The Gospel In Secular-Scotland: In Conversation with David Nixon

Regular readers will be well aware of the name David Nixon, because he has been a great friend of Solas and regular contributor to this website. His articles about Philip Pullman were very well received, as were his contributions to our Beginner’s Guide to Apologetics. He will be featured again soon in our “Mind the Gap – overcoming barriers to effective evangelism” series soon, and will be a guest on an upcoming podcast. Today we’d like to introduce you to the man behind all the great writing, so Gavin Matthews spoke to him for Solas.

Solas: Hi David! So tell us, what are you roles and responsibilities at the moment?

David: Hi Gavin! Well, I’m married to Kirsty who is a GP, and father to Joel and Daniel who are 4 & 2. I’ve recently discovered Lego with Joel which is lots of fun! I am a minister at a church in the centre of Edinburgh in the Old Town, called Carrubbers Christian Centre. I do a lot of preaching there, as well as mentoring and leading the student ministry which gets me involved in university CU’s and missions, as well as some writing for Solas!

Solas: And how long have you been at Carrubbers, you attended there as a student long before you worked there…

David: Yes, and I’m now in my eleventh year on the staff there – after studying law at Edinburgh University.

Solas: So going back to the beginning where does your own Christian faith start?

David: It starts in Belfast where I was born and brought up, what I call “The Bible-belt of the UK”! I was born into a Christian family but my grandfather was the first ‘Nixon’ to become a Christian. He had been sick and bed-bound for a number of months when he was given a pamphlet about the life of the Christian Olympic runner Eric Liddell. He was contemplating his own mortality and brokenness; and the meaninglessness of his life at that time and was impressed with the fact that Liddell didn’t just run in the Olympics; but was ran in a far greater race. He had a far greater purpose and significance in his life which came through The Lord Jesus. So my Grandfather became a Christian, and eventually became a minister. My Mum and dad were Christians too, so I started with a legacy of faith in our family.

However I grew up in Northern Ireland during “the Troubles” – essentially a civil war between the two communities there. Now my family were on the more extreme side of that divide, (for many reasons) and they opposed the peace process and Good Friday Agreement in 1998. I grew up in the church of Rev Dr Ian Paisley, who was a firebrand and whose sermons mixed the Bible and politics. So when today we look across the Atlantic and see Trump and “Christian-nationalism” and all that; then I’ve seen that in my childhood in a different context. I’ve seen just how dangerous that is.

When I was very young I got involved in politics – and into increasing amounts of trouble with the authorities. So in the year 2000 my family decided to leave Northern Ireland for Scotland. That was quite an experience – moving from “Bible-belt-Belfast” to secular Scotland! I went from being surrounded by Christians at school to being the only one in a school of a thousand. I remember saying to my parents in the car one day after we moved over, “the church in Scotland is dead!”, there certainly wasn’t one my parents were happy to join. So I was young, with no Christian peers, without a church community, and that was ‘make-or-break’ time for me. Although I was confident and outspoken – and didn’t mind being different; I will never forget one lesson in RE. The teacher announced that they were going to have a “grill-a-Christian” event, and that the Christian in question was me! So all my classmates spent the next period putting me on the spot. But that was the first time that I ever had to give a reason for the hope I had in the Lord Jesus, and the first time I experienced the reality of Jesus’ promise that “When you are brought before…., rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say,  for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.” I experienced it that day!

And that is how I discovered apologetics. In my mind, I was having to work through big questions: “is this really true, because no-one else believes this” – it was a very lonely experience. When I was about 16, I told my parents that I was going to go to church. They were not happy with the churches, but I needed church so walked a couple of miles every Sunday to the local one.

Solas: So presumably along that journey somewhere you had to pull apart a focus on Jesus himself from the political-cultural structure you had been brought up in. So how did you begin to sift and sort what was important there?

David: That would have been much more difficult to do had I still been in Northern Ireland where the line between cultural Christianity and the person and work of Jesus would have been too muddied. But to be taken completely out of the cultural-political situation was the providence of God. It’s actually been in the last ten years that I’ve started to unpick some of those things.

Solas: And none of us are totally objective, we all have culture (it’s easier to critique others than our own!). How do you process what is central to the gospel and what is peripheral, then?

