Category Archives: Rhetoric

Descriptions of Rhetoric, discussions of its use today.

Watch your language when you write

angrymobSeveral years ago I was invited to address a group of Christian leaders in Canada, about church writing groups and the need for Christians to write in a compelling manner in whatever marketplace writers may find themselves. My aim was to teach about worldview and about including God’s word in reaching a secular audience. (Before you read further, in my defense I will say that I had previously given this same talk to several different Christian audiences.)

I began to make a point about how your harsh words and insensitive writing will polarize an audience before even reaching your main point. Using a letter to the editor I had found, I began reading it aloud so they could hear a harsh, insensitive writer spouting venom about homosexuals. My second step was to dig into the letter together with my audience so that we could find a more appropriate way to make a point.

I’ll admit to the irony of what happened next.

Before I could finish reading the offensive letter out loud, a quarter of my audience had stood, turned their backs, and exited the room.

What could I have done differently? I warned them, up front, that this would be something we could–we should–all learn to do better. Perhaps I should have brought up my main points earlier on, so they could see that I myself intended no insult. Before planning my talk, I should have asked some questions of the conference organizers, in the hope of learning more about the attendees.

It has always been my policy to remember first what Paul instructed to his readers–and what I was going to teach my audience–to do:  “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person” (NASB Colossians 4:5-6). In this case, my message failed to reach many people in my audience because I didn’t understand how to “respond to each person.” 

Consider, though, that you can’t always anticipate how each audience member will react. Better to hold on to the truth than to water down your message.

Think about who your audience is: who reads your discourse or sits in your audience? Think about them and write so that they can understand.

This means you need to evaluate–or maybe anticipate–your audience before you write. Now, if you are a Rhetoric student, your audience is not so vast:

  • Your teacher
  • Your parents, who will proofread
  • Your classmates

Or maybe you have a larger audience:

  • Readers of your blog or other social media
  • Readers of your letter to an editor
  • Your youth group
  • Classmates, teachers, administrators, and parents at your school–perhaps in a graduation assembly or thesis defense

Perhaps you have a passionate response to something in the news, or you want to join a demonstration and make your voice heard. Who will be that audience?

Most importantly, you want to craft a speech or discourse in the best light so that your audience will be moved to take action. And alongside of that, you must keep in mind WHO your audience is, and be sure to write so that they understand what you’ve said.

In the situation above, what could I have done differently? Before I read aloud that offensive letter to the editor, I DID tell them what they were going to hear and that I wanted to work with them on less strident language. What can I conclude from their hasty departure? Either they didn’t hear my introduction, or they just couldn’t stomach what I was reading out loud. It’s hard to know now. Something about the subject caused them to shut down and walk off.

This is bound to happen sometimes. If we’re speaking the truth in love, at times it won’t matter that you have the best intentions. Truth offends. Often, though, we need to:

  1. Observe who we are trying to reach,
  2. Review what we’re going to say, and
  3. Commit our words and our presentation to the Lord, asking him for wisdom.

In his instructions to the faithful in Colossae, Paul writes a beautiful passage on how to speak with others both inside and outside of the church:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (ESV Colossians 3:12-17, emphasis added)
Be that salt and light to your audience, whoever they are. Speak the truth in love. Have compassion for the lost. Put on love.
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Filed under Apologetics, Biblical Worldview, Rhetoric, Uncategorized, Writing

The Style of Good Rhetoric

Aristotle classified five “canons” of Rhetoric: Invention, Arrangement, Style, Memory, and Delivery. Our own course of Biblical Worldview Rhetoric is also divided in the same manner.

Style arrives midway through our course with good reason. Invention–the method of discovering what to write about and how to prove our point, and Arrangement–deciding how to argue and in what order it will happen, provide us with a strong foundation. We might call it the “bones” of an argument.

Once we have 1) arrived at our arguments and 2) arranged them effectively, then we must 3) skillfully and artfully weave our words together in a pleasing, clear, compelling manner. Consider this the clothing that covers the flesh and bones of your argument.

Skillful writing:

  • Uses proper grammar.
  • Chooses the right word for the right meaning. Vague writing will inevitably confuse the audience.
  • Finds compelling ways to paint a word picture in the mind of the audience. One homeschool writing curriculum calls it “dressing up” your writing.
  • Is not redundant: it does not repeat itself retelling in a repetitious manner. (Got it?)

