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Friday, May 12, 2017

"Winsome Persuasion" (Tim Muehlhoff & Richard Langer)

TITLE: Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence in a Post-Christian World
AUTHOR: Tim Muehlhoff & Richard Langer
PUBLISHER: Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2017, (219 pages).

Many of us who lived through the LA riots back in the 80s would remember the late Rodney King, the cab driver who was infamously beaten by some officers from the Los Angeles Police Department. In a plea for civil behaviour to all, he famously said: "Can we all get along?" This phrase has been paraphrased in other ways like "Can't we all just get along?" or "Can't we all just learn to live together?" The need for cool heads and warm hearts is still there today, even as we see people continue to be split in the middle across many areas. From racial discrimination to the gender inequality; from generational differences to cultural distinctivenesses; from language diversity to the rich-poor society divide; broken people continue to scatter broken pieces. The public arena is increasingly fragmented. In the political scene, people continue to be split across party lines. The election of President Trump has also become a major source of verbal spat across the country. Those who support Trump are aggressively pushed back by those screaming out #NotMyPresident. On the economic front, the rich and the poor are getting further and further apart. Quentin Schultz in the foreword says it very well: "We all are born into a broken world of sin. Nothing and no one is unblemished. We cannot simply look outside of ourselves for sin. We have to look inside as well." That is the crux of the matter. The source of divisions stems from the root of sin. If we can address this well, we would be better able to get along. Biblically, the way forward is to approach the matter of public dialogue or debate with Reinhold Niebuhr's prayer: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." The authors then try to persuade us that Christians are called to protect the weak; to speak up for the voiceless; to represent the unrepresented; to stand up for the marginalized and alienated; and to be peacemakers through it all. They highlight the three types of voices commonly used in public squares. The first is the PROPHETIC voice which appeals to the Word of God as the final authority; which basically demands people change their direction to align with this; that this is essentially the convicting work of the Holy Spirit. The second is the PASTORAL voice which extends care as the first response; offering healing to those in need; and ministers to people where they are. This voice is essentially an outpouring of the gift of comfort and care from the Holy Spirit. The third voice is the PERSUASIVE voice, which appeals to the common good; the gentle strength of effective dialogue; and the power of restraint from flipping to extreme views. While there are pros and cons in all of them, the authors believe that the PERSUASIVE voice is the most needful for our times. They coin the term 'counterpublic' as such a voice. A counterpublic has three characteristics: opposition; withdrawal; engagement. In opposition, it refers to those who perceive themselves being excluded or marginalized. In withdrawal, it refers to such people consolidating and forming an identity for themeslves in the midst of being ostracized. In engagement, this people attempt to engage the dominant view clearly and constructively. The Christian counterpublic does exactly the same but from a Christian viewpoint, on how to be "gracious communicators in an argument culture."

This "argument culture" often comes out due to entrenched positions where parties refuse any leeway for one another. Many value monologue instead of encouraging dialogue. They often demonize the others and choose the my-way-or-the-highway unilateral approach. Such approaches will not bring about any consensus or reasonable discussion. In order to bring about constructive dialogue, the counterpublic must be credible. This means no slandering or twisting of other opinions but honest attempts to understand. This may also mean learning to ask tough questions on ourselves, such as the efforts of Christina Cleveland who dared us to ask questions like: “Why is the Church divided into over 40,000 denominations? Why do Churches in the same town often have very little to do with each other?" Learning to be persuasive means recognizing the complexity of ethos so as to inform our contextual understanding before we engage in anything.

When Engaging Others, we learn about how to craft our message in a way that addresses the "sacred core of the community." The moment we touch on this, be prepared for a vigorous or vicious response. Treat them with gentleness and respect. We learn about delivering the message and noticing the loose connections which often come with the least expected allies. Such an alliance can have very positive benefits such as correcting stereotypes; tackling the core problems; developing trust; learning from others; and discovering common values. Toward the end, each other offers a take on one of the most divisive issues of our age: The legalization of Same-Sex Marriage.  While each offers a different take on the issue, they adopt a similar approach of winsome persuasion. The goal is understanding; the process is persuasion; and the resulting atmosphere is grace.

We need to create more space in an increasingly pluralistic culture that preaches diversity on the one hand but practices bigotry on the other hand. Tolerance is not a very popular virtue even though many people talk about it. In a free speech, free press, and free expression environment, we need to know that true freedom is about respect and graciousness. It is about constructive engagement that leads to a better world of relationships. It is about fair communications and a willingness to dialogue as equal parties to the issue. Christians are called to take the lead in giving the reasons for the hope that they have in the gospel. Muehlhoff and Langer have managed to help bridge the growing gap between contentious parties. It is far too easy to simple 'agree-to-disagree' or to randomly choose 'fight vs flight.' One can win the argument but lose the friend. One can also win over a friend superficially but lose the long-term development of trust and goodwill. A lot of things are at stake. Take the political scene for example. It will take a long while before opposing parties can see eye to eye on the state of the country. Left to their own, communities will continue to fight for their voices to be heard. Without a guiding hand or a wise strategy, the fabric of unity with diversity will be tested. The passage from Hebrews 12:14-15 is most appropriate.

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.

Tim Muehlhoff is Professor of Communication Studies at Biola University. Richard Langer is Professor of Biblical and Theological studies at Talbot School of Theology and director of the Office for the Integration of Faith and Learning at Biola University.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of InterVarsity Press and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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