As a former atheist from the Pacific Northwest, Mary Jo Sharp thought religion was for the weak-minded. But she was transformed by encountering Jesus in the New Testament. In this episode, Sean and Scott interview MJ about her latest book Why I Still Believe. She shares her journey to faith, including some difficult experiences she had adapting to church culture. Professor Sharp offers some powerful wisdom for engaging non-believers today.
More About Our Guest
Mary Jo Sharp is one of the leading apologists today. She travels and speaks widely, blogs regularly at confidentchristianity.com, and is the author of the new book Why I Still Believe. She holds a Masters in Christian Apologetics from Biola University and teaches at Houston Baptist University.
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.
Scott Rae: I'm your cohost, Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and professor of Christian ethics, also at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Sean McDowell: Today we're here with a guest that I have been looking forward to having on for a long time. Number one, she's a personal friend. Number two is a graduate of our Biola MA in Apologetics program. Mary Jo Sharp has written a new book that's just wonderful. I want to commend to all our listeners, it's called Why I Still Believe. She is a full-time professor at Houston Baptist University, writes and speaks, and has just made a wonderful contribution in the world of apologetics and beyond. Mary Jo, thanks for joining us.
Mary Jo Sharp: Hey guys, it's so good to be on today.
Sean McDowell: In this book really is an apologetics book, but in another sense it's your story, it's your journey and you do apologetics, but just in a narrative fashion, which I love. Maybe let's just start by you sharing your journey to faith, kind of from atheism to becoming a Christian.
Mary Jo Sharp: Yeah. Well, part of my journey is that I didn't grow up Christian and I think sometimes people have trouble with understanding that on the onset because they hear my name's Mary Jo and that I have this Southern Baptist background. They think I was born and raised in the church in the South and that's not the case. I actually grew up... I did not grow up in church and I grew up in a somewhat post-Christian culture in Portland, Oregon. In fact, I recently found an article about Oregon that said Oregon had one of the lowest participations in religion in the country back in even the '50s.
Scott Rae: Wow, that far back, huh?
Mary Jo Sharp: Yeah, I was pretty shocked when I found that. For me, Christianity wasn't part of the culture I grew up in. It wasn't a huge part. It was what it was, was what I saw on TV in the movies. It's pretty shallow. But what I did experience growing up in that area was the great beauty of the Pacific Northwest. I saw the beauty and power of the ocean. We also had a rich cultural environment in that my parents love to take me to the symphony and to opera and anything that... Plays, anything they could get their hands on that way. I saw the beauty of what humans could do through the arts. Then my dad was just a huge nature and science buff. He really exposed me to Carl Sagan and what people could do through the sciences.
I think over the years these areas profoundly impacted me. They made me have awe and wonder at the goodness, truth, and beauty I found in the universe, so much so that I think it made me more receptive to discovering what was behind all of it. Well in high school, I had a high school band teacher and for those of you who don't know, I actually went and got a degree in music education and taught band for a while. I really respected this guy and he was a Christian who hadn't shared his faith with anyone before and he was burdened for me. My senior year of high school, he gave me a Bible and he said, "When you go off to college, you're going to have hard questions, I hope you'll turn to this."
I actually started reading that Bible, came around to, yeah, I came around to thinking, "There's probably a God. I should investigate this because it seems to be answering what is the source of all that beauty I found." In college I went to church for the first time on my own and after looking around a little bit, I found a church that gave a clear presentation of the good news of the savior for mankind. It really brought everything together for me. I trusted in Jesus for my salvation.
Scott Rae: Wow. That's so... Let me get this straight. Your high school music teacher gave you a Bible in an effort to do something that the culture might define as proselytizing and would probably be fired for today. Is that right?
Mary Jo Sharp: Yeah. He actually, when he tells the story, he says he felt like he was going to get fired.
Scott Rae: Oh, is that right? Wow.
Mary Jo Sharp: Because I didn't respond apparently real well, so he thought I was going to turn him in.
Scott Rae: He thought you were going to rat him out.
Mary Jo Sharp: Yeah.
Scott Rae: Mary Jo, before you came to faith, you were a self-described atheist. What were your impressions of Christians and Christianity before you came to faith?
Mary Jo Sharp: Yeah, my impressions of Christianity, as I mentioned earlier, I had a pretty shallow view because I didn't know much about Christianity and my culture wasn't culturally Christian. I sort of thought Christians were weird. They were the fringe of society. They weren't normal people. normal people didn't believe in God or didn't have a need for that. But then there were these people that went to church, so they were sort of on the fringe of society. That was my view of Christians.
