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Podcast | 16 Minutes

Discovering a Rhetoric of Love with Michael Eatmon

Marlin Detweiler Written by Marlin Detweiler
Discovering a Rhetoric of Love with Michael Eatmon

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Can the longstanding art of rhetoric change? And if so, how ought it look in the context of Christianity and the modern day? Can it be used to love our neighbor and care for the marginalized, or is it doomed to be used by those who wish to exercise their dominion over others?

Join as Marlin Detweiler and his wife Laurie discuss these thoughts and more with Micahel Eatmon, the director of curriculum development at Veritas Press.

*Though this was intended to be the third in a series of discussions with Michael, we have released it early as a follow-up to the debate on rhetoric that we had with Doug Wilson in Veritas Vox episodes 1 & 2.

Episode Transcription

Note: For readability purposes, this transcription will vary from the original words used in the recorded episode.

Marlin Detweiler:

Welcome to Veritas Vox, the voice of classical Christian education. In this session, Michael’s going to go back just a year or two and talk to us about a curriculum that was very dear to me, the rhetoric curriculum, which he headed up as the managing editor. I'm not sure what title we put for you on the book. Maybe that was it.

Maybe it was something else. You can clarify that for us, but tell us a little bit about that. Maybe setting the stage by talking about what it takes for Veritas to invest in creating curricula.

Michael Eatmon:

Thank you so much for that introduction. I loved the Rhetoric of Love Project. That's the first thing that I need to say. And I want to say that not only because I enjoyed working with Doug Jones, its author, but because, more deeply I enjoyed appreciated value. Its message. And you talked about what my role was on that project.

I don't know. I may show up on the book as chief cook and bottle washer. I'm not really sure. I may not show up on the book at all. I don't know. But what I do know is that Doug Jones and I and Michael Collender, who is involved in the project, we spend a great deal of time working through what we believed to be a clear, timely, but definitely different divergent approach to teaching rhetoric within a classical Christian environment.

So you said to talk just a little bit about the project. So the project did unfold over a two-book series of student texts, two teacher editions, the first authored by Douglas Jones and the second authored by Michael Collender. All three of us were involved at some level in both projects and the message that's communicated through it all.

What really excited me about the message that Doug Jones brought was, first, its posture. So the posture of A Rhetoric of Love and this is especially true of Volume I. I think it's true of both volumes, but I think it's especially true of Volume I; its posture with respect to classical rhetoric is one of, “Yes, but…” It's one of, “you've heard it said, but I say unto you…”

And what I mean by that is when one surveys the marketplace of material, text materials, and resources that are available for classical Christian education in rhetoric, I dare say, even though I didn't look this morning, I daresay that the overwhelming majority of them are still in large part tied oh so closely to what was written about in rhetoric more than 2000 years ago.

So much of it, I believe, is a kind of modernization or adaptation of Aristotle, of Quintilian, of Cicero. And what we wanted to do was to create a book whose posture was “yes, but” to all of that rich history. And here's why. And it's the why that really matters.

And that is because we as Christian classical educators are continually encouraging one another to think as Bereans, to test the scriptures. We are encouraging one another to cling to what is good and discard what is not. And I think in too much classical Christian education, we give free passes to some things that maybe we ought not to.

I think some authors, some works, some traditions just kind of sneak in with very little analysis and reflection. And I think I think rhetoric has been one of those disciplines. And so what this series does is acknowledge the great value of the concepts and skills that have been handed down from antiquity, but then also point out that not everywhere is this tradition consistent with what it means to be a Christian, what it means to practice communication, to practice rhetoric as a believer.

And that, really, for us, was the starting point. As this first volume unfolds, it points out rightly that when we look at the rich rhetorical tradition of the classical educators, we see a discipline that arose in large part to serve as a kind of verbal equipment for the elite, for those who were possessed of wealth, power, connections and early rhetoric developed to meet their needs.

But what it didn't do was equip the student in how better to love and serve one's neighbor, the foreigner, the widow, the orphan, the downcast, the one who's received injustice at the hand of a community or at the hand of a government. So the tools that were handed down are valuable ones that we want to use, but always to the end that we love and serve God and love and serve our neighbor.

And so that kind of “yes, but” approach says ultimately, we need to take those two commandments that Jesus says are the most important upon which everything else hangs, “love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” Then we want to ask the question, “How can we engage in a practice of rhetoric, understanding that rhetoric is more than our words?”

Rhetoric is about how we show up in the fullness of our being in interacting with others. How can we use our rhetoric to love and serve our neighbors better? Our aim is not simply to persuade an audience. I mean, we can think of rhetoric roughly as, you know, the effective, persuasive, winsome communication of truth, goodness, and beauty to any given audience at any given time for any given purpose.

