Thinking Christian

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Apologetics Strategy: Fighting Last Year’s Battles, Last Year’s Way

Posted on Nov 12, 2012 by Tom Gilson

We need better apologetics strategy.

When I led the True Reason project earlier this year, I did it because I thought it would do good to show how weak New Atheist leaders are in reasoning, even as they try to feature it as their great strength. I think the book has probably done a lot of good. I hope so, anyway.

But I am coming to see that it’s a skirmish being fought on an old battlefield. It’s last year’s war. Probably last decade’s. That fight isn’t over, and it still needs to be pursued, but there’s a much more strategic field of battle, to which we apologists must devote much more of our resources.

I offer you this in illustration:

Do you feel the power of those images? How are we going to answer that?

Here’s the problem: the rhetorical landscape is asymmetrical, off balance, skewed. Every one of these images conveys a false message—yet with lightning speed and superb effectiveness. Everyone who looks at them knows exactly what they’re about. No background needs filling in; no explanation is necessary. Viewers get it emotionally more than they know it mentally. It’s blazingly fast: the message slips almost past their brain into their gut, where the effect is strong and lasting, regardless of its not being true.

The truth, on the other hand, takes a good while to explain. That’s what I mean by asymmetry: our message is true; and when fully understood it’s a far better message than theirs, but there are so many gaps to be filled in, how are we going to get it across? How will we even get people’s attention? If Christianity is intolerant, and anti-woman, and pro-slavery, and hateful, and anti-equality, who’s going to sit and listen long enough to learn that it passes the tests of historicity and rationality?

Last year’s battle was over whether Christianity is true. This year’s battle is over whether it’s ethical to entertain the possibility that it’s true.

We can’t just quickly turn around the rhetorical asymmetry, so we’re going to have to do it the old-fashioned slow way. We still have to catch our listeners’ attention, just as these slogans do. We still have to get to the gut, as these messages do. Obviously we have to do it honestly and legitimately, or else we contradict our own position.

Strategically speaking, the answer is not in philosophy, which for too many listeners is boring, and which takes only a very indirect route to the heart. I’ve made the mistake of thinking that was the right way to go. It’s certainly a right way to go, and I’m not interested in slowing down anyone’s philosophical researches. I’ll come back to that in a minute.

If, however, our purpose is to persuade, philosophy isn’t doing it. It may win rationally, but strategically it fails far more often than it succeeds. Historical apologetics may be more effective in some ways. Neither approach, however, is oriented primarily toward reaching the heart.

What is, then? Story.

Story grabs people’s attention. Great story reaches the heart. Great story that tells truth changes lives forever.

The reason I became involved in apologetics was to see lives changed while proclaiming God’s truth and goodness. I think I have done some of that: I have proclaimed God’s truth and goodness. The evidence of lives changed, however, has not been what I had hoped for. Actually sometimes I have fallen into the error of doing apologetics for the sake of winning the contest. It’s not pretty when a Christian does that.

I realize now that in order to be faithful, true, and strategically effective in today’s rhetorical environment, I’m going to need to get a lot better at sharing stories. There’s no shortage of them to be told. The Bible itself is much more narrative than it is essay, and church history offers libraries full of opportunities. And which is more likely to change a distrusting skeptic’s mind: an accurate exegesis of Colossians 3:22, or the true historical story of how Christianity has repeatedly led to the demise of slavery? It’s a trick question, actually. Col. 3:22 can only be properly interpreted with and through story: the historical context in which it was written. The whole Bible is like that.

What then about apologetical theology and philosophy? A true apologist will study hard and learn well in those disciplines, which will always be crucial in the life of any Christian who cares about thinking. Strategically they’re also essential in the background, to ensure that we have a solid and proper understanding of the truths we’re telling. And they’re still crucial as foreground messages for those who are ready to listen on those terms, who have made it past the emotional barriers created by today’s distorted rhetoric. They’re the right way to go in those academic settings where they answer the questions that are actually being asked.

I am in no way dismissing the value of these disciplines. The point is that our message must always be legitimately suited to the audience and the purpose, and there are times when strategy calls for other approaches. Our age is one in which it’s time for a new strategy to come to the fore. Apologetics has been very strong on philosophy and theology in recent decades. I’ve ridden along with that trend. For the sake of effective communication, though, I intend to pick up my church history and biography books again, like I haven’t done in many years. If I could write imaginative stories I would; instead I hope at least to re-tell actual ones.

I said recently there would be changes coming to this blog around the first of the year. This will be one of them: more telling of the Christian story from the Bible, from history, and from around the world. We can’t overturn the rhetorical situation overnight, but we can chip away at it by getting our audience’s attention one story at a time.

