Fool’s Talk: Recovering The Art of Christian Persuasion

August 31, 2015 — 4 Comments


I have a fairly long interest in apologetics. I’m not actually sure when it started, but the skeleton was taking shape by the time I left Bible school and was put to the test while I worked at Starbucks. The bones got meat put on them while I was in seminary, and I would eventually win the apologetics award for my Th.M thesis. All during this time I was reading books on the subject, either content or method. But, in all that reading I never really came across a book quite like this one.

I’ve read a few Os Guinness books in the past, one at the direct recommendation of Chuck Swindoll when I talked to him after chapel (he enthusiastically told me to read The Call). Neither was directly about apologetics though. This book, is not directly about it either, at least in the sense that most people would think of a book being about apologetics. There is a chapter explain why we shouldn’t be after the latest and greatest techniques (chapter 2), but that’s often a feature of works on apologetics. There is no extended presentation of the viable evidence for Christianity, yet that doesn’t mean arguments aren’t made for its validity. And while technique is eschewed, there are two chapters on general approaches to persuasively interacting with nonbelievers (chapters 6 and 7).

In a word, Fool’s Talk: Recovering The Art of Christian Persuasion re-frames the motive and aims of the apologist slash evangelist. In an age where most everyone says “I post, therefore I am” (15) Guinness seeks to remedy “a central and serious shortcoming in Christian communication today” (16). Specifically, “we have lost the art of Christian persuasion and we must recover it” (17). “Persuasion” in this sense being “the art of speaking to people who, for whatever reason, are indifferent or resistant to what we have to say” (18).

This leads to the heart of the problem, which Guinness explains as a problem of the heart (18): “The fact is that much contemporary advocacy ignores the deeper understandings of the spiritual and philosophical ways in which people think through their faiths, change their faiths, and the impact of their cultures and their ways of life on their thinking and beliefs” (18). We won’t understand unbelief and so have difficulty persuasively explaining our beliefs. We also mistakenly assume people are open to what we have to say when increasingly that is not the case.

In the first two chapters, Guinness makes a case for creativity in our persuasion while also avoiding a reliance on techniques. In regards to the former, Guinness argues that our discourse must be cross-centered and cross-shaped. For the latter, Guinness suggests that “Technique is the devil’s bait for the Christian persuader today” (30). Because there is no such thing as “McApologetics” (32) we mustn’t offer a one-size fits all approach to our persuasion. Ultimately, persuasion is an art, not a science and in its creative form “is the art of truth, the art that truth inspires” (34). We need more cross talk than clever talk (39). Because creative presentation is spiritual and moral, in addition to being intellectual (43), we must avoid simple reliance on technique which is never neutral and “essentially soulless” (44).

Chapters 3 and 4 make a case for defending our faith and being willing to be seen as foolish in doing so. In this regard, Guinness states,

Apologetics (from apologia in Greek) is a “word back,” a reasoned defense mounted on behalf of the one we love who is innocent but has been falsely and unfairly accused. Faith desires to let God be God. Sin has framed God, whether by the ultimate insults that he, the creator of all things, does not exist, or that he, the white-hot holy One, is responsible for the evil and suffering that humans have introduced into his good creation. So God’s name must be cleared and his existence and character brought to the fore beyond question (54-55, emphasis original).

Because of this, “so long as sin frames God, those who love God have a job to do in the world” (55). In the course of making our defense, we may appear foolish, but this is the way of the “third fool.” There are fools proper (see Proverbs) and fools for Christ (see 1 Corinthians). Then there are fool-makers, those willing to be seen as foolish in order to “bounce back and play the jester, addressing truth to power, pricking the balloons of the high and mighty, and telling the emperor that he has no clothes” (72).

Chapter 5 presents an erudite explanation of unbelief. In biblical perspective, “the central core of the anatomy of unbelief stems from its willful abuse of truth” (85). It does this through suppression, exploitation, inversion, and ultimately self-deception (86-89). This all leads to a tension that will not quite go away. Because the truth is, well, the truth, a worldview that reacts the way unbelief does will always sit uneasily in a person’s conscience. Guinness explains this the “dilemma pole” and the “diversion pole”:

The dilemma pole expresses the logic of the fact that the more consistent people are to their own view of reality, the less close they are to God’s reality and the more likely they are to feel their dilemma. The diversion pole expresses the fact that the less consistent people are to their own view of reality, the closer they are to God’s reality so the more they must find a diversion. Neither pole is necessarily closer to God, because unbelief as unbelief will not bow to God either way, but the people at either pole are relating to God and to their own claims to truth in entirely different ways (96, emphasis original).

In our culture, people more often gravitate toward the diversion pole as a our technological society proliferates. However, the dilemma pole is more consistent and leads to biblical themes like becoming like what your worship and reaping what you sow (98).

Given this understanding of unbelief, Guinness offers two strategies for persuasion in chapters 6 and 7 respectively. The former discusses “turning the tables,” which is more suited to those near the dilemma pole while the latter discusses “triggering the signals,” which is more suited to the diversion pole. For those more consistent in rejecting God (dilemma), the tables being turned pushes their own argument back against them in a variety of ways. For those less consistent, but just as disinterested (diversion), the signals triggered point to something beyond their current belief system that can only make sense in God’s reality. It is a way of sometimes waking our conservation partner from their agnostic slumbers.

In the final chapters, touches on using questions well in conversation and other ways to spring load our persuasion (chapter 8). He also discusses how to not shy away but embrace the accusation of hypocrisy (chapter 10), while not claiming to always be right (chapter 9). He closes chapter about those in the church who have left and how they become formidable challengers to the Christian faith because of their inside perspective (chapter 11), and a general overview of the apologist’s journey (chapter 12).

While I could probably continue on for another 500-1000 words about how excellent this book is, I think you get the idea. Guinness helps readers go a long way toward recovering the art of persuasion which often fails to be on many would be apologist’s radar. He takes elements from many schools of thought and threads them together in a way that will help readers integrate the best insights those schools have to offer. What might have been helpful is to chart some of this more clearly in the endnotes (which are unfortunately not footnotes). Having read widely in apologetics, I’m aware when he is being presuppositional, but that’s not always clear. The target audience might be why this kind of conceptual architecture wasn’t laid bare. It seems geared toward a general audience (this isn’t IVP Academic), but it is a very sophisticated read, and so may shoot over many lay reader’s heads. Needless to say, this all points to the challenge involved in writing this sort of book. At the end of the day, I think Guinness did a fine job and you’ll definitely want to pick up a copy of this book.

Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk: Recovering The Art of Christian PersuasionDowners Grove, IL: IVP Books, July 2015. 270 pp. Hardcover, $22.00.

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Thanks to IVP Books for the review copy!


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

4 responses to Fool’s Talk: Recovering The Art of Christian Persuasion

  1. Adding this one to the list! We are doing a series on the “art of neighboring” here in Texas. While love is by far the most important thing for these types of interactions, this type of knowledge you mentioned can definitely add some substance to future conversations.

    • Where are you at in Texas these days? That’s a great initiative and you’re right, this book could help that in some ways!

  2. This sounds like a great book! I need to add it to my wish list. Thank you for the insight! God be with you.

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