Now I wouldn't have said it that way because I was taught if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. I would never have said that to anybody. But that was, I didn't know why they were Christians and then Christianity to me, I grew up in the 1980s and I saw the televangelists and some of the scandals that happened there. To me it looked like an institutional organization that just sort of asked for people's money, but they weren't to be trusted. I saw it as something that people kind of just did. They did it for whatever reason they needed that, but it wasn't for the intelligent, compassionate human beings, but just for those people who needed something in their life that I didn't need, and I'd probably would have seen it also as people who desired power and control. I would have that view of some of the pastors in Christianity.
Sean McDowell: Now you're an apologist today you're writing, speaking, teaching is defending the faith, but that wasn't really an initial barrier, if I understand correctly, for you coming to faith. What were some of those biggest barriers and why do you think apologetics is so important today?
Mary Jo Sharp: Yeah. I would think one of my biggest barriers reflecting back on coming to belief in God, was that idea of the need to be saved. Saved from what is what I would have asked you because I would have thought, and I actually argued this with my parents, I was like, "Hey, I'm a good kid. I don't murder, rape, steal. I'm not a drunk. I don't do drugs. Why are you guys on my case because I'm a good kid?" I think one of the biggest barriers for me coming into Christianity was gaining an understanding that I wasn't actually a good person, that I needed something like salvation. I think that was a huge barrier for me. It took me a long time to come to that understanding. It was years of searching.
Sean McDowell: Was that reading scripture? Was that just self-awareness? Was that the Holy Spirit or all those things? What was it that made you go, "Oh my goodness, I am a sinner and I need to be saved."
Mary Jo Sharp: Yeah, it was really the first thing was reading through the Bible and seeing how the Bible described the human experience and the problem that people, the problem of mankind, that he continues to do the wrong thing even when God himself has... Even when Jesus is walking among them, people still don't believe. People still do what's wrong. The heart of man that I saw in the Bible really convinced me about there are things that I'm harboring, too. I say I'm good, but I have selfishness. I say I love my neighbor, but I don't want to get entangled with their problems or their lives. I started to see that from reading the scripture and obviously the Holy Spirit. Now I understand the Holy Spirit was working on me and saying, "Yeah, I see this is what we're talking about. You're not basically good. There are things that even you do, they may be smaller. They're not the big like murder or rape, but they're things that slowly... "
I had a friend slowly hurt people. I had a friend that was a longtime childhood friend and then when I was in around junior high, got into a different group of friends. Well, I didn't want to hang out with this other girl. I just trashed our friendship just so I can hang out with these other people. Things like that, I started to understand that I didn't have to murder. I could do things like I could harm people in, I don't know, we would call them lesser ways, but it was still very psychologically damaging or I could lie to my parents and that wasn't good. Those kinds of things started to weigh heavily on me.
Scott Rae: Mary Jo, you come to faith out of atheism and you start attending a church. What was that like for you to enter a church as a former atheist now come to faith?
Mary Jo Sharp: It was weird.
Scott Rae: Could you spell that out a little bit?
Mary Jo Sharp: Well, I was so nervous because I had grown up with very little understanding of what church is or what it's for or what to expect. I really felt the old paradigm of being the new kid in class, you're like, you're walking in and everybody else knows what they're doing and they've been there a while and you have no idea. You're walking in. They're like, "Ah, okay, so do I stand up? When do I sit down? All these things. There's even a Mr. Bean, that old show, there's an episode of him in church where he's like, Oh I got to stand up. I got to say, I felt kind of mr in church and I I didn't have great experiences when I first started going to church, especially as a new believer. I write about that in my book.
I immediately, from the very first day I went as a new believer to church, I experienced judgmentalism from leaders in the church. Yeah. Because I wasn't just right. Yeah. I guess I had two dresses cause I was a poor college student and I picked one of them and apparently the one I picked wasn't church worthy or something that. I don't know, cause I'm a Northwestern or, and we tend to be grungy, not flashy. I didn't know that I was not dressed well and it, and the thing that was really that really hurt was this was my first day in church and I'm picking out what I think is my best and I'm immediately instead of welcomed and said, Hey, I hear that you became a new believer and I'm so excited for you. Welcome to the family blah, blah, blah. Any of that, the first thing I hear is, Hey honey, we got to find you better clothes. Like, that's my great welcoming to church.
Scott Rae: Well, how could we be so unclear on the concept? Oh no, that is tragic to hear.
