I, Crucifix

Icrucifix

I’ve loved Leonard E. Read’s I, Pencil since the first time I read it. I’ve been struck recently that the crucifixion of Jesus was much more complicated to orchestrate than a simple pencil. These words from Peter, in Acts, have been bouncing around in my head (along with John calling Jesus the “lamb slain before the creation of the world” in Revelation.

“This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” — Acts 2:23

Some of the below either borrows, or quotes, I, Pencil. Which you should read for this to make as much sense as possible (though it should work without that). 


I am the crucifix. Those two wooden planks, fixed together in the shape of the letter t, a symbol familiar to boys and girls and adults throughout the world. A symbol of hope. Affixed to hospitals, churches, and flags. Carried into battle, marking the resting place of the fallen. I am the world most recognised, most powerful, most confused, brand.

I am simultaneously wondrous, and cursed, celebrated and condemned, wisdom and foolishness, power and weakness, honour and humiliation, love and loathing, an instrument of justice and of mercy. I am both physical, and symbolic. I was made to bring darkness and death, but now represent light and life. I do these things, and more. I am taken up in service of many causes, and cause many acts of service.

I am where the triune God, who created the world wrote his signature on the earth, in blood. I am the canvas for a divine masterpiece where His image was held up, writ large, for all to see.

I am the scene of the culmination of his carefully orchestrated plans for his world.

I am so significant that the books written about me could fill a library, and the pieces of me held in churches around the world as relics could fill a ship. Yet nobody knows what tree became me.

You may wonder why I should write a genealogy. Well, to begin with, my story has transformed the history of the world. And yet, I am a mystery, more than a pencil, a sunset, a flash of lightning, or even the cosmos itself. Sadly, I am taken for granted, as if I were a mere incident, and without background. This supercilious attitude relegates me to the level of the commonplace. This is a species of the grievous error in which mankind cannot too long persist without peril. For the wise G.K Chesterton observed, “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.”

I, Crucifix, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, a claim I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand me—no, that’s too much to ask of anyone — if you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing. I have a profound lesson to teach. And I can teach this lesson better than can an automobile, or an airplane, or a mechanical dishwasher, or even a pencil, because—well, because I am seemingly so simple.

Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me. This sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? Especially when we see that Rome once crucified 6,000 slaves at once, hung on crosses just like me, planted on the Via Appia.

Ponder me. A stauros. A cross. Consider my stipes and patibulum. The post and bar. Two planks of simple timber. Fixed together. What do you see? Not much that meets the eye. A few metres of hardwood. Splintered and bloody. Stipes implanted in the ground. Reused for victim upon victim. Some ropes. Some pegs and nails. I am physical, and yet symbolic. I have been emblematic for various causes through history, from warriors to medics, from haters to lovers. As an instrument of death in the hands of the Roman Empire I evoked horror, and humiliation, the very people who employ me most are terrified of my power — the orator Cicero insisted Roman citizens should not be confronted with the barbarity of even my name.

Just as you cannot trace your family tree back very far, so is it impossible for me to name and explain all my antecedents. But I would like to suggest enough of them to impress upon you the richness and complexity of my background.

My family tree may seem, simply and literally, to begin with a tree; a cedar, an olive, or a fig tree, a tree of unknown species, grown somewhere around Jerusalem. Perhaps even the mystical dogwood — though unlikely. I grew from seed, sprouted, shot upwards, branched out, before being felled by an axe and stipped of branch and bark, turned to timber. My construction might seem simple. Two logs held together, and my victim affixed, by spike and rope. You may wish to contemplate the axes, rope, horses and carts, and countless other tools used in harvesting and carting logs to Golgotha and the barracks. Think of all the persons and the numberless skills that went into their fabrication: the mining of ore, the making of iron and its smithing into axe heads and blades, the growing of nile grass and bringing it through all the stages to heavy and strong papyrus rope; the logging camps with their beds and mess tents, the slaves and soldiers overseeing the work, the cookery and the raising of all the foods to feed these mouths. Why, untold numbers of persons had a hand in every cup of wine the soldiers drink, and every piece of armour they wear! Timber was scarce in Jerusalem so my upright pole, my stipes, remained rooted, planted, at the place of the skull, while my victims bore the patibulum from their trial to their deathly destiny.

Don’t overlook the ancestors present and distant who have a hand in creating me, not simply my physical reality, but my meaning.

My origins may seem arboreal, and, indeed, corporeal, and yet, it is the ethereal, symbolic sense of my significance that is where my family tree truly begins. Erected, as I was, in Jerusalem, I carry the stench of a curse for the Hebrew, and the aroma of abasement for the Roman. These odours were cultivated by years of tradition and practice. My ancestors were creations of Darius I of Persia, and employed by Alexander the Great. The Romans perfected my use and made me the most despised symbol in all the world — 6,000 slaves, the army of Spartacus, were once nailed to my predecessors and dotted liberally, one every 33 metres, along the Appian Way, a bloody road map to Roman supremacy. Dionysius of Halicarnassus in book VII of his Roman Antiquities from 7 BC, described the path an individual would take on his journey to death on the wooden arms of my forefathers…

“A Roman citizen of no obscure station, having ordered one of his slaves to be put to death, delivered him to his fellow-slaves to be led away, and in order that his punishment might be witnessed by all, directed them to drag him through the Forum and every other conspicuous part of the city as they whipped him, and that he should go ahead of the procession which the Romans were at that time conducting in honour of the god. The men ordered to lead the slave to his punishment, having stretched out both his arms and fastened them to a piece of wood which extended across his breast and shoulders as far as his wrists, followed him, tearing his naked body with whips. The culprit, overcome by such cruelty, not only uttered ill-omened cries, forced from him by the pain, but also made indecent movements under the blows.”

Observe my function, and my meaning. I am a well-honed instrument of humiliation and torture, the end of a torturous road for the accursed. Those designated as less than nothing in the eyes of the world. I am an instrument of death, and a symbol of power.

“Whenever we crucify the condemned, the most crowded roads are chosen, where the most people can see and be moved by this terror. For penalties relate not so much to retribution as to their exemplary effect.”—Quintilian, Declamation 274, The Tyrant Struck By Lightning.

For the Jews, I am anathema. Moses proclaimed that one hung, executed, upon a tree, a tree like me, was accursed by the living God. By the time Rome occupied Israel, death on a tree was a special punishment for traitors — those who sold Israel out to foreign powers, the Temple Scroll discovered amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls, says:

“If a man slanders his people and delivers his people to a foreign nation and does evil to his people, you shall hang him on a tree and he shall die. On the testimony of two witnesses and on the testimony of three witnesses he shall be put to death and they shall hang him on the tree. If a man is guilty of a capital crime and flees to other nations, and curses his people, the children of Israel, you shall hang him also on the tree, and he shall die. But his body shall not stay overnight on the tree. Indeed you shall bury him on the same day.” —11QT Temple Scroll LXIV

My history, my family tree, as it were, the origin story behind my significance began even earlier than the practice of crucifixion.

It was no accident that my symbolic was turned upside down, that the Cross became a symbol of glory, and hope, of life, rather than death. It was part of a plan.

A plan that began with two other trees — a tree that brought life, and a tree that brought death. God’s plan to destroy evil, and his promise to crush the Serpent. Satan. A promise centred on the “lamb slain before the creation of the world”— the Lamb, the Son, whose hands flung stars into space and hold heavens and earth together.A plan that would see those hands skewered with odious spikes, on a cursed tree. His feet pierced, his side lanced.

The events that took place, painted in blood on my splintered canvas, were planned from the very beginning, even from before the creation of the world. It was no accident that the divine son of God, the Son of Man, found his arms affixed to mine, it was no accident that those looking on at these events hurled insults — they could do no less. It was no accident that the child of promise arrived at a time in history when I stood tall as a symbol of human power. The symbol that best represented the might of the god-kings of Rome, and their superiority over any who claimed to oppose their right to rule. It was no accident that Jesus was tried as a traitor by both Jews and Romans, and sentenced to an exemplary, cursed death. For many before him, I was a final resting place, corpses were left to rot on my cruel axis. But not for this one. And from this moment on, the fabric of the world was torn asunder, this rending of the heavens, itself, symbolised in the tearing of the Temple curtain, with this shattering of what was, and re-creation of what is, my significance was inverted. The curse reversed.

Does anyone wish to challenge the assertion that no single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me?

Actually, millions of human beings have had a hand in my creation, no one of whom even knows more than a very few of the others. Indeed, every human hand that has been and will be — hands raised in rebellion against God — play a part in holding the divine Son’s hands to my boards, to holding me together at the centre of history. Every life gives significance to my promise of judgment or mercy. Judgment for the death of the Son, or mercy bought by the blood spilled into the grains of my beams, and on to the earth beneath.

Here is an astounding fact: Neither the Romans who appointed me to my task, nor the Jewish crowd who looked on, not the governor, the timber workers, the soldiers, the quartermaster, the slave, the high priest, the Pharisees or teachers of the law, nor even those hung on my contemporaries on Golgotha, know how I came to be, nor wanted me, or wanted to understand my significance. Certainly I do not occupy the same place in their life, or those lives that came after me, that I do in space and time, or in God’s plans. The motivation of these people is other than me.

Perhaps it is something like this; when people are at last confronted with my significance and place in the plans of the God who orchestrated space and time such that his own shoulders rested on my wood, they are left wanting my significance to be their significance, their motivation, perhaps, at this point shifts, so I am the symbol they take up in order to live and know life.

The master-mind at the heart of my story, my creation, is astounding. The strings of history pulled, twisted, laid out and brought together in my being, and doing, are the product of an invisible hand at work. Not the work of an apprentice, but a virtuoso.

It has been said that “only God can make a tree.” Why do we agree with this? Isn’t it because we realize that we ourselves could not make one? Indeed, can we even describe a tree? We cannot, except in superficial terms. We can say, for instance, that a certain molecular configuration manifests itself as a tree. But what mind is there among men that could even record, let alone direct, the constant changes in molecules that transpire in the life span of a tree? Such a feat is utterly unthinkable! If this is true of any tree — how much more of this tree. The tree at the centre of the universe?

I, Crucifix, am a complex combination of miracles: wood, rope, metal and so on. But to these miracles which manifest themselves in Nature an even more extraordinary miracle has been added: the configuration of creative human energies and co-ordination of human history, superstition, culture, and power structures — millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human desire and in the absence of any human master-minding! Since only God can make a tree, I insist that only God could make me. Man can no more direct these millions of know-hows to bring me into being than he can put molecules together to create a tree.

The above is what I meant when writing, “If you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolise, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing.” For, if one is aware that I sit at the heart of divine creativity, that I am the backdrop for the divine drama writ large in history, authored and orchestrated from the beginning of life in this world, then one will possess an absolutely essential ingredient for freedom: faith in God. Freedom is impossible without this faith.

If I, Crucifix, were the only item that could offer testimony to what God accomplishes by divine creative expression, then those with little faith would have a fair case. However, there is testimony galore; it’s all about us and on every hand. Sunrise, sunset, the cosmos itself and its beauty is a testimony. The best of our humanity — love, the creation of relationships, life, art, and complex systems that enhance these things. Our co-creativity, our ability to write and appreciate stories, to bring threads together, woven into rich tapestries. The production line for apparently simple devices, like the pencil. The creation of supply chains. Human ingenuity and problem solving as a reflection of the divine nature.

Why, in this area where men have been left free to try, they deliver the human voice around the world in less than one second; they deliver an event visually and in motion to any person’s home when it is happening; they deliver 150 passengers from Seattle to Baltimore in less than four hours; they deliver gas from Texas to one’s range or furnace in New York at unbelievably low rates and without subsidy; they deliver each four pounds of oil from the Persian Gulf to our Eastern Seaboard—halfway around the world—for less money than the government charges for delivering a one-ounce letter across the street!

The lesson I have to teach is this: Let the event at the centre of the world shape life in it. Take up your cross and follow the one whose hands were nailed to my arms. Merely organise society— starting with your own life— to act in harmony with this lesson. Have faith that free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand. This faith will be confirmed. I, Crucifix, seemingly simple though I am, offer the miracle of my creation as testimony that this is a practical faith, as practical as the sun, the rain, a cedar tree, the good earth.

SNIPPET // Cicero on Eloquence as a Virtue (and the importance of integrity)

cicero

Eloquence, after all, has its own place among the supreme virtues. Of course, all the virtues are equal and equivalent, but still, one is more beautiful and splendid in appearance than another. This is the case with the power that I am talking about: having acquired all-embracing knowledge, it unfolds the thoughts and counsels of the mind in words in such a way that it can drive the audience in whatever direction it has applied its weight. And the greater this power is, the more necessary it is to join it to integrity and the highest measure of good sense. For if we put the full resources of speech at the disposal of those who lack these virtues, we will certainly not make orators of them, but will put weapons into the hands of madmen

SNIPPET // Cicero on crucifixion, floggings, and Roman citizenship

From Against Verres, 2.5.165-168, via Perseus

“Why, that he had only cried out that he was a Roman citizen because he was seeking some respite, but that he was a spy. My witnesses are unimpeachable. For what else does Caius Numitorius say? what else do Marcus and Publius Cottius say, most noble men of the district of Tauromenium? what else does Marcus Lucceius say, who had a great business as a money-changer at Rhegium? what else do all the others ray? For as yet witnesses have only been produced by me of this class, not men who say that they were acquainted with Gavius, but men who say that they saw him at the time that he was being dragged to the cross, while crying out that he was a Roman citizen. And you, O Verres, say the same thing. You confess that he did cry out that he was a Roman citizen; but that the name of citizenship did not avail with you even as much as to cause the least hesitation in your mind, or even any brief respite from a most cruel and ignominious punishment.”

This is the point I press, this is what I dwell upon, O judges; with this single fact I am content. I give up, I am indifferent to all the rest. By his own confession he must be entangled and destroyed. You did not know who he was; you suspected that he was a spy. I do not ask you what were your grounds for that suspicion, I impeach you by your own words. He said that he was a Roman citizen. If you, O Verres, being taken among the Persians or in the remotest parts of India, were being led to execution, what else would you cry out but that you were a Roman citizen? And if that name of your city, honoured and renowned as it is among all men, would have availed you, a stranger among strangers, among barbarians, among men placed in the most remote and distant corners of the earth, ought not he, whoever he was, whom you were hurrying to the cross, who was a stranger to you, to have been able, when he said that he was a Roman citizen, to obtain from you, the praetor, if not an escape, at least a respite from death by his mention of and claims to citizenship?

Men of no importance, born in an obscure rank, go to sea; they go to places which they have never seen before; where they can neither be known to the men among whom they have arrived, nor always find people to vouch for them. But still, owing to this confidence in the mere fact of their citizenship, they think that they shall be safe, not only among our own magistrates, who are restrained by fear of the laws and of public opinion, nor among our fellow citizens only, who are limited with them by community of language, of rights, and of many other things; but wherever they come they think that this will be a protection to them.

Take away this hope, take away this protection from Roman citizens, establish the fact that there is no assistance to be found in the words “I am a Roman citizen;” that a praetor, or any other officer, may with impunity order any punishment he pleases to be inflicted on a man who says that he is a Roman citizen, though no one knows that it is not true; and at one blow, by admitting that defence; you cut off from the Roman citizens all the provinces, all the kingdoms, all free cities, and indeed the whole world, which has hitherto been open most especially to our countrymen.

Here’s another interesting bit from very soon after this, in the speech.

You were not, I say, an enemy to the individual, but to the common cause of liberty. For what was your object in ordering the Mamertines, when, according to their regular custom and usage, they had erected the cross behind the city in the Pompeian road, to place it where it looked towards the strait; and in adding, what you can by no means deny, what you said openly in the hearing of every one, that you chose that place in order that the man who said that he was a Roman citizen, might be able from his cross to behold Italy and to look towards his own home? And accordingly, O judges, that cross, for the first time since the foundation of Messana, was erected in that place. A spot commanding a view of Italy was picked out by that man, for the express purpose that the wretched man who was dying in agony and torture might see that the rights of liberty and of slavery were only separated by a very narrow strait, and that Italy might behold her son murdered by the most miserable and most painful punishment appropriate to slaves alone.

It is a crime to bind a Roman citizen; to scourge him is a wickedness; to put him to death is almost parricide. What shall I say of crucifying him? So guilty an action cannot by any possibility be adequately expressed by any name bad enough for it. Yet with all this that man was not content. “Let him behold his country,” said he; “let him die within sight of laws and liberty.” It was not Gavius, it was not one individual, I know not whom,—it was not one Roman citizen,—it was the common cause of freedom and citizenship that you exposed to that torture and nailed on that cross. But now consider the audacity of the man. Do not you think that he was indignant that be could not erect that cross for Roman citizens in the forum, in the comitium, in the very rostra? For the place in his province which was the most like those places in celebrity, and the nearest to them in point of distance, he did select. He chose that monument of his wickedness and audacity to be in the sight of Italy, in the very vestibule of Sicily, within sight of all passers-by as they sailed to and fro.

This little court proceeding helps me get my head around how Romans used crucifixion, and how people understood Jesus’ crucifixion, and it also helps me read this exchange between Paul and Jerusalem’s Roman Commander in a new light…

Acts 22

As they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, the commander ordered that Paul be taken into the barracks. He directed that he be flogged and interrogated in order to find out why the people were shouting at him like this. As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?”

When the centurion heard this, he went to the commander and reported it. “What are you going to do?” he asked. “This man is a Roman citizen.”

The commander went to Paul and asked, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?”

“Yes, I am,” he answered.

Then the commander said, “I had to pay a lot of money for my citizenship.”

“But I was born a citizen,” Paul replied.

Those who were about to interrogate him withdrew immediately. The commander himself was alarmed when he realized that he had put Paul, a Roman citizen, in chains.”

5 Virtues for writers in a new media world: #2 Eloquence

new media virtuesIt might seem like a fudge to call being interesting a virtue – and this second virtue was originally an authentic and interesting voice with an interesting message. But, in this brave new media world, it is. I changed the title because  this virtue is something like the ancient oratorical Holy Grail. Eloquence.

Attention spans are short.

Time spent reading is an increasingly popular web metric (see also, Upworthy making this switch, and note: there’s now something of an estimate, based on length, of reading time at the top of each post on this site). Being boring kills.

And this is a series about what it is that defines the writers I admire. And those writers are, without fail, interesting. Or eloquent.

Who else would I turn to to prove my point on this front if not Cicero.