Related: Arguing With Friends, Of Theatre and Reason

Recommended: Holly Ordway, today’s leading voice in literary apologetics

51 Responses to “ Apologetics Strategy: Fighting Last Year’s Battles, Last Year’s Way ”

  1. TFBW says:

    Aristotle taught that dialectic and rhetoric were two sides of the same coin, more or less, and that it pays to be a master of both, so maybe you’re right. Clearly there’s an awful lot of rhetoric coming from the other side.

    That shift in tactics is not what springs first to my mind, though. My first impression is that we have a large supply of salt that’s lost its savour, and that’s why it’s not being effective. That being so, I don’t expect a simple shift in tactics to be productive: there are much harder, more fundamental questions to be addressed. Introspection is the order of the day.

    My perspective is, of course, coloured by my experience, which has been rather sour of late — and by that, I mean the last five to ten years, not days. Perhaps you’re less cynical than I am.

  2. John says:

    You say, “Every one of these images conveys a false message—yet with lightning speed and superb effectiveness.” Is it possible that these images convey some truth?

  3. Tom Gilson says:

    Yes. Obviously. Lies are always more effective when mixed with some truth.

  4. Tim says:

    I applaud your recognition that there is a war being waged attempting to stain the popular opinion of Christianity. The depths of theology and philosophy are needed and rationality is encouraged, but often the war is played out on an emotional level that must also be addressed. Looking forward to seeing more.

  5. SteveK says:

    This is definitely a move in the right direction, Tom. Here’s how I see it.

    As Christian’s our primary leading message – in word and in deed – needs to be about God’s love, hope and forgiveness, changed lives, etc. That’s the Christian message that people fall in love with – the message that will hold people’s attention through thick and thin.

    Unfortunately that message has been put on the back burner in favor of another message – the message of Bible facts and logical/philosophical argument.

    These things don’t win hearts. They are too dry and sterile. These things are still valuable and are needed – because they validate our message of love, hope and forgiveness – but these things should not be our main emphasis.

    We’ve got to reorder our priorities, and when I say ‘we’ I’m pointing the finger at myself.

  6. Longstreet says:

    “Is it possible that these images convey some truth?”

    Some truth? Sure.

    Now, a test. Is it possible that these images convey a twisted, distorted and incomplete view of the truth?

  7. John says:

    What is the true message in those images? Why is the story about Christianity being impeded by some Christians? I know some Christians who tell a great story but don’t live it. However, I think there is a real challenge of living and telling the Christ story in an authentic way – I affirm your desire to do so.

  8. Larisa Dell says:

    If this is what God is calling you to do, then it doesn’t matter if anyone else thinks it’s a good idea or not–still, I applaud the direction you are taking. :) Christ told many stories to teach deep spiritual truths, and it still remains the best way (apart from music) to leave a message that people will remember long after you’ve stopped speaking. If it goes along with love in action, then it’s even better!

  9. John says:

    Is it possible that these images convey a twisted, distorted and incomplete view of the truth? Sure.

    Is it possible that some Christians twist and distort Christianity so much that they cannot receive the truth from these images – all they want to see is the incomplete truth?

    What is true about these images? The answer is not the problem of Christianity. The problem is how some Christians live out he story of Christianity.

  10. Tom Gilson says:

    Anything’s possible, John. It’s even possible that you might have a point to make, rather than just asking questions about what’s possible. If so, what is it?

    I don’t want to dance around every possible inference or implication. I don’t need to deny that some Christians have made some mistakes about some things. If you have something you’d like to bring up for discussion, you’re warmly invited to do so; but these vague questions are just, well, vague questions.

  11. John says:

    Tom,
    It is possible that I may have points. I did say, in case you missed it, that I affirm your desire to focus on stories – that’s a point I have to make.

    Also, you did not respond to Longstreet, unless that’s you, who indirectly was responding to me. Do you want him to make a point to?

    You can chose to respond to my question as rhetoric or not., No need for sacasm, Tom. I am sincere in my questions. Thanks.

    John

  12. Tom Gilson says:

    Hi, John. I thought Longstreet’s question was a rhetorical one; that’s why I didn’t respond.

    I have already responded to your questions. If you have any points to make in connection with them, as I said, you’re warmly invited to make them known. I say that sincerely and with no sarcasm intended.

  13. BillT says:

    The problem for Christianty is the same problem that many have who hold traditional religious, social and political beliefs. Those that oppose those beliefs are willing to lie about those they oppose, they are very good at lying and they control the media that disseminates those lies. Thus the tactics of the New Atheists and the SSM proponents. Rationality is of no consequence and quite purposefully so. They are not interested in logically convincing anyone. They know that smearing one’s opponent is easier and more effective.

  14. Tom Gilson says:

    Here’s what I’m trying to say, John. I think I’ve already said most of it. Whatever legitimately negative truth there is in these images, it applies to Christians and/or nominal Christians doing wrong. It’s not true about Christ, God, or God’s word. Yet imagery like this is not only directed towards fallible humans, but also toward God and his revelation.

