Last summer was a very significant season for me as far as the evolution of my own character goes. While professing a Christian belief for quite some time, it wasn’t until after a few significant self-realizations that I began to seek out answers to questions that attempted to challenge the Christian-minded individual. In the summer of 2013, two books completely blew me away and changed my world, especially with how I viewed discussing Christian convictions. The first book, Mere Christianity, is undoubtedly the pinnacle of the modern Christian apologetical movement, and being written by an ex-atheist, the book has been blamed for many conversions to Christ – and rightly so. I took the book fairly slowly, because of the amount of information in it (every chapter felt like an overabundant Thanksgiving feast), and the fact that I was forced to meditate on each topic that Lewis wrote about, along with re-reading portions of select chapters before moving on. After reading the last page, I was set on finding similar books dealing in apologetics, especially those from present-day free-thinking Christian individuals.
After placing a couple of titles from Amazon into my online cart, I found that I was short a few dollars for free shipping. On a whim, I ordered Tactics by Gregory Koukl. His name was unfamiliar to me at the time, but the book sounded intriguing. Taken from Amazon.com’s summary blurb:
In a world increasingly indifferent to Christian truth, followers of Christ need to be equipped to communicate with those who do not speak their language or accept their source of authority. Gregory Koukl demonstrates how to get in the driver’s seat, keeping any conversation moving with thoughtful, artful diplomacy. You’ll learn how to maneuver comfortably and graciously through the minefields, stop challengers in their tracks, turn the tables and—most importantly—get people thinking about Jesus. Soon, your conversations will look more like diplomacy than D-Day.
I knew that I was in need of a book like this, and the reviews were solid as well, so I took the chance, and hey, I got my free shipping out of it at least! What I didn’t know was that this book, together with Mere Christianity, would shape my views more than any other work has done before. Well, save for the Bible, which is what the two previous books deal with, of course! Never before had an impulse buy worked so many wonders.
To give some background, for a long while I had the knowledge that a Christian should have, but I didn’t have the necessary wisdom nor the appropriate character to discuss the truth about the Gospel and what the Bible actually teaches with deniers, skeptics, and unbelievers alike. I had a few friends that were either professed agnostics or atheists, and even some who had become what I call a “denier” – that is, someone who grew up with select Biblical knowledge forced upon them by either family members or private religious schools, and who are currently rebelling against their previous tutelage, yet still holding on to select Christian beliefs that they can fit into their secular lifestyle. I have had quite a few conversations with these friends in the past – some fruitful, some barren – but there was one constant throughout all of them: I never felt 100% comfortable with sharing my faith, nor did I feel like I had the necessary answers that were needed. It wasn’t that I believed the answers never existed – quite the opposite – it was just that I lacked the reasoning to get to that point, and I hardly felt like I connected with the acquaintances that I spoke with. I feel I can share a whole separate post on how I got to the point where I’m at right now with this, which is a complete 180 spin from where I was just a year ago, but that’s not what this post is about.
Since last summer, I’ve been running the conversational techniques I’ve learned from Koukl’s works, along with other Tactics reasoners like Brett Kunkle, J. Warner Wallace, Frank Turek, and Alan Shlemon, through the paces. I’ll just go on the record here and say that they’ve been working absolute wonders, especially in the realm of face-to-face, one-on-one conversations. However, a few nights ago I attempted to use the techniques in what I hoped to be an online discussion, and was met with some interesting resistance. In the following paragraphs, I will be deconstructing this conversation, taking a step back and critiquing not only the persons I was speaking with, but also my own comments that I posted to keep the conversation running. One thing I want to mention is that by no means do I believe I’m nailing these tactics 100% – I’m still somewhat a newbie in the Ambassadors for Christ collective, and I know that only with practice and prayerful meditation will I be able to raise my success ratio; hence, the main reason for critiquing this conversation after it has cooled. My prayer is that those who read this post are able to learn not only how to expose the holes in the “logic” presented in this example, but to also learn from what mistakes I made and are able to dodge those for themselves in the future.
[To see screencapped images of this online conversation in order to gain context, please click on the links found within the paragraphs below.]
The conversation began when an acquaintance of mine on Facebook (yes, Facebook – you may know where this is going already!) shared an image that, as you can see here, didn’t quite feel like it was firing on all cylinders, so to speak. We will get into why later on, but for now, look at it and come to your own conclusions before going forward with this post.
