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My Agenda-Driven Story

By Mark D. Roberts | Sunday, July 8, 2007

Today’s post, as well as several posts to come, are excerpts from my new book, Can We Trust the Gospels? Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

My theological agenda also motivates me to be truthful when I’m telling a story from my own life. Here’s an example of a story I’ve used in a sermon:

When I was a sophomore in college, I wanted to share my Christian faith with others. But, as an introverted person, I wasn’t likely to walk up to a stranger or even a friend and get into a conversation about God. So I decided to pray and ask the Lord to help me.

One brisk Saturday evening in October, I decided to go down to Harvard Square and see if I could share my faith with somebody. The Square was filled with students from all over the Boston area, and it seemed a likely place for God to drop a seeker into my lap. I prayed earnestly for God to guide me to someone with whom I could talk openly about Christianity. “Lord,” I prayed, “you know I’m pretty shy about this. So it would be great if you would work a little miracle here, and find me somebody with whom I could share. And if you could make it obvious, that would be really helpful.” With this prayer in my heart, I set off for the Square.

I wandered around for a while, wondering where “my person” was. “Lord,” I kept on praying, “please bring me somebody who wants to learn about you.” Still nothing happened. After a half hour or so I began to feel both discouraged and silly.

Just then, two young women approached me. “We’re going to a party at Dunster House,” they explained, “but we don’t know how to get there. Could you help us?”

“Sure,” I said. “Glad to.” Meanwhile I thought to myself, “This is great. Not only has God brought these people into  my life so I can talk to them about my faith, but they happen to be two attractive women. God, you’ve outdone yourself this time!” Dunster House was about a ten-minute walk from Harvard Square, so I figured this would be plenty of time to engage these women in a conversation about God.

On the walk down to Dunster, I kept bringing up subjects that I felt sure would lead to a conversation about God. “I’m majoring in philosophy,” I said, “Are you interested in philosophy?”

They weren’t.

“Sometimes I wonder why we’re here on this earth. Do you ever think about this?”

They didn’t.

Basically, they wanted to party at Dunster House, not reflect on the meaning of life with their overly earnest tour guide. For ten minutes I tried everything I could think of to get the women to talk about God. Nothing doing. Of the thousands of students in Cambridge that night, they were the least interested in God. (Picture to the right: Dunster House at night)

When we got to Dunster House, I walked them to the door. They thanked me and left. I felt like a complete idiot. “Okay, God,” I prayed, “I get the point. You’ve probably had a good chuckle over my silliness. Well, that’s enough. I’m going home. This was a stupid idea.” I left the entrance to Dunster House and headed back to my dorm.

Just then I passed a student I recognized as being a friend of a friend. He said “Hi” so I returned the greeting as we went off in opposite directions. All of a sudden he stopped, turned around, and called to me, “Hey, are you Mark Roberts?”

“Yes,” I said, surprised that he knew my name.

“Well, I’m Matt. I’m a friend of your roommate Bob.”

“Oh, yeah. Hello, Matt,” I said.

“I’ve been wanting to talk to you,” Matt said.

“Me?” I asked incredulously. “Why me?”

“Because I hear you’re a Christian. I need to talk to you about God.”

And so began a conversation that lasted well into the night. That conversation turned into a weekly Bible study, as Matt and I looked into the Gospels to find out about Jesus. When we finished, Matt wasn’t ready to give his life to Christ. But he was closer than he had been on that strange night when we met on the walk outside of Dunster House. End of story.

To the best of my forty-nine-year-old memory, I have faithfully related the essence of this story: my desire to share my faith and my prayer for divine help; my meeting with the two women; our Dunster House destination; my “chance” meeting with Mike and his words to me. When I used this story in a sermon, my theological “agenda” motivated me to get the basic facts right. But it also helped me shape the telling of the story, choosing which facts were important and which were not. I did not, for example, say anything about how the women I escorted were dressed (in preppy sweaters) or where they went to school (Wellesley College), because these tidbits didn’t contribute to the point of the story.

