In the midst of an alarming loss of civility in discussing debated and controversial issues, what’s needed is a restoration of the art of persuasion and reasoned argument. This applies both to the discussion of controversial issues, but also to the gospel message itself. In this second half of a two-part interview, Sean McDowell and Scott Rae talk to Os Guinness about his book Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion. Dr. Guinness is an internationally known author and lecturer, who has modeled the craft of gospel persuasion throughout his life and work.

More About Our Guest

Os Guinness is a social critic and the author of many books on faith, culture, and politics.

Episode Transcript

Sean McDowell: Welcome to the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations On Faith and Culture. I'm your host, Sean McDowell, an author, speaker, and apologetics professor here at Biola University.

Scott Rae: I'm your cohost, Professor Scott Rae, professor of Christian Ethics at Talbot School of Theology. Today's episode is part two of our two-part series with Dr. Os Guinness.

Os is a long-term, a very insightful author, speaker, and commentator on the intersection of Christian faith, culture, and public policy. Os is one of the most insightful people I know on that particular intersection.

So, Os, thank you for being with us. We look forward to our conversation. You've watched the immigration debate both in this country and in Europe. How would you envision a civil debate over immigration? Because I think for a lot of people, they look at immigration and civility as being almost mutually exclusive.

Os Guinness: Well, they've become that way, because people don't think. For example, immigration, there are various levels of discussion. The bottom level is security, and that's right. So notions like the wall and so on are important. You've got to have security. A person needs boundaries. Someone who doesn't have personal boundaries is in trouble. He or she will become a doormat to everyone else. Everyone needs boundaries. You've got to have boundaries. That's the security issue.

Then you move higher, we're talking about the ordering of society with all its differences. Highest of all, we're talking about individual freedom and justice. Now the trouble is, America had its motto, e pluribus unim. Europe didn't have anything like that. Just bring them in. But of course if you just bring them in, they will change your culture, particularly if you follow multiculturalism.

So Sweden, they have what they call the dish cities. They don't enter Swedish society, they have their antennae out to television from the Middle East. They live totally in their own bubble. Or you have in England, the no-go areas. In France, the bon homme. In Britain, through the false multiculturalism without civic education, etc., we bred the bombers who bombed the London underground, and the folly here, it was palpable, because the Europeans didn't have a discussion of the first principles of diverse society.

America's been at it for 300 years. You should've been a model to the world, but at the time when the world's looking at you, you're not being the best model you should be.

Sean McDowell: You mentioned at the heart of civility is respecting other people who see the world differently, and yet the debate today is increasingly framed that if you don't accept my identity or my beliefs in principle, that's disrespectful. So how do we get back to a sense of civility where we have deep differences about the world and moral principles, yet there's still a respect or care for people?

Os Guinness: There's a good example of how liberalism is becoming illiberal. In other words, disagreement is not necessarily discrimination. People are just arguing for different ways of doing things, and that's incredibly important, because in a diverse society, dissent, or conscientious objection, are very, very important principles, but what the sexual revolution has done is paint them all as discrimination; therefore, wrong.

For example, the Jews point out that discrimination is at the heart of creation. God is the great discriminator. He made heaven and earth. Heaven is for him; the earth is for us. He made male and female, light and darkness. These things are at the heart of creation. And so the tactic of the left to turn everything into discrimination borrowing from the Civil Rights movement, is extremely dangerous to freedom. We need the right to dissent. We need the right to have conscientious objection.

Sean McDowell: So tactically, what would that look like for the church and for pastors and just laypeople to help advance that cause?

Os Guinness: We've got to challenge liberals to be liberal. In other words, to be clear, what we're standing for in terms of freedom is not bigotry. We've got to say in essence, "Look. This is your way of living. This is the way we've learned from Jesus. They're alternative ways. We each need freedom to follow the ways we think are true and just. Look at us over 20 years and see if this, in fact, is so, and we'll look at you."

Now, this is a grand equivalent to what Elijah did. You remember the people were sitting on the fence. He was up against 850 of the false prophets. He says, "If Baal is God, follow Baal." Now that's incredibly daring. He knows Baal is not God, but he knows that since Baal is not God, the fastest way for them to know he's not God, is for them to try and follow Baal as God, when he isn't. And in the same way, we are saying that challenge to many people today.

Transgenderism, for example, leads to a loneliness and to instances of suicide, which is nothing short of tragic. And if America chooses the way of the sexual revolution, the harvest of social chaos, psychological confusion and various other ills, will be enormous, but let them follow what they think is right. But don't, because we disagree, think that that's bigotry. No, we believe this is a better, higher way.

