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).
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
- 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
- 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.