Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church
James E. Beitler III
Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.
Available at IVP.
By Laura Thierry
Rhetoric in the life of the Church tends to get a pretty bad wrap. Associated with manipulation, cunning, deceit, and emotionalism, we often find it easier to quote Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 and flee from ‘plausible words of wisdom’. But is this the last word on the role of rhetoric in life of the church? What happens when 1 Corinthians 2 is set in conversation with Paul’s plea to the Church in Colossians 4:6 “Let your speech be always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person’?
Such questions form the scaffold of James E. Beitler’s Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church. Beitler seeks to ‘rehabilitate’ rhetoric as a practice of great significance to the Church’s life, liturgy and work – not just for academics and pastors, but even and especially for the laity. He does this through “inviting readers to consider the rhetorical artistry of five exemplars of Christians witness: C. S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Desmond Tutu, and Marilynne Robinson” (p. 6.).
But why should we care about rhetoric in the first place? Because, as Beitler states, “Christians simply cannot avoid practicing rhetoric when witnessing. Rhetoric and truth are not opposites; rather, presentations of the truth are always rhetorical” (p. 10). We will use rhetoric whether we like it or not, and therefore Beitler believes that “All Christians should have accesses to the resources that the rhetorical tradition offers.” (p. 11). He then goes on to define rhetoric not merely as style or delivery, but also (as per Cicero) as invention, arrangement, and memory. Another element central to his conception of rhetoric is the concept of ẽthos, that is, “the appeal to one’s character or credibility [which] accounts for the fact that a rhetor’s ability to persuade an audience is tied to who the rhetor is or who he or she appears to be” (p. 14).
One of the most enjoyable elements of this book is the way in which Beitler situates rhetoric in the life of the Church directly in relation to the liturgy, built on the thesis that “some of the most persuasive forms of Christian witness are constructed by the worshiping body of Christ.” (p. 15). This commitment to understanding rhetoric in relation to liturgy not only shapes his content, but (in delightful rhetorical fashion) also shapes the form of his chapters. That is, each rhetorical example examined is done so with respect to a different season of the church year and a different element of the worship service. This delightful decision to embody the book’s content liturgically lends powerful force to its overall message of the winsome power of rhetoric.
Finally, Beitler concludes by drawing all these threads together in a Pentecost conclusion on the necessity and power of the “polyvocality of Christian witness.” (p. 21).
In an age where far too much Christian witness descends to the ugly banality of online squabble, Beitler’s book serves as a much-needed winsome wake-up call. In looking to exempla of the recent past this book helpfully provides readers with tangible models to live into and imitate. As such this book would be an excellent resource particularly for two main groups of people: Firstly, for those entrusted with shaping the liturgical life of the church (namely, pastors and preachers, Sunday school teachers, and those involved in leading worship) this book would serve as a tool for thinking creatively about how the work of worship shapes the work of witness. Secondly, those involved in the public sphere (Christian teachers, academics, or those involved politics or journalism) could be encouraged in their role of using words well and winningly. Ultimately, though, this book would be of value to anyone seeking to understand the gift of well-formed words in witnessing to the truth of the Word-made-flesh.
Laura Thierry is a PhD candidate at Ridley College.