Review: Winsome Persuasion

winsome persuasion

Winsome PersuasionTim Muelhoff and Richard Langer (Foreword by Quentin J. Schultze). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: Explores how Christians might effectively engage a dominant public culture by understanding the nature of counterpublics and the elements that go into effective communication and engagement.

It has become almost tedious to talk about how fraught our public discourse is with toxic argument and discord. Furthermore, there are many who would consider Christians a part of, perhaps a substantial part of, the problem. Alternatively, there are times they are utterly invisible, content to tend their own flocks. In Winsome Persuasion Muelhoff and Langer contend that far too often, the only modes by which Christians have sought to engage are the prophetic or the pastoral. While there are times and places where these are necessary and may be effective, they may not be what is needed in our present time. In this work, the authors explore a different mode, that of persuasion, that both recognizes difference, and seeks to overcome this by winning people rather than arguments or political power.

The authors begin by emphasizing the importance of understanding what it means to be a “counterpublic.” A dominant public not only holds the prevailing ideas, but has the power to prevail in enacting them. Thus counterpublics are “groups that exclusively engage in opinion formation and lack the ability to make policy decisions.” The authors identify three characteristics of such groups: opposition, withdrawal, and engagement. I found the discussion of withdrawal particularly illumining in highlighting the development of hidden transcripts that often may be rhetorically harsh and unflattering (consider Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” or Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” who don’t pay taxes and are dependent upon the government).

The authors then apply this understanding of counterpublics to Christian counterpublics. They observe how counterpublics often function in an argument culture: consideration equals condoning, monologue is valued over dialogue, disagreement degenerates to demonizing, all of which online disinhibition intensifies. They call instead for Christian counterpublics to lead with compassion that cares for others, goes beyond sympathy to empathy, confronts the uncompassionate, and is unconditional. This leads to establishing credibility as a counterpublic by demonstrating knowledge both of facts supporting one’s view and the reasons others would oppose it, practicing the virtues including humility and building goodwill by acknowledge the worth of those with whom we differ. There is a lengthy discussion of the critical value of the ethos of the messenger.

Part Two of the book focuses on how we engage others. It begins with crafting your message. One of the most valuable ideas here was finding an “audience of one,” a person with whom you have some relation who represents the public you wish to engage, which often exposes your blind spots, your “in group” language, and your need to find ways to frame your argument in universal terms. The authors cover finding starting points of agreement, using images, and connecting with the plausibility structures of the public to be engaged.

Messages need to be delivered as well as crafted. A crucial factor is persona, ideally one of humility that is able to laugh at oneself, and can give a fitting and succinct response in public discussion, whether with stories or statistics or a combination of both. Appropriate identification, without misappropriating identities helps in gaining a hearing. “Loose connections” help in conveying a message where we make common cause around limited but shared commitments. The authors helpfully talk about the strengths and pitfalls of such loose connections.

The last part of the book is their attempt to illustrate “winsome persuasion” by each articulating responses to the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold same-sex marriage. The two responses are very different, albeit with some common characteristics that reflect principles of winsome engagement. Then the authors engage in a dialogue highlighting both appreciation and differences with each other. Some might find this last section unsatisfying in looking for more far-reaching answers. Yet for me, the responses and discussion reflected thoughtful yet succinct statements such as one might share in a public forum, and a good example of civil dialogue characterized by both goodwill, and real engagement.

The book is enriched by four historical sketches illustrating principles developed in the work: Saint Patrick, Jean Vanier, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and William Wilberforce. As a Wilberforce fan, I loved the four lessons they drew from his “great speech” advocating abolition of the slave trade:

  1. Wilberforce left his opponents room to join him without humiliation.
  2. Wilberforce refused to make the battle personal.
  3. Wilberforce let the facts, not his rhetoric, be the fuel of moral outrage.
  4. Wilberforce refused to fall into the all-or-nothing trap.

I found myself thinking how important this work is in our setting for the counterpublic that might be described as the “evangelical resistance” to the current president and to the evangelicals and others who support the president. In particular, Muelhoff and Langer’s book is a challenge to move from opposition and withdrawal (complete with hidden transcripts that invariably leak) to substantive engagement.

Winsome Persuasion represents an important extension of the work of Tim Muelhoff and his collaborators into the public arena. His earlier work, I Beg to Differ (review) focused on difficult interpersonal communication. In this work, Muelhoff and Langer move from the personal to the public. They call us to move from hubris to humility,  from combat to compassion, from demonizing to dialogue, and from argument to at least limited forms of agreement. Most of all, they remind us both of the urgency, and the possibility of a better public conversation.

Studied Ambiguities


Ambiguity or Opportunity? photo by ArtistIvanChew (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

Have you ever been in a situation where two parties who differ on some important matter (and you may have been one of them, or trying to mediate between the two) are trying to find their way to agreement so as to collaborate and live more charitably with each other, or outright join forces. Often, it is important to articulate this agreement verbally and in writing, and this, perhaps is where things are most difficult.

