Fool’s Talk (Book Review)

fools-talkI don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it seems to be harder to talk to our friends and neighbors about the Bible, Christianity, and the gospel.  In one sense it has always been hard to talk about spiritual things because it’s uncomfortable and risks the relationship to some degree.  But that’s not what I mean.  Nowadays, in our late modern and even post-modern society, it’s harder to have such conversations because Christians can no longer assume we share common assumptions with unbelievers.  The world is a big place, and there are lots of ways to look at things.  Many of those viewpoints (worldviews) have made their way into our culture and have been absorbed by all kinds of people.  No one, even Christians, are immune to being unwittingly shaped and influenced by the world and other viewpoints.  But at least Christians have in the Bible a book that does not change.  It is our standard, our story, our guide, our authority that gives us a common language, worldview, and religion.

Much of the world doesn’t have much of a clue what the Bible says, what Christians believe in common, or even what is the basic message of the gospel.  The people who know they are ignorant of these things are at an advantage.  At least they are in a position that allows them to be humble and teachable regarding things of which they can learn.  (That’s not to say most Christians are no longer ignorant of these things.  We read and explore because we know we don’t know everything and we want to learn from people and resources that can teach us.)  However, religion in general and Christianity in particular (at least in my American context) are topics for which it appears everyone considers himself an expert or is firmly settled on his opinion.  I’m startled at how much misinformation so many believe about Christianity.  For example, my daughter’s public high school World History textbook doesn’t include much about Christianity—just a few paragraphs.  But its description of important beliefs lacks central truths summarized in the Apostles’ Creed.  No mention of the doctrine of the resurrection of Jesus Christ!  And the textbook explains that all four gospels were written by one of the 12 disciples.  This is simply a factual error.  No branch of Christianity, from the most conservative Bible believers to the most skeptical Bible scholars, claims the books of Mark and Luke were written by one of the Twelve.  What “experts” are proofreading this stuff?

Here’s the big problem: ignorant people, who think they know enough or even everything important there is to know about God, are getting harder and harder to dialogue with.  Why?  The Bible’s answer is that such a one is a “fool”.  Sound harsh and judgmental?  Perhaps, but then again, maybe the Bible is wiser than we think.  Maybe the Bible is the splash of cold water in the face that we all need (including teachers who think they’ve “arrived”).  Here are ten truisms the book of Proverbs says about the fool and knowledge.

Proverbs 1:7  The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Proverbs 10:14  The wise lay up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool brings ruin near.

Proverbs 12:16  The vexation of a fool is known at once, but the prudent ignores an insult.

Proverbs 12:23  A prudent man conceals knowledge, but the heart of fools proclaims folly.

Proverbs 13:16   In everything the prudent acts with knowledge, but a fool flaunts his folly.

Proverbs 14:7   Leave the presence of a fool, for there you do not meet words of knowledge.

Proverbs 14:33  Wisdom rests in the heart of a man of understanding, but it makes itself known even in the midst of fools.

Proverbs 15:2  The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly.

Proverbs 15:7  The lips of the wise spread knowledge; not so the hearts of fools.

Proverbs 15:14  The heart of him who has understanding seeks knowledge, but the mouths of fools feed on folly.

The situation can feel pretty bleak for Christians wanting to talk intelligently and honestly about their faith with others.  What to do in a foolish world?  I’m glad you asked. :-)

Os Guinness, Christian thinker, author, social critic, apologist, evangelist, and something of a prophetic voice, answers that we must recover the old ways of communicating the truths of the Christian faith.  Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion is being hailed as the author’s magnum opus—his most important and even capstone book to his prolific career.  Guinness is a disciple of three important thinkers, all in different traditions, so his synthesis is both eclectically unique, and broadly compelling and powerful.  These apologists include two familiar names (C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer) and one not so familiar (Peter Berger).  Alongside these primary influences, Guinness also learned much from Erasmus, Blaise Pascal, G.K. Chesterton, and Malcolm Muggeridge.  Present-day apologists who owe a great debt to Guinness include Tim Keller and Ravi Zacharias.

