Today I’m speaking with Larry Taunton, author of The Grace Effect: How the Power of One Life Can Reverse the Corruption of Unbelief. Larry is also the founder and executive director of the Fixed Point Foundation, which is a nonprofit dedicated to the public defense of the Christian faith. Larry has debated prominent atheist Christopher Hitchens. Thank you for joining me today, Larry.
Larry Taunton: I’m delighted to be with you, Gayle.
GT: Larry, how can you be friends with Christopher Hitchens, who dedicates himself to the public excoriation of Christian faith?
LT: Great question, Gayle. I think it’s very important that we as Christians give ear to our critics and that we also make a distinction, at least in those cases where we can, that we make a distinction between the man and the ideas espoused. Christopher Hitchens is a guy that I have been able to personally and professionally in my capacity as a defender of the Christian faith in a public sense, and without compromise to my own Christian beliefs but at the same time, listening to his some of his criticisms of what we as Christians believe, some of them I have to kind of wince and say “Ouch; you know maybe he’s got a point there.” Also, I do try to persuade that perhaps his views are not as good as he thinks they are.
GT: What do you think is his most reasonable criticism of the Christian faith?
LT: That’s another good question. I would say probably the public face of Christianity, at least the one that he frequently sees. We have to understand that many people around the world do not make a distinction between one brand of Christianity and another — one denomination and another, so Christopher Hitchens looks at abuses committed, say, by the Greek Orthodox church in Eastern Europe or priests who’ve been accused of abusing little boys in the Catholic Church and the big-hair, big-teeth televangelism that he might see and all these things are what he would say are the public manifestation of Christianity and all evidence of reasons why we need to get rid of Christianity.
GT: Your book is entitled, “The Grace Effect.” What do you mean by the grace effect?
LT: There’s an academic version of that answer, and it looks something like this: Max Weber, the German sociologist, argued that the rise of the West was due to capitalism and that capitalism itself was the economic result of protestant theology. Now, the graduate student reading Weber, who was writing — I think he published the Protestant Ethic in the Spirit of Capitalism in 1904 — I found that to be a somewhat compelling argument but at the same time, because I knew Weber wasn’t a Christian, that there was an aspect to his argument that was a little bit incomplete. So what I am calling the grace effect is what Weber saw was simply an economic effect, and I see as being driven by Christian beliefs that had an effect on things that go well beyond economics; it affects art, literature, the rise of science, universities, and day-to-day things like our discourse with one another, laws, care for the poor, and so forth. So what I’m calling the grace effect is a specific type of common grace. Common grace has typically meant the grace that God gives to a society, whether believers or unbelievers alike: His rain, his sunshine, there are no intermediaries. But what I’m calling the grace effect is that grace that God gives through intermediaries specifically through the presence of his people, and that brings about a transformation of society. As you and I are transformed inwardly, societies are transformed outwardly. And so this is what I’m calling the grace effect.
GT: How do you see the grace effect working in the case of international adoptions?
LT: Well, you know I would have to say that at the beginning of the story which you have read, Gayle, it’s a bit of my own personal journey, I didn’t really see a connection between one and the other. On the one hand I’m debating publicly guys like Christopher Hitchens and engaging people like Richard Dawkins and Bart Ehrman and so on, and then on the other hand in my personal life, my wife and I were completing the adoption of Sasha, and while I certainly saw that both of them were motivated by my Christian conviction, I didn’t see that one related with the other. And then it became very clear to me that they did in fact interact because the world that Sasha had grown up in I very quickly realized was the world that the secularists would give us unwittingly. Because here was a society that was absent the grace effect. That is to say because there wasn’t a significant presence of Christians within the culture, the kind of common grace that God gives in that way was absent in Sasha’s life. She’d been absent family, she’d been absent proper medical care, she had been absent toilet paper. These were the kind of things that were the result of a society that really just didn’t care for the least of these, and this raised all kinds of questions in my mind: Is there something different about Eastern European or Ukrainian character? Well, the answer is no. What I was witnessing was a culture that had not been gentled by the influence of Christianity in it.
GT: You were initially skeptical about adopting. How did your wife and sons change your mind?
