Culture changes, and rapid shifts in culture generate challenges in communication. Although the truth of the Gospel is timeless, Christians should do their homework on changes in culture and figure out how to shape the Good News so that it is hearable. On today’s episode, Tim and Rick are joined by Tim Down, author, cartoonist and communication theorist. They discuss both timeless and changing methods of communication, and Tim provides insights he has learned on the value of indirect communication from his work as a writer and cartoonist.
Rick Langer: Welcome to the Winsome Conviction Podcast. My name's Rick Langer. I'm a professor at Biola University in the Biblical Studies and Theology Department, but I'm also working with the Office of Faith and Learning. And one of my favorite things is I'm the co-director and co-host of the Winsome Conviction Podcast, along with my good friend, Tim Muehlhoff.
Tim Muehlhoff: Rick, we've been doing this podcast now almost three years, and if you listen with any frequency, there's certain names that keep popping up and one of those names is Tim Downs. And it is such a privilege to have people that honestly, you feel like we're served as a mentor, a lifelong friend. If we go back to the Winsome Conviction book that we wrote, Disagreeing Without Dividing the Church, I dedicated the book to three individuals that have shaped my thinking the most about communication. Tim didn't make that list, but I feel bad about that now that he's a guest. I should have really stuck it in there. But no, I mentioned that's how this is going to go, Tim. I'm so sorry.
Tim Downs: Yeah, it is.
Tim Muehlhoff: I mentioned J.P. Moreland, an apologist. He was the guy I first wrote a book with, was so gracious to do that. Julia T. Wood, my dissertation director at UNC Chapel Hill, and then I say this, "To Tim Downs, who through the Communication Center provided encouragement and confidence to work out my own thoughts". And Tim created this thing called the Communication Center, which was a forward-thinking think tank with crew, Campus Crusade for Christ. He brought in amazing people and we had the time and luxury to think about communication as related to evangelism, apologetics, cultural apologetics. We saw the shift happening. Deborah Tannen had yet to coin the term argument culture, but we saw it on the horizon.
Tim was forward enough thinker to write a book called Finding Common Ground, which was really taking the thoughts of the Communication Center and putting in book form, it won a major award. Tim is an incredibly gifted author writing about marriage. He wrote novels that won awards. He's a great communicator, but he's also a great thinker when it comes to the things of Winsome Conviction. And honestly, I know I was just joking with him, but he really is on my Mount Rushmore of people have shaped my thinking the most. So, so fun to introduce him to you and our listeners-
Rick Langer: That is very exciting, we're thrilled to have him.
Tim Muehlhoff: Tim Downs, welcome to our humble podcast. It is really a treat to have you.
Tim Downs: I deny even knowing Tim Muehlhoff. And I would like to say Rick Langer, it's a pleasure to be here with you on the podcast today. If we can just get off by ourselves, we might actually be able to have a conversation and yes, this is the way this podcast will go. It's a pleasure to be here guys, with both of you.
Tim Muehlhoff: Well, we really are admirers of you. So let me start with the first question. Am I on your Mount Rushmore? No, I'm just kidding. We have mentioned Finding Common Ground often and the Communication Center, but let's do a thought experiment. If you were to rewrite the book Finding Common Ground and restarted the Comm Center today, what would stay the same? And then what do you think you would change based on the current context that we find ourselves in?
Tim Downs: Tim, as for Finding Common Ground, not much would change except for the illustrations. They'd be, they're out of date now. But I wrote the book to say the soil of our nation, of our culture, the ground that we have to work within, if we're going to communicate as Christians, it changes all the time. So that message is a timeless message. I wrote Finding Common Ground because I felt like in that post-World War II generation where all the evangelistic ministries had started, Billy Graham and Campus Crusade and InterVarsity and Navigators and everything, there was this sense that we had this solution, we were going to present the gospel. It was almost a mathematical process and we could get this done, fulfill the great commission and wrap it up in a generation.
I just raised the simple thought that that might not work because the culture changes all the time and there's no such thing as the timeless approach. We're going to have to understand the culture as it changes, understand the audience we're appealing to, what are the current issues? So to bounce off the question you just asked, if I restarted the Communications Center as a training ground, I would simply be training people in other topics because the topics we were talking about 25 and 30 years ago, they have evolved and the conversation between Christians and non-Christians, it changes all the time. So we'd have a different set of topics, but we'd still be approaching it the same way.
Tim Muehlhoff: I'm thinking of the lecture we would start with phil comm one philosophy of communication one. And so what would be some of those principles, Tim, that you think, regardless of the social context for our listeners, what are the communication principles that you think are timeless?