David: My training as a lawyer is really helpful there. In law you take a case, and are trained to look at all sides of it. The best lawyer is actually the one who can present a good case for either side! So, I deliberately seek out the opposite viewpoints to the ones I naturally hold, and want to see what there is to them. So I deliberately read broadly across newspapers, theology, philosophy and history – trying to understand different sides of every argument and challenge my biases.

Solas: So that must be really helpful when you are doing student missions on campuses and you face critical (or hostile!) Q&A sessions! And sometimes, you’ve already thought through their objections..?

David: Yes! It means I have a lot of sympathy for people who are expressing arguments I have studied, understood and felt the weight of. It’s so important never to “straw-men” an argument – to weakly misrepresent an opponent’s view in order to knock it down. That’s never convincing, just insulting. The opposite is “iron-manning” which is to respond to the very best case that someone puts forward. That enables you to take the person on a journey from what they are thinking towards what you are thinking, because you have understood their perspective well.

Solas: So in all the objections to the Christian faith you have heard, which do you think are the most forceful and how have you processed them?

David: There are a variety. One, which I find difficult to answer is “maybe it is true, but so what, I don’t need this right now.” Last year at a student mission in Glasgow who seemed persuaded by the truth of the gospel but too apathetic to respond to it! I told her not to forget the gospel, because even if she couldn’t feel her urgent need of it them, she might well if difficult times arrived. A week or two later Covid hit us and I’ve often thought and prayed for that girl – that she would remember what she heard that night.

Questions around suffering are always very sensitive too. The abstract question about why God might allow suffering aren’t so much the problem, there are good answers for that. It’s more of a problem when I have been asked about abuse situations, sexuality and gender. It’s hard to minister truth into people’s pain in a way that doesn’t make things worse – or not recognise what they have been though.

The issue I go back to personally starts in that RE classroom in 2001. What came up there was, “you’re only a Christian because you’re Irish. If you were from here, you’d be like us. If you were born in Saudi, you’d be a Muslim!” When I was a teenager, I could totally see the logic of that. I hadn’t yet seen the obvious comeback to these secular Scots which was “and you’d been born in Ireland, you’d be religious too!”

Solas: But what does that prove about what is actually true? It’s just a sociological observation about people…!

David: The reason why I have come to believe something is one question; but a second question is “what good reasons are there to believe that Christianity is true!?” And the motivation behind so much of my reading, is because I’m always challenging myself about whether I have good reasons to be a Christian! Is this just all down to family and culture, and wishful thinking – wanting it to be true? Of course, atheists have many reasons for wanting it not to be true, as Thomas Nagel wrote “I don’t want the universe to be like that.” So my apologetics is rooted in separating out why I have come to believe; and whether there are good reasons to believe it or not, in the light of all the objections.

Solas: So if you were given a sabbatical or study break now – what would you study?

David: Oh, neuro-science and then consciousness and the mind. I’ve been reading Sharon Dirckx and others, but I’d love to do some detailed work on that. Partly, of course because of Philip Pullman. I’ve written a number of articles for Solas about Pullman – and all his works are about consciousness. I’d also love to go much deeper into studying ethics, natural law, and how the enlightenment has failed to provide a basis for right and wrong, justice and injustice. You know I’d love to re-do some of my law courses, on things like the philosophy of law; because back then I just didn’t have the tools to engage with it properly. I’d love to do more on the Christian foundations of our legal system, and philosophy of law and justice.

Solas: So in your city centre church ministry, what challenges do you face in Edinburgh in 2021 (other than lockdown!)

David: I see two very different worlds. I see a lot of opportunity amongst students and enthusiasm for mission there. Then I see a really complicated picture after that.

We’re not a community church, we are a commuter church – gathered from across the city, so we don’t see how people are missionally involved with their communities. We don’t have a local primary school that we can seek to reach – our people go to many different schools. So a lot of what we are doing is resourcing and encouraging and sending people – but we don’t always see what is happening. So that’s challenging.

