WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith, and today you’ll listening in on conversations about apologetics, Hollywood, and COVID 19 with Abdu Murray, Kathleen Cooke, and Chuck Bentley.
Abdu Murray leads North American operations for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. Abdu Murray has a remarkable conversion story, a story of becoming a Christian from a Muslim background. We discussed his conversion story in my 2016 interview with him, an interview you can find in the World News Group archive.
But Abdu Murray has gone on to have a career as a Christian apologist that extends well beyond the Muslim world, though his latest book Seeing Jesus From The East does return to some of the issues that energized him early in his career. He co-wrote the book with Ravi Zacharias.
Abdu, welcome back to the program. It’s great to see you again And you’re here in NRB representing Ravi Zacharias International Ministries—RZIM—in part because Ravi himself has had some health challenges. Can you tell me how Ravi is doing right now?
ABDU MURRAY, GUEST: Absolutely. Well, thanks for having me back on, Warren. I appreciate it. And yeah, a little while back he and I were in the East. We were in the Philippines and Sri Lanka doing some various events and meetings and he really started experiencing some very serious back pain where he couldn’t even sleep at night. He was operating on like an hour’s worth of sleep at night. And this intense back pain turns out, you know, he has these brackets that are up in his back that hold him up from an injury from decades ago and the screws were coming loose and then he fractured his sacrum through all of that, which was amazing because he was preaching up a storm every day despite the fact of an hour’s worth of sleep and an intense pain.
But he got back to the States. We did an event together at the University of Miami and the doctor had told him we need to have you from emergency surgery, basically. And so he had the surgery a little while back. And he’s already mobile. He’s already up and moving, but he’ll be some time, you know, in recovery, but he’s up and moving and prayers have gone out all over the world for Ravi and they’ve been effective.
SMITH: Yeah. Well, I know we wrote an article about him and I know that many are in prayer, so it’s wonderful that sounds like he’s on the road to recovery. It sounds like this is not a life threatening situation really. Or at least you caught it before it was could become life threatening, which is all good.
MURRAY: Yeah. It doesn’t seem like it’s going to debilitate as ministry in the longterm. I think in the short term, you know, obviously he’ll be taking the time to recover. We need him to stay in the game and stay in the fight. And his passion is there. It’s never been less. In fact it’s even more than it’s ever been. And I think what’s interesting about it too is he’s seeing so many—ministry-wide RZIM specifically—but even more specifically, Ravi is seeing more opportunities to speak in places that are closed off to the gospel. And these are in the latter years of this ministry. And yet after 48 years, some of the opportunities he’s been praying for for decades are now opening up. And he’s still going strong. I don’t think he’s, I mean we make the joke that he’s a machine and not just because he have titanium rods in his back, it’s because the Lord blessed him in some kind of supernatural way.
SMITH: Well, you know, I was at Norman Geisler’s funeral. Of course, you know, a lion of Christian apologetics as you knew. And Ravi spoke at the funeral. Because back in the day, in the early days of Ravi’s ministry Dr. Geisler was a mentor. I was amazed at how strong and how forceful and just, you know, what command he had even at, I don’t know how old he is—
MURRAY: He’ll be 74, I think, in March.
SMITH: Yeah, that’s really remarkable. Well, and I know that an important part of what he’s doing now in his ministry is sort of raising up leaders of the next generation of which you are one. And you’re here representing RZIM at the National Religious Broadcasters. What are you going to say? What are you saying to the group?
MURRAY: Well, what I’m going to talk about is how we can see clearly in a cloudy world. The truth is becoming more and more obscure as we enter into this post-truth culture.
We’ve actually been immersed in it for quite some time now where truth is no longer denied. It’s just we don’t care. So we’re not denying that truth exists. We just put it on the bottom shelf and we make our preferences and our feelings matter more. So, what I want to talk about is essentially how it is that we got to where we are, but to encourage as well to encourage folks here at NRB and broadcasters like yourself and people who are out there in the media that there is something that’s happening. I think through Christian media, I think through Christian voices that are out there that are operating with integrity, the young people—my punchline essentially is this: the young people have engaged in the post-truth bender and they no longer want the hair of the dog that bit them. They actually want truth.
