7 From Apologetics to Rhetoric
During my years as a seminary professor, every course I taught had some connection with apologetics. One of the courses I taught that I liked best was rhetoric. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. Unfortunately, it is an art that Christian apologetics has failed to fully appropriate. Aristotle rightly distinguished three appeals of persuasion. These were logos, ethos, and pathos.
You can try to persuade by logical argument. That’s logos, and Christian apologetics is hypertrophied in that department. But you can also try to persuade by the force of your personality, or by your reputation for moral probity, or by your demonstrated expertise and qualifications. That’s ethos, and it speaks to your standing and credibility in the act of persuasion. And finally, you can try to persuade by exploiting people’s emotions. That’s pathos, and it can be wildly effective, especially when it taps into such visceral emotions as fear and greed.
Christian apologetics has done very well with logos. As I noted earlier, in area after area, Christian apologists have advanced the stronger argument. But Christian apologists have been notoriously unsuccessful at advancing their ethos. A partial exception is Christian philosophers, who through the efforts of George Mavrodes, William Alston, Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, John Hare, Richard Swinburne, Peter van Inwagen, William Lane Craig, and others have come to command the respect, often grudging, of the philosophical world.
Nonetheless, even this shining star of Christian apologetics has failed to attain the respect it deserves. It’s great that Al Plantinga could flourish at Notre Dame, but why weren’t Harvard and Cambridge beating a path to his door? And why is Bill Craig at Biola rather than at Yale or Oxford? Nothing against Biola, but academic affiliation in our cultural environment goes directly to ethos, and Bill Craig would command a stronger ethos, thereby enhancing his apologetic impact, if he had Yale or Oxford as a platform.
Outside philosophy, however, the ethos of Christian apologists is lamentable. Mike Licona’s historiographical work supporting the bodily resurrection of Christ is, in my view, far superior to Bart Ehrman’s skeptical assaults on the resurrection. I should know since I helped organize a focused civil dialogue between the two, and saw their exchange unfold in real time. Unfortunately, link rot being what it is on the web, that dialogue has disappeared from the original website, though it remains available on the Web Archive.
But here’s the question: Why does Ehrman command a prestigious professorship at UNC, where he can teach hundreds of students in an introductory New Testament course, with the avowed aim of derailing their Christian faith? Ehrman is explicit about this aim with his students. And why does Licona have to make ends meet by running a speaking ministry while teaching as a visiting professor at Houston Baptist University? The inequity here is palpable. Clearly, Licona’s impact as a Christian apologist would be greater if he had a platform like Ehrman’s.
Jesus in Luke 16:8 described the children of this age being shrewder than the children of light. The children of this age, who set the agenda for our cultural environment, have arranged for themselves plum academic jobs where they can promulgate ideas contrary to Christian faith and thus contrary to the work of orthodox Christian apologists. Now we can simply wring our hand and complain how unfortunate it is that our cultural environment treats apologists like Licona so shabbily. And he’s hardly alone in this mistreatment.
But let me instead suggest that any fault here is at least in part on Christian apologists and their supporters. Yes, we’ve got logos down pat. But why aren’t Christian apologists, and especially their fans with deep pockets, making it clear how important it is to get Christian apologetics into the commanding heights (the phrase is Lenin’s) of our cultural environment? To be clear, I’m supremely grateful for schools like Biola and Houston Baptist University that at least provide a livelihood Christian apologists. But Christian apologists who deserve to be at a Harvard or Stanford should be at a Harvard or Stanford. What needs to change in our cultural environment to make that happen?
Many of the schools in the CCCU (Council for Christian Colleges and Universities) are, in my view, thoroughly compromised, happy to live in the Christian ghetto, and resistant to Christian apologetics because it would make them look bad to the mainstream academy that they are trying to impress. Instead, they should be making the mainstream academy uncomfortable through their positive case for Christian truth. Even if doing so made them unrespectable, it would at least make them worthy of respect. “Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,” says Jesus in Luke 6:26, “for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.” Those words, mutatis mutandis, apply to false Christian academics.
(I’m painting here with a broad brush. I don’t mean to suggest that any particular CCCU school is bereft of faithful Christian faculty. Indeed, there are many faithful Christian faculty at these schools, faculty who are doing their best to serve Christ and their students, and who refuse to bow to the prevailing currents of the secular academy. Moreover, as I run my eyes over the list of CCCU schools, I see several that are exemplary in their institutional commitment to advance a solid and sound Christian education, not least Biola, one of the sponsors of this conference. That said, painting with a broad brush can reveal broad patterns that require attention, and the pull on Christian higher education to live in the ghetto is a real temptation.)
