The Reality of Rhetoric: Reflections on a LGBT Milestone
Although originally written in response to a prior event in the national spotlight and debate on homosexuality, this article seems apropos to share in light of the US Supreme Courts decision on the Defense of Marriage Act on Wednesday.
In light of the On May 19, a member of the Biola Underground (an online forum for self-professed individuals of LGBT orientation who campaign against Biola University’s position on Scripture and homosexuality) submitted an “open letter” to Biola’s faculty and leadership. This letter reflects back on a video recording of a panel interview seminar where Biblical Studies Professor Erik Thoennes describes the protection and privilege that homosexuality nurtures in the currents of our culture. The letter seeks to carefully craft a portrayal of Dr. Thoennes as an oppressive and violent abuser of the LGBT community. Since then, several responses have appeared, both from those with ties to Biola University and from the organizations that have marshaled the campaign against the university.
At this point, I’m about a month late in coming to the table (and in the blogosphere, that’s pretty much missing the entire event). But there are times when holding one’s tongue for a time might not only give oneself the appearance of wisdom, but also give him a thought worth sharing.
What I, and I’m sure many a reader, couldn’t help but observe is the difference in rhetoric employed by each party. If remember back to your old English classes, you probably remember the three modes of persuasion: logic (use of a logical appeal, or a simulation of it), ethos (an appeal to character or authority on the matter), and pathos (an appeal to the audience’s emotions). From the days of Aristotle until today, these three modes still describe the primary means by which one can persuade another to a particular belief or action.
For the last year, much of my studies have dabbled in the field of socio-rhetorical criticism, a popular (although quickly saturating) discussion in the biblical studies arena. This study seeks to understand how the cultural contexts, and the widely recognized rhetorical conventions that operate within it, should affect a reader’s understanding of the New Testament documents, if we are trying to read them as a first-century reader would understand them. What I find interesting is that these modes still encompass all forms of persuasion today. With each passing day, I am more and more convinced that for every believer who feels the conviction to evangelize to the LGBT community and lovingly pastor those with same-sex attraction, a study of the rhetoric is essential for being effectively conversant with the LGBT community.
In most blogs, debates, books and other discussions, many who defend a biblical perspective on homosexuality communicate almost exclusively by means of logic. Bible verses are listed, cultural background, grammatical exegesis, and other proofs are presented, and syllogisms are stated, all with the aim of persuading the audience to accept this message.
What seems to be missed is that most of the LGBT movement is driven on arguments of pathos, rather than logos. The arguments are not exegetical, nor primarily rational. Instead, stories, narrative and testimonies are used to elicit emotional responses, to finger across heartstrings, and to drive people toward a position of LGBT sympathy—circumventing the engagement of the mind.
What I fear is, as long as the church at large doesn’t realize this, the steeper the uphill battle will be in articulating and defending the position of the Scriptures. Because what the homosexual community realizes is that today’s (and increasingly tomorrow’s) generations are far less persuaded by reason than they are by emotions. “Because I feel like it” and “because it feels right” are arguments that carry cultural validity not only in school sandboxes and playgrounds, but also in universities, workplaces and national media. A story of oppression, pain and suffering has far more persuasive power than a statistic or a syllogism in today’s younger generation. Poets through the centuries have praised and warned of the power that emotions play over the person. And today, perhaps more than ever, emotions seem to play a lopsided role in influencing the decisions of many.
Does this mean that in the 21st century the Christian apologist and the use of logic is dead? Not at all. Is this a plea to make truth ambiguous, or to cheapen or “soften the blow” that truth brings against falsehood? No, not this either. A rebalancing of one’s rhetoric does not really speak at all to changing the veracity of the church’s position, or to compromise the need for boldness in speaking the truth in love. The call for such a recalibration seeks simply to illustrate this: that if trust and persuasion is to take root and ultimately transform those being shaped by the trends of popular society, the church must learn to speak and explain biblical truth through emotional methods. If the church is to be “in it to win it” with regards to the homosexuality debate, and winning is defined as making new disciples versus winning arguments, the church must learn to become more fluent in the rhetorical language that the people of our age respond to the most.
Of course, logic and ethos must always be employed. But, the church should not feel that use of pathos is dishonest or deceptive. Deception is at play only when the position pathos argue for doesn’t happen to be the truth.
Thus, whenever a conversation seems to make little progress, or seems to “talk past” the other party, perhaps a shift in rhetoric will open the gate for conviction and truth shine in, and in a way that this light could never before permeate the shutters of the 21st century heart.