“He, then, is truly eloquent… who in the Forum, and in public debates, can so speak, as to prove, delight, and force the passions. To prove, is a matter of necessity:—to delight, is indispensably requisite to engage the attention:—and to force the passions, is the surest means of victory; for this contributes more effectually than both the others to get a cause decided to our wishes.”

Marcus Tullius Cicero went as close as anybody to declaring eloquence a virtue in De Oratore he says:

“Eloquence is so potent a force that it embraces the origin and operation and developments of all things, all the virtues and duties, all the natural principles governing the morals and minds and life of mankind, and also determines their customs and laws and rights, and controls the government of the state, and expresses everything that concerns whatever topic in a graceful and flowing style.”

What I think is interesting about this quote is that the new media world is ‘governed’ by something like eloquence. The agenda in this world isn’t set by big budget, multi-national, media conglomerates, but by individuals whose content is dispersed through social networks. Individuals curate content, functioning as editors. Sure, new media platforms like Facebook influence what spreads and what doesn’t through its opaque newsfeed algorithm, but how long the online community will stand idly by and let that happen is an interesting question (on opaque algorithms and their dangers, read this), and even with the all-powerful algorithm serving up stories to maximise eyeball time on the platform, the content is still largely generated (or curated) by the little guy (Facebook’s Director of Product says its algorithm ensures it’s the content users like that users see – rather than quality content, or biased/agenda-driven content like you might expect from the mass media). Content in this new media world is democratised.  For more on this check out Tom Standage’s conclusion in the superb Writing on the Wall (review here), or his TEDx talk.

Eloquence sits beside virtue for Cicero as must have elements of the ideal person/statesman (his ideal person was pretty much himself – so he probably doesn’t embody my cardinal virtue for writers in a new media world. Humility). If it excites you, you can read most of a chapter on how Cicero’s views of the ideal orator, and the relationship between virtue and eloquence, were developed by Augustine on Google Books. In Brutus he calls eloquence the “marrow and quintessence of persuasion.” For Cicero, the ideal person was an orator-philosopher-statesman, and the only speaking or writing worth bothering with was persuasive.

Persuasive writing or speaking transforms. It moves. It excites. It stirs the emotions. It does what good writing should. Persuasive writing must be interesting – or it won’t persuade, and, as a reader, I want to read stuff that challenges, changes, or deepens my thinking – so persuasive writing is, I think, the mark of good writing. For Cicero, good oratory (and for us, good writing) is judged on its fruits. Its impact. While the good orator or writer is judged on their eloquence and virtuous character.

“When a Citizen hears an able Orator, he readily credits what is said;—he imagines every thing to be true, he believes and relishes the force of it; and, in short, the persuasive language of the Speaker wins his absolute, his hearty assent. You, who are possessed of a critical knowledge of the art, what more will you require? The listening multitude is charmed and captivated by the force of his Eloquence, and feels a pleasure which is not to be resisted. What here can you find to censure? The whole audience is either flushed with joy, or overwhelmed with grief;—it smiles, or weeps,—it loves, or hates,—it scorns or envies,—and, in short, is alternately seized with the various emotions of pity, shame, remorse, resentment, wonder, hope, and fear, according as it is influenced by the language, the sentiments, and the action of the speaker.” – Cicero, Brutus

Good writing does this. Good writers seek to do this for stuff they truly believe in and care about. They don’t create these emotions if they don’t first feel them, they don’t persuade people to think things they don’t think themselves. Perhaps to demonstrate Cicero’s ongoing relevance, but also to engage with new media realities, I’ll also feature a heavy smattering of insights from Jonah Peretti, one of the founders of the Huffington Post, and the founder of Buzzfeed. If anyone understands how to write for the new media world it’s Peretti. He gave this great (and incredibly long) interview on Medium that I’ll be quoting. You can read the whole thing – but according to Medium’s time calculator, it’ll take you 91 minutes.

I’ll break down my own vision of this virtue as it pertains to the new media world into three key (overlapping) elements authenticity, presentation. All of these qualities are important – but excellent, or virtuous, writing in this new media world requires all three, or at least two out of three (and I’d argue that for writing to be virtuous the content always needs to be excellent – it can either be packaged well without an authentic/credible author, or have an authentic/credible author and be packaged in an incredibly boring way).

An authentic voice

“I have been so much transported, not by the force of my genius, but by the real fervor of my heart, that I was unable to restrain myself: —and, indeed, no language will inflame the mind of the hearer, unless the Speaker himself first catches the ardor, and glows with the importance of his subject.” – Cicero, The Orator

Orators weren’t famed for authenticity – in fact, there was a whole stream of oratory – Sophistry – that was all about the triumph of style over substance, that lauded one’s ability to speak passionately about anything, even while not caring about that thing. I like Cicero because (outside some of his speeches as a defence lawyer) he was big on authenticity. Cicero literally embodied the values of the Republic in the face of the Empire, even to the point of martyrdom. These were something like his parting words – they come from the Philippics, a series of speeches that saw him executed.

“I defended the republic as a young man; I will not desert it as an old one. I despised the swords of Catiline; I will not fear yours. Indeed I would gladly offer my body, if by my death the liberty of the state can be immediately recovered, so that finally the suffering of the Roman People may bring to birth what it has long since labored to produce.” Cicero, Orationes Philippicae

These weren’t empty words. He died for his convictions. After he was executed his tongue and hands (that spoke, and penned) these words were nailed to the forum for all to see. He knew it was coming when he published the Philippics. Part of eloquence is embodying your message, beyond your words, and speaking from the heart. One of my other favourite orators, the apostle Paul, also embodied his message with authenticity, as demonstrated by the scars he carried with his message about the crucified Jesus.

“May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation… From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” – Paul, Galatians 6:14-17 “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. ” – Paul, 2 Corinthians 4:10

Authenticity is so important in this new media world, and is one of the determining factors in what gets read and shared online (cat videos not withstanding). And it’s certainly the determining factor in what, or who, I choose to read. BuzzFeed might have a reputation for promoting the trite and the trivial, but for Jonah Peretti, and for BuzzFeed, the need for authenticity is part of the editorial process – and this feeds into the site’s voice.

We also have our no-haters orientation. We tend to be enthusiastic and we tend to avoid snarky articles about mediocre things. It’s not like there’s some hard rule. In general, we tend to avoid a post that is designed to make the author feel smart and superior and the reader to vicariously feel smart and superior because a Hollywood film is mediocre or because something in culture is mediocre.

Interviewer: Honest enthusiasm is a sort of default stance at BuzzFeed.

Peretti: If there’s something that is worth someone’s time that is interesting and is worthy of being excited about, we should cover that. If there’s an egregious miscarriage of justice or corruption or fraud or something that needs to be investigated, those are both strong things. In the middle, there’s a lot of things that are kind of a waste of time. Mediocre things that you can write cynical comments about. – Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed.

Writers in the democratised new media world don’t have the credibility that comes built in to writing for a mass-media platform, they build credibility on the basis of who they are – their expertise, what and how they think, and how they express themselves. I want to read people who say interesting stuff about interesting things, but I especially want them to be interested in those things (preferably with skin in the game), not professionally detached (like a journalist). It’s almost like in this new media world subjectivity is more interesting than objectivity, and we build our own objective view of ‘the facts’ (whatever they are) by choosing to hear from multiple perspectives.

An interesting voice (with an interesting message)

“It is of little consequence to discover what is proper to be said, unless you are able to express it in a free and agreeable manner: and even that will be insufficient, if not recommended by the voice, the look, and the gesture. ” – Cicero, Brutus

“Our style must be pure, and correct;—we must speak with clearness and perspicuity.” – Cicero, The Orator

Other beauties of composition which he will not fail to pursue;—such as brevity where the subject requires it;—a lively and pathetic description of important occurrences;—a passionate exaggeration of remarkable circumstances;—an earnestness of expression which implies more than is said;—a well-timed variety of humour;—and a happy imitation of different characters and dispositions. Assisted and adorned by such figures as these, which are very numerous, the force of Eloquence will appear in its brightest lustre. – Cicero, The Orator

It’s possible to be interesting when you’re talking about boring stuff – provided you talk about that stuff in an interesting way, or from an interesting angle. Some of the best stuff in the new media world, I think, involves putting the spotlight on stuff we take for granted. One of my favourite books is a biography of salt. I’m currently reading a biography of paper. I love all those videos on craftsmen making bespoke stuff like scissors and shoes.

The way to achieve this is to present that stuff with eloquence, such that the presentation makes the content sing.

Cicero basically defined eloquence in terms of knowing what to say, where to say it, and saying it well. In Brutus, Cicero speaks of Caesar. His frienemy (who ends up being exclusively his enemy). Cicero was trying to win Caesar over by painting his oratory in such glowing terms (a little bit of an authenticity fail on Cicero’s part), but his depiction of praiseworthy oratory is worth pondering.

“He [Caesar] is absolutely master of his trade, and, neglecting every other profession, has applied himself solely to this; and, for that purpose, has persevered in the rigorous task of composing a daily Essay in writing. His words are well chosen; his language is full and copious; and every thing he says receives an additional ornament from the graceful tone of his voice, and the dignity of his action. In short, he is so compleat an Orator, that there is no quality I know of, in which I can think him deficient.” – Cicero, Brutus

Cicero is pretty big on the idea that practice makes perfect when it comes to speaking and writing. He mentions Cicero’s essay writing to this end, but he also says stuff like:

A good voice, indeed, though a desirable accomplishment, is not in our power to acquire:—but to exercise, and improve it, is certainly in the power of every person. – Cicero, The Orator

He thinks the ability to speak (and he’s talking about the vocalisation of words) comes from nature (or the gods), but there are ways to improve (this is where a ‘voice’ analogy between writing and speaking fails because he’d also suggest anybody can become a writer, if not a speaker). Cicero has a second character in Brutus note that Caesar dedicated his own writing on oratory to Cicero, with this axiomatic definition of eloquence: “an accurate choice of words is the foundation of Eloquence.” Cicero compares eloquence to carefully displaying art in a gallery – where the framing matters, the lighting matters, the height you place the painting on the wall matters… eloquence is about featuring your content like a gallery curator features the star work in an exhibition.

“Accordingly, to the purest elegance of expression, he [Caesar] has added all the various ornaments of Elocution; so that he seems to exhibit the finest painting in the most advantageous point of view… Besides, his manner of speaking, both as to his voice and gesture, is splendid and noble, without the least appearance of artifice or affectation: and there is a dignity in his very presence, which bespeaks a great and elevated mind.” – Cicero, Brutus

This eloquence includes the choice of words, the structure of sentences, the flow and structure of the piece – and in this set of virtues the impact of humility on these matters discussed in the previous post (charity and clarity) come first. You can always make choices in these areas to look or sound impressive. But there are always choices to make on behalf of your audience, rather than for yourself. For Cicero the audience was king when it came to deciding if something was eloquent.

“The taste of the Audience, then, has always governed and directed the Eloquence of the Speaker: for all who wish to be applauded, consult the character, and the inclinations of those who hear them, and carefully form and accommodate themselves to their particular humours and dispositions.” – Cicero, The Orator

Different people like different stuff – and that’s fine. Different forums require different styles – and that’s fine. But the eloquent person writes to the audience they have selected.

“Different men have different opinions;”—nor is it easy to determine which is best. Thus also in painting, some are pleased with a rough, a wild, and a dark and cloudy style; while others prefer that which is clear, and lively, and well covered with light. How then shall we strike out a general rule or model, when there are several manners, and each of them has a certain perfection of its own?” – Cicero, The Orator

“We are not to speak upon every occasion, or before every audience, or against every opponent, or in defence of every client, and to every Judge, in the same invariable manner. He, therefore, is the man of genuine Eloquence, who can adapt his language to what is most suitable to each. By doing this, he will be sure to say every thing as it ought to be said. He will neither speak drily upon copious subjects, nor without dignity and spirit upon things of importance; but his language will always be proportioned, and equal to his subject.” – Cicero, Brutus

He, then, is an Orator indeed! who can speak upon trivial subjects with simplicity and art, upon weighty ones with energy and pathos, and upon those of middling import with calmness and moderation. – Cicero, The Orator

Cicero calls the ability to select a style that is apt to your audience and purpose ‘decorum’ – and this is basically one of his virtues for the orator. The key to good writing is to tailor how you present your content to the audience you write to. This means making sure your ‘voice’ matches your platform (or medium), and your content. Conversations about writing for the online world invariably end up talking about length (in my experience, though perhaps this is because I like to write such unwieldly posts). There’s no real ‘golden rule’ for packaging when it comes to length, or even style – except that it should achieve what the writer sets out to achieve. Length can work for, or against, eloquence. This is true according to both Cicero and Peretti…

“For as language is ever soft and yielding, and so amazingly pliable that you may bend and form it at your pleasure; so different natures and dispositions have given rise to different kinds of Elocution. Some, for instance, who place the chief merit of it in it’s rapidity, are mightily pleased with a torrent of words, and a volubility of expression. Others again are better pleased with regular, and measured intervals, and frequent stops, and pauses. What can be more opposite? and yet both have their proper excellence.” – Cicero, The Orator

“We see with our longform stories that, in some cases, the sheer length and rigor of a piece will make the piece have a bigger impact. Just the fact that it’s 6,000 words or 12,000 words.”  – Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti

Peretti does suggest that it’s possible for things to be too long. Even if they’re well written. The key is delivering value to the reader in proportion to the length and the time spent reading.

Saying things in an interesting way isn’t just about packaging or length. Cicero is also big on two features of eloquent writing – the use of metaphors and the use of humour – and these, too, must be appropriate to the context.

We have slightly touched upon the ornaments of language, both in single words, and in words as they stand connected with each other;—in which our Orator will so indulge himself, that not a single expression may escape him, but what is either elegant or weighty. But he will most abound in the metaphor; which, by an aptness of similitude, conveys and transports the mind from object to object, and hurries it backwards and forwards through a pleasing variety of images;—a motion which, in its own nature, (as being full of life and action) can never fail to be highly delightful. – Cicero, The Orator

When it comes to getting laughs, Cicero makes a distinction between witty repartee and ‘humour.’ Humour is used to make narratives “lively and entertaining,” witty repartee is used to ridicule, or to respond to ridicule. He has some rules which are timeless tips for using humour, so I think apply to the new media world, and especially to the written word, where humour is so hard to pull off.

“The powers of ridicule are not to be employed too often, lest we sink into scurrility;—nor in loose and indecent language, lest we degenerate into wantonness and buffoonery; —nor with the least degree of petulance and abuse, lest we appear audacious and ill-bred;—nor levelled against the unfortunate, lest we incur the censure of inhumanity;—nor against atrocious crimes, lest we raise a laugh where we ought to excite abhorrence;—nor, in the last place, should they be used unseasonably, or when the characters either of the Speaker, or the Hearer, and the circumstances of time and place forbid it;—otherwise we should grossly fail in that decorum of which we have already said so much. We should likewise avoid all affected witticisms, which appear not to be thrown out occasionally, but to be dragged from the closet; for such are generally cold and insipid. It is also improper to jest upon our friends, or upon persons of quality, or to give any strokes of wit which may appear ill-natured, or malicious.” Cicero, The Orator

If a virtuous modern writer is defined by humility, I think it’s reasonable to expect most humour from this sort of writer should be victimless or self-deprecating. The democratisation of this new media world is a throw back to the time of Cicero. Everyone who creates or shares content online is an orator. Everyone has a platform. And it’s the audience that determines if something is eloquent or not. Cicero suggests eloquence takes the taste of the audience into account. One of the downsides of this democratisation is that every voice is, in some sense, given equal weight (note: this isn’t quite true, big platforms still exist, mass media outlets have a presence online, but it’s true when bits of writing are exported from their original context into other platforms – except when algorithms give greater weight to bigger platforms, which some do). This means that there’s a lot of noise to wade through. Cicero has some advice for the kind of voice that will cut through that chatter…

“A crowded audience, and a clamorous Forum, require an Orator who is lively, animated, full of action, and able to exert his voice to the highest pitch.” – Cicero, Brutus

Figuring out how to do that in writing is, I think, the key to packaging stuff for world we live in. It’s what thrusts sites like Upworthy and BuzzFeed into Facebook newsfeeds and the twittersphere. But packaging alone is not enough. If I’ve presented Cicero’s views on eloquence accurately – that it’s about using the right words in the right place in the right way, as defined by your audience, then it’s interesting to see how closely Peretti’s modern views mesh with his ancient advice.

“We want the stuff we do to reach the maximum audience it should reach, no less and no more. If we make a wonky political scoop, we want every political wonk to read it. If we make “Which state should you actually live in,” we want everyone who lives in a city to read it. ” “When we have something that’s a hit, usually our response is not, “Let’s do more of those.” Our response is, “Let’s figure why this is a hit and make variations of this.” This was successful because it was tied to someone’s identity, it was successful because it had cats in it, or it was successful because it had humor, or it was successful because it tapped into nostalgia. If you’re making entertainment content, which is a big part of what we do, you look at that hit and you say, “Why was that successful? Can I do it again? Can I make something else that people really love and want to share?” And you try to vary it, even though you know doing something derivative would work. Long term, you want to have a deeper understanding of how to make great things.” – BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti

When you think about the media industry, it’s also, “How do you reach people and how do you get people to understand?” If you write something and nobody understands it, it’s easy to be, like, “Oh those are all the dumb people.” Sometimes writing something that’s very sophisticated and difficult and technical for a particular audience is totally fine, but you should be able to communicate in simple language… The thing is, there are dangers in this, because you can also explain something in a way that makes people feel like they understand it when they actually don’t… You can figure out a way to frame something and explain it so that it feels like it confirms what people already believe, including incorrect things they believe. – BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti

Peretti notes that to be eloquent (according to our definition) in the new media world requires thinking about what’s new in our media platforms and how that has to shape our approach (and our content).

“Early-stage digital publishers have stayed too close to print. They look like print. Their basic unit is the same kind of article structure. Some of them might be shorter or longer, but the front page is programmed almost like a newspaper. The formats of the articles are more like a newspaper. And it’s like, “Oh, let’s add a little video,” but when they add video it’s like they are trying to be TV, but it’s not quite as good as regular TV. The way to break through and to make something that can actually scale into something big is just to say, “What would this be if the readers and the publishers were not focused on making something similar to print?” If they said, instead, “What should this be if mobile is the most important thing; if things can be more visual; if things can be more shareable; if length can be anywhere from 140 characters to 12,000 words? In that kind of world, where things can be interactive, like quizzes—in that kind of a world, what should a media company be?… In a grand sense it needs to move away from mimicking print to doing what is natural for the web.”

