Dorothy Sayers

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Book Review: “Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church” by James E. Beitler III

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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Guest Post: “The Vision of Literary Apologetics” by Holly Ordway

Why is apologetics, the defense of the Christian faith, important?

In one sense, Christianity needs no defense. God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, does not depend for His existence on our belief. However, many people who do not know the living God are separated from Him in part by intellectual obstacles. Removing those obstacles by showing that Christianity indeed makes sense on a rational level is an act of love and care for our neighbor. Defending the faith also builds up a strong foundation for believers. A securely built house has a solid, well-built foundation, so that the vagaries of wind and weather don’t damage it or cause distress to the inhabitants. It’s natural to have questions and doubts – think of the disciples, asking Jesus “increase our faith!” or the man who cries out “Lord, I believe: help my unbelief!” Apologetics helps strengthen the foundations by providing answers to questions and doubts, so that the Christian can grow stronger in his or her faith.

What about “literary apologetics”?

Literary apologetics is that mode of apologetics that functions through the use of the Imagination in stories, poetry, drama, and song. Imagination is a mode of knowing; it is the twin sister of Reason. Imagination that is not grounded in Reason can become what JRR Tolkien called “morbid fantasy,” unhealthy and unhelpful; conversely, Reason that is not supported by Imagination can become sterile, rigid, and unfruitful. Literature is particularly well suited to bring these two often-separated sisters together, so that Reason and Imagination can illuminate the path to truth.

Stories, poetry, and drama can help us to both comprehend the truth (with our intellect) and apprehend it (imaginatively and emotionally). As with rational argument, literature cannot in itself bring a person to know Christ, but it can open doors, challenge assumptions, and most importantly provide a glimpse of experienced truth. Stories invite readers to indeed “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).

Literature can best fulfill this role when the author is committed both to expressing the truth and to creating a good story. The best literary apologists – CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, GK Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, and others, just to name those of the past century – did not set out to wrap a moral in a story, or explicitly to promote Christianity through their fiction writing. Rather, they believed fully and deeply, and sought to glorify God in all that they did – and so their stories show the truth, in deep and satisfying ways.

Today, we need a new generation of Christian writers who will do what those great writers did. We need well-informed, thinking Christians, who know their Scripture and theology, are committed to living out the Christian life in word and deed, and show forth that living truth in their work.

We need writers who will immerse themselves in the best writing of centuries past and learn from it, and be able to draw on that rich treasury of imagery to do new things.

We need writers who are willing and eager to view writing as a God-given calling, and to joyfully pursue the craft and art of it with dedication and hard work.

Fortunately, we do not have to start from scratch! We have the works of Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton, MacDonald, and others to study and learn from. Going further back, we have an absolute treasure chest of writers: Coleridge, Donne, Herbert, Hopkins, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Spenser, Dante, to name just a few.

We are not limited to the great writers of the past, however. We have people who even now are taking up the challenge of writing to draw people through the imagination to know Christ. In England, the poet and scholar Malcolm Guite (www.malcolmguite.com) is doing marvelous work with poetry. In my own blog, Hieropraxis (www.hieropraxis.com), I am attempting to cultivate an appreciation for literature and literary apologetics, as well as writing my own poetry.

To be an effective literary apologist means a commitment to the craft of writing, so that the great and glorious truth of our faith is presented to the world in the most beautiful, powerful, gripping, and transformative ways possible. It also means a commitment to community. Just as Lewis and Tolkien were part of the Inklings, commenting and critiquing each others’ work, so too the writers of today need the kind of community where “iron sharpens iron.”

In the Cultural Apologetics program that I head up at Houston Baptist University (link: hbu.edu/maa), we pay close attention to literature and the arts in the service of apologetics. In addition to myself as a ‘literary apologist,’ Dr. Michael Ward (author of Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis) is now on our full-time faculty for the MA in Apologetics, teaching on CS Lewis and Imaginative Apologetics and also on Literature and Apologetics. In addition to helping apologists learn how to use imaginative means to present apologetics arguments, we hope also to encourage Christian writers to do new creative work. The Thesis option for our MA can be either an academic thesis or a creative one.

I think we’re at the beginning of great things for literature in the service of God. My friends, let’s go further up and further in!

Dr. Holly Ordway is a poet, academic, and Christian apologist. She is the chair of the Department of Apologetics and director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type: A Rational Academic Finds a Radical Faith (2010; 2nd ed. forthcoming, 2014, Ignatius Press). Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.

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