What We Believe

Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion, by Os Guinness. Grand Rapids: InterVarsity, 2015, 270 pages, $29.95.

Apologist, cultural analyst, and prolific Christian author Os Guinness tells us that Fool’s Talk was forty years in the making. As a young man, he made a promise to God that he would actually do apologetics before writing about apologetical method (38). And so he has (see his Long Journey Home and Unspeakable[1]). He is best known for his incisive cultural and social critiques (he was a student of sociologist Peter Berger), and the reader will find plenty of interesting cultural critique here, especially how modernity and postmodernity shape the ways we see reality. As always, Guinness’s prose is crisp, colorful, and bristling with practical insights. At one point, he labels the theological revision of the gospel the “Gadarene plunge” (217). Emphasizing the passion of apologetics, he asserts, “Christian advocacy is a lover’s defense” (57). The man certainly can turn a vivid phrase. He is also ridiculously well read, always ready with an illuminating quote from thinkers as diverse as Plato, Bertrand Russell, Augustine, Camus, C.S. Lewis, and Japanese Haiku master Issa. The overall effect is to make one feel as if he’s overhearing a sparkling after-dinner conversation with a brilliant raconteur.

But such a characterization risks trivializing his work. Guinness has a heart as well as a brain, and he is passionate about apologetics (what he calls “creative persuasion”) and about repairing the shabby state of the church’s witness in the world today. It has been replaced by “just evangelize” on the conservative side or “just dialogue” on the liberal side (212–17). Or worse, it has been turned into a sterile, intellectual game by the apologetics wonks, and it has been drained of its humanity, its creativity, its compassion, and its focus on the cross. These critiques, and his holistic definition of apologetics that resists scripts and “the imperialism of technique” (46), are well-worth heeding.

The title of the book refers to both the foolishness of unbelief that we must answer (gently and with respect), but also the “foolishness” of God that subverts the cleverness of the wise through the apparent folly of the cross (41). By aligning ourselves with the Jesus who was mocked, we become “holy fools” who paradoxically have tapped into the wisdom of God that exposes the pretensions of modern unbelief (ch. 4, “The Way of the Third Fool”) and shows a better way. This is the work of apologetics.

The style of apologetics that emerges is a type of worldview critique that will feel familiar to those familiar with Reformed apologetics, and with the works of Francis Schaeffer in particular (it was at L’Abri that Guinness caught a vision of cultural apologetics). And through Schaeffer, one can feel the indirect influence of the apologetics of Cornelius Van Til, especially in his advocacy of the reductio ad absurdum, where the unbeliever is asked to think through the implications of his presuppositions to their logical (and disastrous) conclusions (see ch. 6, “Turning the Tables”). This negative, or critical, movement in apologetics must be accompanied by a positive movement of turning the unbeliever’s attention to the clues and whispers of God’s existence, or what Berger called “signals of transcendence” (see ch. 7, “Triggering the Signals”). In addition, Guinness emphasizes the need to go beyond simply bare, logical argumentation to use story, humor, and irony. And he devotes whole chapters to the attitude and demeanor necessary to engage unbelievers with compassion and grace, and the necessity for apologetics within the church in order to battle theological drift. All in all, this book counts as welcome guidance in worldview apologetics from a seasoned veteran.

So let me be clear: I think this is a great book that will benefit the church. If you feel a bit at sea when thinking about apologetics, this book will serve as a good orientation. For those who have some apologetical experience, this book will serve to put some of the debates in historical context, as well as to provide helpful advice and correction.

However, I do have four criticisms.

1. The book needs some practical examples.

I wish that the book had more practical applications for the novice. At times, Guinness’s erudition may be off-putting to the beginner. “Good insight!” he may say, and then scratch his head and wonder, “How do I use it?” No doubt Guinness wanted to avoid like the plague any scripts or any easy, step-by-step, how-to instructions. After all, his second chapter is entitled “Technique: The Devil’s Bait.” In an age of cookie-cutter apologetics, such a warning is laudable and needed. To riff on Schaeffer, there are no cookie-cutter people. Each person’s needs, the configuration of their particular pattern of unbelief, demands a flexible, personal approach that seeks to reach that person’s unique heart. I get that and give a hearty “Amen!” Still, for the sake of the newbies, I would have welcomed a few times when the illustrations were drawn not from literary, philosophical, sociological, or classical Greek sources, but rather from actual conversations Guinness has had with non-Christians. I think he could have thrown out a few of those lifelines without being accused of caving in to the “imperialism of technique” (46).

