Conversations and cringing embarrassment


‘What do you do?’ That is a question I’ve come to dread. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been enjoying a good conversation with a stranger until the moment I’m quizzed on my profession. As soon as I say, ‘I lead a church’, there’s often an icy chill that visibly runs down their spine, and the conversation seems to just dry up. It’s not as though I’m a pimp, a cow inseminator, or a charity mugger. 

So why the awkwardness? It seems we have become awkward around the subject of religion in general. In The Guardian a few months ago, there was an article by Andrew Brown entitled ‘“We need to talk about Jesus”: cue cringing embarrassment’ [1]. He was discussing this whole phenomenon of embarrassment around talking about our religious beliefs. 

He explains it like this: apparently, the ‘language’ of embarrassment is universal, so it doesn’t matter whether you know the other person or not, you can still ‘accurately identify an embarrassed expression or posture on a stranger’. Since we are no longer expected to be religious these days, the moment religion comes up, someone (you or them) is bound to start getting embarrassed, and then it all gets a bit weird. 

In other words, embarrassment begets embarrassment, and because embarrassment is infectious, it pulls a veil over the important conversations in life.

Given how religious London is (church attendance is much higher in London than elsewhere, and the massive diversity of cultures contributes to a rich mix of beliefs), you’d think that things should be a little different here. But are they? When was the last time you really probed and questioned a person about their faith? When was the last time the subject even came up? 

I think this is sad and even tragic. How can we allow embarrassment to stifle the most important conversations of life? There have been rare moments when I have seen a friend drop their guard—perhaps after a few drinks, or in a moment of emotional vulnerability and openness—and really ask me what I believe and why. I live for those moments. I wish I had them every day. In fact, one of the reasons Salt exists is to try and find that one person in a hundred, or in a thousand, who will engage.

It’s no exaggeration to say that embarrassment kills. My brother is a consultant anaesthetist. He’s seen people come into hospital with strange items inserted ‘where the sun don’t shine’. Now, laying aside the obvious questions (like ‘Huh?’ and ‘How?’—usually answered by, ‘I fell while trying to hang a curtain… wearing no clothes’), there was one awful case where a man died because, out of sheer embarrassment, he failed to come to hospital until it was too late.

I think it’s fair to say that when it comes to the issues that really matter, we are just as bunged up with verbal constipation. Whether that’s down to British reserve, or the veneer of polite superficiality that is so normal in a big city like London, we find it hard to converse on the very issues that faith speaks into.

I’m speaking of our fear of death and uncertainty of what lies beyond the curtain. Or our constant nagging sense of guilt and the question of how we can feel spiritually clean. Or our anxieties about life, when so much is outside of our control and we long to know if anyone is hearing our prayers. These, and so many other thoughts that keep people awake at night, are the very reason we mustn’t stifle conversation.

And even if none of these questions is bothering you, there is the more fundamental issue of whether, in fact, a particular religion could be true. I’m not a Christian simply because it feels right, but rather because I have become totally convinced that it tells a true account of the life, death, and subsequent resurrection of Jesus; an event that has sent shockwaves through history and convinced many an honest skeptic [2]. 

To be frank, I don’t expect people to easily accept any of this as true (or, indeed, the claims of other religions). But I find it baffling that we are so hesitant to even engage. Personally, I welcome the challenge. I encourage the debate. I would rather a person grill me and try to poke holes in my worldview than that they simply avoid the subject altogether. My belief in Jesus is the deepest part of me, so how can we truly know each other unless we can broach the subject?  

Let me lay down a challenge for you: if you know anyone who says they’re a Christian, why not sit them down for a coffee and ask them a simple question, ‘Why?’ It’s quite possible that they won’t know how to answer (which is sad, but not uncommon). In that case, your question may well help them to think harder, rather than blindly go along with their faith. 

On the other hand, you might have one of the best and most stimulating conversations you’ve had in a long time. 

If you don’t know anyone who can speak to you in this way, then why not simply contact us at Salt?


[1] www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/04/christianity-evangelical-embarrassment-jesus-religion
[2] For example, Lee Strobel’s excellent book The Case for Christ tells the account of the things that persuaded him despite his prior atheism


Questions or comments? Email Andrew