Sean McDowell: Mary Jo, I was talking to my father, he wasn't an atheist, he was an agnostic and I said, was there any time in your journey you thought about just leaving the faith? He said, "When I was young, I went to church and people just gossip so much and it made me wonder, is this really real and true?" It was that experience. As you look at other atheist and nonbelievers, how central do you think is just the hurt that Christians in the walls of the church or the judgmentalism outside plays and why people don't even consider Christianity and his truth claims?
Mary Jo Sharp: Yeah, I think it plays in a lot. There's the apologist side of me today wants to say, hey the propositional truth of Christianity is not affected by the behaviors of Christians, but the other side of me... I don't know that there's non-apologist side, but there's a part of me that just says, hey even Jesus talked about this, about how the way we treat one another is going to be a testimony to the world about who he is and whether or not God really sent him.
That's the John 17 passage where Jesus is praying for our unity when he's in the garden right before he goes to the cross. And he's praying for us to all be one and to love each other greatly so that the world can know that he's God's son. I don't think Christians are taking that seriously enough that the hypocrisy that they show is actually very damaging to people's belief that God is real and that he really changes people's lives because they just don't see it in the Christians.
Scott Rae: Mary Jo, what happened with your family after you came to faith? Just tell us a little bit about what those interactions were like after you came to Christ.
Mary Jo Sharp: Well, my family was really pretty good about it. I was chided about it and there were some things that I was teased over. There was even some initial disappointment at the denomination that I chose to be a part of. But over time they... Oregon has sort of a Midwestern niceness to it and religion is something that you just don't bring up or you just don't talk about.
So whatever anybody chooses to believe that's up to them and you just kind of leave it. So I didn't have a big falling out with my family. They probably thought I was weird and I was worried that they think I've been brainwashed by some fundamentalist preacher or something. But there wasn't a huge fallout. Of course when I was a young Christian, I was super on fire and I was trying to share the gospel with everybody right away and just a bull in a China shop running into that and doing that, probably not doing it in a way that was real effective.
So I would say I've had some friends in my life that like Nabeel Qureshi, when he left the faith, it was devastating to his family.
Sean McDowell: He left the Muslim faith.
Scott Rae: Right, that's right.
Mary Jo Sharp: Sorry, sorry, when he left the Islamic faith.
Scott Rae: Appreciate that clarification.
Mary Jo Sharp: Yes, thank you, Sean. When he left Islam, there was a huge falling out with his family and I get to see that up close and personal and the anguish that was there. I remember thinking one time when we were in a car together on the way to an event, I was thinking as I watched and talked to his family members, I was like, I don't have this kind of problem. Not at all. In some ways it makes it difficult to talk to my family about my beliefs because they are more of live and let live kind of people. So that's how my interactions have gone. I try to talk to them about the things they care about and gear it towards helping them understand my faith. But there was no fallout.
Sean McDowell: Chapter five in your book is titled lessons from a sociopath and an ex-Muslim. I enjoyed that in particular because I know David and Nabeel and you also talk about your time in the Biola MA Apologetics Program and how formative that was. Can you talk a little bit about maybe some of the classes or experiences because you site specifically Clay Jones class as some of the content was game changing for you and how those relationships with David and Nabeel at that time were also really formative as well.
Mary Jo Sharp: Yeah, that's a lot of stuff. So let's distill that somehow. One of the... let's go back to the MAA first. I entered that program when I was going through a real season of doubt, when I was really questioning from the hypocrisy and judgmentalism that I'd experienced in the church. I was really questioning whether or not anybody really believed and why these people profess the Bible is true.
Then I found this degree program in an advertisement in the Christian Research Journal and I was like, Oh my gosh, I'm going to do this. Which was a real life changing for me because I thought I was going on to get a master's of music education. So to just make a sudden turn around this was really, boy, it was quite a life change. But when I got there, the classes, they did dive into handling the problem of evil and some of the philosophical ideologies like the deconstructivism that was present in our culture and postmodernism.
They were actually handling the questions that I had about how I know what I know and why I believe what I do. But also I found this group of people, the students who were spending their money just to get to know God, and I've never encountered this before.
Sean McDowell: It's awesome.
Mary Jo Sharp: It was so powerful. They were not expecting to get a job out of this. They weren't seeking fame or fortune. They just wanted to know God and know him deeply. I remember one phone call back home to my husband the first summer I was at Biola, and I literally said, "Oh my gosh, I found the church. They're hiding out at a university in La Mirada, California.
Sean McDowell: That's cool.
Mary Jo Sharp: And he's like, "That's a little dramatic." I was like, I mean, it felt that way to me.
