Friday, 28 November 2008

Rhetoric and Preaching

Lucy Lind Hogan and Robert Reid, Connecting with the Congregation: Rhetoric and the Art of Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 175pp. ISBN 9780687085293, and André Resner, Preacher and Cross: Person and Message in Theology and Rhetoric (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), x + 205pp, ISBN 9780802846402.

[The following review of these two books was written in June 2000, and was first published on London School of Theology’s website.]

These two books join a number of recent others which are offering reflections on homiletics from a theological perspective first and foremost, hoping thereby to challenge and transform some of the more practical dimensions of preaching. Narrative, imagination, and community, among others, have all been explored; here rhetoric is placed on the agenda.

Rhetoric, in this context, focuses on what is persuasive in human communication. And this itself has given rise to a wider debate in homiletics: should preaching be persuasive? Some homileticians (e.g., Richard Lischer and Lucy Rose) have argued that preaching must be community-oriented, dialogical, nonhierarchical and inclusive; persuasion can lead to abuse, and is inconsistent with such openness and mutual respect. Preaching is to be communal in nature – the church speaking to the church, rather than one individual speaking to a collection of individuals.

Hogan and Reid disagree. Drawing on the work of contemporary theorists who argue that all human discourse is inherently persuasive, they argue that preaching, by definition, cannot not be persuasive. That is, persuasion is implicit in language itself, and just to speak (or write) is to persuade. (Even the arguments of Lischer and Rose against persuasive preaching are themselves enmeshed in rhetoric intended to persuade!) Moreover, persuasion does not have to lead to manipulation and exploitation. Of course, preachers must come to terms with the power of the ‘preaching situation’, but authoritarian discourse disregards the context, and the nature and needs of the listener. Rhetoric and community-building do not have to be seen at odds with one another, for persuasion can be seen in terms of respect for the other, and has to do (in the understanding of Hogan and Reid), with issuing an invitation to growth and transformation.

At the heart of the book (in chs. 3-5), they consider three major components of rhetoric: logos, pathos, and ethos. Logos is ‘persuasive proof that arises as an effect of the argument and rational linkages presented in the speech’. Pathos is ‘persuasive proof that arises as an effect of understanding who the audience is and the ability of the speaker to move the audience emotionally’. Ethos is ‘persuasive proof that arises as an effect of the character of the speaker’. As might be expected, they call for a balance between the three:

‘Overemphasis on logos becomes a perversion of the persuasive task through overreliance on the subject... and results in... the pedant’s stance. Undervaluing the subject and overvaluing the pure effect of pathos becomes the advertiser’s stance. Sacrificing substance and effect in order to convey personality, charm, or some other way of putting ethos forward becomes the entertainer’s stance.’

There is practical payoff to all this: these categories help preachers consider what is communicated, wittingly and unwittingly, by their own character in the sermon; how preachers can help listeners care about what is being said; how reasoning should function in the sermon, etc.

From a related perspective, in his book, André Resner devotes particular attention to the preacher’s ethos in a bid to tackle the question as to whether the preacher’s ‘self’ can be an appropriate means of persuasion in Christian preaching. He reviews the treatment of ethos in classical rhetoric in Greek and Latin philosophers, before looking at Augustine (for whom the person of the preacher was understood to be a powerful witness to the truth) and Barth (for whom God is the main speaker in Christian preaching, and so consideration of rhetoric is excluded).

Resner then turns to Paul’s discussion of ethos in 1 Corinthians 1-4, and argues that Paul is not hostile to rhetoric. Paul uses a ‘reverse-ethos’, where the preacher is judged not by assimilation to the cultural expectations of the listeners, but by faithfulness to the message of the cross of Christ. A preacher’s persuasive life is shaped by the cross. Resner applies this to contemporary homiletics in his final chapter: ethos appeals need to be subjected to the core values of the Christian community, which (for Paul) are shaped by the cross of Christ.

Both books will not go uncriticised. One has to recognise, of course, that rhetoric is not the only key to effective preaching. One has to ask whether it respects the diverse types of voices by which the Bible speaks and which must shape the preaching task. One has to reflect on how it relates to other aspects of church ministry and worship. In the final instance, the word of God takes effect not in a rhetorical theory, but in the ongoing life and ministry of the prayerful church in the presence and power of the Spirit. Nonetheless, preachers need to be more aware of the dynamics in the preaching event, not least related to their own character, and so be more responsible ambassadors for Christ. These two stimulating and persuasive books will help them on their way.