Greg Koukl’s Tactics stands out as the best book that I have read this year, and the year is not even over yet. Koukl, the founder of the apologetics ministry, Stand to Reason, originally wrote this book about ten years ago. A tenth anniversary edition of the book has come out. David Wood, another Christian apologist, say that Tactics is the one apologetics book every Christian needs to read in 2020. So, I decided to take him up on that, and get the audiobook version.
I am so glad that I did. David Wood is right.
Greg Koukl’s book on “tactics” should be required reading for EACH and EVERY CHRISTIAN who struggles with sharing their faith with others.
I like to think of myself as an evangelist, but I am not a very good one. I must confess, it just seems like evangelism is getting harder and harder, with every passing year. I find myself continually intimidated, when getting into conversations with others. I never think that I have the most persuasive arguments, when sharing my faith, so I just end up staying quiet most of the time. I even have the same frustration, when trying to discuss a difficult, controversial topic with another fellow Christian, when we have a disagreement. I would rather change the conversation, and avoid the discussion altogether.
“How ’bout them Yankees!! … Nice weather we are having, right?”
This is where Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions really comes in, and makes the difference. Tactics is not so much about what to say in a gospel conversation, or any conversation, for that matter. It is more about how to engage in a conversation.
Perhaps it goes back to my days as a young believer of doing door-to-door evangelism. I have always envisioned that gospel-oriented conversations need to be about “closing the deal,” and pressing for a decision for Christ.
Not so, according to Greg Koukl. For if we really trust the leading of God, that He might work through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit to change a person’s heart, then it really is not our job to try to “convert” someone. Rather, it is about trying to give someone else something new to think about, and then letting God do the rest of the work.
When you are in a gospel conversation, trying to muster up the best case to win someone over to your point of view, is not the goal, according to Greg Koukl. Rarely is a “debating mode” effective. Rather, one should be about asking good questions, and thus making your interlocutor do the work of having to defend their position, for which they are advancing. If you focus on trying to ask good questions, then you might end up helping the other person to realize that they are believing something, without sufficient justification for that point of view. If the other person begins to suspect that their own position is not as well thought out as they originally thought, it could serve as an opportunity for God to work in the mind and heart of that other person.
Oh…. and just one more thing……
Greg Koukl and the “Columbo Tactic”
Greg Koukl advances basically two questions that can be used to help anyone out, in any conversation, when you feel like you are stuck, and unable to come up with any other reasonable question, that does not make you sound stupid:
- (1) What do you mean by that?, and
- (2) How did you come to that conclusion?
Koukl calls this the “Columbo Tactic,” named after the 1970s TV detective show, where Peter Falk played the part of a bumbling police detective. But the magic about “Columbo” is that he was always able to sneak in a few strategically placed questions that eventually discloses the killer. Greg Koukl uses this “Columbo Tactic” as a means of “putting a pebble into someone else’s shoe“. It is then up to God to move in that person’s life, to bring about meaningful change. We can then pray that God bring another Christian in the path of the other person, and thereby spark a deeper conversation.
Here are merely a few gems that Koukl lays out for the reader, based on the “Columbo Tactic,” of asking, “What do you mean by that?,” and “How did you come to that conclusion?” Here is what I learned:
- If someone gets mad, I lose. In other words, if I get upset, or the other person gets upset and angry, then I lose the opportunity to try to “put a pebble into someone else’s shoe“….. I have made a lot of people mad, or I get really frustrated and upset with myself, so I REALLY need to learn how have better conversations, as Greg Koukl illustrates.
- The person making the claim bears the burden of proof. It is always better, when in conversation, to ask questions instead of making claims. You do not need to defend if you are asking questions. But when you make a claim, you bear the burden of proof to defend it. It is always more effective to reverse the burden of proof and place it on the other person, whenever you are being challenged.
- Always take the time to ask questions about the other person’s belief, to make sure you properly understand it. If you do not understand the other person’s perspective, then they can easily dismiss you for twisting their words…. and they would be right!!
- Ask questions that might help another person see an inconsistency with their belief structure, as a means of giving them something to think about. Many times, people will make assertions that will oddly contradict some other deeply held belief. For example, is the statement, “There is no such thing as absolute truth,” an absolutely true statement? Asking questions is always better than making statements about someone else’s belief. Koukl calls this the “suicide” tactic, as inconsistency in deeply held beliefs leads to a type of intellectual suicide (I just wish Koukl had a better name for this tactic).
