Sunday, November 20, 2011

Apologetics 2: Ecclestiastic Boogaloo

What's below is a follow-up to this post, prompted by the top comment from Betsy McPeak. No more preface; go back and read if you're not yet in the picture. Here goes:
  • Speaking from within that particular argument's assumptions, I think the distinction between winning the arguments and winning the audience isn't sharp. It's like asking whether a fire produces light or heat. We don't typically light candles for warmth, and we don't typically light bonfires to help us find a lost contact lens, but all fires produce both. The point I borrow from Ehninger in premise five is that argument itself brings a relationship into being. I'm not talking about building up credibility derived from expertise, and I'm not talking about Sam Harris working an audience; I'm saying William Lane Craig and Sam Harris entered into a relationship with one another by submitting to mutual correction. Argument in front of an audience is one thing, but argument between arguers, the retail version of what Craig and Harris peddle wholesale, can break down barriers of non-engagement and alienation if it's handled deftly. I should note, just to take the edge off the quip in my first three sentences that it's not necessary to win the argument for the relationship-strengthening to occur; simply conducting oneself in a respectful and secure fashion during the argument is sufficient.
  • Speaking as a communication scholar, I don't think tilting the balance in favor of being more human and relational is the way to go. Richard Petty and John Cacioppo's Elaboration Likelihood Model locates that approach on the peripheral route, and predicts that it will result only in weak attitude change that's unlikely to persist over time, resist counterpersuasion, or shape future behavior. They say a central route approach, which involves scrutiny of evidence and reasoning, is far more likely to yield strong attitude change. Put in business terms, a peripheral route appeal can swing an impulse buy, but only a central route appeal can result in brand loyalty. The problem is, people only process persuasive messages along the central route if they agree that the subject matter is highly relevant to them, and if they are fully able to process the message. If Petty and Cacioppo are right, and a good deal of research suggests they're onto something, then the apologetic enterprise needs to allot some of its focus toward preparing listeners, as opposed to preparing appeals. That might take the form of helping people understand that what Christ did cannot be ignored, that the reality of the universe's Creator, His relationship with His creation, humanity's sinful and fallen nature, all are realities that can't be brushed aside; that money and popularity and every kind of physical pleasure numbs for a time the need to have those answers, but it never banishes them and the cost of trying to ignore them is unacceptable. It might also take the form of helping people put aside distractions, as well as grounding appeals in the most concrete, familiar, up-close illustrations possible, stripping them of every trace of church jargon. Petty and Cacioppo's model says if people have high motivation to hear the message, adequate ability to think carefully about it, and they then hear a strong, well-crafted persuasive appeal, they'll be persuaded. The persuasive effects of audience-courting like Sam Harris' antics are, praise God, short-lived and weak.
  • Speaking as a Christian and a student of Christ's teachings, I look at John 6:44 and 65, and I worry that we're over-thinking this, and taking too much into our own hands. I don't have an easy answer to questions of election, irresistible grace, etc., and I think when we try to wordsmith formulas to explain God, we utterly waste our time and create more ignorance than we undo. I do take note of 1 Peter 3:15, and certainly part of the Bible's charge that I continue to grow in my faith, to abide in Christ, includes being willing and prepared to talk out my thoughts and explain to the best of my ability any of the puzzling questions that are stumping a sincere questioner. But I also believe in divine appointments, and I think the best approach to take to such encounters is to trust that whom God calls, He also equips, and that in every case He sees what people's needs are. So long as I do my best to be patient and gentle and conduct myself the way I should in other interpersonal encounters, God will take care of the rest. We don't have to pick between having our facts straight and being sufficiently warm; we're the nurses, not the doctor. God will do the prescribing, not us.
Those are my follow-up thoughts. I'd welcome further dialogue on this, as it really does help me refine the conference paper I hope to write either over Christmas or this summer.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Last Beacon Standing

Humor is one of the tools in the toolbox of both the speaker and the interpersonal communicator, but it's rarely studied in any detail in the Communication classroom. That's unfortunate, because there's a fair amount of scholarly work that yields some important insights, and there are also important Biblical teachings about being deliberate and careful with humor. So, this term I taught a special topics class, "Humor and Stand Up Comedy," and the culmination is a showcase this Friday night. If any of you just happen to be coming to the NCU Preview Day this weekend, you'll get a chance to see the full performances live. Here's the campus ad for it:

Friday, November 4, 2011


I posted this on my personal blog back in January as a first attempt at framing a paper I planned to submit to the National Communication Association annual conference. My plans changed, and I didn't submit it, but this work is still in my queue. Probably over the summer I'll get serious about fleshing it out, but as I was re-reading it this morning, it hit me that some forensics folks might find it interesting, so here goes:

Premise number one: Christians exist for the purpose of drawing near to God. We can only do so, we can only bridge the alienation brought about by our sin, because Christ took the punishment and reconciled us to God. Once we accept this, we are in right relationship with God, God's children, and from there we walk daily with Him, growing nearer to Him as the Holy Spirit works to conform us to the image of His son.

