Book Review of Os Guinness’ “Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion”

Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion by Os Guinness

Donald R. Bryant

For those nurtured on the vision of Francis Schaeffer, Os Guinness is the incarnation of the spirit of L’abri. His forte is superb cultural analysis, immersion in the contemporary literature and art, rooting the authentic Christian imagination in orthodoxy.

His latest work, Fool’s Talk, is a summary statement of his apologetic and evangelistic concerns. The church finds herself less and less effective in the encounter with “people who are not open, not interested or not needy—in other words, people who are closed, indifferent, hostile, skeptical or apathetic, and therefore require persuasion.” The witnessing Christian community assumes people are open to what we have to say, maybe even interested. Not!! In much of the advanced modern world fewer people are open today than ever. “Indeed, many are more hostile, and their hostility is greater than the Western church has faced for centuries,” he writes.

Yet, he contends, we are in “the grand age of apologetics.” With the advanced pluralism of our time and the loss of a metanarrative, there is a sociologically demonstrated “proneness to conversion” in the Western world. People are converting to other worldviews all the time. Just not so much to Christianity. The question is why not?

Perhaps McDonaldization and McDisneyization in the church, patterned after our host culture, have something to do with it, seeking to override the will of the consumer rather than convince the mind. McApologetics will not do – fast, wordy, formulaic, and mathematical, complete with church growth charts. We must return to the communication paradigm that flows out of our central beliefs and from the models found in the prophets of the Old Testament and especially of Jesus himself.

Our central beliefs are the “five central truths of the faith—creation, the fall, the incarnation, the cross, and the Spirit of God. True to the biblical understanding of creation, Christian persuasion must always take account of the human capacity for reason and the primacy of the human heart. True to the understanding of the fall, Christian persuasion must always take account of the anatomy of an unbelieving mind in its denial of God. True to the incarnation, Christian persuasion always has to be primarily person-to-person and face-to-face, and not argument to argument, formula to formula, media to media or methodology to methodology. True to the cross of Jesus, Christian persuasion has to be cross-shaped in its manner just as it is cross-centered in its message…And true to the Holy Spirit, Christian persuasion must always know and show that the decisive power is not ours but God’s.”

The title makes the point – Christian persuasion is “fool’s talk,” a crucified style in which our weakness is rooted in God’s power, a power that will have its day as it seeps through the cracks in human defense mechanisms, past what CS Lewis called, “the lions at the gate.” (Lewis uses this metaphor as reason itself, but I think it can apply even more broadly to attitudes that are at work off the radar screen). Guinness’ models for persuasion are new and old. In our time they are CS Lewis, Francis Schaefer, and Peter Berger of the last century and Erasmus of Rotterdam in Martin Luther’s time, particularly this book In Praise of Folly. Erasmus was a Roman Catholic churchman who wrote this parody of the church of his day using the backdrop of a jester, one who through humor, inversion, and tongue-in-cheek satire criticized the moribund and sleepy church that had lost the edges of the Gospel and the capacity to persuade and reach the hearts of the people. The message had become so familiar and its edges so dull that it could not cut to interior worlds. Perhaps humor would have to do. Make them laugh before they kill you.

Christian persuasion aimed at the bored and the hostile has to recover the art of fool’s talk, not of clever talk. This ministry paradigm drills deep into the rich fields of 1 Corinthians where the Apostle Paul frames his ministry. Seen as a fool on a stage, the audience watches him and is drawn into the story that they would otherwise reject. Their jeering of the jester morphs into realization and wonder. Truly, as Guinness remarks, Balaam’s ass is the patron of apologists.

Guinness identifies three types of fools in the Bible. There is first the fool proper, that broad category of people who have no time for God. The second is quite different, the fool bearer, the person who is not actually a fool at all but who is prepared to be seen and treated as a fool—the “fool for Christ’s sake.” Here Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot gives insight. This leads us to the third type—the fool maker. Realizing that the application of power in order to persuade usually overcomes by destroying what defies it, as Reinhold Niebuhr asserts, it takes the full folly and weakness of the cross to find out us sinners and win us back in a way that will not destroy us.

We are “hardened, blind, deaf, deceived and foolish madmen who left to ourselves suppress the truth.” How can we ever be stopped in our rush to another distraction? Enter the fool, who will also distract us, but it is a diversion that leads us back to the path that takes us to ultimates. How? By leading us to ask questions and uncovering the inconsistencies and pressures or our own worldviews, a favorite theme of Francis Schaeffer’s, as Guinness points out.

He posits that the church does this by being on their ground, using their prophets, helping them to relativize what they considered absolute. As Berger models it, we relativize the relativizers. After all, while all their thoughts can be thought, not all their thoughts can be lived out. The very attempt to do so creates tension. By a working familiarity with the culture’s own prophetic voices and its own tensions, their comfortable unbelief can be subverted by using questions to raise questions about how far down the road their own prophets can take them.

The most memorable metaphor Guinness uses is that of Arthur Koestler’s. “The young Arthur was given a puzzle, a paper with a tangle of very thin red and blue lines that at first sight looked more of a mess than a picture. But if you covered it with a piece of transparent red tissue paper, the red lines disappeared and the blue lines formed a picture of a clown with a dog. And if you covered it with a blue tissue paper, the blue lines disappeared and a roaring lion emerged, chasing the clown across the ring. There are crucial differences in perspective between the worldviews, and the differences make a difference. Each claims to be comprehensive on its own terms, each has its own way of explaining and explaining away the others, and the question is how do we decide between them?”

Once people begin to question the adequacy of their adopted explanations for reality, they can then become a seeker, looking for something more complete. “When life becomes a question, the search is on for an answer.” Among the possible answers, there must inevitably be the question of which possibility is true. It is here that the usual method of apologetics begins to play its real role. Until then, it sits on the sidelines. Coming into the game too early is, as they say in football, too many players on the field. Until this happens, evangelism is merely passing in the dark. Of course, it is the Holy Spirit who shepherds this process. He does not show up only in regeneration but waters and tends the heart as it awakens from its “dogmatic slumber,” using Immanuel Kant’s phrasing.

Guinness demonstrates sensitivity to three objections. The first is that of Reformed apologists who would contend that he is placing too high a faith in the capacities of fallen people. Second, isn’t Guinness just being clever, the very thing he eschews? Isn’t he just McDonald’s in another guise, treating the other as an object to be tricked into conversion by adroit questions? Guinness is most sensitive to this objection. The third objection is that his apologetics demands a high level of education and is not available to pew guy, who, after all, in the New Testament is the primary means of Kingdom expansion through Gospel witness. He rejects this implication, but, alas, the everyday laymen will find the book too slow for his tastes as Guinness does what he does best, cultural analysis – book, authors, films, the arts, etc. I, for one, do not believe that his method is obscure, but it cannot be described as readily accessible to “everyman.” That’s okay. He influences our method by a more “trickle down” effect than a direct lunge at the church with a precise score. Thought shapers within the church read Guinness. They will take it the next step.

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