RealityBites blog

Atheist converts to Christian faith after his mum wins the lottery

Here's an entertaining conversion story from 2011.

Sal Bentivegna, a New Yorker, thought the Christian faith was ridiculous. He loved taunting his devout Catholic mother Gloria and would often get combative and sarcastic. He told his mum that she ought to pray "to her God" and ask for 'dinero' to sort out her financial difficulties. Gloria refused to do this but she had been praying for her son's conversion for several years. She told her son that he was more than welcome to pray on her behalf.

Sal took up the challenge and mockingly asked God to help his mother win the lottery. He prayed the following: "God I don't know if you're real or not, but if you are there, please let my mother win a million dollars". He added: "If Jesus wants me to believe in him, that's what he'll do".

The next day, Mrs Gloria Bentivegna bought a 'lotto tree' of unscratched instant win tickets from her church's charity auction. Amazingly she won the New York Lottery Sweet Million game and every year for the next 20 years, Gloria is going to garner $50,000!

Sal was gobsmacked and mused, "I sat back and thought about it and realized the odds against this are astronomical. I can't shrug off that Jesus had a hand in it. No pun intended, it was a Godsend".

He then abandoned his secular beliefs and became a believer! He changed faith! Gloria later said that God had performed two miracles. The unexpected lottery win and the conversion of her son!

Spanish Village wins lottery through the lens of faith

Spain's national lottery, known as "El Gordo" (the Fat One), was first established in 1812 and operates somewhat differently from most British lotteries. It has a total of 1,800 winning tickets. Each ticket costs a whopping €200 but it is then sub-divided into ten 'decimas' which cost around €20 each. The 'decima' is then broken down into individual 'participations' that cost about €5.

In 2011 a group of women from the village of Sodeto in north-west Spain forked out £5000 on a 17 per cent share of ticket number 58268. This translated into 1,200 individual tickets. Many of these tickets were bought by the 250 or so residents of Sodeto. This number won the biggest jackpot in the history of El Gordo – a whopping £600 million!

Happy days indeed! The joyous citizens of Sodeto celebrated by doing the conga and downing more than seventy bottles of bubbly. They couldn't believe their 'luck'. Every family in Sodeto had purloined, at least, one ticket worth £83,000. Some had one ticket, others had more.

Olga Bonet, 49, with hardly any teeth in her mouth, became a millionaire overnight. "We bought a new mattress and eat more ham now", she explained. Big Fran, who was almost destitute, had bought four tickets and he garnered £332,000. He left town on the day he cashed the cheque.

Jose Maria Cambra's wife had bought two tickets and then their son found two more that they had forgotten about! They were chuffed. Dad joked: "‘I kept saying: look for some more, look for some more".’ Borja Vinueles, a young farmer, used his share of the jackpot to buy himself a liquid manure spreader. Fair enough!

The only sour note of the drama was a Greek man, Costis Mitsotakis, a Greek filmmaker, who had moved to the village to follow a sweetheart named Sandra. He was the only resident of Sodeto who failed to purchase a ticket. He was gutted!

How does this story connect to faith?

Some of the villagers thanked God for this amazing bonaza. Others begged to differ. Sandra (one ticket only) splashed out on a Harley Davidson motorbike. She opined: "For one moment, our village was chosen by the universe. It still gives me goosebumps".

Sandra is living in a pantheist story. The universe is divine.

Marisol, a local hairdresser lives in a different story. She believes that luck is a purely random affair. Luck is God, and luck is dumb. Marisol is living in a naturalist story. There is no God. Only nature exists.

So in Sodeto there are three different faiths (perhaps more). Theism, Pantheism and Naturalism. All to be found in one village in Spain that won the 'Fat one'.

Football in the Kingdom of God

Mark is away this week, so here's something you may have missed last month.

As anticipation mounted for the World Cup final, a feature about football and faith went out on 6th July on 16 local radio stations around the country: from Yorkshire Coast Radio to Cornwall's Pirate FM. Mark was a central commentator: speaking alongside Christian professional footballers Bruce Dyer and Bobby Hassell, he talked about the drama, joy and wackiness of football as one of the good things we can do in God's creation.

He pointed out that everyone is living in a personal story of faith, and every football tournament is a journey into the unknown. What will win in the end, he suggested, is the creation, renewed by Jesus Christ and still containing football – purged of evil and even more beautiful than the game we know now.

