With the era of 'Christian consensus' coming to a close, we have a fresh opportunity to make the gospel appealing.
Interview by Tim Stafford/ JULY 23, 2015
In the late 1960s, Os Guinness worked alongside Francis Schaeffer at L’Abri, Schaeffer’s famed Christian retreat center in Switzerland. In the 1980s, he moved to the United States, where he served (among other places) at the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Brookings Institution. He has been heavily involved in discussions about the First Amendment and the need for a vigorous, civil public square. Yet he never lost Schaeffer’s vision for Christian apologetics and evangelism, a fact reflected in his latest book, Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion (InterVarsity Press). CT senior writer Tim Stafford spoke with Guinness about making the gospel appealing in a secularizing culture.
What made you decide to write about apologetics at this time?
Clearly we’re at a stage in Western history where we need the church to be persuasive. Public life has grown more secular. Private worlds have become more diverse, and we have a mounting hostility against us. If ever Christians at large and evangelicals in particular needed to be persuasive with people who are not open, it’s now. So I thought it was the time to write.
Fool’s Talk is the fruit of many decades of thinking. I owe a huge debt to C. S. Lewis, from whom I came to faith; to Francis Schaeffer, who introduced me to the discipline of apologetics; and to Peter Berger, the sociologist, who has probably shaped my mind more than any other living person. My approach is a mixture of the three of them.
At the beginning of your book you refer to this as “the grand age of apologetics.” That will surprise some people. What do you mean by it?
The phrase is not mine. I read it in a sociology article, and it surprised me at first. In the age of the Internet, everyone is presenting their daily me. Think of Facebook. People are selling themselves, defending themselves, presenting themselves, arguing for themselves, whatever. In that sense this is the age of apologetics. When I read that, I realized that we Christians have had this in our DNA for 2,000 years. But are we prepared for this extraordinary new age?
You see opportunity in this highly confessional or apologetic age?
Overall it is a magnificent time of clarification. The Christian consensus has collapsed, and much of the rise of the so-called religious Nones is really the falling away of people who were only loosely attached to a church tradition. So there is a grand moment of clarification, and among the many things we need to clarify is our ability to communicate. Much of our witnessing, on the one hand, assumes that people are open and needy. It also assumes a whole series of formulae or recipes. I would argue that Jesus never talked to two people in the same way, and neither should we. So as part of the grand clarification of our generation, this is a time to reexamine our communication and see if it is as biblical as it should be.
What exactly do you mean by persuasion? How is it different from arguing about ideas?
It certainly includes ideas, don’t make any mistake about that. Evangelism is presenting and sharing the good news with people who know they are in a bad situation, so it really is good news. But with more and more people indifferent or hostile, we need that ground-clearing exercise which is apologetics.
We’ve got to start further back. We have to see that it’s not just ideas that are shaping us; it’s modernity itself. Even today most apologetics deals with ideas—modernism, postmodernism, relativism, secularism. I would argue we need not only to do that, but also to look at modernity—the whole constellation of modern things that come from the industrial revolution and globalization, things such as smart phones that are shaping our thinking just as much as ideas.
We have to be persuasive and discerning on a much wider front. Take for example the way that consumerism turns everything that is authoritative into something that’s a mere preference. The individual consumer is set up as the chooser doing the choosing, and the content of the choice is virtually irrelevant; it’s just a matter of preference. That kind of relativism isn’t taken from postmodern philosophy so much as it’s built into our supermarket style of living.
How do we get at people who say, “That’s nice for you, but I’m not particularly interested.”
There’s a negative approach and a positive approach. The negative approach, which is more common, is the table-turning of pushing people to the logic of their assumptions. You can see Elijah following that method: If Baal is God, follow Baal. Augustine and C. S. Lewis are known to use it too.
The more positive approach relies on Peter Berger’s wonderful idea of “signals of transcendence.” In other words, everyone has the truth down there somewhere, and often they have experiences that are so profound that they puncture what they used to believe, and point toward something beyond, like a signal. If they follow the logic of that signal, they’re actually moving toward faith in the Lord.
You write that people who are resistant to the gospel go to the “dilemma pole” or the “diversion pole.” What do you mean by those terms?
At the dilemma pole are people who are trying to be absolutely true to their rejection of God. A clear example is someone like Nietzsche. The further out he goes, the more you see the dilemma of his position.
The diversion pole is people who live inches away from God’s truth, but they don’t want to follow it. So what they do is surround themselves—this is Pascal’s great insight—with busy, entertaining distractions, so they don’t have to think about reality and death, let alone the logic of their assumptions. As psychologists point out today, never has there been a generation with more devices that stop people from thinking—what they call weapons of mass distraction. Most of our contemporaries are living in that diversion pole. They may be absolute pagans, but they don’t think of themselves that way. They are still living off what’s left of the Christian consensus in Western societies, the whiff of an empty bottle.
Christian apologists like to emphasize rational argument. You’re suggesting that people are so good at diversion they will not hear. They have to hear through some other form, whether it’s story or drama or irony or humor or art.
Exactly. A common mistake of some apologists is to reduce people to their worldviews or philosophies. I love James Sire’s book The Universe Next Door, but it’s a mistake to see people as perfect examples of card-carrying humanism, Hinduism, or whatever. Someone’s worldview is rooted in their life story. And there are things that matter to them supremely. Our Lord immediately knows that for the rich young ruler, the treasure of his heart was his love of money. To really speak to someone we’ve got to love them, listen to them, pray for them, and ask the Lord to show us what is the treasure of their heart, the thing that makes all the difference in the world.
