Book Review: Tactics by Greg Koukl
If Tactics could be considered a book about “gospel conversational chess,” then its author, Gregory Koukl, should be considered the Garry Kasparov of this method of evangelism. Koukl is an apologetics professor at Biola University and has a great deal of both education and experience in the areas of evangelism, apologetics, debate, and dialogue. His online ministry, Stand To Reason, is one of the most visited apologetics resources on the internet and he has been a guest speaker on many radio and television programs. In this book he condenses his years of evangelistic and apologetic experience into several practical “tactics” for use in evangelistic conversations with unbelievers.
The central thrust of Gregory Koukl’s efforts in Tactics is to provide believers with new ways of thinking and speaking during evangelistic conversations which help take some of the stress and pressure off of the believers’ shoulders. Many Christians tend to feel awkward and unprepared during evangelism opportunities, falling back on a weak recollection of a formulaic gospel presentation which barely makes it through stuttering lips before falling upon deaf ears. For those familiar with this experience, Koukl’s book is a welcome paradigm-shift in evangelistic methodology.
The centerpiece of his approach is the tactic which Koukl refers to as “Columbo.” This tactic’s name was chosen because, when it is employed in conversation one will strongly resemble Peter Falk’s famous detective character from the long-running television series, who always had “just one more question.” In essence, using “Columbo” simply involves practicing good listening skills while thinking of good questions to ask an unbeliever. This tactic effectively takes the pressure of the evangelistic conversation off the shoulders of the Christian and places it firmly on the unbeliever. Many helpful examples from the author’s own experiences are provided to illustrate his points regarding how to gain a tactical advantage in the conversation through the use of questioning.
“Columbo” is elaborated upon in further chapters, then combined with several ways of finding flaws in an unbeliever’s worldview, giving the evangelist an array of weapons to employ in seeking to lead others to Christ. Examples of these tactics include looking for “Formal Suicide” (beliefs which violate the logical law of non-contradiction); “Practical Suicide” (beliefs which are not self-contradictory, but are practically unlivable or self-defeating); “Sibling Rivalry and Infanticide” (pairs of logically inconsistent objections and presuppositionally invalid claims); “Taking the Roof Off” (reductio ad absurdum); “Steamrollers” (how to handle people who constantly interrupt or socially overpower someone); “The Rhodes Scholar” (responding to the “fallacy of expert witness”); “Just the Facts, Ma’am” (Koukl is clearly a fan of classic TV detective shows); and finally, a concluding chapter which briefly provides some further principles to be employed in evangelistic conversations.
In evaluating Tactics three strengths and three weaknesses will be surveyed and discussed, respectively. This evaluation will be followed by some brief concluding remarks which demonstrate the alignment between the author’s goals and Scripture’s teaching.
This book provides a host of useful principles which may be employed for evangelistic conversations. Three strengths of this book include: presenting a paradigm for evangelistic methodology; providing engaging anecdotal illustrations; and the author’s ability to explain many difficult philosophical issues in practical, introductory ways.
Evangelistic methodological paradigm. Many evangelistic training programs could reasonably be accused of oversimplification and reductionism. Some common methodologies reduce evangelism to the handing out of gospel tracts or presenting a certain number of steps to salvation followed by a formulaic prayer or the use of acronyms and mnemonic devices for remembering the key components of a “full” gospel presentation. Koukl’s “Columbo” steps in to the midst of these many well-intended but sometimes misguided paradigms, providing an engaging conversational alternative to drawing chasms and crosses on restaurant napkins.
“Columbo” is an evangelistic methodology which focuses upon asking unbelievers good questions about their beliefs and the things they say, actively listening to their answers and seeking to respond with insightful comments or further questions. The Christian is then given some training on what sorts of things to listen for in conversation, such as self-refuting statements or practically unlivable beliefs.
The most appealing aspect of this paradigm might be that the “burden” of the conversation is initially shouldered by the unbeliever, who is being asked to explain, clarify, and justify her beliefs and their implications, which few people have ever been asked to do. A second valuable aspect of employing this method is that it is naturally conversational, continuing the normal interactions between friends or acquaintances—rather than abruptly turning what was once a conversation into a monologue or sermon.
Many readers will thank the author for presenting this paradigm for evangelistic conversations, particularly those who have been too afraid to engage in evangelism or who haven’t been able to find an approach which is natural rather than formulaic.
Providing engaging anecdotal illustrations. Propositional truth conveyed through narrative has a perennial appeal and a natural persuasiveness which a mere syllogism lacks. Tactics contains many assertions, propositions, inferences, and conclusions; but it also gives many of the author’s illuminating stories from evangelistic conversations.
It is not merely the “postmodern” mind which has been drawn to the power of stories; the human mind has been fascinated with the significance of narrative for as long as those minds have encoded memories. These stories help to increase the author’s credibility as an experienced, knowledgeable voice on the subject while also communicating in a more memorable way so that the lessons presented are equally enjoyable and educational.