Sean McDowell: How important is the American experiment today? I've heard people say, given the compromise of the church, "Just let it burn, and then a new one will rise out of the ashes", and I've heard people like Chuck Colson say, "No, there's something about the American experiment that's important for the church in the world."

Os Guinness: Well, not just the church, for humanity. There's nothing more daring than the original idea that you create a free society that could stay free forever. America is the longest-running public tutorial in the politics of freedom ever. And if it fails, it will be historically tragic.

I think, people said it to me, I was at Berkeley, and someone said "Things are so bad we just got to burn the whole system down." It wasn't a radical that said that. It was a young woman who was actually sort of weary with the whole thing. That is absolutely tragic. Something's at stake.

Now, the American experiment had flaws. That's the first [inaudible 00:06:55 - bargain] of the Constitution, but you've got to put it right, not throw out baby, bathwater, and all.

Scott Rae: You've also pointed out in discussions about same sex marriage and some of the discussions with the LGBTQ community and the church, that the culture is increasingly resorting to more coercive measures to enforce a uniformity of thought as it relates to marriage and sexuality and increasingly matters of race, as well. Yet you also insist that when they do that, the LGBT community and others are, as you put it, sawing off the branch that supports them. What do you mean by that? And how so?

Os Guinness: Well, ostensibly, they're in favor of freedom. But you go back to Rousseau. He talks about the general will and people being "forced" to be free. And you can see that 19th Century Liberalism, with a capital L, was a concern for the individual liberty, especially over against the government, John Stuart Mill and others.

But with the rise of progressivism, the shift is being turned for freedom, but now through the government policy, regulations, and so on. And so you get this force to be free of Rousseau coming in. In other words, liberalism again undercutting itself and becoming highly illiberal, and the [inaudible 00:08:26] of totalitarianism are all from the left.

Now I'm strongly opposed to fascism and anything from the right, too, but as I see it, despite the KKK and the white supremacists, they're a tiny group compared with the strength of the Left in this country.

Scott Rae: Yeah, and I think the consensus I think is still very strong that those who would promote a white supremacist agenda are morally repugnant and repulsive and should be disdained.

Os Guinness: Absolutely.

Scott Rae: I don't see that same thing from some of the coercive measures on the left.

Os Guinness: No.

Scott Rae: Let me ask just one other question about where you see America headed in future years. What do you think is the future of the idea that individuals would sacrifice freedom and self-interest for something like the common good? Or has the common good lost its ability to be a compelling argument, or compelling reason for people and the way they order their lives?

Os Guinness: Well, in traditional society, people literally depended on others. They literally did. We don't. We have an autonomy and an individualism in the highly modern world. And you can live all by yourself. But tragically, the commitment to the commonwealth, the common good and all these various things, which you see very strongly, say, in New England, the Puritans, has gone, and America now is a rampant autonomous individualism. You can see it in libertarian freedom. Freedom is just the permission to do what you'd like.

Don't tread on me. For the liberal, keep off my body; for the conservative, keep off my wallet, or whatever. You can see that American individualism is a rampant autonomy now, which is simply unrealistic.

Scott Rae: Yeah. Or keep off my gun collection among other things.

Sean McDowell: Religious people have often been accused of imposing their values on unbelievers. Yet you argue that such an accusation cuts both ways. How does secularism attempt to impose their values on the public as a whole?

Os Guinness: Well, so you have the roots of it in notions like Rousseau's being forced to be free. Now it works out today in terms of, for example, Obama's orders on terms of transgender and bathrooms, and so on, an open attempt to improve a minority thing on the majority, and certainly not by people who are elected and held accountable. It was an executive order that pushed it through.

So today, the imposition is more from the left than conservatives. That said, we shouldn't try and impose anywhere. The difference between, say, the abolition of slavery and prohibition, Wilberforce in the abolition of slavery, realized he had to win hearts and minds, persuasion preceded legislation.

Whereas with prohibition, there was no persuasion, just legislation. It was disastrous. The Bible never prohibits drink in an absolute sense, anyway. And to try and coerce it through law rather than persuading people is folly. So we've always got to see hearts and minds before legislation.

Scott Rae: One of the things happening here at Biola University as a result of the changing landscape on marriage and sexuality, Christian colleges, and lots of Christian institutions have a target on their back. How would you advise a college like Biola that is somewhat under siege from the legislature and the LGBT community, based on our views on marriage and sexuality?

Os Guinness: Well, on the one hand, we've got to live our Christian principles, so we see the difference they make. So we are really healthy communities with strong marriages and vibrant learning communities and so on, so we've got to live the way of Jesus vigorously and confidently.

