the force of belief

[I]f one defines knowledge as that which exists independently of any particular perspective, belief — which is another name for perspective — becomes a bar to its achievement. In this view beliefs are the property of partisan agendas and if one is to resist their appeal, an appeal that amounts to nothing less than coercion, one must distance themselves from them an neutralise their force. It is my contention that this is precisely what one cannot possibly do and still remain a “one”, a being with a capacity for action. In short, you can never get away from your beliefs, which means you can never get away from force, from the pressure exerted by a partial, non-neutral, nonauthoritative, ungrounded point of view. (Stanley Fish, ‘Force’, Doing What Comes Naturally, p 519).

Now Fish is one of my lights. I’ve read, marked, learned and inwardly digested this stuff. And I’m totally with him that there’s no getting away from belief — and thus from persuasion (as opposed to ‘pure’, agenda-free reasoning).

The problem is, if Fish is right, where’s the line between persuasion and manipulation?

This is no idle question. I was asked it at my Moore College admissions interview. And for anyone contemplating preaching or leading a Bible study — heck, even just opening their mouth to counsel or encourage a friend — it can’t be shelved: We have an authoritative (even transformative) message that we’re rightly seeking to persuade people of. Yet this doesn’t licence coercion, manipulation or otherwise overthrowing the will of those we’re addressing.

Any tips or stories from your experience?


  1. I have issues with manipulation and coercion when it comes to gospel proclamation among children and youth. As the children and youth we minister to are predominately non-church based (about 95 percent). If we present to a child that Jesus is the truth and that we must accept him in order to have life, any child is going to say yes for two reasons: They’ll believe anything you say as an adult, and as an adult they want to please you.

    So at this stage with children I’m confused in presenting JEsus as an invitation to life. Jesus IS an invitation to life, but with children (especially non-christian) it raises all kinds of questions.

    I don’t know what to conclude, but at this stage let’s just say I’m not a huge fan of children/youth alter calls

    1. Geoff, I feel the weight of your concerns — and appreciate your honesty! I’m not sure what to conclude either but have a feeling that the difficult doctrine of Christian freedom may have something to do with it.

      With your help I’d love to move the conversation forward, rather than staying stuck where I was when I started College…

  2. I think persuasion comes from enabling one to truely understand your belief ( good bits and bad bits ) and thus leave them with a choice to either be persuaded or not.

    Manipulation is when you use other devices other than the content of your belief to move people to believe the conent without them truely understanding. I guess the ‘other devices’ can include, false imagery, emotions, rhetoric, repetition…etc. Having said that though, ‘other devices’ can and should be used in a manner to persuasively present your belief. Without those ‘other devices’, truths can become hard to comprehend, as truths we get persuaded by are truths that should be repeated with rhetorical force and emotionally touch us.

    Paul, in 2Cor 5 says, we persuade others.. yet in 1Cor 1 he says that he does it in a manner that does not empty the power of the Cross.

    I’ve been noticing these days, commercial ads are almost always manipulative..particularly with adds about food. They always either use relational imagery (females, homely dinner tables with family) or life stlye imagery to sell their products. Seriously, when you sell, chocolate you are not selling me a woman but a block of chocolate that is cocoa, milk and sugar that willl be either nutritious or not. They tap into people’s desires and attach them with their product.

    In Dan’s word, would this way of seeing manipulation and persuasion make us to say that persuasion happens when we present our belief with the authority of the content of the belief itself?

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