Persuasive faith in a dismissive world
Over the decades, Os Guinness has written books that have named exactly what’s needed to be named for me to make sense of my world.
In The Dust of Death (1973) he identified the essential landmarks of the revolution that roiled out of the Sixties and forever changed Western culture. What’s more, his clear-eyed analysis was written from the perspective of Christian faith, so that rather than being reactionary or defensive his stance was compassionate and hopeful.
Three years later Os published In Two Minds: The Dilemma of Doubt & How to Resolve It (1976), that allowed me to see the nature of faith, belief, doubt and unbelief clearly for the first time. Though these are terms commonly used in the Christian community, the meanings and connotations assigned to them are often obscure and sometimes mistaken. Clarity brings not only a sense of assurance but also a quiet confidence as we walk through the buffeting faith absorbs in an age of cynicism and disbelief.
Os is a keen social critic and clear, accessible communicator with a deep commitment to the gospel, an appreciation for the American experiment in freedom, and an unstinting passion for human flourishing in a broken world—as his book titles reveal:
Fit Bodies Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think & What To Do About It (1994).
The Call: Finding & Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life(1998).
Steering Through Chaos: Vice & Virtue in an Age of Moral Confusion (2000).
A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom & the American Future (2012).
He’s authored or edited more than 30 books, all timely and incisive, so most people will find a title that touches on a topic worth some thoughtful reflection and learning.
Most recently Os has publishedFool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion (2015). If you are a Christian you need to read this book because it gets to the heart of where we find ourselves today at the beginning of the 21st century. Fool’s Talk will help you understand your world, see why evangelical faith is held in contempt by non-Christians, and provide hope and guidance for ordinary believers for living and speaking the gospel creatively and persuasively to those who are uninterested and perhaps disdainful.
Almost all our witnessing and Christian communication assumes that people are open to what we have to say, or at least are interested, if not in need of what we are saying. Yet most people quite simply are not open, not interested and not needy, and in much of the advanced modern world fewer people are open today than even a generation ago. Indeed, many are more hostile, and their hostility is greater than the Western church has faced for centuries. Through the explosion of pluralism in the last fifty years, our world has grown dramatically more diverse, and through the intensification of the culture warring in many Western countries, our world has grown far more dismissive of our faith. (p. 22)
I want to be very clear here. I am not merely recommending Fool’s Talk—though I recommend it highly—I am saying I believe it essential and necessary reading for Christians living in the West today.
We have lost the art of Christian persuasion and we must recover it. Evangelism is alive and well in the rapidly growing churches of the Global South, where the challenge is to recover an ardor for discipleship and a discernment of the modern world to match the zeal for evangelism. But in the advanced modern world, which is both pluralistic and post-Christian, our urgent need is for the recovery of persuasion in order to address the issues of the hour. Some branches of the Western church have effectively abandoned evangelism, for various reasons, and others speak as if Christian truths and beliefs are always and readily understandable to everyone, whatever the state of their listeners’ hearts and whatever the character of their audience’s worldview and culture. Others again have come to rely on formulaic, cookie-cutter approaches to evangelism and apologetics as if all who hear them are the same.
This combination of the abandonment of evangelism, the divorce between evangelism, apologetics and discipleship, and the failure to appreciate true human diversity is deeply serious. It is probably behind the fact that many Christians, realizing the ineffectiveness of many current approaches and sensing the unpopularity and implausibility of much Christian witness, have simply fallen silent and given up evangelism altogether, sometimes relieved to mask their evasion under a newfound passion for social justice that can forget the gaucheness of evangelism. At best, many of us who take the good news of Jesus seriously are eager and ready to share the good news when we meet people who are open, interested or in need of what we have to share. But we are less effective when we encounter 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.
In short, many of us today lack a vital part of a way of communicating that is prominent in the Gospels and throughout the Scriptures, but largely absent in the church today—persuasion, the art of speaking to people who, for whatever reason, are indifferent or resistant to what we have to say. They simply do not agree with us and are not open to what we have to say. (italics in original, p. 17-18)
“This is a book,” my friend and bookseller Byron Borger of Hearts & Minds Books says in his review of Fool’s Talk, “that combines great learning, passion for God’s glory and biblical truth, and a great array of experience with life, with friendships, with conversations with world-class thought leaders as well as with ordinary people, from militant atheists to disillusioned church goers, older and younger, well-educated and less so. The writing is not simplistic, as this is no simple matter. Lives are at stake and while the destiny of each soul and the health of our post-Christian culture finally is in the hands of the God of heaven and Earth—we have to be attentive to serious matters in these serious times. Dr. Guinness has thought hard, read widely, listened well, and is always the teacher, inviting us to consider things not only in a new light, but in a deeper hue.” I agree. I also agree with Byron that Os would have done well to interact not just with classic stories and literature but with popular culture, but then the classics were at the heart of his education.
I urge you to read, reflect on and discuss Fool’s Talk. It isn’t a quick read, nor should it be because Os is exploring important issues that require thoughtful analysis and response. But it clarifies where we are, how non-Christians hear us and why, what we have lost, and how it can be relearned and regained.