Review of Romancing the Difference: Kenneth Burke, Bob Jones University, and the Rhetoric of Religious Fundamentalism
by Camille K. Lewis
2007; Baylor University Press
William Duffy, Francis Marion University
Enculturation (2011): http://enculturation.net/fitness-of-romance
(Published September 2, 2011)
One facet of Kenneth Burke’s famous definition of humanity is that we are all “goaded by the spirit of hierarchy,” the spirit which motivates “the social ladder, or social pyramid” and involves “a concern with the ‘higher’ as an organizing element” (Rhetoric of Religion 40, 41). Certainly we see the spirit of hierarchy at work in academic institutions and the practices therein, especially in the work of academic publishing. As a credentialed, doctorate-carrying “member” of academia, I admit my suspicion when upon first opening Camille Lewis’s Romancing the Difference to see that Lewis, according to the author’s blurb, “is Chair of the Department of Rhetoric and Public Address at Bob Jones University.” A native of South Carolina, where Bob Jones University (BJU) is located, I am very familiar with its reputation as an ultra-conservative Christian university. As such, it goes without saying that BJU is a place where one assumes dissidents to its fundamentalist ideology are not welcome, especially when it comes to who teaches within its walls. Lewis, I reasoned, had to be one of “them,” and true to Burke’s definition, I found myself goaded by the spirit of hierarchy to prematurely construct negative assumptions about this writer and her book. I was nevertheless curious about Lewis’s interpretation of BJU. Call it a kind of sub-culture voyeurism on my part, but Lewis’s insider status intrigued me, and this curiosity worked to momentarily quell the ad hominem critic sitting on my shoulder.
One however does not need charity to read and enjoy Romancing the Difference, for the book is smart, direct, and brimming with lucid prose scholars should envy. Moreover, Lewis is a careful reader of Burke and she succeeds in her attempt to expand Burkean theory to account for discursive engagement that supplements his interpretative frames of comedy and tragedy with a third frame, that of romance. In addition, the book engages its site of inquiry, an ultra-conservative Christian university, without any undue bias on the part of its author, demonstrating why rhetoricians need to work harder at charitably engaging fundamentalist rhetoric. This latter point actually highlights one of Lewis’s goals with the book, which is to theorize separatist rhetoric like the kind practiced at BJU in order to better account for it within our theories of democratic discourse. As she explains in the Preface, “We must frame the separatist as not a vicious enemy to be feared or expunged, but as a mistaken adversary to be countered and included.” Such framing, Lewis suggests, “will enrich political discourse and further strengthen our democratic practice” (xii). In other words, Lewis neither attacks nor defends the rhetorical practices of BJU; rather she uses BJU to discuss how we can better understand the rhetorical motives that permeate fundamentalist discourse in general and how we might productively respond to it.
Without setting these praises aside, the book also presents rhetoricians with a poignant example of how even the smartest and most charitable scholarship can fall disappointedly short when it comes to evaluating its practical applicability in publics where such criticism is at a dearth. BJU is one of those publics.
Let me explain.
I began this review with an ad hominem appeal to suggest that Lewis’s position as a faculty member at BJU might compromise her ability to critically evaluate the school’s fundamentalist rhetoric. While it is commonplace to avoid the ad hominem in scholarly book reviews, I find it is impossible to evade in this particular case because the story of Lewis’s book and its reception among the members of the BJU community, especially its administration, bears directly upon the critical thinking Lewis hoped the book would promote at her institution. To this end, it is worth noting that Lewis is no longer an employee of BJU, but I will discuss this in more detail momentarily.