LT: I think my skepticism was not born of a lack of concern for orphans or a lack of conviction that adoption was something that was a good thing. I would say that it was all the practical considerations that initially were stumbling blocks to me: What about the money, Laurie, where are we going to get that? That’s a lot of money to do that. More than we have in retirement; how are we going to pull that off? And then there’s the time off from work — an average of 36 days. Who can leave their job for that long and come back and still have a job? So these were things that were concerns for me. And then I was lacking something that they had. Sasha was still abstract for me. I hadn’t met her. They had met her. Once she became more real to me, that this just wasn’t a faceless statistic in some other part of the world who needed a home, but that this was a flesh and blood human being that my wife and children could tell me stories about. As Sasha became more real to me I became more convinced that this was a child that we needed to save, in some sense.
GT: You tell of how you’ve ministered in maximum security prisons with more warmth than the orphanage where your daughter Sasha lived. Can you describe the orphanage?
LT: The orphanage, to those who are familiar with this part of the world in the South, I’d say it’s got the warmth of a chicken house. This is what they look like. These are barracks, essentially. The landscape is lunar. Honestly, when we pulled up in front of the orphanage — and please bear in mind I taught European history, specifically Eastern European history and had been in that part of the world many times so I wasn’t a novice to traveling to Eastern Europe at all — but pulling up in front of the orphanage I thought that we were pulling up in front of an abandoned industrial site. That’s what it looked like. You begin to look around and you think: “You know there is a kind of grace in the fact that these children don’t know how bad it really is.” It had all the — as I say in the book — all the charm of a Somali barracks. It was terrible. And yet, we go inside one of the bunk rooms, I guess you’d call it, the dormitory and there was a little bit of color — some paint on the walls and some stuffed animals and even a bit of carpet. Nothing, by the way, that would suffice in your home or mine, but it was there. It was the difference between something that was completely colorless and something that was a little less spartan and I thought, well, it looks like they’ve done a little something here. It turned out that missionaries from my home church in Birmingham, Alabama, had been there and had done that. So what do you find there? You find that children are using bathrooms that aren’t as good as the old-time outhouses. They’re absent toilet paper as I mentioned. They’re given a shower a week. A shower a week, wearing the same clothes every day. Food that stinks, because some of it is rotten. And where they’re given very little proper healthcare. Sasha, we discovered only when we got her back to the States, had rotten teeth in the back of her mouth. Her front teeth looked fine so we assumed the others were, but we noticed that she ate in a very gingerly manner, and we discovered that she had exposed a nerve. To quote her pediatrician, her teeth are “bombed out.” These were the kinds of things that we were discovering. She’d had her teeth drilled on occasion without anesthesia. This is appalling stuff. But if your view of humanity is that they’re not made in the image of God, that they’re not eternal beings, you’re inclined to treat them that way.
GT: You recall your time with the Ukrainian adoption judge as though Alabama and Ukraine had met somewhere in the Twilight Zone. What were your experiences with Ukrainian government officials?
LT: For lack of a better analogy I would say to imagine the DMV. We all love the DMV. This was the Department of Motor Vehicles to the tenth power. And the entire system was that way. As an American, I still entertain these naïve notions that government works on behalf of the taxpayer. You get into line at the DMV or whatever, and you feel a little sense of indignation at how inefficient it is, and maybe you even express that because you feel it’s your right to do that. Not in Ukraine or in Eastern Europe. The government officials have a great deal of power and there is this nauseating obeisance to this sort of thing. Where we discovered that it wasn’t just that we had a corrupt official or two. They were all corrupt, meaning every single official that we encountered — every one — we had to bribe. And so it looked something like this, Gayle: You are told that your court date will be next Tuesday and this is where you’ll finally finalize the adoption and you’ll be able to go home. So you call your travel agent and you schedule flights for Wednesday. Tuesday morning comes and the adoption facilitator calls you and says, “I’m sorry but the judge will not be able to meet with you today.” You say, “What? What do you mean? She’s the one who scheduled it.” “Yeah, well, she can’t.” “I’m flying home tomorrow, I’ve already scheduled that. I’ve told my employer I’m going to be back. The airline’s going to charge me $200 fees on every ticket if I try to change it.” “Well, for $1,500 she could still meet with you today.” This was typical. It was the kind of thing where it wasn’t merely an inconvenience, but you felt a sense of overwhelming sadness that a system could be so corrupt that it conspired against the least of these. Because that’s ultimately what it was doing.
