Guinness, Os. 2015. Fool’s talk: Recovering the art of Christian persuasion. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Os Guinness (DPhil. Oxford) is the author or editor of more than thirty books, He was founder of Trinity Forum and lives near Washington, D.C.

The front matter contains quotes on fools, foolishness, communication and thinking from a range of authors and books: Ecclesiastes, Aeschylus, Socrates, Cicero, St. John, St. Paul, Horace, Dante, Erasmus, Shakespeare, Molière, Pascal, Donne, Kant, Hazlitt, Montesquieu, Nietzsche, Orr, Chesterton, Orwell, Niebuhr, Bakhtin, Berger and Stott.

In his introduction, Guinness reminds us that “we are all apologists now….Everyone is now everywhere, and everyone can communicate with everyone else from anywhere and at any time, instantly and cheaply.” In respect to this, the book focuses on the problem that “We have lost the art of Christian persuasion and we must recover it” (17, his italics).

Chapter one, “Creative Persuasion”, is a call for Christian apologists to express Christian truths. But Christian persuasion is also an “inexpressible privilege, a costly challenge and a demanding lesson well worth learning” (28).

Chapter two discusses “Technique”, which Guinness subtitles “The Devils Bait”. We are tempted in two ways: “our views of time and our view of technique” (30). This includes new and improving “seminars, courses, recipes, self-help books and a myriad of formulas for ‘life-changing results’” (31). As a member of a mission organization, I see this all around me. Technology and conferences, while not yet our gods, are certainly our vision beacons and we often bow to them.

Communication, as argued by Guinness is an art, not a science. However, we should not be preoccupied with the technique of persuasion, reducing it to a formula and thinking that it must be conveyed by experts. There are of course some persuaders who are better than others and Guinness mentions, in particular, C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer and Peter Berger. These men provide carefully reasoned apologetics, but not in a dry, monotonous fashion. They were not trying to be clever, but wrote and lectured in such a way to cause a revolution in our thinking and a paradigm shift. “A paradigm shift…describes the ultimate reversal: the complete change of heart and mind that the New Testament [calls] repentance” (43).

The effect of such “creative persuasion is therefore spiritual and moral, and not simply intellectual” (43). Hence, we need to recover this lost art of Christian persuasion.

Chapter three is called “The defense never rests”, reminding us of the onslaught of feelings against trusting in God. And yet, “[the] logic of trust lies at the heart of Christian advocacy and provides its deepest rationale and its most passionate motivation” (49). The teachers of apologetics should help us “except [that] they apply their favored method regardless of the situation or outcome” (50), forgetting that “God is his own best apologist” (51).

Rather than formal arguments, questions often form a better strategy. They are indirect and challenging, rather than direct and offensive. Christians should follow St Peter’s admonition to be ready to make a defense, but to do it with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).

“The Way of the Third Fool” is the title of chapter 4. Guinness divides fools into three categories: 1) the fool proper, such as the atheist who says that there is no God—such fools cannot teach us about communication, but they are a warning to us; 2) the fool bearer, one who is a fool for “Christ’s sake”, for example, the apostles: 3) the holy fool, one who makes light of their disgrace and, with joy, and takes “the full folly and weakness of the cross to find us and win us back” (73, italics in original). One tool for this third fool is the use of humor because “The dynamics of the cross of Jesus are closer to those of comedy than tragedy” (77, italics in original).

In “Anatomy of Unbelief” (Chapter 5) Guinness describes the reasons people give for their unbelief, but the primary reason is that many intellectuals are “truth twisters” and view mainly their own arguments as true. Truth is suppressed, exploited, even inverted, and results in self-deception.

The metaphors that Guinness sketches to describe unbelief are: “hardening, blindness, deafness, unnaturalness, rebellion, lies, deception, folly and madness” (93). There may be a mixture of truth in even the harshest of lies, but inevitably truth is suppressed.

“Turning the Tables” is the title of Chapter 6 and in it Guinness recounts how some of the great Christians, like Pascal, Kierkegaard, Chesterton and Lewis, have taken the accounts of great thinkers of unbelief and, by using apologetics, followed them through to their logical ends. “The reason is that the wilder, the more skeptical or the more hostile the arguments against faith, the wiser and more effective it is to argue against them on their own grounds” (111, italics in the original). We must take the relative positions of skeptics and apply it to them, demonstrating their double standard, for “turning the tables is God’s own characteristic response to disobedience and unbelief” (116). “Our challenge is to find the treasures of people’s hearts and then to find contradictions that mean everything to them at that level” (131). It means raising questions to find out where people are in their thinking and lives. Our hope is that they will then see the need for repentance and Christ.

