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Persuade with Grace

May 6, 2019

This excerpt of an interview with Wheaton College Associate Professor of English Dr. James E. Beitler III is reprinted with permission from Outreach Magazine. You can read Part 1 of the interview here and Part 2 here

James Beitler headshotAs an associate professor of English at Wheaton College, James E. Beitler III spends a lot of time thinking about how words can be a window to Christ. He especially likes to explore how rhetoric—the study and practice of the art of persuasion—can be a key tool in Christian witness. His latest book, Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church (IVP Academic, 2019) explores the role of rhetoric across the scope of five historical Christian figures’ lives and witness.

In Seasoned Speech, he explores the persuasive and communicative tools of five beloved Christian figures of the 20th and 21st centuries, who also happen to be rhetors: C.S. Lewis (essay), Dorothy Sayers (radio play), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (sermon), Desmond Tutu (memoir) and Marilynne Robinson (novel).

Why do you feel it’s valuable to talk about rhetoric at this point in church history?

Rhetoric has a very long history, but it often gets talked about pejoratively. People almost always mean it in terms of empty speech. But the rhetorical tradition is robust and rich. It has all of these wonderful, well-developed resources for thinking about how to convey ideas in ways that will be understood and that will potentially bring about persuasion. Christians throughout history have drawn on that tradition. Now, in some ways we do see a lot of empty words in the public discourse right now. As Christians, thinking about how rhetoric can be used not just to put forward those untruths in a persuasive way, but also to put forward the truth in a persuasive way is important.

What opportunities exist for the church if rhetoric were elevated to the same level of value as, say, evangelism and apologetics, to the average Christian’s life?

I want to speak carefully because, in some ways, it’s all about what God is choosing to do. But I do think Christians can, by mining our rich rhetorical tradition, have a greater repertoire of resources and practices to speak out of. Drawing on as many resources as we have can expand our outreach and more effectively extend this truth that’s been given to us to steward.

How do you hope pastors and other non-academics will be able to use your new book to advance their Christian witness and the witness of their congregations? 

My hope is that pastors, church leaders and seminarians as well as members of the laity will read the book. The rhetorical tradition offers rich resources for the whole church, and I believe that we all ought to engage in reflection about our approaches to Christian witness. The manner in which we convey our convictions matters.

Often times we just do things. We speak into the world, but stepping back and taking a moment to think about those practices is really important. One of the things the book tries to do is look carefully at some of our exemplars of rhetorical practice. Readers will then be able to think about their own rhetorical practices, the ways in which they’re attempting to persuade or to bring eloquence to truth.

Why structure the book according to the Christian liturgical calendar, starting with Advent and ending with Pentecost?

There are actually two kinds of clocks that the book proceeds according to. One is the seasons from Advent to Pentecost. There’s a rhetorical term that is a word for time in Greek, kairos: those opportune times when we can speak into something with a particular power because the circumstances are just right. The seasons are in some ways just the calendar time, but in another sense they’re moments of rhetorical potential when we can speak out of in powerful ways. And they each are inflected with their own emphases, allowing us to tell more of the story as the year unfolds. They orient us rhetorically in terms of the words we write and say.

The other clock is the moments of many Christian worship services: the call to worship, statement of belief, sermon, confession, celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and finally, the benediction. I thought that particular structure was important because it exemplified exactly what I’d been talking about, which was this important connection between worship and witness. I wanted the ways in which Christians order our time and activity to be central to my presentation of rhetoric.

You unpack each figure’s life and societal circumstances, and it’s clear their context influenced their perspective. How much should our own circumstances affect our rhetoric, or are the examples you explored in the book transferrable across time and space?

Rhetoric and rhetorical practice are context dependent. When we think about the word imitation, we tend to think about copying what somebody else has done. But the ancient rhetoricians didn’t think about it that way. They thought about it as a kind of opportunity for invention. Following what someone did, but doing it in a new way. What the book aims to do is not to say, Here, do exactly what Lewis did, or do exactly what Sayers did. It’s to say, Here’s what they did given their context and the needs and problems they faced. Now, we have this tradition that has these flexible resources to draw upon. You can imitate what they do by speaking into your own context and reaccentuating past rhetorical resources in the new moment you find yourself in. It’s about making something new out of something old. (For those interested in learning more about these rhetorical concepts, check out Michael Leff’s work on imitation and John Murphy’s work on the “reaccentuation of rhetorical traditions.”)

