Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Instant Rhetoric

It is hard to overestimate the importance of the rhetorical tradition in the history of Western civilization. Beginning with Homer's epics, and moving through the classical age of Greece and then through the Roman Republic and its subsequent history, the rhetorical tradition was embedded into the deepest, earliest strata of the life of the West. Via Augustine and other Church Fathers, through the Medieval period, then into the Renaissance, the Neo-Classical, the nineteenth century, and into the early part of the twentieth century, classical rhetoric adapted to differing cultural situations without any trouble and without too much distortion. That is, classical rhetoric remained remarkably the same throughout this long history, although at different points there were different emphases, such as stressing style over invention, or valuing highly figurative language over plain speech. 

One obvious demonstration of rhetoric's simultaneous staying power and usability is the writings of America's founding fathers and others since then. Jefferson and Franklin were immersed in classical rhetoric. And Lincoln's utilization of rhetorical techniques for deeply moving purposes shows the similarities and differences between different eras regarding the implementation of rhetoric. This applies to such diverse communicators as Augustine, Martin Luther, and C. S. Lewis. They differ in style, tone, and purposes, yet they all learned their lessons from classical rhetoric. 

But how do you get this now? Some composition classes in college and some speech or communication courses may dip into this major tradition, but usually such academic environments downplay or disregard classical rhetoric in favor of more contemporary "critical theory" approaches, such as "Queer Rhetoric" which " seeks to uncover the symbolic and performative strategies whereby queer identities have been and continue to be constructed in different times and places" (this is from the 6th annual LGBT Conference at Hofstra University. In case you wanted to know.). So if this is the case today with secular education, how do you get into classical rhetoric without resorting to muddling through on your own overprice and antagonistic textbooks? 

Leland Ryken can help you. Ryken has been for years applying traditional rhetorical and literary techniques to the Bible, and his works can help you get into the habit of reading rhetorically, teaching you how rhetoric works. 

 His major work is Words of Delight: a Literary Introduction to the Bible,   and it is worth investing in. Ryken takes familiar texts and shows how the standard elements of style, organization, figurative language, parallelism, and so on are thickly embedded in all biblical texts (the title of the book makes it sound as if he is dealing only with literary issues, but the line between the literary and the rhetorical is very foggy, so he employs both interpretive strategies, and this makes his book that much more useful). 

Another  Ryken work is his  Dictionary of Biblical Imagery Ryken edited this mostly, though some of the entries are his. Again, many of the entries are more about rhetoric than literary techniques--though-- again--many of these overlap. 

You can also find on the internet some PDFs by Ryken. These are abbreviated versions of material from his books, but I would urge you to invest in the books themselves and leisurely wallow in them when you can. You will learn about rhetoric this way while also shaping up your understanding of how the Bible works as a human document. That is to say, whatever your doctrine of the Bible's inspiration, the Holy Spirit did not short circuit individual human personality, making every writer sound exactly the same. That's what the Koran does, interestingly. Indeed the monophonic, depersonalized nature of the Koran is suggestive of its theology . . . . The Bible speaks with multiple voices in multiple ways. Even Paul is different from letter to letter and even within a letter he can change rapidly his rhetoric.  

So, reading the Bible rhetorically with Ryken's help will plug you into the deepest currents of Western civilization, and it will also help you read the Bible with greater acuity, and thus with greater devotion.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Literature is Good for You

Simone Weil is one tough cookie. Her writings are both luminous and infuriating, enlightening and neurotic. But this isn’t about the relative merit of her work. Weil’s influence is assured, regardless of where one comes down on the clarity or helpfulness of her ideas about God, suffering, prayer, and salvation. Her unique vocabulary makes her difficult to understand, and I am not going to comment on the contentious possibilities of her work, though many readers across multiple denominational fences have found her to be inspiring. 

What I am interested in is Weil’s response to literature and what this can tell us about the inherent power of grea literature. What Weil can help us see is that the contemporary academic approach to literature censors some of the best things great literature can do for us. Weil--a mystic, a philosopher, a non-Marxist leftist, a klutz who tried to live out the Gospel--read literature like The Iliad or George Herbert’s poems and was lifted to higher vision than the secular realm can account for. Literature at its best can have an intrinsic power that is now more or less denied in the secular academy. 

