A Tale of Two Book Reviews

First, read this excerpt from a book review about a person who claimed to have a near-death experience.

“I have never heard such a stupid claim. The author is not the slightest bit informed on the subject of truth. There is not a single doubt in my mind that she is being intentionally deceptive. Everyone knows that near-death experiences are completely made-up. The Scriptures are clear and unmistakable. People do not become angels.”

What stands out to you? Now read this:

“I, personally, have a hard time believing this. It would seem that our understanding of the Bible is much different. Maybe she is being deceptive, or perhaps she’s self-deceived. Who can say for sure? Near-death experiences are fraught with many difficulties due to their subjectivity. However, it does seem clear that the Scriptures teach that people do not become angels.”

Notice the difference? Both are essentially saying the same thing in two different ways. That’s the reality of most situations. There are usually (at least) two ways we could respond (see graphic). 2 Ways to Handle a Conversation

My Attitude Was Tempered

As I’ve been reviewing books and blogs over the years, my attitude has changed. This was not an overnight change. I began to see people with integrity. I began to see intellectual honesty.

I saw humility and a true desire to engage the issues. I saw people who were seeking truth more than they were seeking to justify their emotional prejudice.  These people talked different than others. They handled others differently. Their swing, swagger, and argumentative gait was so cool and compelling.

They seemed to really believe what they claimed to believe. And, to my surprise, this was novel. I am now attempting to become more intentional in my engagement with others when I discuss theology. From teaching The Theology Program in a formal classroom setting to a laid back evening for Coffee and Theology while sipping a Luther Latte, my goal now is not simply to sharpen what I believe and why, but how I handle this belief in conversation more responsibly and effectively. There are issues of attitude and form at play. Issues of attitude tap me on the shoulder and really grab my attention.

Issues of Attitude

  • Overstatement
  • Unqualified Superlatives
  • Non-Contingent Propositions

This probably isn’t the list you expected. Hang with me. I’ll explain. Many of your lists might include:

Issues of Form

  • Clarity
  • Systematic presentation
  • Grammar and spelling
  • Reference support

Those are important to me as well (although you may not have noticed from my writing!), but the first list is what I notice most, especially in presentations and arguments that are theological in nature.

Once I detect imbalance, I usually have a hard time going on.

Overstatement, unqualified superlatives, and non-contingent propositions, are related and can be thought of as different ways of saying the same thing. In fact, you might say they all belong in the same semantic domain that we could call “imbalance”! Once I detect imbalance, I usually have a hard time going on. Think of phrases like these: “I am absolutely certain…” “There is not a doubt in my mind…” “The church has always believed…” “Everyone knows…” “It is perfectly clear…” “No educated person believes…” “Nothing could be further from the truth…” And the like.

It’s Easy to Be Overconfident in Conversations

It’s easier to represent your case without “epistemic humility”—a real understanding that you could be wrong. It’s hard to say “I could be wrong” or “in my opinion” because we feel that in doing so we are making concessions that undermine our case. We like to to think we are full of confidence. We want others to think we are full of confidence.

We feel that if we don’t gain this confidence at every turn, we’ve poked holes in our vessel and by the end of the voyage, our ship will be sunk. Everything must be air-tight. There’s no room for personal opinion since the subjectivity that it presents gives way to uncertainty. There is no room for contingency, insufficient data, or legitimacy of the opposition, even to the slightest degree. If we believe what we say, we must justify this belief beyond any possible doubt. Ironically, this type of transparency and the revelation of epistemic humility gives more credit to our case. This is especially the case in a post-modern world where people have become increasingly suspicious of anyone who wants to talk theology. The revelation of our “insecurities” make people more confident in our ability to think with integrity and have a greater confidence in our conclusions.

Strunk and White on Overstating Your Case

Notice what Strunk and White have to say in their popular book on writing style. This is not a book about how to write theology, but how to communicate through writing. The wise and timeless principles expressed here can be applied to any communication venue (even an argument with your spouse!)

“When you overstate, readers will be instantly on guard and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that follows it will be suspect in their minds because they have lost confidence in your judgment or your poise. Overstatement is one of the common faults. A single overstatement, wherever or however it occurs, diminishes the whole, and a single carefree superlative has the power to destroy, for readers, the object of your enthusiasm.” (Strunk and White. Elements of Style, Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 7).

