Rhetoric and an Apologetics of Fear

No, I didn't go hear Aristotle speak, but he wrote some really important things about Rhetoric.

Some time ago I was privileged to hear a well-known and respected Christian apologist speak at a local church. This apologist had been an intellectual hero of mine for some time—his broadcasts had strengthened my faith since when I was in high school. This was the first time I was going to hear him speak in person, and it was with great anticipation that I arrived and found my seat near the back.

That evening the house was packed, with probably some two thousand people in attendance. The apologist spoke with his usual passion about the issues that charge him. Curiously, on that evening I found that I had heard nearly all of his material previously, and as a result I turned my attention from his content to the manner of his speech—his rhetorical method. From where I sat at the back I was able to look out over the heads of the listeners, and as I listened I found myself attending to the audience’s reaction as well; many of them were leaning forward, eagerly anticipating what the speaker had to say, and as he spoke many of them would nod meaningfully and offer up what I call the “Christian moan of assent”—Mmmmmm. As I reflected upon that evening’s experience some unsettling realizations pressed themselves upon me.

The apologist’s talk was based upon the principle that the ideas at the core of our society impact the farthest reaches of our society; in other words, that the centre of Western ethics is the Judeo-Christian worldview, summarized by the two ‘greatest’ commandments to love God and our neighbor. The apologist’s contention was that if we sacrifice the love of God we have no motivation to love our neighbor. Where in our present society we have eliminated this foundational backbone (belief in God), we should expect to struggle in the area of morals and ethics.

I have no issues with the content of the apologist’s talk—as it stands I agree with him wholeheartedly. But his rhetoric troubled me. And the biggest flag that something was amiss was that I believe my summary of the apologist’s point is far clearer than his exposition. I make no claim to be a perfect listener, but years of lecture-intense education have trained in me a decent ear for attending to arguments. Given this accumulated experience, even I was confused listening to the speaker that night. How do these statements connect? What’s the link between thought A and thought B? It took an act of super-intentional concentration to stitch together the main point. This dawning realization heightened my sense of strangeness about the situation: here am I, familiar with both the speaker and his style of speaking, struggling to follow his argument, while a host of hungry Christians and seekers sitting before me appear, by the bobbing of their heads and audible moans, to get exactly what he’s talking about. I sensed a discontinuity about the situation.

This discontinuity raised some questions for me that night. What is it, I asked—especially if it is not his content—that he is saying which seems to communicate so profoundly with these people? What is it about this talk, and this man, that is so compelling to this audience? Two answers, after reflecting upon his rhetoric, emerge that I believe explain this phenomenon—first, that his rhetorical manner communicated an ethos of expertise, and second, that his rhetorical content leveraged the innate fear of the audience. Together, these twin features created an apologetics of fear.

Rhetoric, of course, is more than just the words that are used in a given talk, it is the speaker’s whole manner of life. And the first observation to make about this apologist’s rhetoric was to note his use of stories and humor. The talk was chock-full of stories and jokes, illustrations and humorous quips. Humor, of course, is one of the great allies of public speaking. It creates an instant bond between the speaker and the audience, it invites the audience (a group of outsiders) to partake in the ‘joke’—to become insiders together. Humor can short-circuit hostile barriers that people erect and create a closeness, an intimacy of trust, which allows the conversation to move forward faster. Stories are a similar kind of tool—we all love to listen to them. They also regularly serve to give our minds a rest from heavy material. When someone speaks about difficult concepts for a time, it’s a good bet that the audience is feeling fatigued, and a good story can rejuvenate their energy. Stories are also a powerful didactic tool: they bring abstracts down to concrete levels. When we speak about difficult concepts it is always easier to understand them when there is a story that can illustrate the point.

This apologist tells great stories, and he has many stories to tell—clearly storytelling is one of his rhetorical gifts. What’s more, he tells his humorous stories with an excellent sense of comic timing—he knows just how long to pause before, and just how to look at the audience so that they have a chance to get the joke and become part of the ‘insider’ crew. Obviously, these stories—both humorous and serious—are a significant reason for the speaker’s popularity. People simply enjoy listening to him.

But while humor itself is a great asset, there was a darker rhetorical side to this speaker’s use of humor. In each case when the apologist told a personal story, he came out ‘on top.’ In one case he talked about a conversation he had with a woman who had caustically called into question our ability to make sense of reality in any way. To this challenge he more or less responded “Do you want me to give you an answer that makes sense, or not?” The answer was witty. And sharp. And this one story is like the rest—this apologist always says the right thing at the right time to the right people. He is always the ‘winner’ in his intellectual discourses with others (or so we would conclude from the stories he tells).

What, you may wonder, is the problem with this? The problem is what this rhetoric implies about the Christian life. It implies that being a Christian at the ‘forefront’ of the Christian frontier—’out there’ where it is no longer ‘safe for the whole family’ among the atheists and pagans and leftist maniacs and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists—that to really be effective ‘in the world’ means always having a witty, cutting, and intellectually savvy answer for everything. The rhetorical danger of this situation is that it presents, I believe unintentionally, the ideal of the successful Christian as a person who always ‘wins like the Apologist.’ That to be a successful representative of Christ in the world, you also have to be an expert.

But what happens if you lose? Or if you don’t have the answer? Does it mean you are an inferior Christian? That you didn’t pray enough? That you didn’t study enough? Winning all the time like this is not my experience; in fact, I fail regularly. Sometimes I don’t have witty answers for people. Sometimes I ‘lose’ in my public conversations. And I am left to wonder: What do I have in common with someone like this apologist? And this highlights for me what I believe is a hidden, subtle danger of this apologist’s rhetorical strategy: the image of expertise. Because if he is our example then the field of Christian apologists is reserved for the specially skilled, the specially intelligent, those with special gifts of wit. In other words, Christian apologetics becomes the work of a select group of gifted Christians, while the rest of us must sit back and say to ourselves, “Wow, I could never do that.”