On first glance, I took this as a great first step into a discussion about morality. The “good person” argument is frequently used in our culture, and it’s something that Christians need to be able to address properly to those that think being “good” is, well, good enough. But first, in order to explain this, we need to find where the person who spouts this kind of statement really believes, if they believe anything for certain. Instead of doing what the rest of the Facebook world does when they find something they disagree with, offering their own counter-statement, the Ambassador needs to be willing to listen and gain more insight into the person’s character. We do this by asking questions, which is the first tactic Koukl teaches. He calls this the Columbo tactic, named after the famous TV detective who was known for asking his suspects plenty of questions – questions that may not seem all that important at the moment, but after a series of them, it leads Columbo in solving all of his cases by the episode’s end. Effective, yet when questioned, the suspects first feel reassured during the initial questioning, but soon become increasingly irritated with Columbo’s questions. Keep that in mind as we continue on with this conversation.
Oh yes, I almost forgot: Here is the question that I asked. In beginning the conversation, my intent behind this opening question was to see if my acquaintance (let’s give him the name of Garth), the reposter of the image, could give me a clear definition of “good,” since the original illustrator of the image wasn’t exactly clear or without bias on what “good” really was.
What happened next was fairly interesting. My acquaintance didn’t answer, but one of his friends did. To the Ambassador, this opens up an even broader range of effectiveness – Ambassadors need to comprehend that we will never know who is reading or listening in on the conversation you’re having, making it all the more important to keep your reasoning sound and your character in check. The first reply from (let’s go ahead and give him the name of Wayne, as identities save for my own will be blurred out for privacy) Wayne stated that going to church and praying doesn’t make a person “good.” That I can completely agree with! However, his follow-up statement was even broader than the image’s statement: “Doing good things makes one a good person,” and that people who do good things tend to be a good person. Not only does this not even begin to answer the original question I posed about what defines “good,” but a key word in this statement poses a loophole in Wayne’s reasoning: tend.
Tend, defined as “regularly or frequently behave in a particular way or have a certain characteristic,” isn’t exactly the right word to use for defining something else. Tend, by definition, doesn’t mean something is a particular way 100% of the time – just regularly or frequently. I kept this in mind as I posed my next question. In order to know something is “good,” there needs to be something to judge the “goodness” by, right? A standard, if you will – and I wanted to know from Wayne where he believed the standard came from.
Before Wayne could answer, however, it was Garth’s turn to come up to the plate. To Garth’s credit, in his statement, he poses the objection I had with the image above, and points out the bias in which the image had. Garth realizes that, “…she appears to have come from a Christian faith…” and goes on to state what Christians shouldn’t do. Again, something I agree with – no, a true Christian should not do the things this character did in the image. However, my question to this is, why did the church have a cross? Why did it show the girl in a pew praying with a cross in the background? This betrays the illustrator’s intentions, clearly displaying a bias against Christianity – not portraying simply a religious individual doing all of the activities. No, this person had to be a Christian. Coming from an artistic and non-biased standpoint, how hard would it have been to take the cross off of the building, and have the character raising her arms up in the air, eyes closed, with a group of other individuals doing the same thing? All religions seem to participate in a meditating or prayer manner like the example I gave at some point, so why not be fair to all religions in the cartoon instead of singling out Christianity?
Because that would be too difficult. Instead, the artist committed to illustrating one of the biggest Straw Man fallacy statements that those against religious beliefs usually make. For those that are new to the term, the Straw Man fallacy is when an opposing viewpoint builds up something with loaded, usually negative, qualities, and then attempts to knock it down – hence, the “straw.” Essentially, it is a misinterpretation of the opponent’s position, which is something that the illustrator seemed to throw himself upon willingly. As I stated earlier, no true Christian would believe that the qualities displayed by this character in the cartoon were true Christian qualities. Garth continued on with this fallacy, as he writes, “its not something against Christianity but those that tote a bible and fail to follow through.” Since Christians are the ones that “tote” Bibles, I would reason that it is, in fact, a jab at Christianity and not religion as a whole – a hidden objective made by the original illustrator, but also betrayed by Garth’s statement. We will return to the Straw Man point momentarily.
Wayne was back up to the plate by this time. A Christian with basic knowledge about their faith would be able to see the holes riddled through the statement he made to follow up Garth’s, but the one thing I decided to latch onto was the “cultural” or “societal” differences in what defines “good.” At this point, I really wanted to know what Wayne’s definition of “good” was, because from what he began to describe seemed to be from a relativistic standpoint. The empty statement about being “kind” and “nice” was what made people “good” didn’t do “good” justice enough. On a side note, I found it entertaining that the examples Wayne used for being universally bad were “gossiping” and “bullying,” not something like, I don’t know, murder or theft.
