Dennis & Hugh: When Jewish and Christian Friends Talk About God
My friend RJ Moeller has done it again. Last fall, when he first told me about his hopes to start a series of interfaith, cross-cultural dialogue events, I knew he had a great idea, but whether he would actually pull it off seemed to me an open question. RJ always overflowed with great ideas and an infectious enthusiasm to share them with others. So as great as it would be for him to bring together more Adam Carolla-Dennis Prager-style combinations, I wondered if this idea would really come to fruition or if another of his entrepreneurial efforts would take off instead.
And I have to say, I'm really a bit stunned not just that RJ pulled this off, but that he managed to organize it all so quickly. And not only that, but could he have picked a more appropriate subject to begin with than defining the Judeo-Christian value system?
"Ask a Jew" will take place on Sunday, March 17 from 4:00-6:00 at Mariners Church in Irvine, CA, and tickets can be purchased here for $25, or $75 for VIP reserved tickets and a pre-show reception. This week I asked RJ a few questions to learn more about what he's cooked up for us:
PJ Lifestyle: Given the success of the events you organized with Dennis Prager and Adam Carolla dialoguing, it's no surprise you would want to expand and try new combinations of speakers. Why "Ask a Jew: An Evening With Dennis Prager And Hugh Hewitt"?
RJ: The Prager-Carolla connecting was in many regards "lightning in a bottle." In a very real sense of the cliche, I simply happened to be in the "right place at the right time" to help make that thing happen. However, what I learned from that exciting experience was this: if you have a good idea, pursue it -- because often the reason something like it hasn't happened before (or hasn't happened in the way you believe it should) merely boils down to other folks not taking a risk or putting forth the effort to bring it to life.
In the case of "Ask A Jew," both Dennis and Hugh are fairly well-known commodities but they are known primarily for their political radio shows, columns, and best-selling books. But what I want to personally hear from both men -- and many other articulate voices in the public square like them -- are their perspectives on cultural, moral, and philosophical issues that matter to all of us. This event is the kick-off of what I hope will end up being a long-running series of candid conversations among those who describe themselves "center-right" politically.
My goal is to bring the people I enjoy listening to and reading the most to new audiences. I want evangelicals to interact with Jewish and Catholic intellectuals. I want secular libertarians to hear how thoughtful and interested in limited government and free markets so many brilliant religious conservatives are. Hugh and Dennis typify the dynamic I'm talking about. They are from such different backgrounds, have different personalities, part ways on key theological points -- and yet they are best friends and share so many common values. It's so much bigger (and more important) than politics, and anyone who listens to a show like Dennis Prager's knows how serious he is about engaging all issues and areas of life.
Politics is dominating and suffocating Americans because, in my opinion, they've stopped talking (and thinking critically) about all of the infinitely more important things in life. Not every show we do will be "Ask A Jew," and we'll have other interesting combinations and pairings of well-known writers/thinkers across the country this year, but I wanted to start with Hugh and Dennis because they are two of the most candid, knowledgeable, and good-natured voices in the public square. Oh, and they are entertaining. Remember when that was important?
PJ Lifestyle: You decided to frame your event around an interfaith exchange between the Jewish Prager and the Catholic Hewitt. Of all the subjects they could talk about, why did you pick religion as the evening's focus?
RJ: Hugh is some combination of Catholic and Presbyterian, so I felt like we could covered our gentile bases with him at the helm of "Ask A Jew." Dennis is a legitimate Jewish scholar, both of the Hebrew language and Old Testament theology. People -- myself included -- are sick of politics for the time being. The 2012 election wore a lot of folks out. It probably disillusioned many others. The idea for "Ask A Jew" is dynamic in that so many different areas of society and culture can be broached. And we picked an evangelical church as our venue because we wanted to stamp this event as a religious dialogue.
Every study done on the subject shows just how religious Americans are and yet it is this subject that so few ever tackle in the public square. Or if someone does tackle it, rarely are they religion's best and brightest defender. As a man of faith myself, I want guys like Hewitt and Prager representing me in that arena. Not on behalf of all of the finer points of my dogma/doctrine, but as an advocate for the Judeo-Christian value system that has, for better or worse, defined Western civilization for 2000 years. Religion is polarizing because so few can explain/defend it. And yet so many people have a religion of their own. So why is something so important to so many millions so inadequately disseminated? I don't know all the reasons why, but I know the people who do it well -- and Mr. Hewitt and Mr. Prager are two of them.
PJ Lifestyle: Though the event is focused on interfaith dialogue, most readers probably know Prager and Hewitt for their politically focused talk radio programs. What do you say to those who might have interest in the event but are hesitant to spend 2 hours listening to a talk radio host whose politics they don't share?
RJ: As I mentioned, I completely understand the frustration many Americans feel toward politics in general, and "the other side" in particular. But everyone says they are sick of all the rancor and divisiveness of politics and then refuses to spend time with those they disagree with. Or they never seek out opportunities to engage people with other views on everything from taxation to the existence of God. If you absolutely hate Dennis Prager, then don't come to "Ask A Jew." That will probably say more about you than it does anything Mr. Prager might have said to offend your delicate sensibilities.
But what ever happened to being bold and courageous in our convictions as Americans? What ever happened to desiring a rigorous challenge to our worldview? We no longer seek adventure -- rhetorical, intellectual, or otherwise -- only lawsuits and opportunities to accuse others of hurting our feelings.