Tim Downs: Well, one is that the only constant is change and the time we're living now, what really earmarks it is change is taking place at a geometric rate now. The world that you live in right now, it's not the one you grew up in and you can't even imagine what it's going to be like even 10 years from now. It is changing that fast. So it means as Christians, if we're going to be engaging this culture, we need to be doing our homework, we need to be asking what are people thinking? What are the current attitudes and views that are out there? What are the attitudes towards Christianity? How do I shape my message to be hearable anymore? And I think that's the difficult thing. It seems tiresome.
So as Christians today, we often just take this approach of, "I just got to testify. All I need to do is say the message and say it loud and not be afraid to say it." And I think we are missing a big part of what Jesus told us to do. We're supposed to be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves. And yep, we all aspire to be innocent, but there's a real shortage of shrewdness that's out there today and that's what I think we have to do.
Rick Langer: One thing that's come up with other guests we've talked to on the podcast and even in some of my own work on some things is that, and tell me your thoughts on this. It seems to me as you were describing, and Tim and I have talked too, about our own arc over the course of time of apologetics, how you share your faith is that there was a truth orientation when I was coming of age as a Christian, and I've never really changed. I mean my PhD's in philosophy, so I've got the truth disease, but it feels like somewhere under... the ground under me has shifted over the course of the last 20 years or sometime like that.
So if I were to think of the three transcendentals: truth, beauty and goodness, the focus of apologetic concern, both belief and disbelief seems to have shifted somewhat from truth to issues that might be more closely related to goodness or perhaps beauty. The gospel isn't so much unbelievable as it is unattractive, it's not beautiful, or we have to help people understand and see its beauty more than we have to battle with the truth. Is that an accurate perception or what would you say about how that has shifted?
Tim Downs: Well, I think that's an accurate description of a shift that's taken place among others. My point is that's an illustration of what I wrote about 25 years ago, and that is the ground that we're standing on is shifting. We have to understand how the shift is taking place and even participate in it so we can keep it from just shifting out from under us. It's like an earthquake. I used to live in Southern California just like you guys do, and you remember that the advice in an earthquake is drop, cover, hold on. But you guys have probably been in a southern California earthquake and you know that's useless advice because it doesn't matter what you hold onto, everything is moving. And I was simply saying, this is the problem with our Christian message. We know the message is timeless, but let's say like you said, Rick, that the truth orientation has shifted. Let's say the culture is now questioning even the existence of truth that undermines your very ability to talk about the gospel at all.
So you can't just turn to blind eye to that and say, "Well nevermind, here's my message." You got to understand what is that shift? What can I do to counterbalance that shift? What will I first have to say to a listener so they're even able to hear the rest of it? And again, this is a difficult time for Christians because coming out of World War II, we really were the majority culture and there really was still an agreement about fundamental morality and what the Tao actually is, as C.S. Lewis would've said, and we were working from that. It made it easy to communicate. But as all those things shift, I think as Christians were aware that something's been taken from us and there's just this sense that we've been robbed or we're losing our country instead of realizing now this is always what happens in the world and we have to do the homework to understand what the changes are so that we can adapt our message to be relevance at the time.
Tim Muehlhoff: Boy, that just makes so much sense. I feel like I'm back in the Comm Center doing phil comm one. Hey, let's go back to my favorite part of finding common ground that I think is one of those transcendent truths that really does work today. And first, thank you for including me in your acknowledgement page for Finding Common Ground. Direct and indirect communication. I think you've already set the table for this conversation, but why don't you just for our listeners, define direct and indirect, and I'm suspecting we really need to do some indirect communication first, but why don't you define those two and then give us your thoughts of how that might relate to today's context.
Tim Downs: Well, indirect communication is what the world specializes in. For Christians, we love direct communication. We know that truth is on our side, so we want to hold a debate or we want to give a sermon, we want to give a speech, we want to argue with you. We're thorough going modernist, right-thinking leads to right action, which unfortunately isn't true in a fallen world, but that's what we still think. So debate with us and argue with us, but that's not how the world communicates.
Indirect communication is when you, let's use a military example. In military warfare, people since the time of Napoleon have said, "Unless you have overwhelming numerical superiority, you don't do a frontal attack because you're not going to win and it's just going to push the enemy back on their lines of supply. What you want to do is wheel around an attack from the rear or to the side, and you want to cut off the enemy's lines of supply." That's what indirect communication does, and the world is a expert at this. Christians are the only ones who produce movies that come with study guides. That's a joke. I'll pause for you to laugh there. And that's because in our movies for example, we want a character to turn to the audience and deliver the lesson or the moral, make it clear, make it frontal. That's a disaster for art. And we can talk about that if you like.
