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Book Review: Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church by James Beitler

April 5th, 2022 | 6 min read

By Josiah Peterson

James Beitler III, Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church, Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press Academic, 2019, 243 pp., $25.00 pb.

Christians can be forgiven when they cringe upon hearing the word “rhetoric.” Rhetoric is all too easily associated with insincere posturing and emotional manipulation, or alternatively with academic conferences or journals rife with incomprehensible jargon. But if Christians are going to fulfill their calling to be salt and light in the world, and to let their “speech be seasoned with salt,” rhetoric is unavoidable. The question is whether Christians’ rhetorical practice (rhetorica utens) will be guided by a knowledge of rhetorical theory (rhetorica docens).

In his recent book, Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church, Wheaton English professor James Beitler aims to use rhetorical theory to “expand our repertoire of approaches to Christian witness, address audiences inside and outside the church more effectively, and perhaps even learn how to participate in worship more fully” (Beitler, 12).

Taking Augustine’s advice to Christian teachers to teach by examining models, Beitler organizes his book around “five exemplars of Christian witness”: C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Desmond Tutu, and Marilynne Robinson (6). He is primarily interested in how each one goes about establishing ēthos—good character and credibility—since a certain level of trust and respect is a prerequisite for rhetorical effectiveness.

Each example rhetor is coupled with a rhetorical concept related back to ēthos. Lewis’s efforts at translation into the vernacular, his forthrightness in controversial subjects, and his humility are shown to produce what Aristotle calls eunoia, or good-will, between speaker and audience, removing barriers to finding meaning together. Sayers’s plays exhibit what the classical rhetorician Quintilian called enargia, or vivid depictions, by which she dramatizes dogmas in order to compel her audiences to feel the gravity of otherwise abstract truths. This shows the strength and sincerity of her convictions. Bonhoeffer’s uncompromising sermons and letters during the crisis of the German church in the 1930s and 40s exhibit what contemporary theorist Kenneth Burke called “identification and division,” by which a speaker seeks to establish his and his audience’s position relative to the world around them. Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who chaired South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission following the end of apartheid, practiced “constitutive rhetoric” with an emphasis on Ubuntu, using language that creates a sort of solidarity and interconnectedness among a people. Robinson’s Gilead trilogy displays how ēthos is not simply a feature of atomized individuals, but a feature of entire communities, both for those naturally “at home” in the community and those still trying to find a home.

For a taste of Beitler’s analysis, take this explanation of enargia from the Sayers chapter:

Enargeia involves depicting an event so vividly that the one who speaks and, thus, one’s audience feel as they would if they were really there, experiencing the moment. Such vivid depiction is clearly connected to the emotional appeals of pathos, but it also is related to ethos. Swaying a judge through enargeia hinges primarily upon the speaker’s imaginative ability to experience the emotions that one present at the scene of the crime would have felt. Quintilian writes, “The chief requisite…for moving the feelings of others, is, as far as I can judge, that we ourselves be moved; for the assumption of grief, and anger, and indignation, will be often ridiculous, if we adapt merely our words and looks, and not our minds to those passions.” There is, in other words, a kind of rhetorical honesty to the technique. The speaker does not try to conjure up feelings in the audience that are not true to the speaker’s own feelings. (66-67)

Seasoned” in the book’s title takes on a secondary meaning, as Beitler adds another layer to the exemplars and rhetorical theories by looking at how each relates to a particular “season” of the church calendar. Building off of James K.A. Smith’s work exploring how our lives and loves are shaped by our liturgical practices, Beitler argues “we need to extend existing conversations about the ways that Christian liturgies shape the character of individuals and society by considering how our liturgies relate to various constructions of rhetorical character, or ethos.” (17) Each rhetor and rhetorical concept is coupled with a “season” of the Church calendar: Lewis with Advent, Sayers with Christmas, Bonhoeffer with Epiphany, Tutu with Lent, and Robinson with Easter. All of the exemplars are brought together in a final chapter on Pentecost, examining “heteroglossia” and “polyvocality”—the need for witness in many different voices. If Christians are stuck in one Church season—always in Lenten mode, or perpetually in Advent for example—their character and rhetoric, indeed their worship, will not enjoy the fullness of the gospel message.