- Put yourself in the position of taking on someone’s point of view, and examine where such a view might lead. Often the natural conclusion to such viewpoints can be self-undermining. Koukl calls this tactic “taking the roof off” of another person’s argument. This is actually the best use case for what is called “propositional apologetics,” whereby you can follow the train of thought that leads from a person’s presuppositions, to arrive at a conclusion, and then ask whether or not the conclusion is acceptable.
- You do not need to allow a steamroller, someone who keeps bombarding you with claims and questions, to get to you. Instead, first stop the person and ask for the time respond. If they keep steamrolling you, point that out, and ask for courtesy. If that does not slow down the conversation, then give the person the last word and walk away.
- If you do not know the answer to someone else’s question, simply say “I do not know.” Ask for some time to go research the question, before making a response.
- There is a difference between possibility, plausibility, and probability. If someone else makes an assertion, there are basically these three options to explore.
- First, is it possible? In some sense, just about anything is possible. However, some assertions are not possible, once that assertion is reasonably and carefully examined. Impossible assertions can be disregarded by the sheer weight of evidence that easily and convincingly works against the assertion.
- Secondly, is it plausible? Something might be possible, but not necessarily plausible. In other words, is there actually evidence that might support the assertion? In the absence of other alternatives, is there reliable evidence available that indicates that the assertion is not simply possible, but plausible?
- Thirdly, is it probable? Given other plausible alternatives, does the assertion being examined have enough evidence behind it to make it more acceptable than the other available alternatives? One can still acknowledge an assertion as not only possible, but even plausible, as a sign in giving the other person the benefit of the doubt, that they might be correct. But that does not commit you to accept the assertion, if it turns out that there is at least one other, more probable assertion available. We are not obligated to accept assertions that are merely possible, or even if they are merely plausible. Instead, we are to accept assertions that are more probable, as compared to other assertions.
Greg Koukl’s Tactics, and Peter Boghossian’s and James Lindsay’s How to Have Impossible Conversations
Actually, aside from some prodding by others, my interest in reading Tactics was driven by reading/listening to another book, that takes a similar approach, but from a completely different worldview perspective. This book, How To Have Impossible Conversations, was written by a pair of atheists, Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay.
So why would I invest in reading a book written by a pair of atheists, as an aid in helping me as a Christian have better conversations with others, who do not share my Christian convictions? Allow me to explain.
Boghossian and Lindsay are two academics who were behind the embarrassingly silly “Grievance Studies Hoax” (or, for another story about it),that exposed corruption in the academy. Such corruption has led to things like an ideologically-driven mindset regarding Critical Race Theory and the “cancel culture.” Boghossian and Lindsay are on the forefront of trying to educate people about Critical Race Theory, and they oddly make a surprising alliance with evangelical Christians, who are also concerned about free speech on college campuses. Boghossian and Lindsay, though they are not persuaded by the truth claims of evangelical Christianity, have developed a very similar approach to Koukl’s Tactics, that can help people engage in “impossible conversations.” Despite some sharp differences, I thoroughly enjoyed How To Have Impossible Conversations.
Peter Boghossian, in particular, is often credited with founding the idea of “Street Epistemology,” which is essentially an update of the Socratic method, whereby you can enter into casual conversations with people, in order to determine how others have arrived at the beliefs they hold. While Boghossian has in mind steering conversation partners towards atheism, the same type of conversation, handled in a different manner, could also be used to help others to consider Christianity instead.
This is where Greg Koukl’s Tactics comes in. In fact, Koukl addresses some of Peter Boghossian’s “tactics” popularized in Boghossian’s earlier book A Manual for Creating Atheists. As you might guess, as a Christian, I was startled by such an aggressive book title! Since then Boghossian has toned down his atheism rhetoric, resulting in a more fair and nuanced How To Have Impossible Conversations.
For example, Boghossian was heavily criticized in his earlier book, because of his awkward definition of “faith” as “pretending to know things that you don’t know” and “belief without evidence,” a criticism that Greg Koukl highlights in Tactics. Impossible Conversations backs off on that awkward claim and chimes in on more refined themes, just as Koukl refined the arguments in his Tactics book, the 10th anniversary edition that I read.