One of Weaver's books. Most excellent. A detailed review is forthcoming.

The second aspect of the apologist’s rhetoric to consider was the manner in which his arguments leveraged fear. Rhetorician Richard Weaver identifies four categories of argument and ranks them according to their ethical value. Arguments with the highest ethical value are arguments from definition—drawing from the nature of things they are the least likely to be polluted by outside elements. The apologist’s main argument (as I summarized it above) is a good example of an argument from definition. The problem, of course, is that I had to work hard to find that argument within the speaker’s rhetoric. So, what arguments did emerge?

The apologist’s favorite form of arguments came from the next two categories of argument—what Weaver calls consequence and circumstance—and both of these can be used to leverage fear in the listener. For example, the apologist argued from circumstance when he pointed to the present ‘facts’ of our day as evidence of proof of his argument (moral collapse). He identified, for example, the number societies that have abandoned a Christian worldview, or the number of abortions worldwide. Such ‘moral decay’ is easy to identify; it is less easy to account for. But the question here is not whether or not he is right about these facts, but the cumulative effect of fear that their use created in his talk. I personally came away with the fear-filled impression of an ever decaying world around me. What is more, given the general lack of clarity from the evening’s talk, these facts become the talking points that people walk away with. They won’t repeat the phrase, “When you abandon God you lose all ground for morality.” They’ll say, “Look at all the abortions in the world, we’ve got to change!”

The apologist also argued from consequence, and here his frequent argument was, “Look what has happened in the past where other people have abandoned the Christian worldview—consider Communist Russia, look at Manasseh in Israel, consider this woman with whom I spoke on one occasion.” Once again, the truth of these arguments is not in question—rather, the cumulative fear of “what is going to happen” as we abandon God is. And hence, there is a growing fear that our Christian way of life is threatened, that our way of going about business in the West is tenuous, that the lurking forces of darkness—the Left, Communists, Socialists, Atheists, Islamic Terrorists, Progressives, Eco-terrorists—that these dark and mysterious powers are out to get us. The slippery slope is everywhere, and the apologist, by building his arguments on fearful evidence evokes, in part, the power of the conspiracy theory, and therefore magnifies the already endemic fear of our culture.

What, then, was the cumulative effect of this rhetoric? It is an apologetics of fear. The apologist spoke to the fear of the audience, and while I don’t believe they understood what he was saying, nevertheless in their fear they were encouraged by his voice. After all, Christianity is very fearful today. And our fear emerges in ‘us/them’ thinking; we are drawn to either an increasing sense of inward retreat (to ‘safe for the whole family’ ground), or an ever more hostile attack on the culture at large. Both are overreactions motivated by fear. Within this matrix of fearfulness encouraged (I believe unintentionally) by the rhetoric of fear, the apologist appears, in his stories of expert victory, ever more the bright and shining hero that we need—an intellectual giant, standing against the forces that oppose Christianity. Here, through both humor and fear, he perpetuates (through argument) the concept of an ‘outside’ that is hostile, while creating (through humor) an ‘inside’ that is safe. If he is obscure and difficult to understand, it is because he is so much higher than us in the fight, and we should expect that our lowly minds not be able to follow him. After all, we are not like him.

2 comments on “Rhetoric and an Apologetics of Fear

  1. […] J. Michael Rios looks at how rhetoric functions in an apologetic of fear. LD_AddCustomAttr("AdOpt", "1"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Origin", "other"); […]

  2. Andrew Ledbetter says:

    Jeremy–I’m sorry I’ve been slow to respond to this post, especially since I’ve been asking for it! These are great thoughts here. A few thoughts in response:

    1) Within the communication discipline, I’m a social scientist, not a rhetorician–but the rhetoricians I know (at least, those who are of a socially or politically conservative persuasion) hold Weaver in high regard. If you ever feel led away from the pastorate, you could make a fine rhetorician. :-)

    2) If you feel like exploring rhetoric further, you might be interested in Kenneth Burke. Now, Burke’s writings themselves are quite a rambling mess–but the substance of his work is interesting, especially for a Christian reader. Burke himself certainly was not, and did not claim to be, a Christian, but he found the language of theology to be quite useful and precise in describing the human condition, especially as regards communication. He wrote much about how the speaker establishes identification with the audience, and it is this identification that generates persuasion (adoption of the speaker’s worldview). To identify a speaker’s method of generating persuasion, he urged consideration of five elements of a speaker’s rhetoric: act, scene, actor, agency, and purpose. From what you’ve described, it sounds as if the apologist is establishing identification through the interpplay of scene and actor–in other words, in the midst of a scary, mean world, the actor (the apologist) is the only one who has the might, skill, and intellect to defend Christendom. As you point out, “we are not like him”–a funny statement when talking about the speaker building identification with the audience, but in this case it works because he is accomplishing identification via a shared fear. What you’re arguing for, I think, is identification not through fear, but through a common identity as those bought by the blood of Jesus, who are able to accomplish anything solely because of His work in us–in other words, a focus on agency. But perhaps I’m reading my thoughts into your post at this point.

    3) More generally, I think this is only one instance of the culture of fear that pervades evangelicalism. I wonder if we evangelicals encourage our kids to become missionaries, pastors, etc. not because it is a noble calling, but because we want to stay safe inside the boundaries of the comfortable evangelical world. Of course, that motive undermines the true nobility of the calling. It also undermines, I think, the example of the incarnation–simultaneous intense contact with the world and complete holiness. Of course that sounds difficult because it is; but then again, we also believe we have a divine agency that enables us to do it.

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