Short Essay: Religion and Rhetoric
For centuries, people have been wary of the use of rhetoric in religion. Persuaders can exert considerable influence on their audiences, but the journey of religion is one of personal conviction, and requires individual effort to cement true faith. All the ways and means of persuasion always boil down to individual choice. Given the free use of rhetoric to persuade people to any number of beliefs or actions, good and bad, rhetoric and religion seem opposed.
The Crusades; medieval papal indiscretion; any time anyone invokes the name of God to serve less than godly purposes, these all stand as historical warning signs to the destructive power of mixing rhetoric and religion. But the capacity of rhetoric to empower religion for good also stands as a timeless guidepost for believers. It reminds people of religion’s true purpose: to lift, rather than to put down. Augustine of Hippo remarks on this by writing in De Doctrina Christiana that rhetoric can elevate one’s understanding of scripture. Simply knowing spoken and written tropes can help one decipher doctrine. After all, the prophets and apostles of old were eloquent men; it makes sense to figure out what they were saying, and how they were saying it.
Religion’s primary purpose is also to promote action, because, as James puts it, “Faith without works is dead.” (James 2:26) However, promoters of evil action coexist with promoters of good action. Augustine charges teachers of Christianity to be better persuaders than teachers of falsehood.
For Mormons, priesthood holders are only to exercise priesthood power by “persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.” (D&C 121:41) Persuasion, then, is a key characteristic of all members, so long as it is tempered by patience, gentleness, and sincerity. Rhetoric, the art of persuasion, is a tradition that’s been handed down to us today to bring others to the truth, with the simple caveat that it is used for good. As Quintilian has said, rhetoric is a good man, speaking well.
Short Essay #2: Rhetorical Analysis
The prophet Jacob is a talented orator, and his written words reflect emotion and power, as if they were spoken. The strength of his message comes from his deep, and obvious, concern for the Nephite people. This epideictic oration in Jacob 2-3 publicly rebukes the sins of growing Nephite pride, and he even specifically addresses the Nephite men for their adultery. Jacob’s invective criticizes the consequences of their sins, and calls for repentance.
One apparent figure of speech that Jacob uses in the beginning of Jacob 2 is the periodic sentence. The Nephites’ sins truly anguish the prophet. They gnaw at his soul and offend his spirit, and he is loathe even to bring them up. This is reflected in how it takes Jacob eleven verses in chapter 2 to finally articulate the pride that the Nephites have succumbed to, and another three verses until he begins criticizing them. After fourteen verses of long-winded beating around the bush, Jacob’s words breathe out like a release of pressure. In a rhetorical question, Jacob asks and answers, “And now my brethren, do ye suppose that God justifieth you in this thing? Behold, I say unto you, Nay.” This question acts as a shift in rhythm, an increase in tempo, a signal that the articulus has changed and Jacob is about to rain judgment on their sins. One can picture Jacob’s anguish in the beginning of the chapter changing to a fiery animation of shaking himself of their iniquities.
Jacob also makes unflattering comparisons throughout both chapters of the Nephites to high-profile sinners: David and Solomon, in their adultery, and the Lamanites, in their comparatively chaste living. The Nephite men have taken many wives and lovers, which, like in David and Solomon’s time, “is abominable before me, saith the Lord.” Their “abominations” are even so great that their sins are greater than the Lamanites. In this instance, Jacob demonstrates a perceptive awareness of the kairos; the Nephites hate the Lamanites. The reason there are even two separate groups is because the former were more righteous than the latter. That the Nephites had sunk even lower than the Lamanites in sin would have pierced them to their core.
Because of Jacob’s powerful comparisons, his speech has strong pathetic appeal. He knows his audience and what their needs are. In this case, the people need a stern talking-to. Jacob weaves in his own emotional anguish and Nephite prejudices, and he gives it to them.