The main piece of good advice in How To Have Impossible Conversations, that is not clearly presented in Tactics, is regarding the willingness to change one’s view. It really makes no sense to try to ask someone to change their view, if you are not willing to change your own view. Greg Koukl does not really bring this idea out well enough in Tactics, though Koukl does admit that sometimes we can easily misrepresent the views of our interlocutor, which is a good reason why good listening skills are essential for the Christian, that can help us to change our mind, as to where someone else might be coming from.
I know that for myself, I have had to change my mind several times on certain Christian topics, as some formerly held beliefs have proven to be indefensible when talking with skeptical non-believers. For example, for years I used the argument that 11 out of the 12 apostles at Pentecost died as martyrs for their faith, which subsequent research has shown to be an overstatement of the actual evidence. As a result, I no longer use that specific argument in my conversations with others, though I will contend that the evidence indicates that all of the apostles were willing to die for their faith in the Risen Christ, and none of them committed apostasy.
One practical way to think through having a willingness to change my own beliefs is to consider under what conditions, or what type of evidence would I need to see, in order to change my own beliefs. If we are willing to ask this about ourselves, it would also open up ways to be able to ask this of others. A central point that Peter Boghossian makes in How To Have Impossible Conversations is that just because certain arguments or lines of evidence might convince you, that does not mean that such arguments or lines of evidence will convince someone else. We human beings can be complex creatures (Here is a helpful outline to How To Have Impossible Conversations).
Both How To Have Impossible Conversations and Tactics have proven to be exceptionally helpful to me, as I am pretty terrible when it comes to having such “impossible conversations,” and sharing my faith with others. I am so wanting to “win the argument” intellectually, that I am not-so well-trained in learning how to “win the person.” This point has been driven home to me over the years, since I have been writing for the Veracity blog. It has also come up, when I have had conversations with other Christians, who do not share the same doctrinal convictions that I have.
My concerns have also increased, as a number of my Christian friends seem to be drawn more and more to various conspiracy theories, or other unfalsifiable ways of thinking, both on the right and on the left, that in my view, tend to discredit our Christian witness. My reaction is almost always to lose my cool, and keep insisting on “the facts.” But Greg Koukl in Tactics, and even Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay in How to Have Impossible Conversations, are helping me to better approach these difficult conversations. I am encouraged to focus more on trying to understand how other people come to the conclusions that they arrive at, and less on trying to prove the other person to be wrong. In learning to listen better to what the other person is saying, and figuring out why they are saying it, I actually learn more, even if it means modifying some of my own beliefs.
But it is not easy: I am pretty stubborn at all of this. As Greg Koukl advises, I need to put myself more in “learning mode,” developing a sense of curiosity and wonder, about why other people believe the things they do, instead of becoming a type of “message delivery service” (Peter Boghossian’s term), that mostly puts other people on the defensive. When people become defensive, the likelihood of someone changing their beliefs is drastically reduced. If people feel like they are being attacked, they tend to double-down on their beliefs, instead of being open to change. And nobody wins in that type of environment, neither the other person, and certainly not me.
Added Mini-Tactics in Greg Koukl’s Tactics
The first half of Tactics is really the foundation of the book, a thorough going analysis of the Columbo tactic. Koukl even adds a chapter on how to reframe a conversation, if and when you find yourself having the Columbo tactic applied to you!!
The second half of Tactics is more about analyzing common arguments that you often hear in difficult conversations. While not as strong as the first half of the book, the tactics laid out in the second half of the book serve as a means of putting the Columbo tactic to effective use, in real life situations. For example, Greg Koukl helps the reader to identify intellectually suicidal statements, that do nothing more than to kill a conversation. Some common conversation stoppers include, “All religions are the same” and “There are no absolutes.” But having a way to analyze such arguments, by reading a book like this, while the pressure is off, is very, very helpful for when the pressure is on, and you are engaged in a conversation, where someone might be skeptical to the Christian faith.
I particularly benefitted from a new chapter on “Mini-Tactics,” that was not available in the original edition of Tactics:
- “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” A lot of critics will make an appeal to Jesus in order to try to defeat certain Christian arguments. Instead, we should try to enlist Jesus on “our side,” as a defense. For example, if someone really does not like what the Apostle Paul says, but still likes Jesus, it is good to remind them that the Apostle Paul was personally selected by the Jesus to be his spokesperson to the Gentiles. If Paul was seriously wrong for something he taught, then Jesus was wrong for picking him to be his representative.
