Winning Our Culture for Christ-Through Literary Criticism
- Sunday, January 13, 2002
The heart of literary criticism is the notion of rhetoric. Rhetoric, simply, is the ability to communicate effectively through the written and spoken word. Written and spoken are the crucial concepts of understanding rhetoric. One can send a photograph of a thing or CD with music describing the thing, or paint a picture of the thing and communicate well enough. But this is not rhetoric. Rhetoric is a discipline that demands that the reader dutifully follow laws of grammar, logic, and communication to explain and to describe the thing.
Quality rhetoric is important and necessary. It seems to me, and to the Greeks, that a democracy demands a responsible, well considered rhetoric. It is absolutely necessary that we participate in legitimate conversation about important issues.
Rhetoric demands that we reclaim the use of metaphor. A metaphor is a word picture. It is describing a thing with a dissimilar thing. It demands discipline and control. A four-year-old cannot understand predestination, for instance, unless the communicator pulls out experiences and images that are familiar with a four-year-old. To describe predestination fromthe perspective of a seminary professor may be accurate, but it is not rhetoric. Also, one can take a picture of a sunset and send it to millions of people via e-mail, but it is not rhetoric. Rhetoric is the attempt to communicate a sunset by the use of the spoken and by the written word. Thus, a metaphor is at the heart of rhetoric, at the heart of classical education.
To ignore rhetoric is to invite ourselves on a dangerous search for truth. Our mindless search for relevance and literalness has gotten us pretty lost in the cosmos. When the thing we seek is so easily obtained by computer chip or digital photograph, then we lazily refuse to engage ourselves in the discipline of metaphor.
Love, however, is not easily photographed. Only the metaphor does it justice. Question: if we lose the written metaphor, will we also lose love? How does one understand 1 Corinthians 13 without first understanding metaphor? Metaphor, or comparison between two ostensibly dissimilar phenomena, is absolutely critical to understanding abstract theological concepts, and, for that matter, it is critical to creative problem solving. The problems of this age demand a kind of thinking that is promoted and encouraged by rhetoric. The problems of this age will "literally" remain unsolved. However, rhetoric, and the power of metaphor, will invite this generation to look for more creative solutions.
Immorality, for instance, literally will not be removed unless we look to the written word, that is, the Bible, for answers. Nothing in our experience offers a solution. One will not understand the Bible unless one can employ metaphorical thinking. How else will one apply the ethical teachings of a Savior spoken 2000 years ago? Metaphor, along with other mysteries, has been a victim of 20th century pretension, pomposity, and obsequious thinking.
Loss of metaphor is only the beginning of the problem. Gertrude Himmelfarb, On Looking Into the Abyss, laments that great literary works are no longer read--and if they are, there are no rules for interpreting them. In philosophy, indeed in all communication, truth and reality are considered relative. With no rules, the rhetorician is invited to come to any conclusion he wishes.
He is invited to pretty shaky ground. Gordon Conwell Seminary professor David Wells in God in the Wasteland argues that evangelical Christians who believe in a personal relationship with God and non-Christians who do not have both drunk from the trough of modernity. We have both embraced a sort of existential faith instead of a confessional faith. If it feels good, do it and believe it. Unless evangelicals participate in serious apologetics, God will be "weightless."
The rise of relativism has had disastrous results. The British historian Philip Johnson laments "the great vacuum" that has been filled with totalitarian regimes and fascile thinking. Rhetoric ferrets out truth. If there is no truth, can there be any sense of authority? And can a society survive if there is no authority? Without a legitimate, honest, well-considered rhetoric, will history be reduced to the "pleasure principle"? Literary Criticism, at least in the area of the written classics, forces us to dance with reality.
In some ways the American Evangelical Christianity's loss of rhetorical skills--and I think rhetoric is akin to apologetics--has presaged disaster in many arenas. Without rhetoric Christians have no tools to engage modern culture. In some ways we have lost the mainline denominations to neo-orthodoxy and we have lost the university to liberals. Where is the 21st century Jonathan Edwards? C. S. Lewis?
Good thinking, good talking may redeem the Church from both the Overzealous and the Skeptic. Rhetorical skills may help us regain the intellectual and spiritual high ground we so grievously surrendered without a fight (Alister McGrath, Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity). George Marsden in The Soul of the American University and Leslie Newbigen in Foolishness to the Greeks both conclude that we Christians have conceded much of American culture to modernism by our inability to merge thought and communication in a cogency and inspiration that persuades the modernist culture.
Without the main tool to do battle--rhetoric--Evangelicals allow orthodoxy to be sacrificed on the altar of relativism.
Dr. James Stobaugh is the president of For Such a Time as This Ministries. He received his B. A. cum laude from Vanderbilt University (1974), M.A., Rutgers University (1978), M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary (1983), was a Merrill Fellow at Harvard University (1990, and obtained his D. Min. from Gordon Conwell Seminary (1997). His dissertation topic was "Racial Anger as an Obstacle to Racial Reconciliation." Jim has also coached SAT prep for 20 years. Jim and Karen Stobaugh have four home educated children. Jim has written the well received SAT and College Preparation Course for the Christian Student (1998), as well as a 10 volume Critical Thinking Literary series. Jim and Karen reside in Hollsopple, PA.
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