The important bit: the Christian life is relational.

Premise number two: this relational essence makes it the higher priority than message content in things we say to, about, and in service of, God. Paul Watzlawick wrote in Pragmatics of Human Communication that every message has a content dimension and a relational dimension. If a wife asks her husband to lift something heavy for her, and he, watching TV, says "I'll come do it at the next commercial," he may think she's just made a simple request and he's agreed to do it within a reasonable time, which is what the content conveys, but she may fume that he treats her as less important than the television, which is a relational message. Transferring that concept to this discussion, much of what we do, including Bible study, including worship, including prayer, including fellowship, including serving people in need, involves producing and consuming utterances, each of which has a content and relational dimension, but if premise number one is correct, then the relational dimension is always dominant over the content dimension.

The important bit: what we say is never as important as the way our sayings position us relative to God.

Premise number three: our relationship with God is primarily instantiated in a single dialectical tension, not the several that turn up in relationships between humans. Leslie Baxter's work argues that people experience the desire to be together and apart, to be open with one another and maintain privacy, to work up a repertoire of traditions and be spontaneous, and that the life of a relationship is the endless collaborative balancing of those tensions. But all three are meaningless in the relationship between human and God: we're never apart from God, we have no privacy from Him, and we cannot surprise Him. Instead, I tentatively assert that our dialectical tension in relating to God is wisdom vs. innocence. God calls on us to trust Him with a childlike faith, but also allows us to argue with Him, even occasionally letting us win the argument.

The important bit: our relational positioning with God drives us to find the right mix of trust and critical acuity.

Premise number four: Christian argumentation has to date been dominated by an apologetic tilt, which has much in common with multi-vitamins. Taking One-A-Day® can be a good idea if someone's diet actually lacks an important nutrient, but anyone who eats a balanced diet doesn't need such supplements. It's been said that Americans, who lead all other nations in consumption of vitamin pills, simply have the world's most expensive urine. Worse, in some cases high doses of vitamins can be toxic. The fit of this analogy comes from the largely unacknowledged dangers of apologetic argumentation; where someone's faith is crumbling because they can't get over a reasoned objection to Christianity, then apologetic work is a vitamin, correcting a deficiency. But where people pursue such arguments for their own sake, they risk damaging their faith. C. S. Lewis, widely regarded as the contemporary champion of apologetics, repeatedly warned people not to attempt to build up their faith by winning debates, insisting that his own apologetic work had weakened his faith, and the only correction was to experience God's presence directly. Again, the relationship was far more important than the content.

The important bit: trying to win arguments that prove God's existence or other Christian teachings can address specific obstacles to faith, but is equally likely to weaken it if deployed unnecessarily.

Premise number five: The proper role for Christian argumentation can be understood along the lines of work done by Doug Ehninger in the late nineteen sixties: argument as mutual correction, as a way of granting personhood to another, making oneself vulnerable to another and thereby building a bond. God shows us by joining in argument with us that He is not distant, detached, uninvolved, and as we argue with Him, we are forced to accept correction where we are wrong. Similarly, the arguments we have between ourselves should be opportunities to build fellowship, to grant one another the dignity of making our reasons explicit and being open to persuasion by the other, to surrendering our positions when they are successfully refuted. In all these instances, the relationship is far more important than the content. Rabbinic scholars fell into the trap of adding layer upon layer of content over the Torah, drowning it in commentary and judgments, at the price of a dynamic and engaged relationship with God and one another, and if we pull back from unnecessary apologetic argument and instead use argument as exploration of difference and a procedure for building trust, then we arrive at a more robust and sturdy bond.

The important bit: argument as procedure has the potential to strengthen relationships, and the Christian life is relational in its essence. ■

I know I'm using argument in incommensurable ways, between us and God and between person and person, but that's one of the things I'll get sorted out.