Theology, Politics, and Rhetoric

July 7, 2016

So, I’m writing a book on how to read and understand the Bible.  The book is for undergraduates, not for theological professionals, so rhetoric becomes an important consideration–how to find the right way of saying things so that communication actually occurs.

Communication in theological  subjects is a challenge for several reasons.  The nature of the subject matter is one, but another is that often the teacher or writer inhabits a different culture from the learner or reader.  This difference of culture assumes a sinister character in today’s political climate.

There is an excellent editorial by David Brooks (“Revolt of the Masses,” June 28, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/28/opinion/revolt-of-the-masses.html?_r=0) in which he describes the two cultures that are driving this year’s presidential campaign and why neither understands the other.

The articles focuses on what he calls the “working-class honor code” and makes several incisive observations (relying, in part, on the research of other people).  My attention was caught by one comment in particular: The working-class honor code “has been decimated lately. Conservatives argue that it has been decimated by cosmopolitan cultural elites who look down on rural rubes.”

Red state blue state

Map of the Christian Church in the United States

The red state-blue state cultural bifurcation that afflicts American politics today is mirrored in the Christian church.  I doubt that my church has many “cosmopolitan cultural elites,” but there is a cultural divide; it is to some extent generational and to some extent educational.

Under these circumstances, theology is no longer simply an intellectual  task.  Instead it becomes a political matter of negotiating the differences among various cultures.  It’s not unlike the task facing a presidential candidate, who has to find a message, or a way of presenting a message, that the various factions within his or her party can be happy with.

For instance, several years ago I was writing a textbook of theology.  The section on sanctification required two thorough rewrites, demanded by the various layers of ecclesiastical editors.  The rewrites were required because I had to find a way of stating the idea of sanctification that would not offend or irritate the most conservative readers.  Rewrites were necessary to find the right rhetorical tone for a potentially wide audience of varying theological cultures, including the culture whose members are acutely sensitive to departures from the hallowed tradition.

This means that ecclesiastical leaders have a nearly impossible task.  My church, like most others, contains at least two distinct cultures, one socially conservative and the other not.  The leaders of my church have the unenviable job of keeping this mixed multitude together on one ecclesiastical ark (I resist the temptation to use here the image of clean and unclean animals on the ark) and of articulating our theological heritage in a way that allows the multitude to inhabit the ark with some degree of harmony and shared vision.  (Not that our leaders do this very well.  From my location at the far edge of the denomination, they seem to excel mostly at traveling and administration.  They and their bureaucratic acolytes appear to have nothing in their theological toolbox except hackneyed platitudes satisfying an increasingly small number of zealots.)

Unfortunately, the need to preserve unity and avoid conflict results in a culture of pervasive fear and in risk-averse conduct.  A similar situation obtained in ante-bellum America, when the debate over slavery was so acrimonious that it threatened to split churches.  As a result, many churches for several decades tolerated slave-owning members, believing schism to be a worse fate than tolerating slavery.

In a context of political anger such as we experience today, when fury has become a Christian virtue, church leaders will understandably be reluctant to expose themselves to the vitriol of the aggrieved culture and to run the risk of schism.

So what is a theologian to do when the church is populated by differing tribes, differing cultures?  What is the theological task in a situation in which segments of the church react with near hysteria to changes in the social and intellectual landscape?  It’s not necessary to adduce gay marriage as an example–portions of the Christian community are still fighting over the theory of evolution and the ordination of women, and I’m confident that somewhere in the church there are lingering doubts about the civil rights movement.

I’m tempted to regard this situation as generational and to hope that time will reduce the conflict between the cultures.  My undergraduate students mostly come from conservative, non-denominational churches.  Nonetheless, on social issues such as homosexuality they hold views that are far different from and less militant than the way in which Evangelical thought is commonly portrayed–a portrait of  representatives of conservative churches who are usually typically pretty old.  Even students who oppose homosexual marriage exhibit a rhetoric that is considerably milder than the alarmist speech characteristic of Evangelicalism’s spokespersons.

A stubborn sense of realism, however, intrudes into my hopes and forces me to acknowledge that the difference between cultures is not simply generational.  It is in fact deeply ideological.  The Christian community in America today simply possesses contrary views about the church’s relation to culture and nation.

In this situation, where theology inevitably acquires a political dimension, rhetoric becomes important.  It becomes, in other words, important to attend to means of persuasion.  Theological scholars and intellectuals have only words, but words can persuade.  The task is to find the right words and to place them in the right order.  Behind this task lies the whistling-in-the-dark confidence that there are Christians in every political culture who can be persuaded.  Whether this confidence is warranted is a matter of debate, but Christianity is, after all, a religion of hope.

8 thoughts on “Theology, Politics, and Rhetoric

  1. Be careful you don’t bury your student’s chances at a real education under the beautiful rhetoric of appeasement meant to “preserve the body of Christ.” Real education isn’t always easy, nor is it comfortable. The “church” can only grow if given real opportunities.

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  2. I’d like to say something profound like Kendall, but I’m on vacation and reading/writing on my phone. I really only want to give a vote of approval to what you say Sam. I’m often torn btw telling my students the truth (as I see it) and doing what is”good” for them. I’m not sure the latter really is the best thing.

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    • Well said. Everything gets more complicated in the context of a Christian university, where the financial stability of the institution depends on not offending certain publics, some of which include the most socially conservative elements of society. Add to that the fact that my school stands in the Pietist tradition, which historically had little use for theology, scholarship, and intellectual matters more generally, and you have a recipe for pedagogical stress. Enjoy your vacation, Rick.

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  3. You state that the cultural divide in our mutual church “is to some extent generational and to some extent educational.” To this I would add that it is also eschatological. The average American believer in this church tends to have a pessimistic eschatology. When that pessimism isn’t reflected back to them by that church’s theologians and other educational “elites,” many (in my view) conclude that the theologians can’t be trusted. I’m increasingly convinced that people, by and large, are seeking validation for what they already believe–in politics, in the news, and in religion.

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    • Hi, Stan. Thanks for the note. Sorry for the delayed response–been traveling. I fully agree with what you’ve said here. Your observation about people wanting to hear back from others what they already believe underlies my suspicions about ecclesiastical leaders’ lack of vigor in speaking out on topics–I think they are afraid of saying anything that might be perceived as diverging even slightly from the views of those whom they regard as their base, just as Trump’s speeches seem calculated to reinforce the views of his base.

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