Indirect communication swings around to the side. It doesn't directly even address the issue. It undermines your ability to even talk about the issue. It might just suggest that your position is stupid, that it's uneducated, that it's out of date, that it's Rick, as you said, it's not beautiful. It doesn't address the complexity of the time. It's exclusive. It just suggests it that way. And that's why I think movies, television, music are extraordinarily powerful things, but they're only communicating indirectly. Very rare to find somebody just come out in a film and somebody turn to the audience and say, "Here's my lecture. This is why abortion is good." Nobody directly wants to have an argument or a debate. They just want to cut our legs out from under us.
Tim Muehlhoff: I remember watching Modern Family, we analyzed it in a rhetoric class, and I'm on a plane watching the very first episode. I had never watched it before, but I obviously heard phenomenal things about the writing and the acting. Tim, I was laughing out loud with my earphones in as the most brilliant argument for normalizing gay marriage was being presented to me. And I, a professor at Bible Institute of Los Angeles, I am laughing. People are turning around looking at me, and I just had to tip my cap and said, "We are done. We are done." That was so brilliant and funny. I couldn't help but laugh as I disagreed with a philosophical position that's being presented to me, but it's being done indirectly in an absolutely brilliant way that you really liked this couple and you feel horrible for wanting to maybe argue a theological philosophical point against gay marriage. You feel horrible. And that is indirect.
Tim Downs: It's indirect and it's extraordinarily powerful as you just said. But in the Christian community, our response to that would be, we're going to write a book on why gay marriage is wrong. We want to host a debate in response instead of learning the same techniques. How many times have you watched a TV show or something on streaming or something, and here's a Christian character, it's going to be a clergyman or an identifiable Christian? And the minute they appear, you go, "Okay, here we go. This is going to be a cruel person, a bigoted person, maybe a perverted person," and nobody's going to point it out. They'll just show you the character. That's a very powerful form of indirect communication.
And there's a hundred different ways to do it, but we don't like the indirectness and we don't even trust the power of indirectness. And I used to always say to Christians, "You say you believe in the power of story, but you don't. You believe in the power of sermon. So what you do is you disguise your sermons as stories and then you say, 'Look how effective we're being'. No, you're not. If your story is so obvious and so frontal that everybody sees it coming." The goal would be to accomplish what you described, Tim, where somebody is laughing their head off or just enjoying what they're watching, but at the same time they're swallowing a message. That's indirect communication. It's an art form and it's one we're just so far behind on.
Tim Muehlhoff: So let's talk about why we're behind, but let me just augment the point that you made about if you continually bump up against these religious characters who just aren't likable or even scary. Remember when Martin Scorsese did a remake of Cape Fear 1991? And he wanted to take the main character, which in the original was Robert Mitchum, who had no religious affiliation whatsoever. So in the remake, in an interview in Vanity Fair, he said, "I wanted to make this modern remake as scary as possible and as Robert De Niro," he made him religious, had Bible verses all over his body and actually dies at the end of the movie speaking tongues, religiously. So isn't that an interesting commentary, "I want to make my character scary. I'm going to make him fanatically religious"?
Tim Downs: Yes. So what happens, of course, is when more and more characters are like that, it just becomes the background. It paints a picture that that's the expectation if you bump into a religious character, they should be like that. If I was a Christian making film today, my first bold and audacious step would be to introduce an actual Christian character who's just a normal guy. He should be a compassionate person, a normal person. He's not interrupting everybody to say grace before his meal. He's just a normal guy. It would be a radical idea, but it's a powerful idea. But this is the problem for Christians it's like, that's not enough. That's not the whole message that it isn't worth doing.
With one of my novels, after one of my novels came out, a woman wrote to me and she complained that this was not Christian fiction. And she said, "What I want from Christian fiction is one recognizable Christian character who disapproves of inappropriate lifestyles".
Tim Muehlhoff: There you go.
Tim Downs: There you go. But I thought, "Yes, that is a very good description of what it is we're wanting." Or people would write and say, "There's no presentation of the gospel in this," as though every form of communication from any Christian at any time needs to contain a full and complete presentation of the gospel. I think that's a disastrous approach. We want to say everything or we're not willing to say anything, and this is why the culture will shift out from under us.
