Tag Archives: persuasion

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Learning mad persuasion skillz from Jesus and Gaga (a book review)

To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man. So said WWE icon Rick Flair (who could probably teach a little bit about rhetoric). That’s kind of the logic underpinning Joseph Romm’s Language Intelligence: Lessons on persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady GagaRomm runs the website Rhetoric.com and applies his rhetorical skills on the Climate Progress blog.

While Romm doesn’t pay much attention to Cicero, he does offer a guide to eloquence based on looking at some of the most persuasive story tellers from the past and present. He reverse engineers the rules of persuasion from the world’s great orators – Jesus and Shakespeare, with a pretty cutting assessment of the communication techniques of modern politicians, and quite a sympathetic reading of Lady Gaga.

“If the Bible is the word of God, then rhetoric is God’s way of speaking. The Elizabethans certainly viewed rhetoric that way. One best-selling sixteenth-century handbook asserted that rhetoric makes the orator “the emperour of men’s minds & affections, and next to the omnipotent God in the power of persuasion.”

He suggests rhetoric isn’t much more than helping people to speak naturally in a way that understands what makes people tick.

“…from the very beginning, rhetoric teachers aimed to help orators speak more naturally, in a manner that as closely as possible matched the way people actually speak. Here is Aristotle discussing the importance of matching natural speaking: Your language will be appropriate if it expresses emotion and character…. To express emotion, you’ll employ the language of anger in speaking of outrage; the language of disgust and discreet reluctance to utter a word when speaking of impiety or foulness; the language of exultation for a tale of glory…. This aptness of language is one thing that makes people believe in the truth of your story.

Ultimately it’s a book about how to tell a story that persuades – particularly an extended story. And this is where I reckon it’s incredibly powerful for preachers. If you’re not thinking about how your sermons relate to each other, and to your church’s vision, and to the way you do things – and you’re not tying those together with some sort of extended, coherent metaphor or narrative, you’re being less than effective as a persuasive communicator. And that, ultimately, is what we’re on about as Christians.

“Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others.” – 2 Cor 5:11

Romm gives some tips drawn from his pool of experts, summed up in this list:

1. Use short, simple words.

2. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Repetition is the essential element of all persuasion.

3. Master irony and foreshadowing. They are central elements of popular culture, modern politics, and mass media for a reason—they help us make sense of the stories of our lives and other people’s lives.

4. Use metaphors to paint a picture, to connect what your listeners already know to what you want them to know. Metaphors may be the most important figure as well as the most underused and misused.

5. Create an extended metaphor when you have a big task at hand, like framing a picture-perfect speech or launching a major campaign.

6. If you want to avoid being seduced, learn the figures of seduction. If you want to debunk a myth, do not repeat that myth.

I think most preachers have been taught 1 and 2, but it’s 4 and 5 that are key. I’d say you can even get away with not following 1 if your metaphor is powerful enough and infuses everything you say with a bit of life and verve.

Here. So you don’t have to buy the book (you should anyway). Is a bit of an expansion on some of these points.

Repetition and clarity

“Eloquence requires the repetition of words and phrases. Persuasion requires the repetition of slogans, sentences, and ideas.”

For Romm the key to repetition is something like sloganeering. You figure out the simplest and most punchy way to make a point. And you make it. Again. And again. And again. But you’ve got to aim not to bore your audience with the repetition – which means you’ve got to work hard at getting your weight behind the punch. He suggests the noble (and vastly underrated) chiasmus is a nice way to hammer home a blow. I quite like the idea of structuring speeches and sermons as something like a chiasmus.

“Perhaps the most elegant—and certainly one of the most popular—figures of repetition is chiasmus: words repeated in inverse order. Chiasmus is a great source of aphorisms. Mae West famously said, “It’s not the men in my life, it’s the life in my men.” Ray Bradbury advised writers, “You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance. Chiasmus makes for a memorable tweet, since it is pithy and profound.”

Clarity isn’t just about short words. It’s about removing impediments to your message. It’s ground clearing so that your storytelling can stand out – so that your metaphor is given the context it needs in order to shine. But it isn’t even just about vocab. It’s about clarity of emotion and tone as well. Making sure the mood and thus, in a speech, the medium, is apt to the message.