Lewis’s subject in Romancing the Difference is a careful examination of how Burkean theory can be used to understand fundamentalist rhetoric like the kind modeled by BJU, an institution that famously lost its tax exemption status in 1983 when the Supreme Court ruled against the university for its strict admission rules that banned couples of interracial marriage. Nearly two decades later, Bob Jones III, then president of BJU, appeared on Larry King Live after then presidential nominee George W. Bush was publically lambasted by fellow candidates, notably John McCain, for holding a rally at the school. Jones announced that the university was dropping its ban on interracial marriage and dating, but refrained from actually suggesting the policy was mistaken. When Larry King pressed Jones on the matter, the latter replied that BJU’s principles are simply misunderstood by its critics. But rather than condemn these critics, Jones’s public discourse communicates patience and even a modicum of surprise and hurt. As Lewis says, he assumed a position of romance.
To understand why Lewis labels BJU’s public discourse as romantic, readers must first understand Burke’s notion of the “comic corrective” and how he theorizes the frames of tragedy and comedy. In Chapter 1, Lewis explains how Burke uses these frames to illuminate how the relationships we share with one another constantly move between identification and division. Tragedy is the metaphor Burke uses to account for division, and as Lewis writes, “the tragic cycle, according to Burke, is inherent in all human interaction” and begins “with the human need to identify with an ideal order” (2). As we identify and name these ideals, divisions are established with Others, those who cannot share or accept this ideal order. But it is the comic corrective that helps to overcome such division. Whereas “[t]he tragic hero looks up to transcend his situation and then around to expel any Other obstacles, Burke’s comic critic, however, looks inward at its own humanity and laughs, poking fun at the foolishness we all share” (3). Lewis explains that for Burke, sectarians too often assume a tragic stance that results in stubborn isolation. As she writes, “Burke theorizes sectarianism as a defensive ‘splintering’ within the tragic frame that seeks more unity, but breeds more resistance” (7). In other words, sectarians are immune to the comic corrective because identification with the Other is perceived as harmful, something that threatens the sectarian identity itself. Thus Burke’s two frames unfortunately position sectarian rhetoric outside the bounds of democratic discourse. As Lewis puts it, Burke lacks “the agonism, flexibility, and creativity necessary to imagine these pesky citizens as part of the public sphere” (8). To intervene, Lewis theorizes a third frame, the frame of romance, to account for the sectarian rhetoric of religious fundamentalists.
Whereas the tragic critic seeks division for the sake of purification, and the comic critic turns inward to laugh at its own foolishness, the romantic critic establishes distance between the lover and the beloved, distance that can only be bridged through wooing and charm. For religious sectarians, the romantic frame accounts for their separation from the secular Other in terms of courtship and even longing, for the religious sectarian wants to be accepted by the beloved, but only on their terms, terms that maintain the sectarian’s idyllic beauty.
This third position aptly describes the religious sectarian’s motive. Religious separatism is not simply concerned with identifying with the divine—if it were, it would completely remove itself from the view of the dominant. Instead, separatists leave the field but remain within the gaze of the mainstream. Their position is tenuous since they must continually negotiate their separateness while still appearing attractive. (8-9)
To romance difference, then, religious sectarians do what they can to charm their critics while maintaining an identity that is beautiful because of their separation from the mainstream.
In Chapters 2 and 3, Lewis discusses BJU’s museums and galleries as examples of romantic rhetoric meant to charm visitors and outside spectators. BJU’s Jerusalem Chamber, for example, is an exact replica of the room in Westminster Abbey where the King James Bible was translated, and it is meant to demonstrate how BJU views history as an ever-living picture: “Sectarians see the past as complete, as a finished portrait to be honored, as a near and ongoing event to which they have deep connections and obligations” (14). From the sectarian perspective, critics should disregard the deep historical, theological, and cultural rifts that separate seventeenth century Anglicanism from contemporary Christian fundamentalism; rather, visitors to BJU “must connect the points and find the story is not a progression but a repetitive portrayal of identical separatist commitments and motivations” (19). Again, the goal of the sectarian frame of romance is to appear beautiful in the eyes of the beholder, and perhaps the best example of this at BJU is the Museum and Gallery (M&G). As Lewis points out, the M&G is one of the world’s finest collections of religious art; it houses paintings by such Baroque masters as Botticelli, Caravaggio, Giordano, and Reni, just to name a few. Indeed, the M&G attracts thousands of visitors yearly who come to enjoy the splendor of these masterpieces, all of which depict images taken from biblical narratives. One of Lewis’s favorite pieces in the M&G, Edwin Long’s Vashti Refuses the King’s Summons, a painting that appears on the cover of Lewis’s book, depicts how “the romantic shuts out the pleading servants and the bragging king to keep her own self pure” (129). For Lewis, Vashti stands in for the romantic discourse of BJU, which seeks to woo others with its collection of fine art.
