Tim Muehlhoff and Richard Langer, Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence in a Post-Christian World. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017.
I’ve been concerned with the art of persuasion for almost as long as I have been interested in apologetics. And there’s a good reason why. As I like to say, you can have the best engine in your car, but if you don’t have the right tires to put that power to the pavement, you’re going nowhere.
So it is with persuasion: you can have great arguments, but if you don’t have the ability to convey those arguments to others in a winsome, accessible fashion, you are going nowhere.
I provided my own account of persuasion in my 2011 book You’re Not As Crazy As I Think, and in the years since, I have continued to read in the area. So when I saw Winsome Persuasion I was immediately interested.
A Quick Overview
Winsome Persuasion is authored by communications professor Tim Muehlhoff and theologian Richard Langer and together they offer a broad-based knowledge of communications, theology, history, and contemporary culture.
The theme of the book is perfectly summarized in the subtitle: “Christian influence in a post-Christian world.” Muehlhoff and Langer are especially concerned with equipping Christians to become an effective “counterpublic”, that is, a minority cultural perspective, which can effectively equip the church to “persuade for Jesus” (Schultze, Foreword, xi). Thus, the focus of Winsome Persuasion is to bring about cultural change at a national level by becoming effective communicators at a local level (25).
To that end, the book is divided into three parts. In part 1: “Laying a Theoretical Foundation”, Muehlhoff and Langer introduce the concept of a counterpublic and the centrality of credibility in being an effective witness. The section is complemented by two extended historical examples that illustrate these skills: St. Patrick’s transformative impact on pagan Irish civilization and Jean Vanier’s L’Arche communities with their equally transformative perspective on disability.
Part 2: “Engaging Others” includes chapters on effectively crafting and delivering one’s message and developing helpful partnerships with those who have a shared interest and perspective on various topics. The analysis in this section is complemented by two extended historical illustrations provided by the extraordinary impact of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin on attitudes toward slavery and William Wilberforce’s tireless campaign to end the slave trade and slavery within the British Empire.
Finally, In Part 3 the authors turn to “Pressing Questions for Christian Counterpublics” to the end of modeling winsome persuasion on a contemporary topic. The topic they select is gay marriage, and the final three chapters of the book are devoted to equipping Christians to become an effective counterpublic on this specific topic.
Yeah, well done
There is much to like about Winsome Persuasion. The authors provide an adept analysis informed by sociological, psychological, theological, and epistemological perspectives. For example, they introduce us to plausibility structures (102 ff.) and their role in weighing live options of belief. And they offer sage advice on the careful balancing of statistics and stories in building a cumulative case for one’s views (114-15).
Speaking of stories, the appeal to narratives is one of the real strengths of the book. The historical illustrations, in particular, are instructive. For example, the authors effectively contrast the strident anti-slavery voices of antebellum America with Stowe’s nuanced approach in Uncle Tom’s Cabin: ultimately, it is the latter which brings about the biggest change in societal attitudes toward slavery. The lesson: prophets have their place, but they can also often polarize and alienate rather than transform.
The authors punctuate their analysis with many shorter illustrations as well. For example, they point to the impressive respect that G.K. Chesterton cultivated with his intellectual opponents to illustrate the importance of credibility, a generosity of spirit, and a measured dose of self-deprecation (75). And Hillary Clinton’s appearance on SNL during the 2016 election illustrates the power of humor to win an audience … just so long as they are not already hostile to you (111). Finally, the Satanic Temple’s ability to defend a shocking statue in public space shows an impressive ability to build a bridge of common understanding:
Strategically, members of the Satanic Temple did not start with their radical belief that Satan is to be admired as an example of those who resist authority. Rather, as a starting point they shared with the press their mission statement, which is, according to Detroit chapter spokesperson Jex Blackmore, to “encourage benevolence and empathy among all people, reject tyrannical authority, advocate practical common sense and justice, and be directed by the human conscience to undertake noble pursuits guided by the individual will.” (101)
With a missed opportunity…
Speaking of the skill at building common understanding, this brings me to the most significant weakness in the book: a relative failure of the authors to inculcate in their readers a nuanced and charitable understanding of dissenting perspectives.
Muehlhoff and Langer are both professors at Biola University, so it is not surprising that the book is written from the perspectives and interests of conservative American evangelicalism. No doubt, those perspectives and interests will be shared by a large portion of the intended audience. But an essential criterion for successful dialogue with others consists of truly understanding the other and presenting opposing views in the strongest light possible (aka steel-manning). And that includes offering critiques of one’s own views from an outsider’s perspective. On this score, the book misses several opportunities to model a nuanced and charitable engagement with the other.
Let’s begin with an example from chapter 1 as Muehlhoff and Langer lament the decline of civil discourse associated with the Trump campaign and the liberal backlash: “inflammatory rhetoric bred inflammatory responses.” (2) Fair enough. However, the authors then raise a topic that will return again in the book: the US Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage (Obergefell v. Hodges). To that end, they quote a Buzzfeed op-ed expressing intolerance for the dissenting opinion:
“We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women’s rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides.” (Cited in 5, emphasis added by Muehlhoff and Langer).
This opinion prompts Muehlhoff and Langer to reply, “What has happened to our democracy?” (5)
However, is this fair? Does the Buzzfeed sentiment really represent the denigration of democratic engagement? To answer that question, let’s take another look at the first item on the Buzzfeed list: civil rights. This topic was vigorously debated in the Civil Rights era (c. 1954-1968). But it is debated no longer for the simple reason that the public square no longer recognizes segregationist views as defensible and worthy of consideration.