Aristotle uses a bit of sarcasm when discussing what seems to be common sense: if you want to persuade, do not be ambiguous “unless, indeed, you definitely desire to be ambiguous, as those do who have nothing to say but are pretending to mean something” (Rhetoric Book 3). Your audience might be momentarily charmed by clever words, but they can detect specious reasoning and a thin façade of argumentation.

Think about your favorite writers. Why do you love to read what they write? They probably weave together a great story that keeps you engaged, make characters come to life, hold you in suspense, make you love the protagonist and hate his enemy. I agree with all of that, and I’ll add another quality, because I love words: the best authors paint an engaging word picture that might make me pause and admire how that was done.

I just finished reading another book in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series, The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place. Seriously, go pick up the first book, Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie,  and tell me what you think. Bradley goes into the mind of a genius 11-year-old girl, Flavia (rhymes with “gravy-a”, and she insists that you pronounce it correctly), in post-World War 2 Britain. She is funny, terribly clever, dreams of concocting poisons in the chemistry lab on her estate, and solves crimes.

Here are some brilliant uses of the language that continue to endear Flavia to me:

  • “I could see at a glance that sunlight was not welcome here.” Bradley could have said simply, “This was a gloomy room.” No, he wanted to use this room to create a setting for his reader.
  • “I raised an eyebrow at Dogger, who had told me that the word [‘momentarily’] meant ‘briefly’ rather than ‘soon,’ and was best avoided if one didn’t want to be mistaken for an American. But Dogger was wearing his unreadable poker face, and I was left to feel superior all by myself.” Flavia is smart and knows it. And she’s a bit disdainful about Americans. But notice how Bradley’s words don’t insult Americans outright; they are a soft nudge, tongue-in-cheek. Besides, Bradley himself is Canadian, so he doesn’t get it right every time either.
  • “When I woke up, the shadows of late afternoon had subtly rearranged my room.” Could Bradley have just said “When I awoke, I noticed that the sun was going down”? Sure, but his choice is much more evocative.
  • “The conversation was becoming like one of those absurd French dramas in which the characters stand about swapping nonsense dialogue while the audience pretend they know what’s going on.” I am certain Bradley meant Waiting for Godot. The icy, vague shadow of a nightmare rises up, along with memories of a sadistic professor who tried to convince us that it was a brilliant work of art. Bradley transported me back to a decade of frustrated reading (that was probably actually only a week long, but I can never get that time back), trying to discern any deep meaning in that play. It’s not worth your time, folks.

The third Canon of Rhetoric, Style, puts the icing on the cake, the jewels on the crown, the gold filigree on the tapestry… You see what I mean. And the more you pay attention to excellent writing, the more ways you will arrive at beautiful, compelling Style to prove your point and convince your audience.

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Rhetoric: Not as Negative as You Might Think

angry politicianGetting to know a new dental hygienist, she asked about my career. I told her I’ve retired from teaching, among other things, Rhetoric. “Rhetoric?” she paused. “What is that, anyway?” That’s the question I get a lot. I opened my mouth to answer, and couldn’t get the words out for the dental torture devices she shoved in my mouth.

So what is Rhetoric, anyway? Isn’t it just a lot of negative political double-talk? I get a lot of puzzled looks from people who have only heard Rhetoric referred to in a negative light–especially in our politically-charged atmosphere today.

Way back when Aristotle (384-322 BC) was writing and postulating on the nature of the world, he observed how people tried to persuade one another. He didn’t invent the art of persuasion; he observed and organized the concept and gave it a name: Rhetoric.

Aristotle’s lifelong pursuit seems to have been organizing, categorizing, labeling,  commenting upon, and teaching different aspects of the world as he knew it.  Scholars assembled his body of works, known as the Corpus Aristotelicum. Most scholars today dispute the inclusion of quite a few lesser works and argue that what is contained in the Corpus may actually be written in the style of Aristotle by students in his schools. Much of the Corpus, though, is indisputably his, and is classified in five categories: Logic; Metaphysics; Physics; Ethics and Politics; and Rhetoric and Poetics.

It doesn’t take long to realize that we are all engineered to argue; spend one day with a three-year-old or a middle school student and see what I mean.  Aristotle, far from wanting to encourage a child to argue, instead directs the more mature student “to discern the real and the apparent means of persuasion” (Aristotle, Rhetoric Book 1).

