How Can They Hear?
James E. Beitler III offers valuable insight on communicating effectively
Where has this book been? Why didn’t I write this first? If ever there was a book that made me ask these questions, it’s Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church by James E. Beitler III.
As a rhetorician myself, I see a shortage of theological and homiletical teaching that includes rhetorical study. As Beitler notes, we in the Church often focus on how to construct messages, while scarcely considering how listeners receive them.
The word “rhetoric” itself often gets a bad rap. People use it pejoratively, with little consideration of its classical definition. Aristotle described rhetoric as the art of discovering all the available means of persuasion in a given situation. The late literary theorist Kenneth Burke defined it as the human use of language, or symbols, to induce a response in other human beings.
Rhetoric is about persuasion through the use of language, how we use language, and how it affects us. When church leaders focus only on how we craft our messages, we miss the process of communication — including the ways in which people receive those messages. We reduce reception to listening, making the audience passive subjects rather than active participants.
Seasoned Speech introduces the reader to five rhetoricians who should be familiar to most, even if their ministry work is more in the mainline of Protestantism than evangelicalism: C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Desmond Tutu, and Marilynne Robinson.
Beitler analyzes their rhetoric through the lens of rhetorical theory and allows the reader to see how each uses rhetoric as a means of Christian witness. In each example, the author draws on a specific rhetorical device that promotes an effective communication process:
When church leaders focus only on how we craft our messages, we miss the process of communication.
- The establishment of goodwill (Lewis);
- The use of vivid or confrontational language (Sayers);
- Identification and division (Bonhoeffer);
- Conversational appeals (Tutu);
- Source credibility or ethos (Robinson).
The final chapter moves the analysis from individual rhetorical acts to communal ones. This chapter should especially resonate with Pentecostals, as it focuses on the work of the Spirit to establish a community of witnesses through shared spiritual experience such as tongues and interpretation.
While Beitler writes from a place of sacramental religious practice that differs from our Pentecostal traditions, the information is still valuable for communicators of all stripes.
Careful consideration of how we use and respond to language is essential to the understanding of how our rhetoric appeals to those who have yet to hear the gospel and those who have wandered from the faith. As Pentecostals, we have our own ways of using language to preach and teach. However, many of these differences are more a matter of style than substance.
Seasoned Speech offers church leaders three important opportunities for response:
First, it offers an opportunity for reflection. How do we establish and develop our ethos (credibility) as ministers and congregations? What are the ways in which we contribute to weaknesses in our ethos?
Second, it offers an opportunity for discussion. This text would be an excellent read for pastoral team development, opening up conversations about how to communicate more effectively.
Finally, it offers an opportunity for imitation. Imitation is both a rhetorical device and a challenge to us from Scripture. We are to be imitators of Christ in our words and actions. In On Christian Teaching, St. Augustine, a trained rhetorician and priest, implored readers to become good Christian communicators by imitating the rhetoric of the apostles and prophets. The rhetoric of modern Christian communicators — such as those Beitler analyzes in Seasoned Speech — can also provide helpful models for imitation.
I would highly recommend this book to my friends in the pastorate and on teaching teams. There is a distinct academic quality to Beitler’s writing, but it is not inaccessible.
While I would still like to see a work like this one from an evangelical perspective, Beitler begins an important discussion we should not dismiss. I consider it an opportunity for further engagement from our point of view.
James E. Beitler III, Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019).