A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

A Review of Renovating Rhetoric in the Christian Tradition

Review of Renovating Rhetoric in the Christian Tradition Edited by Elizabeth Vander Lei, Thomas Amorose, Beth Daniell, and Anne Ruggles Gere 2014; University of Pittsburgh Press

Matthew Boedy, University of North Georgia

(Published: January 31, 2016)

Renovating Rhetoric in the Christian Tradition frames its exigency by returning to what the editors say is “a persistent scholarly curiosity” (ix): rhetorical studies of religion. This book takes an interesting approach to that conversation by highlighting traditionally ignored populations and topics as a way to better understand a variety of Christian traditions and the rhetorical acts within them. It also addresses what the editors consider a large lacuna in that curiosity: the interactions between teachers and “American Christian fundamentalist” students. If readers are not interested in the former, the latter makes this book a must-read. 

The title is a play on words. One meaning nods toward the claim that the “Christian tradition” could use a little “rhetoric” or that rhetoric has been lost to the present-day embodiment of that tradition. A second meaning makes “renovating rhetoric” a kind of intellectual work by rhetors as they work within the Christian tradition. In a sense, the book indirectly argues fundamentalist students should be pushed toward this kind of work by their teachers. This is best exemplified in the chapter where Beth Daniell tackles the epistemology and reading habits of many Christian students. She attempts to renovate the method she finds they take (a “literal-factual” reading) by developing in them a “historical-metaphorical” approach that moves from “naiveté” to a manner of informed consent (107).

While admitting a curiosity, the editors of Renovating Rhetoric also assume that curiosity comes with a general belief in the broader field of rhetorical studies that ‘rhetoric’ used by Christians isn’t rhetorical enough. In other words, to quote the last chapter that directly addresses these concerns, “Resistance to Rhetoric in Christian Tradition” by Thomas Amorose, those with a Christian worldview either withdrawal from the world and so make their rhetoric “dysfunctional, no longer a tool for engaging the marketplace of ideas” or they work “to forcefully impose their worldview on others” and so use then “a rhetoric of ultimatums, which is no rhetoric at all” (149). This is in some manner the argument offered by Sharon Crowley in her often-cited 2006 book on fundamentalism Toward a Civil Discourse: Rhetoric and Fundamentalism. In short, she claims a more “civil civic” rhetorical argumentation is “not a magic bullet” for persuading Christian fundamentalists because among other “thoroughly naturalized” effects of this belief system, “its conceptual vocabulary literally ‘goes without saying’ – that is, its major terms are seldom subjected to criticism” (5).

The historical roots for this conclusion are addressed indirectly throughout Renovating Rhetoric, but most straight forwardly by Anne Ruggles Gere who suggests that “institutional and intellectual secularization has rendered the discourses around religion stunted” (15). This secularization blinds scholars to compelling rhetoric in religious rhetors, but also blinds teachers to that same rhetoric when it appears in student papers. Renovating Rhetoric argues any renovation does not begin on the ‘outside’ as implied by Crowley, but within religious traditions where rhetors at “times of significant social rupture” in the “Christian tradition” show the ability to argue “more freely than some might expect” (i.e. scholars). These rhetors “sometimes respect and sometimes challenge orthodox practices and beliefs” and so then begin “refurbishing a community’s ways of thinking” (xii). There are many ways renovation is renamed in the book and they all should sound familiar to rhetorical scholars: “refining and adapting,” (xiii) fitting “[discourses] to argumentative need” (xiii), “redefine” (14), “reimagine” (48), “create a space for themselves” (51), “re-envision” (52), “challenge deep-seated beliefs” (60), and the most apt, “simultaneously appropriated and undermined dominant” rhetoric (60). And to scholars studying race, class, and gender (perhaps not in a religious context), it is important to notice that the objects of study for this book are often female, neglected and ignored “others” both to “mainstream” Christianity and the larger society, and those who have the most to lose in their communities when they attempt to renovate.

The book is divided into four sections. The first looks at how two fundamentalist sects—Mormonism and the Seventh Day Adventist Church—attempted to navigate their existence in a political and cultural world that did not engage with them, albeit due in part to their own deliberate exclusion. Gere highlights the “devout feminists” in the early Mormon Church who sought through newsletters and community “clubs” to be true to their religion’s (early) polygamy and also stand alongside those fighting for the female right to vote. In doing so they renovated what we think of as the suburban “clubwoman” and more importantly redefined themselves as Mormons as “intelligent and moral beings rather than the immoral and ignorant figures anti-Mormon texts made of them” (11). Following that, Lizabeth A. Rand shows how Seventh Day Adventists used a rhetoric of refusal to challenge the mainstream Christian and more generically American (though secularized) view of Sunday as a day of rest. Rand argues this deep-seated refusal to conform to the majority is not indifference to audience, but quite the contrary and so most importantly, showing how even “fundamentalist” notions like worship is “a site of rhetorical tension” (25).

