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Composition Forum 33, Spring 2016

Review of Elizabeth Vander Lei et al.’s Renovating Rhetoric in Christian Tradition

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Jeffrey M. Ringer

Vander Lei, Elizabeth, Thomas Amorose, Beth Daniell, and Anne Ruggles Gere, eds. Renovating Rhetoric in Christian Tradition. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2014. 211 pp.

When Elizabeth Vander Lei and bonnie lenore kyburz published Negotiating Religious Faith in the Composition Classroom in 2005, the scholarly discussion about religiously committed students in composition studies arguably was reaching its adolescence. That conversation dates back to 1989 when Chris Anderson published The Description of an Embarrassment: When Students Write about Religion in ADE Bulletin. From there, it developed with contributions from scholars like Ronda Leathers Dively, Amy Goodburn, Priscilla Perkins, and Lizabeth A. Rand, among others—contributions that generally explored the tumultuous relationship between religion and composition teaching. Many of these articles appeared in our major journals, but Negotiating Religious Faith underscored the arrival of this conversation as a conversation, one wherein multiple scholars were responding to previous scholars and approaching the subject from a variety of theoretical lenses and perspectives. That same year, the Rhetoric and Christian Traditions Special Interest Group (now a CCCC Standing Group) sponsored a conference at DePaul University where over one hundred scholars in rhetoric and composition met for dialogue about the intersections of rhetoric, composition, and Christianity. With an edited collection and a conference to boot, 2005 thus marked something of a watershed year. Not only was the discussion about religion in composition legitimate scholarly territory, but it was one with energy, interest, and a host of questions ripe for exploration.

Fast forward a decade and the publication of Renovating Rhetoric in Christian Tradition signals that the conversation has matured and expanded. While chapters by Perkins, Vander Lei, and Daniell directly explore the intersections of religion and composition teaching, the rest of the collection considers more expansive intersections of rhetoric and Christian tradition, including the rhetorical and literate practices of nineteenth-century Mormon women (Gere), the resistance rhetoric of Seventh-Day Adventism (Rand), various strategies whereby women rhetors achieve rhetorical agency in patriarchal Christian traditions (Tolar Burton; Adams-Roberts, Collings Eves, and Rohan; Seat), the sources of potential conflicts between rhetoric and Christian tradition (Amorose), and the Jewish roots of Paul’s argumentative strategies (Hertzberg). RRCT offers much for compositionists who want to work productively with religious students and explore the complex relationship between rhetoric and religion, and it does so largely through its twin themes of renovation and transfer. While renovation represents the book’s central term, transfer is no less important, especially for compositionists seeking to read RRCT as a text that can inform composition pedagogy.

Arguably, Vander Lei offers the most direct definition of renovation in her chapter when she writes than an “attitude of renovation” entails “valuing what is present and seeking to improve it, over deciding to demolish it and build anew” (90). This definition corresponds to the verbs Vander Lei uses in the volume’s introduction to name the processes associated with renovation, verbs like reshaping, adapting, creating, blending, refurbishing, altering, and refining. Such verbs point readers toward the dynamism of renovation and toward the book’s central argument: rhetoric and Christian tradition exist in a complex but often mutually-informing relationship, one wherein rhetors who speak from within Christian tradition work both through and against resources provided from that tradition in order to remake themselves, their communities, and even Christian tradition itself. Renovating rhetoric in Christian tradition thus means coming to terms with the complexity of Christian tradition and with the ingenuity of rhetors who speak from within it, often in ways that uphold its virtues while pushing back against its oppressive elements.

While transfer doesn’t show up as frequently as renovation does (each chapter connects directly to the theme of renovation), it is no less pervasive of a concept. Compositionists know that transfer highlights the permeability of boundaries—rhetors carry with them knowledge, skills, and assumptions from one course, context, or community to another, sometimes beneficially, sometimes detrimentally. A similar notion of permeability rests at the center of RRCT. For example, Hertzberg demonstrates how Paul’s knowledge of Jewish argumentative structures emerges in his Christian writings, while Gere explores the fluid boundaries between Mormon women’s private/religious lives and public/civic lives, a fluidity that Adams-Roberts and her collaborators echo. Moreover, the three overtly pedagogical chapters by Perkins, Vander Lei, and Daniell assume two forms of transfer: students will transfer religious ways of knowing into their academic work, and instructors can transfer into rhetorical education ideas drawn from Christian tradition that can help such students think and write rhetorically.

