Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence in a Post-Christian 409 World

Tim Muehlhoff and Richard Langer
Published by IVP Academic in 2017

My own experience is that churchgoers, after hearing that I teach students how to speak for a living, usually do one of two things: they make a joke about how I must be evaluating their diction as they sip their coffee in the fellowship hall, or they offer up an enthusiastic variant on the phrase, “Nothing’s more important than communication!” It is a little hard to know what is meant by this exclamation. Because communication constitutes our moment-by-moment experience, this exclamation sounds a little as if people are saying, “Nothing’s more important than everything!” But after reading Winsome Persuasion, my hunch is that for most churchgoers, “communication” feels like a subject in which elements of the strategic and the relational mingle with a reassuring indistinguishability. To talk of communication is to talk of What We are Trying to Do (which this book refers to as content concerns), but it is also to address How We Are Trying to Do It (which this book calls relational concerns). Collapsing the tactical into the therapeutic effectively sanctifies communication as a beloved topic for people of faith and, come to think of it, for people more broadly in democratic societies. Communication historian John Durham Peters would say that late-modern citizens everywhere have made it an ecumenical article of faith that communication can solve all problems. Muehlhoff and Langer share some of this hopefulness, but they wisely urge churchgoers to rethink the way they talk about talk.

Winsome Persuasion responds to recent ethnocentric eruptions within the American electorate generally and within evangelical Christian ranks specifically. Drawing on an impressive range of rhetorical scholarship, the authors suggest that Christian communities can and should counter the angry, reactive rhetorics stoked during the 2016 presidential election cycle with thoughtful, empathetic dialogue. What I like best about this book is that it addresses communication theory and practice not individualistically, but ecclesially. Muehlhoff and Langer counsel Christians to practice speech, not just as artful speakers, but as members of the Church. What might have been merely a guide for “how you can win arguments and close the deal,” becomes in these authors’ hands a smart and resourceful redescription of the Church as a “counterpublic” of wise conversationalists. Instead of trying to take over the public, the authors encourage Christians to be the Church as courageous, compassionate, and artfully spoken alternative communities among all the contentious publics that make up late-modern society.

The book proceeds in three movements. First, Muehlhoff and Langer discuss concepts integral to the project, especially the notion of counterpublicity. Here they draw on theoretical work by Nancy Fraser, Robert Asen, and Daniel Brouwer in order to define an alternative community that feels excluded from some of the convictions and privileges of its own society and yet manages to challenge majority culture norms both carefully and ethically. Muehlhoff and Langer assert, “Ultimately, the church is intended to be God’s counterpublic … and as much as possible we advocate carrying out the activities of a counterpublic through the local church” (42). Winsome Persuasion calls churchgoers to oppose what these authors call (borrowing the phrase of sociolinguist Deborah Tannen) the “argument culture” of American society; they need to cultivate dialogue and alliances even with people with whom they profoundly disagree. All along the way, the authors include historical models for such communicative practice that seeks the common good.

To help Christians develop these qualities of communicative wisdom, the second section of the book offers advice for designing artful messaging in a time of radical rancor. Some parts of this section read rather like a conventional speech textbook, proffering advice on “crafting your message,” “selecting an audience,” and “delivering your message.” At the same time, the authors strengthen this potentially prosaic fare by appeal to substantive rhetorical scholarship. For example, they draw on the resourcefulness of Professor Lloyd Bitzer’s “rhetorical situation” to discuss the conduct of difficult conversations today. At every turn, they counsel the Church to be a counterpublic alert not just to the content elements of doctrine, but also the relational elements of loving one’s neighbor as oneself.

