Responding to the Sacred

An Inquiry into the Limits of Rhetoric

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Michael Bernard-Donals, Kyle Jensen
  • State College: 
    Pennsylvania State University Press
    , April
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Responding to the Sacred: An Inquiry into the Limits of Rhetoric, edited by Michael Bernard-Donals and Kyle Jensen, is a collection of eleven essays, preceded by an extensive introduction, that attempts to locate rhetoric’s potential and constraint in making sense of the sacred. Simply stated, the book explores rhetoric’s relation to the sacred. The book aptly defines a set of key terms through which to understand this relation and also to make sense of the limitations of the human subject. Each essay enriches the theme by exploring variegated ways through which the sacred and rhetoric respond to each other, and how growing work in the academy contributes to and complicates existing ways of perceiving the sacred. Divided into two sections, the book approaches the question from two broad entry points. The essays in the first part consider the functioning of rhetoric in the sacred, while those in the second tackle rhetoric as is embedded within sacred contexts.

Part 1, titled “Sacred Encounters,” consists of five essays, each examining the abstract and ineffable aspect of the relationship of the sacred with rhetoric. Cynthia Haynes, author of the first chapter, warns readers that the sacred is beyond easy categorization for the sake of representation. However, rhetoric responds to help with precisely this. Exploring the feminine character of rhetoric in the sacred, Haynes shows how organic bonds are created and explores the existence of reconciliatory passageways (     passwords, as she puts it).

In the next chapter, exploring the separation of the divine from community, David Frank illustrates how in the Hebrew scriptures there exist a continuous disassociation between the sacred and rhetoric. His work emphasizes the “rhetorical relationship between the divine and human, that is rooted in human time and space” (74). He explicitly urges readers to speculate on the limitations that a rhetorical God posits. Similarly, Steven Mailloux situates the sacred at the political praxis. Through historical examples, Mailloux shows the connection between rhetoric and the sacred, or what he calls theorhetoric.

Centering on two prominent philosophers, Thomas Hobbes and Walter Benjamin, James M. Martel’s essay argues that one’s approach to the sacred is a deeply political act. Martel focuses on the aspect of human decision making, which determines the sacred, and on the importance of language in it. Specifically noteworthy is his emphasis on the everyday in this process. The final essay from the first part, by Richard Doyle and Trey Conner, suggests the existence of experiences “beyond the domains of space or time” (123).

In part 2, titled “Sacred Practices,” Bernard-Donals and Jensen include essays that explore the ritualistic (repetitive) aspect of the sacred and how, through an engagement with rhetoric, the sacred helps us grasp the difference of each repetition. This section begins with Jodie Nicotra’s work on big data and connects that with rhetoric’s role in responding to the sacred in a way that also highlights the interconnectedness between the self and the sacred. In the next chapter, Michelle Ballif comments on how the divine works by thinking through rhetoric. Relying on divine strategies such as necromancy and telepathy, he shows the agency of parahuman and paranormal activities that are synced with rhetorical relations.

Similarly, Ned O’ Gorman and Kevin Hamilton in their essay argue that modern American presidential rhetoric is deeply embedded in the sacred status of the sovereign. This chapter deals with the techniques of rhetoric and comments on the image of the United States as “nuclear sovereign.” Moving away from state politics for a change, Brooke Rollins in his essay emphasizes the performative aspect of the sacred to theorize rhetoric.

The two essays that the book closes with deal with the possibility of going beyond the two sections categorizing the other chapters in the book and can be considered to belong to a separate section altogether. These essays engage with rhetoric as a form of dialogue through which the sacred can be made sense of. These essays offer a heterogenous approach, that is, neither solely reliant on the ritualistic or performative aspects of the sacred, nor a response to the divine call. In essence, rhetoric goes both with and beyond these. In Jean Bessette’s work, archives features prominently, which she asserts can be helpful in articulating the limitations of rhetoric. Bassette brings up the Stonewall Riots to show how they exemplify the crisis of the sacred. The final essay, authored by Daniel M. Gross, doubles as a conclusion for the entire volume. He points out to      the academy’s limitations in comprehending the sacred, and he says that in doing so, one has to fall back on historiography.

Responding to the Sacred encompasses the nuances of an academic understanding of the sacred, and that is where the strength of the book lies. The volume is a helpful read for those in the academy—who are working in theology as well as in literature and sociology. Each chapter of the book stands out in its own in delving deep into specific themes, while at the same time speaking to the other chapters and the introduction in a holistic manner. Here Bernard-Donals and Jensen’s editorial finesse shows—they weave one narrative while pausing at proper intervals to make space for variegated portals. Though the volume majorly overlooks ethnographic accounts of the sacred, its theoretical contribution to the field makes up for the lack. The book can aptly be referred to as a starting point for future works on the rhetoric of the sacred that rely on ethnographies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ankana Das is a PhD student at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, India.

Date of Review: 
November 5, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Bernard-Donals is Chaim Perelman Professor of Rhetoric and Culture at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Focusing mainly on the relation between rhetoric and ethics, he has authored or edited ten books in the field.

Kyle Jensen is professor of English at Arizona State University and the author of Reimagining Process: Online Writing Archives and the Future of Writing Studies.



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