The new media world has to shift our understanding of eloquent writing. Because the audience is shifting.

It’s not paranoid to think that the audience watching broadcast television is old. And it’s not paranoid to think people, particularly young people, are spending a lot of time on their phones and a lot of time on the Internet. It’s accurate to say that media consumption is changing in a pretty dramatic way and that if your marketing stays the same you essentially will be marketing to people who are consuming media the way people consumed media ten years ago instead of the way they’re consuming today. – BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti

(An interesting voice) with an interesting message

It’s hard to split the voice from the message when it comes to eloquence. What I think is virtuous when it comes to the “interestingness” of the content is delivering on what is promised in the packaging, and delivering value to the reader. Part of this is in the realm of a ‘content strategy’ or editorial policy, that’s a decision the modern writer makes based on who their audience is, and, because authenticity is important – who they are and what they’re passionate about. Content is king. Really. Content is where the value of a piece of writing lies. A reader may perceive writing as more valuable based on who it comes from, or how it’s served up, but good writing is inherently valuable to the reader (even if that value only lies in the reaction it prompts, and even if that reaction is only to entertain or excite the emotions), and good content is what should hold a reader’s attention. The virtuous and eloquent writer only holds the reader’s attention for as long as they want it to be held, they don’t employ ruses to entrap the reader. The virtuous writer makes it clear what is being offered, and delivers. It’s interesting how much debate about the relationship between content and packaging revolves around the headline. You can dress up your content with all the BuzzFeed or Upworthy tips and tricks, sensationalist headlines and listicles (here’s a neat article from Anil Dash, one of the prophets of the new media world about clickbait headlines that I quite like, and here’s an article about how headlines don’t actually matter because people who share stuff with their networks typically make up their own headline/description of the article). Peretti says BuzzFeed has made a conscious effort to have headlines that match up with, and describe, the content.

“You could show a picture of like an older guy at the beach and be like, “Guess whose body this is?” Then you click and it’s like, “Oh it’s Giorgio Armani” or whatever, and you could get a tremendous clickthrough rate on headlines that didn’t tell you what the story is about. The problem with that is that if you’re just getting clicks that would have gone to another headline on your front page, it’s sending people the content that might not be as good, because they’re clicking because they want to know what’s there. They’re not clicking because they’re interested in what’s there… You end up with lots of people who don’t actually want to see Giorgio Armani in a Speedo on the beach clicking that and then feeling like, “Oh god, why did I do that?” Like, “That was a waste of time.” The main problem for us is that when you think from the perspective of the reader, if headlines are all devoid of information and you have to click them to find out what they are about, all the social streams out there would become much less useful and much less valuable. When you think from that perspective it’s like, “Whoa, let’s just make headlines that describe what’s in the article and that’s better for the consumer and it’s better for the ecosystem as a whole. Then let’s make articles that people really want to click because they’re interested in them, not because they’re wondering what it’s about.”

Peretti talks a fair bit about appropriate metrics for this new media world, he doesn’t think time is the best measure, because people can do stuff to keep people’s attention for longer than they need to.

“The challenge there is that, like you said, if you create a long, meandering, boring story that’s just good enough to keep people reading, they might spend more time on that story than the short, condensed one that just tells you what you need to know. If you use time on that one, it will tell you to do the wrong thing… One of the reasons reality TV became so dominant was because people looked at time as being the metric. And the reason that reality TV works well for time is that the classic reality TV formula, in the beginning, was the tribal council and somebody getting eliminated. So you could have 50 percent of the show being boring filler and you’re kind of wanting to change the channel but you’re like, “Oh, but I wonder if my favorite person’s going to get eliminated.” So you have to watch to the end to see the elimination. In a way, that was a way of gaming time. You could look at that and say, “Oh, they spent an hour watching this show, including the commercials. That means it must be a really high quality show.” But it also might just mean that they figured out a hook that incentivizes you to watch to the end and then did a lot of mediocre content in the middle.”

It’s clear from the length of this piece that it’s in danger of being far from eloquent (but I haven’t claimed to be virtuous), so I’ll stop now.

5 virtues for writers in a new-media world: #1 Humility

new media virtues

I’ve spent a little bit of time lately reflecting on words lately. Particularly on reading and writing. Writing is one of the distinct technological advances that separates humans from the animal kingdom. Our capacity to write is arguably part of what makes us bearers of God’s image. God is a God who speaks, who writes, who wrote himself into our world in Jesus.

So I’ve been thinking about writing.

My writing. The writing of other people. What I like. What I don’t.

The appreciation of writing is always going to be a fairly subjective affair. Certain styles appeal to some but not to others.

I’m in no way close to being the writer I aspire to be – I’m not even sure that I’m the writer I’d personally like to read yet.

I’ve particularly been thinking about what it means to write in the post-print world where everybody is connected, where words (or unfortunate photos) never disappear, where content is often exhumed from its context and where non-verbal communication is non-existent. Nothing significant has changed in this post-printing press world – except the cost of publication has dropped dramatically, and content is no longer seen as valuable simply by virtue of having been printed/published, but is given value democratically as it is shared and discussed through different networks. One interesting associated phenomena is that the discussion around publications is now almost a bigger deal than the publication itself. This is demonstrable through all sorts of examples – watch the post-game coverage of a World Cup match and note how much attention is paid to the discussion on social media, read mainstream media outlets discussing the virality of a current news event (like, at the time of writing, the disgraceful demise of a Rugby League star). The conversation about a thing is now as big a deal as the thing itself (as previously noted).

Often old school writers about rhetoric and oratory would, in their treaties on such matters, spend a bit of time talking about the virtues of a rhetor or an orator. Cicero did it, others did it before him. These virtues were meant to help a writer approach the generation of their content. You had to work on the speaker before you worked on the voice, or the content – unless you wanted to be an insubstantial sophist. All sizzle, no sausage. But there’s also a pretty tight relationship, even for these old school guys, between medium and message. So I’ve found it hard to split virtue from style and content – partly because I think if the capacity for creating and expressing words is part of what defines us as humans, it’s really hard to split capacity from manner and content when deciding what makes an expression of that capacity ‘good.’

I have tried to boil down these virtues into list (because that’s how the Internet works – and how those old dudes worked too), which I’ll then expand in a series of individual posts. I was going to do it all together in one post, but then the first point blew out into something massive.

Here’s the list.

  1. Humility. 
  2. An interesting and authentic voice with an interesting message.
  3. Sublime consistency. 
  4. Commitment and conviction. 
  5. Empathy (subjectivity is self-centred, objectivity is overrated).

 

The flipside of writing is reading. I’ve been contemplating what I like in a reader – will be a subsequent list, and probably a subsequent miniseries. It’s also aspirational. I often find myself reading things poorly, through no fault of the writer, but because of my own heart. I’ll share that list too – not because I am that reader, or want the ideal reader of things I write to be that reader, but because I want to be that reader (as I want to be this writer).

The third bit of my reflection, which I think will just be one post – but who knows – will be some thoughts I’ve come up with about the sort of writing I want to do here, and elsewhere, based on these aspirations. In the interest of full disclosure – these posts will probably then become a significant part of my disclaimer and comment policy.

Ironically, this list will probably break many of the aspirational qualities it describes… It may also read (occasionally) like an exercise in justifying how I do stuff. Sorry. I did mention that this is all going to be subjective – so you’re absolutely free to disagree with what I think these virtues look like in application (and even in the selection of these five as the top five virtures). It’s possible that in describing what I aspire to be, I’ll also explain why I am like I am, and that may help you to read me charitably.

Let me also mention, in case there are any doubts, that I’m often self-seeking and self-indulgent, and that will necessarily come across in my writing even if I fail to acknowledge it – and the writer I aspire to be like is not self-seeking, or self-indulgent. Quite the reverse. I want to be like the writer who wrote himself into his own story (John 1), not as the conquering hero (though he is that), but as a humiliated and crucified wretch, because he considered others better than himself (Philippians 2), and in order to save a wretch like me (Amazing Grace).

1. Humility.

I like a writer who considers their reader more valuable than themselves. It’s possible that to actually write – to incarnate oneself in written form, to express oneself externally, and to present this expression to others, to put forward one’s thoughts and views as though they have inherent value, could always be considered an act of something other than humility, but I don’t think that’s a particularly useful picture of humility. Writing is part of an expression of our humanity. It’s how knowledge is shared. How ideas are formed (and held with any degree of permanence). Humility, in its essence, I think, is this posture. Considering the needs of the reader above your own needs. This is more important for me as a writer than it is for me as I read the writing of others. I suspect, at times, I’m only frustrated by a perceived lack of humility in other writers as a result of my own pride.

This presents an interesting conundrum for those of us who write primarily for ourselves, but are happy to share our writing with any audience that chooses to engage. I suspect part of the humility I cherish is in allowing people to choose to read something, rather than force feeding it to them via a firehose at every turn. There’s a fine line, again, between believing you’ve produced something that people should read and the danger of being a self-promoting mercenary hack. The line probably isn’t that fine – but mediums like blogs, and channels like social networks, reward people who walk near that line.

I think one of the key aspects of humble writing in a self-promoting world rests in the difference between permission based, or opt-in, writing and ambush writing. Sensationalist, link baity, headlines that draw clicks on the basis of a promise that is never delivered are the hallmark of the latter. Forcing argumentative hobby-horse riding rants on unsuspecting Facebook friends who genuinely like you and want to “stay connected” with you via the platform are another example of a lack of humility, or consideration of others, in this brazen new world. I don’t mind ‘wasting’ someone’s time with a long winded description of my ideal writer if it’s something they have to voluntarily sign up for reading, without me overpromising, and something they can click away from at any time.

This virtue of humility, for the writer, plays out in other virtues – charity and clarity. 

Charity involves a deliberate generosity, a willing wearing of cost by the writer in order to benefit the reader (or in order to not waste their time), or a purposeful gift of something valuable. Value in writing comes from the time, effort, and expertise put into writing and the quality produced. It’s not that longer is necessarily better – length often comes at the expense of the virtue of clarity. But length does occasionally come as a result of an investment from the writer. Value isn’t about length, it’s not just about quality, or utility (how useful a piece of writing is – we all benefit from how to stuff when it’s particularly good – there’s a reason my most popular post of all time is a guide to making Sizzler’s cheesy toast). Value can also come from aesthetics, from novelty, from creativity, from the joy expressed and shared, or the emotions produced for the reader as a result of the writer’s care, intent, or effort.

Clarity is another expression of consideration to the reader. While I love oddly punctuated stream of consciousness stuff peppered with rambling footnotes (both reading and writing such text), punctuation can be helpful. Convention can be helpful. Rules a useful guide. Understanding stuff like genre, and speculating about who one’s audience might be, and providing some framework by which newcomers to a medium might interpret what they’re seeing, these are all ways one might pursue clarity. I think great writers pursue clarity at a meta level, and at the micro level.

Clarity at the meta level is about helping the reader see how a particular paragraph, chapter, or post, fits in with a bigger whole. In books and essays this comes from tables of contents, headings and a nice, intuitive, index. In most writing it means having a clear structure and a coherently unified narrative (a big idea or clear understanding about what something is going to be about) that cascades upwards and downwards. Whether you take an educated guess at a book’s argument from the Table of Contents, the Index, or a sentence on a page, you should still feel like it all fits together. A sentence should fit a paragraph, which should fit a chapter, which should fit a book – or in new media terms, a post should fit in a category that fits in the site. This cascading relationship, in the internet world, works in a similar manner to the table of contents/headings/index relationship in a book. Clear writing, for the benefit of the reader, needs clear information architecture (like menus, categories, tags, headings, and links to other stuff).

This pursuit of clarity plays itself out at the micro level too. Right down to the selection of individual words, sentence structure, idioms, or metaphors. It means not using jargon or technical language (or explaining it when it’s used). At a micro level the pursuit of clarity means always helping the reader see the meta-structure (rather than making it obscure) – devoting time and words to helping a reader understand why you’re telling them stuff and where it fits in what the piece of writing is doing. I quite like writing that breaks the fourth wall – that addresses the reader directly with some instructions, or some sort of interaction.

Tangentially… perhaps it’s truer to suggest that good writing doesn’t really have a fourth wall. Good writing, I think, involves the writer becoming deliberately vulnerable and ‘incarnate’ in the text, but also invites the reader to do the same. To put oneself in the picture, in the story, to feel the emotional weight of an argument, rather than observe it. Good writing tickles the senses. It evokes empathy, not just sympathy. It makes us feel as well as think. Humility is part of that. This is why I love the so-called gonzo genre so much, where the author becomes part of the story, for the sake of the story (and the reader).

Anyway. Back on track. This pursuit of integrated clarity between the meta level and the micro level takes some words. Clarity and brevity aren’t synonyms. But you can’t have clarity and overwrite stuff with fluff that nobody needs to read. Fluff kills clarity. Clarity and simplicity are also not synonyms. Most government weasel-word filled media releases are technically quite simple. But they’re not clear. It’s also possible to be clear and complex at the same time.

It’s not necessarily possible to be clear, complex and brief at the same time.

Other ways some of the writers I love and aspire to be like demonstrate humility is by providing sources/evidence (especially to stuff written by other people), by arguing well (avoiding fallacies, histrionics etc – but also being clear about what is being argued for), by being prepared to discuss the topic further, and by being able to be corrected… there are all sorts of ways good writers demonstrate humility.

Good writing puts the reader first, but this doesn’t mean it asks for the reader to not put in any effort at all. That isn’t loving.

It doesn’t encourage the reader to grow. Spoon feeding stuff to your reader is actually considering your reader as lesser than yourself, not greater.

Sometimes getting someone to ponder something requires presenting it in a ponderous package.

Frictionless, pithy, writing – boiled down to a ‘what’s in it for me’ marketing pitch or a neat listicle doesn’t present any particularly valuable challenge for the reader. That’s one of the reasons I’m unapologetic (mostly) about the length of the stuff I write here (even if it’s awful). I truly believe that short form, shallow, unnuanced, buzzfeedy articles made for sensationalist sharing and arguments are tremendously damaging to society and to the individual. They mess with our brains. They are addictive. People truly do become what they behold – we’re shaped by the tools we use to make and understand things as much as we are by what we make, and the content we consume. Peter Tong’s excellent chapter on Doing theology in a Digital World in a recent Matthias Media publication is worth reading (it’s available as a free sample from this page), there are heaps of links to other things worth reading in the (really) long series I wrote about Facebook and your brain earlier this year.

My intention isn’t that this series be something massively Christian, or theological, but some of the convictions I’ve come to about writing are drawn from my thinking for my thesis last year (I’ll be mining those depths for content on this corner of the interwebs for many years to come). The virtues I’ve picked as my top five – and it’s by no means an exhaustive list – are virtues I think God demonstrates in his communication to us, both in the written words of the Bible, and in the way he wrote himself into creation as Jesus.

What would top your list? Are there any good things to read about reading and writing in the new media world?

Writing about talking about reading Writing On The Wall: a meta-review

If you’d asked me two months ago who I’d have around for dinner in one of those fantasy dinner guest arrangements, I’d have said, listed chronologically:

  • Solomon
  • Cicero
  • Jesus
  • Paul
  • Augustine
  • Luther
  • Marshall McLuhan

While I reckon that’d be a pretty interesting group of guests, I realise it isn’t the sort of group that appeals to everybody. They appeal to me because they are people, communicators in fact, who loomed large in my Masters project. Which was a look at how communication mediums and technology have been harnessed by Christians (and their Jewish predecessors) to communicate to people about God. You can read my project here to see where I went – it informs my excitement about this new book.

After this week, I think I’d squeeze in an extra dinner guest. Tom Standage. Eight is a better number for dinner anyway.

I’d invite him as much for his sake as for mine – because having read his new book Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years, I suspect his list of dinner guests would be pretty similar to mine. But I also reckon he’s a pretty fascinating thinker – his other books include telling the story of world history through food and drink, and he’s an editor at The Economist. And we all know journalists make the best dinner guests…

A little preamble to explain my excitement about this book

You might have caught this post last week, featuring a presentation Tom Standage made at a TEDx about Cicero and social media, where I talked about how Paul was a pretty efficient user of social media too.

Cicero is a pretty fascinating guy – and, for what it’s worth, in my project I argue that he was pretty influential, directly, on how Paul approached communication, especially oratory, as a Christian. I think his letters to the Corinthian church – a city enamoured with sophistic oratory (all flash, no substance) draw from Cicero’s writings about oratory to critique the Corinthian’s buying into Sophistic standards by suggesting that Jesus was the ideal orator who should be imitated. There’s another link between Paul and Cicero – the city of Tarsus. The capital of Cilicia.

Very few people have bothered to make any connection between Paul and Cicero – because most modern Biblical scholars assume that Paul was an idiot. Because he calls himself one (quite literally – it’s the Greek word he uses in 2 Corinthians 11:6). But there are incredible overlaps in the terminology they use, in their critique of other forms of oratory, their emphasis and use of ethos and character in persuasion, and in the position they implicitly or explicitly adopt towards the Roman Empire. There’s a huge similarity in their communication praxis. And one thing modern Biblical scholars fail to explain is how Paul, if he’s an idiot, managed to be one of the most effective communicators of all time…

So it was exciting to me that Writing on the Wall opened with…

In July 51 B.C. the Roman statesman and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero arrived in Cilicia, in what is now southeast Turkey, to take up the post of proconsul, or regional governor.

He gets to Paul, he talks about Luther (in fact, it was an article he wrote about Luther’s use of pamphlets in the Reformation, that forms part of this book, that inspired a significant part of my project). The book offers a fascinating approach to the use of media through history by different groups or in support of different causes – it is massively useful for people who want to think about how they might participate in spreading any sort of message (ie Christianity), and it’s an interesting look at how the world works. I’m not just saying this because it meshes, pretty substantially, with what I already thought… Standage is a pretty compelling storyteller, and has weaved some incredible threads through history together into a rich picture of the way media works – and the way people work with media. There’s lots to learn, and a fair bit to digest. I like to highlight interesting passages as I read on my kindle, and I refer back to my highlighted passages more than the book itself – this book was more highlight than text when I finished.

I mentioned Marshall McLuhan as one of my dinner guests – he’s a guy a lot of media studies people now hold up as some sort of oracle, because he, somewhat like a horoscope (in that he was so general he couldn’t fail) – predicted the Internet and social media (the “Global Village”) before its time. I like McLuhan mostly because he makes some nice quasi-theological (or actually theological at times) observations about the impact of media on its users, and the importance of harnessing new, complementary, mediums for advancing a message.

