Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions
Student Anthony Holdier reviews Tactics for the Denver Journal
Gregory Koukl. Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009. 208 pages. Softcover, $14.99. ISBN: 0310282926.
The modern world has the mentality of a toddler. With the rise of both scientific and philosophical naturalism, and the contemporaneous secularization of public life, the whole of human experience is now assumed to be fully explainable and completely comprehensible by the pointless creatures crawling around on a particular rock in the middle of a meaningless universe. To remove all but material reality from the realm of polite conversation is to promote thinking humanity to the top of the intellectual pyramid; we have made ourselves the measure of all things. And like a two-year-old playing its infantile game, the modern thinking person now finds it fully appropriate to perpetually ask “Why? And why that? And why that?” on into infinity, as though human cognition knows no limits in its quest to satiate its hunger for understanding its predicament. Humanity desires answers; in his book, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions, Gregory Koukl describes how to provide them.
Recognizing the recent renaissance in Christian philosophy that has produced bookcases full of works on apologetic content, Koukl’s book seeks to fill a perceived void in the methodology for incorporating such material into daily conversations and interactions. While he uses the words “game plan” in his subtitle, the book is essentially a manual filled with detailed descriptions and examples of various conversational tactics that allow one to maintain control of an exchange and be effective ambassadors for Christ; as Koukl says, “I have taught these concepts to thousands of people like you and equipped them with the confidence and ability to have meaningful, productive conversations about spiritual things” (p. 24). The tactics themselves are not “manipulative tricks or slick ruses” (p. 27) that are designed to make one’s interlocutor look foolish, but rather are techniques that can help the thoughtful Christian present the most winsome case for his or her faith. Koukl’s tactics are tools to help Christian reason shine as they “guide you in arranging your resources in an artful way” (p. 26).
Without question, the most important of Koukl’s tactics is what he spends roughly sixty pages describing in the first half of the book: Columbo. As the bedrock for much of his methodology, this tactic aims at forcing one’s opponent into fully participating in the conversation. Frequently, challengers to a position will use all manner of vagaries and generalities to lob critiques while never distinctly clarifying their own position; Columbo offers a way to honestly coax out the other position so that an honest discussion can ensue and no straw men need be attacked. Firstly, it is important to ask questions. Conversations often begin with an implicit presupposition that both parties share a common understanding of the subject matter; rather than assume what the other person genuinely thinks, Columbo reminds us to ask them to explicitly describe their position. Koukl describes this as “gathering information” (p. 49) so that a useful interchange can take place and points out that the opportunity to initiate this falls within a short time window immediately following a point of contention. For example, shortly after a critique is mentioned, the classic Columbo question should quickly be brought out: what do you mean by that? Koukl argues that this query allows the Christian to assume control of the conversation and steer it towards a God-glorifying end.
Indeed, Columbo does not merely sweep a conversation for data; after one takes the reigns of the interchange, and pulls on one’s opponent to clarify the “what” of his or her position, Koukl describes how questions can then be used to shift the burden of proof onto the criticizer. A question like “How did you come to think that?” or “Why did you conclude such a thing?” require a critic not only to describe their position, but also to defend it. Frequently, it is assumed that a critic need only point out flaws in a position in order to “win” the debate, but as Koukl says “whoever makes the claim bears the burden [of proof]…It’s not your duty to prove him wrong. It’s his duty to prove his view” (p. 59). Even a claim of disbelief is still a claim that requires reasons to be offered as evidence of its saliency.
However, the question-asking method of Columbo does not simply provide a method for forcing a critic to offer such reasons for a claim, but can thirdly be used as a platform for starting to make one’s own case. Koukl spends an entire chapter describing the value of asking “leading questions” that operate on the content gleaned from steps one and two of Columbo to cast doubt on the position’s cogency (p. 72). A question that begins with “Have you considered…” can make great strides towards pointing out a logical misstep in a critic’s thought. This is certainly the most difficult use of Columbo, for it requires the Christian to have a solid grasp of where the conversation should follow – it does not rely on the belief of the critic, but on that of the Christian. Taken all together, Columbo allows a Christian to turn the tables on the criticizer and shine a light on the weakness of the opposite position by honestly engaging it on its terms and showing how it self-destructs.
Most of the other tactics that Koukl describes revolve around how positions do, in fact, self-destruct. These tactics function less as a “game plan” than as elements of an opponent’s position that should be sought out and brought out into the light. For example, the tactic of Suicide seeks to show that a claim is self-refuting; as Koukl says, “if it’s true, then it’s false” (p. 107). A claim like “objective truth does not exist” assumes itself to be objectively true and therefore, in Koukl’s terms, commits suicide. While many claims are suicidal on the basis of logic and their violation of the law of non-contradiction, some claims are practically suicidal: while they carry no inherent contradiction in terms, they can never be promoted without being contradicted (p. 121). For example, an argument that someone should not condemn another person cannot be offered without condemning another person (namely, the original “condemner”), so the position commits pragmatic suicide (p. 123). If the Christian can ever show that his or her opponent’s position operates on these fallacies, and that Christianity does not, then the Gospel message will always clearly be the better choice.
By design, Koukl’s book focuses on equipping the responsible, thoughtful believer with a toolkit for effective ministry; in this regard, a particularly relevant portion of his manual is found in his last three chapters on the tactics themselves. In his description of the tactics “Rhodes Scholar” and “Just the Facts, Ma’am,” he stresses the importance of not only knowing the facts of the subject matter, but forcing the conversation to stay within their confines. Though it may seem to some to be a high calling to know even the minute details of apologetic content, it is unquestionably a powerful conversational move to clearly and succinctly offer the factual information that cannot be denied rather than operate within a vague fog of “some scientist said…” or “I read somewhere that…” Winsome Christians know what they are talking about, even down to the names and dates of who said what. Regardless of the availability of information via technology and the internet, true education involves the absorption and contemplation of the things that matter most. As Koukl points out, possessing genuine knowledge and being able to discuss it on command is also a powerful element of an effective apologetic.
Indeed, Koukl’s book offers many useful lessons that Christians of all stripes can benefit from; his observations help to carry the nervous Christian apologist to where faith and practice meet. In every chapter, Koukl offers pointed practical advice for how to engage with a non-believer, from short and sweet maxims (pp. 189-191) to chapter-length discussions on real-life situations (such as when the other person grows angry or belligerent, pp. 159-165).
All the while, Koukl reminds us that it is never up to a believer to save a soul; as he says, his goal is merely to “put a stone in someone’s shoe” (p. 38), that is, to give someone something to think about. It is always and only the Holy Spirit that draws new believers into His kingdom; the best an apologist can hope for is to nudge someone in that general direction. Knowing Koukl’s tactics will only help us to do precisely that by making it easier to give an answer for the hope that we have – an answer that this world is looking for.