2. The book should have responded to worldview-discourse skeptics.

A second criticism has to do with the worldview-centric orientation of his apologetic. I have no problem with worldview apologetics; the apologetics of Schaeffer and Van Til is powerful and has helped many, and Guinness follows in their footsteps. But there are those even in Reformed circles who question the need for engagement at the level of worldview. James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom comes immediately to mind. For Smith, the real story of faith happens precognitively, in the imagination as it is shaped by action. Worldview is merely a retrospective articulation of our habits of the heart. Worldview is not where the real action is.

Though Smith has many interesting insights, I wonder where such comments leave apologetics. Is it worth doing anymore? Does anyone benefit from worldview discussions? Or should we just include non-Christians into our rituals and wait for the change to happen as their repeated actions slowly change their imaginations (which will later be reflected in a different articulation of worldview)? Given the radical challenge to worldview thinking and discourse coming from Smith and others, I would have appreciated some engagement on that topic from Guinness. I think Guinness’s push-back would have been incisive and insightful.

3. There is a problem with the dilemma/diversion polarity (missing the dilemma in the diversions).

A third criticism has to do with his analysis of unbelief and the scope of apologetics. At the very beginning of the book, Guinness lays out the true ambition of persuasive Christian witness: not just to reach the open and interested, but to engage those who are “closed,” those who are “indifferent or resistant to what we have to say” (18). In these days in North America that’s a lot of people. In chapter 5, the “Anatomy of Unbelief,” Guinness gives a masterful reading of Romans 1 (though not without problems—see below) in terms of self-deception. Unbelievers are made in God’s image, live in God’s world, but believe otherwise. That creates an indefatigable tension within. Guinness further analyzes the unbeliever’s response to this tension in terms of a polarity: dilemma versus diversion (96–98). Those at the dilemma end of the pole seek to live out their unbelief more consistently, and so they feel the tension more acutely. Those at the diversion end of the pole seek the comfort of inconsistency: they believe in things (like the value of human beings) that they have no right to, given their God-denying worldview. But they simply ignore the tension: they try to drown out the tension by distracting themselves, understanding the world as if God were there, even while denying him.

Guinness says neither the dilemma folks nor the diversion folks are necessarily closer to God (96), and yet it is clear to me that Guinness feels drawn to the dilemma people. Indeed, his apologetic method is designed to provoke and invite those who feel the dilemma. They bear a striking resemblance to what he later calls “seekers,” those who have taken the first tentative step away from false faith and (perhaps) toward genuine faith in God (see 233–37). By contrast, though he says that the diversion pole is “more crowded, but less understood” (99), and though he gives a lengthy biblical analysis of diversion (99–105), he ends up giving very little guidance about how to engage with the diverted, except to point out the triviality and banality of diversion itself. I was hoping for more, especially in light of his challenge that we need to engage the indifferent. Doesn’t that include the diverted and distracted?

It seems to me that “diversion” is perhaps an altogether flat category, especially if you are going to consign the majority of non-Christians to it. And that flatness has to do with a dismissive attitude towards popular culture that perhaps stems from culture critics like Kenneth Myers and Neil Postman. If you want to engage the diverted, perhaps you need to engage their diversions. And then you might discover that even diversions house dilemmas, that the stories, images, songs, and games that we label “diversions” themselves bear witness to the tension of being a rebellious, idolatrous human made in God’s image and living in God’s world. But Guinness never gets there. He cites one film, but apart from that, writes as if the only culture worth engaging is written in books, and written some time ago. In short, I think his apologetic is strengthened and broadened by a close examination of contemporary entertainments, seeing them as something more than diversions and distractions.

4. Guinness’s method would benefit if he self-consciously couched his terms in the context of revelation.

My final criticism: certain key terms such as “truth,” “reality,” and “signals of transcendence” contain ambiguity and require definition in terms of their theological weight. This is more than a semantic problem, for such ambiguity can lead to inconsistencies. “What is truth?” asked Pilate. Certain apologists say that truth is correspondence with reality, that is, states of affairs that actually pertain. In other words, “truth” and “reality” are neutral terms that can be used unproblematically with anyone. And sometimes Guinness seems to use these terms that way (84, 115). On the other hand, a biblical definition of “truth” and “reality” would have to say that truth and reality are what conforms to God’s revelation, that there is no neutrality to truth. And sometimes Guinness seems to go this path as well, in affirming that “all truth is God’s truth” (40), that is, tied to his revelation (especially in Christ, see 67).