Part of the church, particularly the charismatic or Pentecostal streams, sees signs and wonders as key to apologetics. Signs contradict naturalism, and raise up hopes and dreams of greater things. What do you think of that?
I believe passionately in it. As Peter Berger says, we live in a world without windows. We need to go back to the New Testament. Our Lord is the Father’s greatest gift, and the Holy Spirit is Jesus’s greatest gift to us. You can see apologetics accompanying deliverance and healings right down to the fifth century. Augustine started a little skeptical, and then became a passionate believer through experience. He records more than 70 miracles in Hippo.
And then sadly, in the centuries that followed, signs were specialized to certain people (the saints) and certain places (the healing centers). Then it was surrounded with superstition and moneymaking. The Reformation came along and, in throwing out all the corruptions, tended to throw out the baby with the bathwater. It stressed the Word and not the Spirit. Then came the Enlightenment. Many of the more sophisticated people in the church today frankly are operational atheists, and don’t have a living sense of the Holy Spirit. Reviving that sense is absolutely a key part of apologetics.
What accounts for the hostility we experience? Some of us are just a little bewildered by the kneejerk reaction to anything about the church.
You have 50 years of culture warring, climaxing with the reactions against the extremists of the Religious Right: in particular, the way they did the Lord’s work in the world’s way, demonizing their enemies. All of that has been reinforced by the age of the Internet. Rather than creating civility, the Internet has helped us descend to the level of barbaric rhetoric.
For us the final motive is our Lord’s practice of truth and grace, and the command to speak the truth in love. You see in William Wilberforce an incredible example of that. He was never dismissed as a fanatic, in comparison with someone like William Lloyd Garrison, who took the “whatever it takes” approach, and really reinforced the prejudices of the South against his argument for abolishing slavery. Wilberforce eventually turned his enemies into his friends with genuine love.
Do we need to apologize? Is that part of apologetics—apologizing for our own sins?
I think so. C. S. Lewis said the book he had never written, but would have loved to have written, was a confession of the sins of the church. He said that long before John Paul II, who issued more than 60 public confessions for the sins of the Catholic church.
The tragedy of Christendom is that out of the first attempt to build a consistent Christian society, you have the evils of the church perpetrated on the world. There was no prophetic critique. Instead of the city of God in the city of man, for which you needed a prophetic self-critique, they thought Christendom was the city of God fulfilled. It went terribly, terribly wrong with the Inquisition, and many other evils. Our evangelical movements haven’t been nearly as bad as that, but I think many of the leaders need to confess: The way they’ve treated their enemies has been sub-Christian and anti-Christian.
I’d like to talk about Francis Schaeffer, who gave his life to these matters of persuasion. What do you remember that others can learn from?
I had the privilege of living with him for a number of years, and saw him in many different situations. I have never seen a better person-to-person, face-to-face apologist. He approached this task with serious passion. His voice almost always broke at some point in the sermon. He was just overcome with wonder at the truths he was preaching about.
And he also took people seriously. If you watched him one to one, within a minute or two you could see his eyes—I don’t think he was aware of it—you could see his eyes welling up with tears. He had incredible empathy and compassion for the people he was talking to. He took truth very seriously, but he wasn’t dour. My goodness, you could see him rolling on the floor with laughter. But you could say of Schaeffer that truth was never trivial, merely argumentative. It was a matter of life and death, and that was behind his apologetics.
With any master, you learn through experience, and you learn things the master can’t put in words. To put it differently, there’s more to knowing than knowing will ever know. You can’t reduce apologetics to one, two, three, four. Our Lord chose 12 to be with him. That’s the way apologetics should be passed on. You can’t just read a book or go to a single seminar and think you’ve got it. You’ve got to learn from somebody who’s good at it.
Of your three apologetic heroes in contemporary life—Lewis, Schaeffer and Berger—Peter Berger is the least familiar to evangelicals. Tell me more about how he influenced you.
He helped me see the difference between modernism, which is a set of ideas, andmodernity, which is more like the cultural air we breathe. He has fascinating insights into the ways minds work and how people change their minds, switching from one worldview to another—what sociologists call a “paradigm shift,” or what Christians call repentance and conversion. He also has an incredible sense of the power of humor.
I’ve been struck with N. T. Wright’s emphasis that the gospel spoken—the story of the Cross and the Resurrection—has extraordinary power, even though it is foolishness to the Greeks. Where does that come in for apologetics?
You have to share the story of the Cross in a subversive way. If someone is open, you can be simple and straightforward, as Paul was with the Philippian jailer: Put your trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved. But if someone is closed, you see the biblical communicators, supremely our Lord himself, speak in much more indirect ways. I have a chapter on reframing, or raising questions, or using stories and drama to reach people whose hearts and minds are closed off to the gospel.
It’s hard work, and daunting work, to follow your advice and speak persuasively to people who are disinterested and resistant. Do you think American Christians are really ready to do that?
With the collapse of the Christian consensus, we’ll have to relearn many of these things. We’ll do it painfully and painstakingly. My wife and I prayed for her father for 25 years. Eventually he came to faith. He died in his 90s, and you’d think he’d been a Christian all his life. But he was a pretty hard-bitten atheist. It took us 25 years of praying and witnessing. We always hoped it would be something instant and easy. It wasn’t.
I have a little silver donkey to remind me of Balaam’s ass, the patron saint of apologists. At our best we are humble, hopefully serviceable to the Lord, and sometimes a little ridiculous. Much as we think of our great arguments and our great approaches, they simply don’t work. We’ve got to go back and try again and pray and love. It’s not an easy thing.