    No one says we’ve gotten everything right. That’s not part of our story; our story is one of serving a good God who makes us better than we would otherwise be on earth, but not one who makes us close to perfect. I’m not pretending perfection. This post was about correcting an error I’ve been making. I’ve admitted other mistakes elsewhere. This wasn’t the place to go into all that, though.

    So I can’t discern why you’re continuing to ask questions that I’ve already tried to answer. That’s why I’m asking you to make a point instead, if you have one, which I’m confident you do. I’d like to hear it.

  15. John says:

    Thanks Tom. I feel listened to by you. I apologize if I stepped in to your blog in process. I was reading on another group that referred to your blog post. As a Christian, who is passionate about message of Christ, I don’t like the behavioralist/work approach or mentality to Christianity by Christians. I really like the narrative approach to winning hearts to Christ.

    I think that those images have something true to teach us. It’s like irate customers have something to teach the business that they are irate with.

    So, my point is how can we receive their story and not how can we build a more effective story? There is no better story that the story of Jesus Christ. Is Apologetics more about invincible intellectual come backs rather than the story of what Christ has done in my life? I do have a frustration related to the American brand of Christianity which is messed up big time. The images reflect to large degree the story brand that they have created about us. I know my thoughts may step on toes. I seek to state that we are broken human beings in forever need of Savior. We don’t need to shame our enemies or neighbors to Christ. Our stories in Christ have power to cause people to repent.

  16. Tom Gilson says:

    Thanks, John.

    I like the question you’ve asked in your last paragraph, including the way you expanded it afterward.

    Yes, there are irate customers. Some of it’s beyond our control. The gospel is not attractive to everyone, and we’re only called to be at peace as far as it’s within our reach to do so.

    But how can we listen better? I’d like to be working on that. It’s hard when the message they’re sending is so obviously distorted as these images are, but if there weren’t at least a kernel of truth there–southern slaveholders and confused patriarchs, for example–no one would give those images another moment’s thought.

    But that’s far from the whole story. These images win partly because some people want them to win, regardless of their accuracy or otherwise. That accounts for some of their success.

    Another very major in their success is that people don’t know the true story. They don’t know that where slavery was abolished, it was generally by Christians or by others heavily influenced by Christians. They don’t see that (whether or not the ideal has been reached–it hasn’t) women have fared far, far better under Christian influence than in any other set of major cultural influences.

    So because of that ignorance they can think Christianity is sexist, when in fact it remains on a global and historical scale the best thing that’s ever happened to women.

    It all fits together if we do it right, which I’m sure I never have, even though I think there’s an ideal there worth shooting for. It’s story, it’s testimony, it’s academic arguments, it’s living the life, it’s prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s all of these. Not just one, not just another.

    God help us figure all these things out.

  17. Crude says:

    The truth, on the other hand, takes a good while to explain.

    Not always. Sometimes, the truth can be told in a lightning fast way.

    I largely agree with what you’re saying here, Tom. But I think the intention to answer rapid, oversimplified and false slurs with exhaustive, plodding but factional explanations is a mistake. You say focus on story, and that’s important – but frankly, I don’t think it’s the only necessary response here.

    In my opinion, the proper Christian response is to be fast – as fast as it takes those 4 images to convey their point. There’s a lot to be angry about. Perhaps it’s time to actually get angry.

    Maybe the proper response to a Peter Singer speculating that, perhaps infanticide is morally acceptable, even preferable in some situations, isn’t to sit down and have a reasoned talk with him about his point of view and try to find common ground while sussing out where he’s mistaken. Maybe the proper response is loud – angry – condemnation. And maybe anyone who defends Singer should get it too.

    Maybe what we need are a few jpgs with black borders showing aborted infants and famous quotes in defense of abortion as ‘a woman’s right to choose’ or a right a woman has to control over her own body, for starters. All for a start.

  18. d says:

    Maybe what we need are a few jpgs with black borders showing aborted infants and famous quotes in defense of abortion as ‘a woman’s right to choose’ or a right a woman has to control over her own body, for starters. All for a start.

    Believe me, there are plenty out there already…

  19. d says:

    Maybe the proper response is loud – angry – condemnation. And maybe anyone who defends Singer should get it too.

    There’s plenty of that too, when it comes to Singer…

  20. Crude says:

    Believe me, there are plenty out there already…

    Not enough, not with enough skill, and not coordinated quite as well. Further, notice that the pro-life movement is one area where there’s been some actual long-term success.

    And like I said, that should only be taken as a beginning. Christians have plenty to be outraged about and to scream about. There are plenty of subjects that can be put in nice, jpg form, with some skill and attention behind them.

    BTW d – what do you think of infanticide? Morally justifiable?

  21. Crude says:

    There’s plenty of that too, when it comes to Singer…

    Not nearly enough.

  22. Crude says:

    Really?