“Clarity is rightly seen as one of the most important virtues of a speech. If our goal is to persuade people honestly, then we should be as clear as possible about what we are trying to say. Clarity is most important when we are trying to convince people with the facts, with logic. As we’ve seen, however, truly persuasive speech requires a simultaneous appeal to mind and heart, logic and emotion, especially if you are trying to penetrate and change someone’s worldview.”

Stories as metaphors

“Memorable storytelling, whether in life or politics, is built around the same figures of speech used by the master storytellers, the ancient bards—metaphor, foreshadowing, irony, and especially extended metaphor, which is what some, like the linguist George Lakoff, call a frame.”

Romm argues that metaphors speak to us because they speak to our brains. They give us something that appeals to how we’re wired – words that evoke pictures. Speeches that are just words might fire up one part of the brain, but when you get people to visualise something, and give them a memory hook – it’s like injecting steroids into their head. Strengthening your message.

“Metaphors are not just a pleasing figure of speech we use by chance. They reflect the very structure of our thinking and of our brain itself. Edward O. Wilson argued in his book Biophilia, “The brain depends upon elegance to compensate for its own small size and short lifetime.” As we evolved, the brain “was forced to rely on tricks to enlarge memory and speed computation.” Hence, the human mind “specializes on analogy and metaphor, on a sweeping together of chaotic sensory experience into workable categories labeled by words and stacked into hierarchies for quick recovery. Metaphors enhance our memories in at least two ways. First, they create another place in the brain for a word or phrase to reside. People remember words better when they have multiple ways to remember them, such as combining repetition and a rhyme (“Double your pleasure, double your fun with Doublemint Doublemint Doublemint gum!”). In particular, metaphors create a visual aid to memory. Metaphor is “used for the sake of creating a vivid mental picture,” wrote the author of one of the rhetoric textbooks used to teach Elizabethan children.”

“Metaphors aid in memory a second way: They require the hearer or reader to think more, to light up more brain circuits, to figure out the connections and what they mean. As one study of “Figures of Rhetoric in Advertising Language” put it (in muddy jargon that no ad writer would use), “Effortfully processed information is more readily retrieved from memory than less effortfully processed information.”

It’s not just that metaphors are more memorable. Metaphors are also more compelling. Especially if they work at the level of providing a framework for people to think. Extended metaphors shape worldviews. They let us carry our stories across time and space. They help us link our stories together (a bit like Coca Cola’s “Liquid and Linked” approach to telling stories on social media)

“Extended metaphor is, for me, the most important rhetorical device. This figure is at the heart of some of Lincoln’s greatest speeches. It pumps the life blood into Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Political candidates with a strong extended metaphor have a long political life while those without one don’t have much of a pulse. Like the best figures, extended metaphors make ideas and phrases more memorable, expanding the vivid visual imagery painted by a single metaphor to create an entire mental mural for the audience. And like the best tropes, which “turn” the meaning of words, extended metaphors force you to think—and in a deeper way than most figures.”

This again, works because we think not just in metaphors, but in extended metaphors. Here’s how it works in politics. There’s not a huge jump to figuring out how we can make this work in preaching.

“Extended metaphors are essential to politics for several reasons. First, as we’ve seen, they are a key to great speechmaking. Second, we humans think with extended metaphors. So the best politicians naturally present themselves to fit our metaphors, linking those metaphors to their personal story, feeding the modern media’s growing interest in personalities and dramatic stories. Third, the best way to attack your opponent’s positive extended metaphor is to hit back with a negative extended metaphor. Put another way, rhetoric is the art of creating a persuasive story, the art of making—and unmaking—an emotional connection with voters.”

For preaching the issue isn’t so much conforming to the audience’s metaphor – it’s conforming the audience to a new worldview by the Gospel. Which comes packed with its own metaphors. So, for example, at Creek Road we link the Gospel, with our vision, with the way we do things using the metaphor of heart transformation. Being able to alter worldviews is vital for preaching – it’s a vital work of the Holy Spirit, who works through our preaching. But it’s an incredible challenge for us now – because we are both bombarded by tens of thousands of competing metaphors and advertising images every day (well, on the days you walk the aisles of a supermarket), and we are getting better and better at filtering out messages that we aren’t interested in.