It can be difficult to distinguish the unique features of each season as they frequently overlap, but Beitler picks out themes that tie in with the rhetorical features of each of his examples. For Advent, he focuses on humble, joyful, anticipation, which he thinks ties in nicely to Lewis’s preparation evangelica, or preparation for the gospel. (49) He focuses on the incarnational aspect of Christmas, which ties in to the realism of enargia. (70) Epiphany is a Church celebration of unclear origin, possibly commemorating the visit of the Magi, or Christ’s baptism, both events which identify Christ, out of the midst of otherwise obscure or humble circumstances, as the promised King and Messiah. Likewise Bonhoeffer’s rhetoric of identification and division pick’s out Christ’s people from their worldly surroundings. Lent focuses the Church on repentance and lamentation, both elements critical to Tutu’s work in Truth and Reconciliation. (155) And the element of Easter that Beitler focuses is the invitation to the table, made possible through Christ’s sacrifice. (190) Coming together around a table is a major theme in Robinson’s trilogy.

Unfortunately, this most intriguing contribution of the book wains in the attention it receives over the course of the book. Advent takes up about a third of the Lewis chapter, Christmas about a sixth of the Sayers chapter, Epiphany less than ten percent of the Bonhoeffer chapter, and Lent and Easter each about fifteen percent of their chapters. This is especially unfortunate for those readers coming from a low-church background who may be fuzzy on the details of Lent and may never have heard of Epiphany.

The book struggles with a similar problem regarding readers’ familiarity with the exemplars. Beitler’s summaries of each of his model’s work function more as refreshers to those already familiar rather than introductions to the uninitiated. Readers who have never read a Sayers play have to take Beitler’s word for their provocativeness while those who haven’t read the Gilead trilogy are likely to be pretty lost in the Robinson chapter.

A further irony is that while Beitler advocates for the greater popularization of rhetorical theory to break it out of its academic confines, the book can be particularly academic in tone and style. For example, Beitler is impressively exhaustive in his secondary research on C. S. Lewis’s rhetoric, and it shows in how much he discusses other scholars in the text itself and in the footnotes that can take up more than half the page. Many of the chapters follow the conference/journal model—particularly the lengthy literature review and outlining how one differentiates oneself from other scholarly opinions—which has never been the most inviting style to read for those outside the scholarly discipline (and for many inside it).

Finally, while Beitler’s introductory chapter on the “The Rhetoric of Christian Witness,” in which he explores the biblical and historical Church’s position on rhetoric, is alone worth the cost of the book, he misses an opportunity to try to reconcile or clarify the relationship between Christianity and more modern and post-modern rhetorical theory. Unlike Lewis, whom Beitler praises for openly tackling thorny or unpopular theological issues, Beitler largely ignores or declines to clarify the risks and tensions of “constitutive rhetoric” and “post-modern” rhetorical theory and Christianity. For example, in the Tutu chapter, he references one modern theorist, James Paul Gee, who says “language constructs significance, activities, identities, relationships, politics, connections, sign systems, and knowledge…building reality.” (138) If by “building reality” he means that covenants, wedding vows, and the Declaration of Independence bring about new states of being, well and good. But does he mean that all reality is “constructed” by rhetoric? In the same chapter he never acknowledges the controversies surrounding Tutu’s post-Truth and Reconciliation social engagement in matters of gender and sexuality, instead questioning whether he was too openly religious in his role as Commission chairman. In the Pentecost chapter, while advocating for the need for more diverse voices in the Church’s witness—a very biblical concept expressed powerfully in the image of every nation tribe and tongue worshiping before the Lamb in Heaven—he seems awfully close to apologizing for being a western white male. These are areas of modern rhetorical study and practice that, understandably, make orthodox Christians nervous about the whole rhetorical enterprise, and it is a shame Beitler does not take the opportunity to either put them at ease or correct their misunderstanding. Hopefully he will do so in his future work, of which there is sure to be more to come.