Chapter 7, “Triggering the Signals”, gives examples of how “to help people to hear, to listen and to understand those signals, and then to help them follow to where they lead” (147). The “signals” are the desires and longings of every human heart, an awareness that something is missing, and that there are “false satisfactions and deadening true desires simultaneously [fueling] the economy and [destroying] happiness” (139).

Guinness uses the parable-story of Nathan and David, a kind of “culture shock” to introduce chapter 8, “Spring-loaded dynamics”. Nathan confronts David with the final accusation, “You are the man”, following the story of the rich man needing meat and exploiting the poor man with his lamb. It opens David’s closed mind like a steel trap. In using his story-parable, Nathan has reframed David’s perspective, just as Jesus reframed the disciple’s thinking on the road to Emmaus.

It follows that the way to confront people with closed minds is by the use of questions, a common practice of Jesus. However, as Guinness points out “Many of us today are more adept at answering questions than asking them” (164) or, I might add, of asking the appropriate questions.

Drama and plays can also be used to speak directly to a person and their preconceived ideas and are another means of “spring-loading our persuasion” (166).

We may think that we have “The Art of Always Being Right?” which is the questioning title of chapter 9. Guinness refers to this as “taking scalps”, associated as it is with some forms of evangelism and Christian apologetics. Are we interested in truth or persuasion? Debate is an art that is not necessarily concerned with truth, just winning, so “truth is crucial to persuasion, just as persuasion is crucial to truth” (173). Guinness puts it this way: Do we really think we are more passionate about people knowing God than God himself is?” (176). He also reminds us that it is not that we are not educated enough in our quest for persuasion, but that we educated with the wrong sort of stuff. In sum, “The false art of always being right is a deadly trap for Christian advocates” (185).

“Beware the Boomerang” is the title of Chapter 10, which is a series of stories and comments on hypocrisy. We need to live what we claim in our persuasion and this includes divorcing our Christian apologetics from our cultural presuppositions. However, the very art of apologetics invites hypocrisy—we talk as if we lived the truth that we expound. As Guinness sees it, hypocrisy is a triple violation: of truth, justice and honesty. “If lie is an attempt to deceive others without their consent, hypocrisy is a lie in deeds rather than words” (195). Our arguments must be credible, not simply plausible. Any charge of hypocrisy is serious because what we ask or say may boomerang back on us with searching questions that we cannot duck.

The title of Chapter 11, “Kissing Judases” should give us pause. Because in it Guinness reminds us that “Some of today’s deadliest challenges to the Christian faith come from within the church itself” (210, emphasis in original) ,and yet we often see Church leaders offering poor apologetics in their responses because they “are like a television commentary with the sound turned off” (211). They have capitulated to the ethos of the day—“don’t defend, dialogue”. There are a number of steps that have led to the revisionist position: assumptions, abandonment of past lessons, adaptation to the cultural worldview, and finally, assimilation. Guinness calls this “a toxic form of anti-apologetics [that] calls for a robust response (227).

Chapter 12, “Charting the Journey” reminds us that “Life is a journey, a voyage, a quest, a pilgrimage, a personal odyssey, and we are all at some unknown point between the beginning and the end” (230). Along the way there are many choices and a crucial one is our relationship to God. There may be a disruption, some significant point at which we become a seeker. Genuine seekers will search for meanings in their life, a critical stage in the journey. They may compare faiths and philosophies of life, such as the Eastern family of faiths, the secularist family and, hopefully the Abrahamic family. The contrast may bring clarity to two main issues “Human dignity and worth, and the problem of evil and suffering” (243). People will look for evidences for their beliefs before they place their trust and faith in God. “Faith then becomes personal and experiential, not just a matter of knowing God, but knowing God as reality” (247). However “without God, we cannot know God” (248) and we depend on him for this gift of grace. To find God it will mean following the way of Jesus, “where all restless hearts and minds find a place to stop, with both relief and joy” (252).

The concluding chapter is on “The Way of the Open Hand”, which is contrasted with the “closed fist”. The open hand represents the “positive side of apologetics” (253). Guinness closes by encouraging readers to strive to witness to the Word and “introduce others to know him as our greatest privilege” (254).

Fool’s Talk is not an easy book to read, not because of difficult prose, but because it contains so much. There are ideas on every page, references in every chapter, that a diligent reader will want to follow up. Guinness is philosophically astute and his own arguments need to be surveyed carefully, not casually. The exercise is worth it: it will challenge you, as it has me, to be a willing witness to God by using the faith and reason that He has provided us with. Our search, we are reminded, is for truth (Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth…) and that truth is to be conveyed humbly, but with arguments that employ the power of the Holy Spirit—we become fools for Christ’s sake.

[August 2015]