He said, at one point:

“Any change in the forms or channels of communication, be it writing, roads, carts, ships, stone, papyrus, clay, or parchment, any change whatever has revolutionary social and political consequences.”

The empires that survive or thrive, through history – are those that figure out how to use these mediums. This is powerfully demonstrated in Writing On The Wall – not just at the “empire” level, but at the level of communicating ideas. McLuhan drew largely on a book called Communication and Empire by Harold Innis, which is a profoundly interesting companion to Writing on the Wall (and is available in full from Project Gutenberg).

Standage’s treatment of social media throughout the ages features Cicero, Paul and early Christianity, seditious and salacious poetry in the British court, the independence movement in the United States, the importance of coffee houses in the developing, fermenting, and sharing of ideas, and the rise of pamphlets, journals and newspapers, then the Internet – it tracks the fascinating movement from media being the voice of the people, to people being the commodity sold by centralised media, to advertisers. It’s profoundly useful, and very interesting.

You should read it.

Reading as conversation: what really excited me about reading this book

But what really excited me about reading this book – was the way social media augmented the reading process. There’s quite a bit of stuff written out there about how social media is changing the way we read and experience texts. An example would be Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Which spends a significant amount of time quoting McLuhan.

And it’s true. Often these are quite pessimistic – they tend to lament the halcyon days of long attention spans, and being cloistered somewhere with a hard copy book. Interestingly – Standage shows in Writing On The Wall that the introduction of every new medium sees the same old criticisms rehashed (and this idea isn’t all that new – there’s even an XKCD comic about this, and I wrote about it somewhere)…

Enthusiasm for coffee houses was not universal, however, and some observers regarded them as a worrying development. They grumbled that Christians had taken to a Muslim drink instead of traditional English beer, and fretted that the livelihoods of tavern-keepers might be threatened. But most of all they lamented, like critics of social media today, that coffee houses were distracting people and encouraging them to waste time sharing trivia with their friends when they ought to be doing useful. – Writing On The Wall

I think most of us are a little bit inconsistent in our thinking here – and we’re happy to be inconsistent. Even early adopters. A nice example of this can be found in two essays by Nicholson Baker, published in the same book of essays – The Way the World Works: Essays – a significant number of essays in this book (also a great read) are devoted to Baker’s attempts to conserve physical media – particularly Newspapers, but also old library books, one essay is about how to read a book. A tactile book. And yet, he also writes and essay celebrating Wikipedia, talking about his addiction to editing and contributing to the online encyclopedia. He’s probably the champion of preserving physical media – he may be the closest thing to a literary luddite – and yet, he writes a celebration of the site that killed the printed Encyclopedia. He also writes a celebration of reading on the iPhone (while writing off the original Kindle).

Anyway. McLuhan, and Carr are right. New mediums change the way we experience texts, and life. And I think this is exciting (which puts me firmly in the optimist camp when it comes to this debate). Baker is right – new mediums owe a profound debt, that we shouldn’t forget, to old mediums. But Standage has something more to add – the more things change, the more they stay the same – experiencing texts has almost always been a social activity. When the social element is removed from the communication equation – namely, when participants become the product, not the audience – something is missing in how media is being produced. This missing “social” aspect is something essential to communication. Why write something down if it’s not to be transmitted to, and experienced by somebody else? An audience. Communication is inherently social. Social media is, at this point, simply helping a text reaching its natural end. Faster. With great efficiency.

So texts should be being produced to be shared and discussed. And social media – as we currently know it – survives and thrives when this happens.

So, because I was already excited about the book’s material, and had already put a fair amount of thought into the subject matter, I thought why not read this book as though it’s a conversation with Tom Standage. And why not make it one. He’s on Twitter. I’m on Twitter.

He’d even already responded to a couple of things I’d tweeted him while anticipating Writing On The Wall’s release.

I read Writing On The Wall as an ebook, on my iPad, in the Kindle app. And as I read, when I found things that excited me, or had questions, I tweeted @tomstandage. He seems like the kind of guy you’d want at a dinner party. So he tweeted back.

And this is what excited me most about reading Writing On The Wall. It’s what excites me about social media being a tool that breaks down distance, and allows people who share interests to discuss things from opposite points on the globe. Sure – you’ve always been able, in a round about way, to write to an author. To send fan mail. To ask questions. To publish in response – but never like we’ve been able to now.

This exercise, where I’m publishing a review of a book on my blog, this is the continuation of a book promotion strategy that began in ancient Rome – but the ease with which this will be shared by people who are interested, and the link this contains to a place where you can buy the ebook, and start reading it right now. That’s amazing. Time and space have truly collapsed.

The distance between author and reader has collapsed. I started tweeting Tom about this book the day it was released. The day I started reading it. I tweeted him as I read it. Day after day. We chased tangents. Shared our passion for Cicero. And the content of the book – while excellent when contained in the book – came alive a little more as I asked questions, and received answers. I was even able to share a quote from Luther, one of his letters, that given the response, seemed new to Tom. I’ve even just started calling him “Tom” in this paragraph – such is the added familiarity or breakdown in formality this experience created. I’m not reviewing this book as someone with an academic interest in the book – though I have that (and the extensive bibliography at the end of the book was pretty exciting to me). I’m reviewing it as a guy who feels like he spent the week talking to another person. The author. And that is something. Something different. Something exciting. For me it demonstrated the substantial premise of the book better than the content itself – we people are wired to be social, and the networks we create or in which we function as nodes, and the ‘media’ that brings such nodes together work best when medium, message, and participants come together in harmony (where medium and message are in sync) and without impediment.

Talking about reading Writing On The Wall

I’ll understand if you’re already over this post – but before you check out, I do want to thank Tom for talking to me (via Twitter). He seems like a really nice guy. And Tom – if you’re reading – feel free to take me up on the dinner offer. The other guys are dead though (except for Jesus, but he’s elsewhere). So I think it’ll just be you and me.

So here are some highlights from our conversation. Starting when I read a post on his blog about Cicero… Before I started reading the book – because social media, in this case, actually extended the experiencing of the book beyond the actual reading of the book. Which again, serves to demonstrate the principle in question – and is another nice parallel to Cicero’s approach to promoting books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is when I wrote the post about Paul as a social media pioneer – ignorant of what was in Writing On The Wall about Paul…

 

 

And here’s where I actually started reading the book.

 

 

 

 

Here’s where I asked Tom a question about something not in the book, which I reckon is a nice piece of support for his argument (and where my project had gone a little more – the use of imagery to complement text/spoken stuff by providing visual representations of “ethos”)…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We talked a little bit about Machiavelli, Cicero’s brother’s guide to winning elections, and Marhsall McLuhan (he’s less of a fan than I am) – but I’m trying not to post everything. As you can see, he was quite generous with his time, and patient with a young punk from Australia lobbing him just about everything that sprang to mind while reading his book…

 

 

 

 

And this is where it gets more meta. Because I was tweeting him as I wrote this review…

The commonplace book features in Writing On The Wall…

 

 

There’s lots to love about Writing On The Wall, and every criticism I had, or that I anticipated making, as I read was tied up as a loose end or answered by the bibliography. There were times that I wanted to dig deeper or find out a source – these times are more than adequately addressed by the end of the book. And if you’ve got more questions, you can always do what I did – and ask the author. Because that’s a social reading experience – and medium and message wouldn’t add up like they do in this case if @tomstandage was an anti-social type.

Why you can be reasonably sure that Christianity was not a Roman conspiracy

There’s another Bible conspiracy theory doing the rounds. Each of these is more inane than the last. And each gets media attention from the tabloids. First there was the claim, from a guy named Reza Aslan, that Jesus was a zealot. A political revolutionary. A rebel. Now we have the apparently completely antithetical claim – that Jesus was a pawn of the Roman empire. An invention. Designed to bring the Jews into line and have them adopt pacifism.

Here is this new theory in a nutshell.

‘Jewish sects in Palestine at the time, who were waiting for a prophesied warrior Messiah, were a constant source of violent insurrection during the first century.

‘When the Romans had exhausted conventional means of quashing rebellion, they switched to psychological warfare.

‘They surmised that the way to stop the spread of zealous Jewish missionary activity was to create a competing belief system.

‘That’s when the “peaceful” Messiah story was invented.

‘Instead of inspiring warfare, this Messiah urged turn-the-other-cheek pacifism and encouraged Jews to “give onto Caesar” and pay their taxes to Rome.’

Both claims are odd.

Stupid in fact.

Both claims seem to miss some pretty key elements of the very counter-culture, extremely non-populist, basis of the Christian message, while also relying on the New Testament texts as valid historical documents from which to draw evidence to support their crazy hypothese.

Here’s the thing. According to the New Testament – Jesus died. At the hands of both the Roman Empire, and the Jewish establishment.

He can’t be a pawn for the Roman Empire because the movement claimed another king existed – a king who shared all the titles Caesar had bestowed upon himself. A king who called himself the saviour of the world. A king proclaimed through a gospel – a word used to described the announcement of new emperors. What self-seeking Roman emperor would hatch a plan like this? None. It’s stupid. They were about centralising power, as much as possible, in the hands of the Caesar. Having other kings running around wasn’t good for business.

Jesus saying “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” isn’t even pro-imperial. It’s ambivalent to the empire. He’s making a much bigger claim. Coins might have Caesar’s image on them. People are made in God’s image. Jesus is laying claims to something much bigger than one’s money – he wants their fealty. Their loyalty. Their lives.

In some sense Jesus was a revolutionary – he did come to change the social order – but not in the “rebel without a cause” way Reza Aslan suggests he did. He came to change people’s priorities – Away from Self. Away from success. Away from family. Away from empire. Four pillars of Roman society… So in Matthew 10…

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn

“‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’

“Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.

He equally can’t be a tool to unite the Jews in a pacifistic movement – because his first spokespeople condemned the Jewish establishment for killing him, and Jesus spent significant time attacking the Jewish establishment as an expert in the Old Testament – the chances of Rome having the sort of sophisticated understanding of the Old Testament required to construct a significantly complex Messianic claim are fairly slim. And the prospect of the masters of propaganda – and that’s what Imperial Rome was, and needed to be for this new thesis to survive – failing to put forward a compelling messianic figure, and coming up with a messiah that most Jews rejected – is risible.

It’s stupid.

But the stupidest bit is the idea that one would select a crucified king as remotely compelling – either that a Roman would come up with the idea, or that a Jew would buy it.

“Lets crucify this king. That’ll work”

Martyrdom wasn’t a particularly effective tool in Rome – so, for example, Cicero was martyred for his opposition to the Empire. And the Empire moved on. Unworried. Execution was meant to kill seditious claims. It usually did. The chances of it starting them are incredibly remote.

And there’s textual evidence from the time to support just how dumb this idea is… Cicero himself said, of crucifixion:

“Even if death be threatened, we may die free men; but the executioner, and the veiling of the head, and the mere name of the cross, should be far removed, not only from the persons of Roman citizens—from their thoughts, and eyes, and ears. For not only the actual fact and endurance of all these things, but the bare possibility of being exposed to them,—the expectation, the mere mention of them even,—is unworthy of a Roman citizen and of a free man…”

Paul, one of the Christian story’s first storytellers – who’d have to be bought in on the conspiracy (and would have the requisite knowledge of Judaism, it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s part of the theory… the old “Paul invented Christianity” trick) – was aware that crucifixion was an impossible sell to a first century audience – Jew or Greek. If you wanted a messiah claim to stick, this isn’t how you do it…

“Even if death be threatened, we may die free men; but the executioner, and the veiling of the head, and the mere name of the cross, should be far removed, not only from the persons of Roman citizens—from their thoughts, and eyes, and ears. For not only the actual fact and endurance of all these things, but the bare possibility of being exposed to them,—the expectation, the mere mention of them even,—is unworthy of a Roman citizen and of a free man…”

The problem with seeing Paul as the source of this myth is that he completely distanced himself from the Jewish establishment, and Judaism. Read Acts. The Jews are consistently trying to kill him – and he runs from them, into the Roman court system. As a prisoner. He is beaten. He suffers. He eventually dies. Like Cicero. Like Jesus. He’d have to have been pretty bought in to this mission to subjugate his own people, and he doesn’t leave his Judaism behind easily. He was on a skyrocketing career trajectory before he joined team Jesus.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.

Anyway. A crucified messiah just didn’t wash with the Old Testament expectations. It ran counter to them. To be crucified was to be cursed. Which is part of the whole “Jesus taking our curse upon himself” thing that completely defied messianic categories in the first century. Here’s Deuteronomy 21…

“If someone guilty of a capital offense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole,you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.”

That’s precisely what Paul says in Galatians 3…

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us– for it is written, “cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.”

This wasn’t especially convincing to the Jews of his day. They tried to kill Paul too.

And if Crucifixion was stupid and laughable – the claim of a resurrection after that was even further beyond the pale. And yet that is the central claim of Christianity – taught long before Paul came on the scene – such that he can cite it as a creed when he’s writing one of his earlier letters…

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James,then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

He also seems to keep relying on witnesses. People who aren’t him. If you’re going to use parts of his letters to support your theory, you need to consider the whole. These 500 witnesses who his first readers can speak to – that’s an incredibly large conspiracy theory.

Look. It’s a nice modern sociology theory – because it will sell well. But it doesn’t work in practice. It misses the point of the texts it uses as evidence. It requires on completely deconstructing them – using post-modern literary theory on pre-modern texts. The author was very much alive in these texts – and the idea of writing with a clear communicative purpose was also very much alive.

These claims should be dead. They are woeful scholarship. And covering them with so much attention – even if half the story debunks them – is woeful journalism. This isn’t “objective” reporting of a serious story. This is a stupid story.

On Paul and Cicero

You may have noticed things are a little quieter than normal here… there are various reasons for that. The big one is that we’re in the throes of moving house (we have to find a new rental before next weekend). Robyn and I are both also working on our Masters projects. Which are pretty time consuming.

I’m not sure how much the Internet wants to read my thoughts as they develop (I’m pretty excited – but I realise pouring over classical texts looking for relatively obscure parallels to bundle together isn’t everybody’s cup of tea). So I’ll try to keep project related posts to a minimum…

But here are some cool bits about the connection between Paul and Cicero that I’m trying to establish… from James May’s “Cicero and His Life” in Companion to Cicero: Oratory and Rhetoric.

For the record – my thinking is that Paul borrowed from Cicero in his critique of the sort of oratory that was popular in Corinth – particularly in heavily emphasising ethos to the point of embodying his message.

There are a few connections between Paul and Cicero – Paul was a Roman citizen from Tarsus – one of the big three cities for a rhetorical education. Cicero was governor of Tarsus for a year (well – Cilicia, the province that Tarsus is the capital city of), around the time that he wrote a couple of his more famous rhetorical handbooks. I read one tangent in one article somewhere that suggested Paul’s grand daddy may even have received his Roman citizenship for helping Cicero in a military campaign. Here are some details about Cicero in Tarsus…

But in March of 51 B.C., much to his dismay, he was sent as proconsul to the large province of Cilicia in Asia Minor. Upon his arrival, he found matters, both civil and military, in much disarray. He set about restoring order, fixing reasonable interest rates, and fighting extortion. Faced with the threat of a possible invasion by the Parthians, he shored up his military forces and undertook a small campaign against the hill-tribes of Mt. Amanus. After a siege of 46 days, he captured the stronghold, and was granted a supplicatio (a public thanksgiving) by the Senate. Although he long cherished hopes for a triumph, these were never realized.

 

There are some cool connections with how Paul describes his approach to public speaking and some stuff Cicero commends (eg a weak entry when your topic is substantial and overwhelming), but none more than the idea that to be truly persuasive a speaker should not just believe in their cause, but embody it.

Both men – Cicero, and Paul – were essentially speaking against the Roman empire and the sweeping, blasphemous claims of the emperors who believed they were gods on earth. So there’s a connection there too. Both were martyred for their opposition to the empire.

Both arguably made ethos a much more substantial aspect of persuasion than it had been, or than it was considered by opponents who would do and say anything for status. Here’s a quote from Cicero on ethos and persuasion (De oratore 2.182)…

“Well then, the character, the customs, the deeds, and the life, both of those who do the pleading and of those on whose behalf they plead, make a very important contribution to winning a case. These should be approved of, and the corresponding elements in the opponents should meet with disapproval, and the minds of the audience should, as much as possible, be won over to feel goodwill toward the orator as well as toward his client. Now people’s minds are won over by a man’s prestige, his accomplishments, and the reputation he has acquired by his way of life. “

Here’s a bit from May on how Cicero embodied his position – even to the point of suffering…

“In stark contrast stands the character of Cicero the patriot, true and unfailing, ready and willing to put his life on the line for the survival of the state—in fact, he is in a way the symbol, even the literal embodiment of the Republic. Nearly twenty years after his consulship, Cicero finds himself once again leading the Senate and the state in the midst of an internal crisis. Two decades earlier, he had fashioned himself as the imperator togatus (the civilian commander ), the pacis alumnus (the nursling of peace), who would go to any length—including voluntary exile—to save the state without recourse to arms. Now, on the contrary, he presents himself as the princeps sumendorum sagorum, ‘the leader in the putting on of military cloaks,”

For Cicero the pursuit of the Republic meant fashioning, and refashioning the understanding of his character as he rose through the ranks – always making sure his life matched his message as a visual.

Paul takes this principle, and adapts it to the unchanging message of sacrifice and the deliberate giving up of status for others that is part of speaking about the crucified King.

Here’s some key bits from 2 Corinthians, where I reckon Paul hammers this cross-shaped ethos thing.

Chapter 4

Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.2 Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.

For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from Godand not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.

Chapter 5

11 Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. 12 We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart.13 If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. 14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again

18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Chapter 11

“Whatever anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast about. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiledand have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.” 

Cicero was an impressive guy. He wanted people to follow him – imitate him – and be equally impressive. He was an incredible communicator. Paul was, in my mind, more impressive (while, paradoxically, being deliberately unimpressive) – and he called people to follow a more impressive guy. Jesus. His communication, from a PR point of view, has been much more impressive than Cicero’s. Cicero’s campaign basically died with him – Paul’s has lasted two thousand years, and essentially changed the Roman Empire for the better.

Hearing her voice: teaching, preaching, and a complementarian ethos

If you haven’t been following along on the interwebs, a hornets nest has been kicked and then ignited with the release of three Zondervan e-books about women and preaching, and whether or not they should do it.

I’ve read one of these, Hearing Her Voice, by John Dickson, the following review should come with the same caveats I included when I reviewed Promoting the Gospel: the best kept secret of Christian mission – I think John Dickson is excellent, I love his published body of work, and have found him helpful at just about every step of the way on my journey from Christian kid to theological student.