On the other hand, in our public witness, we've really got to go to the core of issues in terms of, say, freedom, and challenge the illiberalism of much of the opposition.

Currently, for example, this may be controversial, but you have the Nashville Statement. Regardless of what you think of the actual statement, it was very poorly couched as a public declaration. There was no pastoral sensitivity; but for me, equally importantly, there was no prophetic element. There was no, "We're addressing the sexual revolution." It was half a line at the beginning. It was pathetic.

Here we are, with the biggest onslaught against the church in hundreds of years, and they didn't address it prophetically or apologetically, however you like to say it. As a good example, almost everything now in public life has to be apologetic in the biblical sense, or prophetic, in the biblical sense. And so you've got to train people in order to do that.

Scott Rae: I think this is one of the reasons both Sean and I appreciate your book, Fool's Talk, for a revival of the skill and the discipline of persuasion in apologetics and evangelism. Sean teaches in our apologetics program. I know you found that book really helpful in serving your students and preparing them to be the next generation of apologists.

Sean McDowell: Yeah, I thought the opening was fascinating, and it made so much sense where you started by saying we are all apologists anyways, and then you said you consider today the greatest opportunity for witness since the time of Jesus. Why are we all apologists? And why do you feel like it's such a great opportunity for the church today?

Os Guinness: Well, by that, the 'we' there is not Christians. In other words, as modern people, you know with Facebook, etc. The daily me. Everyone's presenting themselves in all sorts of ways, and they're basically doing apologetics. So this is the grand age. That was said by a secular sociologist, not by me. I was quoting someone in saying that. But that said, never have there been such openness, never have we had so many people we can speak to all around the world. This should be the greatest moment for Christian apologetics ever.

And never has the gospel shone so clearly. I love the little principle: contrast is the mother of clarity. But if you look at the alternatives to the gospel today, they are extreme. And so the gospel shines brighter and brighter over against the darkness, the craziness, the insanity of many of the alternatives. So it is a magnificent time to be a Christian. And those who are on the back foot and ashamed of their faith or whatever, shame on them. This is an amazing moment globally, in America, wherever. Extraordinary moment.

Sean McDowell: You wrote Fool's Talk to try to encourage Christians to just find and discover or rediscover the art of persuasion, and yet there was a line in there where you described that you waited 40 years to write this book. Could you explain a little bit what's behind that statement?

Os Guinness: Well, it's partly because a lot of other things came up to tackle along the way.

Sean McDowell: Okay. Fair enough.

Os Guinness: I really wanted to think about it and let it gel and mature like wine. There are two books that came out of the heart of everything I believe. One was The Call, and I had thought about that a long time before I wrote it. The other was Fool's Talk. Those probably are the two books that are the closest to the heart of my own personal wrestlings with faith in the modern world, and so on. So I just knew I had to think a lot about it before I wrote it, not rush that one.

Sean McDowell: So why write it -- Fool's Talk? Aren't we supposed to not be fools? The Bible speaks against foolishness, and that you're saying we're trying to rediscover the sense of being the fool. What do you mean by that?

Os Guinness: Well, the idea is that good apologetics is cruciform, to use the analogy. Like the cross. The cross is upside down conversion. Looks complete folly, and yet it's the greatest wisdom and power in a subversive form, and our apologetics should be the same.

Scott Rae: You use the terms "cross talk" and "clever talk" in the book, Fool's Talk. What do you mean by those terms? And how, you say we should be about cross talk.

Os Guinness: By clever talk, I mean using fancy modern language and relevance and arguments that all depend on us, that's clever talk. But cross talk, that's the wisdom of the world, and it's very easy to use that without thinking. Cross talk is really making sure that the apologetics we use is shaped by the cross itself and delivered in the power of the Holy Spirit and so on.

In other words, when I came to Christ in 1960, I followed Jesus more than 50 years. Apologetics was basically theistic proofs, and that's a long way from biblical apologetics. So we've got to go back, and what does it mean that people hold the truth in unrighteousness? What does it mean to be like the prophets, and so on? To really look into Scripture and see that our theology is shaping the way we persuade, and not just using the fancy arguments of our day.

Scott Rae: Coming to faith when you did in the early 1960s, you were also pretty significantly influenced by the ministry of Francis Schaeffer and L'Abri. How did the ministry of Schaeffer and that L'Abri community help shape you spiritually in those years?

Os Guinness: Well, I came to Christ in '60, and you can say that evangelicalism was broadly pietistic in a good way. Wonderfully warm hearts with deep areas of rich theology. We had people like John Stott, Martin Lloyd Jones, Michael Green, Jim Packer. Deep theologically, but culture? Nothing.