    Yep. Really. I’m sure you’re miffed.

    In circumstances where it would be an obvious and unquestionable mercy to end the life of the infant, of course.

    Oh, so if it’s not an obvious and unquestionable mercy to end the life of the infant, why… you think that’s deplorable and horrible, and people who defend infanticide in such situations (or defend defenders of it) should be condemned as the monsters they are, right?

  23. Tom Gilson says:

    d,
    If you’re going to call me or anyone else a liar on this blog you’d better be intentional and thorough about explaining it, and you’d better show a modicum of interpersonal respect. Otherwise your comment is out of here.

  24. John says:

    Tom,

    You ask, “But how can we listen better?”

    Listening is a gift that we can give to any human being – our spouses, our children, our friends, our neighbors and even people we may disagree with, like our enemies for example. If we want to listen, we need tone trustworthy, slow to speak, a desire to be ministers of reconciliation and peacemakers. To listen well requires a God-empowered ability. It’s a lot easier to condemn the behavior of others rather than listening to their hearts. Listening is about hearing the stories of the heart. It is Apologetics in action.

  25. Holopupenko says:

    John:

    You are as clueless as those who Christ drove out of the temple. Maybe you should add the characteristic of drawing careful distinctions to your repertoire: one listens to people and loves people; one also rejects that which is evil. Speaking the truth about things is a virtue–not the vice you imply. Otherwise, you impose your own personal interpretations upon what Tom has said, and you reduce fundamental issues to simple “disagreements”–as if we’re haggling over whether it’s better to purchase a Honda or a Toyota.

    You want peace and love on your own personal terms. If you haven’t understood that love is DANGEROUS then you have never loved… and hence you would put God in the dock the same way Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor did.

    Your track record here seems to betray a lack of the ability to REALLY listen to people who differ strongly from your personal opinions… which further implies a percolating hatred masked by a thin veneer of “why can’t we all just get along?” The martyrs, upon whose blood the Church is built, didn’t die over group-hug “disagreements.” Perhaps you should take a lesson from Revelation 3:15-16.

    “Safe?… Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you… He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”

    It’s high time for you to REALLY LISTEN to Tom.

  26. Tom Gilson says:

    Hold on a moment, Holopupenko. I don’t see this at all in what John’s writing. “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger”–that’s Scripture.

    We have a message to share, obviously, but we share it with real people who deserve to be treated as real people.

  27. John says:

    Holopupenko,

    I really do not understand why you make the assertion that I am clueless, that I have hatred, or that I have put God in the dock. I do not know what track record that you are referring to but somehow you can make these assumptions about me. I don’t understand why you make a correlation between me and the people that Christ drove from the temple. I don’t know why you gave me that quote from revelation. I don’t understand why you gave me a quote from one of CS Lewis’ books. You speak on behalf of of Tom writing that Tom has not been listened to – Does not the fact that I have read his blog speak to the fact that I have listened to him at least to some degree? Does not the fact that I have responded to his questions reveal that I have listen to him to some degree?

    Holopupenko, I just don’t get your post response to me. I am confused. Since I don’t know your state of mind, I will not consider your post an offense. But if you are a Christian of sound mind, your post is offensive to me.

  28. Holopupenko says:

    “I do not know…”

    Exactly.

  29. Holopupenko says:

    So, Tom, are you being treated as a “real person” when your position is downplayed (= suspect) because John thinks your holding to and speaking the truth about homosexuality or abortion is “not listening”? That IS the implication behind his sugary words. At the end of the day, John’s position boils down to “Shhh! Don’t speak the truth–it offends people. Better to ‘listen‘ to them [wink-wink].” How exactly are you or the way you’ve stated your position precluding “listening to people”?

  30. Crude says:

    I think I agree with Holo on this one. At least, to degree.

    I wonder if John goes to, say, LGBT websites with people that are complaining about images accusing gays of spreading aids and being child molesters and says, “Well, isn’t it possible that maybe there’s some truth here that should be addressed? Do you think, perhaps, these have a ring of truth to them?” Frankly, I think he’d sooner gnaw off his fingers.

    No, Tom. I think it’s entirely reasonable to look at images like the ones you showed and react not only with anger and outrage, but also with the recognition that these were lies – often conscious lies – being conveyed. That they are being offered up by people who really have little interest in truth, much less ‘dialogue’, and that not everything is the result of a heartfelt misunderstanding.

    As Holo said, you haven’t railed against ‘listening to people’. And yes, I will be the first to say that communication is important and key – that a very large part of modern Christian problems on these fronts is a lack of skillful communication. But part of the reason those things are a problem is precisely because they give people the opportunity to lie, to misrepresent, and to deceive the way those pictures do.