Sean McDowell: You are a drama person, so that's fitting.
Mary Jo Sharp: Oh yeah, but I also found, I met two friends, David and Nabeel. And yeah, I talk in the book about one night we all went out to dinner and I got to watch them engage each other. It was really endearing to see how they chided each other. But what really impacted me was what they talked about. They were focused on all of these conversations they were having with people who didn't believe in God or who believed differently than they did.
And that was like their whole life was wrapped up in that. And I was so impressed by them because the Christians I had encountered in the church, were they didn't look much different from the world. They cared about all the same things as other people, like school, jobs, politics, just all that stuff. And here are two guys that were just centered on theology and philosophy and they were talking about all these things about other people in evangelism.
It really impressed me. They kind of got me wrapped up into what they were doing. I agreed to do a debate review for them and then all of a sudden that turned into helping do ministry with them. Eventually, I always credit them with launching me in ministry because these two guys who were such big personalities and big personalities for Jesus, they actually helped me to see how selfish I was and how I was using introversion as an excuse not to care and how I just wanted my own little life the way I wanted it.
And I didn't want it disrupted and into that world, come David and Nabeel with these six foot tall personalities, and they just disrupt everything that I was holding onto and show me that selfishness and how... and they started to shed some of that from me. They were that process of shedding that to where I was like, wow, why don't I care? Why don't I rush into wanting to see people saved.
And David and Nabeel were, they impressed me in those ways. That was a lot, but that was what happened there at the Biola program.
Sean McDowell: That was great, Mary Jo. Exactly what I was looking for.
Scott Rae: And Mary Jo, you share in your book that you've had the opportunity to do various debates with atheist non-believers. I wonder was that a bit of stepping out of your comfort zone and maybe somewhat disruptive? Then I'd also be interested just to know, kind of help us with maybe a couple of really memorable moments that have come out of some of these debates.
Mary Jo Sharp: Yeah, it was extremely disruptive. There are no plans to ever debate anyone in-
Scott Rae: I wonder what your living family thought about?
Mary Jo Sharp: Oh, let's answer that because when my dad found out that I was hanging out with an ex-Muslim and a sociopath that were doing these public debates, he said, "Really, Mary Jo, really is this like what's really good for you?"
Scott Rae: Wow.
Mary Jo Sharp: He was so worried about me, "Like you're going to get yourself in trouble," and anyway, that's another story. But so disruptive, yes, I mean and Nabeel actually was the one that did the public throw down and challenge for me to do my first formal public debate. So yeah, it was very disruptive because that was not on the radar. In the back of my mind, I'm conducting a symphony orchestra somewhere, not doing this. And a memorable moment was, so not in my... Well, there's definitely memorable moments from the formal, the public debates, but I ran an informal debate group for a long time on Facebook.
It was called Two Chicks Apologetics. And it existed... yeah-
Scott Rae: I love that title.
Mary Jo Sharp: That's a tribute to Gary Habermas who loved the name of it and so I kept it. Two Chicks Apologetics. There were two of us girls doing it, but it existed until Facebook changed their formatting and just destroyed it. But when I was doing that, there was a gentleman that was debating with me and his argument was the Christ myth theory.
So we were back and forth, back and forth. After he did some work, I sent him to read the stories, I sent him to consider like, well, what is the philosophical and theological outworkings of these stories in that? He did the work on it and he actually came back and he said he felt ridiculous he ever argued it. So then he got more interested in working through the argument for God's existence from the existence of logic and rationality.
So he started arguing against himself. He created this argument that he tried to tear it down and he realized he couldn't tear it down. And so at that time I was getting ready to present a paper at the Evangelical Philosophical Society Conference in Rhode Island. And he wanted to come see me and see my paper on Christ myth theory. So he jumps in his car in mid-America and he drives across the country, picks up a more well-known internet atheist along the way.
I think that was for support, and he shows up at my paper and when he did, when he and his friend did, the philosophers and the apologists at the conference, they just went out of their way to spend time with these guys. They were having two hour discussions late into the night after full days of being at these conferences and presenting papers and other presentations.
The reason I bring this one up was I was so nervous about my paper. I actually had William Lane Craig attend my paper, which just terrified me. And so I was all wrapped up into how I was coming across and what this meant for me. And as this whole thing unfolded, I went, this was never about me. This was always about him. This guy eventually came to know Christ as his savior. So that was one of the ones that impacted me most was just the whole orchestration of all these events that went around this guy coming to know the Lord. And the lesson I learned about being too focused on yourself.
