Rules for Winsomeness
September 9th, 2022 | 10 min read
At root, the kerfuffle sparked by James Wood’s summer essay(s) on winsomeness revolves around the question of what makes for an effective Christian witness in America’s current sociocultural moment. For many, this question raises additional issues for how Christians should think about politics, ethics, and the polarity of the world we inhabit. These debates typically occur at a high level of abstraction because the topics are deeply complex, plus there’s ample Church history to draw from. You know the waters are deep when people start throwing out Chrysostom references.
Yet many of us, myself included, don’t have the time or resources to peer through 2000 years of political theology before we step out the front door. There are no perfect answers to dealing with a world caught somewhere between the resurrection and the eschaton. So, in the hopes of providing a measure of practical guidance, here are three things each of us can do to try to apply some of the insights generated by the winsomeness debate.
Don’t demean fellow believers to gain approval with secular audiences.
I’m something of a people pleaser. Like most highly educated young professionals, I’ve realized that agreeableness is a key ingredient for a happy life in today’s world. Yet it’s easy for an agreeable disposition to convey tacit messages of approval or disapproval in ways that harm the church’s witness.
For example, during my Ph.D. studies at a public research university, it was common for hostility to be expressed toward white conservative religious cisgender heterosexual males (both as an abstract category and sometimes on an individual basis). As someone who fits several of those descriptors, I soon realized that the easiest way to personally avoid such hostility was to articulate my own enmity toward such persons. Indeed, I saw that white men who lived rather heterosexual, cisgendered, and even conservative lives could avoid most animosity if they played this game. And if played well, the game could be socially rewarding. Few things earn favor in certain circles like being the white person dedicated to dismantling white supremacy or being the Christian ashamed that so many other Christians voted for Trump. I suspect many readers have encountered a version of this game in their own context.
To be clear, white Americans should be sensitive to the history of racial power in the United States and Christians should be wary of Trump (I have written about these issues elsewhere). To criticize whiteness is not the same thing as to criticize the Christian faith. All the same, it is easy to see how “the game” demeans the group to which one ostensibly belongs in the eyes of another audience.
This matters greatly for Christian witness. By communicating something to the effect of “I am not one of the bad ones,” a believer signals that fellow Christ followers deserve whatever opprobrium is being directed their way— which clearly goes against the New Testament’s admonitions for Christian unity and longsuffering (John 17:14-21, Romans 12:9-13 and 15:6-7, 1 Corinthians 1:10, Ephesians 4:1-6, Philippians 1:27-28, Colossians 3:12-17, 1 Peter 3:8).
Instead of allowing an agreeable disposition to grow into publicly criticizing fellow believers, Christians should seek to model the Old Testament examples of Esther and Daniel, who each displayed a readiness to put God’s purposes ahead of their own advancement and wellbeing. Esther was willing to listen to Mordecai, a Jew whom she unthinkably outranked in society, and agreed to risk her life to go before the king. Daniel used the favor he gained from interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dream to place Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in positions of administrative influence. Esther and Daniel did more than demonstrate a sensitivity to choosing one’s moment and audience well; both used their position to preserve the people of God in a foreign land. One can easily imagine Esther or Daniel turning their back on God’s people to protect themselves and their status. Indeed, such a choice may have appeared wise by the world’s standards, at least for Daniel, who was later thrown into the lion’s den.
We can also follow the examples of Esther and Daniel by demonstrating a commitment to use whatever status we possess to preserve the Church, which will sometimes require repentance and discipline. Yet we can, at minimum, avoid playing the game. We can avoid putting down other Christians before secular audiences to improve our own standing at their expense, which means being mindful of the channels through which we communicate and the audiences we cultivate. Don’t demean your siblings in the faith.
When argument fails, showcase beauty.