And if there’s any indication from the size of the open forums we’re having, whether it’s University of Miami, where 8,000 come, whether it’s University of Michigan where 3,500 come or Michigan State where 9,500 come and they come to the microphones, they actually ask questions hoping for an answer, not hoping for a zinger. I see a stirring in the youth that doesn’t give me despair, but actually gives me hope. Is there a lot of work to do? Yeah. Is it a cloudy world? Is it foggy? It sure is, but what I want to do is encourage folks to say, here’s what the culture is doing, here’s why it’s doing it. Here’s how an intelligent faith can be broadcast to the world and received.
SMITH: Abdu, I’d like to take a step back and talk about some of the work that you’re involved with now in particular and if I were going to describe Abdu Murray to someone else, not to Abdu Murray himself, but to someone else, I would say that you kind of got your start in apologetics because of expertise in Islam, because of your personal background and history. Since then, you’ve become more of what I would might call a full spectrum apologist where you’re engaged in all of the questions with Christian apologetics. But recently and especially in your next book, you’re pendulum swinging back a little bit towards a sort of the relationship of Jesus to the East or the East to Jesus. Can you say more about that?
MURRAY: Absolutely. Well, so Ravi and I have a new book coming out soon. It’s called Seeing Jesus from the East: A Fresh Look at History’s Most Influential Figure. And the premise is that oftentimes we feel in the cultural swing of things, especially in the West, that Christianity is a white imperialistic male dominated religion that’s meant to impose itself upon brown people and women when the reality is that’s an olive skinned religion that influenced the Roman empire and then therefore the rest of the West for the better, like ideas of equality and all these things. But there’s a certain Easternness to Jesus that we have to pay attention to, not just to get the authenticity of the Easternness and the diversity we crave so much in the West back into the Christian message, but also so that we can see that Jesus who operated in a honor-shame culture, who operated in a communal culture, respected tradition, but also respected individuality. He bridges East and West, the communal nature of the East and the individual nature of the West. He bridges both. And so I want to harken back to that Easternness of Jesus so that, one, he can enliven the opinions of Westerners once again to say if this is an actual Eastern guy, but also get Easterners to say, this is not a white man’s religion. This is not a product of the West. This is a product of where you’re from and he speaks your language as well, including, and especially Muslims.
SMITH: Well, I’m wondering, Abdu, and tell me if I’m wrong, is that if your renewed interest in this topic has anything to do with what you’re seeing around the world? Because I know you travel all over the planet. You’re not just here in North America. And what I’m hearing, and I’m just wondering if you can confirm this or not, is that Christianity is in some ways the most vital, the most on the march in other parts of the world and not here in the U.S.?
MURRAY: It’s so true, Warren. It’s so true. Now, one thing I would be remiss if I didn’t say is that the impetus for this book was actually Nabeel Qureshi, our late friend, your friend and mine and my late colleague. It was his idea and he was writing with Ravi and when he passed, Ravi had asked could he take up the mantle? And I was all too eager to do so.
SMITH: Oh, no way. Time out. This is new data for me. So, Nabeel and Ravi were writing this book and when he passed away you sort of picked up the—
MURRAY: I did. I did. yeah.
SMITH: —the baton and you’re taking it across the finish line.
MURRAY: Yeah, and it was one of those things where we sort of had a kindred knit of spirits on this. A lot of the chapters Nabeel and I had discussed before and the themes and because he and I had an affinity and a similar background, it made a natural sense for me to want to engage in this.
SMITH: Wow. Well, that’s a beautiful tribute to your friend.
MURRAY:And it is dedicated to him.
SMITH: Wow. That’s really great.
MURRAY: And Ravi’s dedication is so beautiful. He wrote it and I wrote it with him, but really he captured the essence of it. It says, “To our colleague Nabeel Qureshi, who must be smiling at how little we actually see.” Because he does see fully and is learning more and more. But back to your question is we are seeing this all across the world where the church is exploding in places that shouldn’t.