In this book we get more of Dickson’s very solid hermeneutical model applied to a pretty tricky question, and particularly applied to a verse that creates quite a few difficulties for the modern church. Seriously, he is, I think, the model of what being a careful interpreter of Scripture looks like, there’s a great para in the book that outlines his approach to using history as a tool for exegesis, and I commend it to you.

I was going to include quotes from the book – but this post is already almost 6,000 words long.

The question at the heart of this book – well, there are two questions, I think – and perhaps three – is what is “teaching?” Is preaching teaching? And if not, can women preach in church?

What’s not up for grabs for Dickson is the real strength of his work – he’s big on the authority of Scripture, big on consistently reading and exegeting it with the original readers and meaning in mind, and big on the principle that while male and female are equal in God’s sight, we are different.

I feel like I should throw in a few disclaimers at the start so you know where I’m coming from…

  • I’m aware of the dangers of being a “privileged” and unoppressed class speaking out on this issue – a white, anglo-saxon, male, protestant voice in this debate needs to be pretty mindful of his cultural background and relative freedom to make proclamations that appear to come at a cost to others. (UPDATE: If you’re reading this post in the present day, post 2014, I’m also a guy who occupies a pulpit — even more ‘privilege’ to account for in this conversation).
  • I love the concept of a priesthood of all believers – it goes without saying that this includes men and women – I think it’s biblical, I think we’re all called to be on mission together, and equipped by God to serve as part of the body of believers as we serve and love one another and try to reach people together.
  • I think there are lots of women who are gifted preachers, teachers, and evangelists. I don’t see any gender specific traits that make being able to show someone else that Jesus is the Christ a particularly male act. This isn’t an “innate” issue, or a “masculinity” issue, men are not innately more competent in this area than women.
  • I’m also a complementarian – I think our different genders are a good and necessary part of what it means to be human. I think we’re different but equal.
  • I agree that there are lots of roles open to women that we’ve essentially closed because we’re scared of transgressing in this area – including prophecy, exhortation, partnering as “gospel workers,” etc.
  • I think the gender stuff at the fall is pretty interesting, and is certainly something Paul has in mind in this verse. While this is pretty absent in Dickson’s book, it is something Mike Bird, who wrote a second book in the series, spends some time considering – but I haven’t read that yet.
  • I’m wary about tossing out 2,000 years of church tradition, particularly the interpretive traditions from people who took the Bible seriously – though I’m also aware that all interpreters are fallible, and texts, and interpretations of those texts are the product of different cultures. I’m interested in a tendency, beyond Dickson’s book, to pit current movements of the Spirit through female preachers against historic movements, through tradition. I’m also pretty sure the Spirit of God is able to speak, and point to Jesus, through all sorts of wrong things we might, as humans, adopt. Our fallibility has never been an obstacle to the Spirit moving people to faith.
  • I’ll also presuppose that how we do church – including who preaches – is part of our ethos, so that the decision about who preaches is, in part, a decision we make about our presentation of the gospel.

What is a sermon? Teaching? Exhortation? Preaching?

I have some reservations about how Dickson approaches the Greek language (and how others do too) – but this is probably because they are experts at Greek and I am not. I think word studies have some merit, but I think assume too much about the deliberation that goes into the use of particular words, rather than paying heed to the vibe of a paragraph, or whole letter. I think words often have a broad semantic range that overlaps with other words, and you kind of use those ranges together to create new concepts – Dickson thinks this happens with “teaching” and “authority” in the verse in question… So I don’t really like arguments based on word studies – and most of my response won’t really engage with the question of whether or not “teaching” or in the Greek, didaskein, is a technical word for a particular act, or a general word for the passing on of knowledge – this is where the debate is being fought out on the interwebs by Lionel Windsor, and Dickson himself (in a great model of how you can disagree with people without calling their character into question…

Like I say – I’m not an expert on Greek, and don’t pretend to be, and I’m fairly sure that words can also be used technically to mean very narrow things – but I do think literary context guides interpretation… and I think one of the concerns of Paul’s letter to Timothy is to help Timothy, and the church, think rightly about questions of pastoral leadership – including the establishment of a role that seems to be for men and includes carrying the responsibility of preaching and teaching, within the church.

I don’t think Dickson necessarily disagrees with this approach to language – though his treatment of “teaching” here is very similar to his treatment of “evangelism” in Promoting the Gospel. He allows for general  use of words, while suggesting we need to pay heed to the technical meanings that may have been in operation in the first century.

He spends significant time making the case that “teaching” isn’t directly transferrable to what we do in the pulpit of a modern church each Sunday – and his argument seems to have some merit. I don’t think preaching is the teaching, in the technical sense, that Dickson identifies. So I’m almost happy to cede his whole argument, on one level – if the Sunday sermon is exhortation, as he suggests, or prophecy as the Puritans suggest, and not teaching (as Lionel Windsor suggests it is) – then I think he’s right – women should be able to exhort, prophecy, and do all the things that Paul specifically or implicitly allows, and even all the things he doesn’t forbid.

Anyway – here’s the passage in question, with a bit of context. From 1 Timothy 2…

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. 11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

In 1 Timothy 3, when he’s establishing the qualifications of a deacon, and an overseer he gives a set of ethos heavy principles, like being “above reproach” – which presumably has something to do with not undermining his leadership of others, and “be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” It is assumed in these verses that the person in question is a man – building off his argument in chapter 2.

In 1 Timothy 5 it appears he assumes these elders will be the people doing the “preaching and teaching”…

17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.”

Then, in 2 Timothy 4, he kind of spells out what Timothy is called to do, under the umbrella of “preaching”…

4 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teachingFor the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

Ultimately, I’m not convinced by the way Dickson groups “teaching” and “authority” into one command, rather than two separate but related commands based on the same Old Testament/created order principle… and I think there’s another reason, an ethos reason, when it comes to how we persuade people about the message of the gospel that means we should think carefully about how we use, or emphasise, gender and authority in church gatherings… which I’ll get to below. Somewhere. I think what is done from the pulpit is an act of authority – and listening is an act of submission.

Where I think Windsor is right to go (but slightly wrong in where he lands – I think), and where I think Dickson is wrong – is on what the sermon actually is. In sum, Windsor thinks it’s teaching, and Dickson sells teaching short, Dickson thinks the sermon is exhortation, or something analogous to that – and thus thinks women can give sermons.

What Preaching is not…

I’d argue, along with Dickson, that preaching is not teaching, we’ve hastily drawn an analogous line from the Bible’s use of teaching to our modern equivalent, and that’s come at a cost.

  • Preaching is not simply teaching – though it may involve the transmission of information from someone with knowledge to someone without.
  • Preaching is not strictly exhortation though it may encourage.
  • Preaching is not simply prophecy, though it may speak God’s word to people at a particular time… though in a sense a good sermon is all of these things. 

This is one of the areas I think Dickson’s argument breaks down – you don’t have to look much past Paul to find someone who exercises more than one of the “offices” of word ministry that Dickson seems to suggest are in operation… Paul also suggests all of these things are part of Timothy’s job as a preacher (2 Tim 4).

It’s quite possible that there’ll be an overlap of different styles of speaking in any particular speech, much as there was in just about any form of first century oratory. Where Cicero, in Brutus, bags out some orators for being too specialised in one area, because the idea was that public speakers could adopt a wide range of styles, from the boring didactic history lecture, to the witty declamation of an opponent on the election trail.

What a sermon (preaching) is…

Preaching is preaching. It has a New Testament equivalent – and an Old Testament equivalent. It has a Greek word – kerusso – which had a pre-existing technical meaning, and a meaning that developed through Christian usage, and it appears to be something like being a herald and proclaiming good news, with authority.

I’d argue that if one:

then our sermons are not “teaching” in the sense identified by Dickson – but “preaching”… in the sense that the word is used throughout the New Testament.

Our sermons should point people to Jesus and the kingdom of God, attempt to persuade people to accept the message, and declare that, Jesus is Lord – This essentially does nothing for the gender question but move the goalposts, so the question is not “can women teach?” but “can women preach?” – so Dickson’s insights, while useful, are potentially irrelevant to the question.

I would say that I think preaching is an act of authority – but the ultimate authority rests in the same person it rests in when Jesus is challenged about the authority behind his preaching – God and his Christ. When we preach faithfully we are simply pointing to the authority of Jesus. The way authority is exercised over the church is ultimately in the preaching of the word (and the faithful passing on of the apostolic traditions) as they relate to Jesus, not the appointment of humans who have particular gifts in particular areas. We judge a preacher’s authority on their adherence to the divine logos, Christ-made-flesh and Christ-crucified — the message of the Bible, not on their particular ability as a speaker. And I want to make the case below that we should ultimately profoundly be assessing a preacher on their ethos — their willingness to have the truth of this logos shape who they are and how they preach. I want to make the case that this isn’t a new way of thinking about what preaching is – first from the Reformers, and then, after a little ethos excursus from the New Testament (though the order should be reversed – the NT stuff is pretty long).

Preaching in the Reformed world

Both Luther and Calvin (Institutes, 4.1.5) put a pretty high value on preaching , if preaching involved the gospel – so much that preaching was more important than the sacraments in terms of constituting Christ’s presence in the gathering of the body – this was a big deal in a time where people were killed over what they thought happened at communion.

Calvin says:

“We see that God, who might perfect his people in a moment, chooses not to bring them to manhood in any other way than by the education of the Church. We see the mode of doing it expressed; the preaching of celestial doctrine is committed to pastors. We see that all without exception are brought into the same order, that they may with meek and docile spirit allow themselves to be governed by teachers appointed for this purpose… Hence it follows, that all who reject the spiritual food of the soul divinely offered to them by the hands of the Church, deserve to perish of hunger and famine. God inspires us with faith, but it is by the instrumentality of his gospel, as Paul reminds us, “Faith cometh by hearing” (Rom. 10:17). God reserves to himself the power of maintaining it, but it is by the preaching of the gospel, as Paul also declares, that he brings it forth and unfolds it.”

Both (Luther Large Catechism (PDF, p 72), Calvin Institutes 4.1.1, 4)  saw the church as the “mother” of believers – responsible, ordinarily and under God, for giving birth to new believers and nurturing the faith of existing believers – and it did this, for both groups, in the same way – by preaching the gospel of Jesus. Not legalism. Not morals. Not ethics. Not just words of encouragement. But the gospel.

The gospel will have necessary implications for our morality and ethics – and it will necessarily be encouraging as we consider that the creator of the universe sent his son to earth to buy us, for a relationship, to make us his children. But our sermons that do all these things do these things because they first declare the truths of the gospel, and these things are part of the persuasive case the gospel makes for those who hear it.

The preaching of the gospel is one of the “marks of the church” for Reformed people.

The Westminster Confession of Faith essentially follows both Calvin and Luther on this point – it says the church is responsible for the “gathering and perfecting of saints” (WCF VII, XXV), and that the preaching of the word is one of the two marks of the church (along with the administration of the sacraments).

“And particular Churches, which are members thereof [the universal, visible, church], are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.”

In XV the Confession says ministers are to preach: “Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minister of the gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ,” and in XXI it says faithful preaching is part of worship. This preaching is conducted by these “ministers of the gospel”…

I like this quote from Calvin that Justin Taylor shared last week:

“This is what we should in short seek in the whole of Scripture: truly to know Jesus Christ, and the infinite riches that are comprised in him and are offered to us by him from God the Father. If one were to sift thoroughly the Law and the Prophets, he would not find a single word which would not draw and bring us to him. . . . Therefore, rightly does Saint Paul say in another passage that he would know nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

Biblical, expository, sermons will point people to Jesus Christ in a way that declares his kingdom has come at the cross. It is preaching, not teaching.

An argument from “authority” – an ethos consideration

I think a case can be made that Paul’s prohibition on women exercising authority in the 1 Timothy 2 passage refers to what is going on in the gathering, and works a bit with the similar prohibition in 1 Corinthians, to establish a principle, rooted in creation and the fall, for what happens when the church meets and the gospel is preached… as an authoritative act.

But even if that case is weak – I wonder if there’s an ethos driven, cross-shaped, argument for women letting men preach, if sermons are preaching, and preaching is an act of persuasion where both pathos and ethos are as relevant as what we say… even if they are more gifted than their male counterparts, which is surely often the case.

A willingness to submit is part of the testimony of the gospel of the cross – as is a willingness to sacrificially not use our gifts for the sake of others… I’d argue Paul is essentially doing this in Corinth when he avoids using his full rhetorical prowess, that he demonstrates in Acts, in order to “know nothing but Christ and him crucified” as he teaches them, knowing what he does about their culture and context – and the sinful desires they have to place value in their abilities or flashy man made idols. I reckon its possible that gender equality is a bit of an idol in our culture – I’m not arguing that it’s a bad thing, idols are good things turned into ultimate things… but I wonder if a refusal to give in to cultural pressure on the gender front, voluntarily, might be a hugely important part of our testimony.

This is where a little bit of trepidation kicks in on my part – because I recognise that I’m a guy telling gifted women they can’t do what they’re gifted to do.

But, I think it’s possible that If we believe that:

  • genders are different, but that people are equal in value,
  • that the gospel does away with inequalities that people might establish on the basis of differences (Gal 3:28),
  • that submission isn’t a statement of inequality, this is where some smart egalitarians like Miroslav Volf depart, but it must be true because if we believe that the Trinity is made up of three parties who are equally God, we need to be able to say that Jesus can submit to the father without calling this equality into question (in academic terms this is a question of whether you can have functional subordination alongside ontological equality, I think the answer has to be yes, if the submission is voluntary, an act of love, offered without coercion),

then we should be able to sacrificially let men do the preaching… even if there are women out there who are better equipped to do the job… because this is part of our testimony, and our act of testifying – to the sacrifice of Jesus, for his church – just as it is in marriage (Ephesians 5).

The act of preaching is an act of authority – but this authority isn’t establishing an inequality – and if it does create such an inequality, then questions have to be asked about whether or not the guy is doing his job – just like in a marriage. Because a cruciform preacher who humbly uses the gifts God has given to build up the church and point people to Jesus through the persuasive preaching of the gospel won’t, if logos, pathos, and ethos stack up, be in a position to create any inequality except the inequality created by considering everybody else better than yourself…

Our value to God isn’t caught up in our ability to serve him – with the gifts that he has given us, nor is our testimony – I would argue our testimony is caught up in our ability to live cross-shaped lives where we imitate Jesus, who despite having all authority and abilities in his grasp, and being equipped to do otherwise gave himself up for us, as an example, here’s Philippians 2:

2 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, anyparticipation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselvesLet each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of othersHave this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Perhaps the way we testify to our unity, our like mindedness, and avoid promoting our gifts, interests, and selves, is to be prepared to not do things we could do, as part of our testimony to Jesus, and to the creator who sent him, and made men and women different.

Communicating why we’re doing this, and valuing, affirming, and giving avenues for gifted women to be effective members of the body and servants of the mission of God is obviously pretty tricky – and one of the great strengths of Dickson’s work is that it’s motivated by exactly this concern.

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Spurgeon v Augustine: Egyptian gold, “faithful preaching,” equilateral triangles, and church growth

It seems we’re at a bit of a crossroads in the Australian evangelical church at the moment – once we recognise that the church isn’t really growing – do we throw our lot in with Spurgeon, or with Augustine… For many in our scene – faithful preaching from the pulpit is the ultimate panacea – and if the church isn’t growing then it doesn’t matter, so long as we’re faithful, or perhaps a lack of growth is a sign of some lack of faithfulness…

augustine spurgeon

I reckon the problem is that many of us have conflated “faithful preaching of the gospel” with “expository preaching on a Sunday” – and we’ve pretty much checked our responsibilities in at the door at that point. I’m not going to argue against expository preaching – because I think it is part of faithfully preaching the gospel – but I wonder if we’re missing two-thirds of the persuasion triangle… We seem hesitant, or suspicious, of anything other than unadorned words – be it emotive production values or anything that by itself would be manipulative, or an emphasis on the sort of life and good works we should be producing outside of the pulpit… Part of this has been from a desire to respond to the imbalance of the pentecostal movement on one hand, and the social gospel driven ecumenical movement, which focused solely on “liberating the oppressed” because nobody could agree on what the gospel actually is, on the other. But we’ll get to that when we get to the triangles below…

On the merit of “Egyptian Gold”

I read this stirring Spurgeon quote about preaching that Justin Taylor shared a couple of days ago, especially these bits:

“Are you afraid that preaching the gospel will not win souls? Are you despondent as to success in God’s way? Is this why you pine for clever oratory? Is this why you must have music, and architecture, and flowers and millinery? After all, is it by might and power, and not by the Spirit of God? It is even so in the opinion of many.”

…”I have long worked out before your very eyes the experiment of the unaided attractiveness of the gospel of Jesus. Our service is severely plain. No man ever comes hither to gratify his eye with art, or his ear with music. I have set before you, these many years, nothing but Christ crucified, and the simplicity of the gospel; yet where will you find such a crowd as this gathered together this morning? Where will you find such a multitude as this meeting Sabbath after Sabbath, for five-and-thirty years? I have shown you nothing but the cross, the cross without flowers of oratory, the cross without diamonds of ecclesiastical rank, the cross without the buttress of boastful science. It is abundantly sufficient to attract men first to itself, and afterwards to eternal life!”

…In this house we have proved successfully, these many years, this great truth, that the gospel plainly preached will gain an audience, convert sinners, and build up and sustain a church.

There is no need to go down to Egypt for help. To invite the devil to help Christ is shameful. Please God, we shall see prosperity yet, when the church of God is resolved never to seek it except in God’s own way.

There is much to like in Spurgeon’s quote – the church is God’s agent in the world and its job is to promote, proclaim, declare, whatever verb you like, the wonder of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s our mission, and arguably how we worship.