    Sometimes, listening is actually inappropriate given the situation. Some people – particularly the sort who put out images like that – don’t require calm, delicate, heartfelt dialogue, and frankly, many don’t want it. What people sometimes need is to be spoken to. Not spoken with, not engaged in a discussion where people swap stories and maybe hug each other at the end and talk about how they feel they’ve really grown as people and made some real progress. Spoken to: told, ‘what’s being said here is wrong, utterly wrong, and here’s why.’

    Like with the people who think infanticide is moral, sometimes treating a person as worthy of two-sided dialogue is a mistake.

  31. Crude says:

    I’ll add on that I’m not at all saying the response should be ‘condemn, condemn, condemn’, much less ‘attack, attack, attack’. But I think many Christians have erred on the side of protracted dialogue, lengthy responses, and keeping their cool when, frankly, they should have been angry and loud. This is one of these situations. The response to the suggestion that Christianity was supportive of racial chattel slavery should be one of those situations. There’s little call for “well gosh, maybe that person felt wounded some point in the past – let’s not condemn them, let’s delicately inquire about them in wide-eyed innocence”.

  32. John says:

    Crude,
    I did not say Tom was not listening. Tom asked me a question about listening. I think you need to re-read the posts.

    I am a Christian asking sincere questions. Holo said that I have hatred, it is simply not true.

    Crude, I don’t understand your need to support Holo’s offensive email? What’s up with that?

  33. Crude says:

    Crude, I don’t understand your need to support Holo’s offensive email? What’s up with that?

    I don’t endorse everything Holo said. But I frankly agree with his sentiment.

    I’ll ask you directly, John: would you, upon seeing graphic images accusing homosexuals of having caused the spread of AIDS and being child molesters, have asked members of an LGBT website, “Is it possible that these images convey some truth?”

  34. Tom,

    I’ve been going through a similar transformation. I spent nearly 30 years in newspaper newsrooms around the country and learned to defend my faith through the fires of a heated anti-Christian furnace. Daily. The stories I could tell! Apologetics, much of it self-developed along the way, and then more added from many wonderful apologetics teachers, was where I planted my flag and took a stand. I HAD to know what I believed and why or I had to never speak of Christ. The second wasn’t really an option and it was blisteringly difficult at times. There were a few conversions over the years, and His name was declared.

    I’m in the process of writing a sort of layman’s apologetics from that experience. I hope it will have value. But I have already written and published a book tracing the connections of Christians from the Apostle John to Billy Graham — a long thread of influence from one to another — called Living Threads. It’s in eBook form on Amazon. The agent and publisher who published a previous book I wrote on China missionary Hudson Taylor said there is just almost no interest among Christians for Christian history. The books won’t sell. Alas, we know what does by checking the local Christian bookstore. That pulse-taking is telling.

    I’m including a link to the eBook here. If you feel it is inappropriate, feel free to delete it.
    My eBook is at:
    http://www.amazon.com/Living-Threads-unbroken-connections-ebook/dp/B009JMGAP4/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1349139317&sr=1-1

    And I have just started a blog aimed at the hearts and minds, because your post and the following discussion demonstrates what I feel — both are needed. In my experience, I’ve found that some people need the mind to accept it before giving the heart, and some jump with the heart, but then rely on the renewed mind to help sustain. But too much of the church, I fear, is distracted by entertainment, buildings, even “ministries” and winning the hearts and minds doesn’t get much priority.

    Again, feel free to delete the blog link if you want. But it is The Joyful Watchman, at http://www.thejoyfulwatchman.com

    Despite 30 years around chronically cynical newspaper people, I’m an optimistic man. I have eternity before me and I know exactly what I believe and why.

    I think church itself may undergo a reformation in these days, perhaps breaking down the monoliths and building from the ground up from the family living room — back to our oldest roots.

  35. Tom Gilson says:

    Here’s where I stand on this from Holopupenko, and the whole surrounding discussion:

    At the end of the day, John’s position boils down to “Shhh! Don’t speak the truth–it offends people. Better to ‘listen‘ to them [wink-wink].” How exactly are you or the way you’ve stated your position precluding “listening to people”?

    I was a musician once, a trombonist. It’s a trombonist’s job to play with authority. I was even taught it’s a musical sin to make soft mistakes. If you’re going to get it wrong, get it wrong with authority. (And never get it wrong at all except in rehearsal, but that’s another story.)

    I have every intention of speaking with all the authority of God’s word and of my convictions.

    As a musician I also learned to listen, and if I was out of tune with the guy sitting next to me, I adjusted. I didn’t just sit there and fume about how he got it wrong.

    When you’re in an ensemble where everyone plays that way, it works. You never get into a situation where you have to decide whether to adjust to the player on the right or the player on the left, because everyone adjusts, and everyone falls into tune. In a good ensemble it happens in microseconds, so fast that it’s a virtually unconscious process among the musicians, and absolutely undetectable for everyone else.

    In a lesser kind of ensemble, on the other hand–like singing in church!–if the person next to me is out of tune I’ll hold my own and let them be wrong. They probably can’t tell anyway.