All of that is true. But as a Christian, we ask ourselves, “is our aim merely persuasion, or isn't it also love and service? Isn't it also to win our audience over? Isn't it also to bring our audience into communion with us and more globally with what is true, what is good, what is beautiful with God himself?”

Marlin Detweiler:

So giving that some legs, the distinction that comes out in the earliest pages of the book is the contrast of a rhetoric of love against a rhetoric of domination. And I know that with the ancients, Aristotelian rhetoric was opposed to the Sophists and the idea of winning an argument at all costs being the mentality there and was it was not favoring that and yet didn't differentiate much from it in ultimate practice in reality.

And that's what we're really trying to do. The course has two years. The first book you mentioned a bit ago is on learning about rhetoric a bit more than it is practicing rhetoric. And then Collender, in the second book, brings out the practice of rhetoric. Talk to us a little bit about how the courses flow that way.

Michael Eatmon:

Yeah, great point. So book one, I would say, really does spend a great deal of time creating a conceptual framework for what counts as a distinctly Christian rhetoric, a rhetoric that seeks to walk a way of love in contrast to what it describes as a way of domination. The use of rhetoric for abusive, exploitative, or manipulative means, let's say.

So it's concept rich, its framework intense. It also spends a great deal of time talking about the character of the rhetorician, a meta rhetoric, as it were. Book two then takes that foundation that's been laid in the framework that's been said. And then it really bores down into the specific skills that an individual needs for how the first volume defined rhetoric.

It's the art of using the best signs to shift others' attitudes. So Book two says, okay, what skills are necessary in order to accomplish that skill? Not only in how to structure what it is that you might want to say, but also skills in terms of reading an audience or reading a room, understanding when is the right time to communicate a particular message?

How will you know? So it's a book that seeks to take some of the more theoretical aspects that we find in book one and make them also practical. In book two, there's overflow in both directions, but certainly, book two really aims to give more practical legs to how to deliver on this rhetoric of love that's described.

Marlin Detweiler:

Laurie, you may want to join in on this question, but let me lay it out here first. Michael, as you know, early in the introduction of Veritas Vox, this podcast, I interviewed Doug Wilson in two sessions. Doug has been very instrumental in our lives in introducing us through Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning to classical Christian education. Our interaction with him has caused us to grow in many ways that have benefited what we seek to do here at Veritas.

But we grew increasingly concerned with Doug's rhetorical approach to the marketplace and public discourse. And candidly, the idea of a rhetoric of love was something very attractive to me as I considered that. And frankly, me not believing in the approach that Doug has taken with satire and sometimes a bit of bullying and other forms of belligerence.

If it seemed to me that A Rhetoric of Love demonstrates something that I would say is consistently more successful in the Christian life of effective communication. And that was one of the things that were attractive to me. I know you've had a chance to listen to those sessions, but before you answer your thoughts on Doug's perspective and defense for why he does what he does, he's a brilliant man and defends himself admirably.

Before you do that, maybe Laurie can round out a little bit of her thinking, having been familiar with those sessions as well, and thinking about producing A Rhetoric of Love.

Laurie Detweiler:

Sure. And once again, we are very grateful for what Doug has done. And he is a really good man to the public privately; he doesn't treat people in the same way that he does publicly. So I'll say that’s been my experience. But I would go so far, Marlin, as to say it's not just satire.

In fact, his satire in my mind is almost easy to overcome. I don't like it, but because I don't like it and it's satire, I just kind of throw it out the door. The experiences for me are more things that would by some be considered subtle, but by others not. Because I've had personal experience with people that he’s been very offensive to, and that is almost assuming that if you don't think a particular way, you're ignorant or you're not biblical.

And so, it's almost what I put in the shock value of communication. And I know, Michael, you and I have talked about that. What I've seen, and this is part of what happened in going to what I would call a big seeker church, was I watched loving communication be willing to love those that might not be in our camp, so to speak.

They would start a conversation rather than basically throwing darts at them upfront and saying, “If you don't believe that, you’re wrong, and you're an idiot,” that's pretty black and white. And I get that way sometimes, but I can give you lots of examples of things where, you know, as I go back and read over the family and marriage books, there were things in there that had there been more patience in how it was presented or just assumed that that was the way.

It's a paint-by-numbers approach. And “you have to do it this way to do this.” And I just see how patience and love get people there a lot better than that kind of approach.

Michael, well, you can say it better than me.

Michael Eatmon:

So thank you for sharing what you just did. The first thing that I should say in echoing what you two have said is that I am super appreciative for what Doug Wilson brought into my life and the lives of so many others in reawakening this notion of classical Christian education. So first things first. I'm grateful for that. I should also say that I don't have the kind of interactive experience with Doug either at a personal level or even at a public level that you two do.