In Iran, we see an explosion of the churches led oftentimes by women, which is just irony of ironies, isn’t it? We see a church exploding in Egypt, exploding in China, of course. In the global South, the church is more and more, it’s growing more and more there. But I have a whole section in the book dedicated to, this cannot be considered a white person’s religion in the sense of an exclusivity. It is a white person’s religion, but it’s also Southern and African and European and Asian and Australian. It’s everybody’s because it’s exploding everywhere. And this isn’t a post-colonial world where colonialism it—we have the effects of it, but it’s not a thing where it’s actually intentionally colonial. So, it’s growing in a place where the colonial hands have been taken off of those countries. So I’m seeing it everywhere. When we travel the world, we’re seeing a renewed interest. I mean, in countries we wouldn’t expect. Japan is a good example. Ravi did an open forum in Japan, I think the first ever I know the first ever we’ve ever done. We have a colleague now, a new colleague who is Japanese and he wants to bring the gospel to Japan, which is largely unchurched, very much unreligious. I mea they have a ancestor kind of reverence but not a real religious system there. And yet it was packed to capacity. People were so interested in Japan, a place historically uninterested in these things. And yet we find that there.
SMITH: That was Abdu Murray. His new book is “Seeing Jesus from the East,” a book he co-wrote with Ravi Zacharias.
I had this conversation with Abdu Murray at the recent meeting of the National Religious Broadcasters in Nashville, Tennessee, where he was a keynote speaker.
When we return, Kathleen Cooke on how Christians are having an impact in Hollywood, and Chuck Bentley on how churches and ministry leaders should respond to the federal government’s $2.2-trillion CoronaVirus relief package.
I’m Warren Smith. More in a moment.
Welcome back. I’m Warren Smith, and up next in the program is Kathleen Cooke.
Kathleen Cooke, along with her husband Phil Cooke, have been behind-the-scenes power players in the Christian community in Hollywood for decades. Kathleen has had leadership roles in Hollywood Connect and the Hollywood Prayer Network. She is now the driving force behind a group called the Influence Lab, which she’ll describe more in the interview that follows.
Kathleen Cooke is also a speaker and author. Her latest book is: Hope 4 Today: Staying Connected to God in a Distracted World.
Kathleen, great to see you again.Welcome to the program.
KATHLEEN COOKE, GUEST: It’s great being here with you, Warren. Always love it.
SMITH: Yeah. So, in fact, we were talking before we turned the recorder on I think the first time I met you face-to-face, I knew who you were, I’ve known Phil, your husband for awhile, but I think the first time I met you face to face was at an event in Beverly Hills at the I think it was Hollywood Connect or Hollywood Prayer Network.
COOKE: Hollywood Connect, Hollywood Prayer Network. Yes. Gathering there.
SMITH: And you had a leadership role. I know you spoke that night. I remember that. And I mean this was this massive mansion there. I mean, we were in like the atrium of the thing and there were 150 people there, we didn’t fill it up.
COOKE: Well, a bit shah bought that mansion after we were done with it.
SMITH: Oh, is that right?
COOKE: That tells the audience a little bit about that little tiny little thing we were in.
SMITH: But I think that was the first inkling that I had of you as a power player behind the scenes in Hollywood working with Christians and other leaders in the entertainment industry to kind of make sure they’re supported, that Christians are supported and encouraged and that their influence is expanded and growing. Is that fair?
COOKE: So important. Yes, it is fair. My husband and I own and produce through Cooke Media Group, which is our media company. We moved there in 1991 and at that point, you know, Hollywood was a pretty evil word to most Christians out there in the world. And they would protest a lot of the projects, talk about how terrible it was and that bothered us. And we were a part of a community said, how do we change this? How do we change the perception of Christians toward Hollywood? And the perception that we came up with more than anything that I think Christians will understand is we view Hollywood as a mission field. When you go to Africa or South America or any place around the world as a missionary, you don’t go in protesting them and the way they look and the way they dress and the language coming out of their mouth, you go in there and love them and care for them. You listen to them, you hear their hurts and their challenges that they have and you meet them the way Jesus would meet them. So that’s our approach to Hollywood. We view it as a mission field. And then once we view it that way, I believe it opens up many doors. So many times when I’m in Hollywood and I’m with actresses and actors who are going through challenges in their life, if you say to them, can I pray with you about that? Oh boy, they love to be prayed for.
