Social Media & Rhetoric

In the next couple days, I’ll be posting a 6-part series about social media and rhetoric that I’ve been tweaking with recently. Here is the intro:

I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul.

-Walt Whitman

1.1  Introduction

Words and sentences are powerful. This claim is not surprising. Each of us can recall countless moments in our life in which a conversation or speech impacted us in an influential way. Words enable us to express the depths of our soul with supreme clarity and meticulous detail. Yet, words are also brandished as immaterial weapons of mass destruction that extinguish relationships and obscure truth.

In these next couple posts, I will present a a model of rhetorical practice using Abraham Kuyper as a case study. First, I’ll consider the source and definition of rhetoric as it relates to God’s creative speech and the telos or goals rhetoric is aimed at. Second, I’ll examine the fall of rhetoric and the rise of sophistry in its ancient and contemporary forms. Third, I’ll express how Kuyper and those who come after provide for us wisdom regarding the proper use of rhetoric for the Christian. Specifically, practicing rhetoric as a habit that aims toward properly ordering one’s desires so that they align with the Kingdom of God.[1] Fourth, I’ll connect the previous sections to social media and its role in forming the public’s use of rhetoric and then provide some concepts and methods for using rhetorical language in the digital landscape.[2]


[1] I see one of the most fitting and needed use of this rhetorical theory in public dialogue and the political sphere due to the lack of charity and overwhelming amount of sophistry rampant in that sphere. With that in mind, it is certainly useful in many other spheres as well.
[2] I’m indebted to Derek Schuurman’s Shaping a Digital World for the structure and questions asked in this essay. His work helped guide my process as I explored what might be gained from this discussion. (Schuurman 2013)

A Rhetorical Reflection on Warcraft (Film)

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Recently, I saw the film Warcraft. It is a game-based film directed by Duncan Jones. The film stars a long list of people, Travis Fimmel, Paula Batton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebbel, Ben Schnetzer, Robert Kazinsky and Daniel Wu. It depicts the events of the first Warcraft game, which was released by Blizzard Entertainment in 1994. The plot focuses on the exodus of the Orcs who are fleeing their dying world, Draenor. They open a portal to the peaceful realm of Azeroth, and clash with the humans and other races that live there. Throughout this clash, members of both groups realize that there is evil magic infecting key characters on both sides of the conflict.

My initial response to the film was that of a typical video game nerd. It was fun to see the characters, settings, and magic of Blizzard’s world on grandiose display on the movie screen. It is clear that Jones and his crew put a lot of work into the ensuring that the actors playing the CGI Orcs were able to express the emotions clearly. This gave both sides of the conflict emotional depth that resulted in a fun Fantasy romp. Even so, as one can see from the list of stars, there was a lot happening in the film. Despite my knowledge of the lore, I was shocked at how many narrative perspectives the movie was trying to maintain. There were so many things going on at once that no character really had time to fully develop. I can only imagine that this breakneck pacing and constant switching would be even more difficult for someone unfamiliar with the characters and the story.

What fascinated me most though, was the resemblance of the film’s portrayal of “tribal” conflict. There is a powerful sense of “Us v. Them” in the film that provides the primary enemy that must be defeated. Though there are clear “bad guys” who are infected by the demonic fel magic, the true enemy is the mistrust, fear, and lack of communication and listening between the Orcs and the Humans that exacerbates the problem. This struggle is made more difficult by the members of each “tribe” who make it their business to ensure that neither group has the time or space to try to understand one another.

There are many examples of this oppositional moral framing comes in to play. Specifically, how the Orc shaman Gul’dan appeals to the ferocity of his fellow Orcs by empowering them with magic and making the case of Orcs who threaten the strong Us v. Them mentality look weak by comparison. This is expressed most clearly in the expository dialogue during Gul’dan’s unfair fight with the “human-loving” Durotan.

One could write many pages exploring these momentary examples that continue throughout the film. The viewer sees endless examples of the stark differences between the peaceful and diplomatic cultures of Azeroth and the proud fierceness of the Orcs of Draenor. Yet, both groups are concerned for their survival, for the families, for their land, and for the future of their race and culture. The viewer’s all seeing eye enables them to see these deeply human concerns as they are  expressed by stereotypically “good” and “bad” characters on both sides of the battlefields and courtrooms.

We would all do well to remember this all-seeing vision the next time we argue with someone on social media or in person. Regardless of our differences, we may be surprised how often we have the same goals as those we rally against.

