I’m a Bad Apologist, and So Can You

by David Rummelhoff

In my younger days, I loved to argue.  Skill in argumentation was a point of pride for me.  When I read, “Always be ready to give a defense for [your faith],” I took it seriously.  This, combined with a keen sense of pragmatism, led me to argue in a unconventional manner, and it is what makes me a Bad Apologist™.

A Dilemma

When most of us were learning the skills of debate, we were instructed that the best, most coherent arguments win, and to a degree, that is true.  Appeals to emotion might be effective, but they’re cheap and don’t stand up to time.  The problem, as we have all experienced, is that good arguments often fall on deaf ears and stubborn hearts–many people only feign open-mindedness.  This is very well-expressed in one of my favorite quotes: “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” [Actually a misquote]

This idea stuck with me, and it nagged at me.  What, I thought, is the point of good arguments if they are impractical?What, I thought, is the point of good arguments if they are impractical?  Why argue cogently if my interlocutor is more devoted to self or ideology than to truth?  There had to be an effective way to convince people.

Pragmatic boy that I was, I looked for an answer to my question in other debates and, as any good Protestant would, in Scripture.  What I soon discovered was that Jesus displayed a rather sharp wit when He locked horns with His human adversaries.  He made the sort of cutting remarks that could have easily been mistaken for disregard for their well-being.  More than that though, Jesus’ replies to the Pharisees and Sadducees made them look dumb, and I can only imagine, the replies made them feel dumb as well.  Jesus was a Bad Apologist.

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A Realization

Of course, Jesus did care about His adversaries, just as much as He cared for His disciples and the crowds who followed Him.  So, why would He speak to them so harshly?  Since it wasn’t indicative of disregard, it must have actually been the very opposite.  Jesus spoke in a manner that was effective at convincing both those who actively opposed Him and the audience who witnessed the interactions.  The difference was that the real hope for effect on the Pharisees and Sadducees lay in the future.  Their obstinance all but precluded them from being immediately reached by Jesus’ words, but Jesus’ wit pierced their armor.  Christ’s cutting and harsh words left a mark that could not easily be forgotten.

When combined with rational arguments, cutting words have the ability to lead others to question the veracity of their position.  Obstinate opponents will not doubt their ideology in light of your rational arguments, at least not right away, but they may lose certainty as a consequence of being made to look foolish.  In other words, a hit to one’s self-confidence is a hit to one’s certainty about what he believes, and we very much want people to feel uncertain about the lies they believe.

“Hold on,” some are thinking, “what about ‘gentleness and respect’?”

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