Seasoned Speech

Rhetoric in the Life of the Church

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James E. Beitler, III
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic
    , May
     2019.
     256 pages.
     $25.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780830852444.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This book seeks to bring together three elements: (1) writings by and about five key Christian authors: C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Desmond Tutu, and Marilynne Robinson, (2) five seasons in the liturgical year: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter, and (3) reflection on rhetoric in these authors and in the life of the Church more generally. The five authors are associated with the seasons in the order just listed. The author has been trained at the graduate level in the field of rhetoric and composition, and he is thus able to draw on key rhetorical thinkers such as Aristotle, Quintilian, Augustine, Kenneth Burke, and many others.

A comment by the author in his final chapter, however, leaves the reader a bit confused about the structuring of the book. Beitler says: “. . . each figure discussed here could be used to illustrate all of the seasons of the church year and worship practices that I have touched on in the preceding pages” (197). In other words, each of the five authors could have been used to illustrate Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter. If that is the case, to associate and discuss each author in connection with just one season strikes the reader as artificial. An alternative way of structuring the book immediately comes to mind: use the seasons as the five main chapters and bring in the five voices in each of those chapters.

Another concern raised in the mind of the present reviewer is the difficulty of combining non-fiction and fiction sources in one coherent commentary. The reader, for example, who has not read the novel Gilead by Robinson, must rely on Beitler’s necessarily brief summary of the plot and characters in the book, and may feel a bit lost. Non-fiction works that have more easily summarized arguments can be drawn on more effectively in a book such as this.

These concerns aside, the book is very thoroughly researched, well-written, and filled with thought-provoking ideas. These are certainly five worthy authors to draw upon, and the text is accessible to an audience that is broader than just scholars in the field of rhetoric. Any thoughtful person of faith could profitably pick up this book and be benefitted from reading it. The word “rhetoric” often gets a bad rap, and this is one of the many books that have been written in recent decades that seek to rehabilitate and make useful again the study of rhetoric for a variety of readers with interests in diverse fields. The “rhetoric of science,” the “rhetoric of sports,” the “rhetoric of the blogosphere,” and dozens of other foci are possible. This book seeks to help Christians in general and pastors in particular to think about rhetorical concepts and strategies as they relate to the liturgical year. Those who preach could use this book as helpful background reading in sermon preparation during the particular seasons discussed in the book.

The author does not attempt to lay out a roadmap for addressing current hot topics, such as immigration, mass shootings, police brutality, climate change, and so forth, but the author is implicitly encouraging the reader to think about various topics such as these using ideas gleaned from the book. Just as Bonhoeffer was speaking to a situation dominated by the Nazis, and Tutu was speaking to a situation dominated by Apartheid, we can in our own time address from the pulpit, or in conversations with friends, or through social media posts, issues that are salient to us. Beitler encourages us to learn from these five authors, and from the tradition of rhetorical reflection, and be better prepared citizens in our increasingly fragmented and polarized world.

For this upbuilding message the author is to be commended. This reviewer is still left wondering if the structure of the book could have been conceptualized more effectively. Lining up the three elements is a bit like lining up the tumblers on a lock, but it is not clear exactly what lock is being opened.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles K. Bellinger is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics at Brite Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
September 9, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James E. Beitler III is Associate Professor of English at Wheaton College, where he is the Director of First-Year Writing and also coordinates the Writing Fellows Program.

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