Sticky Theology, Part 4: Persuasion and Bivalent Theology

Christianity tends to be an evangelistic faith. Not all facets of Christianity, mind you, are this way. The Amish come to mind. But generally Christians seek to evangelize people to their faith.

This means that folk communications about the faith tend to have persuasion as the main goal. And persuasive speech tends to have characteristics that are relevant for this series.

Generally, persuasive speech tends to manifest bivalent logic: Right versus Wrong or True versus False.

That is, persuasive speech tends to seek a movement from one opinion (the wrong one) to another opinion (the right one). In many folk conceptions, this opinion shift is often called “conversion.”

Obviously, this type of opinional shift is an anemic version of “conversion.” But in my faith tradition, it remains a dominant vision of conversion. But this facet of the folk model isn’t what will concern us here.

Specifically, I wish to note that a persuasive theology will tend to be a black and white theology. A bivalent theology.

The trouble with a bivalent theology, despite its “stickiness,” is that it is a theology that lacks depth and nuance. Worse, depth and nuance are seen as symptoms of unfaith. Complexity is devilish. Witness a comment in these posts where nuanced conversation is deemed “academic” and, by implication, “wrong,” unfaithful, and, again by implication, devilish.

The point is, deep, considered, critical, and reflective theology is NOT sticky. Which poses some problems. Binary, bivalent theology will always mimetically outperform deep theological ideas. Deep theological ideas will be too difficult to communicate via the sound-bite and bumper sticker.

Ecclesially, I think Paul noted this problem. Some people are equipped for evangelism and others for teaching. These are really two different theological tasks. One is bivalent and the other is multivalent. One needs to be mimetically effective (an extrinsic characteristic) while the other can rely on the intrinsic motivations of the audience (the church) to sit through the nuanced and deep theological conversations (presumably because theological education is boring and hard work).

So there are different needs here. However, my concern is that too often the evangelistic, persuasive, and bivalent theology becomes the food for the church as well. Too many Christians are still drinking theological milk when, in the words of Paul, they should be proceeding to solid food. I think this occurs because bivalent thinking may be TOO mimetically powerful. I think the church isn’t noticing this memetic power is thus failing to take prophylactic action demanding more depth from her congregants.

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11 thoughts on “Sticky Theology, Part 4: Persuasion and Bivalent Theology”

  1. Richard,

    Four comments.

    1) In part 3 of Sticky theology I made use of the term "academic" but not as non-nuanced. The point I was making is precisely the opposite. I was speaking disconnected thought, thought incongruent with nuanced thought and observation.

    2) One proclamation of Good News does not fit all. And, sadly, some theologies, folk or nuanced, present Bad News, thinking it is Good.

    3) Tracy's rhetorical points in the previous post are worth examining again in light of this post.

    4) I'm not certain complexity is devish, but only regarded as so because thought and reflection about complexity require time, energy, and dedication.


    George C.

  2. Richard,

    Blast! I used to counsel my students to proof read. Mea culpa.

    I wrote: "I was speaking disconnected thought . . . ." when I was thinking: "I was speaking of disconnected thought . . . ." Dropping of's and articles tell me I'm in a hurry and am not proofing. But I guess it's not as bad as dropping by uninvited!


    George C.

  3. Richard,

    About bivalent thinking.

    The Apostle Paul was generally not rhetorically bivalent in his proclamations. He shaped his message according to his audience, not only in his letters but in his sermons. E.g. in Athens, the "scripture" he quoted came from Greek writers. Elsewhere he quotes from the LXX and occasionally directly from the Hebrew. He spoke of becoming "all things to all in order to save some. . . ."

    Jesus, likewise, taught in parables. Even when he used bivalence, he did so as paradox.

    Bivalence is an easy hook upon which to hang thought . . . and sometimes, ahem, outselves. Been there, done that, still doing sometimes it in a tattered tee shirt.

    My experience is that much avoidance of multivalent thinking comes from fear and insecurity because bivalence provides easy and clear indication of personal and communal identity.


    George C.

  4. Richard,

    To ward off wearing out my welcome I had decided not to make further comments for a while, and then my weekend reading screamed at me to make one more.

    Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society, writes on the first page of his "The Science of Good and Evil": "...throughout this book I apply a principle I call Darwin's dictum, which states: 'All observation must be for or against some view of it is to be of any service." But on page 3 he cites Emerson's "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

    So which is it--Darwin's dictum with it's implied care for consistency (and black and white thinking) or Emerson's hobgoblin quote--that Shermer really endorses? It's clear right away that he thinks it is a sign of wisdom to know the difference between problems that reason can and cannot solve. For the former, go with Darwin, and for the latter realize that consistency is a hobgoblin, i.e., keep an open mind till all the evidence is in--if ever.