But there are a couple of things that rankle me in this quote – while I agree that the gospel requires words – because it is the story of God’s word made flesh…

  1. I still can’t help but think that the reduction of our mission to just words misses the point of both the actions that the written accounts we call gospels contain, and the strong links made between the lives we live, the good we do, and the love we give and our testimony to the world (so to provide a sample of from three different New Testament’s authors – John 13:35, 1 Cor 10:33, 1 Peter 3:8-16). Interestingly, Augustine suggests that the good we do should be to the end of seeing people come to know God
  2. I don’t understand the assumption that the Spirit can’t work through architecture, music, flowers, or even millinery – surely the Spirit doing so would be a greater testimony of his power, not lesser. Surely if there is a milliner, or flower arranger, in your congregation they can find some use for their profession as part of the body, to point people to Jesus – these things can’t replace word ministry but word ministry doesn’t need to happen in a cultural vacuum (and the right balance is important). I like Luther’s potentially pseudopigraphic “make a good shoe and sell it for a fair price” quote at this point…
  3. I can’t figure out why “word ministry” as in the promotion of the Gospel should be limited to the spoken word in a way that rules out using the “gold of the Egyptians” – or without the metaphor – the good parts of the created order that can be applied to gospel ministry and declaration of truth. Music, video, the arts – all of these can be used as “word” ministry – they just lean heavier towards pathos than logos when it comes to the persuasive act.
  4. This displays a limited doctrine of creation – one I’ve been guilty of in the past when it comes to free range eggs (and the environment) – the way we treat creation and how we use it is also part of our testimony – and this includes the way we think of the arts, and things that people make as part of our stewardship of creation and desire to bring order to it… as an aside: I don’t think the way “creation” and “redemption” are as separate as some people want to suggest (there’s a bit of a debate about this) – I now think redemption, and God’s mission, encompass creation – and how we use it – but “redeeming creation” is not an “end,” it’s a means to support the ultimate end – our mission to redeem people.

In fact – on the second point – what we do with the “gold” we find – or the goodness of creation – is an incredibly strong part of our testimony.

The “receive, redeem, reject” paradigm for culture that has been made popular by Keller, Driscoll, et al is pretty useful – and it works with the plundered gold analogy that Augustine ran with…

If the gold of Egypt is some sort of “truth” – a “created order” thing, being used in a cultural way – perhaps, for the purpose of this post, a persuasive technique, or musical style… it seems to me there are four options for this thing:

1. Leave it in Egypt – assuming the gold itself is inherently bad – because people use it to make idols.
2. Bring it with you, as is, or make it your own idol – like a golden calf, at the foot of Sinai.
3. Bring it with you, because gold is beautiful – recognise its goodness without worshipping it – music whether written to honour God – like Bach, or written as a recognition of the way ordered sounds can work together to create pleasure – captures something of the goodness of creation, as music.
4. Bring it with you, use it to glorify God – build the temple out of it, artistically, with sculptures. People will then both understand a good God made it, and understand that this Good God is Yahweh, who reveals himself in creation, and the redemption of creation.

The first seems to be Spurgeon’s approach when it comes to what happens in church, the fourth seems to be what Augustine advocates… it’s no secret that I think Augustine is right – my masters project is going to be an application of his principle to modern communication theories. Here’s the money quote…

“…all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worship of devils. These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel. Their garments, also —that is, human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life — we must take and turn to a Christian use.”

There really is no “Egyptian Gold” – but rather an Egyptian use of Gold, that may or may not be redeemable. This is demonstrably the case if we believe that every idol results from taking something good that God has made and using it in wrong ways.

On “faithful preaching” and equilateral triangles

But all this got me thinking about “faithful preaching”… and triangles.

If the following linked premises hold true:

  • Preaching must involve the faithful articulation of the gospel. I’m with the Bible, the reformers and the Westminster Confession on this – for a church to be a church, it needs to be a gathering of people united by the gospel of the Lord Jesus, who are proclaiming the gospel through preaching and the sacraments.
  • Our “preaching of the Gospel” can’t just be words. It has to include words – so Francis of Assisi is still wrong – but those words need to be backed up by action. How the church lives and loves its community is part of the package of faithful gospel preaching… because teaching is more than words.
  • Paul’s call to “imitate him, as he imitates Christ” (1 Cor 11:1) is a bit of a unifying principle delivered to a church fractured over preaching styles (the conflict he addresses earlier in the letter) – where imitation was a key part of first century oratorical competition (so, for example, Cicero bemoans poor choices about who and what young orators imitate and pushes for an imitation of substance over style).
  • Paul, in both 1-2 Corinthians, champions an approach to preaching that includes the embodiment of the cruciform (cross-shaped) life as the key aspect of this imitation (you’ll have to read my essay on Corinthians to find out why I think this)
  • Preaching is an act of persuasion (no doubt governed by the work of the Spirit – I’d argue, like Augustine, that rhetoric works because it recognises a truth about the order God has created in the world, particularly how human minds work).
  • Faithful preaching is more than what is said from the pulpit, but is how a preacher, and by extension the church, as a whole, lives as the Body of Christ in their time and place.

There’s something nice and Incarnational about all of this that I’m increasingly appreciating…

But if these points are true – then we can kind of understand “faithful preaching” using an Aristotelian framework, which includes logos, pathos, and ethos – with the type of life the preacher lives (ethos) being a decisive communicative act – serving to either emphasise or undermine the “pathos” or “logos” (ie the content of the preaching)… Which is where the triangles come in…

I’d argue that part of the mix which is limiting the growth of our branch of the church is that we’re so cerebral and logos driven in our approach that we’re relying almost entirely on our ability to persuade solely by reason (I’m not suggesting the Spirit can’t work through this – simply that it might be true that God has created us to respond to pathos and take note of ethos as well – and that we’ve been instructed to employ those aspects as part of our “preaching” more than we might at present in our gatherings and the rest of our life as a church).

It’s hard to make generalisations here… and I’m reflecting a little on my experience in some churches that were actually growing as a result of faithful and engaging Bible teaching – and some attempt to figure out how to engage with the world around us (I don’t think they’re just doing what Spurgeon says is all they need to be doing – they typically also have excellent music, well thought out architecture, and other bits and pieces) – but also on my observations of the churches that I’ve been part of that seek to imitate the logos aspect of those churches without necessarily investing heavily into pathos in a way that treats each place and people group as different…

I’m also reflecting a little on my training, the things that have been emphasised as I grew up in evangelical ministries in Australia including my churches, AFES, other groups I’ve been part of, and my experience at theological college. All of these groups require a certain threshold for “character” when it comes to involvement, but I don’t think ethos – which I’m defining as how to live in the world in a winsome and persuasive way that backs up my words – has ever been the focal point of the training I’ve received.

I’ve been pretty well equipped with the logos stuff… I think, like Spurgeon, we’ve been pretty suspicious of pathos too, because without logos it can be manipulative and lacking in substance (and we’ve seen that a little in the worship wars and the Pentecostal movement), though I think being “winsome and gracious” in how you speak is a mix of pathos and ethos.

I suspect the lack of focus on ethos is because ethos will ultimately look, without the logos, like the social gospel stuff we’re all so keen to avoid.

And now. For the visual learners and thinkers… a triangular approach to this issue.

This is a triangular picture of Aristotle’s approach to rhetoric. It’s an equilateral triangle, and represents all these aspects being held nicely in balance – I suspect this is the model for faithful preaching – because I think Aristotle has rightly recognised the way humans are persuaded of truths.

Aristotles Triangle

If this is a truth about the way people, and creation, works – then we should expect to see some fruits of it in terms of growth, assuming that the Holy Spirit works, in some way, consistently with the created order that God declared to be good. Perhaps even by helping us see that order in a way that guides our participation in the world.

This is my caricature (thus it is a little reductionistic) of the emphasis I think exists in our evangelical circles, it’s not without pathos or ethos – but logos is heavily emphasised.

The evangelical triangle

This is my caricature of the emphasis in more charismatic churches… My guess is that these churches are growing faster than those in the evangelical tradition because their triangle is a little closer to being persuasive – while they don’t necessarily place a heavy emphasis on solid teaching, they tend to, as a generalisation, be more interested in social justice type stuff, and much better at appealing to the emotions via their production quality, use of music, style of music, etc… Though their teaching is a little shallower than we might like, and occasionally just plain wrong in terms of what promises are fulfilled now for Christians, and what is still to come – it’s generally recognisable as Christian preaching, in that the Lordship of Christ is foundational.

Pentecostal triangle

And this is my caricature of the emphasis in liberal churches where the emphasis is on bringing transformation to the world, and liberating the oppressed – rather than articulating any actual definitive truth. There’s a complete lack of balance here – and depending on the churches in question, the lack of anything remotely like logos translates to a lack of moderating influence on what constitutes faithful gospel shaped pathos or ethos, which is why I think the liberal church is shrinking faster than any other variety.

Liberal triangle

So, I reckon Spurgeon is right – I think all that is required for the church to grow is faithful, Christ centred, gospel preaching – but I think that encompasses more than the delivery of a logos-heavy presentation from the pulpit, it’s got to involve using the goodness of creation to point people to the creator of that goodness, through the right use of pathos – music, art, and an understanding of how to stir the emotions, but it’s ultimately got to be matched with the type of ethos outside the pulpit that lends weight to our words when we talk about God loving people.

 

Some reflections on preaching without notes (from me and Cicero)

The importance of carefully scripting a sermon is something that has been pretty genetically drilled into me since before I can remember. The importance of writing the way you speak – rather than reading an essay – even more so.

I’m not ready to throw that under the bus just yet. There’s something nice about the security of having a script in front of you – both in terms of the discipline it brings – where you can’t just wander about on a whim, and there’s something reassuring about knowing that even if you completely fall apart mid delivery, you’ve just got to get to the end of your stack of paper.

But I like a challenge – and I think it’s axiomatic that the most engaging preachers around can hold an audience without using a script (I’m not so sure about a causal link there – it’s possible they’re just gifted and engaging people), and it’s certainly true that writing a script that isn’t dry and boring – and is active, full of verve, and engaging, is incredibly difficult and probably a combination of gift, art, and learned skill.

So this week I preached at our 11pm Christmas Eve service, and at all three services today. And I thought I’d, for the first time ever, give a talk from something other than a full script.

It was scary…

I’m not claiming to be an expert – but I’m drawing on a couple of experts – perhaps the world’s foremost expert on oratory – Cicero, and a couple of more modern people, as I think this through, and try to decide whether the method is a keeper…

We’ve been using this book, Preaching Without Notes, by Joseph Webb, at church this year. Because though I stirred the pot a few years ago with this post – eye contact does indeed make for more engaging communication. And being engaged is the first step towards being persuaded (all caveats about persuasion being the work of a sovereign God, by the Spirit, aside).

Webb draws on the work of a guy writing in the late 19th century… A guy named Broadus, who wasn’t a big fan of the old read sermon…

“As to delivery itself, reading is of necessity less effective, and in most cases immensely less effective, for all the great purposes of oratory, than speaking. Greater coldness of manner is almost inevitable. If one attempts to be very animated or pathetic, it will look unnatural. The tones of voice are monotonous, or have a forced variety The gestures are almost always unnatural, because it is not natural to gesticulate much in reading; and they scarcely ever raise us higher than to feel that really this man [or woman] reads almost like speaking… As to the delivery itself, it is only in extemporaneous speaking, of one or another variety, that [the sermon] can ever be perfectly natural, and achieve the highest effect. The ideal of speaking, it has been justly said, cannot be reached in any other way. Only thus will the voice, the action, the eye, be just what nature dictates, and attain their full power. And while painstaking culture vainly strives to read or recite precisely like speaking, the extemporaneous speaker may with comparative ease rise to the best delivery of which he [or she] is capable”

Preaching from a script, so that it doesn’t come across like you’re reading, is, I think, potentially more difficult than preaching without notes and being disciplined. But when you fail on the discipline point – or you’re tired – the script is incredibly useful.

Webb makes the distinction that extemporary preaching isn’t “off the cuff” or ad libbed – but the result of a fairly meticulous planning regime.

“What we are emphasizing is that the sermon preached without script or notes is a well-developed, meticulously crafted sermon, open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but prepared under the same constraints of procedure, time, and energy that guide every preacher week in and week out.”

Generally I find I’m much more comfortable, and more natural, and thus, arguably more engaging, when I tell a story naturally, rather than from a bit of paper – that’s partly because I’ve not yet mastered writing naturally (my writing is much more likely to sound like a news story – thanks to my journalism degree, than a conversation – the upside is that news stories don’t sound like essays…).

Cicero on preaching without notes

One of the reasons I really like the idea of preaching without notes is because I really like Cicero. You might have noticed. He said some great stuff in De Oratore which reaffirms the need for preachers to write. Constantly. In order to master language and develop their voice – and to improve their oratory. But also reaffirms the need for preachers to engage, and sound natural.

“This is why, in those exercises of your own, though there is a value in plenty of extempore speaking, it is still more serviceable to take time for consideration, and to speak better prepared and more carefully. But the chief thing is what, to tell the truth, we do least (for it needs great pains which most of us shirk), — to write as much as possible. The pen is the best and most eminent author and teacher of eloquence, and rightly so. For if an extempore and casual speech is easily beaten by one prepared and thought-out, this latter in turn will assuredly be surpassed by what has been written with care and diligence.”

In these two talks I started with a full script, and cut it back to what I thought was the minimum I needed to deliver a careful, and diligent, and prepared, piece of persuasive speech.

I reckon Cicero nails the sermon writing process in this quote. Even if some of the language is a little archaic. But give the guy a break – this was written in Latin, about 2070 years ago.

“The truth is that all the commonplaces, whether furnished by art or by individual talent and wisdom, at any rate such as appertain to the subject of our writing, appear and rush forward as we are searching out and surveying the matter with all our natural acuteness; and all the thoughts and expressions, which are the most brilliant in their several kinds, must needs flow up in succession to the point of our pen ; then too the actual marshalling and arrangement of words is made perfect in the course of writing, in a rhythm and measure proper to oratory as distinct from poetry.”

It’s part art, part skill, part gift – and mostly hard work. Thinking. Expressing. Scripting.

The written word was, unless you lived in Corinth and wanted Paul to be a flashier preacher, a longer lasting contribution to debate, and the shifting of ideas, in Rome – so sounding like you were delivering a tight piece of written persuasion was pretty important in Cicero’s day – but he suggests the goal of the relationship between spoken and written conversation is that people not notice the difference when you’re speaking…

“… he too who approaches oratory by way of long practice in writing, brings this advantage to his task, that even if he is extemporizing, whatever he may say bears a likeness to the written word; and moreover if ever, during a speech, he has introduced a written note, the rest of his discourse, when he turns away from the writing, will proceed in unchanging style.”

I love this little picture Cicero uses – I’d love for my sermons to feel like this. Rather than like an inverted proverbial duck’s feet churning around above the water, while I drown.

“Just as when a boat is moving at high speed, if the crew rest upon their oars, the craft herself still keeps her way and her run, though the driving force of the oars has ceased, so in an unbroken discourse, when written notes are exhausted, the rest of the speech still maintains a like progress, under the impulse given by the similarity and energy of the written word.”

Some actual reflections on preaching without notes

Anyway. Here are some of my actual reflections on the four sermons I preached, without a script, this week.

All preaching is hard – this is harder.
I’m not scared about standing in front of people and talking. But preaching – especially trying to say something that doesn’t just feel obvious, or vacuous – is hard work. I used to be able to knock out a script for a sermon in about 2 hours. But every time I go back to re-preach one of the 20 sermons in my archives, I’m bemused at its lack of quality – so sorry to the people who had to sit through those the first time around… The process of refining a sermon down to memorable chunks, and figuring out how you’re going to remember to logically link the chunks, is really hard work.

Familiarity with your material breeds contempt…
This isn’t just a reflection on preaching without notes – but I think the process I went through in the last two weeks, with two old sermons, gutted, and renovated, left me pretty bored with my content – I spent hours writing, rewriting, editing stuff down to dot point size, making powerpoint slides, and thinking about how this was all going to work. And because I’d gone over it so many times by the time I got up to share it, it just felt bleeding obvious. And boring. Even though I was talking about a dragon at Christmas, and the great news that we are called to be part of the work of the gospel. I certainly felt this more than I ever have when the last few days before a talk have just involved tweaking a written script.

If you bomb it – you really bomb it
I haven’t had a lot of sleep in the last two days – because of our adventurous turtle – so I was ridiculously without energy at our first morning service this morning. And I sucked. I fell apart. I lost the plot. I plodded. I made stupid mistakes. I said some things too early for them to contribute to the logic of my talk, and some things too late. I got the order of a couple of points in a list wrong – and then repeated myself the second time. It stank. Between services I was wondering if I could miraculously restore my full script, and preach from it the second time around. Part of the problem was that I was really tired, but I’m not sure what else contributed. It was the worst I’ve ever preached. Horrible. I felt so deflated.

You can’t do this when you’re really, really, ridiculously tired
This point is related. There is no doubt that talk wouldn’t have been so horrible if I had it all written out. The logic would have worked. And I wouldn’t have been thinking on my feet. My Christmas Eve service, at 11pm, was similarly muted. It was late at night – I think it would’ve been significantly better a little earlier. And my second and third talks today – one after a strong coffee, and with the benefit of hindsight, and the other after a long afternoon nap – really helped. By tonight I’d really figured out what bits to keep, and what bits to ditch – and the flow between points.

Some bits are going to get forgotten – so make sure you have a powerpoint slide that covers the really important points
Each time I spoke today I missed some of the really nice phrasing I’d worked up, and some really nice connections across the passage I was looking at (Matt 9:35-10:22). Some of these bits were more important than other – none were really pivotal. We’re talking stuff that added a bit of richness to what I was saying.

The adrenalin rush is bigger
The stress is bigger. The stakes are higher. But it’s also more fun to think on your feet a little. Each of these elements (though the first two seem closely related) add a chunk of adrenalin to the process.

When it works – people seem more engaged
Tonight felt really good. Better than the two morning services – and better than times I’ve preached with full text. People afterwards seemed to have followed what I’d been trying to say, and picked up bits of application that I was most excited about.

The capacity of the memory is huge – especially with tricks, and powerpoint

By the third time around today – at our 6:30pm service – I didn’t even look down at my dot points, I did look up at my powerpoint slides – projected on the back wall – but I knew where I was going. I knew how it fit together – and I remembered the important stuff I’d forgotten and left out in the earlier services (I did leave out some of the stuff that was actually really good – that I wish I’d said.

Powerpoint slides – not filled with comprehensive karaoke styled renditions of your entire sermon – but that are actually useful and memorable – work for your audience and for you. They take a lot of the guess work out of the memorisation process.

In all, it was a pretty interesting experience – and I’m going to give it a few more goes before I decide on its value.

The memory stuff is key – that’s one of the take home ideas in Webb – and it’s also one of Cicero’s pillars of successful oratory. Here’s some Cicero, to finish…

Cicero on remembering stuff (and on powerpoint)

Cicero had some cool tricks for memorising stuff that he goes through in De Oratore – using a mnemonic technique where you take visual cues from your surroundings – assigning certain points in the space you’re in to certain points in your argument, and glancing at them as you go… slides make that a lot easier.