The third section of the book addresses “pressing questions for Christian counterpublics,” especially questions pertaining to the 2015 Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that struck down state bans on same-sex marriage. Acknowledging that Christian responses to this decision have ranged pretty widely, the authors offer what might be called counterpublic counsels for defending historic notions of heterosexual marriage while engaging larger and more ideologically diverse publics. Muehlhoff, for example, recommends offering counseling services to same-sex couples who struggle with bitterness and anger: “when those who are considering our argument for traditional marriage show signs of moving into relational crisis or are in crisis, we should respond with both material and relational help” (159). Langer, for his part, recommends that the Church busy itself not so much countering gay activism or progressive elitism as evangelical individualism: the concept of a soul-mate marriage comes under special criticism for seeking mutual satisfaction rather than offering self-giving love. In other words, Langer argues, the most immediate exigence after the Obergefell decision of 2015 is not that same-sex couples can now get married, but rather that heterosexual couples have romanticized and individualized and generally rendered their union incoherent. The book concludes with a dialogue negotiating differences between the authors on how Christians should communicate after Obergefell.

I am not surprised that Winsome Persuasion, a book abounding in references to communication as conversation and dialogue, itself culminates conversationally. Were I invited to a coffeeshop conversation with the authors, though, I would want to know what role non-conversational communication might have in Christian faithfulness. I am thinking of those experiences of exchange that are not tightly boundaried, when speakers and hearers are constantly switching places, when messages take on lives of their own. To put the matter more bibliographically, I want to say to Muehlhoff and Langer, “I see the scholarship you draw on for discussing counterpublics, but—where’s Michael Warner?” I expect they would nod knowingly: anyone who has read up on counterpublicity will quickly recall Warner’s much-admired book Publics and Counterpublics (Zone Books, 2002). I expect, too, that my Where’s-Warner question would sound like an irritating scholarly quibble, or perhaps like the fallback tactic of a desperate book reviewer trying to find something to say about a competently written book. But let me take a gulp of joe, yank my chair in closer to the coffee shop table, and defend my potentially annoying question.

Warner’s way of thinking about counterpublics spots something that I believe is largely overlooked by a conversational approach to communication: the moral challenges and possibilities inherent in digital circulation. Even when Winsome Persuasion addresses social media discourse, the book tends not to think of this discourse as a circulation, but as a conversation: “What makes our current communication climate so challenging is that issues are also being discussed in a million virtual coffeehouses across the world” (22). In contrast to this reference to discussion (so closely akin to conversation and dialogue), Warner sees counterpublics not as discussional groups or dyads, but as diffuse collectives united by attention to similar discourses. Late-modern members of the Church, I would argue, enjoy communication with Old Testament prophets, not by virtue of interchanging dialogic standpoints, but rather by virtue of shared engrossment with Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God. Yes, but is this communication? But what else do we mean by the communion of the saints?

My sense is that Muehlhoff and Langer, whose book regularly addresses issues related to social media, would see digital communication as a species of interchange in which artful rhetoric is no less important than in school board or park district meetings. But isn’t something in excess of dialogue and discussion nonetheless apparent in our sometimes quite dizzy sense that community is unmanageably dynamic, diffuse, and decentered? Don’t we often feel bewildered today, not just by multifarious standpoints, but rather by the multi- directionality of our starting points? Doesn’t it make sense that contemporary rhetoricians increasingly construe our communicative exchanges as communicative ecologies?

Viral circulations, I hasten to add, do more than create ethical challenges; they also help us notice aspects of Christian teaching that our conversational models of communication overlook. For example, what are scriptural texts but discourses that have burst forth from their immediate rhetorical situations to engage unimaginably far-removed participants? (I am indebted here to my colleague Bethany Keeley-Jonker, who discusses these ideas in a Spring 2018 Christian Scholar’s Review book review on Deanna A. Thompson’s The Virtual Body of Christ.) If Winsome Persuasion enjoys a follow-up volume, I wonder how the authors might expand their discussion of counterpublics to address the ethical challenges and the confessional possibilities of virality in the often boundaryless and centerless spaces of our digital lives, not to mention in the infinitely extensive discourse of the Church that, as the writer of Ephesians puts it, embodies the fullness of Christ who fills all in all.

Craig E. Mattson

Trinity Christian College
Craig E. Mattson is the director of the Communication Arts and Honors Program at Trinity Christian College.