James E. Beitler III Shares Lessons on Christian Communication in New Book ‘Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church’

Speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:15) may be one of the most misapplied biblical injunctions of our day. We use it to justify blunt commentary and harsh judgment, claiming a motive of love for God or the recipient. Too often, though, we’re just sidestepping kindness or humility. But what if we didn’t have to sacrifice one for the other? In Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church, James E. Beitler III shares a recipe for communication that’s persuasive, effective, and transformative. Persuasion podcast co-host Erin Straza spoke with Beitler about the power of rhetoric to bind our worship with our witness in a world that’s desperate for both.

In the book, you identify the key communication skills of five renowned Christian thinkers (C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Desmond Tutu, and Marilynne Robinson), and you match them with the church’s liturgical calendar. How does the book’s structure help us see connections between the rhetoric of worship and witness?

We are in a moment that’s seeing a renewed interest in liturgy. Thanks in part to the work of James K. A. Smith and others, I began thinking about the ways in which liturgy involves not just spiritual formation and virtue but also our witness. My hope is to prompt readers to think about the ways in which their own worship practices, their own participation in the life of the church, can shape their own forms of witness. How can we present the gospel in ways that are consistent with what we’re doing every Sunday?

In your introduction, you mention that being a master of rhetoric is not at odds to authentic Christian witness. Why is this a common concern?

The word rhetoric is often used pejoratively. There’s skepticism about what rhetoric is. We assume it’s a form of manipulation that’s inherently opposed to truth-seeking. But rhetoric is unavoidable: One way or another, we’re always employing rhetoric when we communicate. We are positioning ourselves in particular ways. We are making a plea to particular values or emotions.

If rhetoric is unavoidable, the question becomes, How should we use it? Augustine realized this and basically said, “Since rhetoric is used to promote what’s false, we should instead employ it to support what’s true.” By thinking of it in pejorative ways—or by notthinking about it enough—we’re hampering our witness. There’s this rich tradition we can draw on for communicating effectively.

Few of us can escape the torrent of heated opinion and commentary on the world’s issues—in the news, on our social feeds, in our conversational circles. What do you see as an effective response from people of faith and the church at large?

One of the most important responses is opening up spaces for active listening. That’s something that I found C.S. Lewis did particularly well. Lewis had this posture of goodwill toward those around him—toward friends and students, but also toward people he didn’t agree with, including non-believers.

Also, we have too few spaces right now where dialogue across differing viewpoints can happen. Figures like Marilynne Robinson are incredibly useful in addressing this. Her stories are realistic about the difficulties of belonging, as they’re inhabited by people with very different beliefs. Yet she makes a welcoming space for readers. There’s an important moment in her novel Home when two characters, a father and son (Robert and Jack Boughton) who have a very tense relationship, are watching the news. Jack sees the violence happening in the South, and he exclaims, “Jesus Christ!” And his dad, who was a minister, reacts instead to Jack’s taking the Lord’s name in vain. On one hand, you have this figure who is very much concerned with social justice. On the other, you have someone very much concerned with truth and holiness.

It’s so valuable when the church has places where commitments both to truth and justice are radically affirmed. Robinson’s book points to an ideal of restoration, of harmony—what the biblical writers would call shalom.

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Source: Christianity Today