Simply put, this book is outstanding. Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church by James E. Beitler III is published by IVP Academic.
My first serious encounter with the subject of rhetoric was around 1995 when I attended a classical Christian school conference. In reality, I first encountered rhetoric when I was an infant, but I am speaking of it as a subject we consciously study. In college, the first two English courses were titled Rhetoric and Composition, but the term “rhetoric” was never really explained. That name was a hold-over from the past and it made the course sound much more academic than merely calling it “Writing Class.”
Rhetoric is one of the foundational and defining courses in the classical education world. Like so much that has happened in that educational revolution and renaissance, it has focused quite a bit on the older, even oldest, treatments of the subject. Hence, Aristotle’s Rhetoric, (Pseudo-) Cicero’s Rhetorica ad Herrinium, and Quintillian’s multiple volumes of rhetoric are the textbooks of many courses being taught to high schoolers. As much as anything, the use of these books have been educating teachers in the field of rhetoric. Due to the increased interest in the subject, many books have been discovered or written on the topic in more recent times. Corbett and Connor’s Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, Richard Weaver’s Rhetoric, Scott Crider’s excellent Office of Assertion, Sister Miriam Joseph’s The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric, Douglas and N. D. Wilson’s The Rhetoric Companion, and Fitting Words by James Nance are all among the “must have’s” for the rhetoric teacher of today.
But, let’s be clear about this: However full your shelf of rhetorical studies may be, it is near empty if you do not have Seasoned Speech. This book is top notch, fun, challenging, mind-expanding, and inspirational. Can you read between the lines enough to discern that I love this book?
Yet, one may think that we have narrowed the field of interest to those individuals who teach rhetoric in school. For Christians, the primary rhetoriticians that we are exposed to are our pastors and teachers in the church. This book, as asserted by the subtitle, is for the life of the church. Yes, to the improvement of rhetoric in the academies, in politics, and in the world of secular discourse, but persuasive and powerful speech must be the focus of those who preach, teach, write, and counsel in the broader Christian world. It is one of the joyful facts that among Reformed people, we believe that no one is convinced apart from a work of the Spirit of God and that it is incumbent upon the speaker to make his or her words winsome, clear, and convincing.
This book approaches the subject by examining the lives and writings of five people who were and are influential Christian thinkers. One might well question some of the particular doctrinal beliefs of each of the five, but this book is not an ordination exam. It uses the writers as models for what they did effectively.
The first up on the list is C. S. Lewis. Lewis is far from a one-dimensional writer. He is known for his novels, both those directed at younger audiences and those that are more adult-centered. Many people love his theological writings, especially Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters. Quite a few volumes of his essays have been published, including God in the Dock. He was also a first-rate literary scholar as seen in such books as Preface to Paradise Lost.
I have quite a few books by Lewis and an equally large number of books about him. And I don’t consider myself to be a Lewis scholar.
This book, Seasoned Speech, focuses on Lewis as a rhetor. The aim is to show how Lewis makes the faith winsome in his writings. The application of this and all the chapters is for others, such as preachers, teachers, and writers, to absorb the same skill.
The second figure in the book is Dorothy Sayers. She may very well be one of the most neglected Christian thinkers of our time, which neglects many fine Christian thinkers. A few months back, I read and reviewed The Gospel in Dorothy Sayers. That review can be found here.
While she paid her electric bill by writing mystery novels, she also wrote some fine theological tracts. She, too, was a master of communication.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is the third subject of the book. His biography is well known because of his involvement (indirectly) in a plot to kill Adof Hitler. His books The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together are two of the best Christian books I have ever read. Yes, I know that Bonhoeffer had some theological oddities, quirks, and false ideas in his overall theology, but he did write and say some things well worth reading–again and again. The chapter on him highlights some of the best of his ideas.
I was not as familiar with the details of Desmond Tutu’s life. I do remember the ordeals of South Africa during the years in which he was a spiritual leader there. So, this section was nearly all new information, but good reading.
Concerning Marilynne Robinson, I first learned of her just a few years ago. Two friends, who have no connection with each other, sent me emails recommending her book Gilead. I read it and liked it, but it took some more reflection upon it before I began sensing how good the book actually is. Then I read the two other related novels, Home and Lila. If you are wanting some rip roaring adventure, steer clear of these books, for the action is slow and there is much meditation that takes place in the stories and in the reader’s mind. But they are a great work, and these three volumes have to be seen as being a unified work, although one could read Gilead without reading the others.
I hope to say more about Robinson after I complete Balm in Gilead: A Theological Dialog with Marilynne Robinson, which is also a recent IVP publication.
Back to Seasoned Speech: This is a not an easy beach read, but it is a very rewarding study. Whether one tackles all five of its subjects or just one, the book is worth the effort. It ranks high on my list of really fine books and on my list of books that must be read again.