Rhetoric is a discipline that is rarely taught or even discussed anymore, even in scholarly circles. James E. Beitler III attempts to show the importance of rhetoric not just to Christian witness but to a full Christian life in Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church. He does this by outlining how five major Christian voices used rhetoric in their lives: C.S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Desmond Tutu, and Marilynne Robinson.
C.S. Lewis is discussed in light of how he used rhetoric and worship to see the goodwill of Advent. His persuasive style and study of rhetoric helped him to become one of the most revered thinkers of the 20th century. C.S. Lewis addresses audiences on their own terms, adopted a humble stance, and cultivated communities. Again, this was centered around goodwill–the ultimate well-being of humanity through resurrection life with God (36-37). Dorothy Sayers used rhetoric and credal worship to emphasize the “energy of Christmastide” as Beitler puts it. Through vivid depictions and tranquil scenes, she made a rhetoric-filled argument for Christianity. Sayers’s He That Should come stirred up controversy in her own time, and Beitler quotes a remarkable defense Sayers offered of her portrayal of Christmas in which she talks about Christ being born “into this confused, coarse, and indifferent world… He was a real person, born in blood and pain like any other child, and dying in blood and pain, like the commonest thief…” The lifelike depictions of Sayers language comes through in the chapter dedicated to her, and shows how the persuasive rhetoric of her Christian witness played out.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is used by Beitler to exemplify the use of preaching the Word and epiphanic identification–the hiddenness and reality of Christ the God-man. The “strange glory” of epiphany is that Christ comes to be identified with us–to be a human person. Even more radically, Bonhoeffer’s rhetoric led to the identification with Jewish Christians and taking a stand against those who would refuse to do so in Nazi Germany. Preaching, for Bonhoeffer, involved bringing the Word to the hearers ears, which would itself lead to identification with the Word. The word of God itself “is the exclamation point that we do not need to add,” said Bonhoeffer (115-116).
The chapter on Desmond Tutu was particularly fascinating, both in noting how Tutu’s wholly religious rhetoric led to calls for repentance and reconciliation and also how that same religious fervor led to accusations of divisiveness and triumphalism during the end of Apartheid in South Africa. Tutu’s prophetic rhetoric issued a stirring call for repentance from racial division and unity of the body of Christ. Marilynne Robinson has become a significant voice in Christianity through her fiction, which, through the Gilead Trilogy, uses rhetoric to make “faith’s unseen realities more believable and faith’s central questions more significant for unbelievers” and believers (162-163). Beitler notes the use of themes in the trilogy that help usher in a sense of ethos of Easter that makes sense of Christianity in real-world ways.
Throughout the book, Beitler does a good job of putting forward the ideas of those speakers/writers he wishes to highlight while allowing his own narrative and writing to take a back seat. Seasoned Speech is itself an execise in rhetoric, calling readers to a better appreciation of and for both the content of the writings and speeches of the people highlighted but also to go forth and learn more. I, for one, ended up putting holds on a number of works about and by several of the authors discussed, and I look forward to continuing to learn about their “seasoned speech” (a reference to Colossians 4:6).
Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church is a remarkable call to enjoy and learn from several fascinating thinkers in recent Christian history. It is the kind of book that calls for reading and re-reading and absorbing. I highly recommend it.
Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.
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