Some thoughts on beating bullhorns into plowshares
Sometimes it pays to judge a book by its cover.
Especially if it’s as beautiful and brilliant as that of Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence in a Post-Christian World (by Tim Muehlhoff and Richard Langer of Biola).
The central image is of an upturned bullhorn that been strangely “botanized.” The bell is now a base for flowers; and beauty grows in place of screaching words.
The idea reminds me of Isaiah 2.
In this famous passage, we are promised that, one day, warring nations will beat their “swords” into eternal “plowshares,” and their “spears into pruning hooks” (2.4).
And while that seems a long way off with regard to weaponry, it seems even longer with regard to words.
The book tackles the thorny question of how Christians should speak into a world that is marked increasingly by incivility. (Do I really need to argue this!?)
On social media especially, Deborah Tannen claims that we now inhabit an “Argument culture” that goads us to approach others in a combative frame of mind.
What’s more, Christians (like others) have often stoked these fires through the unfortunate reality of “online dis-inhibition”—the phenomenon that leaves us unrestrained by face-to-face conventions.
(I know, it happened to me once. Okay, twice.)
So what do we do?
While I can’t speak (yet) for the whole of the book, the most helpful facet thus far involves the authors’ three-fold breakdown Christian communication:
- PROPHETIC COMMUNICATION
The prophetic voice is often used as justification when we decide to “Tee off” on a particular issue. The justification is found in Jesus and the Hebrew prophets, who sometimes use strong language to call forth repentance from God’s people (“You brood of vipers!”). Such language has its place.
But according to Winsome Persuasion, the “prophetic voice” is almost entirely ineffective when used on those who do not share our foundational presuppositions. It can rally the base, but to outsiders we merely sound like “bullies with bullhorns.”
In such cases: “Inflammatory rhetoric [breeds] inflammatory responses”—and the cycle continues.
This does not mean, of course, that prophetic speech is useless; but it does call for discernment regarding when it helps, and when it actually makes things worse.
If the danger of “cowardly silence” sits on one side, then the danger of “clanging gongs” sits on the other.
- PASTORAL COMMUNICATION
Second, the pastoral voice “appeals to the shared needs and suffering” of others, and it “offers healing … to those in need.” In such ways, it is crucial in showing others that they are loved.
Yet while pastoral communication lays a relational foundation for transformation, it does not have the power to change minds on specific issues.
It comforts but it rarely converts.
This brings us to the title.
- PERSUASIVE COMMUNICATION
According to the authors, the persuasive voice “appeals to the common good and general revelation” while also seeking to “change viewpoints or practices within the culture.”
It is the practice of a “counterpublic”–a minority culture that nonetheless desires to influence dominant perspectives in order to bring about positive change.
And to do this, civility is key.
In this way, persuasive speech refuses to live in denial about the fact that the culture no longer shares “my” Christian presuppositions. We’re not in Mayberry. Thus what is needed is not simply more volume but rather an appeal to conscience and more broadly shared values.
In this way, winsome persuasion does not cede the public square; but it moves to “botanize the bullhorn” so that it produces more than thorns and thistles.
The trouble (at least for me) is that such persuasion is difficult; it sometimes results in the communicator fielding fire from both sides; and it’s not as fun as ranting.
Likewise, for some of us (including me), winsome persuasion may require a fundamental change in posture.
Flashback: From a young age, it was quite clear that I would never be good at fighting with my fists. My junior high football roster listed me—quite accurately—at a whopping 87 lbs. Even so, it was clear that I had a knack for removing the “blade” from verbal plowshares to serve more sword-like purposes. I was quick with comebacks, snark, and sarcasm. And while that has its uses, it can also cause some problems.
Along such lines, a central claim of Muehlhoff and Langer is that today’s Christians have often chosen “prophetic” language in contexts that would be better served by “persuasive” speech.
“Clearly we have spoken up; the problem seems to be that we have spoken poorly.”
As Vaclav Havel wrote:
There is only one way to strive for decency, reason, responsibility, sincerity, civility, and tolerance, and that is decently, reasonably, responsibly, sincerely, civilly, and tolerantly.
And one might even mount a biblical case for this conclusion.
THE BIBLICAL CASE
In Scripture, the juxtaposition of prophetic and persuasive rhetoric is modeled in a variety of contexts.
Note, for instance, the difference in how Christ speaks to the (ostensibly) Jewish Herod Antipas (“that fox!”) and the way he speaks to Pontius Pilate.
Or note the difference between the way Paul speaks to the pagans of Mars Hill (Acts 17) and the way he speaks to the Judaizers of Galatians (“Hey guys, why stop with circumcision…!? [5.12; my translation]).
There are exceptions, of course, but not as many as one might guess. (Let’s be honest, do we really want to make Elijah’s interaction with the Baal-boys our normative exemplar? It ends with mass execution.)
In the new covenant, Peter calls for the church to make its case to the pagan world “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3.15).
Because while prophetic speech has its place in certain circumstances, I appreciate the call to consider more winsome ways—and to beat some bullhorns into plowshares.
Tim Muehlhoff and Richard Langer, Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence in a Post-Christian World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017).
Tim Muehlhoff is a professor of communication at Biola University; Richard Langer is professor of biblical of biblical and theological studies at Talbot School of Theology
(If you’re in the book, see here.)