Sean McDowell: Mary Jo, I thought it was really interesting that you have a chapter called The Problem of Beauty. I'm teaching undergrad class and I was just making a case for a three hour block period about the existence of beauty. And It was so foreign to these students that they just had never thought about it that way. Yet, when we got towards the end, they were like, wow, this makes sense. Why do you think it's so hard for people, Christians and non-Christians, to grasp the idea of objective beauty? And then maybe just talk about how you said it was the beauty that really drew you in, not just the truth of Christianity?
Mary Jo Sharp: Yeah, I was still working on this, I encountered it first and foremost in my cultural apologetics class with John Mark Reynolds at Biola. So I had never encountered it until I came across John Mark Reynolds, who was making a case for it in his class. I didn't really begin to flush it out until I started encountering people like Dr. Holly Ordway and Phil Tallon who are at Houston Baptist University.
They started to put the words to what I was thinking in my mind. And basically I think that Christians we've been talking about this, that Christians, they understand objective truth and they argue for it and they understand objective goodness and they're arguing for that. But they've allowed a secular view of beauty to creep in, which is that beauty is in the eye of beholder. So it's completely subjective.
There's nothing objective about beauty. Yet, traditionally three of the transcendentals of God have been goodness, truth and beauty. That we know what is beautiful because God is beautiful. So as we've sort of walked away from studying that, talking about it, really framing that, and that's more in the Protestant faith. I notice that the Catholics still are making this argument and are working on it.
But as we in the Evangelical Protestant community have sort of stepped away from that, we've lost an understanding of what it's for and why we should study it and does it matter. I think that really bankrupts our view of who God is and because it relates him down to just almost this rational propositional truth that this is true rather than is there anything we can know aesthetically about God and is there anything we should be doing to enjoy God aesthetically, which really broadens out and it makes them more robust or more holistic relationship with God.
Sean McDowell: I totally agree. It's good, it's true and it's beautiful. In fact, some of the biggest critiques today are not the Christianity's false, but that's not good and that it certainly lacks beauty. So I love that you brought that in your book. Let me ask you a last question that I'm curious about because my journey to faith was from within a Christian family. From looking in, you mentioned how sin was difficult more personally to accept the Christian story.
Were there any issues like say miracles or Jesus being the only way that were hardest to swallow intellectually? Like you ever have that moment like, do I really believe Jesus rose from the grave and this is a miracle? What were those apologetic issues or even once you were in the faith that you maybe wrestled with the most?
Mary Jo Sharp: Yeah, I think for me, the initial draw to God was really strong on in that I wasn't thinking apologetically. I was more on this journey of what is the explanation of all this goodness, truth and beauty I'm experiencing. Then God made sense to me. But it was after I got into the church that I saw a lack of these things, a lack of people searching for the goodness, truth and beauty of God.
And it was not just one off incidents, it was a pattern where people didn't seem really committed to searching for God. That caused me those doubts. Those doubts that I struggled with was how do I know that this is true? I can give a testimony. I can say I believe that I had an experience with God. But then I realized as I was studying Mormonism that they could say the same thing.
I believe that I believe in God and they could give me a testimony about the burning in their bosom. I was like, how is mine different? I couldn't figure out how mine was different. So then I started to look for, why do I say the Bible's reliable? I don't know. I went looking for answers to that. That was a big hangup for me is how do I know the Bible is reliable?
Then I didn't know why I said Jesus rose from the dead, I had nothing on that, so that was another one for me that really impacted me and finding Gary Habermas's work on that, it was a real eye opener for me about how much evidence there is and finding the work of guys like Daniel Wallace on the embarrassment of riches we have for the reliability of the scripture, another eyeopener for me.
I'd never been taught any of these things in the church so I didn't know they existed, so my struggle was actually out of ignorance on this material. I didn't know there were great answers to this.
Sean McDowell: Well, Mary Joe Sharp, we are grateful that you came on the show with us. I want to commend your work to our listeners. I hope that we'll check out confidentchristianity.com, confidentchristianity.com for a number of resources you have, but in particular pickup your most recent book, Why I still believe. And I think what's unique about it is you just, I know it took you a lot of time, is you walk through your journey and your experience, and you include apologetic truth.
But you do it in an inviting narrative format that I think will strengthen believers, but also give nonbelievers something to think about. So keep up the great work, super proud of you, especially as a Biola grad and a friend. So thanks for coming on the show.
Mary Jo Sharp: Hey, I really appreciate you guys having me on.
Sean McDowell: You bet. This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Mary Joe Sharp, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. 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.