He says the guy who invented mnemonics did so after his memory of where people at a dinner party were sitting helped identify their bodies after a roof collapsed.

“…this circumstance suggested to him the discovery of the truth that the best aid to clearness of memory consists in orderly arrangement. He inferred that persons desiring to train this faculty must select localities and form mental images of the facts they wish to remember and store those images in the localities, with the result that the arrangement of the localities will preserve the order of the facts, and the images of the facts will designate the facts themselves, and we shall employ the localities and images respectively as a wax writing tablet and the letters written on it…”

Memory, when you’re preaching without notes, is important because you need to remember where you’re going – and how a point relates to what comes before, and what follows.

“Consequently only people with a powerful memory know what they are going to say and for how long they are going to speak and in what style, what points they have already answered and what still remains…”

He thinks memory is a gift you’re born with – but that hard work can help the gifted, and the ungifted…

And consequently for my own part I confess that the chief source of this endowment, as of all the things I have spoken of before, is nature ; but the efficacy of the whole of this science, or perhaps I should say pseudo-science, of rhetoric, is not that it wholly originates and engenders something no part of which is already present in our minds, but that it fosters and strengthens things that have already sprung to birth within us ; though nevertheless hardly anybody exists who has so keen a memory that he can retain the order of all the words or sentences without having arranged and noted his facts, nor yet is anybody so dull-witted that habitual practice in this will not give him some assistance. “

Powerpoint – used alongside the memory, rather than instead of it, is a really useful way to put all your visual cues in one physical space – a screen. With a picture. Or a couple of words. Or a couple of verses.

Here are some anachronistic principles from Cicero, bolded in this quote, for putting together a powerpoint…

“It has been sagaciously discerned by Simonides or else discovered by some other person, that the most complete pictures are formed in our minds of the things that have been conveyed to them and imprinted on them by the senses, but that the keenest of all our senses is the sense of sight, and that consequently perceptions received by the ears or by reflexion can be most easily retained in the mind if they are also conveyed to our minds by the mediation of the eyes, with the result that things not seen and not lying in the field of visual discernment are earmarked by a sort of out-line and image and shape so that we keep hold of as it were by an act of sight things that we can scarcely embrace by an act of thought.

But these forms and bodies, like all the things that come under our view require an abode, inasmuch as a material object without a locality is inconceivable.

Consequently (in order that I may not be prolix and tedious on a subject that is well known and familiar) one must employ a large number of localities which must be clear and defined and at moderate intervals apart, and image that are effective and sharply outlined and distinctive, with the capacity of encountering and speedily penetrating the mind ; the ability to use these will be supplied by practice, which engenders habit, and by marking off similar words with an inversion and alteration of their cases or a transference from species to genus, and by representing a whole concept by the image of a single word, on the system and method of a consummate painter distinguishing the positions of objects by modifying their shapes.

But a memory for words, which for us is less essential, is given distinctness by a greater variety of images ; for there are many words which serve as joints connecting the limbs of the sentence, and these cannot be formed by any use of simile — of these we have to model images for constant employment ; but a memory for things is the special property of the orator — this we can imprint on our minds by a skilful arrangement of the several masks that represent them, so that we may grasp ideas by means of images and their order by means of localities.

1. Use images that play off your senses – visuals are powerful.
2. Use images to represent the key words or ideas.
3. Good planning prevents you from boring your audience.
4. Space them well – so that you can move smoothly between ideas.
5. Picking good visual clues develops with practice.
6. If you’re going to use a word, or words, on your slides, less is more.
7. Connect those images and words in a sequence that makes your talk make sense, and keeps you disciplined and structured.

What are your thoughts – as a listener or preacher? Are notes the bees knees? Are power points useful or distracting? Where’s the trade-off between accuracy and being engaging?

10 timeless tips for excellent communication from Cicero

Back in ancient Rome there wasn’t “PR” or “Marketing” or “social media” but there was a “public square” and there was “communication” and there most certainly was “persuasion” and “propaganda” – and it largely depended on rhetoric, and oratory, and the type of oratory most highly prized was eloquence.

Cicero was a bit of an expert on eloquence, and oratory. Not only did he publish a bunch of material on how to speak, and be eloquent, other famous people like Julius Caesar, dedicated their own published works on oratory to him. This makes him an ancient expert, somewhat anachronistically, on public relations, and communication. All you have to do is replace “Oratory” with “communication” and “eloquence” with “being good at communicating”…

cicero statue

Image Credit: Cicero Statue, The First Premise, Cicero

As I read through Cicero’s handbooks and other stuff for a bit of research, and for fun, I’m struck over and over again by how timeless his principles and advice are. His single-minded pursuit of oratory excellence, and thus, excellence in communication led him to study communication, and persuasion, from its earliest days as a science – to his present day, an approach we can probably learn from, even if we want to pretend everything of value has been invented in the last couple of generations (and even if we don’t – it’s worth seeing how timeless truth is).

He acknowledges that this pursuit is pretty difficult, because while there are some objective qualities of good oratory, and an objective essence of good communication – that all communication can be judged on, the actual act of communication is almost purely subjective.

“How then shall we strike out a general rule or model, when there are several manners, and each of them has a certain perfection of its own? But this difficulty has not deterred me from the undertaking; nor have I altered my opinion that in all things there is a something which comprehends the highest excellence of the kind, and which, though not generally discernible, is sufficiently conspicuous to him, who is skilled in the subject.”

Here are 10 things I think modern communicators can learn from Cicero, with some quotes (and if you hit the “read more” link after the list, there’s a bunch of quotes from his Cicero’s Brutus or History of Famous Orators, and The Orator).

It’s a pretty long post including the quotes – sorry if it all makes it into the RSS feed.

  1. Words are powerful. Especially when they’re well used.
    Words persuade people.

    This is the Eloquence that bends and sways the passions!—this the Eloquence that alarms or sooths them at her pleasure! This is the Eloquence that sometimes tears up all before it like a whirlwind; and, at other times, steals imperceptibly upon the senses, and probes to the bottom of the heart!

  2. Know what you’re trying to do when you communicate (move your audience to action or change their thinking).
    Good communication means thinking about who your audience is, and how you want to change them (or stop them changing).

    As, therefore, the two principal qualities required in an Orator, are to be neat and clear in stating the nature of his subject, and warm and forcible in moving the passions; and as he who fires and inflames his audience, will always effect more than he who can barely inform and amuse them” 
  3. Know your audience, and their expectations. Contextualise. Don’t bore people.
    Given these two points, the communicator should choose words that speak to their audience, so communication requires observation, education, thinking, and participating in life.

    “He, therefore, is the man of genuine Eloquence, who can adapt his language to what is most suitable to each. By doing this, he will be sure to say every thing as it ought to be said. He will neither speak drily upon copious subjects, nor without dignity and spirit upon things of importance; but his language will always be proportioned, and equal to his subject.”

  4. Be clear
    Use words and phrases people will understand, phrased as concisely as possible, but pay heed to convention and context, don’t be so clear you’re boring.

    …the simple and easy Speaker is remarkably dexterous and keen, and aiming at nothing but our information, makes every thing he discourses upon, rather clear and open than great and striking, and polishes it with the utmost neatness and accuracy.”

  5. Pay attention to the structure of your argument.
    Think about pace, rhythm, rhyme, and verve, but most importantly – how to structure your argument around your purpose.

    “For every cause can have but one natural introduction and conclusion; and all the other parts of it, like the members of an animal body, will best retain their proper strength and beauty, when they are regularly disposed and connected.”

  6. Be engaging.
    This means cleverly, or inventively, using new and exciting combinations of words designed to stir people, and using humour sometimes (carefully and originally).

    “This kind of Oratory will likewise be frequently enlivened by those turns of wit and pleasantry, which in Speaking have a much greater effect than is imagined. There are two sorts of them; the one consisting in smart sayings and quick repartees, and the other in what is called humour. Our Orator will make use of both;—of the latter in his narratives, to make them lively and entertaining;—and of the other, either in giving or retorting a stroke of ridicule.”

  7. Use familiar structures, concepts and tools, but change the words to paint new, clear, pictures.
    Sticking with what people know, and using it to change what they think, is a good strategy.

    “But in the use of metaphors, he will, perhaps, take greater liberties; because these are frequently introduced in conversation, not only by Gentlemen, but even by rustics, and peasants: for we often hear them say that the vine shoots out it’s buds, that the fields are thirsty, the corn lively, and the grain rich and flourishing. Such expressions, indeed, are rather bold: but the resemblance between the metaphor and the object is either remarkably obvious; or else, when the latter has no proper name to express it, the metaphor is so far from appearing to be laboured, that we seem to use it merely to explain our meaning.”

  8. Character, and personal substance, is important, bad character corrupts communication
    It’s not just the medium that is the message. You are the message too. Partly because in oratory you were the medium – in modern communication who you are is as important, if not more important, than what you say.

    “But (as I have before observed) I have been so much transported, not by the force of my genius, but by the real fervor of my heart, that I was unable to restrain myself: —and, indeed, no language will inflame the mind of the hearer, unless the Speaker himself first catches the ardor, and glows with the importance of his subject.”

  9. Communicating well is hard, successful communication achieves its purpose.
    While there are plenty of communication principles, it should be judged on its fruits – how well does what you’re communicating achieve its purpose?

    “The general merit of an Orator must and will be decided by the effects which his eloquence produces. For (in my opinion at least) there are three things which an Orator should be able to effect; viz. to inform his hearers, to please them, and to move their passions.”

  10. Practice, imitation, reading, and writing makes better, and if at first you don’t succeed, keep pursuing excellence.
    Communicating well is hard work. But it’s better to try to communicate well, and fail, than to simply communicate poorly.

    “It is but reasonable, however, that all those who covet what is excellent, and which cannot be acquired without the greatest application, should exert their utmost. But if any one is deficient in capacity, and destitute of that admirable force of genius which Nature bestows upon her favourites, or has been denied the advantages of a liberal education, let him make the progress he is able. For while we are driving to overtake the foremost, it is no disgrace to be found among the second class, or even the third…” 

If you want to read further, I’ve included the list again, with more supporting quotes from Cicero, below…

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Personal evangelism, oratory, and the fine art of cross-shaped persuasion

Like it or not, a recent article in the Briefing has fired up an old argument on personal evangelism that Gen Ys like me, think of in some way analogous to the worship wars… it happened in the past, and we’re slightly too post-modern to think there’s only one right answer to the question.

In a nutshell, John Dickson’s excellent book Promoting the Gospel (and other work) suggested that “evangelists” are a special category of person, much like preachers and teachers – and while all Christians are called to be part of the body of Christ, which is called to participate, together, in the Great Commission, and perhaps, the “Mission of God,” we’re not all called to play the specific role of heralds of King Jesus, proclaiming, via words, directly, and persuasively, the case for Jesus. Now, he says we should take whatever opportunities we have to give the reason for the hope that we have – but he wants the emphasis to be more on what we can achieve together, and what we can achieve in the way that we live our lives, and love the people around us, pointing people to Jesus. You can read my review of the book here.

Some people didn’t like that idea. They had an argument. Now, Tony Payne, at the Briefing, has (not intentionally), restarted the argument with his piece on Personal Evangelism.

Like a few others, I can’t really tell the difference between what he say the individual’s role is, and what John Dickson says the individual’s role is, which seems to boil down to using the skills God gives you as gifts for God’s kingdom and for those outside it.

It seems most people accept these two truths, but reach different conclusions:

1. We’re each called to serve God with the different gifts he has given us, as we worship him and take part in his mission (or worship him by taking part in his mission).

2. Some people are better at evangelism, and even human relationships, than others.

It’s this last bit of the logical chain that seems to divide people.

3. If people are better at evangelism than others, we should assume that they are gifted in that area and see part of our role, in the body, as freeing, supporting, and equipping those people to serve with those gifts. So that we’re on mission together.

Other people seem to say this is an area where gifting doesn’t come into play – because we all have to evangelise. But we’re all evangelising in that point 3.

I wonder if it’s easier to make a judgment, like Dickson’s, that not all people are evangelists if you are one, and if part of your job is helping clean up the mess that well-intentioned people make – perhaps, for example, those who stand on street corners and yell at people about sin and judgment (this isn’t really a post about the relative merits of street preaching).

Anyway.

I think Paul was an evangelist. That “evangelist” was a role that distinguished him from other figures in the early church. That he wasn’t the only “evangelist” – and that he wanted people to imitate him, in their lives as they were able, even if they weren’t especially gifted as evangelists – because promoting the gospel is about more than words – by sacrificially offering their gifts to the work of the Gospel. And we’re one body. Working for one mission. Together.

“Personal evangelism” is a bizarre outcome of western individualism being applied to the work of the church. We might live in an age of individualism – but part of the message of the gospel might have to be a counter-cultural indictment of that idea.

But each of us is called to take part in mission and evangelism, with the people we know. I’m going to suggest, in the next 3,000 words, that when it comes to evangelism as persuasion, all Christians are called to evangelise by ethos – being Christ like, and to be prepared to do logos (logic and knowledge about God and the Gospel), and I wonder if “pathos” and a strong mix of logos and ethos is what marks an “evangelist.”

So. Here are some thoughts I have, after thinking about how Paul frames his evangelism and approach to communication, that I think are somewhat relevant to the debate. This will be part of my Masters project next year, so shh… don’t tell anybody…

Oratory, Cicero, Paul, and Evangelism

Aristotle literally wrote the book On Rhetoric. He said there were three elements of successful persuasion:

1. Ethos: Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible.

2. Pathos: Persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions.

3. Logos: Persuasion is effected through the speech itself when we have proved a truth or an apparent truth by means of the persuasive arguments suitable to the case in question.

After Aristotle, these elements were bounced around in different shaped triangles depending on which element you thought was more important. There were literal schools of thought, like the Attic School, who thought flashy eloquence, which played with the emotion, were easier and more convincing than dry, boring speeches that were full of logic. And there were other more classical types, like Cicero, who wanted to try to balance out the triangle into something more equilateral.

I’m fairly convinced that Paul, who was a Roman citizen from Tarsus, was educated in rhetoric in Tarsus, which had famous rhetorical schools (see Strabo, the historian, on Tarsus). Cicero was the governor of Tarsus just after he wrote De Oratore – this is a guess, but I reckon there would have been a bit of Cicero on the curriculum of rhetorical training in Tarsus.

Cicero didn’t like the flashy, insubstantial, approach to Rhetoric championed by the Attic school of rhetoric, and he criticised it extensively.

Paul, in his letters to the Corinthians, is engaging with the rhetorical grandchildren of the Attic movement – the Second Sophistic – and he deploys pretty much the same argument against them that Cicero did, championing the triumph of substance, both in content – or logos – and character – or ethos, over style – the ability to speek eloquently (pathos).

Paul speaks against the Corinthian desire to have the flashiest communicators lead their churches –

Here’s an interesting comparison between something Cicero says about approaching a speech with trembling, and what Paul says about his approach in Corinth…

Cicero:

For the better the orator, the more profoundly is he frightened of the difficulty of speaking, and of the doubtful fate of a speech, and of the anticipations of an audience… While as for him who is un-ashamed — as I see is the case with most speakers, — I hold him deserving not merely of reprimand, but of punishment as well. Assuredly, just as I generally perceive it to happen to yourselves, so I very often prove it in my own experience, that I turn pale at the outset of a speech, and quake in every limb and in all my soul

And Paul:

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power,so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

Paul is subverting the rhetorical expectations of his audience – but I’d say he’s doing it by harking back to an older rhetorical convention. He condemns the Corinthian addiction to eloquent oratory, and its encroachment on the church. But this isn’t to say that Paul wasn’t capable of presenting well when the need arose – Acts portrays him as a pretty accomplished orator, as comfortable preaching to a group of religious philosophers in Athens, quoting their ancient poets back at them during his Areopagus address (Acts 17:28), in court rooms (Acts 24), and before councils (Acts 23:1-9), governors (Acts 24, 25:1-12), and kings (Acts 25:13-26:32) – all places that orators would commonly perform their tasks as entertainers, philosophers, or advocates.

Imitation isn’t just about flattery

Here’s another cool thing before I get to the point (hint – I think a special role of evangelist might potentially be related to the the orator – whose job it is to persuade).

Here’s what Cicero says about choosing who you copy.

“For nothing is easier than to imitate a man*s style of dress, pose or gait. Moreover, if there is a fault, it is not much trouble to appropriate that and to copy it ostentatiously… he did not know how to choose the model whom he would most willingly resemble, and it was positively the faults in his chosen pattern that he elected to copy. But he who is to proceed aright must first be watchful in making his choice, and afterwards extremely careful in striving to attain the most excellent qualities of the model he has approved… “

This is pretty much what the Corinthians were doing in Corinth and in the Second Sophistic movement – 100 years after Cicero wrote this. So he didn’t convince everybody. Here’s how Paul addresses this practice…

31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 32 Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, 33 just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.

11 Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

This comes a bit after Paul says he is prepared to become all things to all men to win some, in 1 Cor 9, which Dickson really nicely sums up in his book:

“Following the example of Paul and Jesus does not necessarily mean that we do what they did. It means that we live by the same flexible ethos, seeking the good of many so that they may be saved.”

I would suggest that one area where Paul may mean we can do what he did – if our gifts and skill sets allow – is imitating him by being a faithful persuader, or evangelist, for the cause of the gospel. I think Dickson is right to warn that we won’t all have Paul’s training, abilities, or specific calling – so won’t all feel comfortable doing what he does, but, within limits, we can imitate him by using what we have to serve the kingdom of God (cf Romans 12).

The foundational importance of Ethos

Here’s what I’m thinking. It’s not rocket science. But it has the benefit of this oratory stuff backing it up. We’re all called to persuade people of the truth of the gospel, with whatever we have at our disposal – but the most powerfully underrated element of persuasion is not words and knowledge (logos), or fine sounding words that appeal to the emotions (eloquence and pathos), but personal character and living out what you believe (ethos).

I’d say we’re all called to live like Jesus, as an act of evangelism (though also because that’s the goal of the Spirit’s work in us – see Romans 8:29) – but we’re not all called to persuade with pathos (or even logos – beyond knowing the essentials – Christ, and him crucified).

Here’s what Cicero says about the importance of believing your own press (or the press that you’re producing).

“I give you my word that I never tried, by means of a speech, to arouse either indignation or compassion, either ill-will or hatred, in the minds of a tribunal, without being really stirred myself, as I worked upon their minds, by the very feelings to which I was seeking to prompt them.”

But showing your character (and having character to show) is an essential part of Cicero’s approach to persuasion. Though he was prepared to fudge character where necessary.

