Scratch-Off Faith

Michael Metzger

When Mohan Srivastava discovered a couple of old lottery tickets, he wondered if he had any winners. Tickets became treasure when he discovered they revealed a code. Jesus said people treasure the kingdom when they discover it. The gospel is a code waiting to be discovered. Why then do so few Christians today evangelize this way?

In June of 2003 Mohan Srivastava was waiting for some files to download when he discovered a couple of old lottery tickets under a pile on his desk. On a lunchtime walk to cash in the tic-tac-toe tickets, he suddenly realized the visible numbers were a secret code revealing information about the hidden digits. If you knew the code, you could scratch off the right set of numbers and win.1

The key was figuring out the computer program would not produce random digits, since the lottery corporation needs to control the number of winning tickets. By looking at the number of times each of the digits occurred, Srivastava discovered he could separate the winning tickets from the losers. The only problem was the paltry payout. Srivastava earned more as a consultant than what he would cracking each card.

Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is “treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Mt. 13:44). This is an older sense of discovery, “of finding something that was there,” writes Iain McGilchrist.2 In ancient times, it was believed truth is covered and we dis-cover it. It’s similar to setting out to see one thing and stumbling upon something entirely different. It’s the combination of surprise, discovery, and joy – exactly what Augustine meant when he said the soul delights in particular in what it learns indirectly.

McGilchrist believes the Enlightenment distorted this ancient view. It instead fostered a “grandiose sense” of discovery, with truth as “something we make, rather than something we uncover.” Enlightenment experts constructed theories, principles, and concepts that were presented to inquirers as truth. The ancient sense of discovery was dulled. To assess the damage done to education, catch Sir Ken Robinson’s critique of the Enlightenment and how it crimps students’ enthusiasm for learning.3

The Enlightenment infected the Western church as well. Enlightenment evangelists set out to present truth rather than assist others in discovering it. This fostered new methods of evangelism. One is the direct method – sermons, speeches, and canned presentations like The Four Spiritual Laws. Another is the erudite approach, lamented by Roger Parrott, president of Belhaven College. It relegates evangelism to the domain of gifted apologists who present “biblical worldview.” The therapeutic method presents a “safe” God. The consumerist approach presents a God dying to “meet your needs” – but allows individuals to determine those needs, turning them into consumers.

The problem with these methods is not that they don’t work. They do. But they ignore the Enlightenment paradox. Presenting truth in modern ways “simultaneously makes evangelism infinitely easier, and discipleship infinitely harder,” writes Os Guinness.4 In not having to dig a little and discover truth, conversion becomes infinitely easier. But discipleship becomes infinitely harder, since Christian formation is arduous, requiring discipline. The effect of the Enlightenment approach “is not that Christians have disappeared,” writes Guinness, “but that Christian faith has become so deformed.”

The solution is restoring the ancient sense of discovery. I’ve developed a series of case studies and group exercises that make people dig a little. Beginning with a problem, participants record their unedited responses. In every culture everywhere, responses naturally fall into four categories – ought-is-can-will. On their own, participants discover a code, their behavioral DNA. This discovery is attractive to many. Some begin scratching at ought-is-can-will, discovering how this code explains everything.

Ought-is-can-will explains why we work, play, laugh, cry, make stuff and try to make money. The code explains human conscience, healthy capitalism, and what would make for a conscientious Congress. Once you know the code, you can account for all sorts of stuff. I’ve even seen people scratch all the way to Jesus. They discover ought-is-can-will is rooted in creation-fall-redemption-restoration, the gospel. Those who come to faith through this approach tend to treasure the gospel more than those who do not.

A “scratch off” faith is as old as the hills. Educators have long understood the benefits of discovery, describing it as “incidental learning.”5 It’s not difficult to rediscover this ancient method. “The heavens are telling of the glory of God” (Ps 19:1). Heavens is plural. The psalmist is saying God’s creative code can be discovered in the heavens, including the first heaven, which is the space between the top of your head and the bottom of your feet. The code can be discovered in the piles of paperwork covering your colleagues’ desk. If they discover ought-is-can-will in contracts and office communiqués, they might also un-cover creation-fall-redemption-restoration. They’d discover how the heavens – their workplace and home – are indeed telling of the glory of God. They might even itch to discover more, making discipleship infinitely easier.

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1 Jonah Lehrer, “Cracking the Scratch Lottery Code,” Wired Magazine, January 31, 2011.
2 Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), location 6132.
3 “YouTube: RSA Animate – Changing Education Paradigms”
4 Os Guinness, “Sounding Out the Idols of Church Growth.”
5 A. Rogers, “Learning: Can We Change the Discourse?” Adults Learning 8, no. 5 (January 1997): 116-117.

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6 thoughts on “Scratch-Off Faith”

  1. Thanks Mike. I appreciate your writings and insights to the Gospel. Ought, is, can ,will have left indelible markings in my mind. The cultural transsfomation to get people to see through that lens is made difficult by people being stuck in “is” mode. We get buried with today.
    However, those who see the big picture understand the day’s present burdens will one day fade. The Faith in what can be done keeps us going . Restoration is a good future.

  2. You’re boldly forecasting a plan to teach us something big. Looking forward to it! I’m going to need convincing that the enlightenment was so terribly distorting of truth and reality. You may be applying disapproval too broadly to an otherwise healthy or helpful period or process, or at least a period or process that can’t be all bad. Looking forward to your next posting.

  3. The Irreverent Reverend's Wife

    Check out the epistemology of Michael Polanyi as explicated by Esther Meek in her books “Longing to Know” and “Loving to Know”. A creaturely knowledge must be personal, partial, and one born of discovery due to our noetic limitations; anything else is an illusion that makes us gods and murders the world to dissect it. Also of interest, the teaching methods of Charlotte Mason–a 19th century Anglican educator whose intuitive grasp of these truths informed her practice, resulting in students who knew much, but also cared about what they knew.

  4. Mike Metzger

    Dave:

    I appreciate your anticipation and caution – but no big bold plan. While beneficial i many ways, the Enlightenment spread the seeds of skepticism as well as mistrust of institutional authority.

  5. Thanks for this great reminder Michael of what I think God had in mind back in the Garden when He gave Adam and Eve work…the joy of discovery and the inherent knowing of God that comes with it. I picture Adam and Eve walking with God in the Garden in the cool of the evening excited to share what they un-covered that day. I think God is still revealing himself and his creation to us through our work today if we are open to seeing it.

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