We have purposely put together an event here that is not political. There will be no re-hashing of election results in Irvine, CA, on Sunday evening. There will be no mentions of sequesters or Chuck Hagel's record on Israel. This is about values and worldviews. This is about life and relationships with our neighbors of other faith traditions. This is about gaining a better understanding of our own life philosophy by sharpening it up against those of others (who live and work and worship their god all around us every single day). As Dennis often says on his show, "We're after clarity, not unity." You can't expect a nation of 300 million people to be unified on everything, but we must stop settling for such an utter lack of clarity on the most important things in life.
PJ Lifestyle: You've gotten the opportunity to get to know both Dennis and Hugh personality. So I'm curious, when you note their different personalities, how would you describe them? In what ways are they different and how can audiences look forward to enjoying their dynamic?
RJ: My dad always says that there are two types of people in the world: those who make it work, and those who make it interesting. Generally speaking, Hugh is the former and Dennis is the latter. Of course both men are thoroughly engaging and interesting and command massive audiences of captivated listeners five days a week. But Hugh, being more of the left-brained lawyer sort, brings to the table a different perspective and skill set that enable him to be master interviewer.
Dennis is utterly rational and logical as well, but possess an uncanny and creative ability to make every interaction with another human being feel like a conversation between old friends. Hugh wants to know the facts and Dennis likes to convey a larger philosophical reality. They work wonderfully together and the good-natured ribbing that transpires every time they're in the same room (or on the same airwaves) is truly a treat for any audience.
PJ Lifestyle: I really like the way you talk about looking for someone to defend our common Judeo-Christian values rather than the fine points of your own doctrine. This is something that regular Dennis Prager listeners are probably familiar with, the way in which Dennis distinguishes between values and theology as two separate subjects. In his fantastic book Still the Best Hope: Why The World Needs American Values to Triumph, Dennis explains his approach to this subject. How would you describe your own understanding of Judeo-Christian values? And what more do you hope to learn at "Ask a Jew"?
RJ: I was raised in an evangelical Christian home by parents who had a deep respect for Catholicism and Judaism. As a pastor in the Chicago-land area, my father often organized inter-faith luncheons and meetings with pastors, priests, and rabbis in the community. So this type of interaction among members of various faith traditions is nothing new to me and, in fact, is something I'm passionate about. Theology and doctrine mean a great deal to me, and there are certain core beliefs that define who I am as a person and follower of Christ.
But we live in an imperfect world. Not everyone at my church agrees on theology, let alone everyone in my neighborhood or city. In the public square, values and the way someone conducts themselves as a result of those values are what matter most to me. The Judeo-Christian value system stems from the teachings (and God) of the Old and New Testaments. Basic presuppositions (i.e. "there is a God, and I'm not Him," the reality of mankind's fallen/sinful state, the need for moral order, the foundational importance of the family, etc.) that stem from this value system have shaped Western civilization for two millennium. America is a unique place, and our freedoms offer us a unique opportunity to peacefully work alongside those we disagree with when it comes to theology/doctrine, but who share our common vision of the "free and virtuous society." I hope to learn more about what Judaism (and Jews themselves) think of Christianity in the United States and what causes so many of them to end up culturally progressive.
PJ Lifestyle: Your comments about so many not wanting to be challenged hit the mark for our often lazy and entitled millennial generation. So many of our fellow twenty-somethings seem to have grown up perpetually afraid of having to take responsibility for their own happiness and prosperity. Why is it that so many Americans, especially our generation, no longer seek adventure? Is there a connection between Judeo-Christian values and a life of courage?
RJ: Many think that the secular worldview -- the "eat, drink and be merry...for tomorrow we die" ethos -- is the liberating, freeing one to hold. I disagree. Vehemently. Everyone believes in something. Everyone wants to be a part of something bigger than themselves, even if that something is just a friendship or marriage. But true adventure can only meaningfully exist if there is a purpose behind it. And courage is nothing more than random synapse flashes in our brain if we're all here on this planet by sheer coincidence and chance.
Humans may temporarily accept or even embrace impostors, but eventually we want the real thing. And playing video games, randomly hooking up with girls at a bar every weekend, and substituting actual moral living for the occasional stroll in a 5K for lupus charities will only take you so far (emotionally speaking). We want more. We crave more. Whether you believe in the God of the bible or not, there can be no argument over which worldview tends to produce the type of people we all aspire to be. People of courage. Of conviction. Of love and deep relationships. Of that willingness to die for the truth one claims to believe in.
Listening to some killer tunes while working out to look good at the beach and waiting in line for the new iPhone aren't bad things in and of themselves. But our generation's entire existence revolves around such trivialities, and as a result, when real opportunities for adventure and real chances to display the courage/character we've (hopefully) been developing present themselves, we tend to shy away or ignore them or pretend like those who do accept life's deeper challenges are clinging to some out-dated way of living/thinking. The new "rebel" is the young person who actually believes in accountability to a higher power and decides to pursue a life that corresponds with the implications of such a reality.
I'm planning to attend "Ask a Jew" on Sunday and will report on the show next week at PJ Lifestyle.
See Also: Andrew Klavan recommends "Ask a Jew" and features an audio interview between Prager and Hewitt.