“If you cannot change the public’s worldview, microcosm, paradigm, extended metaphor, or frame, then you cannot change how they perceive the facts. This is especially problematic in our time, a time when people can easily choose to watch only those media outlets that share their political views and thus pre-filter facts for them.”

One of the really nice things about Romm’s book, and one of the reasons it’s so readily applicable in a Christian context is that he values, rather than dismissing, the Christian tradition and its contribution to rhetoric. This isn’t a Christian book, but Romm uses Jesus as an example to back up many of these points, and acknowledges that Christianity brings its own inherent extended metaphor in the pages of Scripture.

“The systematic application of rhetoric is one of the few ways to create a worldview—what more profound paradigm is there in America than the Judeo-Christian ethic as created and sustained in the supreme rhetoric text, the Bible? In the beginning was the Word.”

A modern take on the persuasive triangle (ethos, pathos, logos)

I’m doing some bits and pieces of assessment for a subject I’m taking this semester on Christian Leadership. I can’t help myself when it comes to seeing leadership as getting the mix of ethos, logos, and pathos right. Because, well, I’m obsessed. And because I think leadership and persuasive communication are incredibly linked. And that leadership involves persuading people to live a particular way.

Anyway. Here’s what I’m thinking might be a nice way to sum up what these are and how they relate to being a leader. They even play nice with the Greek roots of the words…

Live the ethic. Explain the logic. Show the path.

I think there’s a fourth part to it – that’s also part of sublime communication. Making the links between the three clear by integrating the three, so that they’re almost interchangeable.

Live the ethic. Live the logic. Live the path.

Explain the ethic. Explain the logic. Explain the path.

Show the ethic. Show the logic. Show the path.

I am trying to find a more evocative word than “show”…

But I reckon you can apply this model of leadership to Jesus, and to Paul, and that’s part of what sets them apart as world changing leaders.

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Cicero (and Paul) on the cross

I’ve been trying not to go nuts posting stuff from my project. But here’s a cool contrast between Paul and Cicero that I think explains their differences when it comes to oratory.

Cicero on execution using a cross, Pro C. Rabirio Perduellionis Reo:

“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 on the message of the cross, First Letter to the Corinthians:

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.

One of Cicero’s modern biographers, James May, said Cicero – who was martyred for his love for Republican, rather than Imperial, Rome – presented himself as.

“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.”

Here’s an example from on of his famous final speeches, the Orationes Philippicae:

“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. For if twenty years ago in this very temple I said that death could not be too early for a consular, how much more truly will I now say, for an old man!”

I reckon 2 Corinthians 4 is Paul’s handbook to Christian persuasion…

Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. 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. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sakeFor 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. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

13 It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.” Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. 15 All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.

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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.

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.

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Why don’t we think about non-verbal communication when we’re singing in church?

In October last year, I stirred up a bit of a hornets nest when I wrote something that was admittedly deliberately provocative about “worship” and “music in church gatherings.”

I’ve probably nuanced what I would say about “worship” since then – I think, and this is a working definition, that “worship is the sacrificial use of the gifts God has given you to glorify him by loving and serving him, and one another, and pointing people to Jesus.” I think that best accounts for Romans 12, and Paul’s approach to ministry and spiritual gifts, particularly in Corinthians.

I’m pretty convinced by the argument that singing in our gatherings is part of “word ministry” – it is designed to both express something about our faith in Jesus, express something vertically in terms of vocalising our praise to God, and express something horizontally in terms of encouraging our brothers and sisters as we sing together, and highlighting something for the non-Christian in the midst of our gathering (ala 1 Cor 14:22-25).

Singing is communication. Singing is word ministry. And laying aside all debates about the charismatic movement and whether flaying your arms around, or at least moving, is biblically mandated (or rather, warranted, ala what Bob Kauflin dealt with when he spoke in Brisbane last year), I think we I’d at least argue we’re doing this communication part badly… or at least not communicating as fully as we could be… if we adopt the dour posture common in the reformed evangelical (Presbyterian) circles that I move in.

