Does truth matter anymore? How do we communicate truth in a “post-truth” world? Sean interviews Nancy Pearcey about her book Total Truth. She addresses these questions and makes the case that the church must embrace the faith as a totalizing belief system that shapes how we approach every aspect of life.

More About Our Guest

Nancy Pearcey

Heralded as “America’s preeminent evangelical Protestant female intellectual” (The Economist), Nancy Pearcey is author of Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity. Pearcey has been a visiting scholar at Biola University’s Torrey Honors College. She has addressed staffers on Capitol Hill and at the White House; actors and screenwriters in Hollywood; scientists at Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories; artists at the International Arts Movement; students and faculty at universities such as Princeton, Stanford, Dartmouth, USC, UGA, and St. John’s College, and is a regular contributor to major national newspapers and media outlets.

Episode Transcript

Sean McDowell: Welcome to the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host, Sean McDowell, professor of apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. Today we have a guest who you will be familiar with and recognize. She is coming back on the show because last time Nancy Pearcey, Scott, Ray and myself talked about her wonderful new book, Love Thy Body. Today we're going to talk about the topic of truth and you've written two books that relate to this. We're going to focus on the book total truth, but first off, thanks for coming back on Nancy.

Nancy Pearcey: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Sean McDowell: Yeah, absolutely. Let me jump in and ask you this. I've heard some people describe you as kind of a modern day Francis Shaffer. Are you okay with that depiction? Would you say that's accurate? Because he seems to have played such a huge role in your life and you're thinking.

Nancy Pearcey: Oh, it was huge. I became a Christian at Liberty. So, I owe my Christian life in many ways to Francis Shaffer's mode of apologetics. I think what really struck me when I went to Liberty is, I was already so postmodern in my thinking that a lot of the traditional apologetics didn't work with me. Let me give you a story. So I was, my older brother had become a Christian and he was quizzing me and a friend on our beliefs and we were both hedging a bet because we didn't want to admit to our families how much we were really questioning our Christian upbringing. So we were hedging and he was getting frustrated. And finally he said, listen, do you think Jesus rose from the dead? And my friend said, well, that's the crux of the issue, isn't it? And I said, no, it's not. That could be a wonderful parable that gives people meaning in their lives and assemble a metaphor that works for some people.

Nancy Pearcey: So my friend was still in the modernist mindset that there's still true and false and if Jesus rose from the dead, that's either true or false. And that has implications. I was already so postmodern that I didn't even think in terms of true or false anymore. And so Shaffer, partly because he was living in Europe, which was more postmodern than America was, he had developed an apologetic that was suitable for the postmodern mindset. So, that spoke to me in a way that traditional apologetics hadn't at the time. Still, I would say still, I think Francis Shaffer's mode of apologetics is particularly powerful since our culture now is more postmodern. I think his work is really appropriate for our day.

Sean McDowell: There's an interesting new book that came out, Alan Noble has written book called Disruptive Witness and he starts by describing how the kind of the apologetic approach of Francis Shaffer, how people would come seek truth with questions, go away because they're on kind of the spiritual search in the 60s and 70s and beyond. But now he says, we become so distracted by cell phones and technology that what we need to do is kind of disrupt people out of just being stuck on cell phones and get people to even think and wrestle with these kinds of questions. So in a sense, he's honoring Francis Shaver saying what he did work exactly well, but we've got to change that for today. Does that resonate with you? Do you make sense of that? Do you think he's onto something?

Nancy Pearcey: Well, certainly he's onto something in a sociological sense, in other words, as a descriptive sense, our kids are really hooked into their cell phones and their iPads and so on. But I still think, now I'm judging from the students that come to HBU, right? Houston Baptist University where I teach, I still think that if you ask the right questions, they're still searching for truth in the same way. What happened to L'Abri is when I first went there, there were mostly intellectually seeking non Christians. Most of the students were non Christians. It was a very much of an evangelistic ministry. I was there twice. I didn't become a Christian the first time. I left as a non Christian partly because it was so attractive. I was afraid that I might be drawn in before I was fully intellectually convinced. This is the first time I'd ever encountered Christians who could answer questions, who could engage with secular ideas, you know, because by then I was very much involved in studying philosophy and I had all these philosophical questions.

