Is rhetoric just clever deception, or something more? Can you use tools like rhetoric and satire to the glory of God? Discover the psychology, history, and drama of the evolution of rhetoric with Veritas Scholars Academy teacher, author, and TEDx speaker Michael Collender.
In this episode, Michael mentions the book, A Serrated Edge by Doug Wilson. You can read this article which dives deeper into Michael's thoughts on the book and defends his critiques of it here.
Note: This transcription may vary from the words used in the original episode.
Hello! Of course, I'm Marlin Detweiler, and this is Veritas Vox, the voice of classical Christian education. Today we have with us a dear friend, Michael Collender. Michael has just finished his second Ph.D. He teaches for our online school, Veritas Scholars Academy. He has taught courses that we have produced. He's actually suggested courses and created them himself.
Michael, I'm going to start by asking you, can you tell us what all you've taught for us? Because I don't think I could name at all.
Yeah. Well, I've taught a number of Omnibus classes. I still teach Omnibus III Secondary.
And you you actually the talent for one of the self-paced classes that many people have taken.
Yeah that's right! So I've taught Omnibus III Secondary Self-Paced. I've taught Film and Worldview, lots of sections of Rhetoric 1 and 2, and Psychology and Economics.
Very good. Well, we're thrilled to have you here today, but even more thrilled that you have taught for us now, I think more than a dozen years at VSA and are a much sought-after teacher. Let's jump right in here. You recently had the opportunity to do a TEDx Talk. I was very impressed with that. How did that come about?
Well, I wanted to do a TEDx talk, and so I applied for that. And there are TEDx talks all over the world. And so I applied. There's a process for each one. You have to make a case and give your bio and then convince them that the idea that you have is an idea worth sharing. So they accepted me.
And then I went through the process of rehearsals. And there's actually a whole backstage process that you have to go through before you get to the stage. So a number of different rehearsals and you really have to prove along the way that you should be giving that talk. And if you can't prove that, they will actually pull you from the list of speakers.
You've got to be sharp the whole way through. It's not just a matter of getting in the door!
Yeah. Very cool. So you did that and the talk was on rhetoric. Tell me about why you chose rhetoric? I know the answer partly, but I want you to share it. How is it different from what you're going to share about how you got interested there?
Well, obviously I've written the Rhetoric 2 textbook, but I for years– I've been teaching rhetoric for two decades. Whenever someone finds out that I'm a rhetoric teacher, immediately I've noticed this mindset of “I've got to be careful about you. You're going to trick me, you're going to deceive me.” And I've had this experience a number of times, and it goes to what we believe about rhetoric, that we think of it as a kind of clever deception.
And I wanted to show in that talk that that's actually not what rhetoric is. That's when we dismember rhetoric and we use the hands and feet of it, but not the heart of it. And when we think about what rhetoric is— ethos, pathos and logos, right? Care for other people having good character and using sound reasoning and operating within a world of truth, that all of that is very much loving people.
But what happens with rhetoric is that those tools that are connected to those faculties, end up being removed, moved from the heart of rhetoric and the source of this. I don't mention this in the talk because I actually had a number of versions of the talk where I covered this, but I realized it's just it was too much information, that the source of this actually is Aristotle.
So in book one chapter one, Aristotle actually explains that, that they're 4 different reasons, why rhetoric will succeed, generally speaking. But one of the objections that he deals with is this idea that rhetoric is deception, and instead, he says it's neutral. And we can see now through brain science that actually that's not the case.
And so I go into this in some detail in the talk that we can actually look at the brains of truth tellers and liars and the brains of sociopaths and see difference differences in the way that they're using their brains so that we can actually see that these are different skills and even the work of Peter– excuse me of Ekman, who a number of people may know from the TV show Lie to Me. You can actually see when somebody is lying or they're being incongruous in what they're explaining through differences in their facial expressions that create this kind of uncanny valley thing going on. But the reason why that's the case is that our brains are really designed to be to enable truth-telling. And so the reason why that happens is because people are not acting the way that God wants them to.