SMITH: Well, so prayer is an important part of your ministry. I mean, I know that event that I went to was Hollywood Connect and the Hollywood Prayer Network and the prayer network is just for that purpose, right? For praying for Hollywood? Praying for the people in Hollywood?
COOKE: And also, Warren, for people who send their kids to Hollywood and say, Oh, I don’t know whether I can send my kids there because I don’t know what’s going to happen to them. They’re gonna fall in the pits of hell. No, we have some great Christians working in Hollywood today and what we need is the outside support of those Christians. So, what we do through Hollywood Prayer Network is hook a working professional in Hollywood, Christian working professional with someone outside of Hollywood that says, I’m going to come in and pray for you and it’s a wonderful network. Anyone can go on the HollywoodPrayerNetwork.org and get connected with a prayer partner.
SMITH: So, just to kind of fast forward here a little bit, you’ve been actively involved sort of in the founding of the Hollywood Prayer Network and Hollywood Connect. Hollywood Connect has now been turned over to Shun Lee.
COOKE: To Shun Lee with the Green House, which is an organization, again, to help mentor young professionals on how do you put together your resume? What’s the best headshot to use? How do I put a script and out there and how do I get it in front of people?
SMITH: Yeah. And at the risk of shameless self promotion, I’ve had Shun on this podcast before and so our listeners can go back and hear that interview. He’s done great work and I know you’ve been involved in supporting him over the years. So then the Hollywood Prayer Network, you continue to be on the board of that, right?
COOKE: Right. Continue to be on the board at that. And then about four or five years ago, Warren, through our media company, Cooke Media Group, we saw that there was a need to help Christians learn to use media more effectively, not only in Hollywood but globally. So, we created our first nonprofit called The Influence Lab. And The Influence Lab then is set up to help mentor, to help encourage, and inspire—just do and be whatever we need to be to get the resources to people who have limited resources, but have a heart to do ministry or have a heart to change the world and culture through media.
SMITH: Well, and The Influence Lab, that gets us to kind of why I wanted to really talk to you today. And why, you know, I think what you wanted to chat about as well. The Influence Lab here at NRB held an event for women. You’re focusing specifically on women. Can you talk about that part of the ministry?
COOKE: Yes, yes. So the Influence Women’s Group is part of The Influence Lab. So God had me kind of say, you know, I’m a woman. We have a lot of women working in the business, a lot of women trying to work in the business. And if you’ve listened to Hollywood at all, one of their big complaints is the fact that there’s not enough women working in Hollywood. So how do we support them? How do we grow what I call wisdom warriors? So many women come in, they know how to set up a light or shoot a camera or edit something or write a script. But do they know how to tell the story? Do they know how to ask the right questions? And what exactly are those questions that people are asking? What is the stories we need to be telling?
SMITH: So, to the end of what? To encourage people? To build community and create community? What’s your goal?
COOKE: Yes. Well all that. All was to encourage and inspire and build a community. And certainly community is important. But also we are bombarded with about 5,000 media messages a day. In fact, statistics tell us that we check our cell phones about 150 times a day. And teenagers, junior hires will check their cell phone about 85 times a day and they’re not supposed to have one. And so our goal with Influence Lab is to grow what I call wisdom warriors, to cut out the noise, to find out what God is teaching us as women of faith that we can then put together content that will resonate and bring change within our culture and our world. And to challenge ourselves, to challenge ourselves on what are those challenges and what are the issues out there. One of the things we talked about today at the NRB Influence Women’s gathering—I have them about four times a year in Hollywood. But I had one here at the NRB today and one of the things we talked about was in this movement of women, #MeToo, #WeToo, all of this women’s movement, we’ve got this pendulum swinging toward women right now, which is great and it needs to be there. There’s been some past things that shouldn’t have happened, but at the same time, we cannot negate the men in our world, the men that got us there. I certainly couldn’t get where I am today without my great husband cheering me on from behind and supporting me. I have a great son-in-law. I’ve had great men in my life that have been there to support me and care for me. And there are great men out there. And so in this world of #MeToo and the women’s movement, we cannot negate that. And I think that’s one of the most important things that we as Christian women need to interject into this conversation. So often we hear about the competition between men and women when God says it’s not the competition, but it’s the ability to come together, the ability to compliment each other. You know, women are made from the side of men, not their head or their feet. They came from their side and we are to walk side by side together. And that’s the message that I think Christian women need to hear and Christian men need to hear today.