Nancy Pearcey: In addition, you know, he did cultural apologetics. So he was very much into the arts and I went to L'Abri from Germany, where I was studying violin at the Heidelberg Conservatory. So his sensitivity for the arts really spoke to me. And then in addition, as you saw from the photos today, there were mostly hippies there and back then those were the cool kids. So, the fact that these were Christians who could reach across that cultural divide and speak to disaffected young people was also very impressive. And I just thought, who are these Christians? They are so different from any other Christians I've ever met. So I was afraid I might be drawn in because it was so attractive. So I left.

Sean McDowell: Oh, interesting.

Nancy Pearcey: I left as a non Christian. I stayed a month and then I left and just on my own reading eventually, you know, reading more, Shaffer reading Al Guinness I think his books were out by then. Louis, I never known about Louis before I went to L'Abri. So just on my own reading I finally became intellectually convinced that it was true, but I not connected to a church or anything. So I thought, okay, where do I find other Christians? And that's when I went back to L'Abri. Well I knew some back in Switzerland, so I went back to L'Abri, and the stayed four months and that's where I really got grounded in my understanding of Christian worldview.

Sean McDowell: So essentially the philosophy and approach that he took in terms of analyzing culture. You think that's still relevant, if not, maybe even more relevant than it ever has been. Would you agree with that?

Nancy Pearcey: It is more relevant, both in the secular world and the Christian world. One of the things I discovered when I moved to Houston, I used to live in Washington DC, and so Washington DC is different. There's no cultural Christianity in DC. You don't act as a Christian unless you really are one. Then you go to Houston and you find a lot of cultural Christianity where people say, well, I'm a Christian because I live in the south, I've been raised in basically a baptist or Methodist theological tradition, but there's not as much real personal commitment. So the sacred secular split that Shaffer analyzed, it's more relevant now than it was then. The sacred secular split is extremely strong in the Christian world still.

Sean McDowell: So you said this in your presentation, you said you hear people say, don't force your values on me, but no one says don't force your facts on me. So, unpack what you meant by that and what this kind of divided view of truth we see in the culture that Shaffer was talking about, like help us understand what you mean by that.

Nancy Pearcey: Yeah, I think that is one of his most important insights that is still relevant. He talked about how the truth has become divided. Basically, people used to think truth was a single system and either there's a moral order and there's a natural order, but they're all integrated and so people had an integrated understanding of truth, but with a scientific revolution, that was really the turning point. A lot of people began to think the only really reliable truth is scientific empirical data. What we can test in the laboratory. Well, what do you do then with moral truth, spiritual truth? You cannot stick them in a test tube and study them under a microscope. So many people decided, well, they just weren't really truth at all. They didn't qualify as truth. They were just personal preference, personal values, personal feelings, and in the secular world that's called the fact value split. Shaffer used the imagery of two stories in a building. So the lowest story is science and facts. The upper story is values, theology, morality, and he didn't use the term fact value split. But when I was writing total truth, I had seen the connection. I said, whoa, wait a minute. That upper lower story imagery that he used is what secular academia calls the fact value split. And so when I brought the two together, people started saying, oh, that's what Shaffer meant. That really is relevant after all.

Sean McDowell: Got it. So tell me the story behind writing total truth then. You've written finding truth. You've written total truth. So you seem to think in where we're at in our post truth culture today, it's pretty important we remind people what truth is and how to understand it. So, why so much emphasis on truth and why'd you write total truth?

Nancy Pearcey: The emphasis on truth probably also comes out of my background because I was raised in a Lutheran home, but I started asking questions in high school. All I was asking was how do we know Christianity's true? People sometimes probe and want to know if I just wanted to party because sometimes people walk away from the Christian background because they want to have fun on Friday nights. But in my case, it's just that I was going to a public high school, my teachers were secular, all the textbooks are secular, and it seemed presumptuous for Christians who seemed a tiny minority, to say we were right and everybody else was wrong. How could we say that? And so I started asking, is it true? That's what drove all of my search and at the time none of the adults in my life could answer that question. Apologetics wasn't very common back then and the type of answers I got was on the level of, I asked a university professor, why are you a Christian? And he said, works for me. I said, that's it? Or I had a chance to talk to seminary dean. And all he said was, don't worry, we all have doubts sometimes. It seemed to be a matter of intellectual honesty that if you don't have good reasons for something, you shouldn't believe it, whether it's Christianity or anything else.