Here’s why.


Image Credit: The Speaker’s Practice

Most communications experts and consultants I’ve dealt with over the years – from uni lecturers during my undergrad degree, to consultants we hired in the workplace, to preaching lecturers at college – stress the importance of things other than words when we are speaking. Things we call “non verbal communication.”

The number in the pie chart above seems pretty arbitrary – I’ve heard it said that non-verbal communication can account for up to 85% of what we communicate, or how effectively we communicate it, when we speak. That’s what these guys claim.

They also claim that 90% of the emotional work is carried by non-verbals.

If this stat is true then it plays into another aspect of communication – particularly when it comes to the fine art of persuasion. And if communication is not “persuasive” in some sense, if you’re just preaching to the choir – literally – when you sing, and you’re not trying to reinforce or hammer home something using music as a teaching tool, then I’d argue that it’s not really a particularly useful form of Christian encouragement, and you’re not really treating music as word ministry.

Persuasion, since Aristotle (and later, my favourite, Cicero), has been divied up into categories of pathos (emotion), ethos (character), and logos (content) – here’s a run down from another public speaking site I found via google. And a little diagram – I’d argue from the stat above, even if its inaccurate, that pathos includes convincing non-verbals…


Image Credit: Visual Books Project

In my experience of my circles our approach to music heavily invests in the logos element of our music, treats music as a ministry that requires a certain character test for members of the band (ethos), and maintains a deep suspicion of pathos because it’s largely, especially in the absence of the other two elements, where manipulation goes down.

I’ve written something about manipulation and persuasion before. And personally I am deeply, and culturally, suspicious of any attempts to manipulate the way I think with bells and smells, ritual, minor falls and major lifts, or any little tools that bands might use – like clapping.

I’m not suggesting working our way through this chart until you find something that resonates with you.

Image Credit: TimHawkins.net (get the T-Shirt)

But I don’t think this suspicion is the answer – and I think its stymying our ability to communicate the gospel clearly in everything we do when we gather. I’m trying to figure out what being mindful of what I’m communicating non-verbally when I sing looks like.

Good persuasion, following Cicero, means starting with character, and then tying logos and pathos together under that rubric. I think Paul takes Cicero’s ball and runs with it in his letters to the Corinthians (my Corinthians essay) – arguing that the character test for Christian ministry is being sacrificially cross shaped in how they do life, and especially how they gather… and I think, if emotion is carried by non verbal communication, and assuming we’ve got issues of ethos and logos right in our singing, then we need to be thinking about how we do pathos well with our non-verbals when we use singing to communicate the gospel. In a way that is sacrificial and meets the definition of worship I floated above.

The call then, is for us to be genuinely authentic when we’re singing together, rather than faking authenticity, pretending to be bought in to the emotional stuff, because we want to communicate something. There are heaps of people, particularly in our culture, who are just like me – suspicious of overtly emotional stuff, wary of manipulation through an increasing sensitivity to the tricks of advertisers, spin doctors, and other charlatans – so we can’t do the pathos, or even the logos, right, without getting the ethos right first. But nor can we be so scared of this stuff that we avoid pathos all together – because a lack of emotional buy in amounts to an insincere and inauthentic approach to persuasion, and also fails at communicating as effectively as possible.

It’s traditional for posts about doing non-verbal stuff while you’re singing to say the Christian thing to do is to be sensitive to the people around you and not do stuff that will distract or offend them – which if worship is sacrificial service of others as well as of God – goes without saying.

The questions then are – if singing forms part of our word ministry – if it’s communication – how do we communicate our thankfulness to God using the means of communication that he has given us,* how do we best use these means to encourage each other about the power of the gospel in our lives as we sing, and how do we use them to communicate the gospel to outsiders?