SMITH: You’ve been listening in on my conversation with Kathleen Cooke. We had this conversation in Nashville, Tennessee.
After the break, we’ll turn our attention to the COVID-19 virus. Specifically, I’ll discuss the so-called CARES Act with Chuck Bentley. He says Christian ministries should think twice before taking the money.
I’m Warren Smith. More in a moment.
Welcome back. I’m Warren Smith and up next you’ll be listening in on my conversation with Chuck Bentley.
Chuck Bentley is the president of Crown Financial Ministries, one of the best known financial ministries in the country. He says there’s been a lot of talk about how to get a piece of the $2.2-trillion in government money appropriated for COVID relief, but not enough talk among Christian ministries about whether taking the money is the right thing.
That’s the focus of our conversation, which we had last week.
Chuck Bentley, welcome to the program. And Chuck, you know, the reason I wanted to talk to you is because you sent an open letter to churches and ministry leaders about this taxpayer relief bill. This $2.2 trillion that Congress has allocated and President Trump has signed. A lot of the articles that I’ve read have been about how do we get this money? But what you identified is question, why should we ask for this money? And, in fact, should we maybe refuse this money? Would you say more about that?
CHUCK BENTLEY, GUEST: Well, there was a lot of euphoria around it, Warren, and what got my attention was I was invited to participate in a podcast where someone was explaining how 501c3s and churches could make their application and qualify for the funding. And they had thousands of people join. So many so that people had to be turned away. And there were more than 6,000 people joining this podcast. 6,000 churches represented. And I thought, oh my goodness we need to think this through. And so we went to our board and asked them, you know, what do they think about it? Do we need to be taking taxpayer money in our time of need? Now, it’s obviously earmarked for a good cause to keep people’s jobs. That’s the idea. It’s a payroll protection program, payroll protection loan program. $350 billion of the stimulus is for not for profits and churches. So we analyzed it and, Warren, we came up with a decision not to do it. And our board was so convinced that we shouldn’t do it, that they asked me to write a letter to other churches and ask them to pause and consider the same thing.
SMITH: Well, I want to ask you to sort of numerate, to itemize some of the reasons that you guys chose not to take this money. And also Chuck want to be clear in the beginning, just because you made the decision not to take the money, you’re not necessarily saying that it would be wrong for a church or a nonprofit ministry to take the money. Is that fair or not?
BENTLEY: No, that’s correct. In fact, there are a lot of, not for profits already that exist because of government grants and you know, the government participates with the private sector, especially in areas of charity and special needs families and things like that. So we’re not saying it’s a sin to take the grant or the loan. What we’re saying is you need to pause and ask do you really need it? The first reason we said that we don’t want to is we’ve never borrowed money. This is our 44th year in ministry and we’ve been through some hard times, but we teach other people to avoid borrowing and if they have to to do it only for short term. So we wanted to walk the talk.
Secondly, we wanted to be able to communicate to our donors and partners that were fully trusting God for our provision. And if we did take the loan, we would need to disclose to them that we had done so. And one of my concerns is that organizations may be taking this help and not telling their partners or donors that they are. And of course they may be able to deem it as God’s provision. We just didn’t see it that way. And then finally we thought there are other people that needed it more than us and we weren’t in a position that we felt like we had to have it. And we know longterm taxpayers aren’t going to like this. There’ll be a large segment of the population that don’t want to support Christ-exalting ministries and churches. And so we knew there’d be a backlash coming.
SMITH: Well now, Chuck, you guys are though in a unique position because as you said, you’ve been around for 44 years and you have been teaching for that entire period to avoid debt. Many ministries are not in that position where they haven’t been explicitly talking about money and money management issues for 44 years. They haven’t explicitly been saying to avoid debt. And so again, some ministries might not be in that category and you think it could be okay for other ministries with different circumstances to accept the money. Is that correct?