The second section addresses the “rise of female rhetors.” Vicky Tolar Burton investigates the first female Methodist preacher’s struggle against a ban on female preaching. That preacher, Mary Bosanquet Fletcher, created a ‘space’ for her preaching both intellectual and physically by standing in the front of the pulpit and holding “conversations” instead of the typical sermon. A collection of authors—Aesha Adams-Roberts, Rosalyn Collings Eves, and Liz Rohan—illuminate the “apostolic rhetoric” of two Methodist female missionaries to the African Caribbean population in Antiqua, a female Mormon leader, and a female missionary to Angola. Each rhetor called “into being particular ideals of community” (57) that created ‘spaces’ for them “within and against” their communities (58) and so renovated them. Karen K. Seat takes on gender ideologies as she shows how the renovation of the “rhetoric of domesticity” became an “antidote to racism and racial divisions” both in America and the countries that saw an influx of missionaries between the Civil War and World War II. These women missionaries “placed the blame for the ‘inferiority’ of non-Western cultures on the absence of Christian homes.” But it “did not seem to occur to them” that “theirs was yet another kind of ethnocentric imperialist project” (65).

The third section addresses the way American Christian fundamentalism affects the classroom. While pervious chapters have showed how the renovation project affects not just the outward audience, but also the inward self-images of its rhetors, this section highlights the ways in which such a project must—to be deemed successful—renovate both student and teacher. Priscilla Perkins tells the heartbreaking story of one of her composition students, an intelligent Honors student named Tina whose Christian religion fails her by stunting her educational growth. In the drafting process this student remained “relatively inflexible” and wrote in forceful and defensive “testimonial terms” and resisted “seeing logos as a dynamic force” (85). Perkins uses Tina to describe a larger “evangelical ethos” (84) that so identifies with “scriptural logos” that they lose its “humanness” (84). Perkins contrasts Tina with another “believing” student who experiences through a rhetoric of renovation of that same logos what Perkins calls, re-appropriating the Catholic scholar Bernard Loner an, an “affective conversion” or “intellectual, ‘metanoic’ conversion” (84). This happens when students “suspend a central or thematic concern with the self” and begin to use their experiences—religious or otherwise - in a critical heuristic fashion (88).

Elizabeth Vander Lei offers a confession of sorts as she describes her interaction with Marty, a student at her Christian institution, Calvin College. Marty’s research paper topic on proving “creationism” was turned down by Vander Lei and then he went on to describe in a class assignment afterward that writing was like “being flogged in a dungeon” (89). This prompts Vander Lei to reassess her focus on what she called the “univocal” definition to verbal and academic commonplaces such as the ‘academic research paper’ but also more broader terms like Christianity and argumentation. Speaking to those who teach Christian students like Tina and Marty, she writes: “what we might be less likely to admit is that our frustration with how students think is compounded by our distaste for what students believe” (93). In such frustration and ideological distance, we see these students as “opponents rather than members of our discourse community who need to experience renovation as we all do” (93). Vander Lei tries to redeem her own failings by pointing to scholars who try to end the “intellectual violence” we do when we trivialize religion and its adherents. These scholars help her to argue that “we will begin to engage each other peaceably when we are willing to renovate our own ideas, when we learn to value both heterogeneity and specificity” (103).

The fourth section addresses rhetoric as a tool in the Christian tradition. Bruce Herzberg argues compellingly that the Apostle Paul did not invent new forms of argumentation and therefore an entirely new faith, as some Christian theologies attest, but that the Jew-turned-Christian renovated Jewish scriptures by both attesting to the authority of those scripture and also giving “new meaning” to central terms (134) like grace. Paul was “inventing in the rhetorical sense of using available means to create a persuasive argument” (134). Amorose ends the book on a very important subject: why the Christian tradition “both early and late, has chosen positions that hamper and limit the possibilities of rhetoric” (136). This chapter most certainly could be directed to a larger audience of theologians, preachers, seminaries, and churches who teach a theory of language as “simply transmissive,” a cardinal sin in rhetorical studies (136).  But it is also directed toward those scholars/teachers who – as the editors seem to hope – are now seeking to engage with religious students (and faculty) in a productive manner. These scholars need to understand the resistance within the Christian tradition if they are to change their own resistance. Amorose argues that Christianity has ‘constricted’ the role of the rhetor through its language theory, where rhetors ‘bear witness’ to the logos by sharing (through evangelism and teaching) “meanings already confirmed” (138). This “tacitly” encourages a resistance to “the cooperative shaping of meaning” and so “could in fact lead to a faith that is untested, and therefore unshaped, by a rhetorical community” (142). Another way that Christianity “places a drag on rhetoric’s potential to serve as a method for exploration of new ways to faith, new ways of faith, new ways to express faith” is what Amorose calls “hermeneutic overregulation” of an individual’s role in such renovation (144). The final way that this occurs is when Christianity as a cultural force sees its role as sustaining “the dominant worldview” (146). The ‘worldview’ often called into being for sustaining is the idea of America as a Christian nation or one that needs to return to its Christian roots. This is what Amorose cites indirectly when he writes that “many contemporary Christian figures and groups seem to believe in complicity with the status quo on matters of nationalism, foreign policy, domestic human rights, education and so on” (148). The question is then put to the “Christian tradition:” is it “really interested in such renovating change” or does it want to resist it? (147). Renovating Rhetoric in the Christian Tradition answers with a litany of “rhetorical successes” of those who overcame the resistance by “mainstream” Christianity to do important and timely renovation. It stands as an accessible pathway into a discourse that is not only in need of rhetorical renovation, but also offers that renovation to its audiences. It respects and challenges religious traditions in that manner. 

Works Cited

Crowley, Sharon. Toward a Civil Discourse: Rhetoric and Fundamentalism. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006. Print.

Vander Lei, Elizabeth and Thomas Amorose, Beth Daniell, and Anne Ruggles Gere. Renovating Rhetoric in Christian Tradition. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014. Print.