Arts & Culture

Making Christian Apologetics Personal Again: A Review of Os Guinness’s ‘Fool’s Talk’

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When I first got into Christian apologetics shortly after graduating from high school, I was dazzled by what I found.

In books such as Tim Keller’s The Reason for God, Dinesh D’Souza’s What’s So Great About Christianity?, and C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, faith was demonstrated to be not just plausible, but downright reasonable.

I was elated: I thought the foolproof way of getting through to my unbelieving friends had finally arrived. If I just presented the arguments properly, the forceful logic behind them would surely compel my opponents to finally see the light and believe.

None of my conversations with non-Christians has ever gone so swimmingly, and I suspect that many readers with an interest in apologetics have had a similar experience. So what good is apologetics if it doesn’t convince anyone but ourselves?

For those who are weary of making futile attempts at arguing skeptics into belief, you may find your spirits revived by reading Os Guinness’s latest work, Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion.

Guinness’s object here is not to acquaint us with new proofs, syllogisms, or other kinds of arguments. Rather, he steps back to examine apologetics itself, defining it as the art of what he calls Christian persuasion, which is concerned not so much with what we are saying, but how we are saying it.

I cannot do justice to the depth and scope of Guinness’s discussion in a few paragraphs, but I can draw attention to some key insights that I hope will inspire you to read it for yourself.

The overarching imperative of Fool’s Talk is that apologetics must be made personal again if it is to be effective. This basic idea is worked out in several specific points, the first of which is that apologetics cannot be reduced to technique.

The Trouble with Technique

Guinness observes that, in our modern world, we are collectively besotted with the notion that, “we can calculate and control everything by applying numbers, rules, methods and metrics everywhere and to everything.”

In the case of apologetics, this would mean theoretically we can persuade all people using one uniform approach, strategy, or plan. It’s a tempting thought from the standpoint of apologists and evangelists. After all, we’ve got a lot of people to save, so we should do it in the most efficient way possible, right?

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it entirely ignores one of the most basic truths about people, namely that everyone is different. If we really believe this (and we should – see Psalm 139:13-14), then why in the world would we also believe that a particular strategy or set of arguments will convince everyone we meet?

As Guinness notes,

Jesus never spoke to two people the same way, and neither should we. Every single person is unique and individual and deserves an approach that respects that uniqueness.

Of course, this does not mean we need to construct completely novel responses for each and every personal encounter, but only that we should be judicious in choosing how we engage with each person.

Different approaches will be more or less effective with different people, and we cannot hope to devise anything like a “silver bullet” argument that overcomes all challenges:

We live in a fallen world in which any thoughts are thinkable, any arguments are arguable and any doubts are dubitable….There are therefore no foolproof methods of persuasion, and those that come closest are coercive and dangerous because they override the will rather than convince the mind.

This brings us to a second insight worth mentioning here: If we hope to ever bring people to belief, we must have a better understanding of unbelief.

The Anatomy of Unbelief

We like to think apologetics is simply an exercise in robust reasoning. If our logic is tight and our arguments are sound, we tell ourselves, then our disputants will have no choice but to recognize this and adjust their beliefs accordingly.

In placing this kind of trust in logical argumentation, we not only commit a gaping fallacy ourselves, we also implicitly profess a view of humanity that is even more fundamentally unbiblical than the idea that all people can be convinced by the same arguments.

It does not at all follow that if our logic is sound and true, then those we engage with are bound to acknowledge this. Quite the contrary.

The Bible has plenty to say on how unbelievers willfully suppress the truth (Romans 1:18) and, to borrow Guinness’s language, exploit it and invert it. Ultimately,

In the futile act of trying to deny the undeniable, [unbelief] both deceives others and deceives itself, and so becomes self-deceived.

How then can we ever persuade anyone? Guinness points out that even though “the heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9), there is still hope:

Unbelievers suppress the truth in unrighteousness, but it is still always the truth, so they can never completely get away from it.

He goes on to explain precisely how we can effectively engage with unbelievers, but I leave readers to discover that for themselves.

The Defense Never Rests

One final point worth dwelling on is our motivation for doing apologetics. According to Strong’s Concordance, the Greek word apologia means, “a verbal defense (particularly in a law court).” This prompts the question, whom are we defending? Whose advocate are we?

The easy answer is “God,” but in practice our motives may not be so pure. Guinness puts the question pointedly:

Have we loved enough to listen, or is it that we love to hear the sound of our own answers? Are we really arguing for Christ, or are we expressing our need to always be right? Are we really trying to show people how they can discover the solid assurance of a warranted faith, or are we really piling up evidence to try to convince ourselves?

When nonbelievers press us on our beliefs instead of the other way around, our priority can quickly shift from defending God to defending our reputation for being thoughtful and intelligent. We must have an answer for everything, we think, lest we seem foolish.

But we forget that by virtue of professing Christianity at all, we are already considered fools no matter how well we argue (1 Corinthians 1:18). Guinness even says that it is precisely from an appearance of foolishness that we are best situated to “turn the tables” on unbelievers.

So instead of arguing for the sake of upholding our own intellectual superiority, Guinness suggests a far better reason to do apologetics:

Those who love God and desire that he should be known for who he is are outraged when he is unjustly framed and are therefore eager to defend his honor, clear his name and vindicate his character.

We should practice apologetics for the same reason we are quick to respond when someone slanders a dear friend or family member to our face: we know what they say is false, and our love for that person and our indignation compel us to speak out.

Not that God needs us to speak on his behalf. He is, as Guinness says, “his own supreme counsel for the defense.” Still, we do well to contribute what we can as “junior counsels” if it is done out of love.

God Is His Own Best Apologist

Guinness addresses a great deal more that is not covered here, but even these few points are worthy of deep reflection. If you wonder whether apologetics is capable of doing any real good anymore, I strongly recommend you read the entire book, and be encouraged by this last thought:

Our goal is not to teach people to come to know something about God, but to come to know and love him, and to be known and loved by him. How absurd, then, to think that we by ourselves can do what needs to be done, and we can do it simply through words. God is his own best apologist, and it is he himself who draws people to know and love him, and through life and not simply words.

Our words alone will never prevail, but neither should we fall silent altogether. In the wake of recent court rulings and cultural events – and all that goes with them – we may feel as though attempting to persuade nonbelievers of Christian truths has reached a new peak of futility.

Guinness wisely reminds us that no one is a complete stranger to the truth – we only need to be deliberate in helping people recognize it for what it is.

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  • Kevin

    James and Hugh–thanks so much for this inspiration. I am in the middle of writing some devotions for my church. You turning me on to another Os Guinness work has helped me so. I am overlaying Dr. Guinness’s observations about contemporary apologist’s upon Jeremiah when religious and cultural leaders wanted to extinguish Jeremiah’s exhortations. I’m going to close my devotion with reference to “the truth” of God that Guinness refers to that stands the test of time because it is indeed–the truth of God.

    Kevin Balog

  • Kevin

    James and Hugh–thanks so much for this inspiration. I am in the middle of writing some devotions for my church. You turning me on to another Os Guinness work has helped me so. I am overlaying Dr. Guinness’s observations about contemporary apologist’s upon Jeremiah when religious and cultural leaders wanted to extinguish Jeremiah’s exhortations. I’m going to close my devotion with reference to “the truth” of God that Guinness refers to that stands the test of time because it is indeed–the truth of God.

    Kevin Balog

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