Which I brought up in my next reply. With Wayne stating that some things were universal, he (unknowingly) made the claim that there is, in fact, a standard, which is one of the main things that I wanted to bring up in the conversation. To emphasize this, I offered the example I did above about murder and theft, and a universal standard. But in order to zero-in on what they truly believed, and in order to expose the hole in their collective logic, I knew I had to call upon Columbo once more, offering the question: “How many times do you have to break the law to be considered guilty?”
There’s really only one answer for this, and this should lead you into the proper train of thought to come to the conclusion of what people truly are – and we will get to that in a moment. However, this is where the conversation takes the inevitable ugly turn. Remember what I posted about earlier about Columbo’s suspects getting irritated by his questioning (which usually happened when they began to feel their protection being stripped away)? Guess what? It happened.
It was interesting to see from Wayne (the first poster in the last image) how he managed to backtrack and say that he hadn’t made any “hard or fast” definitions – he was right. In fact, he hadn’t made any definitions at all, completely dodging the question I posed! With the double-whammy, he also gives away that he knows that I’m leading the conversation at this point towards a conclusion, but before waiting for the train to get to that destination, he decides to jump off, still keeping to his original statements, and claiming ignorance on what my statements were “getting at.” Patience was clearly not a virtue any longer, and with the following reply from Garth, neither was respect. Garth also fails to see where the series of questions I’ve posed are headed, and also jumps off of the train – not without metaphorically tripping over himself beforehand, offering a backhanded insult instead of a reasonable reply. At this point, if there is any audience, they have seen that Garth is without merit at this point. Why? In these kinds of conversations (or debates, as those uncomfortable with respectful, reasonable conversation tend to call them), the first one to resort to this kind of verbal behavior is the first one to “lose” said argument, or debate. Unfortunately, what was quite a respectable conversation, especially by Facebook’s usual standards, had just taken a critical blow.
To offer up some background freely, this wasn’t the first rodeo I have had with Garth, on or off of Facebook. I will state, however, that in the past it was I who had turned the conversation ugly with my own frustration. I have said things that I have regretted more than once, and without getting into too much detail, I wanted to learn from my mistakes. Character is one of the most important features that Christian Ambassadors have – without that, we’re just like the rest of the noise. Much like our acquaintance, Garth, has succumbed to once more.
I am not sure what Garth meant by “raising [rising]” above “it,” but I knew one thing – Garth had lost my respect, and therefore, I certainly wasn’t going to give dogs what was sacred, or cast pearls before the swine. I have witnessed my knowledge and wisdom given out trampled, and I have been turned on and tore to pieces. If there is one thing that I have learned from the conversational techniques I have studied, it is that a Garth loses the right to take part in a conversation once he has thrown dirt. Before, I used to try and press my advantage, trying to prove whatever it was that I was saying was true was in fact true, or trying to prove myself. The fact is, the advantage has already been given to you once something like this has happened in a conversation, and you’re on the bad end of an acquaintance’s choice of language. Knowing this, I turned my attention to Wayne, who hadn’t yet followed Garth’s example.
Since I had an inkling the conversation was undoubtedly coming to a disrespectful close, I began to make my final statements. If Wayne genuinely wanted to know where I was going with my statements, I would give it to him. However, I wasn’t expecting a whole lot of reason behind a follow-up reply, if there was one.
So I made my statement. It was long, yet concise. However, I fear that I let a bit of my frustration leak into my words, albeit not in a disrespectful manner, but loud enough that someone looking for negativity would have been able to catch it. The first comment I made was my statement to Garth’s reply that, in essence, I would not be speaking to Garth for the rest of the conversation that followed. I also pointed out the hypocrisy that could be seen between Wayne’s comments about bullying being “universally bad” and what had just happened to me from Garth. The question is, should I have said anything in regards to this? Looking back on it, probably not. The statement from Garth spoke loud enough, and I didn’t really need to prove any sort of hypocrisy behind it – anyone looking at the comment objectively could see that. The lack of reason and respect was something I wanted to point out, especially since we were talking about what makes good “good,” but I probably shouldn’t have said anything in reply to Garth, and have just let the silence speak for itself. Again, I don’t believe I said anything equally disrespective, but I don’t believe I added anything to the conversation by letting my frustration out, even just that little bit. What really irks me is that I knew a statement like that would be coming from Garth, as it has many, many times before, yet I still played it out objectively, as if an audience didn’t know the personal history that Garth and I shared. Regardless, let’s move on.