And here, I came to faith in the 60s, swinging London, the free speech movement, the films of Bergman and Antonioni and Fellini. No one made head or tail of that. Then I met this funny little man with Swiss knickers who went to the blackboard and joined all the dots. I thought, "My word. This is incredible." You were free to think about anything and everything under the Lordship of Christ. And that to me was as revolutionary as my conversion.

It was, the 60s term, mind blowing. It was literally mind blowing and liberating. So I owe everything to Schaeffer in terms of an understanding of apologetics. He's the best one-to-one apologist I've ever seen. Not maybe public speaking. Your distinguished father and many others, but I've never seen him one-to-one.

Sean McDowell: He's pretty good. I'll just throw out and say that for him, just for the record. But I agree with you.

Os Guinness: But Schaeffer was brilliant one-to-one. And you watched him. A couple of minutes his eyes would be welling with tears, he was so empathetic of the people he was talking to, and so on. So I learned the art of apologetics from Francis Schaeffer. Now, he was strong on the history of ideas. He wasn't good, and I realized I had to learn cultural analysis, and my academic mentor is Peter Berger. And I learned much more from Peter Berger than I did from Francis Schaeffer when it came to academic thinking, but that came later.

Scott Rae: It sounds like you had a spiritual conversion and an intellectual conversion a few years later under Schaeffer.

Os Guinness: Sort of.

Scott Rae: Something like that.

Os Guinness: Mhm.

Sean McDowell: In Fool's Talk, you say evangelism must be biblical not only in content but in method -- that we need to be biblical rather than modern or postmodern. What does that mean to be biblical not only in terms of what we say, but in say the medium or the means by which we say it? What distinction were you drawing there?

Os Guinness: Well, if you say modern and postmodern, obviously the modernist apologetics uses reason and counts on reason alone, like the theistic proofs and so on. I meet people in Washington today still arguing the ontological argument and so on to atheists. It's like water off a duck's back.

Postmoderns, they don't believe in reason at all. It's all stories, and this sort of stuff. Stories are incredibly important, but you look at the Scriptures. Romans is discussive tough-minded reasoning. The parables of Jesus are stories, and so on. So we need clearly both versions, and we need to make sure that our apologetics is deeply biblical and not shaped by the current philosophies of our times.

Sean McDowell: You also talk about the importance of questions. You spent quite a bit of time in the book walking through the art of asking good questions. Would you talk about that a little bit and why that's so important, probably all time since Jesus used questions, but maybe even especially today?

Os Guinness: Well, questions are subversive. If you think in Scripture, whenever unbelief or disobedience comes in, questions come in. The fall, Adam, where are you? And you go right through. Jesus is the supreme question asker. Questions are indirect, and they're involving.

Now as you don't know where they're leading to, but the person asked the question has to provide the answer. So it's not a question of a proposition, take it or leave it. You have to get into it to get out of it. And that's why questions are much more subversive than statements, and we should be, particularly in a skeptical age, or an age that is self-sufficient in its hostility or resistant to Jesus or the gospel. We should be the great question askers, like Socrates.

Sean McDowell: Do you have any specific questions you like to ask people in spiritual conversations? Or do you find it's just important to tailor the questions to wherever somebody seems to be?

Os Guinness: Well, there are broadly two types of questions. The first is to discover where people are. We love them. We don't know where they are. Are they, for example, open or closed? You have to ask questions about what makes them tick, where the treasure of their heart is. So questions are very important just in loving people to discover where they are, with the ultimate goal of finding are they open to the gospel? Or closed?

Then, the second stage, questions only come in if people are closed. If people are open, give them the answer: Jesus, the good news. But if they're not open, then questions come in. You're raising questions to make them think in ways that crack the sufficiency of whatever it is they believe.

Or put it differently, stage one of a journey to faith is when people have questions. They might be intellectual, it might be emotional, it might be practical, but life which has been swum through it cheerfully for all this time, suddenly becomes a question and they're forced to think. That's always what constitutes a seeker, and that's what we're aiming for, to prompt people into thinking enough to begin searching.

Sean McDowell: So stories are very important. Sharing truth is important, but to be able to ask the right questions, it also seems that we need to be pretty good listeners then today.

Os Guinness: Absolutely. Listening as an expression of love. Notice our Lord in the power of the Spirit immediately knows where people are -- the woman at the well, the rich young ruler, you name it. We don't. So we have to start by asking questions to discover where people are. That's the mark of love.