    Here’s my point: I learn by listening. I’ll adjust to what there is of value to adjust to. I don’t feel like my position or my authority to speak is threatened by it. I’ve gained a lot from listening to people I disagree with. To take the present topic as an example, I’ve gained a lot of insight and even maturity from listening to homosexuals telling me their stories.

    Are gay men and lesbians hurt by the church? I want to know about that and understand it. I don’t want to issue one ounce of offense that’s not essential to bearing witness to the truth. I look at Jesus’ way of connecting with sinners and I see a model there. He showed that he cared. He also said “go and sin no more.”

    That way of approaching people is almost impossible to exhibit on a blog, where few people come to listen to each other, and where the agreed purpose is in fact to argue toward the truth. I doubt the pro-gay contributors here would recognize that attitude of Jesus in me very clearly. The gays I’ve known face to face might.

    The point of listening is to treat the other person as a fellow human being, first of all. Secondly it is to discover how else I might better respect that person as a fellow human being, which might include correcting some of my own ways.

    The point of listening, however, is not to subdue the authority of God’s word or the facts of nature or of government. It’s not to dampen my sense of authority to speak, either. I’ll still stand up and scream (in my blogger’s voice) at a Dan Savage or a Phil Snider if they lie or distort the truth, because I think they ought to be held accountable for their deceits. I’ll still object to images like the horrifyingly twisted versions here.

    John, you ask what we can learn from those images, and I say, “We can learn that we haven’t communicated clearly enough.” Not that these images are the result of our failed communications: they’re actually, I think, the result of misguided and malicious intent. Here’s where we’ve failed: there are people out there who aren’t laughing at these images. If we had done a good job, everyone would know how ridiculous they are, and they wouldn’t show up anywhere except failblog.com.

    So here I am: I’m willing to listen, and to John I’m affirming that willingness, because I think it’s a crucial way to show love and to learn. As I “listen” to these images, I get a message of our strategic failure in getting our message out. I also get a message of malice from the purveyors of these messages. If they want me to treat them as human beings, I’ll call on them to take a move in that same direction. Well, actually I already have called them to that.

    I say let’s treat each other as humans. I say these images don’t do that. I say they’re offensive, malicious, and wrong. But if someone wants me to listen, and if they have something human-like to say to me, my ears are wide open.

  36. John says:

    Tom,

    Your music metaphor is a poignant one, especially because every voice in the Body of Christ counts because it reflects Him. If our mission together is to reconcile broken people to Christ then our strategies don’t need to look like the world’s strategies.

    People may use hatred against us, it does give us legitimacy not to demonstrate love. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8

    I think that your idea about stories, Tom, is about how God’s love has justified us and is sanctifying us. Our story is not about the sinfulness of this world, but about the Savior and how he has redeemed us and is redeeming us from our sinful world.

    May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

  37. Tom Gilson says:

    Thanks, John, Our story is about the sinfulness of the world, too, however. I assume you’ve read the prophets? The Gulag Archipelago was mightily effective as story. So was Lord of the Flies. And 1984 and Brave New World.

    I said our strategy needs to be story, and I believe the goodness of Christianity is a story that needs to be told a whole lot more than it has been. I did not say—and I do not think—that it is the only strategic story we can tell.

    Have you read the story about how homosexual activists deliberately planned the propaganda campaign to get us to think their side was right? Have you read the story about how they purposed to play victim, and to intentionally twist the images of their Christian opponents to look as bad as possible? Have you read the story of how they chose to manipulate the media?

    Those would be interesting stories to tell, too. Not made-up ones, by the way. True ones.

  38. Tom Gilson says:

    Let me hasten to add this: if the time comes for me to tell stories like this, I will reject the ways of the world. I will take every effort to present the stories honestly. I will not knowingly distort or twist the facts, and I will take all due precautions to avoid doing so unknowingly.

    Integrity would not allow me to do otherwise. Besides, I don’t think it would be necessary.

  39. Consider also the real stories, the stories of so many of the great Christians through the centuries that have moved the faith down the road and changed the world. True stories. True results.

    Fictional stories that are metaphors for Christianity can have value to leverage things toward the truth. They can also be quite enjoyable when well done, and I’ve used C.S. Lewis and others on many occasions as suggested readings for non-believers not really aware of their Christianity. But it seems to me they will always fall short. Some fall very short. Their real use is only when we followers of Christ will spring off from them and confidently engage the complete truth.

  40. From being a Bible-believing Christian and working in newspapers with many gay colleagues and writing about gay issues, I see a big divide: There are normal gay people who you would never suspect of it and just want to live quiet lives with the people they love. And then there are the in-your-face activists that bring out the worst in opponents.