On the pathos front, Christian apologists have also been less than totally effective. As I noted earlier, the abortion debate has seen a promising shift to the pro-life side not because of arguments for the sanctity of human life or for its reality at the moment of conception, but because of images, such as from ultrasound and other imaging technologies, that make the reality of human life in the womb clear and its violation through abortion repellent.
Christian apologetics needs to keep making its reasoned arguments against abortion, demonstrating it to be a heinous evil. But it also needs to make full use of pathos to advance its case. Of course, it’s already doing that to some degree, especially in the abortion controversy. But it needs to go at pathos much more deliberately. Activating people’s imagination through pictures, intuitions, and stories will be crucial here, and Christian apologists need to incorporate such tools into their tool chests.
In sum, if apologetics is going to be an effective instrument for moving our cultural environment closer to the kingdom of God, it needs to take full advantage of the three appeals of persuasion: logos, ethos, and pathos. Moreover, it needs to do so systematically rather than just occasionally.
8 From Rhetoric to Influence
Rhetoric, as we’ve noted, is the art of persuasion. But how does rhetoric look in practice? The picture is of two parties, one doing the persuading, the other being persuaded. The goal is to get the party being persuaded to believe or act in a desired way. The classic case of rhetoric is the court of law, in which an attorney, by speaking (that is, by arranging words and giving them voice — hence the emphasis on logic and eloquence in classical rhetoric), attempts to convince a judge or jury to reach a certain decision. Once the decision is reached, the attorney’s job is done, the job being successful if the decision reached is the one desired. In this light, it bears repeating that the very word “apologetics” originally denoted a legal defense.
This view of rhetoric as doing persuasive things with words is fine as far as it goes, but as we’ve seen, it hardly goes far enough. Certainly, insofar as rhetoric is a tool of the legal profession, it emphasizes the power of words over other forms of persuasion. By contrast, consider an act of violence that persuades a hapless shop owner to hand over protection money. Or consider an encouraging glance that persuades an unconfident child to attempt greater things. In much of persuasion, words take a back seat.
Such a wider conception of persuasion, where the goal is to instill a desired belief or behavior by whatever the means (not just words), is, however, still unduly limited. Persuasion, with or without the use of words, means getting someone to comply, to say yes. The connotation of the word “comply” is perhaps unfortunate because it often suggests getting to yes at the expense of the individual giving the yes, but compliance need not be unhappy, and in fact can be happy (as in “I’m happy to comply”). The point of persuasion is to get a yes response, and compliance is therefore its first goal.
But not all yeses are created equal. There’s yes and there’s yes. There’s yes, as in I agree with you simply to get you off my back. There’s yes, as in I agree with you because I’m all in with your program. And there are many other yeses as well with varying degrees of buy-in. An attorney may have no stake in the quality of the yes obtained (a verdict is a verdict), but many of us, depending on context, prefer an enthusiastic yes over a grudging yes. Certainly, we want an enthusiastic yes when we, as Christian apologists, persuade someone that God exists, that God created the world, and that God redeemed the world through the death and resurrection of Christ.
Persuasion, in its most general sense, is therefore best understood as influence, and rhetoric, in its most general sense, is accordingly to be understood as the study of influence, and especially the ways to augment and diminish influence. Influence takes the form of humans acting to elicit a response from other humans, the underlying motivation for the response being potentially as important as the response itself.
In academic discussions of influence (especially in business marketing), an act of influence is often treated as a linear, one-way relation between the agent doing the influencing (the influencer) and the agent being influenced (the target), with some form of communication or directed energy flowing from the influencer to the target.
But this picture misses much. Any influencer is in turn influenced via the target’s response to the influencer’s act of influence, making the target’s response itself an act of influence. Thus an influencer is always a target and a target is always an influencer. Moreover, untargeted bystanders may likewise be influenced, and in turn influence their unsuspecting influencers.
Whereas rhetoric, by that name, is traditionally taught under philosophy, communications, and legal studies, influence, by that name, tends to be taught under psychology and business. Thus a social psychologist or marketing analyst might ask what foibles of the human mind allow a certain persuasive appeal to succeed even though by any standards of philosophical rigor the appeal ought to be rejected. In consequence, any discipline that bears on influence, whatever the words we use to describe it, may legitimately be folded into this generalized conception of rhetoric.
9 The Lesson for Christian Apologetics
There’s a lesson in these musings about rhetoric and influence for Christian apologetics. It is this: Christian apologetics misses the boat when it focuses on fashioning apologetic arguments to the exclusion of having a clear actionable plan for injecting those arguments into the wider cultural environment and to the exclusion of having a clear attainable goal for how those arguments are to influence the wider cultural environment. In short, influence needs to be an inherent feature of Christian apologetics rather than an accidental by-product, as it tends to be at present.