Now, I must confess, I did include a few “facts” that I’m not completely sure of. I said this happened on a “brisk Saturday evening in October.” In truth, I don’t remember if it was a Friday or a Saturday, and I’m not sure if it was in October or November. It was quite cool, this I remember, and I’m positive it was in the fall.

I also supplied a fair amount of dialogue in this story. Honestly, I don’t remember the exact words (ipsissima verba) with which I prayed, or the exact questions I asked the women as I escorted them to Dunster House. I’ve truly captured the basic sense of those conversations (ipsissima vox), but most of the words have long since escaped my memory. On the contrary, what Matt said to me is burned into my memory. I can still hear him say, “I need to talk to you about God.” This was, as you can imagine, one of the most surprising and wonderful things I had ever heard. It was like a dream come true, as God answered my prayer so specifically and obviously.

I should add that “Matt” is not the name of the student I ran into outside of Dunster. I remember his real name, but when I tell stories like this, I often change names to protect the confidentiality of those involved. In this particular case I could safely have used “Matt’s” real name, of course, but usually I need to be careful. My congregation understands that I change names sometimes.

In conclusion, did my theological agenda lead me to tell this story in a sermon? Yes. Did my agenda help me choose what to include and what to exclude from this story? Yes. Did my agenda preclude me from being a good historian? Decidedly not. I’m quite certain that this event happened in more or less the way I’ve narrated it (with the exceptions I’ve mentioned above). In fact, my agenda as a preacher motivated me to tell this story, to tell it in a certain way, and to make sure that the essential elements were absolutely truthful. My theology led me to be a trustworthy historian.

If you were to discover that, in fact, my story of the miraculous encounter with Matt was just a nice little piece of religious fiction, then the power of the story would vanish. After all, what makes it so compelling is the fact that, after I had prayed to share my faith with someone, a virtual stranger said to me, “I need to talk with you about God.” This is either a fabrication, an incredible coincidence, or a miracle of God. I vote for miracle.

Topics: Can We Trust the Gospels? |

5 Responses to “My Agenda-Driven Story”

  1. Betty Says:
    July 8th, 2007 at 1:56 pm

    great story of how the Lord answered your prayer; I call it a “God thing”. As a Christ follower, I don’t ever think anything is a coincidence, everything is orchestrated by Him according to His perfect timing and will as we pray to Him and seek Him in our lives.

  2. ChrisK Says:
    July 9th, 2007 at 4:10 am

    This seems like a good example of some of the potential problems of oral tradition. It’s back to the odd question-begging idea: “My story is accurate because I’m telling you the details I remember accurately.”

    That is not a reasonable test of accuracy. It’s circular thinking.

    It assumes that people who attempt to accurately remember situations, will in fact be accurate.

    I think even the most good-hearted of us have returned to a location in their past, or talked with an old friend, and have said, “Boy, I got that wrong,” or “Boy, do we have different memories of the same event!”

  3. Kurt Norlin Says:
    July 10th, 2007 at 12:36 am

    I don’t think Mark is offering his good intentions as proof of the story’s truthfulness. He’s offering the story (1) to illustrate how a theological agenda is compatible with, and in fact can motivate, an intention to be truthful. And (2) it’s an illustration of how a story can be truthful in the essentials while diverging from the facts on nonessentials (the student’s name, the exact words spoken, etc.). The implication being that the gospels could be truthful even though there’s a fair bit of paraphrase and plot streamlining going on–in fact, could be more effectively truthful precisely because that kind of agenda-driven editorial work took place. I suspect Mark is speaking as much to Biblical literalists as he is to skeptics.

  4. Sharon McAlllister Says:
    July 11th, 2007 at 11:26 pm

    Your memory is 50 years old, not 49. Despite your book on “Dare to be TRue” you can’t even be honest about this little fact about yourself.

  5. Thomas Buck Says:
    July 13th, 2007 at 9:36 am

    Well, Sharon, Rev. Roberts turned 50 sometime in May of this year. I’ve never published a book, but it seems likely that it would have to be complete long before the June 28th sale date.

    As the post states at the beginning, this is an excerpt from the book, probably not revised. This excerpt was likely written when Rev. Roberts was 49. No lie.


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