Faith alive: John Coleman, Columbus native and graduate student, Harvard University

"How to Argue Like Jesus" (Crossway $15.99) by John Coleman and Joe Carter is available through Crossway. org and Coleman’s parents are John and Shea Coleman of Columbus.

The title of your book is "How to Argue Like Jesus." Do you contend that Jesus was argumentative, or would you say he was persuasive (as the subtitle suggests)? I’d say both. Fundamentally, this is a book about persuasion and communication, and argumentation is an essential communication technique. The chapters detail many of the basic elements of rhetoric, including logic, emotional appeal, credibility, and the proper implementation of narrative and imagery. And the content extends beyond argumentative techniques to deal with methods by which readers can train others in communication and build organizations capable of spreading and sustaining their messages. Jesus provides a vivid illustration of these principles — teaching, encouraging, correcting, managing those around him, and, yes, arguing. There are numerous instances in the New Testament when Jesus debated vigorously, particularly with the religious authorities of his day.

Whom do you have in mind as readers of this book? Joe (co-author) and I hope that this is a handbook on communication useful to diverse audiences of any faith or no faith at all. It’s written for practitioners rather than academics, and we think it contains material helpful to anyone who uses communication in their personal or professional lives — business people, lawyers, pastors, parents, teachers and everyone in between. While the book is heavy on its use of scripture, we deliberately tried to keep it from being too preachy. Joe and I think that the effectiveness of Jesus’ communication should be even more impressive to those who are unconvinced of his divinity. After all, to those who don’t believe, he’s simply a 2,000-year-old executed carpenter whose three years of preaching have led 2.1 billion modern people to believe he was the Son of God. That seems like someone worth studying regardless of your religious beliefs. How is your degree going? When are you graduating and what do you plan to do? Graduate school is going well. After high school I left Columbus and attended Berry College in Rome, Ga. I worked for three years in consulting and energy arbitrage after college. Now I’m pursuing a Masters in Public Administration at the Harvard Kennedy School and a Masters in Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, graduating in 2010. It’s been a wonderful experience. I knew Harvard would be a fantastic academic opportunity, but I had no idea the people and professors here would be as open, welcoming and friendly as they’ve been. I’ve made close friends from all over the world, and found a number of communities in which I feel at home. Despite rumors to the contrary, there’s a fairly strong religious life here — the graduate schools have excellent Christian fellowship groups — and even though I find myself on the other side of a lot of political and spiritual debates, I’ve always felt heard and respected. I’ve also been challenged to grow intellectually. My classmates are unbelievably impressive people, and the professors are both fascinating academics and careful teachers. There are things I’d change about the school, but the positives have always outweighed the negatives.

After graduation, I think I’ll likely return to the private sector. Over the next several years it will be important for leaders in both business and government to find ways to recover from the current economic crisis, and I’m excited by the prospect of participating in that recovery.

How did you get interested in speechmaking? And talk about your competition in 2004 in which you won the national prize.I’ve always loved the written and spoken word. My mom read to me daily from the time I was born, and by first grade I would sit in my room and read for hours. I loved writers like Louis L’amour and William Faulkner; and I remember reciting the speeches of great men like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. out loud as early as elementary school. Like so many kids in the South, some of my first exposure to great public speaking was in the church, and I learned a lot of early lessons in communication from the people I saw in the pulpit. When I was a kid in Columbus I remember hearing the passionate sermons of Chuck Harris at St. Stephen’s Church on Double Churches Road. And I gradually grew to appreciate all kinds of public communication, from stand-up comedy, to political speeches and movie dialogue. Consequently, I started writing and performing at a fairly young age. In high school I wrote poetry, emceed concerts, acted in school plays and gave my teachers headaches by talking too much in class. In college, I decided I wanted more formal exposure to communication and joined the Berry College Forensics (speech) Team. That was where my interest in communication really crystallized. Our coaches, Randy Richardson and Chip Hall, taught us about everything from dramatic interpretation to persuasive speaking, and the team traveled all over the country competing against hundreds of other schools. I loved the experience and ended up winning what’s called the “Pentathlon” award at the National Forensics Association National Championships my senior year. The award is given to the student who scores the most total points in at least five of the nine competitive events.

Are you interested in a political career or something more behind-thescenes? I’m open to almost anything at this point. I’m absolutely fascinated by all that is going on in the world, and I can’t shake the feeling that we may be living through some of the most important events in history. Technological advances in biology, transportation, computing and communication have revolutionized daily life and made once-fantastic ideas eminently possible. The interconnectedness and material advance fostered by globalization have led to cultural, political and social interactions that would have seemed improbable or unwelcome 50-60 years ago. And even as we struggle through a global financial crisis and persistent international conflict, the world is electric with the progress of the last several hundred years. I just hope to be a part of this historical moment in any and every way possible. Politics is one way to go about that, but there are certainly a number of others. Whether I enter politics or something more behind the scenes, I look forward to finding my place.

Talk about your upbringing in Columbus and your education at Calvary Christian — and then Berry — as influences. My early years in Columbus, at Calvary Christian School, and at Berry had a huge influence on me. I developed a love of communication growing up in a family that is passionate about speech, argumentation and debate. Those lessons were reinforced at Calvary and Berry – where students are always encouraged to test their beliefs by engaging one another in conversation. And it was in school – at Double Churches, River Road, Blanchard, Calvary and Berry – that I developed a passion for learning and a belief that anything is possible for those who work hard.

Perhaps most importantly, Calvary and Berry constantly reminded me of the primal importance of service, integrity, faith and friendship to a life well-lived. My teachers in Columbus always took the time to encourage me when I was struggling. They gently corrected me when I’d forget that intelligence is worth little unless grounded in kindness, caring and character. And those teachers – along with my professors at Berry – always pushed me to take the life of the soul seriously. They never demeaned religious faith, and they encouraged doubt, debate and exploration.

How do you and Joe Carter know each other, and how did the book come to be? Joe and I met through our respective blogs in the fall of 2003. His blog, the Evangelical Outpost, quickly became one of the top sites on the web; and while I didn’t agree with everything he wrote, I always respected his fairness, passion and talent as a communicator. At one point, Joe authored a series of posts on his blog concerning Jesus’ use of logic (based on Dallas Willard’s article, “Jesus the Logician”). He reached out to me about the prospect of turning it into a book on communication more broadly, and I really liked the idea.