Do you understand what they’re saying? Once you characterize yourself with this type of imbalance, it is very rare that you will gain an audience. Let me clarify: Once your arguments carry such imbalance, it is very rare that you will gain an audience except with those who already agree with you. The object of your enthusiasm becomes diminished, hidden behind the assault of overstatements.

Where Does Jesus Fit In?

Here’s where it gets very important: When we discuss theology, we often become passionate about everything. But once we become passionate about everything, we might come across as being passionate about nothing. If Jesus Christ is the central object of your passion, does His death, burial, and resurrection find itself competing with things of lesser importance? Is who Christ is and what He did sharing the italics with your belief in inerrancy, a six literal day creation, that expository preaching is superior to topical, or that Obama is the anti-Christ? Overstatement can destroy our testimony. Overstatement can end up understating Christ. With such a methodology, the discharge of the Gospel becomes hamstrung.

Epistemic Humility is not Compromise

This is not a postmodern concession to relativism. I am not advocating that people hide convictions or refuse to stand for what they believe. Neither am I saying that you cannot have great degrees of certainty and assurance about many of your convictions. I am simply saying, if you overstate your case, no matter what it is, I’ll have a hard time listening to what you have to say. And I think I speak for many.

We honor God when we stand up for truth, not misrepresent it.

I would be careful and consider whether or not you’re wasting your time if these overstatements characterize our approach. We honor God when we stand up for the truth. We do not honor Him when we misrepresent the truth to accomplish our presupposed agenda that has not been critically thought through. God help us all to use our words wisely.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]

    21 replies to "How to Blow Any Theological Conversation?"

    • Josh

      Is this how Paul told Timothy to deal with theological error?

      Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you. Titus 2:15

      Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 2 Timothy 4:2-4

      The second response in your example above is tolerant of those who want their ears itched and are wandering off into myths.

    • C Michael Patton

      Yes

      Here are two important Scripture references concerning how we are to engage in theological discussion irenically:

      2 Timothy 2:24 “The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, 25 with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.”

      Notice the key phrases:
      “not be quarrelsome”
      “kind to all”
      “patient when wronged”
      “with gentleness correcting”

      This describes the irenic method of theological engagement.

      1 Peter 3:15 “But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.”

      Notice a few things about this passage:

      The context has to do with a believer ”suffering for righteousness”

      We are to give an answer (apologetic) to those who ask
      This is to be done with gentleness
      This is to be done with respect

      Many of us only hear the first part of the verse “give an defense,” and upon this we justify our apologetic polemic ready to destroy, slander, or misrepresent any who disagree with what we believe to be the truth. We fail to recognize that this defense, in this context, is to be given to people “who ask.” This is requested information based upon a life of integrity in the midst of our suffering. As well, this defense is to be done irenically—with gentleness and respect.

    • C Michael Patton

      Concerning Paul’s sometimes aggressiveness, I think you have misunderstood what his example teaches.

      Here is a blog post I wrote on this:

      Why Jesus and Paul are Not Our Role-Models

      http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2012/06/why-jesus-and-paul-are-not-role-models-for-most-of-us/

    • C J Barton

      This is a favorite method of pop-culture atheists, like the Gene Simmons crowd. They will use general or universal qualifiers, like, “Everybody knows . . .”, so that anyone who disagrees with him must be an idiot (implied, not for real).
      Josh: We don’t show courtesy and respect just to be “nice” to people and win their approval; we do it out of honor and love for our Lord, the author of love and charity. That way, our behavior does not depend on what other people say or do.
      Lastly, my pet grievance over this issue is about those who preach with venom and spite and try to intimidate with “power” phrases, and banging on the podium, etc. Even the world at large know a weasel when they see one: don’t be a weasel!

    • Bert Perry

      Great article. One thing I’d add (and I confess it’s a pet peeve of mine) is that if we use ad hominem arguments (personal attacks), we should be ready for our hearers to conclude that we are either unwilling or unable to make a real argument. How disgraceful to use this in theological discussions, but it happens all the time.