Words matter. And words don’t always mean the same things to different people. Often, the attempt to find the right words to delineate an agreement surfaces the places where disagreement still exists.

I came across this recently in a critical discussion of an effort between a group of Evangelicals, and a group of Catholics during the 1990’s to articulate an agreement that expressed their unity around Christ and his gospel. (This is in R. C. Sproul’s Getting the Gospel Right; review forthcoming)

The writer noted a number of areas that he felt were “studied ambiguities.” On the face of it, these were statements both parties could agree upon, and yet were capable of interpretations that would reflect the historic differences between the parties. Elsewhere in the document, some of these differences were acknowledged, but he felt that the document purported a greater degree of agreement, and even unity than the author thought warranted.

I’ve been thinking about this phenomenon. What is “studied ambiguity?” A sentence may be ambiguous in different ways. Sometimes it is lexically ambiguous (“I went down to the bank” could mean I went down by the riverside, or to my local financial institution). Sometimes, it may simply be syntactically ambiguous. (What, for example does “I ate the cookies on the couch” mean?) At other times, the meaning of the words may be clear and there may be a particular understanding that the person uttering the statement intends, and yet it is capable of more than one meaning. What differentiates “studied ambiguity” from these others types of ambiguity is that the person or persons uttering or writing the statement intend the possibility of multiple interpretations and realize their words are capable of these interpretations.

Why do we use “studied ambiguity”? The main reason I can come up with is that parties who retain significant differences feel compelled to mute these to arrive at some semblance of agreement. I suspect, for example that there was much “studied ambiguity” that could be found in the statements of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin at Yalta about their vision of a post-war world.

It seems that the aim of “studied ambiguity” is preserving tenuous alliances and coalitions, and the veneer of good feelings toward one another. In cultures where communication is indirect, it strikes me that this allows people to avoid outright confrontation over differences while working in indirect, and often behind-the-scenes ways, to reach a greater sense of agreement than could be achieved publicly. What seems important in this instance is that the parties are aware that they are farther apart than they seem and they are employing discreet mechanisms to address these differences.

What can be more troubling about this kind of communication is when people are intentionally misled to believe that a greater degree of agreement exists than is actually the case, because the words sound good, even though they mean something different to each party.

In the instance I mention above, it is interesting that those who participated in writing the agreement claim not to have consciously done this. They saw themselves as articulating areas of common agreement, some of which they saw as real breakthroughs, as well as areas where they still differed, some of which were substantial, as individuals in both parties acknowledged. Yet the tone of their final document conveyed a degree of agreement and even “unity” that others questioned in light of the substantive remaining differences and the multiple interpretations that could be drawn from the language.

And that leads me to wonder if there is another kind of ambiguity, what one might call unconscious ambiguity, where in a spirit of good will, people convey a sense of agreement, while being aware of difference, that nevertheless affirms the agreement of spirit the parties feel.

I’m having a hard time thinking of examples where ambiguous agreements turned out well–maybe someone else can help me think of one. More often, it seems, they result either in falling-out between parties, or compromises on deeply held values, practices, and beliefs to preserve “unity.” Yet I can see the temptation, particularly in our deeply divided society to try to come to these kinds agreements for fear of the alternative.

I wonder instead whether, on important things, we are talking about far longer processes than we ordinarily envision. Perhaps honest discussions that recognize common ground for limited collaborations while addressing honest differences that take longer times to change, because these involve changes in belief, and personal and institutional practice.

Getting to shared understandings on important things is genuinely hard work. Perhaps this is why Jesus blessed the peacemakers. It seems so urgent in a divided society. Studied or even unconscious ambiguity is a real temptation. Sometimes it doesn’t look that different from common ground. Yet agreements not rooted in truth engender suspicion and not trust, and unravel, or they relativize “truth.”

What do you think?

Review: I Beg To Differ

I Beg to DifferI Beg to Differ, Tim Muehlhoff. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: Building on an understanding of the dynamics of communication, this book develops a strategy for navigating difficult conversations through asking four key questions of those with whom we differ.

Difference is a given of life. Difference can make life delightful…or disturbing. What can be tough is when two people in some form of significant relationship differ and have to figure out how to make life with each other work. It happens between spouses, parents and children, business partners, and political leaders.

Tim Muehlhoff, a professor of communications, knows all about this. He begins his book with a married couple who come to him with manila folders stuffed full of documentation of the grievances they had with each other. In various settings, he has worked on communication issues with families, men and women, college students, faculty and others in the public and private sectors.

He begins the book laying out some basic truths about communication. He explores how powerful words actually are. He outlines the various causes of conflict including poor communication climate, differing views of reality, lack of credibility, relational transgressions, lack of small talk, and latent conflict. He discusses the necessity of managing and expressing emotions in conflict. And he considers the role and importance of our spiritual disciplines in helping us with our self-control and self-talk.