“Literature” is now a subject conditioned by academic speculation, controlled in classroom contexts, and burdened with au courant critical theory. At least that is what it has become for most people who encounter literature in the context of current academic study. Weil’s encounter with the power of literature helps us see that the boundaries between literature and theology is thin and permeable, and this is a good thing. Her reading of Greek classics and British poetry, for instance, flies in the face of most contemporary literature professors, yet Weil has far more academic and even leftist credentials in her little finger than an entire English department faculty will ever have. And she says that literature can show us something of God. 

Take, for example, the metaphysical poet George Herbert. Weil, who suffered from excruciating migraine headaches, learned to recite Herbert’s poem “Love” in order to concentrate and to lessen the pain. The internalizing of Herbert’s God-enraptured poetry helped ease Weil into Christian faith by helping her discover the palpable love of God, and this is a use of literature scorned by or ignored by nearly all modern academia. 

Another example. Weil also thought that The Iliad was suffused with a vision of life comporting with the deepest insights of the Christian vision of human boundedness. The epic showed that all human beings are subject to “force,” the violent necessities of passion, genetics, psychology, and culture. We are trapped but we know we want to be free. We hate violence, fear death, and just want to go home, yet when the blood lust of war strikes us, we want to kill and subjugate. Both sides--Greek and Trojan--and all warriors--major, minor, heroic or cowardly--are caught up beyond self-control, and Force rules all, making all turn temporarily into hateful monsters. When Force has run its course, for a while anyway, everyone returns to sanity and hates what he has become, but he will succumb again in short order until something breaks. Weil’s interesting take on the poem might or might not be true, but the point here is that she found Great Literature to be something more than a subject to write essays for in an English class. The Iliad offers one of the profoundest views ever composed in artistic form of human captivity and the hunger for freedom from necessityWeil claims that literature at its best achieves an almost religious quality of revelation. 

Katherine T. Brueck, in her  The Redemption of Tragedy: the Literary Vision of Simone Weil, uses Weil’s ideas about literature to question recent academic trends that turn away from considering how and why literature can speak to us of pressing human realities. The qualities of truth, goodness, and beauty are laughed at in many (most?) colleges and universities, but Brueck deploys Weil's experiences  to challenge the hegemonic discourse (and grading practices) of institutionalized secular education. This so far is a minority opinion, but that doesn't matter. It is the truth. 

Monday, March 31, 2014

Enjoying a Rotten Future

Gattaca is beautiful and horrible

A favorite trope for sci-fi movies is the Dystopian future. Movies as various as The Matrix, Elysium, Surrogates, Brazil, and Metropolis ( and Blade Runner!) build their narratives on a future that turns out to be unpleasant. Scientists do not become saviors; technology does not free us to become even more human. Regardless of the variations among all these movies (near future, distant future, awful future, slightly less awful future), these films and manymany more, operate mostly on the level of entertainment.  

In other words, the dystopic vision of the future is not a serious extrapolation of current trends. Instead, the cityscape or the building interior or the laboratory or the robots or the genetic freaks serve primarily to move the action forward. In some cases, such as a serious film like Blade Runner, the dystopian city serves as a metaphor that reflects deeper issues beyond just the excitement of the surface narrative. But this is rare, and even here the imagined city is not supposed to be a literal futureIn most cases, the awful futuristic landscape almost never really helps us think about the real dehumanization of technology or ideology. The visuals of a trashed out environment, or errant technology, or tyrannical government or technological control nearly always bends toward entertainment. 

This is curious. It is something like most horror film. Terror induced by faux supernatural phenomena is purely for fun. Most people who watch movies about demons care nothing about reflecting on genuine supernatural realities. In such film, the intrusion of the demonic results in a simulation of terror that is supposed to be enjoyed for the duration of the viewingIn real life, if one were to encounter a genuinely demonic entity, the resulting terror would probably paralyze you. The buzz that comes from watching simulated demonic possession is understood by the viewer to be an aesthetic experience only. 

