Archive for the ‘rhetoric’ Tag

A Revival of Eloquence

A key element of the Obama presidential bid was his rhetorical skills. Beyond question, he has been the most eloquent speaker on the national stage since Martin Luther King, Jr. Not even Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, or Billy Graham had the impact on the general public that the new president has had.

The truth is, Obama has raised the bar for those who would lead the American people. For too long we have settled for leaders with mediocre speaking ability. In fact, it may be that we have in this one election gone from the least able speaker to the most able speaker, just as we have gone from the most conservative to the most liberal. If Obama governs as well as he speaks he will have altered the course of public speech in America.

Just like Lincoln.

The 16th President of the United States pushed aside the standard style of his day: flowery, full of allusions and quotations, pompous and very long. Lincoln was plain, simple, brief, and artfully worded. Garry Wills wrote a book about the transformation of rhetoric by Abraham Lincoln.

We could wish the same for Obama. While critics decried his style as “nothing but rhetoric” and “style without substance” the American people were moved by Obama’s soaring eloquence and learned again that the ability to inspire people is the chief element of a leader.

Obama’s skill as an orator surely is rooted in natural ability, disciplined intelligence, and—let’s be honest—the influence of preaching. True, Obama had to adjust his ties with his long-time pastor, but not before the flamboyant Chicago minister embodied for the future President what strong, simple, soaring language can do to mobilize a people.

Obama may have intentionally mimicked Lincoln in another way: including in his emerging circle of advisors people who were once his staunch critics. The book Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln published in 2005 by Doris Kerns Goodwin describes this presidential strategy. It remains to be seen whether Obama can implement it as successful as did Lincoln. That has to do, again, with the ability to govern.

But one thing is for sure: Obama has reinvigorated public speech. People are glad; they voted for him. University professors of rhetoric and high school speech coaches will both be thrilled; perhaps the President’s success will bring into this ancient discipline a new generation of talented young people.

But I represent another legion of people who must take note and give thanks: those of us who mentor and teach young preachers. A seminary president said to me as we lunched together on Election Day: “This is good news for preaching.” I think he is right.

The irony is this: the very person critics once accused of being Muslim, who at a critical time in his march on Washington found it necessary to disavow the rhetoric of his own pastor may turn out to be one of the most influential persons in shaping gospel preachers of the 21st century.


A Word Fitly Spoken

November 4, 2008 will be remembered as a turning point in American history: like Pearl Harbour, the moon landing, or 9/11.

On that day I arrived early at the polling place, waited in line, and cast my ballot. Then I drove to Wilmore, Kentucky to attend worship at Asbury Seminary followed by lunch with their president, Dr. J. Ellsworth Kalas, a seasoned Methodist minister old enough to be my father. We sat in a small diner in Nicholasville, Kentucky and talked about the campaign for the presidency. On many things we agreed but especially this: Barack Obama has dramatized anew the significance and success of public speech.

Rhetoric is often denigrated as empty and useless; give us policy, we say to the candidate; be practical, we plead with the preacher. But when a holy and hospitable vision is carried along by a simple and soaring eloquence, what comes forth is a transformational power that organization, ideology, or effort can not match.

Part of it is technique: cadence, language, inflection, tone, posture, countenance. “A word fitly spoken,” the Bible asserts, “is like apples of gold in pictures of silver”—rare, to be treasured, and able to captivate the imagination.

“When I come to church,” a woman said to me a few days ago, “I want to be inspired.” Taught, perhaps; warned, sometimes, consoled, when needed—but mostly inspired. What she confessed was the need to be lifted above ourselves, outside of ourselves, beyond ourselves by an appeal to our better natures and our nobler virtues, by connecting us with the spiritual currents of the universe, by instilling within us the possibilities of human endurance and achievement. Such also is the task of preachers.

“My heart is stirred by a noble theme…” the psalmist rightly wrote and sang, perhaps after hearing a preacher extol the greatness of God, the grandeur of love, or the glory of life.

This is the other part of effective rhetoric—a message. Not all rhetorical ability is tied to a good and just theme: think Hitler. But when a generosity of spirit, a wideness of mercy, and a genuine delight in the common good flow out of a speaker into the minds and imaginations of those who hear, transformational things can happen. It is the hope and prayer of all who preach the gospel.

Others will study this historic campaign and learn things about voting and vetting, organizing and mobilizing, friend-raising and fund-raising; these are all important. But as a preacher I am interested in the power of persuasive speech. Obama’s gifts of substance and style have brought him to the White House and have given to us a leader of inspirational power.

Other skills are needed in the White House: discernment, courage, humility, humor, etc; it remains to be seen whether he can govern. But his success as a public speaker has the potential to rejuvenate the vocation of rhetoric. Nowhere is this more needed that in the pulpits of American churches.

Poison in the Well of Public Discourse

As the political season winds down, the fear of defeat is forcing candidates (and their advocates) to go deeper into the wellspring of human emotion. What they are pulling up are buckets of bold, belligerent and dangerously violent language.

The radical rhetoric arises from one simple reality: one person seeing the other as an enemy.

Civil society (and hence, civilization) is fed by streams of respect: I respect you and your opinions, and you respect me and my opinions. You and I share common aspirations: providing for the common good—peace, prosperity, justice, freedom, and a sense of community.

But when I begin to think you and your opinions are a danger to the commonwealth, then you cease being a citizen whom I respect; you become a threat to my vision of community. In short: you are my enemy. Once you become an enemy your defeat—no, your destruction—is the ultimate goal.

The rhetoric of public discourse has increasingly been poisoned with this language of war. Too many have become cultural warriors, seeking the destruction of some other tribe of citizens. .

When did we cease being one nation and become two countries—red and blue—occupying the same stretch of beautiful land?

Perhaps the great watershed was the decade of the sixties: the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement, court decisions on prayer, scripture, and abortion, and the emergence of recreational drugs and sex into the public sphere. It was certainly transformational in the life of our nation.

Out of that common but traumatic experience emerged two visions of America: one religious, obedient, traditional, and institutional; the other secular, risqué, radical and individual. The church and the corporations came down on the side and the media and the universities on the other. The cool water of a common cause was replaced by the bitter cup of cultural war.

It was the religious people who first injected the language of battlefield into the civic debate. They did so, first, in religious struggles, as Baptists in the South can attest. The struggle to dominate was not simply among brothers who disagreed on this or that; it was the forces of good against the forces of evil, truth against error, right versus wrong, orthodoxy and heresy. All of the ultimate categories available to religion were employed, arousing passions, mobilizing people, and managing the kind of power that not only carries the day but crushes the opponent.

People of faith pushed this “us-them” dichotomy into the political arena. “We the people of the United States” was flooded out of its honored abode by this torrent of ugly language.

Floods bring flotsam: and among the worst abusers of rhetorical restraint were the high priests of talk radio, such as Howard Stern to Rush Limbaugh. They said things normal people would think rude, crude and socially unacceptable, and they said it on air. Rhetoric that is racist, profane, and downright wrong made these men wealthy; it also gave permission for a million and more neighbors to toss the language of respect and embrace the rhetoric of war. Now it is bubbling to the surface around the country. Deep down, things are poisoned.

Who knows when some fresh flow of decency and discipline will wash our way and baptize us with the courtesy and kindness so necessary to the common good?