Tim Muehlhoff: Okay, so Tim, in your book Finding Common Ground, you do this great thing about what is a Christian mole and how we don't have much tolerance for Christian moles. Can you explain that to our listeners real quick and how we always want them to pop their heads up and give allegiance to Jesus and then go back down being a mole? Can you?
Tim Downs: Yeah, and this is a tough one, but yeah, a mole, of course, a spy who isn't identified as the actual double agent they are, they're operating within your organization behind enemy lines, and so they're incredibly destructive people. What I was simply pointing out is what we need is a lot of insiders in all areas of the culture of the arts, of film, of music, but Christians really have a who's on our side attitude. So what we want is people to testify. You say it right up front, those are the people that we celebrate. If there's a guy who's become a Christian, an actor, let's say, and he wins the Academy Award and he gets upfront by God, you better say Jesus, you better glorify God and say, Jesus, don't just say God and say that you're a Christian and you want to glorify God in receiving this award. Now, what if, because he has so clearly identified as a theologically conservative Christian, what if he never can work in Hollywood again? And the answer is the Christians wouldn't care because he testified, he said, "He's on our side".
I'm saying we need moles. We need people who are at the highest levels of government, but we haven't forced them to just come out and testify to do the dog whistles and the virtue signaling that alienates everybody else. We need to saturate the culture at all different levels in all different aspects so that we can have influence. I think this is what Jesus was talking about when he talked about the leaven, leavening the whole lump of dough or salt having to have contact with the meat. We were meant to have contact with the culture and penetrate the culture, not withdraw from it.
Rick Langer: Tim, let me just pick up two things that I have read from you even before I knew Tim Muehlhoff who is always talking about you, so I felt like I know you that way, but I'd read your comic strip Downstown that I don't know how long you did it, but when I was in college it was out. And then also your Bug Man novels. And when I teach hermeneutics and some of these sorts of things in a classroom context, I'll often talk about genre choice is actually part of the content. In other words, if you want to understand what the author's saying, you don't just look at the words that they use, but you look at the genre they put them into, why did God put this into a poem? There's things that poems communicate better than an essay does, for example.
Tim Downs: Yes, yes.
Rick Langer: So I'm just curious, when you were picking up a comic strip as a genre or a novel as a genre, why did you make that genre choice? What is it that you thought that door opened or what watchful dragons did you think you could sneak past by using those literary vehicles?
Tim Downs: My comic strip was syndicated by the same syndicate that did Doonesbury. In fact, Doonesbury put that syndicate on the map. It's now the largest syndicate in the world. Doonesbury was a remarkable comic strip, the first comic strip that ever won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning.
Rick Langer: Yeah.
Tim Downs: It's obviously politically left meaning, but everybody at the time in Washington read Doonesbury because it's just what Tim described, clever, timely, up-to-date. Gerald Ford said something about, "We've only got a couple of sources of information in Washington. One is the newspapers, one's electronic media, and the other is Doonesbury, not necessarily in that order." Now, that is incredible. So you could find people who are political conservatives reading Doonesbury every day. Now, when you think about that, I call that power.
So for me, I started my comic strip, I'm in the LA Times for six years. That's a million potential readers a day. I can only write four frames. I can only get one little thought or idea in front of a million people a day. So this is what I'm saying, this is the power of sowing. You can tell me, "I'm sorry, that's not a presentation of the gospel, or you're not saying enough." And I'm saying, "What are you saying to a million people a day?" And the people who will read my comic strip aren't doing it for my spiritual insight. They want to laugh. And if I can develop my art so that they can laugh and be entertained, and there's a nugget in there, a thought, this is huge. To me, it's that kind of stuff that creates the culture that we want to communicate the gospel in. That's going to be a favorable culture or a hostile culture. It's not changing without us. We can participate in it.
Rick Langer: Hey, so do you have a favorite Downstown strip? You got one on your wall behind you there or anything like that that captures an example of what you're talking about?
Tim Downs: I wish I did, Rick. The answer is no. I don't even hang up my stuff anywhere in my office, but sometime I will send you some of my favorites because yeah, and this isn't art. I can't say, "Boy, did I master this." It is the struggle to pull this off. Same thing when you're writing a novel. Same idea, but I thought, I think this is what we're supposed to be struggling with. So I can hardly even remember some of my comic strips. I retired my strip 40 years ago. So there-
Rick Langer: Well, this is a memory test and you've pretty much failed.
Tim Downs: Yeah. It certainly is, that's for sure.