And so I wanted to frame rhetoric from a Christian perspective, although I'm not saying that explicitly, that rhetoric is actually authentically being what those different modes of persuasion say that rhetoric is.
As you obviously know, but for our audience to say, we have two textbooks called A Rhetoric of Love Volume One, Volume Two, they're used in high school for the rhetoric curriculum. You wrote the second book and were involved in editing the first book. And the thing that really captured my imagination is as Veritas Press, we look at the marketplace and we say, how can we build something that will be better than what exists in the marketplace? How can we build something that will be far more in line or be as much in line as we know how to do with Scripture? And this idea of a rhetoric of love and recognizing that Aristotle was really operating with a rhetoric of dominance and domination, which is what's contrasted in the books. And so let me just ask a question here.
It seems that loving rhetoric should be something that Christians should practice. But throughout Christian history, they seem to let the classical tradition shape their understanding. And that's what we were trying to get away from. But it's really not what's been what's in scripture. Why do you think that is? How did that history come about? And how do you hope to see that change?
There there are amazing tools within the classical tradition. A lot of them are, in fact, in our textbook series. But the way that you can understand whether Christians get this idea of a rhetoric of love is actually looking at the textbooks that they produced. So in these textbooks, are they in fact, teaching a rhetoric that's actually rooted in love and which you see throughout the entire history of the Western tradition, is that this is not the case. Period.
And now I know your listeners will hear that and they'll be saying, “That can't be true!” You know, what about Augustine?” Well, let's talk about him. But first, you can see throughout the Christian tradition that the Christians have been trained in rhetoric. So, for instance, if you read Straubo’s geography, he describes Tarsus. The Tarsus was a center for stoic philosophy and also for training in rhetoric.
And the Apostle Paul, his style of rhetoric is actually the kind of style of rhetoric that you would expect from somebody who was trained in Tarsus. Epictetus would be another example of this. He was a stoic sage. And when you read Epictetus and Paul, you can see that they both have the same training. So many of the early theologians actually were trained in rhetoric, but for some reason– and we almost got really close to this with Augustine for some reason, the training in rhetoric as it related to preaching was relegated to ceremonial oratory.
So it's very much like in psychology where you'll have Christian psychologists who will focus on doing psychology and then they'll like treat pastoring as like a kind of counseling. But really, the paradigm for understanding truth is psychology, right? Well, as we move forward in time, we can see that Augustine, like he could have written our textbook series. So he clearly thought in terms of a rhetoric of love, you see it in On Christian Doctrine. He is deeply thinking about the discipline of rhetoric from that perspective. And he's teaching pastors how to speak this way.
However, there were other voices at the time. And among them are Chrysostom and Jerome.
And if you look at the work of Chrysostom and Jerome, especially when they get into controversies, they sacrifice truth for prudence, for power, and an excellent source for listeners who are interested in this is Shaft's third volume of his church history. Actually, this is a theme that he addresses in there. But then as we move into the Middle Ages, rhetoric really is about pleasing a bureaucrat. And so all of the manuals that we have from the time period, they really don't focus on the rhetoric of love. They focus on how do you get a bureaucrat to give you what you want.
Then as we move into the late Middle Ages, Aristotle was rediscovered and all of the manuals that we have after that time period really are redescribing what Aristotle taught and not trying to build on this. Well, now we get to the period of the Reformation, and during the Reformation again, we return back to using rhetoric as a tool to get power in all of these theological debates.
And this is where the story gets really dark. So you're probably used to hearing the story of theology where we have Luther, Calvin, we have the rediscovery of certain important doctrines that Augustine taught and Paul taught. But then we get to Calvin, and then the story stops where we just don't talk about what happens afterwards. Well, this is the reason why: after Calvin, what ends up happening is that there is the splintering of different theological camps.
And as we move into the 1600s, these camps go to war with each other. In the 30 Years War.
You're talking about the beginning of what we would call Protestant denominations.