Scott Rae: That's such a good point, because it underscores how important the relational component is in bringing someone to faith.

Os Guinness: Mhm. Yep.

Scott Rae: That those questions, I think, actually help us connect with them relationally as well as challenge their thinking going forward.

Os Guinness: I met once one of the activists, one of the leaders of ACT UP. Very few teeth in the front of his mouth to show what the police had done to him in New York gay parades and so on.

Sean McDowell: Wow.

Os Guinness: And I asked him how he'd come to faith. He said, "Well, I was at the Clinton Foundation in the cocktail hour. And this big teddy bear of a man just put his arm around me and said, 'Tell me a story.'"

He said, "An hour later I was telling him my story, and to my horror I realized he was a pastor." It was Rick Warren.

Sean McDowell: Wow.

Scott Rae: Yeah.

Os Guinness: He just loved him enough, tell me a story, and listened to it. And that was an expression of love, which was the beginning of his journey to faith.

Scott Rae: It sounds like something I can envision Rick Warren doing. That's a wonderful thing.

Sean McDowell: It does. It definitely does. You talk about two errors in the book: either doing apologetics without evangelism, or evangelism without apologetics. And I found that I've seen that regularly, especially today. Why is it important to keep that balance? And how would somebody keep that balance?

Os Guinness: They're seamlessly a pair. So evangelism is the sharing of the good news, appropriate to people in a bad situation. Apologetics is the pre-evangelism to people who don't know that they're in a bad situation. So again, we have to ask, “Where is the person?” Open? In which case, evangelism, the good news. Or are they closed? In which case, the pre-evangelism, apologetics, in order to raise the questions which show them that they need the good news. So they should be together, and yet today very often they're split. And too many people use evangelism everywhere, and they leave apologetics to the eggheads. Great mistake.

Sean McDowell: I found it real interesting in your book, Fool's Talk, that you spent a significant amount of time on one objection to faith, because in my work and research with students, I get asked a lot about science and faith, the intersection, get asked how can Jesus be the only way, issues of marriage and sexuality. You spent an entire chapter on one objection, which is hypocrisy. Why'd you pick that one? And what are some of your thoughts in responding to that particular objection?

Os Guinness: Well, there are obviously many, many objections and, like you, I've heard many of the others, too. But hypocrisy is the one that's often not answered, and it's one of the basic ones today: “I can't believe in Jesus because all Christians are hypocrites.” The fact is, with the corruptions of the modern church, and we're in a situation where the church today, 500 years after the Reformation, is actually very similar to the 16th Century in the state of the church before the Reformation.

At times like that, you turn off others massively. So I think hypocrisy is one of the great obstacles. Of course, it's not the only one. I actually write about that, Sean, it's not the only one. But our Lord... Well, put it another way. As postmoderns and cynics and so on, people care for hypocrisy. They hate it.

They don't have a grounds for hating it. But the simple fact is ... For example, you need truth to expose lies, but there's no truth. The greatest counter hypocrisy program, or the strongest attacks on hypocrisy were from Jesus. So the deeper you get people to look into it, hypocrisy is second only to evil and suffering as an objection raised, but it's one in which the Christian answer is very clear.

Scott Rae: We have time for one final question, and that is, as you look forward to the next decade or so as the church encounters its various challenges, what's the one thing that you are most encouraged about as you see the church facing the challenges of the next decade?

Os Guinness: Well I often say that if you look at the generalizations, they're bleak, discouraging, pessimistic. And you can pile out the trends. You read a lot of the trends. I don't take them too seriously. The exceptions, though, are magnificently encouraging. And the fact is that the more extreme we get, the contrast of the gospel shines brighter. With every new crisis, people go, "Oh, is that where it leads to? What's the answer to that?"

In many, many cases, they relatively quickly see that there isn't an answer apart from the biblical answer, or the gospel's answer of whatever it is. So we're getting pretty extreme. The extremes are highlighting contrasts as the mother of clarity. So it sounds perverse, but the more extreme things get, the more encouraging they can be if with confidence in the gospel we move out and articulate a Christian response to it.

Scott Rae: Hear! Hear! Well we want to thank you, Os, for spending this time with us. Our guest has been Os Guinness, internationally known author, speaker, and critic of the intersection of faith and culture. We celebrate with you five-plus decades of biblically faithful, culturally relevant service to the Kingdom of God.

Os Guinness: Well, thank you. A pleasure to be with you.

Scott Rae: Thank you so much for your time and being with us.

This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and about today's guest, Dr. Os Guinness, and to find more episodes, go to That's If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks for listening, and remember, Think Biblically. About Everything.™