But students are here, and they are as open and interested as they have ever been. Covid has opened up all kinds of big questions for them too – about what really matters. Their plans and prospects have been threatened, and they are asking why. They aren’t necessarily asking direct questions such as “Where is God in a coronavirus world?” However they are asking, “is there a meaning and purpose to be found in life? Or “is there hope?” and “Where can true happiness be found?” Interestingly the questions have changed over the last decade or so – they are no longer asking “Has science disproved God?” or “Is the Bible reliable?” Instead they are asking, “why I am here?” “what hope is there?” Questions around activism are big too, such as “How can I make a difference, and impact the world?”

Solas: Interesting –in our interview with Kristi Mair she said very similar things. That for many people the truth questions come later..

David: We’re back to Pascal who said, “Men despise religion because they fear that it is true!” So what you have to do is make people see that the gospel is attractive, that is speaks to the deepest desires of their hearts; and then you show them that it’s true.

Solas: So does that mean you have to add an apologetics to your preaching, looking at a text and anticipating the objections of your audience?

David: Yes! If anything I have to be careful not to do it too much! But for example if I’m in the gospels and come up to a healing or a miracle. Well a hundred metres from our church building is a statue of David Hume – “Mr anti-miracles” himself! So we have to anticipate that people will read that text and simply assume that it is just fables. Yet, by providing an apologetic for miracles the sceptical listener can see that we actually think and don’t just accept things on blind faith. It shows that that they are in a place where questions are welcomed, not stifled. They can keep listening and keep learning. It’s like disarming bombs before they explode! Or next week when I’m in Romans which talks about our “obligation to God” to “put sin and the flesh to death” and that immediately raises all kinds of objections around freedom. So I have to start with an apologetic ‘sidebar’ to explain how as Christians we understand freedom. So I contrasted Orwell and Huxley! Orwell’s 1984 is based upon his fear of a totalitarian state, whereas Huxley’s fears in Brave New World that we will enslave ourselves with our own desires and pleasures. It was Neil Postman who suggested that Huxley was right – and that our own desires can enslave us! So true freedom is freedom from and sin – and freedom to obey God. Life lived with and for God is in fact freedom! So I have to engage with those kind of objections and issues, as I open the text.

So, it’s really important that we are always engaging with the questions people are actually asking, rather than the ones they used to ask. Sometimes people are more willing to believe in the resurrection of Jesus when they see someone’s life transformed by it, than when they just hear credible facts about it, for example. We’re not just “brains on a stick”, and the gospel touches every aspect of our humanity.

Solas: What are you own hopes and prayers for your ministry?

David: Here in our city-centre church, I’d love to be part of raising up an ‘army of people’ who are confident in the Lord Jesus who are able to go out and engage with the culture; with friends, family and neighbours. We are in the middle of a society which is hostile to the Christian faith, and are seen as ‘the bad guys’. But if we can have a group of people who have wrestled with the hardest questions in church – they will be willing to discuss them with others, and not be afraid. We need Christians not to doubt the goodness of God, but to be confident about it. Evangelism is most powerful takes place when people are glad of the gospel, not just feeling compelled to tick off a bit of evangelism on their ‘to-do list’! When people really feel that the gospel is good, true and beautiful, then they will share it well. I would love to be part of that – sending people out to ‘do some damage for the Kingdom!’

Northern Ireland is still relatively ‘Christian’ in that you could plant a new church with no problem – people would come; whereas here ministry is blood, sweat and tears – it’s long-term hard work. So in a post-Christian Scotland we need to draw from the example of the early church. The New Testament church was founded in a non-Christian culture, a hostile world in which they were on the margins, they were a tiny minority who were feared and considered to be weird, and persecuted – but yet the gospel triumphed; so there is hope!

The Early church outthought the pagan world, they outloved the pagan world, they outlived the pagan world, the out-died the pagan world and were willing to suffer, staking their very lives on Jesus; and they out-prayed the pagan world too. So these five things must be our focus in this era as we seek to go forward. We need to grasp that we can’t win culture wars, or take short-cuts through reclaiming power, but rather that it is through prayer that there will be change in our society. That’s really my ethos, and aim –and anything we can do together to assist with that is good.

Solas: Thanks David – that is an inspiring but also challenging vision for ministry.

David: Thanks for chatting to me – I’m off to record a Solas podcast in a few minutes too!

David Nixon is a minister at Carrubbers Christian Centre in the centre of Edinburgh.