Foolishly Persuaded: a book review

We live in a time in which our culture vacillates between the material world and the spiritual-but-not-religious. Everywhere you look there is either New Atheism or New Age spirituality, evidentialist scientific rationalism or postmodern relativism. Os Guinness points out that the time is ripe for apologetic engagement but  first we must recapture the lost art of Christian persuasion (16-17). In Fool’s Talk he gives an account of where we are at this cultural moment and what it would look like for Christians to engage the culture persuasively and winsomely.

Guinness’s first three chapters make the case for Christian persuasion, while chapters four through twelve give shape to the type of persuasion he is advocating for. In chapter one he urges us to allow our talk to be shaped by the cross (which is foolishness to those who are perishing), and states “Christian persuasion must always take account of the human capacity for reason and the primacy of the human heart” (27). Throughout the book he continues to argue for persuasion of both  the heart and the mind, in language which speaks meaningfully to unbelievers.  In chapter two, he eschews an over-emphasis on communication or marketing techniques, saying, ‘Christian persuasion is cross talk, not clever talk’ (39). He takes his cues on persuasive speech from the Bible, mostly Jesus and the prophets. Chapter three  argues for the vital role of apologetics in Christian speech (Guinness after all, is an apologist), and the need to engage with  a passionate intellect. Humorously, Guinness calls Balaam’s ass the patron saint of apologists for the vital role it played in saving Balaam by stopping him in his tracks(60).

In chapter four unfolds what he means by Fool’s Talk–subversion of the ‘vaunted wisdom, strength and superiority of the world through the cross'(72). He showcases how the gospel provides ‘the most hopeful and humorous view of life in world history’ (with a little help from thinkers like Erasmus, Chesterton, Reinhold Niebuhr and Peter Berger and more). Chapter five examines the ‘anatomy of unbelief.’ Guinness diagnoses the way unbelief stems from a willful abuse of truth, deliberate acts of exploitation and inversion of the truth, deception and self-deception (84-9).  He profiles how distractions keep unbelievers from seeing the consequences of their belief systems.

Chapter six unpacks what Guinness calls ‘prophetic subversion,’–engaging unbelievers beliefs by turning the tables on them. Guinness says, “all thoughts can be thought, but not all thoughts lived” (115)and argues for an apologetic which reveals the pitfalls of unbelief (following things through to see where their ideas lead).  Helping others see the full consequences of their position involves engaging with them in their language rather than just saying the gospel louder, slower and in a tone-deaf way. Here Guinness helps us see our way through to engaging others, be he  counsels graciousness and care (121). People are not consistently rational and we should take care to speak to the areas where they feel the inconsistencies in their worldview. This requires both gentleness and discernment.

Chapter seven profiles moments in the lives of several converts and what caused them to see the cracks in their worldview.  Chapter eight explores how to speak persuasively with others through reframing the issues, raising questions, telling stories or dramatizing their predicament. A key biblical story which  illustrates persuasive talk is Nathan’s confrontation of David about his sin with Bathsheba and Uriah. Chapter nine addresses tone of conversation and the trap of always ‘having to be right.’ Chapter ten tackles the problem of Christian hypocrisy (the ‘what about you’ boomerang’) and chapter eleven profiles religious revisionists within the church who have forsaken the gospel (he isn’t particularly friendly to Episcopalians on this score). In chapter twelve Guinness unfolds his method: raise questions, give answers, give evidence and provide a chance for commitment.

Admittedly this book was a slow burn for me. It really wasn’t compelled until part way through Turning the Tables (chapter five); however Guinness is somewhat of an elderstatesman among Christian apologists and an astute cultural critic. He points a way foreword for Christians to engage in compelling, creative persuasion and synthesizing the insights of other great apologists and Christian thinkers before him. There is a lot of meat that the above summary skips over. I don’t think there is a better resource which comprehensively provides rules of engagement for those who want to share their faith with unbelievers. I have a couple qualms about his tone when profiling those he disagrees with but appreciate his message. I recommend this book for anyone who is interested in seeing unbelievers come to saving hope through Christ. There is sage advice on how to communicate good news winsomely to hearts and minds. I give this five stars: ★★★★★

Note: I received this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review.

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