Nancy Pearcey: So I very intentionally, about halfway through high school, set aside my Christian upbringing and I decided, I guess it's up to me to find truth, and so I embarked on a conscious search for truth. I literally started walking down the hallway at the public high school I attended, pulling books off the philosophy shelf because I thought if no adults will answer my questions, maybe these books will. Isn't that what philosophy supposed to be about? How do we know truth? What is truth? Is there meaning to life? Is there a foundation for ethics? So, since this was a such a big part of my search, I just wanted to know what was true. If atheism was true, I wanted to be like Bertrand Russell. You know his famous quote where he says, the modern person must build his life on the scaffolding of unyielding despair. And I thought, well, if there's no god, he's probably right. And if he is, that's where I'm heading. I really wanted to find what was true.

Sean McDowell: So this fact value split essentially says things like beauty and morality and philosophy, art, religion, are preferences, they're values, but they're not facts like science, math and maybe history. How has this seeped into the church? And I want you to share the example you just gave in your lecture about a well meaning, I think it was a teacher or youth leader who kind of drew two different pictures on the board. Unpack that for us a little bit.

Nancy Pearcey: Oh yes. That was an article I read that was written by a young woman who had just graduated from high school and she wrote about her first day in theology class and she said my teacher drew a heart on one side of the blackboard and a brain on the other side. And he informed us that the two were as divided as the two sides of the blackboard. The brain is what we use for science and the heart is what we use for religion. And by the way, she was the only student who protested. She stood up and protested and all the other students were fine with it. And this theology teacher got her kicked out of that class for challenging him. But the point is, how can young people love God with all their minds if they are being told that the mind has nothing to do with theology? Schools like this are turning out young people who may be Christian in the heart but will be secular in their thinking if the heart and the brain so separate and theology has nothing to do with the brain. They're going to end up thinking like secular people.

Sean McDowell: Do you think this is one of the reasons the church is not having a bigger impact on culture and society and missions and beyond this kind of fact value split?

Nancy Pearcey: I think it's the main reason. In my book I give other examples as well where young people essentially treat religion as something you do on Sunday, something you do in prayer meeting, but it's not something that informs your life in terms of your vocation, your professional life. You understand the use of science and politics and the arts and so on. And you may remember from my lecture, I gave an example of a English professor at a Christian College who was writing a column in his local newspaper and I read one of them, and in that column he said that he was shocked when he read his student's journals because they would write about intense worship experiences on one page and on the next page they would write about their sexual exploits. And he said, and this is a direct quote from the column, he said, "My students are rampantly promiscuous. There's a significant gap between what they profess to believe and how they actually live." And the lesson to me there is, if you have a subjective understanding of Christian ethics, if you put it in what Shaffer called the upper story or the realm of values, so that it's just a matter of personal preference, it's not going to have the power to transform your life. And our young people end up living just like secular people.

Sean McDowell: One of the criticisms I've read have kind of a worldview teaching and training is that it makes human beings like a brain on a stick, like it reduces us just to what we think and people said, it's not just what you think, but we act out of what we love and have to have certain habits. So the criticism has been that worldview thinking is not enough just to help a person understand truth. There has to be habits and certain rituals built in to cultivate a character capable of even making those decisions. Is that a fair critique of worldview? Tell me your thoughts. I know you've thought about this.

Nancy Pearcey: No. I understand the criticism and there may be styles of teaching worldview that I would criticize the same way, but I say if somebody is teaching worldview that way, they're teaching it the wrong way and not doing it right. See, I was introduced to worldview when I went to L'Abri, where it was a matter of life and death. I mean, I had, like I said a minute ago, I had come to realize that if there's no God, you do have to be Bertrand Russell. You do have to face the unyielding despair that if there's no God, there's no meaning to life. We're on a rock flying through empty space. There's no foundation for ethics. There's just what I prefer versus what you prefer. In high school, in fact, I had gotten to the point where I was the one in my group of friends who was arguing that there's no right or wrong. I remember one time a friend of mine said to me, Oh, she's so wrong, and I immediately jumped into, you can't say she's wrong. There's no right or wrong. I was a complete relativist.

Nancy Pearcey: I hadn't even become a skeptic in the sense that I thought if all I have is my puny brain and the vast scope of time and history, how can I think I could achieve a sense of universal, eternal, absolute truth. Ridiculous. Obviously ridiculous. And so I become a complete skeptic and relativist, realizing that there's no meaning to life if God is not there. So, when I encountered worldview it's because I was struggling with, do I have a reason to live anymore? This was not a dry, intellectual, academic study. This was my whole being. I was searching for God or for truth back then. I didn't know it was God, yet. I was searching for truth with my whole being. For me it was question of life or death. So, that's what I try to impart to my students.