Tim Muehlhoff: But Tim, what's funny is with Lord of the Rings, Tolkien kept absolutely rejecting the idea of, okay, so is Gandalf the Christ figure, where's the gospel in the..." And he kept saying, "No, no, no, no, no. This is a fantasy story in which virtues, Gandalf's kindness and wisdom and the Hobbits' courage." That's what he was trying to get across those values. But don't read, I didn't feel the need to present the gospel. I was showing you what the gospel produces.
Tim Downs: Yes. And Tolkien was big on, "I'm not writing allegory." Tolkien said, "You create a fantasy world where in that world, the moral laws of our world work. And you demonstrate those moral laws working and people learn the lesson, but you don't beat them over the head with it." And Tolkien was even disagreeing at times with Lewis about whether Lewis was making his Chronicles of Narnia too allegorical. Lewis denied that as well. But the idea is that, is Aslan, Jesus? Come on. So Tolkien was fine-
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, that's hermeneutics.
Tim Downs: Yeah, yeah. But Tolkien was saying, "Hey, I'm fine with burying this," but isn't this fascinating? Think about the appeal of Lord of the Rings.
Rick Langer: Oh my goodness-
Tim Downs: I mean, for so many years, all over the world, people do connect with that. I believe that is an extraordinarily powerful influence. But when it comes to our Christian communications of arts, often we're not satisfied with that. I wrote one of my novels, I put a minister in there. I put the minister in there mostly because I wanted them to not be a pervert or a bigot. I just wanted a normal minister in there. And when I submitted the manuscript, the publisher wrote back and said, "Can you strengthen the minister character?" And I thought, "Okay, this is what you're wanting to do. You're wanting my minister to turn to your audience and deliver the moral, deliver the message." At which point I just violated the rules of art. So this is what I think Christian artists have to struggle with all the time.
Tim Muehlhoff: Let's close with this, and we'd love to have you back sometime in the future if you're willing to, because we'd like some help on current, because we talked about how the cultural land has shifted. Well, we feel the shift and we just have some questions that we would love to pose to you and just get your thoughts and whatever you say, we are literally going to do. So be very careful when we podcast-
Tim Downs: I will talk with Rick, but I don't know that I will talk with you again.
Tim Muehlhoff: Hey, we recently lost a giant, we lost Tim Keller, and I think we admired Keller on two fronts. One, his content, of course, but it was how he spoke to people, particularly people he disagreed with. Can you just for a second, give us your impressions of Tim Keller, the communicator?
Tim Downs: There are so many things I could say about Tim because I think he was truly wonderful. To me, he demonstrated the temperament of a true ambassador. And maybe next time we can talk more about what that actually looks like. He was a gracious communicator, full of grace and truth as they said about Jesus. And he could say, "You're just wrong about this," but not in a harsh or vindictive way. And he was very good. If he would ever describe, for example, an idol that was characteristic of the left, he would immediately describe an idol that's characteristic of the right, because he wouldn't just align the gospel with any other group. Because of that, he had a universal appeal. And because of that, he also had conservative Christians who just didn't like him.
He showed breadth of learning. But he would also say, "I was reading the New York Times the other day," and whenever he would do that, I would think, "Now how many theologically, conservative Presbyterians are saying, 'I was reading the New York Times the other day'"? And then the next minute he was saying, "I was listening to a Bach cantata, or I went to this play." He was clearly a part of the New York vibe, the New York culture, and he was constantly talking to people. He had endless illustrations about that. So he was winsome, as you guys would say, and he modeled it so well.
But I'll add one more thing. Deep, deep, deep understanding of the gospel. And it's common to hear a minister speak and then tack on a gospel presentation. And you can hear it coming. Here it comes... For Tim Keller he would be describing some issue, some problem, and then he would explain very clearly why the gospel is the solution to that problem. That takes a lot of thought and deep immersion in the gospel and its implications and how it plays out in life. And that's what he was immersed in. And I thought, "Gosh, he was so helpful for that." When he would finish explaining the gospel, you would think, "That's got to be true. That obviously is a solution to what he just said".
Rick Langer: Yeah, that's wonderful, Tim. And I love that model of, if you want an example of saying, look, being winsome isn't incompatible, A withholding conviction, and B, with thinking deeply about truth, this is all about how you communicate what you thought deeply about and the truths that you value so deeply.
Tim Downs: Well said.
Rick Langer: Well, thanks so much for joining us, and we are also grateful for our listeners for joining us here on the Winsome Conviction Podcast. We'd love to have you subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play or wherever it is that you get in your podcast, or check us out at winsomeconviction.com to see some of the other resources we make available. Thanks again for being with us for our podcast.