Communication scholar Wayne Brockriede defines argument as “the process whereby a person reasons his [or her] way from one idea to the choice of another idea.” Argumentation entails giving reasons for what one thinks, which involves making claims based on evidence and warrants that are themselves contestable through debate. As a mode of discourse, argument values intellectual precision, presumes the good faith of interlocutors, and relies on participants’ willingness to engage in sustained dialogue in a common pursuit of truth. Because winsomeness comprises a disposition toward unbelievers that seeks to show the reasonableness of the Christian faith, it relies on argument in exactly these ways.
Argument has long been prized in American churches. Puritan preachers gave didactic proofs from the pulpit. Reformers like Frederick Douglass and Anna Dickinson, as Angela Ray notes in The Lyceum and Public Culture in the Nineteenth-Century United States, grappled “with [pro-slavery] arguments based in natural law and arguments based on expediency” by advancing their own counterarguments, not by devaluing intellectual debate itself. From apologetics podcasts to Bible studies, countless Christians today continue this tradition of valuing rational argument as a mode of reasoning and inquiry. Indeed, for many churches argumentation is the default mode of evangelism, preaching, and instruction.
Similarly, for a long time argument was assumed to be the normative mode of public discourse in this country. Candidates for elected office literally debate each other on a stage. Newspapers have opinion pages. Debate societies have existed as long as American universities. Yet today, this argument-based norm has weakened as many sociopolitical movements embrace shouting, shaming, and coercion over persuasion, a shift that Andrew Sullivan describes as a vicious “wave of tribal and political fanaticism.”
Rhetorician Abe Khan goes so far as to argue that we are witnessing the death of persuasion in American public life. His thesis holds that argumentative discourse hides the fact that our disputes are over power and are settled through power. Consequently, sociopolitical differences are most effectively settled via brute force (bureaucratic discipline, physical violence, mass demonstration, etc.) rather than debate, which, from this vantage, is a distraction from the work of dismantling oppressive systems of power.
For those of us raised to prize argumentative rigor, it’s difficult to grasp how significant an intellectual shift this presents. Once one accepts the death of persuasion thesis, all attempts to convince a person of one’s belief become transfigured into political ploys for more power; there is not persuasion apart from coercion. From this perspective, Christianity stands condemned as a deeply pernicious attempt to seize power because it cloaks itself as a religion of peace. Any attempt by a Christian to evangelize through argument —convincing another person of the truth by offering valid reasons for belief — is interpreted as rhetorical violence, as yet another power grab, as another narrative trying to impose itself on others.
Many believers are taken aback by the accusation that Christianity amounts to a deceitful power grab and respond by simply insisting that it is not. To make this case, though, requires playing by the same rules of argument that one’s audience rejects (at least if they’re being consistent). What does one do when argument fails, when the very concepts of reasoning, dialogue, and truth are rejected?
One answer is to acknowledge that, as Christians, we do believe that power triumphs over persuasion — God’s power, that is, not our own. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” Our final confidence as Christians rests not on the eloquence of our appeals but on the power of our Lord. What we need, then, is not a rejection of power but the ability to trust and see God’s power as wholly, perfectly good. We need aesthetics when argument falls short.
To learn to see in this way requires an appreciation for beauty — the beauty found in God’s truth, word, work, creation, love, justice, character, church, and actions — that teaches us to rightly see God’s power as not only good in an abstract sense, but good for us. So, as a practical matter, we should seek to highlight the beauty of the Lord in whatever ways our congregations can: through meditation and study, through an appreciation of the natural world, through a restoration of the liturgy, through literature, through the performing or fine arts, through laboring as a mission team, or in a million other ways. These things, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, can point us to God like “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” When argument fails, showcase the beauty of our Lord and his Church.
As American Christians enter a period where our faith is less valued in mainstream culture, we could stand to learn from our brothers and sisters overseas who have experience living as societal outsiders. Christian communities in the Arab world, for example, often function as enclaves within the wider society for their members. In this sense they operate as counterpublics, defined by Nancy Fraser as “parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs.”