Sean McDowell: So how do we help people who aren't there yet grown up in Christian homes who don't realize it the way you do? You're like naturally wired to care about truth, philosophical. A lot of people may not be wired that way or just aren't there yet in their life emotionally say. How do we get people to realize that about worldview? Is it telling stories? Is that giving examples, using art, what are the tools to make people go, oh, I see how worldview is so important and translates to my life?

Nancy Pearcey: You know, I think a lot of it is learning about secular worldviews and really wrestling with them. A lot of Christian parents and schools are afraid of really letting their kids to wrestle with secular ideas. I spoke at a Christian classical school recently. I was speaking on finding truth and so I was constantly talking about how we can compare Christianity with secular views and how we can show that Christianity has better answers than secular views. And finally the headmistress of the school said we don't teach our kids about secular views. And before that she had told me how distressed she was at the number of kids who left his school and left their faith behind who went off to college and stopped being Christians and who even said things like we had to get deprogrammed. Well, of course they felt like they'd been programmed. If they'd been taught only one perspective. So, I find that if you teach students, okay, fine, let's look honestly at these non Christian views. Let's consider whether they're really true or not. Let's spell out the implications. Let's help them to see that if they're not Christians, they're going to end up with Bertrand Russell's unyielding despair. They don't have to go there themselves like I did. I don't think you do, but you have to sort of imaginatively put yourself into that worldview and see what it feels like and then you appreciate Christianity so much better.

Sean McDowell: I think there's a lot of Christian leaders afraid to do that because I'm going to make my kids have more questions or I'm going to create doubt in their life and my answer is that might've worked before the Internet, but now kids are experiencing this. I'd much rather have them in the family and the Christian home and their home school in church where they have a safe environment and they can process it, but I totally agree. Sometimes when I show YouTube video of an atheist, I role play an atheist, I show a blog by an atheist. There's an interest among students that educationally brings them in and shows we're not even afraid of these ideas. Let's talk about it and we have truth our side.

Sean McDowell: Now you have a great example. I love the way you frame this and you said one of the worldview problems in the church is that we approach it through a lens of genesis three rather than genesis one. Can you explain what you mean by that and then practically why that's so important?

Nancy Pearcey: Yeah. This is the way I explain it to my students sometimes that there's a genesis one version of Christianity and a genesis three version. Well, what does the Bible talk about in Genesis three? It talks about the fall, the fall of the human race into sin. And if you start with genesis three, if your message begins there, you end up with the classic revivalist message. You are a sinner. You need to get saved. Which is true, but it does tend to lead to a sacred secular split because the message that students, I say students because that's my main audience now.

Sean McDowell: These are grad students you're working with.

Nancy Pearcey: I have both.

Sean McDowell: Oh, you do. Okay.

Nancy Pearcey: I have had both. Right now I'm doing just grad, but the message people get is that the world is essentially fallen, corrupt, evil, sinful, and worthless. I mean, that's the message I get often from my students that they feel like they've been taught that this world is worthless and that they are worthless. And so it leads to the notion that, okay, the church is an ark and our goal is to pull people out of the world into the ark, and there's not much sense that there's a spiritual calling in the secular professions, like business and education and law and politics and the arts. There's a sense that what counts is just the religious vocations. Genesis one, it teaches creation. And so what it teaches is God gives us a job description in genesis one, right? He's created the world, he's created living things, he's created human beings and now he tells us why he did it. What are we here for? What's our purpose? And there's that really succinct verse that says, be fruitful and multiply and subdue the earth. And be fruitful and multiply doesn't mean just the family, but all the social institutions that grow out of the family like church and school and business and government, so it means to develop all of the social world.

Nancy Pearcey: Subdue the earth means harness the natural resources, so it's plant crops and build bridges, design computers and compose music. So that is what God originally intended for us to do. This is pre fall. So this is God's original intention. In the fall, people get off track. When we sin, we get off the track and salvation, God brings us back on track, but we often don't talk about, well, what was the track? What was God's original purpose? And for that we go back to genesis one and it's to build cultures. This verse is often called the cultural mandate because it means that God has mandated. That means commandment. God commands us to build cultures and built civilizations. That's where the basis of the Christian world view is. It's saying yes, there is a basis for bringing Christian truth into all of these areas because God has created them all.

Sean McDowell: When I share this idea, people have a sense of empowerment and liberation, like, wow, I can actually live out my faith commitment in my work and in my communities around the world. I don't have to compartmentalize it. I can only imagine how much having written the book on this and folks in your ministry on this, you have some stories of people that have applied it. Let me ask you to share one that I've heard you share a couple of times about the musician L'Abri, and how when he grabbed this idea that Christianity is a totalizing worldview from reading your book, Total Truth, it was really transformative for him.

