James E. Beitler III: Persuade With Grace—Part 1

As an associate professor of English at Wheaton College, James E. Beitler III spends a lot of time thinking about how words can be a window to Christ. He especially likes to explore how rhetoric—the study and practice of the art of persuasion—can be a key tool in Christian witness. His first book, Remaking Transitional Justice in the United States: The Rhetorical Authorization of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, examines the role rhetoric played in that historic event. His newest title, Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church (IVP Academic, 2019) explores the role of rhetoric across the scope of five historical Christian figures’ lives and witness.

In Seasoned Speech, he explores the persuasive and communicative tools of five beloved Christian figures of the 20th and 21st centuries, who also happen to be rhetors: C.S. Lewis (essay), Dorothy Sayers (radio play), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (sermon), Desmond Tutu (memoir) and Marilynne Robinson (novel).

In Part 1 of our interview with him, Beitler discusses the value of effective rhetoric to the Christian church and explains why its use is important not just for academics, but for church leaders and laity alike.

Why do you feel it’s valuable to talk about rhetoric at this point in church history?

Rhetoric has a very long history, but it often gets talked about pejoratively. People almost always mean it in terms of empty speech. But the rhetorical tradition is robust and rich. It has all of these wonderful, well-developed resources for thinking about how to convey ideas in ways that will be understood and that will potentially bring about persuasion. Christians throughout history have drawn on that tradition. Now, in some ways we do see a lot of empty words in the public discourse right now. As Christians, thinking about how rhetoric can be used not just to put forward those untruths in a persuasive way, but also to put forward the truth in a persuasive way is important.

What opportunities exist for the church if rhetoric were elevated to the same level of value as, say, evangelism and apologetics, to the average Christian’s life?

I want to speak carefully because, in some ways, it’s all about what God is choosing to do. But I do think Christians can, by mining our rich rhetorical tradition, have a greater repertoire of resources and practices to speak out of. Drawing on as many resources as we have can expand our outreach and more effectively extend this truth that’s been given to us to steward.

How do you hope pastors and other non-academics will be able to use your new book to advance their Christian witness and the witness of their congregations?

My hope is that pastors, church leaders and seminarians as well as members of the laity will read the book. The rhetorical tradition offers rich resources for the whole church, and I believe that we all ought to engage in reflection about our approaches to Christian witness. The manner in which we convey our convictions matters.

Often times we just do things. We speak into the world, but stepping back and taking a moment to think about those practices is really important. One of the things the book tries to do is look carefully at some of our exemplars of rhetorical practice. Readers will then be able to think about their own rhetorical practices, the ways in which they’re attempting to persuade or to bring eloquence to truth.

Why structure the book according to the Christian liturgical calendar, starting with Advent and ending with Pentecost?

There are actually two kinds of clocks that the book proceeds according to. One is the seasons from Advent to Pentecost. There’s a rhetorical term that is a word for time in Greek, kairos: those opportune times when we can speak into something with a particular power because the circumstances are just right. The seasons are in some ways just the calendar time, but in another sense they’re moments of rhetorical potential when we can speak out of in powerful ways. And they each are inflected with their own emphases, allowing us to tell more of the story as the year unfolds. They orient us rhetorically in terms of the words we write and say.

The other clock is the moments of many Christian worship services: the call to worship, statement of belief, sermon, confession, celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and finally, the benediction. I thought that particular structure was important because it exemplified exactly what I’d been talking about, which was this important connection between worship and witness. I wanted the ways in which Christians order our time and activity to be central to my presentation of rhetoric.

You unpack each figure’s life and societal circumstances, and it’s clear their context influenced their perspective. How much should our own circumstances affect our rhetoric, or are the examples you explored in the book transferrable across time and space?

Rhetoric and rhetorical practice are context dependent. When we think about the word imitation, we tend to think about copying what somebody else has done. But the ancient rhetoricians didn’t think about it that way. They thought about it as a kind of opportunity for invention. Following what someone did, but doing it in a new way. What the book aims to do is not to say, Here, do exactly what Lewis did, or do exactly what Sayers did. It’s to say, Here’s what they did given their context and the needs and problems they faced. Now, we have this tradition that has these flexible resources to draw upon. You can imitate what they do by speaking into your own context and reaccentuating past rhetorical resources in the new moment you find yourself in. It’s about making something new out of something old. (For those interested in learning more about these rhetorical concepts, check out Michael Leff’s work on imitation and John Murphy’s work on the “reaccentuation of rhetorical traditions.”)

In Part 2, James E. Beitler III discusses the different rhetorical approaches of the people he profiles, shows how the rhetoric of hospitality weaves through their lives and offers takeaways we can all apply.

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Read more at outreachmagazine.com/James-Beitler.

Jessica Hanewinckel
Jessica Hanewinckel

Jessica Hanewinckel is an Outreach magazine contributing writer.