Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Book Write-Up: Fool's Talk, by Os Guinness

Os Guinness.  Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion.  Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

How can Christians persuade people to accept their faith, when there are many today who are hostile or indifferent towards Christianity?  Os Guinness addresses this question in Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion.

The book is not really a how-to manual on witnessing.  Guinness talks, for example, about the importance of asking questions, as Jesus (and even the serpent in the Garden of Eden) asked questions that influenced people’s thought processes.  But I cannot recall any specific questions that Guinness recommended that Christians ask atheists or non-believers in interpersonal interactions or online forums.  Guinness did talk about the importance of trying to show atheists what he believes are the logical conclusions of their belief system, which he deems to be quite negative.  I cannot envision such an interaction going smoothly, however, especially since the atheists might not agree with Guinness’ premises.

Maybe it is a good thing that the book is not a how-to manual, I thought.  After all, people are individuals, not projects.  Guinness said that Jesus did not talk to two people in the exact same way.  Maybe.  At the same time, it did seem to me that Guinness was making assumptions about atheists and unbelievers.  He had a chapter about how certain prominent atheists admitted that they did not want God to be real because that could cramp their style and keep them from doing what they wanted.  What is Guinness implying in saying this?  That Christians should approach atheists with that conception of them in mind?  How does that respect them as individuals?  Guinness does acknowledge that things are not that simple, for there are atheists who may hold to morality or a belief in order; for Guinness, though, they are being inconsistent to their atheist convictions.  Many atheists would probably disagree with him on that, though.

The book also did not make a positive case for Christianity, at least not in the sense of offering iron-clad evidence for it.  I do not know enough about Guinness to be aware of what kind of apologist he is, but he does say in the book that Christians should be open to classical apologetics, which is evidentialist, and presuppositional apologetics.  At the same time, Guinness also cautions that God’s existence does not depend on apologists’ arguments, and he says that certain classical arguments for the existence of God historically tended to make apologetics a matter of philosophy, divorced from everyday people.  These are thoughtful observations, and maybe I like the book better as it is than I would have had Guinness regurgitated the usual classical apologetics spiel.  Still, should he not have provided some argument or piece of evidence for Christianity being true, since part of his project in the book is showing Christians how they can persuade non-believers of the truth of Christianity?  Guinness does refer to times when even sophisticated non-believers had transcendental experiences—-things that make them aware that there is more to life—-and, while that was a good discussion, I do not think those transcendental experiences provide solid evidence for Christianity.

There was one part of the book that I especially rolled my eyes at, even if Guinness, as he usually does, said something intriguing in that discussion.  Guinness was saying that mainline Protestants try to keep up with the culture.  My reaction, of course, was: “And right-wing evangelicals do not imitate the culture?  They act as if God is a free-market-loving, militaristic right-wing conservative!”  I cannot say that Guinness himself is this, for Guinness, to his credit, does take somewhat of a swipe at Adam Smith; moreover, Guinness is honest about the historical flaws of Christendom.  Still, I am wary of conservative Christians criticizing mainline Protestants for reflecting their culture.  I doubt that it is even possible for Christianity NOT to reflect its culture, on some level, and that includes conservative Christianity.  Does Guinness think that conservative Christians today have the same worldview that the biblical authors had?  I doubt that they did, for times change; science changes; cosmologies change.  What did I find intriguing in this discussion, then?  Well, Guinness did point to liberal Christians criticizing their liberal Christian predecessors for reflecting the culture of their day.  That, in my opinion, was a pretty good move on Guinness’ part: don’t just trust Guinness’ critique of liberal Christianity, but see how liberal Christians have criticized their liberal Christian predecessors!

My disagreement with Guinness notwithstanding, I still give the book four stars.  I appreciated its intellectual and meandering tone, as well as its anecdotes and its quotations of renowned Christians and non-believers.  The book had gems—-about humor being a way to cope with a life that one cannot control; how one can be dissuaded from a position by reading what its defenders have to say; how many people’s intellectual struggles have their origin in college (that is true of me!); and how one can arrive at the point where one concludes that God was always a part of one’s journey towards God.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

UPDATE: Steve Hays recommended this 2001 interview with Os Guinness.  Guinness does comment about apologetics in that interview, and it was a good read, period.

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