Rhetorical Effect

In Life, Philosophy, Theology
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Words are powerful things, having the potential to change the way we think and shape our perception of things. Rhetoric was for this reason the sine qua non of the influential man in ancient times, for to hold men captive to your words was the power to mold the world as one saw fit.

Rhetoric may have lost much of its ancient luster in the age of 140 character tweets, hashtags and memes, but we are still carried along by the words we hear and read. The infinite difference between what is true and what is not true belies the nuance with which a word can usher one into either. Often our words can effortlessly elide distinctions, turning what may be a fair point into something that misleads, even without intention.

Over the pst week on Facebook I have engaging with some of my friends on the content of a recent article at Relevant magazine entitled What the Continued Crucifying of Rob Bell Says About Modern Christianity. In introducing it for the post I mentioned how the article could “function as a wonderful lesson in equivocation.” I also touched upon a few points that I felt would be better expanded more fully in a longer post.

And in actuality, while the article focuses on Rob Bell and his supposed continuing crucifixion, this post will have little to nothing to do with Rob Bell, since it’s more of the rhetoric of the article that I wanted to analyze.

One of the things I notice about social media is that a lot of sharing, liking and commenting happens on articles of this kind, without a proportional amount of critical analysis. There is a fair amount of truth to be found within, but also a fair amount of rhetoric that is ultimately misleading, whether intended or not.

At any rate, I thought it might be useful to expand upon my initial comments, and also use this as a sort of primer on how to critically think through things one reads. It’s not a fisking per se, nor a response to the entire article; rather, I just want to offer examples of how certain rhetorical uses can create a picture of something that may not be entirely the case.

1. Equivocation

The use of equivocation was my first critique, and I thought it was one of the article’s greatest flaws. Equivocation can- appropriately!- have several meanings, but in this case I am referring to the sense in which things which are not the same are used interchangeably so as to give the impression that they have same referent.

The title of the article itself raises numerous red flags, but in this case the term “Modern Christianity” is the culprit. Let’s grant from the start that sometimes we use generalities as linguistic stand-ins or short hands; I employ this use of ‘modern christianity’ from time to time in my own writings. The danger, however, is reifying a generalization from a particular, which the title of the article essentially does.

In and of itself this actually wouldn’t be that objectionable, since sometimes wholes can be more or less accurately described by particular instances. The difficulty with “Modern Christianity,” and thus for the article, is that while such an entity might exist in some generalized sense, it is simply not true that there is any monolith to which “Modern Christianity” refers, especially when certain particular subjects are in view. Are we to imagine all Christian denominations everywhere in the modern world? Christianity in modern North America regardless of denomination? Just Protestants? Mainline or Evangelical?

It’s difficult to tell, since terms are used without distinction or clarification. Here are a few examples:

What the Continued Crucifying Of Rob Bell Says About Modern Christianity

It’s often been said that we Christians eat our own.

Churches, as with so many other spheres of life, love to love you when your star is rising, and few in modern times have risen faster or higher.

For a while, it was a Christian Bubble love fest.

In the now infamous and pivotal volume that caused the Church to break-up with him, Bell didn’t give many answers.

In many parts of modern Evangelical Christian subculture, that’s simply not something to be tolerated.

As so often happens in the modern Church, he was intentionally and mercilessly pushed to the margins of the Christian community, just a few feet from irrelevance.

It all illustrates the sad state of the core of Evangelical Christianity in America, and why more and more people outside of it want no part of it.

The Church has become a members-only club, defined by the narrowest of doctrines and a singular understanding of God and Scripture.

One wonders what the response to Rob Bell is teaching them about the Church.

It’s about a third of the way into the article before the foil for Bell’s crucifixion is identified: “many parts of modern Evangelical subculture.” This is precisely why I mentioned that this article could offer a lesson in equivocation, since it is clearly on display here. Now, evangelicalism in America is one of the more prominent flavors of American Christianity, but it is hardly part and parcel of the whole. For example, the Catholic Church has more members in America than any other denomination, and as 26%+ of American Christianity constitutes a large number of Christians and a fair amount of the ‘the Church’ which has likely never heard of Rob Bell, much less set out to crucify him.