Distinct from the public, which operates as a kind of social totality, and publics, which comprise a self-organized audience of strangers reflexively called into being by the circulation of discourse (i.e., Taylor Swift fans, Mere Orthodoxy readers, Grand Designs watchers), counterpublics are defined by their subaltern relationship to a society’s dominant publics. Black churches in the Jim Crow South provide the quintessential example of what counterpublics look like. They created spaces in which their members could safely develop alternative norms of public speech, culture, and political behavior; formulate oppositional interpretations of their interests, needs, and identities; and regenerate activist energy to engage in battles for inclusion in political and public spheres. Put differently, counterpublics are active rhetorical spaces for groups that are excluded from prominent channels of public discourse and suffer a corresponding lack of political power.
Generally speaking, counterpublics in liberal polities have an activist orientation to them. The gay rights movement, for example, relied on the legal protections afforded by the American constitution as it built networks of support, organization, and funding for campaigns of public persuasion. In illiberal contexts where individual rights are less rigorously protected, such as the Jim Crow South or most of the Middle East, counterpublics operate more like enclaves than activist organizations. Given the deterioration of liberal norms in U.S. politics, American Christians would be wise to start acting less as policy advocacy groups and more as safe harbors oriented toward ensuring communal survival, not social change.
Viewed as counterpublics, Christians in countries like Jordan are examples to us of how to organize spaces for renewal while shielding the full range of their internal activities from full public view. Most Protestant congregations in the Arabic-speaking world do not make their sermons digitally available. They cooperate closely with state security services to intercept potential threats. They are careful to avoid directly criticizing Islam and the regime in their public statements and do their best to shield their members from the outrage or disciplinary power of dominant publics.
And yet, not all their messages are enclaved. Such congregations frequently signal their loyalty to their country and its leader, making sure to thank the government for its protection while also asserting an implicit right to belong within the national community. These strategies reveal how Christians can adapt to living in an increasingly illiberal society in a manner that helps ensure their churches’ survival while also safeguarding enclaved spaces within which Christians can perform the vital functions necessary to sustain a community of believers. Without a conciliatory public posture, Protestants in Jordan would not be able to maintain private spaces where they can generate accounts of their identity, culture, and faith that differ from the negative mainstream messages about Christianity.
For Christians in the United States, embracing counterpublicity does not mean that we shrink from the public sphere or engagement with dominant cultures. But it does mean that we should take steps to intentionally protect private spaces where we can go about the business of discipleship, teaching, and ministry. It means we should perhaps take steps to depoliticize our public posture and do what we can to cultivate better relations with public officials. It means recognizing that there’s no amount of effort that will make us fully respectable or acceptable to mainstream society no matter how hard we try. And it means that we must constantly seek to bolster the confidence of our brothers and sisters, because being in a subaltern position isn’t glamorous. It’s difficult. It’s exile.
On this last point, it’s worth observing that there are many practical ways to build such confidence. Pastors can not only speak about but also display their church’s denominational or doctrinal ties with other churches; few things breed courage like knowing one isn’t alone. Spiritual disciplines such as daily scripture reading, dedicated time for prayer (even just a few minutes), and family devotionals nourish the inner fibers necessary for a spiritual vitality. For the bookish, there have never been more resources to facilitate active intellectual inquiry; for the curious, Hebrew and Greek are more accessible than ever; for the crunchy, sharing time in nature can revive the spirit; for the busy, there are edifying podcasts that can fill the space of YouTube shorts. Doing these things builds faith in the same way silt accretes along the river’s edge, making possible a future harvest.
Finally, we must remember that the opponents of Christianity are not mustachioed evil geniuses in a volcano lair but are regular human beings. As Marc Andreessen recently noted, Twitter is like an X-ray machine that shows us how “all of these public figures, all of these people in positions of authority… the leading legal theorists of our time, leading politicians, all these businesspeople” embrace delusions and misapprehensions aplenty, like the rest of us. By absorbing the practical insights from the winsomeness debate, perhaps we will be granted the opportunity to reach them with the news of salvation. It takes courage to be Ananias as well as Paul, Daniel, or Esther, after all.