“Now feelings are won over by a man’s merit, achievements or reputable life, qualifications easier to embellish, if only they are real, than to fabricate where non-existent… Moreover so much is done by good taste and style in speaking, that the speech seems to depict the speaker’s character. For by means of particular types of thought and diction, and the employment besides of a delivery that is unruffled and eloquent of good-nature, the speakers are made to appear upright, well-bred and virtuous men.”

But virtue is important, because bad people can use oratory to bad ends.

“For if we put the full resources of speech at the disposal of those who lack these virtues, we will certainly not make orators of them, but will put weapons into the hands of madmen”

Here’s how Paul shows that he really lives, and believes, his message, when he again defends his lack of eloquence in 2 Corinthians 10-13.

He defends his ministry as a triumph of ethos over the eloquence of the “super apostles” – even though he can out apostle the super apostles. He makes it clear that imitating Christ means being prepared to imitate Christ for others, here are a couple of what I think are the important bits that make this case… in Paul’s reluctant string of boasting in 2 Cor 11:

23 Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. 24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles,danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers;27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?

30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.

And 2 Cor 12:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

11 I have been a fool! You forced me to it, for I ought to have been commended by you. For I was not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing.

What Ethos based gospel persuasion looks like

Paul lives his message. I’d argue this is what he calls all Christians to imitate – demonstrating the strength of the gospel in our weakness. Imitating the crucified Jesus.

But he also knows and speaks his message appropriately to his circumstances. I’m not sure this skill is transferrable to all people everywhere, this certainly isn’t the case from experience. This is where I think the evangelist role might kick in – people who are skilled in speaking and persuading people regardless of their background.

For the Corinthians, whose ethos was broken by their pursuit of status-boosting eloquence, he resolved to know nothing but Christ, and present him plainly.

At the Areopagus (Acts 17), he quoted poets, turned his audience against each other by pointing out the philosophical differences between Stoics and Epicureans, and appeared to stick to the conventions of presenting a new God to the Areopagus for their consideration.

When he was in front of a Jewish council, he turned Pharisee and Sadducee against each other because he knew his audience, and knew how to communicate with them.

When he’s talking to Agrippa in Acts 26, he appears to obey the legal rhetorical conventions while also trying to convert the king (Festus, who’s hanging out, listening – says Paul has “great learning”):

24 At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defense. “You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.”

25 “I am not insane, most excellent Festus,” Paul replied. “What I am saying is true and reasonable. 26 The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner.27 King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.”

28 Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”

29 Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.”

Paul uses legal and religious trials, philosophical speeches, and political engagement to present the gospel of Jesus to his audience.

This is evangelism par excellence. I don’t think Christians fail to be Christians when they don’t speak about Jesus at their school council meetings. But I think an evangelist is failing to use their gifts if they can, but don’t.

It’s interesting that this was also the way the early church saw apologetics – both Tertullian and Justin Martyr wrote to the Roman Empire, basically asking for a fairer go for Christians, and each of them (partly to make the case that Christianity wasn’t dangerous), spelled out the gospel for their readers.

There’s an interesting objection to this view of what’s going on for Paul – the idea that he’s a specially gifted orator, based on Paul’s own words in 2 Corinthians 11:6:

Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not so in knowledge; indeed, in every way we have made this plain to you in all things.”

There are a few cool, and convincing responses to this.

First – the “even if” isn’t really a concession, he’s simply dealing with the criticism that has been made about him – that he writes like a rhetorician, but speaks weakly.

Second  – when he says “unskilled in speaking,” the Greek underlying this is transliterally, “idiot” – and it conventionally referred to people who were trained in rhetoric but weren’t professional orators.

Third, and perhaps more important, Paul is placing a high price on knowledge, and plain speaking –  Cicero did too. He suggested you couldn’t be a good orator without either.

On plain speaking:

“…let us select as our models those who enjoy unimpaired health, (which is peculiar to the Attic orators,) rather than those whose abundance is vicious, of whom Asia has produced numbers. And in doing this (if at least we can manage even this, for it is a mighty undertaking) let us imitate, if we can, Lysias, and especially his simplicity of style: for in many places he rises to grandeur. But because he wrote speeches for many private causes, and those too for others, and on very trifling subjects, he appears to be somewhat simple, because he has designedly filed himself down to the standard of the inconsiderable causes which he was pleading.”

On knowledge:

“Yet I maintain that such eloquence as Crassus and Antonius attained could never have been realized without a knowledge of every matter.”

Ethos-based persuasion and evangelism

Interestingly, Dickson picks up on this when it comes to how he defines an evangelist.

First, a bit of a word study to show that evangelism and oratory basically went hand in hand (as, did apologetics).

In the ancient world the noun “gospel” (euangelion) and its verb “telling the gospel” (euangelizomai) were media terms. They always referred to the announcement of happy or important events. News of military victories, national achievements, weddings, births and, in one ancient text, the bargain price of anchovies at the marketplace were all called “gospels”. The modern media term “newsflash” probably comes closest in meaning to the ancient word gospel…

The most well-known “gospels” proclaimed in the ancient world were those announcing the emperors’ achievements. The caesars’ ascensions, conquests and political deeds were all the subject of the gospels of the empire. “Gospel” was very much an imperial term in the period of the New Testament.

His definition of “evangelist” follows this definition of the good news…

“The word literally means gospeller, that is, one who announces the gospel. The term seems to have been coined by the first Christians (it appears nowhere else in Greek literature before the New Testament) as a shorthand way of referring to those in the church who took on the task of proclaiming the life, death and resurrection of God’s Messiah (the gospel) to those for whom this message was still news”

And he doesn’t rule out the option of having gospel conversations with the people you’re in relationships with (so I can’t see how it’s possible he rules out personal evangelism).

In reality, most of our opportunities to speak about Christianity will occur in passing, in the to-and-fro of daily conversation. It should not surprise us, then, that the two clearest passages in the Bible calling on all believers to speak up for the Lord urge them simply to “answer” for the faith—to respond to people’s comments, questions or criticisms with a gentle and gracious reply (Colossians 4:5—6 and 1 Peter 3:15). Most Christians are not “evangelists” (in the technical, New Testament sense of the word) and should not be made to feel the pressure to be something they are not. The Scriptures certainly urge us all to be open about our faith whenever opportunity allows, but doing “the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5) is something God’s Word asks only of some of us.

But here’s the fourth characteristic he identifies for an evangelist (after desire to proclaim Jesus, ability to relate well to people, and Christian maturity).

“An evangelist will be clear with the gospel. I do not just mean clear about what the gospel is-hopefully, that will be all of us. I am talking about clarity in outlining the gospel. This point arises directly from the word “evangelist” itself. A “gospeller” must be particularly able to explain the message plainly. I am not talking about having a gift of the gab or even being an extrovert-clarity does not always go with these. I am talking specifically about an ability to take the truths of the gospel and make them plain to others (key here will be an ability to talk about Christ without jargon, in the everyday language of those who don’t believe).”

I think there’s a good case to be made that there is a specific role within the body of Christ for people who are skilled as modern day orators and keen to use those skills sacrificially, as a gift for others and in an act of worship to God. And I don’t see why you wouldn’t call that role “evangelist.”

I wonder if the pay off, for those championing every member evangelism, is that orators were built for imitation – both Paul and Cicero say it’s important to pick who you imitate. And imitation, of good models, will boost the quality of gospel engagement with the world across the board. Our corporate ability to know and tell the gospel – our logos and pathos – will improve if we recognise, equip, and imitate the right people, and work at knowing complex truths and speaking them plainly.

But the pressure is off, a little bit, at least for evangelism, for those who are worried about not having the right skills for doing the logos and pathos stuff well. Because without a Christ shaped ethos – and a good corporate ethos within the Church – our words are powerless. Our rhetorical triangle is flat, or a point with no foundation.

If we focus on doing the much harder work on getting our character, or ethos, to imitate Paul, but more importantly – to imitate Jesus, that’s going to communicate the gospel clearer than any words we speak – and the words we speak will be much more powerful if we, and others in the body of Christ, are consistent with the way we live, both individually and corporately.

10 Tips for winning an election from Cicero Jr.

Marcus Tullius Cicero is one of my heroes. He was also pretty influential on Augustine, in my favourite primary source text from my time at college (outside the Bible) – On Christian Teaching, and, I’d argue, on Paul’s approach to preaching and rhetoric in Corinth.

cicero change poster

Image Credit: Cicero, Change, made with ObamiconMe

He was a pretty interesting guy – rising from relatively common stock to be one of the most powerful men in the Roman Republic. He was elected Consul in 64BC. During the campaign his younger brother wrote him a little handbook for electoral success called Commentariolum Petitionis. It’s been translated into a nice little book called How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians. It had some timeless tips for political success that election watchers will recognise have played out in elections since the dawn of democracy.

One of the most accurate maxims in the little treatise is: “This shows that people are moved more by appearances than reality, though I realize this course is difficult to for someone like you who is a follower of the philosopher Plato.”

Here are ten tips Cicero’s younger brother sends to help Cicero clarify his thoughts about the campaign at hand.

1. Build a wide base of vocal ambassadors…

Cicero was a lawyer who won lots of cases, it’s suggested he remind his clients what they owe him, find people who like you, find people who will advocate for you – get them to talk about you. This is first century BC political advertising.

Don’t forget about all the people you have successfully defended in court, clients from a wide variety of social backgrounds. And, of course, remember the special interest groups that back you. Finally, make good use of the young people who admire you and want to learn from you, in addition to all the faithful friends who are daily at your side.”

“Running for office can be divided into two kinds of activity: securing the support of your friends and winning over the general public. You gain the goodwill of friends through kindness, favors, old connections, availability, and natural charm. But in an election you need to think of friendship in broader terms than in everyday life. For a candidate, a friend is anyone who shows you goodwill or seeks out your company. But don’t neglect those who are your friends in the traditional sense through family ties or social connection. These you must continue to carefully cultivate.”

Ambassadors and advocates to blow your trumpet for you are increasingly vital in the web 2.0 world, and in a world that is increasingly cynical about the things people say about themselves.

“You must always think about publicity. I’ve been talking about this throughout my whole letter, but it is vital that you use all of your assets to spread the word about your campaign to the widest possible audience. Your ability as a public speaker is key, as is the support of the business community and those who carry out public contracts.”

“You should work with diligence to secure supporters from a wide variety of backgrounds.”

“Seek out men everywhere who will represent you as if they themselves where running for office.”

“It will help your campaign tremendously to have the enthusiasm and energy of young people on your side to canvass voters, gain supporters, spread news, and make you look good.”

“Voters will judge you on what sort of crowd you draw both in quality and numbers. The three types of followers are those who greet you at home, those who escort you down to the Forum, and those who accompany you wherever you go”

“You need to win these voters to your side so that you can fill your house with supporters every morning, hold them to you by promises of your protection, and send them away more enthusiastic about your cause than when they came so that more and more people hear good things about you.”

2. Communicate well. Always

Cicero had built his reputation as a speaker, and his brother told him to use every speaking opportunity as though his career depended on it – because it did.

“It is your unmatched skill as a speaker that draws the Roman people to you and keeps them on your side.”

“Since you are such an excellent communicator and your reputation has been built on this fact, you should approach every speaking engagement as if your entire future depended on that single event.”

This is especially true in the era of campaigning where every slip of the tongue hits YouTube, or becomes a meme.

Communicating clearly, and relevantly, will help win people over.

“The third class of supporters are those who show goodwill because of a personal attachment they believe they have made with you. Encourage this by adapting your message to fit the particular circumstances of each and showing abundant goodwill to them in return. Show them that the more they work for your election the closer your bond to them will be.”

3. Promise everything to anybody (but don’t worry about keeping them)

We can blame the Ciceros, or perhaps Cotta, for “core promises” and “non-core promises”…

“Remember Cotta, that master of campaigning, who said that he would promise everything to anyone, unless some clear obligation prevented him, but only lived up to those promises that benefited him.

He seldom refused anyone, for he said that often a person he made a promise to would end up not needing him or that he himself would have more time available than he thought he would to help.

After all, if a politician made only promises he was sure he could keep, he wouldn’t have many friends. Events are always happening that you didn’t expect or not happening that you did expect. Broken promises are often lost in a cloud of changing circumstances so that anger against you will be minimal.”

4. Keep your friends close, and try to get your enemies closer

Cicero’s little brother reminds him that most trouble – especially damaging rumours, begin at home. So tells him to be on his guard. Then he gives him some advice for winning over his critics.

“Do not overlook your family and those closely connected with you. Make sure they all are behind you and want you to succeed. This includes your tribe, your neighbors, your clients, your former slaves, and even your servants. For almost every destructive rumor that makes its way to the public begins among family and friends.”

“There are three kinds of people who will stand against you: those you have harmed, those who dislike you for no good reason, and those who are close friends of your opponents.

For those you have harmed by standing up for a friend against them, be gracious and apologetic, reminding them you were only defending someone you had strong ties to and that you would do the same for them if they were your friend. For those who don’t like you without good cause, try to win them over by being kind to them or doing them a favor or by showing concern for them. As for the last group who are friends of your rivals, you can use the same techniques, proving your benevolence even to those who are your enemies.”

“I assure you that there is nobody, except perhaps ardent supporters of your opponents, who cannot be won over to your side with hard work and proper favors. But this will only work if a man sees that you value his support, that you are sincere, that you can do something for him, and that the relationship will extend beyond election day.”

5. Remember what the goal is

“Always remember what city this is, what office it is you seek, and who you are. Every day as you go down to the Forum, you should say to yourself: “I am an outsider. I want to be a consul. This is Rome.””

This serves as a good reminder of what you’re doing – but also a nice principle for keeping focused, saying no to things, and framing your narrative.

6. Be valuable to people: Give of yourself. To everybody. And listen.

People will vote for you if they think you’re interested in their well being, and if you are giving them something of value. This remains the foundational premise of any positive political advertising.

“Work to maintain the goodwill of these groups by giving them helpful advice and asking them for their counsel in return.”

“Another way to show you are generous is to be available day and night to those who need you. Keep the doors of your house open, of course, but also open your face and expression, for these are the window to the soul.”

“There are three things that will guarantee votes in an election: favors, hope, and personal attachment. You must work to give these incentives to the right people. You can win uncommitted voters to your side by doing them even small favors. So much more so all those you have greatly helped, who must be made to understand that if they don’t support you now they will lose all public respect. But do go to them in person and let them know that if they back you in this election you will be in their debt.”

7. Remember names. Remember people. Actually care

Remembering names won’t guarantee that people will like you – but it’s part of showing you care.

“…nothing impresses an average voter more than having a candidate remember him, so work every day to recall names and faces.”

“Look at Antonius—how can the man establish friendships when he can’t even remember anyone’s name? Can there be anything sillier than for a candidate to think a person he doesn’t know will support him?”

“Small-town men and country folk will want to be your friends if you take the trouble to learn their names—but they are not fools. They will only support you if they believe they have something to gain.

But with any class of people, it isn’t enough that you merely call them by name and develop a superficial friendship. You must actually be their friend.”

8. Say nice things about people… except your opponent

Saying nice things about people, in a winsome way, wins them over.

“You have excellent manners and are always courteous, but you can be rather stiff at times. You desperately need to learn the art of flattery—a disgraceful thing in normal life but essential when you are running for office.”

What you say about people when they’re out of earshot counts too… here’s what he says about powerful people who drop in to visit each morning (but might visit other people).

“Mention your gratitude for their visit whenever you see them and tell their friends that you noticed their presence as well, for the friends will repeat your words to them.”

Finally, as regards the Roman masses, be sure to put on a good show. Dignified, yes, but full of the color and spectacle that appeals so much to crowds. It also wouldn’t hurt to remind them of what scoundrels your opponents are and to smear these men at every opportunity with the crimes, sexual scandals, and corruption they have brought on themselves.”

9. Maintain your integrity (or the appearance of integrity)

This comes back to ethos – which is one of the areas I think Paul borrows from Cicero. Character counts (though apparently broken promises are irrelevant to character).

“Our city is a cesspool of humanity, a place of deceit, plots, and vice of every imaginable kind. Anywhere you turn you will see arrogance, stubbornness, malevolence, pride, and hatred. Amid such a swirl of evil, it takes a remarkable man with sound judgment and great skill to avoid stumbling, gossip, and betrayal. How many men could maintain their integrity while adapting themselves to various ways of behaving, speaking, and feeling? In such a chaotic world, you must stick to the path you have chosen.”

10. Give people hope..

This comes down to framing a narrative not about you, not about the people who are voting for you, but about the future – yours, and theirs, together.

“The most important part of your campaign is to bring hope to people and a feeling of goodwill toward you.”

“There are three things that will guarantee votes in an election: favors, hope, and personal attachment…As for those who you have inspired with hope—a zealous and devoted group—you must make them to believe that you will always be there to help them. Let them know that you are grateful for their loyalty and that you are keenly aware of and appreciate what each of them is doing for you.”

I assure you that there is nobody, except perhaps ardent supporters of your opponents, who cannot be won over to your side with hard work and proper favors. But this will only work if a man sees that you value his support, that you are sincere, that you can do something for him, and that the relationship will extend beyond election day.

There you have it. 10 tips from almost 2,100 years ago that were just as relevant for the 2012 US Presidential race as they were back then.

Essays, study notes, and things college related

I don’t like boring people too much with college related stuff in these parts any more. I’d rather bore you by beating the same old drum and ranting about the ACL.

Anyway. I’ve been blogging my exam prep over at Venn Theology – first for Corinthians, then for Pentateuch. I’ll update the College Resources page here accordingly.

I’ve also uploaded my essays for this semester to Scribd – you can read them at the following locations:

1. Corinthians – In which I suggest that Paul’s view of preaching was heavily influenced by Cicero, a relatively novel argument.
2. Old Testament – In which I suggest that Biblical Theology is the key to understanding the odd mish mash of law and narrative in the Old Testament.
3. Church History – In which I suggest that though some suggest an almost bipolar understanding of Luther where a switch in his head flicks in 1525, he was consistently applying the same theology and ministry practice to changing circumstances throughout his life. And I get a little excited about Reformation propaganda.

I like to think that as I write these essays my implied reader is you, dear reader. So feel free to read these, or ignore them. I can’t promise that they’re entertaining, but putting them online fulfils my desire to be completely open and transparent about what I’m thinking – because full disclosure is the best PR policy – and hopefully means they serve some purpose other than just being lost on a hard drive somewhere like my essays from my first degree were.

They also all have pretty extensive bibliographies that I hope will save other QTC students some time in the future.

That is all.