Yes. But this is not Protestant denominations. This is something on a whole nother level.
So what ends up happening is that the Lutherans go to war with the Calvinists. And now I'm going to bring up a villain from all of these different movies, but I think you'll really appreciate him. Cardinal Richelieu saw this, and he wanted to establish the power of the French monarchy. And so what he did was he started to give resources to the Lutherans to fight the Calvinists and to the Calvinists to fight the Lutherans.
And then over the span of the 30 Years War, you have these different camps switching sides. Right. And there and then theologian that got involved, because how do you gain prominence for your theology school at this point? When you jump in on the side of whatever your particular group is. So you had theology professors who were fomenting hatred for the other side.
Meanwhile, Cardinal Richelieu– this is all working in his favor. And by the time we get to the Treaty of Westphalia, Europe is just tired of religion sorting out questions. They just can't trust religion. So we look at Descartes and Locke and the rise of tolerance and this walking away from a Christian doctrine in scripture as a way of guiding us in civil polity.
We say, “Oh, you know, we need to have a bigger place for the church,” but we don't understand that secularism we caused. Right? That the shift towards secularism is a response of Christians killing each other rather than showing love to each other. And I would encourage anybody who disagrees with me on this to actually study the period of the 30 Years' War. And also, although I think England did a much better job of this, even the period of English Civil War and shifting into the rebellion of parliament. That whole story also feeds into this, though, not as bad as what we see on the continent. Well, after this, there's this movement towards secularism. And then you look at the rhetoric textbooks that are written after that time and they focus on reason, on style, on taste.
Campbell and Blair would be examples of these, but they're not using love as the central guiding force and impetus for rhetoric. And so then even as we move into our contemporary period, postmodern period, again, you can find all kinds of rhetoric, textbooks that are about tricking people and using tools of influence and treating people like they're marionettes.
But again, you're not seeing a rhetoric that's based on love. And I think it's incredibly important for us as Christians to actually go back and rethink what we're going to do from a fundamentally biblical perspective, not adopting like political sloganeering. We might call it “being woke.” Stepping away from that and instead actually letting Scripture be our guide to understand how to do rhetoric.
Right. So if I can rephrase a bit and come back to you for a response, we're applying rhetoric in the context of how we love our neighbor. What are some of the practical applications, then, you would point out, like you did in Volume II of Rhetoric of Love in terms of what it looks like to be a rhetorician, which is intended to be convincing of someone. Somebody asks me what rhetoric is. I frequently say it's an attempt, or it is an expression of an attempt to convince someone of something they didn't previously agree with or believe and to have enjoyed the process of getting there.
Right! So when we're using A Rhetoric of Love - and this is terrible for me to say, but I highly recommend that you buy the textbook series to unpack all of this, because it's not just a matter of ethics, right? The first book delves into the question of ethically, how do we approach rhetoric? But even from a practical standpoint, when we're operating from a perspective of love, it actually changes the way that you think about persuading the other person. Where instead of me focused on “How do I manipulate this situation in order to trick this person to make a decision that's not in their best interest?” Instead, we're using that wisdom– and I would define just very briefly, rhetoric is love using wisdom to persuade. We're using wisdom in order to find what appeals work, in order to find what's going to be best for this person long term. And as a result of that, it ends up changing the time horizon for persuasion. Where I'm not in a situation where I can, I'm talking to this person, and I have to manipulate them to get them to make the decision that I want.
Probably the shortest way to do that is to pull out a gun and say, “Do what I say.” Immediate appeal to force. But instead, I'm able to play a short-term, but also a long-term game, where the more interactions that person has with me and with my rhetoric, the more convincing my appeal is going to be.
In Proverbs, it talks about how a lying tongue is established only for a moment. And, you know, in a situation of war where you need to win, you know, World War II, where they're they're having to distract the Nazis away from Normandy. That trick worked for a moment because they were in a situation of war.