The author has clearly studied and thought deeply on a wide array of subjects and presents an articulate example for aspiring evangelists and apologists. His stories and illustrations throughout the book were generally illuminating and fortified the overall logic of the author’s arguments and their rhetorical force.
Practical explanations of philosophical concepts. The author does a solid job of compressing complex logical and philosophical issues into very brief, but largely accurate, introductions. Various logical fallacies are introduced and examples are given along with advice for how to readily notice these errors in reasoning. Following this advice paves the way for the evangelist to ask more probing questions or simply refute the mistaken assertions being presented.
Despite providing a thoughtful method for evangelistic conversations, this book also had a few noteworthy drawbacks. Three weaknesses of this book include: some philosophical errors; the wide variety of illustrations presented in some sections may be overwhelming to some readers; and occasional superficial discussions of complex subjects.
Philosophical errors. As mentioned above, the author does provide many helpful introductory insights into some complex philosophical issues which would likely be unfamiliar to many Christians. On the other hand, the book also presents some unfortunate philosophical mistakes and oversimplifications which the more philosophically well-versed reader would notice. This could be particularly detrimental to any unbeliever reading the book from a more critical perspective, who might choose to ignore the valuable parts of the book because of the noticeable errors.
One example of such an error is when the author discusses self-refuting statements. He gives the example “All English sentences are false.” (107) He states, “If all English sentences are false, then the English sentence declaring it so must also be false, and if false, then it is easily—and appropriately—dismissed.” (107-108) Unfortunately, that is only half of the story.
Although the author goes on to provide correct examples of self-refuting statements, this particular sentence is an example of a dialetheia—a “true contradiction” or a sentence which is both true and false (or neither true nor false, by intersubstitutivity). The author is correct when he asserts that if the sentence is true then it is false, however, the other half of the story is that if it is false then it is true. It is a classic example of the “Liar Paradox.”
Dialetheism is a thorny philosophical issue which should be avoided in an introductory text such as this one, and the author would have done well to omit this example from the book, replacing it with one of the other examples of simple self-refutation.
Overwhelming array of examples in some places. Earlier I mentioned how enjoyable many of the anecdotal illustrations in the book are. Whenever the author provides stories or personal conversations, these examples are usually the most useful.
However, there are sections of the book where the author skips from worldview example to worldview example rather cursorily, covering too much ground in too little space. In the span of five pages the author purports to refute aspects of a common attack on the Bible, Hinduism, theistic evolution, Scientism, and religious pluralism (114-119). This is problematic on two levels.
First, these varied worldviews simply can’t be effectively refuted in such a brief and superficial treatment of each. While this is not the stated intention of the author (i.e. full refutation of each worldview), this is the impression which is left upon the reader after running this apologetic gauntlet, as though each of these alternatives can simply be ignored now that the author has asserted that they are self-refuting. Each of these examples seemed like an oversimplified-then-overstated sound byte for television or radio news broadcasting.
Second, the almost frenetic alternation from one disparate worldview to the next could by dizzying for many readers. Unless one is already reasonably familiar with each viewpoint and the philosophical or religious terminology associated with each, then one would likely become bewildered rather quickly. It might have been more helpful to choose one or two foils for this section and present each more thoroughly, followed by a clear demonstration regarding several points of self-refutation to be found within those worldviews.
Occasional superficial treatment of complex subjects. Granting that this book is not intended to be an in-depth discussion of any given worldview or perspective, there are still certain subjects which receive such superficial treatment that they cross the line from being a helpful distillation to being an unhelpful oversimplification.
In discussing “Freedom, Reason, and Knowledge,” the author’s refutation of determinism is simply ridiculous. He asserts that “if determinism were true, the person would have been ‘determined’ to believe in it… He would have to admit that reasons don’t matter and that trying to think the issue through is a waste of time… arguments for determinism are self-defeating.” (128)
This is just an example of the fallacy of irrelevant thesis—proving a point which is irrelevant to the point which the author needs to make in order to support his conclusion. Determinism isn’t self-defeating for the reasons he adduces because the manner by which a belief is determined is irrelevant to the truth value of the belief itself. There are also varieties of determinism (causal, hard, soft, etc.), each of which has its own response to the sort of criticism quoted above. It is also question-begging to simply assume the validity of libertarian freedom for the purpose of critiquing determinism.
After completing this book, I would expect many readers will be prepared to engage in evangelistic and apologetic conversations with greater confidence in their own ability to discuss matters of faith and life. Most believers are able to express personal reasons for the “hope that [we] have” (1 Pet 3:15) when asked, as well as simply pointing to Christ as the Samaritan woman at the well did (Jn 4); however, Gregory Koukl’s book will better prepare Christians to question the beliefs of those who have “become futile in their thinking” (Rom 1:21), working to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God.” (2 Cor 10:5) Tactics provides a useful blueprint for lifting drooping evangelistic hands and strengthening weak apologetic knees (Heb 12:12).