So too, the picture of a future that has gone horribly wrong serves little purpose other than a narrative jolt, just for the fun of it. Watching either version of Total Recall results in a mild buzz of enjoyment for a couple of hours. The futuristic images do not provoke any serious reflection on a potentially trashy future. So here is the irony: we are entertained by images of a depressing future. Rather than being depressed, we enjoy the temporarily giddy feeling of an awful future coming our way because we know the images are not serious. We see a vision of human debilitation, and we say, "that was so cool." 

What happens if we want to tell or see a serious, provocative, reflection-inducing narrative of a genuinely dystopian future? We are mostly out of luck, it seems. Only rarely in film do we encounter a story of a plausible future that we do not want. One example is Gattaca. This film portrays a future in which enhanced genetic engineering is plausibly portrayed. The resulting two-tiered society--those who can afford genetic medicine and those who cannot--is convincing, giving rise to a feeling of despair about real life and perhaps prompting one to think a little more about the ethics of genetic experimentation.  The movie is aesthetically compelling, but the movie is more than "just" entertainment, unlike, say, Elysium, which on the surface seems to be saying something serious about immigration and health care, but which in fact is totally bogus. Elysium uses a veneer of current event anxieties to tell what is really an action film story. Gattaca moves beyond the level of mere entertainment, and the dystopian trope becomes a vehicle for further reflection, even though we are entertained while watching the movie. 

Watching sci-ffilms is theologically interesting because it says something about our spiritual dislocation. We enjoy simulations of horrible living conditions. We do not enjoy actual horrible living conditions. For a few hours we escape from our lives by imagining a future that would be too horrible to actually live in but which we "enjoy" living in through the surrogacy of actors--people who are not who they are.

Pretend slum from Elysium is fun to watch

Real slum from Africa is not fun to watch

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Pen and Sword

Dorothy Sayers, detective novelist
Ok, there is a long quotation coming up, but bear with me. This quotation is a letter by the British novelist and theologian (and playwright and translator) Dorothy Sayers. She is writing to a scientist who is asking about Christianity. Rather than answer kindly, Sayers rips into the scientist for not doing his own research into a full answer:

“Why do you want a letter from me? Why don't you take the trouble to find out for yourselves what Christianity is? You take time to learn technical terms about electricity. Why don't you do as much for theology? Why do you never read the great writings on the subject, but take your information from the secular 'experts' who have picked it up as inaccurately as you? Why don't you learn the facts in this field as honestly as your own field? Why do you accept mildewed old heresies as the language of the church, when any handbook on church history will tell you where they came from?
Why do you balk at the doctrine of the Trinity - God the three in One - yet meekly acquiesce when Einstein tells you E=mc2? What makes you suppose that the expression "God ordains" is narrow and bigoted, while your own expression, "Science demands" is taken as an objective statement of fact?You would be ashamed to know as little about internal combustion as you know about Christian beliefs.

I admit, you can practice Christianity without knowing much theology, just as you can drive a car without knowing much about internal combustion. But when something breaks down in the car, you go humbly to the man who understands the works; whereas if something goes wrong with religion, you merely throw the works away and tell the theologian he is a liar.

Why do you want a letter from me telling you about God? You will never bother to check on it or find out whether I'm giving you personal opinions or Christian doctrines. Don't bother. Go away and do some work and let me get on with mine.”

Sayers was nominally associated with the Inklings, not as an actual regular participant but as a highly respected associate of the members. Although now Lewis and Tolkien are the best known members of this crew, Sayers was once a very widely known British writer of the day, mostly because of her novels about the upper crust detective Lord Peter Wimsey.  Sayers became famous primarily through her fiction, but her real love was theology and translations. She wrote a number of stimulating essays on the relevance of the doctrine of the Trinity to modern life, and most of her stuff still works in a punchy, critical way. That is, her style is punchy, and she is critical of the Church for abdicating its responsibility to teach the“strong meat” of hard core biblical dogma, both as systematic theology and as a powerful interpretation of life.