Wayne made a couple of statements that I, in fact, agreed with, to a certain extent. In order to make progress on the conversation, an Ambassador needs to be able to establish common ground with the person they’re talking to, especially when they don’t know them personally. By telling them openly and honestly that you agree with them (and yes, there will be things that even Christians can agree with atheists on!), it should and usually will progress the conversation in a manner that proves to be much more fruitful than if no common ground was established at all. I’ve had plenty of conversations go without any common ground being had, and I’ve seen the power of “common ground” work wonders – I’m definitely subscribed to it. However, when establishing common ground, you can’t compromise the position you hold which you believe is true. Finding common ground with someone on one point does not mean you agree with them on their overall point or on all of their points. In my conversation with Wayne, I made sure to let him know what I agreed with him on, yet asking him to establish his overall position more clearly.
However, it had gotten to the point now where Wayne had grown impatient with me, asking me to “make my statement.” I obliged him of this, but not without telling him that I was upset that I wasn’t allowed the courtesy to understand where Wayne was coming from more accurately. I was quite disappointed and afraid at this point, because without knowing exactly where Wayne, in this instance, was coming from, I was running the risk of building up a Straw Man, which we discussed earlier.
Was I a little snippy with my remarks? Looking at them objectively right now, I probably was. I let my frustration creep out a bit more than I should have, even though everything I said was very honest, and in my opinion, not insulting or intellectually vulgar (as odd as that description is). What I should have done was not have given Wayne nor Garth my time to properly address them after they posted their last comments, especially since I had a strong feeling about where this conversation would end.
However, I had the end game in mind. I was still thinking of those that may be reading this conversational thread – those that may have genuinely wanted to hear what I was “getting at.” In any group atmosphere, you will almost always have a silent attentive person that you may not think is paying attention to what’s going on or what’s being said, but they turn out to be the most attentive one of all. I pushed forward, whether it was the right decision or not, because of the potential for my words to affect someone’s life in a meaningful way. I ran the risk…
…and I took the fall. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say “fall…” Again, I must stress that I knew where this was going to go, but while Wayne shifted blame onto me for where the conversation went (instead of simply answering the questions I had asked earlier), he said a few things that were quite interesting. One of them was exactly what I had wished to get out of the conversation, and at least one of them betrayed Wayne’s initial aspirations about what he wanted out of this “conversation.”
Wayne makes the claim that I used “tricks” to direct the discussion. This is the first time that someone has called this kind of maneuvering as “tricks” to me, personally. I have heard the term “tricks” being used before when someone has lost their way in a debate, but only when they’ve obviously lost a significant amount of ground. It is quite apparent that Wayne knew something was up in this conversation, and wasn’t quite comfortable in dealing with it. Instead of seeing where the train went, he made the decision to jump off, and then in this admission, essentially waved as the train thundered on. Ambassadors, the conversational tactics you use may be considered “tricky” by critics, but there are differences between tricks and simply trying to get to know a person better so one may avoid hiccups like what happened in this example. Was I directing the conversation we were having? Apparently so – Wayne admits to it, also essentially admitting there was no other structure to be had but what I was giving. Was he comfortable with it? Certainly not, judging from his words. Why this is, I do not know, taking this statement at its value alone. I don’t know if Wayne has ever entered into a conversation with a stranger where the stranger attempted to actually get to know his position better than he was initially giving. I don’t know if it was his own discomfort with his lack of knowledge (or should I say, more accurately, his relativistic standpoint) on the topic. Regardless, it clearly rubbed him the wrong way.
To go along with this, Wayne also admits to going into this conversation with the mindset of someone being right and someone being wrong. This has been the unwritten Facebook creed for many a year, now – conversational manner never flourishes properly in the social networking world. In the realm of selfish pedestal creation, everyone seems to try and put themselves up on a higher level than even the people they call “friends.” Conversation? Nope, let the biased one-sided images/memes speak for themselves, and anyone who finds error or disagrees with them be damned (what’s even more amusing about this is that it usually comes from the side of those that profess their “tolerance” for everyone – funny, that).
However, it was his last statement which stood out to me: “You made some decent points, especially concerning intent behind actions.” Ambassadors, this is what you want to hear. As Ambassadors for Christ, you don’t want to necessarily “plant the seed,” as many Christians will tell you to do. No, defending the faith doesn’t mean winning someone to Christ. If we can successfully place a “stone in their shoe,” as Greg Koukl states so well, then each time they take a step in the direction they go, they’ll feel the discomfort of that stone. The point I made about intent behind actions was my stone. Did I know what words of mine would be the metaphorical stone? I had no idea. However, this goal of mine was set, and I’m happy that Wayne, although sounding very frustrated, decided to give me this bit of information. My only hope and prayer now is that he seeks to follow that trail on his own time and come to the only sensible conclusion that can be had about this topic.
