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.

Review: Fool’s Talk

Fool's Talk

Fool’s Talk, Os Guinness. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.

Summary: Guinness argues for the recovery of the lost art of persuasion that combines good apologetic work with evangelism and is aware of the many people Christians address who are not open to their message.

This is a book that Os Guinness has been preparing for a lifetime to write. Throughout his life, Guinness has been presenting the Christian faith in the public square, not only with the interested but also those who are not, those who would oppose or are disinterested in the Christian message and worldview. The book reflects a summation of the lessons he has learned and his urgent sense that the pressing need for Christian witness today is a recovery of the lost art of Christian persuasion. We know how to proclaim and we know how to protest. But do we know how to persuade those with whom we differ, engaging both minds and hearts?

He contends that often we settle for mere technique, whether that be “canned” evangelistic presentations, or “canned” arguments for the faith. This often is not enough because such approaches assume the interest of the person with whom we engage. Yet to persist in the work of persuading is urgent for those who love God because our enemy seeks to rob God of glory either by questioning his existence or by impugning God with the blame for humanity’s problems.

He argues that we take the approach used by Erasmus in The Praise of Folly, becoming the “holy fool” a kind of court jester representing the kingdom of heaven pointing out the follies of unbelief, and perhaps at times following the holiest fool of all, the Lord Jesus. [Having read and reviewed this biography of Erasmus recently, my interest is piqued to read In Praise of Folly!] He then plunges into considering the anatomy of unbelief, and how often it is ultimately not simply an intellectual incapacity to believe, but a heart-driven unwillingness to believe because of what this would mean for one’s life.

This calls for different forms of persuasion depending on the person. It may mean the turning of tables on them, pressing them to the ultimate conclusions of their beliefs (for example, “relativizing the relativizers”), if they are a person who prides themselves on consistency. For others, less consistent, it may be exploring the disturbing “signals of transcendence” that point to a reality other than can be explained by their worldview. The challenge is bringing a person to a place of facing the inadequacy of the belief they’ve embraced to be willing to consider something different.

The latter chapters consist of several warnings for the advocate of Christian faith. One is the “know-it-all” attitude that is not characterized by a humility before truth. Another is hypocrisy in one’s life where one’s claims and one’s character fail to match up. And finally, he warns of the ways we may betray the faith. The four step process of embracing an assumption of modern life as superior, abandoning all that does not square with this, adapting whatever faith is left around this, and finally assimilating into the culture. What Guinness points out is the danger in our efforts to engage with the culture, that if we are not clear on what must be central and unchanging, that we will make fatal compromises.

Perhaps the most significant idea here, and one worth further development, is this idea of the “holy fool.” As Guinness observes, there have been some, like Erasmus, G.K. Chesterton, Pascal, Muggeridge, and Lewis, who with wit, humor, and incisive argument point out the weaknesses and follies of others while commending by persuasion and a kind of winsome humility the transforming nature of Christian faith. Such an approach takes both truth and people seriously, engaging heart and mind, not with canned approaches or sterile arguments, but warm-hearted persuasion that gives people reasons for heart, soul, mind and strength to love God more than all else.

One might ask, “where is God in all this?”, and at points this seems like a book on the Christian rhetorician’s art, and this alone is all that is needed. What Guinness reminds us of, is that while the Christian communicator always is dependent of the work of God in those with whom they communicate, the person may often only become aware of this as they come to the place of commitment. He writes, and with this I’ll conclude:

     “Intriguingly, this fourth stage of the journey is often when God’s presence becomes plain for the first time. The wholehearted step of faith of the new believer is far more than simply his or her own step. At one moment a seeker making her commitment knows as she has never known anything before that she is more responsible for the step of faith than for any other choice in life, and that she has never been more fully herself than in taking it. But the next moment she knows too that the One she thought was the goal was all along the guide as well. She knows that she has not so much found God as that God has found her. All the time the seeker thought she was seeking, but actually she was being sought, for God can only be known with the help of God. ‘The hound of heaven,’ as the poet Francis Thompson called God, has tracked the seeker down” (p. 248).