Book Review: How To Argue Like Jesus

How To Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion From History’s Greatest Communicator, by Joe Carter and John Coleman

The result of a collaboration between two first-time published authors, this book is difficult to fully appreciate. It is a book about which there is much to praise, if one is a passionate communicator who wishes to learn rhetorical principles from the Gospels, and who takes the example of Jesus Christ particularly seriously. That said, the approach of the authors in many cases leaves this reader feeling a bit uncomfortable about the agendas the authors are working from. As a result, this is a book full of practical comments and some wisdom, but a book that one cannot wholeheartedly recommend because of the difficulties one has in trusting the writers as to the purposes for which they turn their interest in rhetoric. As a whole, this book reads like a guide to speaking well from the perspective of the Greeks, from a clear Hellenistic Christian perspective, and moreover a Social Gospel perspective heavy on hostility to human authorities [1] and deliberately revolutionary in its intents. This book is an unusual one in that it simultaneously praises multi-level marketing schemes like Amway and hierarchical approaches of teaching teachers and building revolutionary cells, praising Daily Kos and the growth of Communism, while seeking to baptize these deliberately provocative and revolutionary intents in the language of biblical Christianity.

Yet these efforts do not wholly succeed because the authors themselves have no strong tie to the inerrancy of scripture even as they admiringly quote Paul’s admonition to Timothy that all scripture is God-breathed. The authors seem to want to have it both ways, to seek scriptures to justify their own perspective, and support their own hostility to various human authorities while simultaneously wishing to distance themselves from scripture whenever its laws or admonitions are inconvenient. This dishonorable and underhanded use of rhetoric, furthermore, cuts against the fundamental purpose of this book, to demonstrate the legitimate and godly uses of rhetoric for believers seeking to follow the example of Jesus Christ. It is rare for a book to combine such sound advice with such dodgy practice where both the book’s strengths and weaknesses relate so fundamentally to the purpose of the book itself. The fact that the first three chapters of the book, taking up a little over half its length, are divided by the Greek rhetorical principles of pathos (emotional appeals), logos (rational appeals), and ethos (character-based appeals), in that order, only adds to the complexity of the author’s intents to appropriate scripture, sometimes in isolated chunks but often in passages, to introduce the reader to classic Greek rhetoric. The last half of the book is more practical, focusing on the Gospel narratives and imagery, the importance of discipleship, some rules of thumb about rhetoric, and finally some bizarre and nonbiblical case studies, one of which praises a cinematic corporate raider and the other of which is a reference to a classic speech about Martin Luther King Jr. from Robert F. Kennedy that makes use of my favorite quote by Aeschylus [2]. The fact that this book spends almost as much time praising Martin Luther King Jr., the New York Times, contemporary leaders like Rick Warren, and early English abolitionists, makes it an odd book in that it simultaneously promotes a Christ-centered focus while in reality making a strong effort to appeal to mostly biblically illiterate but culturally savvy liberal Christians who wish to appropriate Christ for their own political purposes.

It is difficult to fairly judge this book. On the one hand, as a practitioner of rhetoric, I self-consciously use the principles discussed in this book, whether in seeking to relate to others, including by showing the occasional vulnerability or tactical flaw so that people are aware that I am aware of my humanity and fallibility, while constantly desiring not to allow myself to be considered as monstrously inhuman in my character [3]. At times, I may even lament the difficulty of making certain appeals to ethos because of the way in which my own character is viewed. So, my own rhetoric and behavior demonstrates the validity and importance of understanding from the example of Jesus Christ (and other biblical people) the proper and ethical way to use rhetoric. That said, this book cuts against this very valid and useful point because the book itself is filled with such praise for ungodly people and practices. To be sure, as a prolific blogger (like the book’s authors) I have a great deal of self-interest involved in defending the legitimacy of blogging as a way of reaching audiences about biblical truths, but the authors go too far when they consider the immense body of writings of many nominal Christians as providing any benefit to a proper understanding of Christianity. One can only teach what one knows, and the fact that the authors of this book appear so ignorant about large matters of Christianity, including the moral and legal aspects of God’s ways, the Sabbath, the purpose of mankind as being gradually transformed into the very sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father, and many other similar matters, that the book is curiously superficial and pedantic at the same time. It is a work that educates one about rhetoric, but which shows only a slight knowledge of the Bible that is supposed to be the foundation of our knowledge. As a result, this is a book that provides valuable insights to those who are involved in the rhetorical principles of Christian media, but provides a poor example of godly rhetoric and biblically founded thinking, and furthermore appears to be written in large part as a Trojan Horse to encourage its readers to be welcoming and open to a wide variety of liberal and critical influences, which cannot be recommended. Caveat lector.

[1] See, for example, the following quotes:

“Warren recognizes that there is power in discipleship and the cellular model, and that power is ours to use for good. It isn’t there solely to reach others for Christ, though that is a critical mission. It is there, more broadly, to help people—struggling, fragile people like you and me. It ended slavery. It subverted the cruelties of the Roman Empire. It is fighting poverty and disease in Africa and beyond. And it has the power to be the most revolutionary force on the planet if we choose to use it well (121).”

“In their day-to-day lives, most people obey the governing authorities and suffer what they must to endure their rule. But there is something in human nature that is passionately roused (for good or ill) by opposition to authority. As a communicator, use this opposition carefully, when you are morally and rhetorically compelled to do so (137).”

[2] The quote is as follows: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God (156).” This quote appears in the following blog entry of mine:

[3] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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6 Responses to Book Review: How To Argue Like Jesus

  1. Randy Martens says:

    Hey Nathan! I’ve studied this particular topic in the past – the communication style of Jesus of Nazareth – and so am quite interested in any books about it.

    During my student days at AC back in the late ’70’s, I remember once having an incredibly stimulating discussion with a blind student there named Garth Wardrop. He mentioned how the book of John especially illustrated how Christ publicly argued with those who opposed His teachings. Anyway, it was an enlightening discussion.

    Garth died some years ago, but really, I think this guy may have been a genius. He had such profound insights into life in general, and Scripture particularly. I heard he eventually wrote a book on biblical scholarship, but I’m not sure if he ever had it published.

    So I appreciate your review. I too have found that many authors writing books like this really seem to have a rather shallow understanding of Scripture in general. Which, I suppose, is to be expected, and thus not altogether surprising. But occasionally certain observations they make is worth the price of the book, even if we couldn’t recommend such books on the whole. I just bought the Kindle version of this work, and look forward to reading it.

    • I’m glad you appreciate the subject of rhetoric as well. I wanted to convey my interest in the subject without endorsing everything about the book. I’m glad my point was understood. Happy reading.

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