GT: Why did you choose to participate in the culture of bribery and corruption? Did you consider that you might be contributing to the problem?
LT: Not for a second. I would do it all again. I was prepared to do what was necessary to get Sasha out. It is a culture of corruption. Let me use this example: If I — going back to the aforementioned Department of Motor Vehicles — I reach the counter and let’s say my official here in Birmingham, Alabama, says, “I’ll give you your car tags, see that you get them a little early if you slip me a fifty.” I would say, “I want to see your boss.” While I do know that corruption exists within our own government — for example, the city of Birmingham, Alabama, which just declared bankruptcy and a little bit of corruption involved there, I think — I still feel a sense of outrage when I encounter it because I don’t expect it from my officials. In Ukraine you just have to realize: Do you know that when her boss comes over here that he’ll expect one too? If you go above him, then he’ll expect one too. That’s just the way the whole culture functions. They’ll say it’s a gift culture. There’s a difference between extortion and a “gift culture.” So we have to make those distinctions. If somebody wants $1,500, who has the power to deny Sasha the right of a home, which is what the judge has. You’re going before a judge who can on a whim say, “I’m sorry, you don’t have enough square footage in your home to adopt this little girl. She’s going back to the orphanage and you’re going to have to go back to America.” Fifteen hundred dollars is a small price to pay. It turned out, by the way, that after she was adopted, I get a phone call that says that Sasha, the government gives her the equivalent of $200 a year that she’s not allowed to access until she’s 18. And I said, “Great, this will be the start of a little college fund for her.” They said. “Well, actually, the orphanage would want to have that money.” So it was just never-ending and I thought: Let them have it. Give them the money. We’ve got to get out of this country. She does not have an American passport yet. And until we are home free, we’ll pay the ferryman.
GT: You write: “Where ‘if’ suggests hopeful possibilities when an American employs it, the same English word conveys something like an anticipation of doom in Ukrainian usage.” How did you experience this?
LT: Part of the story that I’m trying to tell here, which of course your questions reflect that you’re very aware of, is more than a story of Anne of Green Gables. This isn’t just an adoption story. I’m trying to give my readers a glimpse of a post-Christian world. I’ve been engaging with some of the most vociferous critics of the Christian faith for many years now, in close quarters, on stage and off. And these are people who say that outside of bad basketball leagues and potlucks, Christianity really doesn’t offer us anything. I’m saying, I think you grossly underestimate the degree to which it informs your moral and intellectual sensibilities. And this word is an example of it. We think in the West along a linear progressive pattern. That is, we have an anticipation that things will get better. Americans expect the economy to get better, as a rule. They expect society to improve. They expect that if their team loses then maybe next year. This is the way we think. This is the way we have traditionally thought. These things are borne out of a Christian tradition that we have an anticipation of something better, not just in this life, but in the next. That we are here to have dominion over the earth and we are here to better it. That’s not intuitive. That is to say that not everybody in the world thinks like that. And this was revealed in just everyday vocabulary. For Americans, as I say, the word “if” implies hopeful possibilities. If my team wins this game in the playoffs, then they can play for the championship. If I get this interview, I might be able to get the job. You discover that in Ukraine — in a culture that has produced such helpful proverbs as, “Those who sit above can easily spit on those below,” and “Love well, whip well” — the word “if” implies not hopeful possibilities but impending doom. It means something bad is going to happen. And imagine what a culture looks like that has that degree of pessimism. Why not? This is the result of not just a series of bad governments and purges and economic disasters and corrupt leaders and Stalinism and genocide. These things are the result of a culture that systematically purged itself of Christian influence.
GT: Why do you say that Russian Orthodoxy as practiced in Ukraine is typically not very Christian?