Sayers made no truce with either a simpering Church that wanted everyone to like it or with an ignorant secularism that didn’t really know what the Church officially teaches (and she blamed the Church for this widespread ignorance in and out of the Church).

The reason I bring all this up is to ask a question about the kind of rhetoric Christians should use when dealing with unbelievers. Sayers’ rhetoric is entirely different from the more irenic rhetoric that Lewis consistently used, regardless of the level of his writing. That is, whether it was for an introductory audience, such as the original readers of Mere Christianity or more informed readers for more difficult texts such as the sermons in The World’s Last Night, Lewis always portrayed himself as a concerned amature who didn’t know very much but who was trying to help out others. Sayers, in contrast, was aggressive, even combative, against both other Christians and against ignorant unbelievers.

Some of the difference can be explained as an effect of temperament, probably. Lewis was just a different psychological type, the natural teacher as it were. Sayers was the ex-ad agency writer, and her abrasive personality comes through naturally in her writing. But is this all? Is there a time and place for Lewis--and a time and place for Sayers? Is it right for a Christian, when rhetorically appropriate, to punch back twice as hard?

Dorothy Sayers, Christian apologist

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Augustine: Culture Raider

"If those . . . [pagan writers] have said things which are indeed true and are well accommodated to our faith, they should not be feared; rather, what they have said should be taken from them as from unjust possessors and converted to our use. Just as the Egyptians had not only idols and grave burdens which the people of Israel detested and avoided, so also they had vases and ornaments of gold and silver and clothing which the Israelites took with them secretly when they fled, as if to put them to a better use. . . . In the same way, all the teachings of the pagans contain not only simulated and superstitious imaginings . . . but also liberal disciplines more suited to the uses of truth, and some of the most useful precepts concerning morals. Even some truths concerning the worship of one God are discovered among them."

Before he became a Christian, Augustine was not all that impressed with Aristotle. However, he was taken with New Age stuff. Something deep within pushed him in a scrambling religious direction. He took up with the Manicheans for about 12 years, hoping to find answers to his questions about the nature of evil and why he was so unhappy. Augustine eventually became disillusioned with the Manicheans, even while remaining connected with them, so when he finally made the break, it was not that hard, and his repudiation of them was total.

However, when Augustine found the “Platonists,” meaning what we now call neo-platonists, meaning especially Plotinus, he thought he had found heaven before he found the real heaven. The Platonists gave him the ability to conceptualize God in a non-material way. They also gave him insight into the nature of evil. They also helped him to understand his own profound dissatisfaction with his life and why the world was so beautiful while also disappointing and heartbreaking because of its mutability. After Augustine passed over from the Platonists to the Christian faith, he found that many of the conceptual tools the Platonists had given him helped explain some facets of Christian belief, such as the non-materiality of God. Perhaps the greatest gift the Platonists gave him was an ability to read the Scriptures. Previously, Augustine had been repulsed by the apparently vulgar, philosophically naive, and downright unreadable portions of scripture. No longer. His Confessions, for instance, are saturated in scripture with multiple references and allusions in each paragraph.

Augustine’s engagement with his pagan education and culture is instructive--some of it did nothing for him (Aristotle), though he didn’t despise it. Some of it seduced him, but it turned out to be ridiculous and self-serving and ultimately something he had to revolt against (Manicheanism). And some of it was luminous, elevating, deeply spiritual, and decisive in bringing him to full Christian faith (neo-platonism).

I think this is fairly accurate to our experiences--we are surrounded by competing Weltanschauungen that lace our post-Christian culture. Some of these might be outright repulsive to downright persuasive, usually on subconscious levels. Engagement with other worldviews does not mean standardized, uniform rejection. Augustine recognized spectrums of distance to or from Christ among various strands of Roman culture, and the same recognition holds true for us.

We test the spirits. We weigh and measure. We become historically and aesthetically sensitive, conserving the best and tossing the worst. This is a never ending act of obedience because we are creatures of time and place, tasked with living faithfully in an always changing world that God is taking to its fulfillment according to His plan, not ours.

The standard Augustine emblem: the heart, pierced by God, on fire with love, controlled by Scripture