The identification of certain parts of “ modern evangelical subculture” is important since it more narrowly defines what the author is talking about (although specific instances would have been even better). The problem lies in conflating “many parts of Evangelical Christian subculture” with “the Church,” “the modern Church,” or even “Evangelical Christianity in America.”

After all, if one’s gripe (whether legitimate or not) is with a specific subculture, why explode that meaning to encompass a whole of which it is not necessarily indicative? The problem with the equivocation here is that the article moves from the specific (many parts of Evangelical Christian subculture) to the more general (Evangelical Christianity in America) to the even more general (Modern Christianity) to the most general (the Church) without distinction. The result is that one is left with the impression that the foibles of a specific group or instance are representative of the whole.

The same is seen in the author’s discussion of “orthodoxy.” We read:

The Church has become a members-only club, defined by the narrowest of doctrines and a singular understanding of God and Scripture.

There are two religious menu options when it comes to orthodoxy: Totality or Heresy. The moment that anyone, however prayerful or thoughtful or earnest they may be, comes to a conclusion other than what has been defined as acceptable, they get kicked to the curb.

Orthodoxy, in its traditional meaning within Christian thought, refers to the object and content of faith that coincides with the truth of divine revelation. In other words, there is an a priori understanding that the content of orthodoxy is objective.

The article uses terms such as “members-only club,” “defined as acceptable,” and “kicked to the curb,” which gives the impression that orthodoxy is a matter of subjective sub-cultural social taboo, rather than something that has objective content and which constitutes the deposit of device revelation. The implication is that orthodoxy is stuffy and intractable, for insiders only, a cultural cudgel used to beat down dissenters.

One major difficulty with this is that when equivocations get stacked on top of each other, we are now in uncharted territory, looking at an entity that may or may not exist. After all, the group in view is “many parts of Evangelical Christian subculture,” which cannot properly be conflated with “the Church.” Then we have the “narrowest of doctrines” (which are left undefined) and “a singular understanding of God and Scripture” (also left undefined) which constitute a “member’s-only club,” itself indicative of “orthodoxy” as whole.

Thus, we have a certain segment of modern American Evangelical Christianity subculture which has undefined narrow doctrines and undefined (albeit) singular understandings of God and Scripture which somehow reveals something about Modern Christianity en toto.

Hence, the wonderful lesson in how to equivocate, since it allows one to engage in the same opprobrium one levels against others.

2. False Choice

In the same section on orthodoxy-as-members-only-club we find another rhetorical move: the false choice. Again:

The moment that anyone, however prayerful or thoughtful or earnest they may be, comes to a conclusion other than what has been defined as acceptable, they get kicked to the curb. As some Christian leaders cling tighter and tighter to one, narrow narrow faith tradition, they expel anyone who doesn’t check all the right boxes, who doesn’t say all the right words in all the right ways using all the right Bible verses.

To his credit the author walks back the equivocations somewhat by more narrowly defining the scope of his critique to “some Christian leaders.” The damage, however, is primarily already done, since we have already been told that “the Church” has become a members-only club. Vaguely pulling that back to refer to “some Christian leaders” hardly obviates the original equivocation.

All that notwithstanding, the false choice becomes apparent immediately in the opposition placed between “orthodoxy” and those who come to non-orthodox conclusions; i.e., conclusions that have not been defined as “acceptable.”

On the one hand we have primarily pejorative language used of orthodoxy: it’s a members-only club, it’s defined by the narrowest of doctrines, it has a singular understanding of God and Scripture, it kicks dissenters to the curb, it expels people- as the terminology employed implies- for things as unimportant as clerical errors or rhetorical gaffes at a moment’s notice.

On the other hand we have someone who is prayerful, thoughtful, and ernest.