But rhetoric is something different. So Rhetoric of Love is designed to be able to win even long term. So that in 300 years, we're not sorry for like Luther's comments about the Jews. There's just so many examples of that in Christian history where some who were Christians did things to acquire power for the short term, and they end up creating enormous problems for other believers later on.
And A Rhetoric of Love allows us to apply the tools of rhetoric so that we don't get in that situation. And it's very clear in the New Testament that Paul had this in mind. All over the New Testament letters, his entire approach to rhetoric is exactly this where we're able to conduct ourselves in such a way that our appeals stand the test of time.
Yes. We were in a very significant position here, having educated students who are very knowledgeable, who understand relational issues and issues of sound logic, who are now very capable, giving them the loaded gun, if you will, of rhetoric. It had better be the right rhetoric, or they will be the worst of citizens. And that's why I think this is so important.
We are in a position today. You are quite familiar with our first two episodes on Veritas Vox with Doug Wilson, somebody who has contributed much to the classical Christian education movement. In fact, it's fair to say that he wrote the book on it - Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, which has had a great impact on me and on you as well as many others.
But he has maintained a position of something that he documented in The Serrated Edge, which has to do with satire and mockery and other forms of communication that get used pretty heavily. In my interview with him, I didn't point out some of the things that I might have because of limitations and time and wanting to keep focused.
But one of those was he talked about a lot of people coming there as refugees from really unfortunate circumstances in their churches, where they came from, and that sort of thing. But you find yourself a refugee on the other side, having left Moscow and having gotten away from that for various reasons, some of which I expect are the tone and tenor of communication that come out of there. And you made some comments on our recordings that were pretty strong about the Serrated Edge and other things and maybe holes in the argument, that sort of thing. I'd like to hear you expand on that here.
Okay. Sure. Well, first of all, I need to make clear that Doug Wilson is a friend of mine, and I studied at New St. Andrew's College. I lived with his brother Evan for a year. Nate Wilson was my roommate in college and in grad school.
Nate Wilson is Doug’s only son.
Yeah, that's right. And those times are some of the best times in my life. We just had so much fun. And also, before he passed away, Jim Wilson discipled me for three years and we were in the process of writing a series on Christian leadership.
And Jim Wilson is Doug’s father.
That's right. Doug's father. So, I've been around the Wilsons a lot. And I love them! I love their family. They are just up close and personal. They're just a wonderful family, very godly. And I really appreciate them. And so I don't see myself as being, you know, like having “escaped from Moscow,” per se.
I would say, though, that well, I, I like a lot of Doug's materials, his books, but I have a disagreement with this one book, which I think it's just dead wrong. So I disagree with the Serrated Edge. And I'm not saying this right now because I've written the Rhetoric of Love textbook, but actually I'm on record for disagreeing with this book back in 2006, I think it was 2005, I was the producer of St. Anne's Public House, and I did a spoof of the Serrated Edge called The Serrated Edge Study Bible, which is a satire of the Serrated Edge. And I made that the case that I'm about to explain I actually make in that but in satire in that.
But there are two fundamental errors with the serrated edge, even though there are a lot of aspects of the arguments that I think are helpful. But here are the two errors. The first one is that he, Doug, makes the claim that one of the purposes of satire a major purpose of it is to raise the flag and say this is the right flag and to draw a camp to yourself as you're the standard bearer.
And he says that satire, one of satire's purposes, is to make these camps. So then he combines this with the idea of the antithesis to say you're either for truth or against it. And so, in a community, you have a responsibility either to support the standard bearer or not.
Okay. Now, this argument is just fundamentally flawed in the same way that as a union soldier like, let's just say I'm a union soldier, I'm opposed to slavery. I don't need to support Sherman's march in order to be pro-union. Right. You can disagree with a tactic that's used by your team and still be on that team. And so there's a fundamental category mistake in that argument.
But secondly, and this is the one that I think is much more dangerous, but you'll see how when it combines the first, this is really bad. The second problem is that he says that satire, which is using rhetoric, but specifically satire, would fit in this case in a kind of general appeal where you're not really being specific. And he describes this as not being qualified, but where you just shoot the broadside, and you make these big claims and make these polarizing statements. He says that that is the kind of rhetoric that he's doing and that Jesus did. And specifically, he's referring to satire. But there are other things that he describes that aren't specifically satire.