Read more about it on the Reach Beyond website.

Amazing Questions from Teenagers

I wanted to blog about some of the questions that students ask.

RealityBites is a ministry that creates space for people to ask questions about life, the universe and, of course, Hertfordshire. We try to arouse curiosity in people about God, idolatry and the kingdom of Jesus. We do this by telling provocative, shocking stories about rat worshippers, plastic surgery obsessives and human traffickers etc.

At a recent school conference in Leeds, I was amazed by the quality of the questions that the students asked after my presentation. Here are some of their questions (which were written down in the main):

  1. Why is it wrong to follow your heart?
  2. What is the difference between ideology and religion?
  3. Is there really such a thing as 'ethical consumerism'?
  4. Do you believe that consumerism is caused by simply our faith in marketisation or the vanity of human beings and the pressure to be part of consumerism?
  5. Do celebrities create the consumerist culture or are they its victims?
  6. Why is 'consumerist nature' in a capitalist society such a bad thing?
  7. Why are human beings the only species who value things like money and time?
  8. Wasn't George Cadbury just as selfish and profit-driven as all other consumerists?
  9. Why do we as humans feel the need to conform to this consumerist society?
  10. Can you be a responsible consumer without believing in God?

This list of questions is very revealing because it shows very clearly that when young people are engaged in thought-provoking and imaginative ways, their curiosity is sparked and they want to talk about consumerism, materialism, relationships, the meaning of life and… God.

French Lessons and Secular Indoctrination

The teaching of modern foreign languages (MFL) is widely assumed to be unaffected by the teacher's faith or worldview.

It is almost certain that James Bond would have studied French at Eton College. Surely 'siege ejectable' is the French for 'ejector seat' whether the teacher is a Buddhist, Christian, rat worshipper or materialist. True enough but there is far more to teaching French than that. Why do we want our students to learn French in the first place? (My thoughts on this topic have been greatly sharpened by Arthur Jones and David Smith). The MFL literature suggests several reasons. Students should learn French so that they can become:

  • Profiteers – how can our pupils exploit the opportunities of the European market if they don't speak the language? Your ability to speak French will enhance your job prospects and earning power. Posters conveying this message will be found in many MFL classrooms.
  • Persuaders – how can we persuade other countries of the superiority of our policies and values if we can't speak their language?
  • Connoisseurs – many teachers have explored the riches of French culture and literature and want to introduce their pupils to what they have come to deeply appreciate and love.
  • Tourists – many other teachers dismiss these goals as too idealistic. All most children need – and will absorb – is enough of the language to get by on their overseas holidays and shopping trips.
  • Escapologists – Some children's experience of life – in broken families and poverty – is poor. What better than to escape into another language and culture and forget – at least for a while – the painful realities at home.
  • Revolutionaries – Finally, some teachers would use MFL teaching to sharpen pupils' understanding of their own culture and alert them to its social and economic injustices.

Can any of these visions of MFL teaching be Christian? How do they chime with the biblical story? Calvin College professor David Smith suggests that the goal of MFL teaching should be to nurture good neighbours? For example, we might want our children to learn French so that they can be good neighbours to French-speaking asylum seekers and also show hospitality to the French who visit Britain or who come to live here. Teaching and learning a foreign language is not a worldview-neutral activity.

Unfortunately many Christians who teach MFL can be easily mugged by secular justifications for their work. It's all too easy to trot out materialist rationales for MFL. We study Mandarin for profit and enhanced status etc. We need to notice that a kind of secular indoctrination has taken place.

One other point worth noting is the striking absence of Christian beliefs and insights from MFL materials. It would seem that all foreigners live without any reference to God and Jesus. In fact the only reference to anything remotely 'religious' in many MFL syllabi is to horoscopes! Of course there is a constant and persistent dripfeed of the consumerist faith and way of life. It’s all about buying your strawberry ice cream, your café au lait, your cake, your steak au poivre, your helicopter, your sacred right to have constant consumer satisfaction.

Let's formulate some questions. Do we study French in order to serve the money god? Do we learn our French verbs because we want to be incredibly rich like Hetty Green? Or do we learn French so that we can bless and love our neighbours?

Paris Hilton in Two Minutes

RealityBites has now delivered presentations on Celebrity Culture and Christian Faith to more than 1300 people in England, Australia and Holland. Here we probe Paris Hilton's lived beliefs.