The false choice exists in that there is absolutely no reason to think that this conflation of orthodoxy with the nebulous hordes of The Stuffy Good-Ol-Boy’s Club of Orthodox Belief and Enforcement is accurate. The false choice presented makes one choose between a members-only club and thoughtful, prayerful earnestness, without leaving room for the possibility that those who do hold to orthodox belief are also prayerful, thoughtful and earnest.

The looming difficulty is that the rhetoric employed here is predicated on a prior chain of equivocations, which a priori presumes in favor of dissent since the rhetoric is stacked in its favor. However, were we to remove the equivocations, the false choice would immediately disappear.

3. Categorical Error

Closely related, the rhetoric employed falls into a rather glaring category error. Again:

There are two religious menu options when it comes to orthodoxy: Totality or Heresy. The moment that anyone, however prayerful or thoughtful or earnest they may be, comes to a conclusion other than what has been defined as acceptable, they get kicked to the curb.

As seen from the earlier discussion of the false choice, the terminology used here gives the impression that there are two mentalities in opposition here: the prayerful, thoughtful, and earnest dissenter/questioner, and the one who hold to orthodox beliefs in a manner that portends a members-only club; hence, the dissent is more akin to running afoul of social or cultural taboos.

This impression, however, is more of a caricature than a reality, for it is hardly the case that to hold to orthodoxy implies one cannot be equally prayerful, thoughtful or earnest; further, it does not even entail that one cannot have a certain measure of tolerance for someone questioning/dissenting/whatever. I am inclined to believe the author is not actually intending to reify the sort of monolithic adherence to orthodoxy that his caricature implies, but the rhetoric used belies that potential.

The ‘menu’ language is all the more inappropriate since it gives the impression that the choice presented here is little different from any other menu option. After all, we would likely think someone mad for raising any ire over someone else choosing chicken over steak. And while I doubt the author necessarily intends to trivialize more weighty things in such a manner, the way in which his words are used surely matters, even if intended merely as a literary device.

But even more disconcerting is that this entire train of thought is entirely irrelevant, since the question of orthodoxy vs. heresy is not one of prayerfulness, thoughtfulness or earnestness, but rather an objective question that is not usually terribly difficult to discern. In other words, the line of reasoning pursued here concerns the subjective realm of belief, rather than the objective content of belief.

This may seem like an exercise in semantics, but it is really a very crucial point since it is entirely possible to hold that someone is prayerful and earnest while also being incredibly wrong. Throughout much of Christian history many of the most renowned thinkers have met with some form of ignominy by means of expressing some manner of heresy. Origen, that bright light of the early church, was lauded even in his own lifetime for his learning, depth, erudition, holiness and didactic capacity. Yet ultimately he fell into some errors, which in later times were expanded by those who followed after and eventually came to bear his name.

Nestorius, as another example, was likewise well-learned and as holy as they come, with even many of his opponents professing his virtue. In fact, with a twinge of embarrassment one might wish that St. Cyril had possessed even half of his grace, learning and restraint.

Yet all of Nestorius’ virtue- even his prayerfulness and earnestness- did not make his teaching somehow correct concerning the hypostatic union nor did it give him a pass on the content of the deposit of faith, since orthodoxy is not something that has any necessary relation to one’s subjective state.

After all, the argument could just as easily be turned around to view the matter from the subjective state of those who hold to orthodox beliefs. While no doubt there are those for whom it is a mere checklist, for the prayerful, thoughtful and earnest ones it is the content of what is true and therefore that which really matters. And while there is certainly an aspect to truth mattering that is objective apart from a subjective appraisal, by the same token the subjective sense of truth mattering is not the sense of having a checklist of shibboleths nor a menu of otherwise unessential items with the same relative value.

4. Caricatured Bogeymen and Polarization

If you start with a hyperbolic title, you usually have to flesh it out to avoid being mere link bait, and there is some of that happening here:

Pastors began stepping over one another to speak out against his dangerous teachings. Bloggers churned out post after post lamenting his tragic, heretical detours… As so often happens in the modern Church, he was intentionally and mercilessly pushed to the margins of the Christian community, just a few feet from irrelevance. There he would be left to languish for a few months before hopefully dissolving into obscurity.