I have not read as much nor listened to as much as you have, so make the following responses from some position of ignorance on that point. But I did listen to the first two sessions, and my first response might be this: I find it difficult if my aim is to win my audience over, not simply to compel their compliance with what I'm saying, but if I really want to win over a heart or a mind,

I can't accomplish that if I have communicated my way, communicated myself in such a way or with such content that I drive them away from the table of conversation. So if I'm if I can't have a conversation with someone with whom I differ, if I am not engaging in dialog with them, if they're not willing to listen to me because of my rhetoric, because of how I'm communicating, what I believe, then the likelihood of my winning them over by persuasion is not high at all.

Marlin Detweiler:

I want to throw a question here on that. I think it's possible that Doug would say that audience is not who he's addressing. So if he's being critical of a person and their inconsistent behavior in a satirical way or even a way that might be very strongly offensive to the person, the people he's trying to win are those people who feel the same way that he does, who feel like, “am I nuts?”

Or, “Is what my pastor is saying really true?” People who are looking to know better, but they don't hear better. And that's something that they can relate to them. So, what about that type of audience?

Michael Eatmon:

Yeah, great point. Much of what I just said applies there too. If I remember correctly, Doug used the metaphor of his wanting to speak for or stand up for the guy who feels as if his back is up against the wall in an alley. You know, there are some cultural thugs maybe who say your wallet or your life, you know, your cultural values or your life, and when I heard that metaphor, my first thought was that it is a powerful metaphor.

Who doesn't get that? You know, feel the existential fear, the existential angst. Everybody's against me. My back is up against a wall. My life may be on the line. It's a powerful metaphor. I wonder, though, whether it's true. And by that, I mean it could simply be that I don't live in that world. And so, for me, it isn't true.

That's possible. It could be, though, that as I look at the culture more broadly, I don't so much feel as if the vandals have me by the neck up against the wall as I feel as if the tables have turned in our culture in terms of who's sitting in the position of prominence and who's sitting in the position of authority and leverage on the knobs and wheels of our culture and of our society.

And so when I hear someone say, look, my rhetoric is designed for the person who feels his back is up against the wall. I would say I believe the best way to respond, even if that were true, if at all possible, is to try to win the assailant over.

As I think I've heard you say before, Marlin, “it's the attempt to make a traitor of your enemy,” as it were.

Marlin Detweiler:

That's right. Yeah. That, to me, just speaks volumes of how the gospel gets applied to the unbelievers.

Michael Eatmon:

Right. Interestingly, for me, this isn't purely theoretical. I've been living out a kind of practical crucible over the last year and a half or so. I joined a national men's organization about a year and a half ago in which I am in the minority politically, socially, and culturally. And I knew that when joining. It was intentional.

One of the things I wanted to do was to engage in dialog with people with whom I differ. Because, you know, I wanted to hear, why did you come to that conclusion? It's different from mine. Why? Why have you arrived at it? I wanted them to help me see where there might be some spots in my own thinking that need some shoring up. But maybe even more importantly than that, I wanted to see whether there was an opportunity here to have intelligent, reasonable, civil, dignified, respectful conversations, even about super important topics, with people who come to radically different positions.

I have been told by people in this organization time and time again, “Thank you for presenting your position in that way. I've never thought about it that way. I've never looked at it that way.”

Or, “One of the things I really appreciate about you is I know you don't agree with me, but you listen. You really listen to me, and you ask questions, you're curious, and you try to put yourself in my shoes. And you try to meet me where I am and see if we can't walk. If we reckon toward truth together, the language we use has different meanings in transmission and reception.”

How I use my language and transmit my words and send my message across is not necessary. Really. How you're going to interpret it is going to be conditioned by your own personality, your own educational experiences, your own family background, context, where you are in America, and where you are in time. So I think one of the things that, again, we as rhetoricians and communicators need to do is to remember that a real estate agent is always fond of saying that the three most important words in real estate are location, location, location. Well, the three most important words in rhetoric are audience, audience, audience.

If we want to win our audience over, not just to comply or compel obedience, but we want to win over hearts and minds and convince them to see things in a different way. Then we're going to need to meet them where they are and not demand that they come and see the world as we do.

I think we need to learn to be good translators, not only for our own communities where we are preaching to the choir but, much more importantly when we're preaching to folks outside the choir.

Marlin Detweiler:

I love that. Sorry to interrupt, Michael. We have gone a long time, and we really need to stop now. I know we could go on forever, and it's so enjoyable to have these conversations. I missed them when we all lived in the same town. We were able to do it over dinner. We don't get to do that quite as much, although it does happen occasionally.

Thank you so much for indulging us for a few more minutes. We are Veritas Press, and this is Veritas Vox, the voice of classical Christian education. Thank you for joining us again today!