Forget about what she says! Look at the way she lives! Scrutinise how she treats her 'best friends' from the USA, the UK and Dubai. Evidence for this can be garnered from YouTube. What story is Paris living in?

Here follows a Hilton classic quote:

Barbie is my role model. She might not do anything, but she looks good doing it.

A darling of the critics, Paris is also known for her sophisticated and riveting reality TV show "Best Friend Forever" in which she searches for a replacement chum for Nicole Richie after their tragic feud.

This is how, I think, Paris would answer the five big worldview questions. Please correct me if I am wrong.

Where am I?

I am living in a dangerous but exciting world of opportunity.
Some of my best friends can be easily manipulated by cunning creatures like moi.

Who am I?

I am a celebutante. I am a goddess and crave the worship and adulation of my 'best friends'.

What's wrong?

Other people do not worship and adore me.I am not pampered enough. Other people say unkind and cruel things about me.

What's the solution?

Go for it. Work hard and unleash your unique talent. Believe in yourself and everyone's hot! With effort and a little luck you can become a big success and enjoy abundant consumption and everyone will morph into your 'best friend'.

What happens after death?

You rot. No more best friends for a celebrity like me.

Non-Cheesy Way of Doing Mission

A simple and effective way to talk about the Christian faith is to craft speech acts about heroes and villains. For example, I was talking recently to a financial adviser about investing money in a variety of portfolios and my wife, Anne and I became bothered about the dodgy nature of some of the schemes. We're talking about our money being invested in weapons, tobacco and pornography companies. This is how the conversation went with 'Brian'.

Mark: I don't think my hero, George Cadbury, would invest in these companies, Brian. Do you know about George's amazing chocolate company?

Brian: No I don't think I do.

Mark: Well, George Cadbury was a Quaker who made my favourite chocolate on a daily basis. He was profit-sensitive without being profit-driven. He was a committed Christian and he was very ethical in everything he did blah blah. I don't think he would have invested his coin in some of these companies you are suggesting to us.

Brian: It's rare to meet people like you who are concerned about this ethical issue. Most people aren't bothered by this at all.

Mark: This might sound odd to you but I believe that one day I will have to give an account of my life to Jesus and I'd much rather be like George Cadbury than Hetty Green.

Brian: Sorry I'm not with you Mark. Hetty who?

Mark: Have you never heard of Hetty Green, Brian? She lived in a very secular, materialist story. She was incredibly wealthy but stunk like a skunk and was one of the meanest people ever to have lived. I'm anxious to avoid her mistakes. Call me old-fashioned if you like.

Develop your own speech acts using your favourite heroes and villains. You could use Susie Hart, Pastor Pete or Bob Lavelle as your heroes. The key thing is to find heroes and villains that you enjoy talking about. Develop your own bespoke speech acts that communicate your Christian faith in a non-cheesy way.

Outline of a course on Celebrity Culture and Christian Faith

In this course we look at the things celebrities do and say and then we invite young adults (18-21 years of age) to respond. What is an intelligent Christian response? Each session has the following structure:

  1. Outline celebrity comments with appropriate storytelling.
  2. How do you respond? Your thoughts on Paris Hilton etc.
  3. What is an intelligent Christian response? Go beyond clichés.
  4. Time for debate and discussion.


This course helps young adults to understand celebrity culture and how to engage Christianly with it. We begin with celebrity culture because this is the world that many western people indwell. Many enjoy talking about Paris Hilton, Wayne Rooney and Russell Brand. It aims to bring the Bible alive for young adults who need more depth in the teaching/learning activities they receive. It nurtures Christian thinking about contemporary culture. What does it mean to follow Jesus in this social context? In four sessions (one hour each) we will work through the following celebrity 'insights'. Hopefully the group will find other celebrity stories to discuss.

