Monday, August 18, 2008

On Rhetoric

One of the aims of Classical education is to teach students how to communicate with excellence. Such communication involves not only speaking correctly (through grammar and sound logic), but also in a persuasive manner. Rhetoric is the art of speaking well. As the saying goes, "it is not what you say, but how you say it."

Students in their final years of study in a Classical program will study and practice rhetoric as the capstone of their incremental education. To this end, most Classical schools require all seniors to write, present and publicly defend a thesis in order to graduate. Prior to this, students might practice rhetoric through formal debates for and against specific propositions, including some that might be very absurd. A rhetorician seeks to use the tools of language to convince you of his logic and reasoning.

There are, it seems, some dangers to teaching rhetoric without impressing upon students the gravity of the ethical dimension of the art. In the quest to convince someone, the rhetorician can sometimes employ language in place of, rather than in support of, his argument. This is most commonly seen in politics, and it can be used quite effectively. A skilled rhetorician can paint a picture of tragedy, create a sense of urgency, or weave a tapestry of hope, all through the use of words and language.

In our time, Barrack Obama is an example of a rhetorician of considerable skill who has used it to acquire a following. His speeches are largely full of rhetorical fluff that only seem to convey emotion rather than substance and so I find his use of language questionable. Good rhetoric ought to appeal to good reason. Bad rhetoric rests on emotional manipulation.

While I am still thinking through much of this, I would like to start a dialogue on the ethical responsibility of rhetoricians. Ought we to call rhetoricians out when they descend into manipulation, or is it even a problem worth worrying over?

Monday, August 04, 2008

Jesus is Not a Feeling

A big cliche from a few years ago (which I think is finally starting to fade out) in Christian circles was to say that "Jesus is not a religion, he's a relationship." While I understand, and even agree on many levels, with the statement, I find it terribly lacking. Truly there is something other than ritual and repetition in being a Christian. Truly, Christ's death on the cross does reconcile us in a very personal way to the Almighty, to whom we, prior to Christ's death, stood as rebels and enemies. I agree with these sentiments. However, I think a rebellion against one extreme has lead into another. Just as Jesus is not a series of formalities and traditions (liturgical and theological), neither is he an "experience."

Many of those who eschew formalism and liturgy do so on the grounds that they are pursuing an "authentic" spirituality, and seem to advocate a pseudo-mystic experience as their end. Laudably, their goal is to "know God," but somehow they have come to accept that the only real "knowing" available is of a purely subjective nature. Taken to an extreme, we find the "God is Love" people who see Christianity as one great big warm fuzzy. To such people, Jesus is certainly not a religion. Indeed, Jesus has become an experience.

To "Jesus is an Experience" Christians, "worship" means the band gives you an emotional high during the concert on Sunday morning right before the self-help motivational talk designed to make you feel better about yourself. To the "Jesus is an Experience" Christian, "divine revelation" means God talked to you when you watched Braveheart. Or was that the left-over pizza from Friday night?

Such a spirituality resembles little the Faith professed by the Apostles, the Early Church and the Martyrs. Apparently before the advent of rock bands and music with a back-beat, there was no such thing as "authentic" worship. Apparently the Martyrs who suffered and died did not do so under the provision of their God, who is too "nice" to let people suffer.

I do not contend that there is no subjective aspect of Christianity. However, I think we have over-emphasized this "experientialism" and have slipped into a much more narcissistic spirituality. Is it little wonder that a people caught up in the pursuit of a religious experience struggle to see the point of local church membership and accountability? When the mark of spiritual maturity is thinking that God is there to tell you to order vanilla instead of chocolate, are we to be surprised when they push aside pursuits of the mind as being "unimportant, inauthentic, and constricting?" It is not the formalists and traditionalists alone who put God into a box.

Jesus is not a religion, but neither is he an experience. He is the second person of the Trinity, who, through the Incarnation, lived a perfect, sinless life, and then really, truly, and actually died in a very horrible and painful manner to atone for the sins of his own. Further, he really, truly and actually rose again from the dead, ascended into Heaven and is right now really, truly and actually at the right hand of the Father. He has sent his Spirit into the world to convict us of sin and to conform us into his own image. Finally, Christ will really, truly and actually return triumphantly and will judge each one for his sins, casting into eternal fire all those who stand guilty before his real, true and actual Holiness, but ushering into eternal life all those who stand justified because of his shed blood.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Reformed Catechisms

Challies answers a reader's email about Reformed catechisms. One of the benefits of catechizing children is that it grounds them in Biblical doctrine from an early age. Challies has an good example of how this pays off:
Before leaving Reformed circles I had never heard anyone claim to hear from God nor had I really seen people wrestle with issues of God’s guidance. These were foreign concepts to me. It took me some time to figure out why this was not a struggle for me. I did not wrestle with issues of God’s guidance because I had been taught firm principles from my years of catechetical instruction.
Read the whole thing: Catechetical Instruction

A while back, I posted the entirety of Spurgeon's Puritan Catechism. Rather than link back to that, I direct you to the Spurgeon Archive where you can find the catechsim with Scripture proofs: A Puritan Catechsim

I also wrote a post on the uses of a catechism: The Purpose of a Catechism