In the classical tradition, the student of Rhetoric will have had an education in Logic, which sets a solid foundation on which to build his persuasive discourse. Aristotle’s thoughts on Logic confirm that fact: Aristotelian logic centers on the syllogism, which is (in very simple terms) an argument composed of two premises and a conclusion.

How do we get from Aristotle’s Logic to the definition of Rhetoric? If we, like him, consider it in terms of a scientific approach, then Rhetoric is the science of persuasion. He breaks down persuasive discourse in order to analyze it.

Similarly, our course of Rhetoric today does break down the component parts of Rhetoric in order to analyze its effectiveness. And the study of it, as detailed in Biblical Worldview Rhetoric (Second Edition coming soon), also explores and imitates the artful side of Rhetoric. We’ll look at the art of persuasion in another post.

But going back to one of our original questions: isn’t Rhetoric just a lot of negativity? It can be, most definitely. Sometimes it accuses, other times it defends, and very often it celebrates or remembers. For every angry, accusatory political discourse, I can show you several poignant, uplifting, inspirational ones. Rhetoric doesn’t have to be negative; it must always be persuasive.

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Biblical Worldview Rhetoric: What’s worldview?

Second Edition coming soon!

Why is this book called Biblical Worldview Rhetoric?

An essential aspect of our upcoming rhetoric text is a study of worldview. This text guides students through an examination of the worldviews behind discourses (speeches, essays, letters, etc.) and their authors. Worldview is inextricable from rhetoric, for every person speaks from his worldview, even unconsciously. Once you begin to think in this manner, you will have a much more rich understanding of the use of rhetoric.

Think of “worldview” as  the glasses through which we see the world – how we interpret and give context to what we see. Everyone has a worldview, and every worldview is based on the philosophies to which we adhere.

A Biblical Worldview begins with the foundation – the understanding and the acknowledgment – that God is the author and creator of all things:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister. (ESV, Colossians 1.15-23)

Teaching with a biblical worldview does not just mean attaching a Bible verse to the week’s lesson. It begins with the presupposition from Colossians, above. If God is the creator of all, and He holds all things together, does that affect the way we study the history, the people, the events? What drives people to do what they do? How do we react to the things that happen to us? How do we speak to and persuade one another? As we study, we take note of what sin does to the human mind, and how it drives people to act and react.

This kind of study means thinking presuppositionally: examining underlying ideas. Everyone has a worldview, has presuppositions with which they think and act, whether or not they are consciously aware of those ideas. When we seek to persuade a person, we also must identify and address (perhaps confront) his set of presuppositions, his worldview. This kind of study will inform how best to address someone whose ideas differ from ours.

We must study to approach our neighbors – our audience – armed with the truth. And we must know the worldviews by which they operate.

Ultimately, the goal of Biblical Worldview Rhetoric is to bring people to the Lord, but it’s not as simple as passing out tracts and reciting scripture at them. We must delve below the surface in order to get to the root of the problem, and as Dr. Michael Bauman of Hillsdale College says, “the problem of the human heart is at the heart of the human problem.” We know that the answers to all of humanity’s deepest questions can be found in God’s holy Word, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In other words, know the source of inspiration – the God of all Creation – and know your audience and how to address them. Only then will we be able to engage with people on what ultimately matters most of all: the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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Announcing Revised Edition of Biblical Worldview Rhetoric

Thoughts Clothed In Words (2)It took 15 years for the first edition of Biblical Worldview Rhetoric to become a reality, so announcing a revised edition is nearly completed, just 6 years after the first, should feel practically lightning-fast!

I’m thrilled to announce it, and I want to give you an idea of the changes to come.