Fool’s Talk is about marrying apologetics and evangelism and placing them in mutually-serving roles that had been abandoned during the era of Christendom.  He writes:

This book focuses on a narrower issue and a simple problem: We have lost the art of Christian persuasion and we must recover it.  Evangelism is alive and well in the rapidly growing churches of the Global South, where the challenge is to recover an ardor for discipleship and a discernment of the modern world to match the zeal for evangelism.  But in the advanced modern world, which is both pluralistic and post-Christian, our urgent need is for the recovery of persuasion in order to address the issues of the hour.  Some branches of the Western church have effectively abandoned evangelism, for various reasons, and others speak as if Christian truths and beliefs are always and readily understandable to everyone, whatever the state of their listeners’ hearts and whatever the character of their audience’s worldview and culture.  Others again have come to rely on formulaic, cookie-cutter approaches to evangelism and apologetics as if all who hear them are the same…

In short, many of us today lack a vital part of a way of communicating that is prominent in the Gospels and throughout the Scriptures, but largely absent in the church today—persuasion, the art of speaking to people who, for whatever reason, are indifferent or resistant to what we have to say.  They simply do not agree with us and are not open to what we have to say…Even more importantly, today’s advocacy often ignores the crucial biblical understanding of the anatomy of human unbelief, how God addresses those who ignore or reject him, and how we too are to learn to address people wherever they are and whatever they think about God or the church or us.  The heart of the problem is quite literally the problem of the heart…

How can we speak for our Lord in a manner that does justice to the wonder of who God is, to the profundity of the good news he has entrusted to us, to the wily stubbornness of the human heart and mind, as well as to the wide-ranging challenges of today’s world and the mind-boggling prospects of tomorrow’s?  In short, how can we as followers of Jesus be as truly persuasive as we desire to be?  Nothing less than that is the goal of our exploration. (pp. 17-19)

Employing Scripture and examples from history, Guinness explains, illustrates, and applies a number of persuasion principles.  None is a tactic, technique, or science.  They cannot be reduced to these because persuading people requires the dance of communication—listening and thoughtfully responding.  These basic principles are:

  1. Turning the tables (chapter 6)
  2. Triggering the signals, or touching people at their primal fears and hopes (chapter 7)
  3. Spring-loaded dynamics, or the art of delicious surprise (chapter 8)
  4. The art of always being right?, or don’t be a know-it-all (chapter 9)
  5. Beware the boomerang, or subverting the charge of hypocrisy (chapter 10)
  6. Kissing Judases, or dealing with revisionist opponents within Christianity (chapter 11)

Chapters 1-5 address first order issues, such as why persuasion is harder now, why going the route of technique is playing into the devil’s hand, why God is his own best defender such that apologetics is always about him not us, why it’s necessary to play the “holy fool” to the new atheists, and the anatomy of human unbelief.

Os Guinness is never an easy read because he makes you think hard about what he’s saying.  But his writing is not purposefully difficult, addressing only the academically-minded.  The intended audience is thoughtful Christians who want to discover why some people can make a sermon, a talk, a book, or a conversation sound eternally urgent and compelling.  The Spirit changes hearts and empowers his servants.  But there used to be schools of the prophets and there now are seminaries where we learn the art of speaking with power and persuasion.  Thankfully you don’t have to follow Elijah around to inherit a double portion of his spirit, or go to an expensive and time-consuming seminary to learn the art of Christian persuasion.  Fool’s Talk uncovers the necessary tools so we might learn to use them as effective communicators, apologists, and evangelists.  For the way of the fool is to persuade with God’s methods, to his message, and for his glory.

1 Corinthians 1:18-31  For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”  20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.  22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom,  23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,  24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.  26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;  28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are,  29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.  30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption,  31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

1 Corinthians 3:18-23   Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise.  19 For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,”  20 and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.”  21 So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours,  22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future–all are yours,  23 and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.

Resources

About Os Guinness

Author interview about Fool’s Talk (download here)

Excerpt from Fool’s Talk

Interview with Os Guinness: Welcome to the Grand Age of Apologetics

Is It Fool’s Talk? (video)

Video archive of Os Guinness

Reviews

9Marks

Amazon

Breakpoint

Challies

Faith and Self Defense

Goodreads

The Gospel Coalition

Hearts and Minds Books

Nate Claiborne

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3 Responses to Fool’s Talk (Book Review)

  1. Pingback: Going deep into cultures to reach lost people – Belgian Ecclesia Brussel – Leuven

  2. Brian: Great review. I recently completed Fools Talk, which I really enjoyed. It got me thinking about the role of persuasion in the Christian life. I would argue that the Spirit of God is instrumental and ultimately central to our persuasion, if we are to be effective.

    Thanks again for the read!

    • Thanks for visiting, D. I still find myself thinking from time to time about Fool’s Talk. That’s unusual for me since I read a lot–typically moving onto the next thing. His illustration of Norman Mailer’s subversive reply to his protesters challenges me to interact with opponents with more thoughtful wit. Also, his insights into “multimedia”-style prophetic confrontation have opened up another world to me in terms of persuasion techniques. And yet, I still come back to your point that the Holy Spirit being the catalyst for changing hearts. Thank God for the new birth–no life without it!

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