Sean McDowell on tackling controversial topics
The son of evangelist Josh McDowell talks about his father's legacy and making his own way in ministry
Editor’s note: This article discusses the issue of pornography and may not be appropriate for very young readers.
Sean McDowell is the son of famed apologist and speaker, Josh McDowell. While unapologetic about following in his famous father’s footsteps, Sean McDowell has blazed a trail all his own. Like his father, he’s a gifted communicator and a prolific author. He earned two masters degrees and a PhD from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. After many years teaching high schoolers, McDowell is now assistant professor in the Christian apologetics program at Biola University. He has tackled controversial topics, including same-sex marriage and pornography. We had this conversation at the recent Great Home School Convention, held in Ontario, California.
How did you start getting interested in the topic of pornography, and why do you think it’s so important for young people to hear the truth about it? I’ve been teaching high school full-time for 12 years, the last year I just went part-time, and I’m speaking all around the country to students, studying this generation. It’s an issue that would just come up all the time. Yet, as I looked around, I saw very few people really addressing it, few people talking about it. When they did, it wasn’t with a lot of depth or with a lot of sensitivity or with some genuine biblical perspective. I had been speaking on relationships and sexuality for some time, but I started to realize if I’m going to be relevant and genuinely hit the areas that young people are dealing with, I have to talk about this.
What do you mean by “relevant and deep?” I think people don’t talk about how it affects the brain, how it affects your spiritual life, how it affects people relationally and long-term. There’s some depth to pornography. Often there’s simplistic answers like, “just don’t look at it,” and “it’s bad and it’s sinful,” and that’s all true. But I had a young person this morning say, “I know in my mind that it’s wrong, but I just can’t stop.” To deal with that issue, it’s more than a simple platitude. We've got to really go deeper and unpack the nature of this issue, how it affects us, the nature of addiction, and what the healing process entails.
What did you tell that young man? One of the things that I point out is that I think every addiction is something that’s used to fill a void that a relationship is meant to fill. Whatever that addiction is—whether it’s video games, whether is pornography, whether it’s gambling—pornography is that symptom, so to speak, of a deeper relational break.
The first thing I said to this young person [was], “Thank you for talking to me about this and being willing to come out, so to speak. That’s the beginning point. But if you want to really defeat, so to speak, this issue of pornography, you’re going to have to find people in your life that will help you work through this, will help you work through self-image issues, help you work through relational issues with your parents, with your friends, and with others. When you really begin that healing process, then I think some of the issues of pornography will begin to take care of themselves.”
Talk a little bit about how pornography affects our brains on a neurological level, especially adolescent brains. If you go back a few years in neuroscience, there was an assumption that the brain was largely fixed by adolescence and then remained the same over time. We have now learned that the brain is not really formed until the mid to upper 20s, some would even say into 30, and that the brain is plastic, meaning that it’s moldable and adaptable through life. What that means is that especially when it comes to kids, the earlier and younger that somebody looks at pornographic images, it actually physically impacts the physical structure of the brain.
Think about something as simple as playing basketball. When someone starts to learn how to shoot, they develop a certain form they have to think about. Then, over time, the brain has formed certain pathways with synapses firing and the neural connections, etc. What happens is, you just do it automatically. You don’t think about it. Similarly, when it comes to the issue of sexuality, when somebody looks at pornography, they’re physically forming pathways in the brain that shape how they relate to the same sex, how they relate to the opposite sex.
That’s why a lot of people, when they get older and they get married and they have sex, will say, “It felt like I couldn’t be alone with my wife or my husband because there were all these ghosts in the room of these other people that they have had sex with,” or because of pornographic images that they’ve looked at. … Essentially, your brain gets constructed to respond to a false image of sexuality and damages its ability to respond the way that God really wants us to.
I’ve seen some surveys that say 60-70 percent of Christian men have regular interaction with pornography. What’s your advice to those folks? My advice to parents is to have these conversations early with your kids. My son … sat in my Summit talk on pornography when he was 8. He didn’t fully get it, obviously, but we started a conversation. We talked about these things somewhat regularly. You’ve got to start early. I could tell you stories, we don’t have time, about kids 4, 5, 6, 7 being shown pornography and affected them in powerful ways so begin that conversation.
Second, really work hard at building that intimate relationship with your kids. There has to be a closeness. There has to be a sense of love and empathy and understanding for a young person to even trust mom and dad and to have the security and the confidence to not get as likely lured into the pornographic world. Third, just have some kind of filter or system on your computer. That’s something simple that everybody can do.
What are some steps people can take if they have an addiction to pornography? I don’t think it’s ever too late, in so far as we’re breathing and we’re alive. We follow and worship a redeeming, forgiving, gracious God. Now, certainly, there will be consequences and hurt we’ll have to deal with, but I think it would be Satan who would want to say, “Gosh, it’s too late. You’ve blown it. It’s not worth it. Don’t try it, just give up.” Well, that’s a lie. I’ve seen God restore people from either broken relationships with their kids, who are hooked on pornography, but also in their own lives. People for decades who have been looking at the most extreme pornography you can imagine, God pulling them out of it. Realize it’s not too late.