  1. "You can buy a woman for $10,000 and make your money back in a week if she is pretty and young. Then everything else is profit." Tarzan, the celebrity trafficker
  2. "I stand for freedom of expression, doing what you believe in, and going after your dreams." Madonna
  3. "Don't you know who I am? I'm a millionaire. You're not even in my league." Marlon King
  4. "Blimey, that's heavy. Are you Dr Phil? I think, just live in the moment. Don't have regrets and enjoy yourself." Shane Warne
  5. "You are a commodity and you can be treated in the most awful manner if they think it can help them in the slightest way." Robbie Fowler
  6. "There’s a tyranny of choice, endless options. You buy loads of washing machines, cars, jeans – why not consume people in the same way?" Russell Brand
  7. "I'm not interested in being a role model for anybody else. Every man has his own life to live and every man should take his own path." Tyson Fury (British boxer)
  8. "Players are pieces of meat – that is how I look at it. When your time's up, your time's up." Roy Keane
  9. "I believe in fate. Sometimes things happen for a reason." Roy Keane
  10. "Work is a necessary evil to be avoided." Mark Twain
  11. "Curses can't touch me because I wear my underwear inside out." Adrian Mutu (Romanian footballer)
  12. "My biggest wish for all of us is that we are happy, successful and that we stay true to ourselves." Victoria Beckham
  13. "No one can live without money. Money and religion are the big things, and that's it, and I stay away from religion. We love to earn money, who doesn't? It gets you things and it's security." Katie Price
  14. "So when you feel like hope is gone look inside you and be strong and you'll finally see the truth that a hero lies in you." Lyrics from Mariah Carey's song Hero
  15. "Barbie is my role model. She might not do anything, but she looks good doing it." Paris Hilton
  16. "I think it's important for girls to be confident. Believe in yourself and… everybody's hot." Paris Hilton
  17. "I love Africa in general – South Africa and West Africa, they are both great countries." Paris Hilton
  18. "I do transcendental meditation, which is, I suppose, derived from Vedic or Ayurvedic principles, which is sort of Hindu principles." Russell Brand

Three Girls in Haiti

Happy Easter! Christ is risen and his kingdom is breaking into our world. Have you heard this poignant and challenging Tony Campolo story?

Tony was walking towards the Holiday Inn in the middle of Port-au-Prince when he was intercepted by three teenage girls. The oldest was about 15.

The one in the middle said, "Mister, for ten dollars you can have me all night long."

Tony was gobsmacked!

He looked at the girl and said, "I'm an old guy. Would you sleep with me all night long for ten dollars?" She said, "Yes."

Tony unfolded his proposal: "You're in luck. I've got thirty dollars. I'm in room 210. Be there in thirty minutes. Not before."

He rushed up to the room, called room service and explained, "I want every Walt Disney video that you have in stock. How many do you have?" "Eight." came the reply. Tony wanted them all.

He then telephoned the restaurant and requested the following items… "I want banana splits. I want extra ice cream, whipped cream, cherries, nuts, syrup – I want four of them."

A few minutes later the girls arrived. The videos and the banana splits also came. They sat on the edge of the bed and watched the films until one o'clock in the morning. That's when the last of them fell asleep across the bed.

As he sat in the hotel room, looking at the girls lying on the bed he began to mull over the incident, "Nothing's changed. Nothing's changed. Tomorrow they will be back on the streets selling their bodies to dirty, lustful men. Nothing's changed. Nothing's changed."

And then something welled up inside him. He felt these words come into his mind: "For one night, Tony you gave them back their childhood. For one night you let them be kids again."

If those three girls had come up to you what would you have done? Sadly I think I would have squirmed, shuddered and then ignored them and gone straight to the bar for a beer. Tony has a baptised imagination and I need to get one urgently!

Selfies and the Western Religion

So we have another story about a young person who has suffered trauma and misery through a perceived lack of physical perfection. In 2008, Imogen D'Arcy, a 13 year old girl from Leeds committed suicide because she thought she was "fat and ugly".

Danny Bowman has appeared on British TV and has talked openly and eloquently about his addiction to 'selfies'. The 19 year old confessed that he took 200 photos of himself each day, played truant from school, wouldn't leave his house for six months and even lost two stone as he struggled to take the perfect photo. He also tried to commit suicide but his mother saved him when he took an overdose. He had a deep craving for physical perfection and the social approval this would bring.

When will we learn to connect these tragic stories to the western religion that blights so many lives? When we believe deep down that we are just physical creatures then our horizons of happiness will always be focused entirely upon material criteria. It would seem that the aggressive gospel of Hobbes disciples young people to be incredibly insecure about how they look.

The Nazis glorified physical perfection and this led to the compulsory euthanasia of those deemed ugly and ungainly. The western religion is also prone to this devaluing of physically 'inferior' people. Idolatry always devalues some of God's human creatures.

The good news of God's kingdom should be clear. All of us are created in the image and likeness of God. Our value has nothing to do with beauty and physical perfection. We are loved by God, warts and all. Even those who are flatulent are loved!