Interestingly, as a bit of a throwaway, this book chapter on gestures in communication, suggests that gestures are particularly helpful for overcoming a communication divide (from p 21) – I’m not going to hang the whole thesis of this post off this, but I wonder if seeing some familiar gestures in response to music (like the stuff you might see at a concert), rather than a room of dour people, may overcome some of the gaps between the inevitable Christian jingo and vocabulary some of our songs contain, and make the experience of corporate singing a little less weird – rather than more weird, though you could equally run with this point to justify interpretive dance… this book chapter also suggests we’re generally reliably able to spot people who are performing “rehearsed” gestures, rather than spontaneous.

I don’t think the answer is looking something like this…

* I’m trying to be careful here not to suggest a non-Biblical requirement where we must make gestures as we sing – I think the expression of the vertical aspect of our singing has significance for its effectiveness horizontally as a means of encouragement and communicating the gospel.

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Manipulation and the fine art of persuasion…

Right. I’ve been meaning to put some thoughts into writing for a few weeks. Doing so now was prompted by a possibly throw away line in the Q&A at the Moore College School of Theology as collated by my friend Kutz. I wasn’t there. But this line resonates with a position I’ve been trying to articulate lately (the line is from Peter Bolt):

“Manipulation can be positive. If you’re doing it to align people to the word of God then it’s a good thing.”

Manipulation and persuasion are essentially seeking to do the same thing – move a person from point a to point b. So what’s the difference? I’ve settled on this distinction…

Persuasion is the transparent act where two parties enter a dialogue with one hoping to move the other from point a to point b.

Manipulation is less transparent and involves one party trying to shift another party from point a to point b, probably without their knowledge.

I’ve settled on this because in my experience if you catch somebody trying to shift your position when they haven’t told you that’s what they’re doing you feel annoyed and accuse them of “manipulating” you, where manipulating is a pejorative. There are heaps of ways to manipulate, and most of them fall outside the classical tools of persuasion – pathos (emotions), logos (facts and words), and ethos (how you act/live). Tools of manipulation tend to involve tugging really hard on one of those threads, where persuasion is a more subtle movement, kind of like a puppeteer with a marionette.

I reckon manipulation is fine. I know we hate it. But it’s a great art, until you get caught. Like pickpocketing, not Oliver Twist style, but like the TV guy who takes your watch while you’re talking to you and then gives it to you later. Manipulation, honest manipulation, probably involves pointing out what you’ve achieved to the person after the fact, so they recognise they’ve moved from point a to point b, but during the process your mark should be a bit like the proverbial frog in a gradually heating pot of water…

This all came up, for me, when I was told I needed to engage a little more with the emotions when I preach (because I’m a pretty rational/stoic type of thinker). So the summaries of the Moore College Lectures on Kutz’s blog have been interesting. I react against this suggestion, not because I think tugging on the emotions is “manipulation” as though that’s a bad thing, but because I think I’m more likely to get caught out if I’m doing something that isn’t within my normal character. I’m all for subtle chord changes, a little bit of emotive muzak in a movie, and all the other little “manipulative” tools – I’m also for putting a bit of emotion into a sermon, like a tear jerking illustration, I’m just against doing it in a way that means I’m likely to get caught.

Persuasion is pretty safe ground, but doing both is potentially more effective, I’m just not sure what that looks like. Most people in the pews are there hoping to be persuaded (or taught), so there’s implied consent there for being “manipulated,” providing your end point is something you’ve implicitly agreed to (essentially the ends identified by Peter Bolt in his quote). It’s a little murkier when it comes to PR and marketing, but manipulation is where the fun is. It’s making ads that are more than just a boring presentation of a product, it’s also harder to do thanks to the Gruen Transfer and market awareness about the tools advertisers employ. Anyway. Those are my thoughts. What are yours?

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The Bible and Press Releases: What do they have in common?

I just wrote a massive post on Venn Theology about literary theory and the Bible. You should read it, and comment (it is 2,500 words). Because this is something I’ve spent most of the semester so far thinking about, and wanting to argue about, with people who are big on single purposes for books of the Bible, and single “implied readers”…

But here’s a little bit I thought was more generally interesting. I reckon a lot of the Bible is written to persuade, and I think there’s a natural comparison between the Bible and press releases – which shapes the way I approach questions of rhetorical purpose. From that post (which I’d love you to read and comment on):

I want to suggest that much of the Bible, particularly the historic and prophetic books of the Old Testament, and the gospels, are just like Press releases. The case is harder to make for the New Testament pastoral epistles, where specific intended readers are mentioned. But letters to church groups, because they naturally contain people of different status (both spiritually and socially) are, again, just like Press Releases.