    I thought that Shermer's two cents on bivalence might be of interest, if for no other reason than to see that your current points have application beyond Christendom (it remains to be seen whether the book as a whole has much merit).

    I'll be a silent reader for a while--and thanks for the always interesting comments!


  5. Ummm... I, for one, would prefer for you not to be a "silent reader". If for no other reason than to make me feel good about my part in wasting blogspace. Really, I like reading your comments, tracy... why keep them to yourself?

  6. Pecs, Tracy,

    Pecs is correct. Tracy, we are all silent as we communicate in cyberspace. Your retreating into lurkerdom lessens the marvelous interplay that is possible--though even lurkerdom affects the universe.

    Richard, Tracy, Pecs,

    Tracy's Darwin's dictum versus Emerson's is, it seems to me, a ratcheting up (or down) of Darwin's dictum. The human condition is (or is not) that we are able to think in terms of "either/or" "and/or" "both/and."
    How to include or exclude.

    Bivalent thinking sets the stage for learning which involves, inter alia, separation, distinction, clarification, categorization, naming. Its downside is superficiality, literalism, monomania, ideology, idolatry, aggression.

    Multivalent thinking sets the stage for reflection and questioning prior to bivalent thinking. It underlies wonder, exploration, self-awareness, wholeness, gentleness, and mystery. Its downside is fogginess, fear, lack of focus, darkness, superstition.

    If these modes of thinking do not swim together in fresh metaphorical streams they will drown in pollution. Or to alter the metaphor, if these kinds of thinking are not held in a creative tension, no fully human thinking can occur. Healthy human thinking is a kind of dance where steps are followed but also where improvisation takes place. It is jazz, classical, blues, pop, alternative, rap, and, alas, even country all together but where deep silence is also not forgotten.


    George C.

  7. Pecs,

    Thank you! thank you! thank you! You're a delight.

    Here's how my foot left my body, entered the blog-o-sphere, and sunk deeply into my mouth when it returned.

    Richard likes to experiment with ideas, to bend the rules a bit in order to see what happens, to push against against convention, and so on--and all in a playful, artful way. And he does all this with rather amazing rapidity. So I have compared his blog to jazz, saying that to me he is a conceptual jazz artist.

    Recently it's become apparent to me that my questions--though good questions and well intended--are rather like asking a jazz musician to comment on the theoretical approach she takes to her improvization: it's missing the point, because "It don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing!" and swing is about the right feel, not theory.

    Now in my opinion no one else is "clapping on the downbeat" to Richard's swinging rhythm, so please don't think that I mean my self-censure to be generalized!

    Well, I think the foot is out, so time to go...

    Wow! George!

    I just went to hit "Publish..." and noted that your comment beat mine by a nose. Wonderful comment, and I am delighted to see that we both used the metaphor of musical styles to flesh out our intuitions. But I gotta say, jazz is my favorite, even if I'm not good at it...

    BTW, Your comparison/contrast of bivalent and multivalent thinking is really helpful.

    Thanks all!

  8. George to Tracy: "Do you know 'Bring It with You When You Come' by Alberta Hunter?"

    Tracy to George: "No. But if you hum a few bars, I'll play it, even if I'm not good at it. . . ."

    George C.

    P. S. Alberta Hunter was a wonderful Memphis jazz and blues singer of the 1920s to 1960s.

  9. Tracy, if I am reading you right, you think way too highly of Richard and not highly enough of yourself.

  10. Tracy,
    Hey, I'll take any comments you care to post. Many or few. But I perfer many:-)

    Overall, I'm not the best comment-responder. So I do appreciate when readers interact with each other. I try to pitch in, but mainly I'm thinking about my next blog post. I try to keep the ideas coming and often fail to back up with readers and fully chew and digest what I've produced. It's hard to know how long to linger and when to press ahead.

    I never thought anyone would read this blog. I'm still amazed anyone does. The posts are long and academic. But having found some readers I'm always excited to see comments just to know that the work I've put in is being thought about. Many readers have told me that they are too intimidated to comment here. I hope not. All you have to be is curious, humble, and interested in conversation.

    Anyway, I love the exchanges on this blog. The comments here are, if one tours blogland, very different and very worth reading. Tracy, recently you've been a large part of that. I hope you find this place welcome and hospitable with doors wide open for whatever insights you may have!

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