One reason the field of apologetics hasn’t seen much of me over the past decade is that I left seminary teaching to become an entrepreneur who develops educational websites and educational technologies. That’s now my day job. The business world, as I’ve discovered, differs radically from the academic world in one main point: any item a business produces needs a clear path to influence. Note that monetization is downstream of influence. If I build an influential website that attracts a lot of traffic, I’ll be able to monetize it. But if my website is uninfluential, generating little interest and traffic, monetization will falter regardless.
By contrast, consider your average Christian apologist, who works in the academy. It’s enough to write your latest apologetic tract and get it published in some academically respectable forum. If it gets widely discussed and cited, so much the better. But in writing your latest apologetic tract, you are simply of putting it out there and hoping that it has an impact. What I’ve just said about Christian apologetics holds for academic scholarship in general. Academics typically just put their work out there and hope for the best.
In the business world, on the other hand, the influence that you desire for an item that you are building needs to be baked into the development of that item from the start. In business, you don’t just create and hope for the best. Indeed, you can’t just hope for the best because in that case you’ll be out of business before you know it. Instead, the creation, prototyping, production, distribution, and marketing of the item in question needs to be carefully understood and articulated from the start.
The lesson for Christian apologetics can therefore be restated thus: for apologetics to be an effective instrument for cultural engagement, there needs to be a feedback loop between the apologetic work being created and its intended influence. Precisely because our cultural environment is hostile to Christian orthodoxy in general and Christian apologetics in particular, we cannot do business as usual and simply put our apologetic work out there without a clear actionable plan for making it influential. It’s not enough that we create the apologetic work and then figure out how to make it influential. We must instead adapt the apologetic work from its very creation so that it will be influential.
Suppose I’m writing an online article that I want to see rank highly with the search engines (ideally, so that it is listed in the first place on the first SERP, or search engine results page). I better do a competitor analysis and have a good sense of what keywords people are searching relevant to the article, and I better adapt the article so that the search engines find it and rank it highly. If the search engines don’t find it and don’t rank it highly, I may just as well not have written it.
This mutual adaptation of content and influence holds just as much in apologetics as in business. Apologetic work needs to be developed in ways that will give it the best chance to achieve maximal influence. That can mean collaborating with someone at an elite institution to improve the work’s ethos and therefore its influence. That can mean incorporating an infographic or video that will stir people’s imagination and thereby increase its influence. That can mean getting the work featured in prime cultural real estate such as The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal to increase its authority and influence.
Once we recognize the importance of developing apologetic content in tandem with an actionable plan for making it influential, we need to ask ourselves where we should be focusing our energies as Christian apologists. Certain apologetic efforts are likely to be much less effective and much less scalable than others. Certain topics have been overworked. Certain topics have hit their highwater mark (you can use Google trends to see how a topic’s popularity has waxed and waned over time). Certain topics are just ripe for the picking — that’s where Christian apologists need to focus their energies. Indeed, questions that were burning a generation ago may no longer be burning, and new questions may be burning in their stead, questions to which people desperately need the answers that Christian apologetics can provide.
Habit 2 of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People reads “begin with the end in mind.” What is the end of Christian apologetics? It can’t just be to develop sound arguments that demonstrate the truth of Christianity. If those arguments just sit on a shelf, they are useless. If they just circulate in a ghetto, they merely preach to the choir. The end of Christian apologetics must therefore be to take sound arguments that demonstrate the truth of Christianity and to make them influential in the cultural environment, moving the cultural environment closer to the kingdom of God, thereby constituting at least a partial answer to the prayer “thy kingdom come.”
Bottom line: By baking influence into Christian apologetics not as an afterthought but as an essential feature of the apologetic enterprise, we make apologetics an effective instrument for cultural engagement.
The entire analysis is here.
Here’s the first portion (Parts 1 and 2) published at Mind Matters News
What makes arguments for God convincing — or not? Is truth enough? A look at the unfulfilled promise of Christian apologetics: Christian apologetics has, in my view, mainly been in the business of playing defense when it needs to be playing offense.
Here’s the second portion (parts 3 and 4): Is truth just what your peers will let you get away with saying? Sound, logical thinking is NOT the norm. Many people, anxious to remain in good standing with leaders and influencers, live quite happily with incoherence and inconsistencies. Christian apologists should recognize that incoherence and inconsistencies only become a problem in most people’s thinking when they hinder their lives.
Here’s the third portion: How does worldview differ from cultural environment. Confusion about the difference between worldview and cultural environment has been a stumbling block for Christian apologetics. Ask yourself about the increasing opposition to abortion over the past years, which is perhaps one of the few issues where we’ve seen positive progress of late.