BENTLEY: I think so, Warren. But I would also caution them on a number of fronts. First of all, let’s just forget that it’s a government loan and taxpayer loan right now. If you were just going to the bank and going to borrow the money, you’d have to ask yourself, why? Why am I having to borrow? Are my partners and supporters not engaged enough? Do they not see the need and are able to respond? What I’ve found is some of the churches standing in line for this right now haven’t done a good job of communicating up front to get ahead of this with their support base and I think if churches would simply say, look, remember us. We’re hurting right now, can you help us? We would prefer not to get this loan. I think they’d see a very positive response to that. On the flip side, I think it’s going to be an uphill battle if they have to pay it back. Now, some will not because it’ll become a grant, but if they have to pay it back, I think it’s going to be an uphill battle to raise that money.
SMITH: Now, Chuck, I’ve talked to other Christian leaders and I’m going to go ahead and name some names here. Marvin Olasky with WORLD Magazine. John Stemberger who heads the Florida Family Policy Council. Travis Wussow who is with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. We talked to them as part of a story that we did on this grant and they had many of the same concerns and cautions that you have, but they said because this money was a temporary grant, it would not lead to longterm dependency, that they didn’t have the concerns that they might normally have about accepting this money. Your thoughts about that?
BENTLEY: Well, I think they’re correct from a legal standpoint. I don’t think there’s going to be a gotcha or an entrapment from the people who do go ahead and accept the funds. What I do wonder though, Warren, is, you know, we set aside funds for times like this. In fact, our CFO said something so meaningful to me. He said, “Chuck, that’s why we have reserves. It is for such a time as this.” We need to first rely upon our reserves and second upon the people who support this work as opposed to the government. And I like the model that Alan Malali set when Ford Motor Company was offered a bailout in the ’08, ’09 recession. He said, let’s not do it. And longterm that created tremendous goodwill among his consumer base. And I think the church needs to be set apart. I’m not saying you can’t do it, and I know there’s extenuating circumstances and we don’t want to be judgmental or casting guilt upon people who do.
But we would like to say, please pause, pray, get counsel, and possibly be among those who said, you know we just didn’t jump in the fray at that time. We took a different route. We let that taxpayer money go to some other organizations and we stood down instead of overreacting.
SMITH: Well, Chuck, I know that you’re not a prophet nor the son of a prophet as the old Bible saying goes—
BENTLEY: And nor do I want to be stoned, Warren, so I’m going to be very careful about this question.
SMITH: Exactly or to take it out of biblical language, I’ll use Yogi Berra language, which is predictions are dangerous, especially predictions about the future. But I am, based on what you said, going to ask you to predict the future. Let’s fast forward a year or two or three from now and you’re going to have some ministries, in fact, probably many ministries and churches that did in fact elect to take that money. What are going to be the consequences? What are they going to see showing up in their lives and in their ministries one, two, three years down the road?
BENTLEY: Well, I think the winds are going to shift unfavorably towards this act. Although many people are grateful that Christian organizations were included in this act for such a time as this to protect those jobs because the not for profit sector is a very large employer in this country and it is important to protect those jobs, but it will become a political football. People who supported it will get beat up for doing so. I think there’ll be a challenge to the tax exempt charitable status of organizations who did take those funds. And we’re already seeing those kinds of things form. No sooner than my article had been published that a group responded that were a collective representation of the people for the separation of church and state and a number of atheistic organizations who are challenging the legality of this act.
And I think that’s just the opening salvo, Warren. Predicting the future. I think that’s going to create quite a bit of longterm problems.
SMITH: Well, Chuck Bentley, thank you so much for joining me on the program to kind of help us think through not merely the practical implications because everybody, you know, can kind of go to the website. You can go to Google and find out how to apply for the funds, but whether we should apply for the funds, why we should apply for the funds. Super important questions. Thank you for bringing clarity to that.
BENTLEY: Well, thank you, Warren. Thank you for the good work that you’re doing. We so appreciate the ministry of WORLD Magazine and Ministry Watch and all the things that you’re involved in. And we simply want to help Christians be good stewards. And we’re trying to set an example of that ourselves. It may have very negative consequences, but, you know, we’re all in and trusting the Lord and that’s the place where we want to be.
SMITH: Great. Thanks Chuck.
BENTLEY: Thank you, Warren. God bless you.