    • chaya1957

      Okay, I get, “the doctrine of nice.” I am much more interested in validated evidence, rather than opinion (whether nice or rude.)

      In regard to the above review, the was an excellent review/debunking of the Todd Burpo story, including medical explanations for near death experiences, the possible sources of the boy’s experiences, the fact that medical records stated he didn’t die, evidence the child’s story changed and expanded as he sought to please his audience and that he was coached and that the author of the book was not a family member or pastor, but Sarah Palin’s publicist.

      I mentioned this to someone who had a FB page entitled, “Evidence Against Atheism.” If that is their best evidence, they aren’t doing a very good job. However, the fans aren’t interested in facts, but rather confirming their own beliefs.

      In response to my polite, well-reasoned response I received something like this: You can choose to believe it or not, but don’t bash it. We have decided to delete you from the group since you always are looking to criticize. Very typical. They couldn’t provide any coherent arguments, so they delete and block. At least such types can’t burn anyone at the stake anymore, but I suspect they would if they could do so with no consequences.

    • MissyM

      Be patient when wronged…like blocking people with whom you disagree? lol

      • chaya1957

        Well, I don’t believe I wronged them, or others of their ilk, because they asked for comments and arguments. However, I’ve concluded that it is a waste of time to try to change anyone’s mind about pretty much anything.

        The reason I, “look to criticize,” is not personal; it is second nature with a background in journalism. The process goes something like this: Gather information in an objective manner. Weigh the sources of the evidence and look for validation or counter-information. Attempt to reach an unbiased conclusion. Of course all of us hold to biases, but the idea is to seek to set those aside.

        Question: Going beyond the style of presentation, do you think that your viewpoint is the true/correct one beyond all reasonable doubt? Is there a possibility that at least some aspect of how you interpret scripture might be limited or misunderstood due to outward influences and inner biases?

        • MissyM

          chaya

          That was for the proprietor of the blog who has refused to engage in theological conversation which me. My challenges are strong and he often is without answers. Hence, the blocking of my posts.

          • chaya1957

            Could I ask which blog that was? I suppose it wasn’t this one 🙂

            • MissyM

              Sadly, yes.

      • chaya1957

        Missy, I noticed there was no reply button to your last comment, although the blog owner did allow your reply.

        I’ve discovered that the only place one can actually dialogue with evangelical Christians is on neutral ground, such as some MOOCs I am taking. There, no one on either side can pull the plug or behave to badly.

    • a.

      Thank you. maybe you could have a contest, with a prize of course, having people guess the exact bazillion # of times the Lord addresses the speech/tongue/mouth in Scripture overall too. I’m thinking He is VERY serious about it all for He says our mouth speaks from that which fills his heart and the tongue is a fire set among our members as that which defiles the entire body and sets on fire the course of our life.

      May our speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that we will know how we should respond to each person. Col 4: 6

    • Dave Z

      Regarding the Timothy reference in the first comment:
      Paul speaks of authority, but authority is a specific thing. It’s defined as “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.”

      Timothy was told to speak with authority because he had authority as the leader of a church, meaning he had God-given authority over a congregation – a group of people.

      I think sometimes people try to speak as if they have authority when in fact they don’t – meaning they aren’t in charge of anything. That happens in churches all the time, when people who are not officially in charge of anything try to throw their weight around in an attempt to get their own way.

      One of the ways people do this (not just in churches, but in any form of interaction, including internet discussions and, I guess, book reviews) is to speak in strong terms, often using a loud voice (or CAPS LOCK) and other mannerisms to make their point; IOW, they attempt to sound as if they have authority, when in fact they have nothing but an opinion.

      In my experience, people who do that often have a somewhat inflated view of their own understanding and importance, which brings us right back to humility.

      It’s always a red flag when “speaking the truth” is divorced from the equally scriptural qualifier, “in love.”

    • Dave Z

      Hmmm. The italics in that last comment didn’t come out quite right, and the (much needed by me) edit feature seems to be gone.
      Anyway, in that second paragraph, the only word that was supposed to be italicized is “had.”

