Here’s Why: Explaining how we explain ourselves (in evangelism)

Question Mark

The noted sociologist Charles Tilly has a new book out entitled Why? that addresses the topic of decision making. Well known speaker/author Malcolm Gladwell provides a penetrating critque of the book entitled Here’s Why in The New Yorker magazine. The types of reasoning offered in their analysis parallel the methods we often incorporate into evangelism.

Tilly breaks down our reasoning into four categories of explanation:

  1. Conventions – conventionally accepted explanations.
  2. Stories – specific accounts of cause and effect that limit the number of actors and actions and elevate the personal over the institutional.
  3. Codes — high-level conventions, formulas that invoke sometimes abstruse procedural rules and categories.
  4. Technical accounts — stories informed by specialized knowledge and authority.

Here’s a brief explanation of each category, according to Gladwell:   In Tilly’s view, we rely on four general categories of reasons. The first is what he calls conventions—conventionally accepted explanations. Tilly would call “Don’t be a tattletale” a convention. The second is stories, and what distinguishes a story (“I was playing with my truck, and then Geoffrey came in . . .”) is a very specific account of cause and effect. Tilly cites the sociologist Francesca Polletta’s interviews with people who were active in the civil-rights sit-ins of the nineteen-sixties. Polletta repeatedly heard stories that stressed the spontaneity of the protests, leaving out the role of civil-rights organizations, teachers, and churches. That’s what stories do. As Tilly writes, they circumscribe time and space, limit the number of actors and actions, situate all causes “in the consciousness of the actors,” and elevate the personal over the institutional.  Then there are codes, which are high-level conventions, formulas that invoke sometimes recondite procedural rules and categories. If a loan officer turns you down for a mortgage, the reason he gives has to do with your inability to conform to a prescribed standard of creditworthiness. Finally, there are technical accounts: stories informed by specialized knowledge and authority. An academic history of civil-rights sit-ins wouldn’t leave out the role of institutions, and it probably wouldn’t focus on a few actors and actions; it would aim at giving patient and expert attention to every sort of nuance and detail.

 Are some categories of reason better than others? In other words, is their a hierarchy of explanatory structure?  

Tilly argues that we make two common errors when it comes to understanding reasons. The first is to assume that some kinds of reasons are always better than others—that there is a hierarchy of reasons, with conventions (the least sophisticated) at the bottom and technical accounts at the top. That’s wrong, Tilly says: each type of reason has its own role.

Is the type of reason used by someone based on the person, the situation or both? 

Tilly’s second point flows from the first, and it’s that the reasons people give aren’t a function of their character—that is, there aren’t people who always favor technical accounts and people who always favor stories. Rather, reasons arise out of situations and roles.

So, how can we select reasons that will be the most impactful? 

Effective reason-giving, then, involves matching the kind of reason we give to the particular role that we happen to be playing at the time a reason is necessary.

But what about when people struggle to understand or embrace each other? What is happening in those moments? 

When we say that two parties in a conflict are “talking past each other,” this is what we mean: that both sides have a legitimate attachment to mutually exclusive reasons.

The content of this discussion is excellent–it can really make you think on why we explain ourselves the way we do. One shortcoming of the discussion is that it fails to recognize the importance of knowing your audience. By knowing the audience, you can be more effective in engaging them with explanations that connect with them.

The whole idea is quite consistent with Paul’s encouragement in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23:

19Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. 23I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

Do we use the types of reasoning that Tilly identifies when we share the gospel with others? Absolutely:

  1. Conventions – conventionally accepted explanations — Paul makes this appeal in Romans 1:20: For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. We also appeal to the universality of the law, sin and conscience.
  2. Stories – specific accounts of cause and effect that limit the number of actors and actions and elevate the personal over the institutional — The story category often manifests itself through personal testimony in evangelism. When we share how God has impacted our life, it testifies to the power of God and the need of Jesus (1 Peter 3:15).
  3. Codes — high-level conventions, formulas that invoke sometimes abstruse procedural rules and categories — In evangelism, codes appear as we incorporate philosophy, logic, and apologetics to expose the errors of false worldviews. While these are often technical, they can be useful in exposing the point of tension in a person’s belief system in a way that makes it fail. At that point, they are open to embracing the truth claims of a new system like Christianity. We must convince them that their cure to the disease of sin is inadequate.
  4. Technical accounts — stories informed by specialized knowledge and authority — There are a wealth of technical accounts available to us in our evangelistic efforts. What are they? The narratives and teachings contained in the scripture. These accounts contain specialized authority because they are the word of God. Therefore, they are useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

ADDED BONUS: For more analysis of this topic, be sure to check out the Evangelical Outpost’s entry called To Reason Why:Making Sense of Our Reason-Giving.


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