You unpack the rhetoric of goodwill through the witness and writings of C.S. Lewis. Lewis wrote with a winsome joy and an infectious eagerness. … What should we take away from Lewis’ mastery of his witness that is replicable for the average Christian, the average church leader?

I think when we look at Lewis what we see is somebody who took seriously this notion of trying to promote the good of others and this notion of goodwill, kind of addressing somebody on their own terms. Lewis was a big advocate for the notion of translation, or cultivating communities where friendship and meaningful dialogue could occur, some of which encouraged respectful dialogue between Christians and non-Christians. Christians should strive to create more spaces where such conversations can flourish. Those are the kinds of things that promote goodwill. Looking for commonalities across difference. Lewis was adamant about staying out of battles between Christians. He really wanted to promote this notion of mere Christianity. These are lessons for us about ways that we might approach what we do.

As a dramatist, Sayers elicited emotion and sparked the imagination when it came to Christ and to matters of faith. That was her job, and she was good at it. How can church leaders employ a similar rhetoric in their witness not just in their retelling of biblical stories and passages, but in the spirit and energy of all church life?

Enargeia, the rhetoric Sayers used in depicting the gospel through her plays, is a depiction illustrating something so vividly that the one who is giving the oration would actually see it in their mind’s eye, so it would become real to them as well as the audience. The lesson of Sayers is that this notion of vivid depiction is rhetorically powerful. In some ways it goes back to advice we give our students about showing and not simply telling. That’s tried and true writing advice for writing in so many different genres. Narration, description and storytelling are so important for understanding our place in this larger story, by presenting the gospel in a way that we can see it. This is an important point for pastors in particular: exposition and argumentation are often enhanced through description and narration.

And Sayers does urge us to resist sentimentality in our presentation of the gospel. We must speak the truth. For Sayers, that was why the historic creeds of the church mattered so much. They keep us anchored in the truth and, as many others have noted, serve as important guides as we read Scripture.

You highlight a dual reveal/conceal rhetoric that Dietrich Bonhoeffer used frequently. While Christians move toward suffering and toward one another, they also become more obscure, in a sense. They embrace suffering and turn away from worldliness, from those in power. That was how he encouraged his fellow Christians to live while he was alive in Nazi Germany. What can the church today learn from this rhetoric?

Bonhoeffer wanted us to identify, especially toward the end of his life, with the world and with those who are suffering. Any time we do that as Christians, especially when we have to give up authority, power and prestige, we’re practicing what others have talked about as downward mobility. That often does not make a lot of sense, but that’s precisely what the gospel seems to be calling us toward. Paul talks in that wonderful passage from Philippians 2 about this kind of self-emptying love of Jesus Christ, this notion of kenosis, whereby Christ empties himself, and we’re called to imitate that. Living out our lives that way doesn’t reveal itself to the world as glory. It doesn’t seem like power, but that’s precisely where the power and glory of the gospel lies, in the crucifixion, in the death of Jesus Christ. So in that way, when we go on that path, as difficult as it is, that’s one place where the gospel is revealed and potentially concealed. I think this is one of the great challenges for the American church. And I don’t want to speak in generalizations because there are plenty of Christians and churches who do this, but our instincts are not to practice downward mobility.

In Bonhoeffer’s lectures on preaching, he also urged seminarians to avoid inserting too much of themselves into their sermons and to refrain from appeals to emotion and stylistic embellishments. “The word of God is itself the exclamation point that we do not need to add,” one student’s lecture notes record. Whether or not you agree with Bonhoeffer on these points, his lectures invite pastors to consider how they are positioning themselves in their sermons.

Desmond Tutu’s constitutive rhetoric of interdependence says that when we harm or belittle others, we ourselves are diminished. When we treat others with dignity and respect, we enhance our own dignity as humans. … How might Christian leaders today apply his rhetoric of interdependence amidst so much division in our country?