But the problem with this is that it mischaracterizes what Jesus is doing. And I'll give you one example of this. You know, we can't discuss the entire book, but for those of you who are listening to this, I recommend you actually read the section. And what I'm describing if you read the book, you'll see what I'm referring to.
But he talks about Matthew 23, and he goes through the appeals that Jesus makes in Matthew 23 and says, you know, he's just shooting the broadside of the barn. He's really calling out the Pharisees, and he's speaking generally. Well, we have the records of what those Pharisees believed. So we can read the Mishnah, and we can read Josephus a great resource on this is Jacob Neusner’s three-volume series on all the theological positions that were held by all the different teachers before A.D. 70.
Okay. So we can actually map out all of the different positions that were held, and we can see Jesus is spot on in his criticism in Matthew 23. But then Doug goes, and he gives a modern application, you know, a “midrash,” if you will, where he explains how you would apply this to today. And he takes on modern evangelicalism.
And he goes through this caricature of modern evangelicalism. The problem is that his character caricature fits the group contrast that he wants to make modern evangelicalism versus his camp. But you've been to a modern evangelical church for a number of years. I have as well. And I don't think our two churches are unique, but the characterization that's given in that book, it's not at all what this church, your church, and many other churches are like, where instead of, you know, like your wife, I think might have mentioned in one of these Veritas Vox segments, you know, going in attacking the people who are coming to your group. These people are bearing with broken people, counseling them, teaching them, helping them to repent, helping them to put their families back together again. This is hard work. And they're not about, you know, trying to be Preachers and Sneakers and, you know, all of these different modern evangelical targets to say these people are ridiculous. And as a result of that, the rhetoric, actually the type of satire that the Serrated Edge is recommending, ends up creating this fictional world where all of the people in your camp look up and go, “Ha, ha, ha!” that's what those people are.
But it's not actually real. It's not giving you insight into that situation. And incidentally, this approach of camp building was– and trying to say that camp is wrong, our camp is right in Christian circles was a big concern for Jim Wilson. So he in the first volume of our series called Sickbay for the Saints, he actually describes that particular tactic as what he called the sin of being most right.
I love that because one of the comments that came from your partner in the writing of Rhetoric of Love, Who and who, Doug Jones, and who was a part of the Moscow community as well, was that the approach being taken simply doesn't work. That's a pretty pragmatic statement. But the question that it begs that it insists upon is who is convinced to change what they think or believe by the approach used in bullying and as a satiric approach to them?
What is the objective? And Jesus had a very different plan in that process, and that's not what's happening here. And it simply doesn't convince anybody of anything, but rather polarizes people in a “go team” kind of thing, and it doesn't do anything to build the unity that we are called to exhibit in Christ. You say?
Yeah, I agree. I would make a distinction, though on satire. So when I was watching that, that first debate between you and Doug, he immediately goes to satire. I don't know, you know, how much of the questions he had earlier or how much discussion you guys had. But he immediately went to satire. And the problem with that, though. Well, I don't think satire is the problem. I mean, the last chapter in my volume II.
I was going to ask you about that because I didn't want to surprise somebody by saying, “Why is there satire in here?” Please go.
Right, right. So, I thought it was crucial that we end the book with that discussion of satire because I think satire is a perfectly good thing. I mean, I satirize the Serrated Edge with this commercial for the Serrated Edge study bible. So I think satire is a fantastic tool. But when I satirized the Serrated Edge, I didn't satirize Doug.
Right, because Doug is my friend, and I agree with like the majority of what he's written. And I love the guy, but I disagree with his case on the Serrated Edge. Right? And I can we can do that. We can make that distinction. I don't need to make it personal for a man that I respect and love.
