with the political power that the problems usually emerge. During the history of Christendom, we can see that things go wrong when our faith is used as a political force. Christianity is most compelling while working, to some extent, from the margin and that’s the situation we find ourselves in here in the UK.
Some people have been lamenting the fact that the British Church is declining. But I think this might be a good thing for the UK Church. People go to Church in the United Kingdom because they want to go to it. That wasn’t the case, you know, fifty years ago. The State used to have a huge amount of cultural Christianity within it. In the end, this part of Christianity is doomed to die off and that’s not a bad thing since I believe it is where all these culture wars come from. In a way it can be a more healthy expression of our convictions and have a more positive impact on culture which doesn’t stem from the power structure. So, these are some thoughts on how things are going on in that respect.
I totally agree with you! How does the modern British religious landscape look like nowadays?
Well, here in the UK, as I mentioned, there has been a steep decline in Church going for several decades. As I said, I don’t see this as being a real cause for concern. What you’re seeing is that the Christian revivals of the nineteenth century and before (people like Wesley, Spurgeon and others) produced a generation of passionate Christianity. Yet that faith was not necessarily passed on or inherited in a living way. And so we’re inevitably seeing this sort of Christianity decline. Interestingly enough, we are currently seeing the emergence of many multicultural Churches. Owing to immigration, Christians from Africa, south America and from the West Indies are founding great communities and that’s shaping the British Church. It means that Christians with different backgrounds must work together. In the United States, many Churches don’t mix together. I think that here in the UK there is more of a cohesive field of Christianity because it’s a smaller community. That’s not to say that Christianity is in any way dead or dying in the UK. I think there are very exciting shifts of life within the British Church, there are some truly fantastic projects going on. Holy trinity Brompton, an Anglican Church is the centre of the Alpha courses, which many Churches all over the world use. It has been tremendously successful in introducing many people to the Christian faith. There are all sorts of other exciting projects within the Church which you don’t often see while looking at the headlines. When the Church get into the headlines here in the UK, it’s usually about Gays or about whether women should be allowed to become bishops and that sort of things. The reality is that there is much more going on than the things the newspapers pick up.
Yeah, of course! And how is the situation of Muslims in modern Britain? I mean that especially with respect to the terrorist attacks which have been going on during the last decades.
I think that multiculturalism naturally leads to many new communities springing up in the UK, many of which being Islamic. Britain has a nice history of welcoming and integrating diverse groups. There are different types of Islam out there. I think it has been a challenge to the UK because they tend to be more insular than other communities. The government has some troubles understanding and communicating with them. There are some great initiatives, here in the UK, for bringing different faith groups to talk to each others. Sadly, I think this doesn’t often have a massive influence on the mosques across the country…Some reports can be sensationalised. But there have been reports over the years of quite radicalised teachings in some mosques. They showed a fairly open stance to the public. But behind the closets you can find some quite worrying teachings going on. There has been, unfortunately, a number of Muslims from the UK who joined ISIS warriors in Syria and so on. So I think there are grounds for feeling worried. We need to do everything in our power to continue to communicate with these communities. We should not treat them as a monolithic ensemble. The British government ought to understand Islam and to not treat it as a blanket religion. There is a huge variety of different groups. They’re not all the same and they’ve different aims and objectives. It is a very tricky time in that sense here in the UK.
Yeah I completely agree. The Islamic world is extremely diverse. Not all of them advocate violence against unbelievers. We should not punish peaceful Muslims for the misdeeds of extremists they themselves view as appalling and abhorrent.
To conclude this interview, could you please tell us what you’re up to?
What’s coming up? The show continue, we’ll have new exciting discussions and debates. I’ll do some shows interviewing people who had a Near Death Experience, which is quite an interesting phenomenon. There has recently been a major scientific study on that and we’ll be interviewing people who have been involved in it. We’re preparing the new Unbelievable for next year. That’s been an exciting part of what is being developed for the show. It’s a conference where everyone can come to see the reasonable and intellectual value of Christianity with top-speakers. I myself have been increasingly involved in another aspect of Première’s work which is Premier Christianity magazine. It has been formerly just called Christianity magazine. I became the senior editor of that fairly recently.
Yeah, and although I’ve been writing for the magazine for a number of years, this has been quite an interesting and challenging step, but I’m really enjoying it and I’m really bringing more and more of what I do on air into the magazine as well.
So, balancing these two things is my challenge at the moment. I want to keep the show fresh and interesting while upholding the standards of the magazine as we produce it each month.
Okay, so thank you very much for this interview! I wish you all the best.
Well, thank you very much for having me, Marc, and I wish you all the best too.
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