Thursday, April 6, 2017

Tactics by Gregory Koukl

On a recent visit to Oakdale Academy in Pontiac, Michigan, I had the pleasure of observing an Apologetics Class. The teacher very generously gave me a copy of the book they were reading and discussing in class - Tactics by Gregory Koukl. The part we read during class was fascinating, so it was easy for me to decide to finish the book. 

This short, easy read was well worth the time. Apparently Gregory Koukl is the go-to apologist, having debated with the best. He has developed tactics to graciously and effectively introduce and defend Christian convictions. Conveniently for me, he has a detailed summary at the end of each chapter. Koukl's aim is to make us twenty-first century ambassadors for Christ. For this we need three skills, knowledge, wisdom, and character. The wisdom part is the main focus of the book. 

Chapter 1 emphasizes diplomacy over all-out warfare. That is the central purpose of the book. He wants to give us tactics that we can use in order to be diplomatic rather than confrontational. While strategy is the big picture, tactics are the methods of accomplishing that strategy. However, we must not think of tactics as tricks or ploys to humiliate. Tactics are rather a way to "gain a footing, to maneuver, and to expose another person's bad thinking so you an guide him to truth." (p. 29)

Some might have reservations about this kind of thing, but Koukl addresses those. First, recognize that arguments are not fights. We should make arguments which advance clear thinking, but we do not need to fight which is not productive. While he recognizes that only God can change a heart, He can use our arguments to change thinking. Jesus and Paul did this all the time. This recognition lifts the burden from us to "convert" people. God does that. Our job is to look for those He is already working in. If we can just "put a stone in someone's shoe," we might cause them to question the beliefs that separate them from God. 

The first tactic he introduces is called "The Columbo Tactic" after the famed T.V. Detective. "There are three basic ways to use Columbo. Each is launched by a different model question. These three applications comprise the game plan I use to tame the most belligerent critic. Sometimes I simply want to gather information. Other times, I ask a question to reverse the burden of proof, that is, to encourage the other person to give the reasons for her own views. Finally, I use the questions to lead the conversation in a specific direction." (p. 49) The beauty of this questioning plan is that you can use it immediately, even before you have time to think through the ramifications of the statement being made. It's easy to start with, "What do you mean by that, exactly?" The benefits of using questions include their use as conversation starters, their interactiveness, the neutrality they offer, the valuable time to think and listen, and the ability for you to control the direction of the conversation. Asking a person to clarify a statement often leads to a recognition that they haven't actually thought through what they do, in fact, mean.

The next question in the Columbo tactic is "Now how did you come to that conclusion?" (p. 61) This puts the burden of proof on the other person. Often we can get tripped up trying to disprove the other person, but often they can disprove themselves when they are unable to provide solid reasons. Remember to let them prove themselves right. It is not my job to prove them wrong. When they offer their explanations, ask yourself, "Is it possible? Is it plausible? Is it probable?" (p. 63) Often these questions will show you an obvious flaw in their thinking. Make sure they offer reasons, not just opinion or stories. This tactic relieves us of having to have all the information required to refute bad thinking. Instead, we are fact-finders. We are not proffering an argument, they are. Make them prove it. 

After using questions to clarify and gather facts, we can use questions to further the conversation in a direction we'd like it to go. For example, when people question our beliefs about salvation or sin, a factual answer can come across as harsh and is certainly incomplete. We use questions to lead to the additional information we need to present. For example, we can ask, "Have you ever committed a moral wrong?" After acknowledging that we all have, we can turn the conversation to a discussion of why we all need Jesus. Another tactic involves using, "Have you considered...?" This one does require some knowledge of where we want to go and how we are going to get there.

Koukl offers three specific ways we can improve our Columbo tactic. First of all, debrief with yourself or someone who was with you as to what happened. Discuss what worked and what didn't. Second, don't let the tactic be used on you. If someone starts with the questions, simply turn it back on them and ask them to make their point as a statement, rather than lead you. Third, when someone asks a question for which they clearly do not want a real response, ask them to simply make their case as a statement or start with the Columbo question, "What do you mean by that?" 