What about Garth, you may ask? Well, Garth wasn’t done just yet. Regardless of if I was speaking to him again or not, he decided he had more to say – this time about, surprisingly enough, the Straw Man fallacy. I won’t spend much time on Garth’s reply here because it simply doesn’t deserve the deconstruction. I just found it very amusing that someone who professes to know about the Straw Man fallacy and thinks it is “bad” also thought it important enough that he share an image that exemplified the fallacy in such a basic manner!
I posted one last comment, which essentially addressed some of Wayne’s flawed objections to the last statement I typed. But it was my last paragraph that was the main intent of my final statement. After reading my comments, I was realizing I had let a bit of my frustration through, and admitted to that – something that neither Wayne nor Garth had done. I politely asked Wayne what exactly was it about my behavior that he thought was off-putting. To give him credit, Wayne kept his pseudo-promise and did not pick up the thread any further – most likely thinking my last statement to him was yet another “trick,” even though my last paragraph wasn’t even about the main subject of the thread (more of a “Comment Card,” in which he could have critiqued me all he wanted). I was genuinely interested in where I may have gone wrong with my words to him, but his silence on the matter actually told me more than was necessary.
There will always be the person that wants to get the last word, and this person was, as per the norm, Garth. Acknowledging that I deciphered the manner of his aggressive words, Garth “apologizes,” stating that he was sorry that I found his comments insulting, not that it actually was insulting, or that he was sorry he even said them. Fortunately, I can sense when a word or series of words is meant to be insulting (usually very obvious, especially from my personal past histories with Garth) without actually being personally insulted. Since I knew something of that caliber was eventually going to come from Garth, as they had come many times before, my own defenses were already built up to it. Unfortunately, if there’s one thing I can’t exactly stand by and let happen, it’s hypocrisy, and I found Garth’s statements fairly hypocritical, especially regarding the image that he posted. In his last sentence, Garth also brandishes his ego one last time before departing from the conversation – also something that I am used to, and fortunately was able to let slide. A year ago, I probably may have called him out on this behavior on his public wall in this thread, which wouldn’t have been a great thing for either of us, honestly.
The conversation subsided after that point. There were a couple of follow up replies – both from people who wielded quotes they found from a Google search and copy+pasted (with the formatting giving it away), but honestly, anyone can read quotes from other writers. When I’m engaged with someone, I want to know what *they* think, not what someone else thinks verbatim.
One last thing that I would like to state: I never once came to this conversation from a blatantly “Christian” angle. Not once did I mention Christ, or God, or religion (especially Christianity) – I went into this conversation purely from a non-religious standpoint. Now, was my goal to eventually move it to a religious discussion? Yes, it was, and that’s where the proper usage of tactics will lead you, but I knew it wouldn’t help my cause if I came in frantically waving the Christian “flag,” so to speak. I wanted to leave that aspect out of it, and solely focus on the topic at hand, which was “what is ‘good.'” Sure, both Wayne and Garth attempted to throw Christianity on the table, but that would have been ad hominem. It’s very important to be concise with these discussions, cutting out the fat that inevitably builds up as one progresses.
If you’ve read up until this point, I sincerely congratulate you. I have a few more Tactical Deployments in mind that I would love to write about – these about face-to-face encounters! However, I wanted to start with this one for a few reasons. One, because of Wayne and Garth’s easy-to-decipher statements, and two, I discovered something in this conversation. I am not sure if the Columbo tactic can work in an internet forum atmosphere, where people are allowed time to think up of ways to dodge the questions the Ambassador delivers. Questions work best in a face-to-face atmosphere, which I will detail at a later date. That being said, I believe this may have been the last time that I participate in an online thread discussion, especially on the Facebook wall of an acquaintance which I know has had a history of being bullish to his own acquaintances. Now here, on my blog? That’s a different story – my house, my rules. But as far as social network pages or threads go, that aren’t confined to a respectful group atmosphere (which actually do exist on Facebook!), I believe this was my grand exit. And to be very, very honest, I don’t believe I will miss it.
I am, however, interested in what you, reader, have to say about either my performance (especially that) or the performances given from Wayne and Garth, and if you can find other hiccups in their statements that I may have missed. I only ask that this be an example of what to do and what not to do when having conversations like this (and this goes for both sides!). Until then, I hope your party time is excellent!