LT: That is maybe one of the controversial aspects of this book. Let’s just look at the culture of Eastern Europe. If it has been a very Christian influence then I think there is a lot of explaining to do. How did collectivization happen? How did the purges happen? How did the genocides happen? How did Stalinism happen? How did communism happen? Because there was a very weak, not a particularly meaningful Christian influence in the marketplace. And I think that God has placed his Church — capital C — in the world and through it to bless a people. Where his Church thrives, there one finds less corruption; there one finds less intolerance, less injustice. And where the Church ceases to be salt and light, it’s like God has let go of the reins of that particular culture. We become everything that Romans 1 warns against: where maliciousness, greed and hatred and all these kinds of things begin to sort of carry the day in the public, in the marketplace. That’s what happened in Eastern Europe. And it was because the church ceased to be salt and light, and it’s where the church became an arm of government, furthering its agenda under the czarist regime, and then later those elements of the church that were permitted to continue to operate were in collusion with the KGB in the Soviet era. I would say it’s in part because Russian Orthodoxy has historically had a strong strain of xenophobia and emphasis on a God who is unknown and unknowable, that is to say, not a particularly personal God. And otherworldliness in an extreme — all religions are, by definition, otherworldly, but otherworldly in the extreme in the sense that we’re not here with a particular purpose. We’re biding our time until the afterlife, as opposed to, say, a picture in Acts, chapter 1: Christ ascends and the disciples are looking up and the angels say, “Hey, why are you guys looking up? You’ve got some work to do” — the fulfilling of the Great Commission.
GT: You assert that atheists don’t do benevolence, which ties in with your last point. What evidence do you have of this?
LT: I use data to support that. Christopher Hitchens has a now-famous challenge he likes to put to his audience. Name me one ethical statement made or deed performed that can be made by a Christian that cannot also be made or performed by an unbeliever. On the surface of it, the Hitchens challenge has merit. It does appear that an atheist can do anything that a Christian can do. An atheist can care for the poor, and an atheist can give to charities. An atheist can do all these kinds of good things, but the data reveals that they don’t. According to studies done by Barna and one published by Maclean’s Magazine in Canada, atheists give far less of their time and their money to charities. The average evangelical gives ten times more than the average atheist. Now, on the surface of it this may seem to be just simply an interesting statistic, but extrapolate that to a whole society. You have a society of people that have been heavily influenced by Judeo-Christian worldview and you have a society of people — in this case Ukraine — that have been heavily influenced by a secular worldview. Which one is more likely to have a concern for the poor, for the elderly, for the sick, for the widowed, the orphans and so on? According to the data, it’s going to be country A, the one that has been heavily influenced by Christian belief. I think this offers us some insight into the kind of benefits Christianity brings to society in a tangible way.
GT: How can Hitchens and his fellow atheist Richard Dawkins denounce the evils of communist regimes and fail to recognize that atheism is central to their ideology?
LT: I would say they can’t, but, of course, they claim it all the time. In debating Christopher Hitchens last year, this was a major point that I brought up in our debate that he never really addressed. He wants to say, as Dawkins does in his book, The God Delusions, silly things like this: That Stalin had a mustache, but that was just incidental to him, and it didn’t have anything to do with the crimes he committed. We can no more assume that other people with mustaches won’t do the same thing. That’s a silly argument. You’ll also hear them say this: That atheism wasn’t the reason they did these things. I would agree that atheism isn’t an ideology. It has no creeds, it has no principles, it can give no guidance. At the end of the day, atheism isn’t an entity to be appeased. So it is true that no one does something for atheism, but once you adopt that as your worldview, a great many dominos begin to fall. And we see it in the conduct of individuals like Adolph Hitler, like Joseph Stalin, like Mao, like Pol-Pot. These were individuals who did not believe there was a being in the next world to judge or reward them for the actions they took in this one. And that has an enormous influence.
GT: When your daughter left the orphanage for the last time, she had a plastic grocery bag containing all of her worldly possessions. Did this experience hold a spiritual meaning for you?
LT: Hugely. When we leave this life, we go with less than a grocery bag. That is for sure. And yet as I look at Sasha even now — I wish you could see her; she is a beautiful 13-year-old young lady who is flourishing and it’s hard for me to imagine that she has not always been my daughter. Sometimes in these interviews I have to remember: Gosh did I really go and get her in Ukraine? She wasn’t biological? Sasha, I was willing to see her leave everything. We’ll bring the clothes even; keep the clothes, we’ll put her in something, and we’ll take her. We don’t want any of that stuff; leave it all behind. But there’s a metaphor in there that’s this: Sasha was leaving everything behind. And she wanted to never look back, because this was a new beginning for her. And in this sense, Sasha was a metaphor for so much more. In Sasha’s rebirth, stepping from a society that was graceless into a society where elements of God’s common grace, via the grace effect — that is the presence of his people — was still very much present. Sasha experienced a metamorphosis. A complete rebirth. And it set me to thinking: My, if God does this in the life of an individual, what does he offer to entire nations? What does his grace offer? I began to understand what Psalm 33:12 means when it says, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.” We have the chance to clean the slate and to start all over again and that’s what happened in her life.
