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Sunday, July 14, 2019

"Seasoned Speech" (James E. Beitler III)

TITLE: Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church
AUTHOR: James E. Beitler III
PUBLISHER: Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2019, (256 pages).

What has rhetoric got to do with Christianity? Is learning rhetoric a strategy of unholy manipulation? What can we learn from history with regard to Christian witness using rhetoric? According to author, James E Beitler III, we need more, not less "rhetorical reflection." In arguing for more of the training and theological reflection on rhetoric, he first debunks some myths surrounding the topic. For those who use the Bible to avoid the use of rhetoric, we learn that there is a place for right speech that uses the skills of  persuasion. He states: "Rhetoric and truth are not opposites;
rather, presentations of the truth are always rhetorical." Going through the list of rhetorical experts is in itself a treat: Plato's and Socrates' works on rhetoric; Cicero's five canons of rhetoric; Peter Ramus's modification of Cicero's; Aristotle's three rhetorical appeals; and several contemporary authors such as Kevin Vanhoozer, David Cunningham, and Andr√© Resner Jr. Then there are several theologians who offer theological backing for the study and use of rhetoric as "some of the most persuasive forms of Christian witness."

Beitler presents this book about rhetoric in two ways. Firstly, he chooses a particular person in history to highlight a particular rhetorical framework. Secondly, he adopts the Church calendar as a theological counterpart for reflection. In doing so, he is able to hold both of these emphases together to present the art and theology of using rhetoric in the Church worship setting.
  • CS Lewis on "Preparing the Way" (Advent; Rhetoric of Euonia)
  • Dorothy L. Sayers on "Professing the Creeds" (Christmastide; Rhetoric of Enargeia)
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer on "Preaching the Word" (Epiphany; Uniting Rhetoric of Ethos and Pathos)
  • Desmond Tutu on "Calling for Repentance" (Lent; Constitutive Rhetoric)
  • Marilynne Robinson on "Hosting the Guest" (Eastertide; Rhetoric of Ethos).
The author goes to CS Lewis's Church in Headington Quarry, Oxford to get a better sense of the worship environment of the famous philosopher and apologist. Personality wise, Lewis does not let his fame get to his head. His persuasiveness in his writings speak volumes about the way he uses rhetoric to drive home truth. While most of his writings tend to be dialectical, scholars have noticed that Lewis's approach is similar to "Quintilian's rhetorical counsel" as well as ethos. In Beitler's words, Lewis tends toward "goodwill toward one's audience" or a "rhetoric of goodwill." He also makes multiple connections between Lewis's rhetoric and the Advent season.  For Dorothy L. Sayers, the challenge of her day was to deal with the barriers of Christian witness: Creeds. Despite the negative perceptions of dogmas and the mistakes of the past, she argues that the problem is not the creed per se, but how they had been communicated or non-communicated. He calls "silence, distortion, and cant" as failures of Christian witness. Sayers urges for the practice of both calling and creed through dogma. Performance is her key rhetoric. Using plays and storytelling, we can add vividness to the gospel witness. On Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the theme is learning Christian witness via life together. His rhetoric of "self-restraint" is an interesting term. He speaks as one with a two-pronged objective: Hide himself and reveal Christ. The season of Epiphany is a powerful way to illuminate Christ through ordinary times. Desmond Tutu's rhetoric is that of merging the worship of Christ and applying it to his struggle for social and political justice. Beitler admits that Tutu's rhetoric may be problematic at times when it becomes mixed with powers and political struggles. Yet, his version of "constitutive rhetoric" is immensely helpful to the "rhetoric of interdependence" and the freedom struggle. Marilynne Robinson's "Ethos of Eastertide" asks about how her bestselling book Gilead could teach us about the rhetoric of Christian witness. Her rhetoric of ethos, engages Christian orthodoxy with humanistic values. Chapter six brings all of these examples of various rhetorical styles together under the umbrella of "Heteroglossia of Pentecost." The language of rhetoric is a powerful way to deliver truth.

My Thoughts
The language in this book tends to more technical for laypersons. However, if you are familiar with the study of rhetoric, you would recognize many of the rhetorical terms and concepts used. part from the technical language used, there are at least three takeaways for readers here. First, the book is briefly biographical. It presents a snapshot of the life of the famous individual, albeit from a rhetorical perspective. Using a known historical character brings the art of rhetoric down to a personal level. These individuals are giants in their respective fields. One reason for their influence is their ability to communicate. CS Lewis is well known for his apologetics; Dorothy Sayers for her literary skills in drama and plays; Dietrich Bonhoeffer for his leadership in Church as well as theological depth; Desmond Tutu for social justice; Marilynne Robinson for literature. More importantly, Beitler helps us see that rhetoric is not something to avoid but to be embraced. For it is a powerful way to witness God's truth. As a preacher, this study and application of rhetorics challenges me to expand my repertoire of rhetoric.

Second, there is a powerful theological component in the description of the rhetoric of these individuals. Beitler puts it as witness, and shows us how the conviction of Scripture underlines the foundations of each individual's life work. Beitler assists us by explicitly linking the seasons of the Church calendar with a theological angle. He also shows us the contexts of each individual's theological development; how their background and upbringing affect their witness. It is a subtle challenge to each of us not to belittle the opportunities that we have. If these people could create waves in their respective contexts, we too could learn to embrace opportunities presented to us. Through the book, Beitler gives us a gamut of the different ways theology informs rhetoric.

Third, worship. The last chapter is an important one. Beitler ties all the individual rhetorical styles together under the umbrella of Church and the working of the Holy Spirit. We are encouraged to pursue any of these styles, and to develop our own. The liturgical component helps us bring together the diversity of theology, rhetoric, and communication styles under the umbrella of worship. This is in a way telling us that we too ought to do the same with our own lives.

James E. Beitler III is associate professor of English at Wheaton College.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Inter-Varsity Press and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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