All this lays the groundwork for four basic questions to ask in difficult conversations:

  1. What does this person believe?
  2. Why does this person hold this belief?
  3. Where do we agree?
  4. Based on all I’ve learned, how should I proceed.

He argues that these questions work to promote understanding in difficult situations because of the rule of reciprocity. When I make a sincere effort to understand another person on their own terms and look for the things we hold in common, it often creates a climate where the other sees themselves as obliged to do the same.

The final question is important. He elaborates it in the chapter as follows: “With this person, at this time, under these circumstances, what is the next thing I should say?” It takes all we’ve learned about the person through the first three questions under consideration. It considers timing–is this a good time to have this conversation? It considers circumstances–are they conducive to a good conversation? And it focuses on a very specific goal, a manageable agenda–not everything I would ever want to discuss with this person.

The book concludes with three “case studies” of applying this strategy: a disagreement between spouses about finances, a disagreement between work colleagues about religion, and a difference between parent and teen about video games and grades. The dialogues are believable and illustrate a deliberate effort to walk through the four questions.

I found this one of the most helpful books on communication I’ve read because, while rooted in theory, it didn’t become lost in it, but provided very practical steps and illustrations that helped this reader think about how I could actually practice this in the next difficult conversation I face.

He concludes the book with a quote from The Miracle of Dialogue by Reuel Howe:

Dialogue is to love, what blood is to the body. When the flow of blood stops, the body dies. When dialogue stops, love dies and resentment and hate are born. But dialogue can restore a dead relationship. Indeed this is the miracle of dialogue: it can bring relationship into being, and it can bring into being once again a relationship that had died.

Powerful words that seem so crucial for our time. What Muehlhoff does is point us away from the death-dealing discord of our culture to this life-giving dialogue.

Where Are The Reviews?

Partially Read Books.jpgThat’s a question some of you who follow regularly may be wondering for a little while. I wonder if other reviewers have ever had this happen? You end up in the middle of a number of books at the same time! The picture right now represents my current reading stack minus a couple books I’m reading on Kindle. Notice all those bookmarks in the middle of my books! So I thought I would give you some “mid-book” updates, that hopefully I’ll remember not to rehash in the reviews. Consider it a taste of things to come.

I Beg to DifferI’ll begin with the top most book. Tim Muelhoff’s I Beg to Differ is a very practical book on one of the hardest relational challenges–having those difficult conversations around disagreements without creating relational discord. Muelhoff outlines a set of questions and approaches that I’m finding very helpful.

Paul and His Recent InterpretersThe “meatiest” book comes next. N.T. Wright’s Paul and His Recent Interpreters is described as a companion to his magisterial Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Wright’s definitive work on the Apostle Paul. In Paul and His Recent Interpreters, Wright engages the range of contemporary Pauline scholarship, including the criticism of his own work. Wish I had read Paul and the Faithfulness of God, but haven’t been able to wade through the two volumes that make up this work yet! Point is, we often read Paul in light of the Reformation rather than Paul’s Jewish context and may miss some crucial things as a result. Stay tuned to the review for more!

Destiny and PowerThe “fattest” book in the stack is Jon Meacham’s Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker BushI’ve liked the things I’ve read of Meacham, and this is no exception. Bush, the 41st president was a complex mix of character and ambition, that both led to the presidency and was his undoing after one term. His single term, and the shadow of his son’s presidency may obscure the significant things this man quietly accomplished, both as president, and in the rest of his life.

A Commentary on 1 and 2 ChroniclesEugene Merrill’s A Commentary on 1 and 2 Chronicles is probably not something you’d pick up unless you were teaching or preaching on these books. I’m reading it because it was sent to me to review (and I am teaching a Bible overview that includes these books). Good introductory materials as well as enough depth to inform of textual issues without being overwhelming to all but the specialist.

Falling UpwardThe last two books are not in the photograph because they are on my Kindle. One is Falling Upward by Richard Rohr. Rohr sees our lives in halves, each with their crucial tasks, the first half, preparing for the second. I’ve just started this and find his basic premise intriguing. I’m clearly in the second half (unless there is a medical miracle) and interested to see what he says about this.

HolinessFinally, my last book is one our Dead Theologians group is reading at present, J. C. Ryle’s HolinessThe version we are using includes all twenty sermons on this theme. Unlike some 19th century writers, Ryle is plain-spoken without being simplistic. He argues that growth in holiness, or the idea of becoming more like Christ, involves faith that actively strives for this goal.

All of this is rich reading. One decision I’ve made though, particularly after a comment on yesterday’s post is that I’m going to move Nine Tailors to the top of my reading pile. This commenter thought it “just might be Sayer’s best mystery.” After all this meaty reading, I’m ready for a good mystery!