  • Collaboration. Probably most exciting for me is my partnership with a talented writer and teacher: my son, Tyler Howat. Tyler has his Master’s in English Literature from the University of Dayton and has been teaching for several years in classical settings in the U.S., in an online school, and overseas. He has used this Rhetoric curriculum for a few years, and his contribution to the new edition has been exciting. I guess they say the nut doesn’t fall far from the tree (sorry, Tyler!), but this nut has far surpassed me! (That makes me a nut also!)
  • Multimedia Assignments. Today’s rhetoric has never been just words on paper. Rhetoric is also speeches, advertisement, propaganda, and other forms of media. Today’s students, then, need to pay attention to how someone tries to persuade them in whatever media they use–in politics, on TV and movies, and social media. So wherever possible we have added some thoughtful teacher-directed discussions and assignments incorporating different forms of media.
  • Rhetoric 1 & 2 Combined. The first edition of Biblical Worldview Rhetoric came in two volumes. However, not every schooling situation is the same, so we combined it into one volume. That way a teacher or homeschool parent could decide how to lay out the course to meet their curricular requirements.
  • New Discourse Book. The first editions also included the discourses we used during the two years of Rhetoric. This time, since we’ve combined the two years, we decided to put all the discourses together in one volume. This collection, tentatively titled Thoughts Clothed in Words (a little homage to Shaunna’s favorite rhetorician, Hugh Blair), will also include some additional discussion questions at the end of most discourses, just to take the study a little further.
  • New Teacher Edition. Accompanying Biblical Worldview Rhetoric will be an option to purchase a teacher version for use in traditional schools or home schools. This volume will include assignment answers, quizzes, tests, and worksheets, and extra notes for classroom discussion.
  • Sample One- and Two-Year Layout for teachers and home schoolers (in the teacher edition). If you have questions on how to fit it all into one or two years, this will be quite handy.
  • Links to Discourses We Can’t Publish. Wherever possible, we used discourses in public domain in order to keep costs down. But we have favorites that we just can’t let go, so we will include links for students to find some of our favorite discourses online. (What are our favorites? You’ll have to wait and see!)
  • Thesis Project. Almost all classical schools assign a major Thesis project–if not just for 12th grade, perhaps even in 11th grade as well. These are considered the capstones of the high school career. This is not just a research paper; it is a biblical worldview project with a relevant thesis that takes up to a year from beginning (research and planning, finding an outside mentor) to end (rewriting, oral defense). We have added a more detailed unit on the Thesis.
  • What else? Part of our plan was to launch a new E-Book feature with live links to discourses and visual Rhetoric. That is still in the works; we wanted to get this edition into your hands sooner. So stay tuned!
  • When? We are on schedule to have this ready to purchase for the 2018-2019 school year, so hopefully by early spring. If you have specific questions about the timetable, please contact Shaunna or Tyler.

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Clouds of dust over a Super Bowl ad

whites_onlyWhen I see narrow-minded bigotry, I think of signs like this that presided over a shameful period in US history. I heard some of my own family members who agreed with that sentiment back in the 70s. It embarrassed me deeply. I was ashamed to hear people I love saying such hateful things.

What a surprise to see similar sentiments rise up over something as simple as a Super Bowl Coca-Cola commercial.

The song was “Oh Beautiful,” and it is distinctly American. The words, penned by Katherine Lee Bates as she sat atop Pikes Peak looking over the plains of Colorado, praise the beauty of our country. The song was sung during the Super Bowl commercial in several different languages. The meaning is the same regardless of the language used to sing it: “Oh beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple-mountain majesties above the fruited plain. America, America, God shed His grace on thee! And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea!”

We memorized that song in school, at Katherine Lee Bates Elementary in Colorado Springs, at the foot of Pikes Peak. It held special meaning for me then, and it still does today. It is uniquely American and speaks, interestingly, of American exceptionalism. The rest of the verses are included below.

Why are we arguing over the language used to sing those specific thoughts and ideas? The song praises America for its bountiful beauty–and, remember, for God’s grace on such a country! How beautiful can that be? (Don’t go all first-world on me, folks. Just saying, don’t try using your English-only argument about this song. Regardless of the language used, it still praises America!)

Social media is lit up with ugly comments on both sides about this commercial. Let’s take a step back and think. While one person on social media blasted that “The national anthem should be sung in English” (excuse me, but that wasn’t the national anthem anyway), others are taking Coca-Cola to task for injecting race issues into the Super Bowl.

Seriously. Take a breath.

Once you step foot on American soil, it does not mean you must drop your original language and never speak it again. Don’t get me wrong–I am conservative and want strong border enforcement and tough immigration laws. That’s not the issue here. The reactions to that Coca-Cola ad, though, did verge on bigotry, when people protested that the song should only be sung in English.

How petty and simplistic.

I believe the point of the commercial was to celebrate the mix of people and cultures we have in this country. Aren’t we the melting pot? What other country, when its athletes are marching in at the beginning of each Olympics, has such a mix of ethnicity among its team members? Isn’t that great?

And don’t forget that the song, sung during the Super Bowl, dared to sing that “God shed His grace on thee,” America. How bold, to perpetuate the idea that God is actively blessing people. Does He only shed His grace on people who speak English? (Yeah, that sounds ridiculous to me, too.)