Without a precise grounding in the context of revelation, sometimes Guinness’s formulation of the unbeliever’s knowledge is less than accurate. For instance, reflecting on Paul’s assertion in Romans 1 that the unbeliever suppresses the truth in unrighteousness, Guinness talks about how the unbeliever creates worldviews that deny God: “they are philosophical or sociological fictions—or worlds within the world that provide a world of meaning apart from God and against God” (94, emphasis his). This is actually a brilliant characterization of unbelieving thought. But then he later applies Romans 1 to say that the unbeliever has a worldview that is “partly true and partly false” (112). That’s not exactly what Paul said. Non-Christians don’t have a half-true worldview that simply needs completion; they’ve mangled truth beyond recognition and need a whole worldview renovation. They don’t have a half-true interpretation of reality; they have a wholly false interpretation of reality that they use to suppress the wholly true revelation of God’s being and character. The “partly true” part of their worldview isn’t, properly speaking, their worldview at all. It refers to the places where non-Christians are inconsistent with their own worldviews to accommodate God’s wholly true revelation of himself (seen, for instance, in a non-Christian’s valuing of human rights). In other words, it would have been more accurate to say that the non-Christian’s perspective contains God’s truth held captive by unbelieving worldview assumptions.

The same ambiguity plagues Guinness’s use of Peter Berger’s “signals of transcendence” in chapter 7. Obviously Guinness knows that these signals come from God to reveal him. But, following Berger, he characterizes these signals phenomenologically (that is, from the point-of-view of the non-Christian) as hints that whisper that there might be “something more” than visible reality (134). This “something more” can be explained using any number of interpretations, or it can be ignored entirely (144–47). I understand that Guinness is attempting to acquaint us with a phenomenology of unbelief and its inconsistencies, of what it must feel like to live in God’s world without acknowledging him. You’d just get whispers, hints, and so on. On the other hand, why not just come out (for his Christian audience) and label these “signals” as they really are: revelation stemming from common grace whose ultimate function is to turn the eyes to God?

What is the point of the fuss and theological nitpicking? What is the practical cash value of making such distinctions (for Guinness is nothing if not resolutely practical)? Simply this: the apologist ought to know where things stand vis-à-vis unbelief in terms of biblical and theological categories. The “signals” have a given theological vector: to draw sinners into the knowledge of God. The unbelieving worldview also has a certain theological vector: to draw sinners away from God, to smother and constrain God’s general revelation of himself as much as possible. By paying attention to those common grace, general revelational elements suppressed in unrighteousness (and knowing that’s what they are), the Spirit can use us to fan those embers into a flame that can (potentially) burn through the cage the unbeliever has put that revelation in.

Guinness knows all this, and it resonates throughout his system, but he never really comes out and uses those categories. Thus he leaves open interpretations of his method that would be more amenable to supposedly neutral terms like “truth in general” or “reality in general,” when in fact such generalities are chimeras. There is only God’s truth and God’s reality, and we’re either in agreement with him or in rebellion against him. Everything is revelation. It all points to God to inspire worship, or would do so if our own sin didn’t muck things up. That seems a much clearer (and more clearly biblical) picture of the shape of the unbeliever’s mind and heart: dealing with the pressure of God’s revelation, and doing his level best to shove it down and keep it down through his own twisted worldview.

Just to be clear, I still believe that this book makes a valuable contribution and that any budding apologist should have it and read it. It is bursting with insights, including some sociological insights into the structure of belief and unbelief (and unbelieving culture) that will enrich our own perspective on these matters. He raises issues that should be discussed in churches about how best to witness to people shaped by a deeply post-Christian society. This is a book worth having and savoring. No fooling.


[1] Os Guinness, Long Journey Home: A Guide to Your Search for the Meaning of Life (New York: WaterBrook, 2001); Unspeakable: Facing Up to the Challenge of Evil (New York: HarperCollins, 2005).

Ted Turnau is a teaching fellow with the academic missionary organization Global Scholars. He teaches cultural and religious studies at Anglo-American University and Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. Ordained Servant Online, November 2015.

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Ordained Servant: November 2015

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