Jim Beitler is associate professor of English at Wheaton College. At Wheaton, he is the director of First-Year Writing and coordinates the Writing Fellows Program. The following interview revolves around Beitler’s latest book, Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church.
This interview was conducted by David George Moore. Some of Dave’s teaching videos can be found at www.mooreengaging.com.
Moore: Please share the impetus for writing this book.
Beitler: People have been studying and teaching rhetoric—the art of persuasion—for over two thousand years, and this rich tradition has much to offer Christians who are eager to share their faith with others. However, though many Christians have engaged and contributed to the rhetorical tradition throughout its history, rhetoric isn’t often talked about or taught in church settings. By showing how some of our most beloved Christian communicators practiced rhetoric, I hope to encourage more Christians to take up the art of persuasion.
Moore: You recommend that churches teach on rhetoric. That will sound very odd to many people. Why do you think this is a good idea?
Beitler: The state of public discourse in the U.S. is lamentable—and, sadly, the manner in which some Christians participate in the public sphere is part of the problem. We need to do better, and theologically-grounded rhetorical education offers us a way forward. It invites us to reflect on our communicative contexts, the types of claims we make, the timeliness of our arguments, and more. It can teach us how to build credibility with integrity, develop thoughtful and respectful arguments, and care for our audience members. Christians are called to share the gospel with others, and training in rhetoric can help us to do that well. Studying rhetoric can help us bring the manner in which we proclaim the gospel into better alignment with the gospel message.
Moore: You choose to show the “rhetorical strategies” of C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Desmond Tutu, and Marilynne Robinson. Why did you pick these five?
Beitler: As well-known, well-respected, and persuasive Christian communicators, these figures seemed to me to be excellent ambassadors for rhetoric. Though they are not often described as practitioners of rhetoric, they have all practiced it in remarkably effective ways—and in some remarkably different ways from one another. Looking at these figures allowed me to explore five different rhetorical terms: goodwill, vivid depiction, identification, constitutive rhetoric, and ēthos.
But there is another reason for choosing these five figures. One of the central arguments of my book is that our rhetorical practices should flow from our liturgical practices. Christian worship shows us how to witness. To make this argument, I structured the chapters of the book to track with the Christian calendar and the order of Christian worship. Chapter one, on Lewis, explores a rhetorical approach that resonates with the season of Advent and the call to worship; chapter two, on Sayers, considers a rhetorical approach in line with Christmas and the creeds; and so on. In light of this structure, individuals and church groups may choose to read one chapter of the book during each season of the church year, from Advent through Pentecost.
Moore: Even though St. Augustine saw many abuses among fellow rhetoricians, he still believed persuasion was important. What can we learn from Augustine’s model of not throwing out the baby (rhetoric) with the bathwater (using rhetoric to manipulate people)?
Beitler: In his excellent book On Christian Teaching, Augustine writes, “Since rhetoric is used to give conviction to both truth and falsehood, who could dare to maintain that truth, which depends on us for its defence, should stand unarmed in the fight against falsehood?” Augustine rightly saw that the art of rhetoric may be used in the service of the truth. (That’s a lesson that still matters today: we are in need of public figures who present the truth in compelling ways.) And the larger point—which is, in many ways, one of the core ideas of Christian higher education—is that we need not fear learning that isn’t explicitly Christian. It has much to teach us and may be employed in ways that glorify God.
Moore: Jesus gives a twin commandment in Mt. 10:16 for us Christians to be both “shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.” How can we navigate the choppy waters where a shrewd use of rhetoric still maintains a distinctly Christian emphasis on grace, humility, and love?
Beitler: Christians ought to be discerning, and even strategic, about the rhetorical practices we use, seeking to communicate in ways that embody and nurture the theological virtues and the fruits of the Spirit. These are not completely uncharted waters. The Christians who came before us had to navigate them, too—and we can learn a great deal from them. Take Lewis, for example. Based on the advice he gave others about apologetics, it would seem that he thought very strategically about questions of audience. By doing so, he could share the love of God with his audiences more effectively. As I explain in Seasoned Speech, this approach exemplified a rhetoric of goodwill towards others.
Other figures in the book offer more answers to your question, and some additional answers will be found in my next book, Charitable Writing, which I’m co-writing with my friend and colleague Richard Hughes Gibson.
Moore: In a footnote you quote Desmond Tutu’s dad who offered this counsel: “Don’t raise your voice. Improve your arguments.” Why are we Americans, including those of us who are Christians, so good at the voice part?!
Beitler: While there are many reasons that we raise our voices, it often results from pride and the lust for power. We don’t just want to be heard; we want to be in control. Shouting at (or belittling) others is an effective way to get what we want. But like all forms of violence, verbal violence silences others. Christians are called to a different way: the way of the cross. What this looks like rhetorically depends on the situation, but it will often involve careful and genuine listening.
Moore: What are two or three things you hope your readers will take from your book?
Beitler: I hope that the book encourages rhetorical education in churches and prompts more discussions about the rhetoric of our worship practices. Our rhetorical and liturgical traditions offer Christians many resources for faithful witness.