Book Review: Fool’s Talk, by Os Guinness
Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion. InterVarsity Press, 2015. 270 pps, $22.00.
Living in a post-Genesis 3 world means that life is messy, and if life is messy then evangelism is not going to be easy. It’s going to take hard work to listen, think, and interact well.
Fortunately, author Os Guinness has been thinking, listening, and interacting well for decades. His latest book, Fool’s Talk, is a plea to Christians to faithfully bring the unchanging gospel into an ever-changing context. Guinness acknowledges this changing dynamic, contending that the days are past when we can assume most people will have a biblical framework, much less biblical interest. This change in the landscape requires faithful Christians to carefully reconsider their context.
WIN HEARTS, NOT ARGUMENTS
This kind of consideration is not something Christians have always done well. Guinness laments that far too many times we’ve engaged in apologetics in order to win arguments rather than win hearts. The point is to see people become worshipers of the one true God. This is where Guinness’ concept of persuasion comes in. In fact, he speaks of apologetics as “advocacy” for the truth. With this nuance, I perceived his posture as not simply fending off attacks and pelting opponents with arguments but tirelessly, winsomely, and faithfully pressing home the truth to those who would hear.
As I read, I found myself saying “amen” to his point. At the same time, I felt a bit of tension about so much emphasis placed on us. After all, the ultimate work of persuading one to believe is a work of God (Jn. 6:44). However, almost sensing my tension, the author began pushing off this core biblical doctrine to make his point more emphatically. After all, God often works in spite of us, but he still chooses to work through us. Therefore, keeping our theological furniture in its place, we are encouraged to confidently and humbly give everything we have to persuade people to trust in Christ.
I thoroughly enjoyed and was challenged by each chapter. I want to highlight a couple of very helpful sections.
The first is in his chapter on technique. Guinness warns against a type of persuasion that is simply repeating the clever lines or methods of an expert. Guinness writes, “Our preoccupation with technique condemns us to a culture in which we are increasingly dependent on experts and cowed by expertise. . . . Christian persuasion is a task for all Christians, not just the expert few; and a task to be done, not merely talked about” (36, 37).
That said, there are key aspects of our work that must be emulated: “The Lord’s work must be always done in the Lord’s way. The method must serve the message. Technique is never neutral” (40). Here we are reminded of the importance of not simply following what seems to be endorsed by gurus but rather what’s commanded by God. From there, Guinness reminds us that Christian persuasion addresses the human mind and the human heart. This is vitally important. Instead of simply focusing on what people do (or don’t do) Guinness is driving us back to what people know and love. Repentance, then, is not simply the ceasing of an action but a mind being convinced and a heart being persuaded of truth.
THE ANATOMY OF UNBELIEF
In another excellent chapter, “Anatomy of Unbelief,” Guinness guides us to see that unbelief abuses the truth through a deliberate act of suppression, exploitation, inversion, and self-deception. This chapter is gold—not only for our apologetics but also our harmatiology.
THE THIRD FOOL
The third chapter I found particularly challenging was “The Way of the Third Fool.” In this chapter, Guinness challenged me to think of humor in a different way. I tend to think of humor as alien and inappropriate to such things as defending the faith. However, he corrected me by showing that the genius of humor is “in its capacity to open up a vantage point from which the world looks different, so that we laugh and do not need to take it as seriously as otherwise we might have to.”
Okay, nothing too profound yet. But listen to this, “We are laughing at someone or something, which reveals the element of judgment. . . . But there is also mercy in the laughter, in that we are judging it, but still taking it somewhat lightheartedly” (76). Here he is bringing in this tension between judgment and mercy in humor. What does this have to do with apologetics? Guinness again: “The truth is not just that we defend God by using the fool-making approach, but that when we use the fool-making approach we mirror the divine fool-maker himself” (77).
Pivoting from this statement he writes (with appropriate awe and reverence qualifying what is to come), “The dynamics of the cross of Jesus are closer to those of comedy than tragedy” (77). How can this be? Here’s his answer:
Both tragedy and comedy turn on the deep contradiction and discrepancies between the world as it is and the world as we humans wish that it would be—in other words, on present aspects of the world that are incongruous or ludicrous, and that defy the best pretensions of humanity. But whereas tragedy only reminds us of the iron bars of the prison of reality from which not one of us can escape, comedy shows a way to break out. In comedy, the pratfall and the setback are not the end, and in the Christian faith even death, the ultimate setback, is not the end. Because of the cross and the resurrection there is always a way out. (77-78)
Comedy, done well, becomes a tool to help us see “the incongruities that are at the heart of life by helping us to transcend them.” (78) Sometimes when we laugh we are actually able to see better.
I could go on and on; I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Guinness has served us well not only in this book but in his lifetime of thinking, listening, and aiming to persuade others. The book distills his study and explains his practice. A thoughtful interaction with it will challenge and encourage you, even as it did me. Here is a great quote to end on:
Balaam’s ass is the patron saint of apologists. Madness, as we shall see, is an appropriate term for the unreality of unbelief. In order to counter it, we play our part, and we do the best we can. But even when our efforts are serviceable, our role is always humble and all too often inadequate and somewhat ridiculous. Christian advocates who understand their calling should never be too big for their boots. The task is not about us. It’s all about him, and he may be trusted to do what matters. (60)
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Editor’s note: Last month, Mark Dever interviewed Os Guinness about this book. You can listen to that interview here.