If there’s a lesson to be drawn from the Tutu chapter, it’s the notion that we are interdependent, that our lives are wrapped up in one another. We are not autonomous individuals. What affects one affects all. That’s the notion of Ubuntu, and that’s similar to what Martin Luther King Jr. was talking about. What is needed in the current moment is a willingness not just to point fingers, but to repent of the places where we participate in the wrongs of society. I think this Truth and Reconciliation Commission notion is not necessarily transportable wholesale, but its lessons that we need to seek the truth, we need to promote reconciliation and we need to do that by stepping out and confessing is just a really valuable one for us right now. It’s so difficult to do, to repent and confess. It’s difficult to do for institutions, for politicians, for leaders. It’s just really hard to say I’m sorry. But I think it is a way forward. I agree with Tutu. The title of one of his most famous books is No Future Without Forgiveness, and that necessitates that somebody repent. It’s just important, I think, for the church’s witness that we are held to account.

Marilynne Robinson writes the Gilead trilogy about a pastor, Ames, and the people in his small Iowa town. Yet in none of the books does Robinson write into her characters’ dialogue overt preaching. Instead, she witnesses through place, through hospitality. She makes faith feel comfortable for outsiders and helps readers to feel at home with it. That works really well in literature, but how does it translate into the real world, into the lives of pastors and churchgoers?

The main point of Robinson’s rhetoric is about creating a hospitable space, and she does that through narration. Part of it is the physical spaces we construct, the way in which we orient our worship. Those things are creating an ethos. In this case, ethos is really about the haunt, or the spirit of the place. So it’s the character of the environment. It’s about creating a hospitable and inhabitable space, the idea that the church needs to be a place where people can feel at home. It’s attitude, and architecture, and worship practice—the forms and liturgies we use.

A hospitable space is going to be one where differences can flourish, because the body of Christ is a beautiful picture of diversity, at least that’s what it ought to be. One lesson about hospitality I’ve learned from reading Robinson’s work (and from reading others’ ideas about the trilogy) is that, if we want our Christian communities to be welcoming places, we need to find ways to proclaim truth and practice social justice. Too many Christians only focus on one of these and—like Robert and Jack Boughton, two characters in the trilogy—have difficulty relating to Christians who emphasize the other.

How does the rhetoric of hospitality weave through the five figures’ lives that you feature?

The chapter on Lewis is really about a shared attitude among speaker and listener. Practicing goodwill can be a really hospitable thing. The second chapter on Sayers is really about a shared experience that both the speaker and listener can share. That’s hospitable. The chapter on Bonhoeffer is really about a shared identity. Looking for commonalities while celebrating difference. Unity in difference is important, and it’s hospitable to recognize others’ differences. The fourth chapter on Tutu is on constitutive rhetoric, or creating a space where it’s a shared community. What makes it hospitable is a recognition that when we’re in community, we wrong each other. And so the answer to the maintenance of a community is not departing from it or being forced out, but building up one another. So being hospitable is about being willing to repent and forgive. The fifth chapter on Robinson is about the environment. And that really takes us to the spaces we construct and create, the forms and the liturgies we use. Those things can be hospitable. That’s all outreach.

Many of these figures were gifted speakers and writers. What are the takeaways for those of us who feel that we don’t have those gifts?

One of the lessons I learned from C.S. Lewis and Desmond Tutu is that none of us can do it all. We have different gifts. You are not Lewis or Sayers or Bonhoeffer or Tutu or Robinson, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have something to learn from them, something that might just enhance the gifts you have been given. Take Lewis, for example. In the book I argue that his witness is often characterized by goodwill toward his audiences. That’s a posture that is incredibly important for Christians to embody in the public sphere today. 

What’s more, looking at these figures together allows us to see that the possibilities for Christian witness are myriad. We point to Christ through diverse testimonies, worship practices, vocations and work in our communities (including our work for social justice). We ought to seek out and cultivate different ways of presenting the gospel.--Jessica Hanewinckel 



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