The Wisdom of Speaking Foolishness: A Review

Apologetics—the systematic defense of Christianity—sometimes gets a bad rap, but for different reasons. For one thing, in our current cultural climate it is often frowned upon to “proselytize” anyone. For another, the field of apologetics has too often (at least in my experience) been the refuge of belligerent people who are trying to put a spiritual sheen on an attitude they should really be repenting of. They seem to be more motivated by a need to be right rather than a genuine love for others. And finally, apologetics is sometimes treated as a silver bullet—as if all you need is the right argument and the doors of people’s hearts will automatically be opened to you. Especially because of the latter two reasons, when I hear of a book about apologetics, I often want to run screaming in the other direction. At the very least, I’m skeptical.

What made me want to read Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion is its author, Os Guinness. Earlier in his life he was a part of L’Abri Christian Fellowship, founded by Francis and Edith Schaeffer. More recently he has been part of the Veritas Forum, which hosts events on college campuses to dialogue about the important issues of life. This is a guy who has walked the walk for years before he ever sat down to write a book about how to talk to people about the Christian faith. I respect him, so I wanted to see what he had to say about apologetics.

Guinness opens the book by claiming that Christian persuasion is a lost art, and that there is no one way to do it. There is no one-size-fits-all theory, no one technique that will work all the time: “Jesus never spoke to two people the same way, and neither should we” (33). Persuasion is also not just for the intellect; it is also aimed at the heart, and it should only be undertaken by people who know that love of God is an essential part of knowledge of God. And God himself is his own best defender. In short, Guinness begins his book about apologetics by putting apologetics in its proper place: it is a valuable tool, but like all tools it should be handled carefully and used for the purpose for which it was intended.

In the next several chapters of the book (chapters 4–8), Guinness unpacks various strategies and techniques for approaching people who are hostile or indifferent to Christianity.  In chapter 4 he looks at the “fool maker,” the person who is not a fool but is willing to be seen as one and play the jester, catching others unawares (think Socrates). In chapter 5 he sets forth the “anatomy of unbelief,” saying that there are two poles in the unbelieving heart: the “dilemma pole” (in which people are more consistent but also more troubled by the implications of their beliefs) and the “diversion pole” (in which people are less consistent, more distracted, and less troubled). In chapters 6 and 7, he outlines two strategies for approaching this anatomy of unbelief: “table turning” and “triggering the signals.” Table turning recognizes that all arguments cut both ways, and signal triggering presents the gospel as the fulfillment of people’s innate passions and desires. In chapter 8, Guinness looks at four different types of subversive speech found in the Bible that can be used by apologists: reframing, raising questions, telling stories and parables, and using drama.

In chapter 9, Guinness moves away from technique and focuses on tone, discouraging prospective apologists from falling into the trap of always needing to be right. In chapter 10, Guinness speaks about how to address the claim of hypocrisy (i.e., the Christianity many people experience is not the Christianity apologists speak about). In chapter 11, Guinness talks about challenges within the church, which he calls “kissing Judases.” Into this category he places the sort of conservative Christianity that eschews persuasion in favor of proclamation, and the sort of liberal Christianity that eschews debate in favor of dialogue. Finally, in chapter 12 he sets forth the four stages that a seeker often goes through on their journey to faith, and how to approach someone who is at different stages of the journey.

While this book does contain some practical “how-to” advice, that is not its focus. It certainly doesn’t present a step-by-step process for apologetics. It is more notable for its tone of boldness (Christians really do have a role to play in addressing objections to the faith) combined with humility (that role is not as a know-it-all, but a junior counsel for the defense, where the senior counsel is God himself). It is a call to recover the golden mean of Christian persuasion, as opposed to ignoring differences on the one hand and engaging in belligerent arguments on the other. If anyone I know is looking for a book on apologetics, this will be the first one I will hand them. Other books may say more about particular techniques, but this one gets the tone right, and to me that is more important.

Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my review. I was not asked to give a positive review.