Nancy Pearcey: Yeah, it all started when I got several emails from friends saying, do you know L'Abri is out there promoting your book, total truth? And at that time my first response was, who is L'Abri? Because I was not really following Christian hip hop artists at the time. He, as you know, and maybe some people in the audience don't know, his father left his family when he was young and he got involved in gang activity and drugs and sex and alcohol and so on. And finally Christians reached out to him and he became a Christian. But he says, and this is a quote from one of those conferences where he was promoting total truth, he says the really transforming time came from not just when he converted, but when he discovered that Christianity is not just religious truth, it is total truth, and that God speaks to all areas of life. And I just showed you one of his quotes, but I've pulled a couple of them.

Nancy Pearcey: He said it several times and in different talks and I even met him personally when he came to Houston for a concert. And here's how he put it, when he talked to me in person, he said, when I became a Christian, I thought I could write lyrics about religious subjects. The way he put it was, salvation and sanctification, religious topics. And then he said, when I read your book total truth, I realized I could write lyrics about anything as long as it was from a Christian perspective. It's Christian music. So it really amplified his sense of what he could do as a ... Like you said, it's very empowering to realize that every area of life is open to us as a Christian.

Sean McDowell: I think it's so liberating when people find out that you don't just have to be a professional Christian, whatever that means, in a certain ministry. But all of us are called to apply the Gospel in creative and unique ways to our professions. That's why actually when youth leaders ask me what books would I recommend, I don't know if I've told you this, but in my top five I've said to so many youth pastors and parents, you've got to read total Truth. It'll frame the way you think about teaching this generation of youth who, in our secular culture are condition and sometimes in the church without realizing it, to compartmentalize your faith to spiritual things, but not to apply it to every area of life. I think it guts conviction. I think it guts power and I think it guts a certain joy. So thanks for writing total truth and if our listeners have not picked it up yet. I hope they'll pick it up. Let me end with this question. What are you working on next?

Nancy Pearcey: Well, I did sign a two book contract, so I have to. I have no choice. I have to keep moving. For a long time, I had been wanting to write a book on how to keep your kids Christian in college and I am going to start on this book and it's so fun now that I'm a professor at a Christian College. I now have some graduate students who are going to be my research assistants. This is going to be new, but every time I'm in a Christian audience and they ask me that question, what are you going to do next? And I say, How to Keep Your Kids Christian in College. The whole audience is, Oh, we need that book, yesterday. Here's my sort of paradigmatic story. I met a mother, she was in ministry. I met her at the College of Biblical Studies, so she's serious about her faith. She and her family and her first, her oldest son goes off to Texas A&M to study psychology, loses his faith in the first semester. He was not prepared for the fact that most of the theories in psychology today are secular and often hostile to Christianity. Ever since Freud psychologists have been saying religion is an infantile regression that you just can't grow up.

Nancy Pearcey: And so you project an imaginary father figure into the sky. And as his mother was telling me this, I couldn't say it, but I thought, you mean you let him go off to a secular university and you didn't tell him what he was going to encounter? You didn't prepare him? And so I thought, well, what we really need is a book that says, okay, when you study psychology, you're going to run into these theories. Here's how to critique them. And here's how to craft the Christian answer. Okay? When you studied economics, when you study politics or math, even math is not neutral. Here are other theories you're going to encounter. There's no book that just does that. That just says, here's the major theories, the major people that you're going to study. And here's the tools to think critically about it. And to craft a Christian answer.

Sean McDowell: Nancy, for what it's worth, my vote is you should write that book. I'm serious. I would love whatever I could do to help. I think that's a wonderful idea. I think it'd be unique, meets a felt need, and just a real genuine need in the church. So I hope you'll do it. Thanks so much for coming on our listeners. If you have not heard the episode where we got to interview Nancy Pearcey, talking about love thy body, go back a few episodes, you'll find it. That's a wonderful book. Hope you'll pick up total truth. Thanks for what you're doing. We consider HBU, and Biola as a whole, but in particular in the apologetics program, just a partnership. We got to lock arms together because we're finding some really serious battles today and I think you're doing that with truth, but also with grace, which is what we're about here at Biola. So thanks for your ministry and thanks for coming back on.

Nancy Pearcey: Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.

Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Nancy Pearcey, and to find more episodes, go to That's If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.

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