A famous preacher once said, “Those eager to use tactics to persuade are never too far from manipulation.” With the antics of some TV preachers, it’s hard not to find some sympathy for that perspective. But it’s also hard to imagine that any pastor completely avoids attempting to persuade his listeners for truth.
N. D. Wilson and Douglas Wilson, authors of The Rhetoric Companion, want preachers, public speakers, writers, and all of us who must give an account to speak with effective and biblical persuasiveness. They insist that there is a Christian approach to rhetoric, despite its bad reputation. So I asked them a few questions to help tease out their counsel for areas such as preaching and cultural engagement.
What is rhetoric? And why does it usually have a bad reputation today?
In our text, we modify Quintilian’s definition, which is “the art of a good man speaking well.” But of course, words like good have to be understood by Christians in a Christian context. Now that Christ has come, we have God’s incarnate revelation of what a good man is actually like. Ancient rhetoric has to accompany the magi in order to bow before Christ. Rhetoric has a bad reputation today, because for most people it means something more like “the art of a bad man speaking manipulatively.” But when people dismiss bombast or demagoguery as “just a bunch of rhetoric,” they are condemning something that a true understanding of rhetoric also condemns.
In 1 Corinthians, when Paul rejects the “wisdom of words,” the “disputing of this world,” “excellency in speech or wisdom,” or “enticing words of man’s wisdom,” isn’t he rejecting rhetoric?
No, but he most certainly is rejecting a certain approach to it. When man is thought to be the measure of all things, as was the case with many ancient instructors of rhetoric, the result can be impressive. But the world through all its wisdom could not come to know God. Rhetoric apart from Christ is impressive and yet hollow . . . like a blimp. To make Paul’s rejection extra zesty, bear in mind that he was most likely thoroughly familiar with the apostles of ancient rhetoric (Aristotle, etc.) and their disciples. He’s pretty pointedly taking a shot at the way things were done in the smart set. It would be like one of us getting up to speak at an Apple convention and dismissively sneering at touch screens—practically blasphemy.
How is rhetoric related to Christian preaching?
Since Christian preaching is a public declaration of the Christian gospel, there are many aspects of rhetoric that will obviously apply to a sermon. To take a modest example, a preacher, just like a statesman or an attorney, should know what he is going to be talking about before he stands up. A very good application of classical rhetoric to Christian preaching can be found in R. L. Dabney’s fine book, Evangelical Eloquence.
How has our postmodern society affected the way we think about rhetoric and persuasion?
Postmodernism is really nothing new. It is just ancient sophistry in a rented tux. Lots of mouth and no muscle. But what we say in the book most directly collides with both modernism and its wee post when we discuss the nature of proof. Skip papa modernism’s crusade for humanistic omniscience and you skip postmodernism’s adolescent daddy issues.
You observe that, today, most are nervous about using pathos (emotion) when trying to persuade. Why?
They are rightly jumpy about someone using emotions to (cynically) manipulate an audience. If a politician can summon up a tear the same way a professional actor can, the insincerity is obvious. And insincere persuasion is not something that Christians can accept. But consider it the other way around. With certain topics, if a speaker is not moved emotionally himself, then he clearly does not believe what he himself is saying. If he did believe it, then he would have to be moved. Pathos can be abused, just like every other element of public speech—but for Christians its entire absence must also be considered an abuse.
Define copiousness and explain how it relates to rhetoric.
Copiousness means to have an abundance of responses, answers, quotations, and so forth, at one’s fingertips, ready to use. As such, it obviously relates to rhetoric. A speaker should not continue on until he has exhausted his store of information. He should stop well before that point. But he should stop in such a way as to indicate that he could go on if he had to. You don’t have to dump the whole truck to persuade people that you have something in the truck.
You suggest that reading great books gives great copiousness. Can you suggest five great authors to read regularly?
1. C. S. Lewis
2. G. K. Chesterton
3. P. G. Wodehouse
4. H. L. Mencken
5. J. R. R. Tolkien
Obviously, you should only read people with a fondness for initials. (Or maybe it was the periods they liked.)
And five great works to get us started?
1. Orthodoxy, Chesterton
2. The Code of the Woosters, Wodehouse
3. The Four Loves, Lewis
4. A Mencken Chrestomathy, Mencken
5. The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien