Acton Institute Powerblog

Book Review: How to Argue Like Jesus

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I recently finished How to Argue Like Jesus (Crossway, 2009) by Joe Carter (The Evangelical Outpost, First Thoughts) and John Coleman. I would have loved to have had this book to assign during the 13 years I taught college composition and rhetoric. So many of my fellow evangelicals think rhetoric is a dirty word, as in “That’s just a bunch of rhetoric.” But as this primer makes clear, Jesus was a master of rhetoric, a master of principled persuasion.

Happily, How to Argue Like Jesus doesn’t act as if Jesus created a completely new rhetoric during his earthly ministry. Aristotelian categories serve as the basis for the first three chapters: Pathos, Logos, and Ethos. And in two other chapters, the comp/lit teacher will encounter many of the usual suspects found in standard overviews of poetic and stylistic devices (metaphor, simile, parallelism, chiasmus, etc.).

Chapter 5 focuses on the persuasive power of what Edmund Burke referred to as “little platoons.” Chaper 6 is a helpful summary chapter. And the final chapter provides three case studies, two taken from a Hollywood movie and one from a notable political speech from the 1960s.

I do have a couple of quibbles with the book. The brief discussion of Jesus’s use of parables is generally solid, but Jesus stated explicitly that he used parables, at least in part, to block understanding in some of his listeners. I would have liked to have seen the book explore this curious feature of Jesus’s rhetorical strategy more adequately.

Also, while the book’s writing style is generally solid and engaging (as one would expect from the creator and sustainer of The Evangelical Outpost), can we declare a global evangelical ban on the adjective “impactful” and “impact” used as a transitive verb? Mercifully, the terms aren’t a common fixture of the book, but it does crop up in a few places, and it doesn’t impact me. No, it hurts me. It moves me to tears.

Thus, I urge my fellow evangelicals everywhere to stop talking about “impactful” things that “really impacted” us. And while we’re at it, let’s declare a global evangelical ban on the cancerous overuse of “just” in the sense of “simply.” I mean, when you’re praying, just reach down into your bag of prayer words and just yank it out of there. Just do it. Carter and Coleman didn’t let it infect their book. If they can do it, so can we.

But I digress. How to Argue Like Jesus serves as a highly effective primer on rhetoric. By taking readers on a lively journey through the many persuasive techniques Jesus used in his earthly ministry, the book promises to hold the attention of young evangelicals more effectively than a typical comp/rhetoric textbook. I can enthusiastically recommend it for both Christian high school English classes and as supplementary text in college composition and rhetoric classes. I know we intend to assign it to our homeschoolers in the Witt household.

Jonathan Witt


  • Roger McKinney

    “Jesus stated explicitly that he used parables, at least in part, to block understanding in some of his listeners.”

    Yes, it was part of his judgment on them for refusing to believe, but it also served to blunt opposition. If the opposition truly understood what he was saying, they would have wanted to kill him sooner. It matches his admonition to not cast pearls before swine.

    I read once about a missionary to a muslim country where witnessing was illegal and carried severe penalties. The missionary used Jesus’s parable about the pharisee and the sinner who went to the temple to pray to address a group of potentially very hostile men. Like the first century Jewish leaders, most of the crowd just thought the missionary was telling children’s stories and moved on. But a couple of guys saw through the hypocrasy and hung around to talk after the hostiles had left.

  • R Hampton

    “Jesus stated explicitly that he used parables, at least in part, to block understanding in some of his listeners”

    That would make Jesus deceitful, and yet we are told Jesus is the Truth and also without sin. Something doesn’t add up.

  • sini ngindu bindanda

    It really seems suprising to know that Jesus hided himself behind his own parables instead of making himself clear enough understood to everybody even to his enemies. But since he knew well the heart of the man as he stated it in differents places Marc 2:8; Mt. 9:4; Lc. 5:22; Jr. 17:9; etc., he prefered to not anticipate things but to wait il kairos of God to happen.
    It is not bad thing to do so. We in Africa we almost use parabole any moment of our speach. I mean the really africa which now in town is almost dispared these last three decades.
    When a wise man speaks it is not everyone who will understand. He makes himself to be understood to those who really want to understand. Some however, even they repeat to him many times if his heart is not open to be instructed, he will still have the heart of the stone. This ia also why when you are in african village, rarely you will hear a sermon throwed from the book of parabole or songs of songs. Because people quote our ancestres who strangely said the same thing that what we have in the book of proverb or song of songs.
    In all of them never the wise is clear enough for everybody.
    Many persons asked me that question: “Why Jesus did not let himself know to everybody. This is also party of the mistery of the reign.
    Unfortunately this my intervention is to late and useless. Anyway I do it.
    Thank you!


  • “Jesus stated explicitly that he used parables, at least in part, to block understanding in some of his listeners”

    I don’t “quite” get you here. Could you please explain further? Thank you.