GT: Would you say that Sasha’s life is a refutation or a confirmation of Hitchens’ arguments against God. An atheist might argue that a loving God would not permit children to suffer and die and for every Sasha there are many more children who are not adopted and not brought to the U.S.
LT: Sure, it is absolutely a resounding refutation of all of his arguments. I don’t wish to give away any spoilers, but I will say this: After my debate with Christopher Hitchens, we took a drive from D.C. all the way down to Birmingham where we discussed the Gospel of John. Then after my debate with him we were in Montana, and we said hey let’s go through Yellowstone Park together. So after the debate we went to do that and he met my daughter, Sasha, and he warmed to her immediately. And I’m sitting there and I’m watching the two of them, and she’s completely unaware of who he is in the sense of him having any kind of fame, that he’s named one of the most important intellectuals of the twentieth century and beyond, Oxford-educated and he’s a best-selling author. And there she is, speaking through broken English, she’s poorly educated, she’s no match for him in debate, and yet her whole life trumped every single argument he could make — all the clever arguments that he could make against God and God’s existence. And by the way, you have to be clever to make those kinds of arguments. You have to be clever to deny the things that are evident to a child like Sasha. I sat back and I thought, here is a life that has been gentled by grace and yet is the most powerful refutation of all that he might say because her life had been shaped up to that point by the kinds of ideas that he’d been floating. And at the orphanages that she grew up in — they took the ideas of guys like Christopher Hitchens in a previous generation very seriously and said: Let’s go and construct that world. And Sasha grew up in that world. And it was a world where they didn’t address needs of the soul. Why? Because they didn’t believe in the soul. They only sought to address the material needs, and they didn’t do that particularly well. Now she stepped from that into a world where the needs of the soul were addressed. And I thought: There’s nothing you can say. It doesn’t matter how clever you are or that wonderful English aristocratic baritone. You can’t carry the day against her. She’s beaten you, Christopher.
GT: Steve Jobs spoke of how grateful how he was to his biological mother for choosing to give birth to him. What would you say to Sasha’s Ukrainian parents if you could meet them?
LT: I would say thank you. Thank you for the gift of Sasha’s life. Thank you for the gift that she is to me and to my family. And Sasha struggles with a sense of self-worth. She will her whole life, because of the feelings of abandonment that are there. I say this because it should be intuitive to anyone who reads your article or anybody who’s adopted — many of them do struggle with this. And what I would want to say is this — and what I say to Sasha: Your mother lived in a society that didn’t demand that she give birth to you. She could abandon you at any time. She didn’t, and my guess is that her own mother is a product of the very system that Sasha was a part of — it tends to be self-perpetuating. Children are pushed out of the orphanage at 16 or 17; they have nowhere to go. Sixty percent of the girls become prostitutes. I think I’m right in this: I don’t have my own book in front of me, but I believe thirty percent of them become substance abusers and in large part through no fault of their own. It’s what the social engineers have conspired to create. It’s the kind of world that Richard Dawkins-like theorists would give us. It’s why they’re so dangerous. It’s why we must argue with them. It’s why we must take them seriously. Because their ideas have a real flesh-and-blood impact on the lives of children like Sasha. And, my guess is, like her mother. Her mother probably was a “graduate” of one of these orphanages. Her mother, we know, had HIV. These are things that have been the result of what a whole society was creating in their next generation. And I’m grateful to her mother, who I kind of think of as a kind of Fantine, if you’re familiar with “Les Mis,” in a desperate situation and she did with her child the only thing she knew how to do. And that was leave her in the hospital.
GT: Larry, this is a very, very powerful book, and I hope that everyone who reads this interview will rush out and buy it and learn more about your experiences and your daughter’s experiences and be challenged to see what they can do to help.
LT: Gayle, thank you so much. A very thoughtful interview and great questions.
GT: Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Larry.
First published in First Things in December 2011