    Loving first is always the right action and reaction, and we are commanded to do so. But remember the stereotyping goes both ways. The gays I worked with always thought that I was different from other Christians because I did not hound them on their homosexuality and treated them as people. But I told them I was just like every Christian I knew in our church. They had a stereotype of Christians from that one goofball church that hates gays as doctrine to some televangelists going on a tirade. But neither are typical. And it is true that most gays are not flaming in leather talking with a lisp.

    Is there an agenda? Sure. On both sides. But one agenda should be rooted in the undying truth of scripture, which includes loving everyone and praying for our enemies. Sermon on the Mount can’t be reviewed enough. It’s such a high bar. But speaking the truth in love at the risk for personal vitriol, for the sake of the soul of another, is a good agenda. The other agenda is somewhat more selfish. Human, perhaps, and thus the need for Christ.

  41. Tom Gilson says:

    Good stuff, Rod. Thanks.

  42. Joan J says:

    The slavery stuff doesn’t come out of the blue. The defenders of slavery, right here in the U.S., only 150 years ago, took their position and defended it on Biblical grounds.

    A random hit from Google Books:

    Gregory A. Wills, Southern Baptist Seminary 1859-2009, Oxford University Press, pp. 56-57:

    ‘Slavery was the issue that loomed largest in the secession of the southern states. Southern Baptist clergy spoke out in favor of secession and defended slavery. A month before South Carolina passed its secession ordinance, Charleston Baptist leaders unanimously adopted a resolution endorsing slavery and their duty to both God and country to resist the “encroachments of the enemies of our domestic institution.” Their position was nearly universal among evangelical pastors in the South.

    Georgia governor Joseph E. Brown, who after the war saved the seminary from collapse by his gifts, persuaded the delegates at the 1863 Southern Baptist Convention to adopt Broadus’s resolutions: “All must admit that the institution of slavery is one of the prime causes of the war, and that its perpetuation depends upon the success of our arms….it is neither a moral, social nor political evil. Like every other relation in life it may be, and has been abused…I believe, sir, that it is an institution of God, and that we have revealed to us in the Holy Bible clear and overwhelming evidence of its establishment by Him and of his intention to perpetuate it.” Samuel Boykin, editor of Georgia Baptists’ Christian Index, summarized the convictions of most Southern Baptists: “Slavery is the only issue. The United States is fighting against the Confederate States for slavery.”

    All four of the seminary’s faculty were slaveholders. The 1860 census reported that Boyce had twenty-three slaves in Greenville, Manly had seven, Williams had five, and Broadus had two. Boyce and Manly had additional slaves on plantations elsewhere. This was not unusual. Many southern clergy, especially the educated ministers of towns and cities, were slaveholders.

    The faculty, like southern evangelical clergy generally, did not believe that slavery was intrinsically evil. The Bible, they held, did not condemn slavery as a mere instititution. And they believe that in God’s providence, it had been productive of much good. As an unintended consequence of African slavery, several million Africans were introduced to the gospel of redemption, and a large number of them had been converted and redeemed. Basil Manly Jr. wrote that “their introduction into this country has been, in the providence of God, instrumental in saving more of their race from heathenism, than the united membership of all the churches which modern foreign missions have planted.”‘

    These were the direct theological ancestors of modern conservative evangelicals, who now use similar “the Bible says” arguments against progressive positions on women, homosexuality, etc. If the conservative evangelicals, even pastors, even seminary professors, deep and serious believers in the Bible, scholars of the same, believers in inerrancy, critics of the liberals, etc., were wrong about what the Bible said about slavery them, why should we believe similarly confident arguments from people with similar methods of Bible interpretation now?

  43. Joan J says:

    I wonder if readers would also consider it unfair for a skeptic to quote Jefferson Davis:

    “I do not propose to discuss the justice or injustice of slavery as an abstract proposition; I occupy this seat for no such purpose. It is enough for me to know that here we are not called upon to legislate, either for its amelioration, or to fix the places in which it shall be held, and certainly have no power to abolish it. It is enough for me elsewhere to know, that it was established by decree of Almighty God, that it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelations; that it has existed in all ages; has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts.”

    http://history.furman.edu/benson/docs/davis13feb1850.html

  44. Tom Gilson says:

    Joan,

    We know about the old South and slavery, of course. The short answer to your question is that there is no short answer. There is definitely an answer, but it requires seeing historical context, and especially the difference between slavery permitted in the Bible and slavery in the old South. Without that information we’re likely to equate two things that are not equal, which is obviously a wrong place to begin.

    So here are some places for you to peruse:

    http://thepoint.breakpoint.org/features-columns/breakpoint-columns/entry/2/17244

    http://www.thinkingchristian.net/2009/08/christianity-and-the-abolitionist-movement/ ; and three links from there. The fourth link from there seems to have gone dark.

    http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2008/02/slavery-christianity-and-islam

    http://www.thinkingchristian.net/2011/04/the-bible-god-and-genocide-slavery-misogyny-and-other-strange-stuff/

    http://www.thinkingchristian.net/2011/09/non-persons-yesterday-and-today/

    http://www.americanthinker.com/2012/05/what_dan_savage_doesnt_know_about_the_bible_and_slavery.html

    The Bible clearly prohibits kidnapping to enslave. The slaveowners in the South who claimed the Bible supported their ways were simply wrong.