      Sorry if that made it seem less irenic. (I’m trying…) 🙂

    • C J Barton

      And the other side of the coin, perhaps, is the, “way of the nicolaitans.”
      Did you ever have to explain to a child why we brush our teeth? Even so, we also make sure the child brushes, and disregard his objections, however strident! So, we enforce what is necessary, but we also teach so that the child can do it on his own.
      So, I gather that authority includes but does not mean primarily enforcement of a law or code over people. Apostle Paul is emphatic that those who compel to follow the law are abandoning the grace of God in favor of works, so perhaps these nicolaitans were doing just this or similar.
      We defend and proffer the Gospel as the power of God to save souls. Any adulteration or compromise of it is not a full and effective remedy for spiritual death.
      Enforcement of a law does not matter if acceptance of the Gospel is not foremost on the agenda.

    • Truth Unites... And Divides

      “In regard to the above review, the was an excellent review/debunking of the Todd Burpo story, including medical explanations for near death experiences, the possible sources of the boy’s experiences, the fact that medical records stated he didn’t die, evidence the child’s story changed and expanded as he sought to please his audience and that he was coached and that the author of the book was not a family member or pastor, but Sarah Palin’s publicist.”

      Would you provide a link? I’d like to read it.

    • chaya1957

      I hunted and I am sorry I can’t find the original article. But there are a number of good reviews if you google, “Todd Burpo fraud,” or similar terms. Here is one that is pretty good. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/logical-take/201404/is-heaven-is-real-real

      Good article about NDE’s: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2012/12/03/the-death-of-near-death-even-if-heaven-is-real-you-arent-seeing-it/

      http://readitorskipit.blogspot.com/2011/04/book-heaven-is-for-real-by-todd-burpo.html

      I know a bit about Christian publishing. All publishing in the self-help/religious/mass market is sort of a scam. See, often a publishing house will have their ghost writer pen books and get, “names,” to add their, “name,” in order to sell the book. Even when a legitimate book is written, the publishers will quickly have their in-house staff write another, very similar, while the interest is still hot.

      I knew a person, and here I won’t share his name, who wrote his testimony for Logos about 35 years ago with Irene Burke-Harell as ghostwriter. One day she showed him some of her work, and asked what he thought. He said, “Very nice, except it is all fiction.” The ghostwriter had just made interesting stuff up, but this guy wouldn’t allow it to be printed. However, how many do you think go along?

      I remember when my older son was about 3, he came home and told me he got lost in the forest. He had heard a story about a child lost in a forest. This is the way kids view the world.

    • chaya1957

      Sorry, it was a couple years back and I can’t find it. But this should be helpful: http://readitorskipit.blogspot.com/2011/04/book-heaven-is-for-real-by-todd-burpo.html

    • Über Genius

      Not sure how discussion got from tenor of dialog to the falsification of a near-death experience which was just introduced as a bad example. I have conversations about belief in restaurants, bars, bookstores, and smoke shops. 75%+ of my time is spent asking individuals about their views and how they arrived at them. At the right time I may ask why they hold a certain view given the preponderance of the data. But I recognize that in some ways we are two blind men in a room feeling up an elephant. I use terms like “On that view, would x be true,” and “It seems to me that y is the best explanation of the data,” or “My current view on the problem of z is.”

      I am so accommodating of other views that many have thought me to be an Atheist for months before being surprised to find out I am a recovering Fundamentalist (I have to drink and smoke every damn day). But year in and year out they move slowly and then suddenly towards a change in belief. Hmm maybe Michael’s approach is allowing the HS to work rather than quenching same. No, that would be to radical a concept.

    • C J Barton

      Todd Burpo: Well, testimony about what Heaven is “Like” is in no way a reason to alter or modify doctrine, especially the Gospel, which was written in blood on the cross, and carried through the blood of the martyrs for centuries. That’s ridiculous. For real.
      The Gospel, in it’s simple and direct form, is God’s remedy for spiritual death (“You must be born again . . .). It doesn’t matter what someone experiences in life or their preferred conversational style – the Gospel is the same, and the Holy Spirit is what makes it real for others. The “flesh” (man’s human efforts to figure it out) isn’t enough: we need faith also.
      So, if we offer that spiritual meal to be consumed in faith, we are feeding others. If all we do is offer snacks for the flesh, they will starve.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.