No doubt all of these things are are true to some extent, and I have read some rather stupid and scathing responses from both pastors and bloggers. But that is a fairly easy thing to find on the internet about anything; the real question becomes how much of this is indicative of the specific group in focus (many parts of Evangelical Christian subculture) and how much is indicative of “the Church.”

The problem here is that since there has already been so much equivocation around the identity of who is crucifying Bell, one hardly knows who these pastors and bloggers are; are they pastors within the many parts of Evangelical Christian subculture? Are they bloggers within American Evangelical Christianity as a whole? Or are they just generic pastors and bloggers of the generic “modern Church?”

What happens with such sloppy rhetoric is that the equivocations, false choice and categorical errors begin to paint a very polarized and caricatured picture of the bogeymen in question, essentially reifying these caricatures into entities which tried to intentionally marginalize Bell and who are merciless in their persecution and vitriol. And sure, the internet will give you this sort of bogeyman without effort. But since our particular bogeymen have been identified with the stuffy members-only-checklist-of-shibboleths guardians of orthodoxy, we are left with a polarized view of a situation in which it is the prayerful, thoughtful, earnest Bell against an orthodoxy which perhaps by its totalistic nature is merciless and intentional in its persecution (one might even say crucifixion).

Lost in this, however, is any semblance of acknowledging that not all critiques of Bell or of the content of Love Wins constitute a merciless marginalization. After all, one can critique an idea or teaching without having any ill-will or intent toward the person engaging in that teaching. One component of understanding doctrine within the bounds of orthodoxy (which admittedly is often lost in the vitriol of the internet) is that one can hold teachings that are heretical without necessarily being a “heretic.” There could be a number of reasons for this. For example, to be culpable for heresy one must not only understand what constitutes the content of divine revelation, but also intentionally teach something contrary. A simple lack of understanding or even simple ignorance could allow someone to hold heretical beliefs without necessarily being a heretic. Other examples could be adduced, but the crucial point here is that a critique in this instance would not have any necessary bearing on the orthodox standing (or lack thereof) of the person holding any particular opinion, but would rather be a critique of the teaching/doctrine/whatever itself.

In my own writing I did a mini-review of Love Wins, wherein I critiqued the notion of apokatastasis that Bell explored without ever deeming him to be a ‘heretic,’ since the work itself did not give any definitive opinion. Apokatastasis as a doctrine is a departure from orthodoxy and thus “heretical,” and as such someone holding that doctrine (with the requisite knowledge, understanding and intent) would by their own act place themselves outside of orthodoxy. But clearly such a critique is not tantamount to screaming ‘heretic.’

My friend Chuck made a great point about this on my Facebook wall:

[It] places agency improperly – it is their conclusion that they disagree with orthodoxy that kicks them to the curb, not individuals, in the same way that the decision to reject God places one in hell but does not implicate God in the evil of your decision.

The upshot is that one can discuss heretical opinions and even call someone a heretic (an admittedly much harder burden of proof) without having any necessary ill-will towards them or without necessarily engaging in vitriol. And since the reality of agency must be retained for any rational appraisal, such a critique is not necessarily indicative of attempted marginalization.

The whole point here is that the rhetoric employed leaves little to no space between the opposing caricatures for this to occur. As such, what ends up happening rhetorically is that since the subjective nature of the conflict is highlighted in what is more accurately described as an objective conflict, the objective content becomes conflated with the subjective and personalized, obliterating any distance between vitriol and critique.

The author laments that Christians don’t seem to be able to discuss things without screaming heretic, but the irony is that the author’s own equivocations essentially eradicate the space needed for this to occur.

Conclusion

It is of course a laudable thing to call for more civil discourse (in any area of discourse, for that matter), and on that level one would be hard pressed to fault this article. But true dialogue requires honesty and forthrightness, which means that equivocations, false choices, categorical errors and bogeymen and caricatures must be set aside.

Otherwise there are only heretics and members-only clubs.

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