- “Sticks & Stones.” Others may call you names like “bigot,” “hater,” etc. But a way to turn this around is to argue that even if I were a “bigot” or “hater,” how would that alter the substance of the argument that is found presented in the Bible?
- “Moving Toward the Objection.“ Sometimes it is better to embrace the objection, in order to show that it has no force. For example, some argue that Christianity is simply but a crutch for weak people. To respond to that, move toward the objection by saying that people who are in need do need a crutch. What is wrong with that?
- “Watch Your Language.” Avoid Christian-ese as much as possible. Find terms and definitions that your interlocutor will accept. For example, instead of always insisting “The Bible says, The Bible says,” it might be better to say “Jesus says,” or “Paul says.” It is still true, but it gets you away from always falling back on overused Christian lingo.
- “The Power of SO.” If someone makes a claim that is irrelevant, then a possible response would be to say “so what?” Even if the claim is true, ask why would this have any bearing on the argument at hand?
A Friendly Criticism of Greg Koukl’s Tactics
Alas, despite being my book of the year so far, the book is not perfect. It helps that in Tactics, Koukl provides a number of examples in how he uses Tactics to help better frame a more productive conversation. However, I am not always convinced by every specific example that Koukl uses, and the way he uses them. This is really my primary criticism of the book, but I do feel obligated to point it out, as non-believing critics have noticed this as well. In particular, I am not always persuaded by how well Greg Koukl defines his terms, when engaging in apologetic conversation. In some cases, he even overstates certain “facts.” It is very easy to correctly state certain “facts,” but then make the error of smuggling in other “facts,” that are not so factual.
For example, the term “evolution” means different things to different people. I normally think of “evolution” in purely the sense of a biological scientific theory, whereas I think Greg Koukl generally uses it in a broader sense of a materialistic worldview. The same concern comes from the use of the term “intelligent design,” which means different things to different people as well. For if I were in conversation with Greg Koukl himself, I would be generally inclined, after reading his book, to employ the Columbo tactic with him, and ask Greg, “What do you mean by evolution?,” or “What do you mean by intelligent design?,” and “How did you come to that conclusion regarding evolution?”
Also, as a “pro-life” advocate, Greg Koukl develops very good arguments against abortion. Yet while such arguments are compelling in critiquing the ethics of abortion, applying the same arguments regarding public policy concerning abortion left me still sympathetic, but less convinced. Such arguments regarding the latter may needlessly muddy the waters, making the larger and far more important ethical case less effective. Koukl also tends to overstate his case, with his use of certain “facts” regarding the supposedly orthodox Christian faith of the majority of the individual American “Founding Fathers” (Read this critique of a modified version of Greg Koukl’s view).
The problem here is that once you bring up an argument, with an interlocutor, that really is not very solid, but then you try to make it appear to be really good, you can easily lose your interlocutor. It can have the negative effect of encouraging your interlocutor to ignore the really good arguments that you are trying to make. If they distrust you on a somewhat shaky argument, there is a good chance they will distrust you when you actually make a substantially better argument. Stick with the really good arguments, and avoid the ones that tend towards the shaky side of things.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of ways whereby readers can “agree to disagree” with some of the examples that Greg Koukl uses, and still benefit from the underlying principles. The great exposition of the “Columbo tactic” at work, that Greg Koukl lays out in detail in the book, makes his book worth the effort, despite any other shortcomings, to help any and every Christian become a more effective ambassador for Christ.
Greg Koukl’s Tactics as Your “One Book” on Christian Apologetics
My big takeaway from Tactics is learning how not be silenced when I am in a conversation with someone else, and in learning how to help steer a conversation in a productive direction, whereby both myself and my conversation partner can truly learn something new. The book is perfect for introverts! It can create an opening whereby the Holy Spirit can do his thing, and convict hearts, which is absolutely something that I can NOT do! As Greg Koukl put it, the goal of a Gospel conversation is simply to “put a stone or pebble in someone else’s shoe,” and then let God do the rest.
If you only have money to buy one book on Christian apologetics, buy Tactics!
I rarely go back and re-read parts of a book, even that I enjoy, but in this case, I have found myself going back over several times, and re-listening to how Greg Koukl presents Tactics. I have learned something new every time. If you want to learn how to engage in Gospel conversations, without being intimidated, then please get a copy and read Tactics!
Here is a great interview on Capturing Christianity with Greg Koukl!