    So how can we be sure that our interpretations today are better than their misinterpretations yesterday? By studying what the Bible says in its historical and grammatical context. You see, it is possible to understand what the Bible says on these topics that are under discussion.

    Could we still be wrong? Anything’s possible, but I think this topic is pretty clear.

  45. Crude says:

    Tom,

    The short answer to your question is that there is no short answer.

    But there is: Jefferson Davis was wrong. In fact, he was clearly wrong. There is no way – none – to justify the institution of slavery that existed in the south on biblical terms.

    That Jefferson Davis said ‘It’s justified’ changes nothing. So again, there’s a short answer: Davis was wrong. The slaveowners were wrong. You even say as much, so yeah, there’s a short answer.

    So how can we be sure that our interpretations today are better than their misinterpretations yesterday? By studying what the Bible says in its historical and grammatical context.

    Why suggest this is the operating factor? Was the problem that Davis and company read the New Testament and became very confused?

    Or did they succumb to a weakness, and suddenly both the Bible and Christian teaching generally didn’t mean a damn thing because slavery was important to them for various reasons, especially – dare I say it – for entirely secular reasons?

    There’s a good example – a GREAT example – of secular interests and secular morality overriding the Christian view. It’s not for nothing that that quote by Davis not only refers to the bible, but secular reasons (‘Look at these civilized countries! Look at these advanced nations! THEY use slavery!’) as well.

    That’s the thing which always gets me about this topic. There’s this suggestion, so popular, that implies the slaveholders were going out and getting slaves because they thought there was some biblical call to do so and, darn it, this is what their faith demanded. That’s a complete load of nonsense. What’s obvious to anyone is that there were entirely secular (notice how that word never shows up for bad decisions) reasons driving their interpretation and their practice. They liked money. They liked ‘progress’. And they liked it enough to twist the Bible in whatever direction they needed to justify what they damn well intended to do anyway.

  46. Sault says:

    There’s this suggestion, so popular, that implies the slaveholders were going out and getting slaves because they thought there was some biblical call to do so and, darn it, this is what their faith demanded. That’s a complete load of nonsense.

    Huh. I always thought that the popular suggestion was that they saw an economic benefit and rationalized it by taking various verses out of the Bible. There is unfortunately no commandment that says “Thou Shalt Not Own Slaves”, and a lot of press is given to what ways that slavery could be legitimate, so it’s not like its a clear-cut issue, and it’s not like every person who believed that the Bible condoned Southern slavery was a white slave-owner with a vested financial interest involved…

    If group 2a is in the minority, then so what? Does that make group 1 more reasonable?

    No… but there is no narrative coming from group 2a that comes close to competing with group 1. For instance – it is damn hard to say on one hand that the highest Christian virtues are to love God and love your fellow man, then to turn around and say that two men can’t legitimately love each other, or at least that their love isn’t the right type of love to qualify as a marriage. I haven’t seen a Christian narrative that threads that needle convincingly at all.

    Is gay marriage going to tangibly damage our society? How will I know if it does? This is going to have to be part of the narrative as well – if there is no evidence and the concepts can’t be clearly defined (or at least expressed by a sociologist, perhaps?) then I think that most people are going to be inclined to (probably without even knowing it) apply Hitchens’ Razor (“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”).

    You’ve got a lot of work ahead of you, Tom. I hope that you’re able to present your Christian views as accurately and compellingly as possible, and I hope that you don’t end up drifting off into just “spin”. I’m interested in hearing a narrative that can compete with the narrative that I’ve seen – couples who are crying happily because they finally feel like society is willing to see them as equals, for instance. Should be interesting.

  47. Tom Gilson says:

    Note from Tom:

    This thread went sour in a big way last night. In order to preserve the article in the OP I’m deleting a large number of comments.

    If you care to read what was removed, since I’m not interested in whitewashing my own mistakes, you can read the PDF I saved.

    There will be other discussions of SSM soon. I’m not shutting that conversation down, I’m just closing one branch of it where I think it went off topic and toxic. I’m counting on this page being one where apologists will take a careful look at their message and methods, not in the sense that the conversation yesterday wanted to steer the discussion, but in the sense I wrote about in the OP.

  48. [...] and Gay-Rights Advocates: Hatred or Humanity?Treating One Another As Humans (Redux)Yesterday a discussion that should have been about apologetics strategy went off-topic and toxic, and I deleted a large [...]

  49. [...] have become very good at persuading through story-telling and images. Even though the story line and images are false without any background they are effective at [...]

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