In Chapter 4, Lewis seeks to trace the romantic trajectory of BJU’s public discourse in their outreach and community service. Rather then stand on the corner and preach to passers by, students build homes, visit neighboring colleges, and invite the local community to participate in on-campus festivals. When the BJU community views “the dominant culture from their separate (and hopefully glimmering) pedestal, these sectarians blame community problems not on politics, biology, or culture, but on loneliness” (67). Turning to Burke’s familiar habit of discussing rhetoric in medicinal terms, Lewis explains that the romantic separatist cures his or her surrounding culture with the balm of sympathy.
In Chapter 5, Lewis examines the events of Campaign 2000 that directed national scrutiny onto BJU. To explain how the university assumed a position similar to Burke’s tragic scapegoat, she analyzes Jones’s appearance on Larry King Live in addition to a full-page advertisement purchased by BJU in USA Today. It is in this final chapter where Lewis is perhaps most critical of BJU, for she positions Jones’s public repeal of the school’s ban on interracial dating as a failed rhetorical move that lacked finesse and proper timing.
By the end of the book, Lewis gives readers an insightful analysis of BJU’s public discourse in addition to a new theoretical frame in which to conceptualize sectarian rhetoric. As I mentioned earlier, however, the story of the book’s reception at BJU is worth noting because it brings into question what is one of Lewis’s central arguments: that sectarians want to appear beautiful in the eyes of the Other. In the spring 2008 issue of the KB Journal, Lewis published an article titled “Publish and Perish? My Fundamentalist Education from the Inside Out” in which she chronicles the scrutinizing process of convincing BJU to allow her to publish Romancing the Difference. Her article also includes the content of a sixth chapter she intended to publish in the book, but was told to remove by the BJU administration. This particular chapter is an analysis of a book called When Trouble Comes by BJU Dean of Students Jim Berg, a book that, according to Lewis, “is not at all ‘attractive’ and certainly not even as potentially ‘romantic’ as other public BJU texts” (“Publish and Perish”). Lewis’s battle with the BJU administration ultimately ended with her forced resignation, a “tragic” outcome to what was ultimately a lack of sympathy on the part of BJU to recognize Lewis’s scholarly attempt to expand its own separatist horizons.
It is unfortunate that BJU lost Lewis, for her writing about the university is charitable in all the best ways. Indeed, BJU’s public reputation would no doubt gain positive appeal if more scholars like Lewis were invited to join its faculty. But they pushed Lewis out, and by extension, rejected the romantic label with which she tries to publically frame the school’s rhetoric. One must therefore question the fitness of romance when it comes to accounting for sectarian rhetoric within democratic discourse. I do not want to suggest that Lewis’s reworking of Burkean theory fails, for it doesn’t. In fact, conceptualizing sectarian rhetoric within a romantic frame certainly invites scholars to re-imagine how outsiders might creatively engage religious fundamentalists. But the story of Romancing the Difference itself, the way both the book and its author were expelled from BJU, nevertheless remains an ominous reminder that Burke might be correct when he stipulated that sectarian discourse only invites resistance.
Burke, Kenneth. The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology. Berkley: University of California Press, 1961. Print.
Lewis, Camille K. “Publish and Perish: My Fundamentalist Education from the Inside Out.” KB Journal. 4.2 (2008): n. pag. Web. 27 Dec 2010.