Do Muehlhoff and Langer believe that the democratic public square has suffered, that it has become less democratic, because of the marginalization and ultimate exclusion of racial segregationist views? I assume not. (Keep in mind, we are not talking about censorship per se: free speech remains, even for socially rejected ideas. But that doesn’t change the fact that particular views become stigmatized and thereby widely rejected by the body politic: you have a right to speak, and we have a right to ignore you.)
Assuming that is the case, it would follow that Muehlhoff and Langer agree with Buzzfeed on that point, at least. And so, it turns out that the real question is which views come to be seen as sufficiently problematic, implausible, and/or immoral that they should also be excluded.
Buzzfeed believes that heteronormative views of marriage should be excluded in our age just as racial segregationist views came to be in an earlier age. Muehlhoff and Langer have every right to disagree, but it hardly follows that Buzzfeed is thereby denigrating the public square or eroding democracy. By presenting Buzzfeed’s dissent as an attack on democracy, Muehlhoff and Langer lose an opportunity to model for the reader a charitable and productive understanding of the other, and communication and persuasion are hampered without that fuller understanding.
Here is a second example, drawn from the same chapter. Along with the decline of democracy itself, Muehlhoff and Langer also lament the fact that American culture today is “dismantling sexual morality” (5). While I share their lament over some aspects of changing sexual mores (e.g. the rise of “hook-up culture” (167)), I strongly deny that these changes cumulatively constitute a straightforward “dismantling” of sexual morality.
On the contrary, Christians should welcome many of those changes: consider, for example, double standards on chastity, patriarchal notions of marriage, disregard of domestic physical and sexual violence, the unchecked predatory behavior of powerful elites in business, education, entertainment, and the church, rape culture, and even something as seemingly innocuous as gender exclusive language in academic writing. On all these points, I welcome the change. In short, it ain’t all bad folks, and it certainly ain’t a wholesale dismantling of sexual morality.
No doubt, Muehlhoff and Langer will also agree with many of these changes. But then it is quite unfair to speak of cultural changes as constituting the “dismantling” of sexual morality. Furthermore, it is worth highlighting that the church has been a leader in none of these areas (as the latest debacle in the Southern Baptist Convention makes clear). It turns out that the Leave it to Beaver world was really Pleasantville all along. Once again, Muehlhoff and Langer miss the opportunity to demonstrate effective communication in a more nuanced and charitable engagement with the outgroup.
My final example comes at the end of the book, and it is arguably the biggest disappointment in the book. As I noted above, in Part III Muehlhoff and Langer pursue an extended test case in conversation. The idea is to model fruitful engagement for a Christian counterpublic with a specific topic: the Obergefell decision on gay marriage. The section consists of three chapters: in chapter 8 Muehlhoff offering his analysis, chapter 9 features Langer doing the same, and chapter 10 brings them into dialogue with each other.
Now let me say first that both authors are thoughtful and articulate and they offer some very interesting analysis. For example, there is an extended treatment of the ethics of counseling those in marital situations which deviate from the heteronormative norm. That is a fascinating topic well worthy of further conversation and they both have important insights. Needless to say, these chapters are well worth reading.
Nonetheless, it seems to me that this final section represents yet another missed opportunity to bring the reader into a deeper understanding of positions they (and many of their readers) oppose. While Muehlhoff and Langer do differ on some relatively minor points, they agree on the main point: Obergefell was a mistake. And that delimits the pedagogical value of their exchange out of the gate.
Here is my point: given the importance of understanding the views of others, if Muehlhoff and Langer really want to induct their students into the art of winsome persuasion, they should provide an extended exchange with a person outside their counterpublic. Interestingly, they seem to recognize the general point. One of the authors notes that he has his students read Christian ethicist David Gushee’s book Changing our Mind which advocates for an inclusive pro-gay position. And there is an important logic here, as Muehlhoff and Langer point out: before we evaluate an opposing view, we first need to understand it (95).
I could not agree more. Indeed, that is why I devoted a chapter in my book Is the Atheist My Neighbor? to interviewing atheist Jeff Lowder: if we want to understand atheism and learn how to respond meaningfully to atheists, we need to hear from them. The same is true of others outside our counterpublic. But then, why not invite somebody like Gushee into conversation in the final chapters? Why not offer an articulate spokesperson of the view with which you disagree ample opportunity to share his/her views even as you then model a thoughtful and charitable rebuttal? That, it seems to me, would have been a far more fecund and illuminating way to end the book.
While I believe Winsome Persuasion misses some important opportunities to challenge the audience and inculcate the skill of steel-manning others, that should not detract from the formidable achievements of the book. While I won’t repeat the virtues noted above, I will point out here that the authors occasionally seek to challenge their conservative readership as in their admirable observation that evolution is compatible with Christianity (103-4). This is old news among many Christians, but it is still a contentious point for many conservative evangelicals, so I appreciate their decision to include the point.
I think it is also worth pointing out just how much better this book is than another recently published evangelical book covering similar ground. While Os Guinness’ book Fool’s Talk yielded significant praise from some quarters, I think it was disappointing borderline terrible. (See my review here.)
Winsome Persuasion is orders better and, in my opinion, is well deserving of its recent award of merit from Christianity Today. But at the end of the day, anybody can type a word of praise. My real appreciation for this book, whatever its faults may be, is that I am adopting it as a textbook in one of my classes. And dear reader, if this book is good enough to be read by my students — and it most definitely is — then that’s all the reason you need to get your own copy.