So with good satire, and I would say satire from a Christian worldview, what you're doing, and this is the reason why the chapter actually refers to the Babylon Bee, I think the Babylon bee, although I'm not defending everything in the Babylon Bee because I haven't read it. I can't I can't do that. But in the Babylon Bee, one of the reasons why I think they have such a large audience and why they're so effective is that they have this knack for using satire to help you understand a situation or understand an inconsistency. And when you look throughout scripture, a number of the examples that Doug actually uses in the book are that kind of satire where it's not like you're taking on a specific individual, but you're looking at a system and critiquing that, or you're looking at a practice or you're looking at a certain kind of folly.
And that folly is being satirized so that you can understand it. But that is different from me trying to build a camp. And so then I'm going to personally attack this other person and say that he's stupid or say that he's being foolish in this particular way. And the reason why that's so crucial is that if you make it personal, then there's no opportunity for the person to repent.
Right? They can't walk away from the folly because the thing attacked is their person. And you see this in late-night television, right? Making fun of the president. You know you take these people that are well known, and you go after them and revile them. But even Paul, who is a great satirist, you know, in certain places, he just rails on the high priest.
But he didn't know the guy was a high priest. And they call him out. He says, are you going to revile God's high priest? And his response is, I'm sorry, I didn't know that he was the high priest because it says, don't speak evil of your people. Right? So Paul understood this approach and practiced it. And I think we need to cultivate satire, but cultivate it in the way that Scripture says, which I would argue is not what you're seeing in the Serrated Edge.
Now, that's that is an excellent distinction. We are about out of time, and there are a lot of things that we could cover. I'm very excited. Let me just say how much feedback that we get from parents about what students are learning in your classes and so give you a little plug there for that because I wish I had had teachers like you when I was in high school and how much different the trajectory of my thinking and Christian growth might have been as a result.
We're very excited that you're a part of Veritas and teaching there. And maybe one last question. What, then, does strong rhetoric, even with satire from a Christian perspective, look like?
You know, just like I've been talking about here, I've just talked about satire, right? How to use satire from a Christian worldview. But all of those aspects of maintaining an antithesis and being able to argue a case, being able to know your stuff, all of that is super important. So all of those tools of rhetoric, you know, the hands and feet of rhetoric, we should develop the ability to use them skillfully, but we need to do that with the heart, right? With the midsection, the body of rhetoric, with what actually keeps rhetoric alive. And that is staying in the role of being ambassadors for Christ and actually making sure that we're practicing everything that the Old and New Testaments refer to about how to interact with people. And that means that there are times where you need to debate. There are times where you recognize, I'm trying to win this person and this person now is trying to shoot me.
Right? I love them. I don't want to shoot them. But I'm in a situation where, you know, I've got to protect myself. That's not inconsistent with a biblical approach to rhetoric where you're trying to do everything you can to love somebody, but then you're not practicing rhetoric, right? They've actually driven you into war where you have to defend yourself.
So I would separate those two things. But we should at all times and always try to love people and use the tools to love our neighbor and not to repeat the errors of the church where we end up separating or we end up doing things that that hundreds of years now will confuse the saints and undermine their reputation long term, we ought to live in such a way so that the gospel is winsome.
And that's how we did it the first time. That's how the church was successful in transforming the Roman Empire by authentically being with the New Testament in the old calls us to, and if we want to have a transformational impact on our culture, we need to do that again. And that's what I think Veritas is all about.
And Marlin, I really appreciate you for working so hard to maintain a business that allows all of us as teachers to actually make a livelihood doing this. And I know it is a ton of work!
Well, it is a tremendous pleasure to be able to do that work. Thank you for mentioning that at the moment for the coming school year, I think we have about 165 teachers for over 10,000 students. It's a pretty exciting time. Thanks for being a part of it. Thank you for being our guest, Michael Collender, author of Rhetoric of Love and teacher of all kinds of things, including the great books, economics, movies, and worldview.
It's been fun working with you, Michael, and thank you for being here. Folks, this is Veritas Vox. Thank you for being here with us.
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