So let’s take a deep breath and consider that while we do live in America, we are a rich mixture of ethnic backgrounds and cultures. Consider that we do indeed live in a beautiful country “from sea to shining sea,” and consider that regardless of the language in which we sing it, that truth remains the same.

Reject bigotry of all kinds. Challenge one another to think more deeply about the media messages out there. This little dust-up was misguided and narrow-minded. There are so many other things to get all riled up about. (Like the fact that I just ended that sentence with two dangling prepositions).

Here is the rest of the song. Pay attention to the words; they are distinctly American, and they also boldly honor God.

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine.

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam,
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self control,
Thy liberty in law.

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Read my lips…period. The use of the emphatic in rhetoric

Sometimes speakers (in politics, religion, and other public venues) forget the power of their words to move an audience. Sometimes they capitalize on it. Words strung together to project a thought or an idea–they have meaning. Words have permanence. And words, misused or abused, will sometimes swing right back around and smack the speaker in the mouth. Words have meaning.

A few years ago George HW Bush made a promise: “Read my lips: No new taxes.” When shortly thereafter he raised taxes, his recorded words proved that he had not carried out his pledge. That broken promise effectively lost his chance for reelection. How do we know it was a promise? He used the emphatic: Read my lips. He didn’t need to say “I promise you.” His emphatic rhetoric, “Read my lips,” was his vow. And the country knew he had broken his promise.

clintonEmphatic rhetoric can take place not just with words but also with physical gestures. Bill Clinton pointed at and looked directly into the cameras, and jabbed his finger with every sentence: “I did not. Have sexual relations. With that woman.” His physical gestures, along with the emphasis he made as he spoke (including the fact that he effectively looked us in the eye), implied a promise or a vow, almost daring the reporters to prove him wrong. As the world knows, he had lied to the American people, and he was impeached not long afterward. He lost credibility, and he is now a joke among late night TV hosts. His reputation is forever tarnished.

Richard Nixon, like Clinton, looked into the cameras and made his famous avowal: “Let me be perfectly clear.” He averred that he was not a crook. As the world found out, Nixon was up to his eyeballs in the Watergate scandal. He left  the office of the president shortly thereafter. He too is a byword; his name will forever be associated with the scandal he launched.nixon-gun-control.jpeg1-1280x960

Promises are made with the use of the emphatic, and they can be words alone, or words and gestures together. We as the audience understand the emphatic. We remember it. We hold the speakers accountable to it.

This is why President Barack Obama has found himself in such hot water. He used the emphatic, time and time again (one news outlet counted 26 different speeches), to promise that if Americans like their current health insurance plan and liked their doctor, “you can keep them. Period.”

The use of the emphatic “period” is what has ensnared him. He cannot get away from it. The “period” was his promise. His audiences saw it as his pledge to them, and they held him to it. Upon finding out that they indeed could not keep their plans or their doctors, Americans registered their outrage. The president’s reputation, and his opinion polls, have been on a downward spiral since. Not only did he break his promise, but documents are beginning to show that he knew this was a broken promise a couple of years before his health care law was launched in October of 2013. Yet he continued to repeat the pledge time and again.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this emphatic promise was a mistake, that he misspoke. Presidents do not often make impromptu claims or commitments, and certainly not 26 times in a space of three or four years. Whether his supporters want to agree or not, he made a pledge–a promise–using the language of the emphatic, and he cannot excuse it away. He also cannot, as he tried in the weeks afterward, “unspeak” his promise, or re-interpret it. In an age of video recordings available to anyone, anytime, people can see the speaker and hear his words for themselves; the promise cannot be erased.

The use of the emphatic is intentional. The speaker does not have to say “I promise” for it to be understood as a guarantee. The speaker pledges his reputation on such an emphasis, and the audience reads it as a serious promise.

Jesus used the emphatic with his “verily, verily I say unto you,” also translated as “truly I say to you.” He effectively said to his hearers, “listen up: what I am about to say is true.” He did not prevaricate; he did not equivocate. What he said could be taken as true because he led up to it with such a pledge.

The fact remains that people will believe you if you use emphatic rhetoric, both in word and in gesture. God’s word reminds people to take words seriously. “But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation” (ESV, James 5:12). In other words, understand that the implied promise of the emphatic word or gesture will be taken as truth, and you have staked your reputation on it.

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