Press releases are, by their nature:

  • Intended for multiple audiences – the media, and the masses (through the conduit of the media). What you write in a press release needs to tick the right boxes for the journalist who’ll read it (because you send it to them), but it also has to have some sort of appeal to the final audience. In the case of my organisation press releases were put online for our members (financial supporters) and the public to read, sent to journalists, staff, politicians and board members.
  • Factual, but subjective – press releases are a particular interpretation of the facts. It’s not the job of the press release writer to be objective. That’s the journalist’s job. Press releases come with bias.
  • Persuasive for each intended reader – there’s not a whole lot of point writing a press release if you’re not trying to persuade somebody to respond in a certain way on the basis of the facts of the story. Press Releases aim to persuade each intended recipient – and often to persuade them to do different things. The journalist has to be persuaded to write a story, the end user (the reader) has to be persuaded to see things from your point of view and to act accordingly, the staff member of your organisation has to be persuaded to think (and speak) of the subject matter a particular way, the financial supporter has to be persuaded that your work is of value and that they should keep supporting it.

Those three elements become important when you set out to write a press release. Every line counts. But every line counts differently for different people. Joe Average may not care where the money for a project is coming from, but the small business who has given you $1,000 of their hard-earned wants to know that that cash is being put to good use. The Board of Directors don’t really care about how a project is going to effect an individual resident, but papers love that stuff. Because they like pictures and stories about people. But the one document is used to inform and persuade many readers, from many backgrounds. And that is wrapped up in the author’s intent. If the author writes with purpose. And I’d like to assume that the writers of the Bible fall into the category of writing with purpose. But I think our job is to assess each book of the Bible for a variety of purposes for a varied audience – not one purpose for one audience. Unless that purpose is specifically stated. But even then, it’s place in the canon suggests that God has different purposes for different people in different circumstances to the intended recipient. Right?

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Black comedy

Honestly, I thought long and hard about that title… because it’s semi racist – but it actually really epitomises the nature of the post in question.

The feedback to my decision to make references to making light about the death of Michael Jackson was not mixed. Most people don’t like the idea at laughing at death. I’m of the opinion that “where oh death is your victory, where oh death is your sting” (Corinthians 15:55) is essentially a mockery of death – and once death and sin (which crops up in verse 57) have been dealt with you are free to laugh at it.

Perhaps laughing at people who presumably haven’t dealt with sin isn’t the most sensitive thing to do.

But I digress – the reason for this post – is that I’m wondering about satire and death, and satire and death as “incisive social commentary” – particularly after viewing this Twitter account purportedly from a “Starving African Child” (obviously it’s not really from a starving African child).

It seems to tread close to where the Chaser’s infamous sketch dared to tread – though perhaps not quite so confrontationally, and yet it is as confronting as a World Vision ad – which uses pathos for persuasion rather than humour. Both are tools of persuasion – and yet we frown on one and not the other.

The sense of outrage surrounding the Chaser sketch seemed to be that it preyed on the vulnerable for laughs (while making some sort of point – perhaps their problem was with clarity in terms of the target – presumably cathartic middle class philanthropy… I’m really not sure what their point was), while World Vision et al are drawing attention to the plight of children. Is it wrong to use satire to do this? Is it only wrong when the target isn’t clear? Is it inherently wrong to satirise the vulnerable in order to draw the intended response from those in power?

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The fine art of persuasion

Lets face it – for all intents and purposes any piece of communication is an exercise in persuasion. If it’s not you shouldn’t bother. So no doubt there’ll be something useful in these “50 Scientifically proven ways to be persuasive“…

Here are some samples:

Rhyming makes the phrases more convincing. People were asked to evaluate the practical value of parables “Caution and measure will win you treasure” and “Caution and measure will win you riches”. In general proverb A was considered to be more practical and insightful than proverb B.