In the second section titled, "Finding the Flaws," Koulk discusses beliefs that self-destruct under a little scrutiny. Some of these he calls Suicide Views - they sow the seeds of their own destruction through self-contradiction. Usually, with a bit of work we can see that a statement says both "A is" and "A is not" within the same statement. For example, "God doesn't take sides." We can ask, "Is God on your side on that one?" Or "Truth cannot be known." Is that true? Both make a clear declaration with an implicit contradiction. The easy way to spot these is to ask if the claim applies to itself. Some of the Suicide views do not self-contradict, but are impossible to act on or promote. They defeat themselves by being impractical. For example one might say, "It is wrong to say people are wrong." But you cannot actually say this without contradicting your own statement. Or "It's wrong to impose your views on another." Isn't that imposing your view?

The next set of self-defeating views he refers to as Sibling Rivalry and Infanticide. Sibling Rivalry are two sets of beliefs, held simultaneously, that contradict. For example often people will believe that a good God would not send people to hell, while at the same time decrying His seeming lack of justice in allowing all the evil to exist in the world. You cannot simultaneously reject a punishing God and also reject Him because He doesn't punish. Infanticide is a belief that contradicts the parent belief that must exist for it to be true. The best example of this is people who do not believe in God because of the existence of evil. However, without a transcendent God to declare what is good and evil, evil cannot exist. Therefore this idea actually makes the case for God.

Next, he encourages us to "Take the Roof Off." This is basically a take on reductio ad absurdum that takes an argument to its logical conclusion. Often a "roof" has been constructed to shield the person from the results of their belief. The first step is to boil a statement down to its basic argument. Then, take a "mental test drive" to see where the principle leads if followed consistently. It may lead to absurd conclusions or obvious contradictions. Finally point this out to the person, asking, "Have you considered where this belief might lead?" He gives the example of Mother Theresa who opposed capital punishment on the grounds that Jesus would forgive. While it is true that Jesus forgives us as we approach Him in repentance, if Jesus forgave criminal liability, then we have no ability to punish anyone for anything. Would Mother Theresa subscribe to that?

Even with the best-laid plans and the most logical arguments, we will encounter those who will not hear what we are saying. Many have emotional reasons that keep them from recognizing the truth of our arguments. Also, we can encounter a "steamroller" which is a person who uses the force of his personality to overwhelm you. The solution for this is to politely ask him to make one point at a time and allow you time to respond. If shaming him into courtesy doesn't work, it's time to leave. 

One tactic the other side uses is to trot out so-called experts to refute the claims of Christianity. Often these people may not have actual expertise in the area their opinion covers. Sometimes they are just wrong or they have let biases color their views. Like anyone else, we must not just take an opinion on face value as accurate, we must ask for reasons. "What an expert believes is not as important as why he believes it. Fancy credentials are not enough. What matters most are not the opinions, but the reasons." (p. 125). Sometimes assertions are made by regular people that sound like they are based on expert testimony. Yet often, the person making the claim cannot back it up with facts. This is what Koukl calls "Just the Facts," as we ask them for the facts that support the statement. While we can always use the Internet to see if the facts check out, often, we can apply the smell test. Does that idea even sound right? However, the best way to counter factual claims are to have our own specific, precise facts handy. This requires advance preparation. 

That kind of advance preparation is advocated by Koukl in a chapter called "More Sweat, Less Blood." He recommends these eight quick tips:
1. Be ready. Look for opportunities.
2. Keep it simple. Have one point of focus and don't rabbit trail.
3. Avoid religious language. This can put people off and cause us to be misunderstood.
4. Focus on the truth of Christianity. Too often we go to the benefits
5. Give reasons. Provide support for your arguments.
6. Stay calm. If a discussion ends with shouting and anger, you lose. 
7. If they want to go, let them leave. It's not longer productive at this point.
8. Don't let them leave empty-handed. Have a business card, website, book, or pamphlet ready to give to the person. 

He encourages us to jump in and engage. Each conversation is a learning opportunity as well as a chance to put a stone in someone shoe. Give people something to think about. They may just do that!

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