The first step … is go get the help that you need. Go to a trusted pastor, go to a trusted counselor, and just simply begin the process of sharing, getting it out in the open, and experiencing that grace and healing.
Tell me a little about the book Same-Sex Marriage that you wrote with John Stonestreet. The idea for that book first came in 2013 after the DOMA ruling, the Defense of Marriage Act was shot down. I started talking to Christians all around the country, and there was this sense almost of despair, defeatism, “we don’t know what to do.” John Stonestreet had a youth pastor say to him, “John, it’s over. We’ve lost.”
John and I, I think, were speaking at a different homeschool convention. I said, “I’ve had this idea about writing this book. We need a short book that makes the biblical case for marriage. A book that makes the case from the Bible for the importance and the nature of man-woman marriage, but also gives some real, practical, hands-on strategies to help people now cope with the issues that come up such as should I go to a same-sex wedding?” … We’ve really got a positive response because I think people are hungry right now to say, “All right, what do we do on this issue? How do we respond?” The bottom line is it’s not time to despair. There’s no time for defeatism. Jesus has still risen from the grave. This is an opportunity for the church. That’s really the heart that John and I take in the book.
At the end of the day, are you optimistic or pessimistic regarding this particular issue and this particular time in America? I don’t have a crystal ball. I don’t know exactly where this is going. There are some positive signs of people stepping up … and sharing their stories, the kind of stories that have been left out of this. For example, a friend of mine, who was raised by two moms and he grew up in the gay community, loves his two moms and then comes out as a Christian and was outed from his family, which twists the normal narrative on its head, so to speak. Where it’s going to go it five or 10 years, I don’t know. I honestly feel a temptation sometimes to just feel like, “I want to give up. This is so bad. I’m going to move somewhere else.” I fight that temptation. I make a conscious choice to focus on certain characteristics of God, that God is sovereign. [I] make a conscious choice to be optimistic and to see this as an opportunity, so I’m not going to allow those feelings of despair to dominate me.
You’re the son of Josh McDowell, one of the most famous leaders in the evangelical world of the last 30 or 40 years. You’ve co-written some books with him. Is there a special burden, a special privilege, a special blessing in being the son of a famous evangelical leader? There is a burden and a blessing in this. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that being the son of Josh McDowell hasn’t given me certain opportunities I might not otherwise have, meeting certain people, some speaking opportunities. People recognize the name and associate my dad, who’s got a great reputation. That’s given me some credibility.
Now, certainly if you don’t deliver and your dad is famous, especially with technology and social media today, word gets around really quickly. In that sense it’s been—“burden” sounds a little bit strong, but I certainly feel the gravity of the privilege of being a McDowell. … The Bible says who is given much, much is required. I’ve been given a unique opportunity and I want to use it well for the kingdom. …
The thing my parents did, which is really helpful, is they never, ever put pressure on me to go into some professional ministry. They never put pressure on me to speak, never put pressure on me to write books. I remember my dad saying to me multiple times, “Son, God’s given you a lot of gifts. Just use those gifts for the kingdom, whatever that looks like. That’s all you need to do.” That helped to really free me up to not feel that kind of pressure that many kids feel.
You’re working with your dad now on what you could call his signature book, Evidence That Demands a Verdict. It elevated him to a national and international platform. Talk about that experience working with him on this book. I’ve helped him update More Than a Carpenter, which has sold more copies … but is not quite the signature book in the same way I think Evidence. There was definitely a responsibility like, “Man, I got to really get this right.” When we started talking about it, I just said, “Dad, you wrote the last one in 1999. It’s time to update it. I’d love to help if you want me to,” and he just jumped on it.
By this stage, he has given me a ton of freedom to update the content, the style. At this stage in our relationship and my career, he just has completely trusted me, which is fantastic. Along the way, he’s been a voice of a guiding and reason in helping me with it. It’s a responsibility, but it’s fun. It’s neat. I can’t go anywhere. It will happen tonight … somebody coming up saying, “Man, I read that book Evidence, and [it] either helped save my faith in college or led me to Christ.” It’s a remarkable thing ,and I’m grateful for it.
Obviously, that book is a part of your dad’s legacy. Now because of your work on this book, it will be a part of yours, as well. Beyond that, what do you want your legacy to be? I’d want people to say, “Sean loved his family. He loved the life. He took the opportunities of being in a certain family, the gifts that he had and he maximized it for the kingdom.” Pretty simple, that’s it. I don’t think of my life in terms of, I want to write 80 books or I want a million people to be saved. I can’t control those numbers. I just want to be faithful with the opportunities and the gifts that God has given me, and I think that’s what God asks from each one of us.
Listen to Warren Smith’s full interview with Sean McDowell on Listening In.
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