Caffeine increases the argumentativeness of a strong argument. Group A drank regular orange juice, group B drank orange juice infused with caffeine. Both groups were then presented with a statement on controversial issue. Except one statement then made weak and hasty arguments, while the second statement made a strong case. Both groups equally dismissed the weak argument case. As far as strongly argumentative case, group B was 30% more receptive. A faster-working brain under the influence of caffeine seems to appreciate good arguments.

Question Mark: persuasion, influence and manipulation

In the comments of a previous post Mark asked: “when it comes to presenting a message, how clear are the boundaries between persuasion, influence and manipulation?” As I’m a renowned “PR Spin Twit” (according to the local paper’s nasty “Magpie” column) I feel I’m qualified to tackle that question.

The organisation I work for is a “marketing” and “economic development” body – by our very nature we engage in all three of the above. We promote North Queensland as a tourism, relocation and investment destination – that involves an element of persuasion. All marketing should – otherwise what’s the point. Obviously you have to have faith in your product or you’re getting into a pretty murky area.

Public Relations as an industry has often been dismissed with the pejorative “spin” label. Which is largely unfair. Public Relations should be about taking a product you believe in and presenting it to the public in a way that can be digested. In other words – relating it to the public.

The Queensland Government has been mocked relentlessly for employing more journalism graduates than anybody else in the state – and for having such a massive public relations machine at its disposal. I would argue that the Government has been elected to govern, and make decisions, and we’ve elected them because we believe they’re the best available people for the job – so we should want their point of view on things. Then it’s the media’s job to keep them accountable.

Election ads featuring Lawrence Springborg bumbling through a press conference show the importance of managing your media well – badly handled questions by journalists come back to bite.

If the government of the day can’t persuade us of the benefit of their new policy (eg workchoices) then we can vote them out. I’m down with the importance of persuasion when presenting a message.

Objectivity is important (for the media) – but objectivity doesn’t necessarily mean not subjective to persuasive – it means coming to the facts without prior bias.

From a “spin” perspective you hope that the media accept your angle on things as the best, most objective understanding of them. That usually comes because you or your organisation has a reputation of credibility.

When I studied a subject on persuasive writing at uni I wrote about why pineapple shouldn’t be put on pizza, and why intelligent design shouldn’t be taught in science classes (but in philosophy or religion classes). I remember the basic elements of persuasion we were taught were pathos (use of emotion), stats, and I think having a clearly defined idea of your arguments and the benefits of subscribing to your view. There were probably more. I’ll check at home. But that says more about the mechanics of persuasion than the nature of persuasion – which is simply to move people to your point of view.

If you’re not a decision maker – but you want a decision to be made – you become a lobbyist (or using our politically correct terminology “an advocate”). Here’s where influence comes into play. Again, influence comes (or should come from) from a position of believing what you do is the right thing. As we saw in our recent climate change debate there are many views on one issue, and at the risk of sounding like a relativist, all of them have elements of rightness to them. It is right to care for the environment. It’s also right to care for people. I just tend to think one is more right than the other (and that one does not equal the other) – so I’ll try to influence people that way. By what I say, what I select to use to back up my arguments and how I respond to people with contrary views.

I don’t see a lot of difference between influence and persuasion – except perhaps in the dynamic of power. I’d say that persuasion comes from those in power, and is an exercise of power in order to bring people round to a view. By contrast influence is what you try to do to change the mind of someone in power (or with the ability to act on your wishes). That’s a little simplistic because both words can be used in many contexts. However, in the context of “messaging” that would be the best point of difference between the two.

Manipulation would, if being used in the context of presenting a message, seem to be an abuse of power.

I think though there’s an element of manipulation in any spin. There are plenty of things that our organisation pursues that people disagree with (new refineries anyone?). Some of the “persuasion” we undertake through the local media probably borders on manipulation – we try to make it seem wrongheaded to protest about these things that are putting food on the table for local families. Manipulation tends to misuse pathos, employing overly emotive language, rather than the facts generally employed by “persuasion”. But facts are pretty easily manipulated too.

Anyway, that’s a long answer to a short question. If there’s anything you thought I’ve missed, or you’d like to add, go for it in the comments.