Catechism: An Exercise in Reflective Practice

Recently, I’ve been rereading Kevin Vanhoozer’s 2005 tome, Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology. Throughout the book, Vanhoozer makes a habit of emphasizing the value of propositions and passions in the Christian life. By doing this he pushes back against problematic tendencies in the Christian tradition that tend toward either over-valuing or undervaluing one category or the other. As he reflects on the necessity of this integrative enterprise, he ponders what tools the church has at her disposal that allows her to properly carry out both the cognitive and expressive practices that the church is called to. One of his most practical examples is Catechesis. The following are a couple of thoughts that I have as I’ve begun to adopt the reading of the Westminster Catechism into my weekly studies.

To learn one’s catechism is to be instructed in the subrange of faith (viz., reflection) and in how the catechumen himself or herself is to participate in and engage this substance (viz., practice).

—Vanhoozer, Kevin J. 2005. The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. 103.

Catechism become the catalyst through which the believer both cognizes the faith, that is the form and systematize the extent of their beliefs in such a way that they can be believed and understood. Yet, this process of understanding is not merely intellectual, nor is it a spectator sport. Rather, catechesis is framed as a lifetime project that is, Vanhoozer says, “to be believed by me, done by me, hoped by me,  sung by me.” This idea is not new. Duns Scotus describes this reflective and practiced project “doable knowledge.”

This idea of “doable knowledge” is immensely valuable in a world in which thought and action can be so easily untethered from one another in the endless internet debates and conversations that we can become involved in. Daily practice has an incredibly affect on both piety and ethical decision-making. I propose that catechesis could be used partly to center the mind of a believer for proper living in pluralistic society. Alongside a consistent interaction in the scriptures,  interaction with systematic question/answer systems engage the believer in both the propositional content of the faith, and invariably in what that faith looks like as it is worked out in daily life.Lastly, the value of catechism as a historical pattern cannot be overlooked.

Follow the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me.

—2nd Timothy 1:13. RSV.

Beginning with scripture, various Christian have wrestled with how to practice the faith in the context in which they live. To borrow from those who have come before is a valuable tool as we reflect on the best practice for our current situation. To do so enables us to both preserve the faith as it has been handed down to us while simultaneously giving us authority to reflect and adapt to the world as we live in it.

If you would like to join me, I’ve been reading from here.
https://www.pcusa.org/resource/daily-westminster-shorter-catechism-samuel-robinso/

 

Dealing with Criticism: An Insight

This quarter at Fuller, I’m taking a class with Rich Mouw called ‘Theories of Human Nature.” During this class we will interact with a variety of literature as we discuss what it means to be human. As we discussed the methodology that we would be using to discuss the topics of the class, Mouw recalled an interesting anecdote that I’ve been chewing on ever since. During his ministry years, John Stott invited liberation theologian, Jose Miguez Bonino, to discuss Marxism and Christianity with his students. During this lecture, Bonino said that as we interact with Marxism we must remember that “Karl Marx is not our judge, Christ is, but we must allow Marx to take the witness stand against us.”

Bonino’s insight is one that I have attempted to make real in my own life. I read widely, from blogs, books, conservatives, liberals, moderates, etc. This forces me out of the echo chamber of people who agree with me, and demands my mind to consider the challenge of the critiques that other present. There is wisdom in listening to differing opinions. It cleanses the palate of the mind so that you can don’t forget that every idea doesn’t taste the same. If we limit ourselves to only the flavors we like, we limit our ability discern different tastes. To take the analogy further, without trying new dishes and drinks from different cultures and families we may miss out on a new favorite meal because we never would have a chance to try it.

Some might read my food analogy and think of the classic colloquialism about money, “Banks train tellers to spot fake bills by familiarizing themselves with real bills.” If we use this as our analogy for entering into discourse with other perspectives we’ll quickly find that no other view has anything helpful to teach us. We will treat our view as the real $100 dollar bill and by process of elimination reject the views of others as fake and unhelpful. While there is certainly something to be said about which perspective has the true view of things, the above method of interacting with others is still debilitating! Even those who stand for the truth can learn a lesson from those who are wrong. Think of Jesus’s interaction with different groups of Jews in the Gospels. These Jews were attempting to protect the people that God had entrusted to their care. From their perspective, Jesus was trying to bring the Roman Empire down on their heads to destroy them by claiming that he was a rival to Cesar. Yet, the Jews who listened to Jesus’s words were able to see the truths of the Old Testament in new light.

Allowing others to “take the witness stand against us” is a powerful tool in sharpening our own understanding of our relation to God and others. Though the sting of criticism is painful, like pain signals from the brain to the rest of the body it tells us that something is wrong.

Reflecting on this today:
“Whoever instructs the cynic gets insulted;
whoever corrects the wicked gets hurt.
Don’t correct the impudent, or they will hate you;
correct the wise, and they will love you.”
Proverbs 9:7-8