Perkins, for instance, shares her experiences working with two students who transfer their faith into academic practice: Tina, a fundamentalist Christian student, and Sara, a more rhetorically flexible evangelical Christian. Perkins appeals to the work of Catholic writer Bernard Lonergan to advocate a pedagogy of self-appropriation that stresses “habits of reflection” (75). Through such a pedagogy, students and teachers alike are encouraged to “reappraise their earlier thoughts, words, and interactions in ways that enhance the best practices of process pedagogy” (75). Pedagogies informed by Lonerganian self-reflection can help students come to terms with who they are—with the selves, beliefs, and identities they bring to academic contexts—in ways that can lead to more ethical argumentation (76). Perkins ultimately is modest in the kind of transformation she sees such a pedagogy as initiating: she shows, for instance, that while Sara achieves Lonerganian self-reflection in bringing her faith to bear on her academic writing, Tina fails to achieve such a subjectivity. But the overarching argument is that transferring Lonergan’s habits of reflection into academic practice can renovate the writing of at least some students.

Vander Lei and Daniell similarly argue that transferring in perspectives from Christian tradition can help compositionists work productively with religiously committed students. Vander Lei does so by appealing to the work of Christian theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Miroslav Volf in order to “renovate our writing pedagogy so that we can engage people whose words and ideas we find disagreeable” and thereby avoid “intellectual violence” (94, 91). In particular, Vander Lei explores Hauerwas’s narrative theology and Volf’s notion of hospitality as frames that can help compositionists welcome students we may perceive as ideological others. In her chapter, Daniell considers how compositionists can help students wrestle productively with the epistemological and hermeneutical gaps that can exist between ways of reading associated with the academy and with faith communities. Transfer rests at the heart of Daniell’s discussion. Early in her chapter, she writes, “The young adults who come into our classrooms are moving into critical thinking and are being confronted with ideas that are new to them and narratives that run counter to the ones they learned in their home communities” (105). Questions of truth arise because students unwittingly transfer into the writing classroom assumptions about reading, knowledge, and truth that they learned in church or at home. Educational theorists might call this negative transfer because the epistemologies tend to clash, but a better term might be unwilling transfer—students can’t help but realize at some point that their received ways of knowing bump up against what they are being taught. Daniell’s thoughtful approach to such conflict—namely anticipating such conflicts and helping students see how Christian tradition has wrestled with them for centuries—can go a long way in helping students renovate their approaches to reading and knowing productively.

Much of the contribution that RRCT makes to composition studies, then, is that renovation complicates our notions of transfer. It underscores what we as a field have been talking about for some time now: that transfer is no simple process but rather a set of processes whereby knowledge, assumptions, and beliefs become transformed, adapted, and reconfigured as they are recontextualized. Vander Lei puts it this way: “As rhetors in Christian tradition take up rhetorical resources and fit them to argumentative need, rhetors inevitably alter both the resources and themselves” (xiii). Vander Lei nods to scholarship on transfer when she cites Nowacek’s Agents of Integration and later recognizes transfer as a central concern within scholarship about religiously committed students (xiii-xiv). As best I can tell, though, RRCT marks the first time that transfer has been directly connected to the discussion about religion and religious students in composition scholarship. And to important effect: the concept of renovation offers an important advance on what many scholars perceive to be an oversimplistic metaphor of transfer. Vander Lei and her editors may not have set out to reconceptualize transfer, but by considering the permeability of boundaries concerning religious rhetorics and discourses of gender, the academy, and civic life, among others, we see in stark relief the extent to which discourses get remade, reinvented, recontextualized, and hybridized as they circulate.

While the volume as a whole tends to stress the possibilities of renovating rhetoric in Christian tradition, the final chapter reminds us that rhetoric and Christianity aren’t always the happiest of bedfellows—that transfer from one to the other can have negative consequences. Thomas Amorose shows how resistance to rhetoric in Christian tradition has its roots in anthropological, hermeneutical, and epistemological sources. Deeply ingrained attitudes in Christian tradition regarding human agency, textual (biblical) interpretation, and the nature of worldviews can undercut rhetorical flexibility. Amorose is right: certain strains of Christian thinking do more to hinder rhetoric’s renovation than foster it, a tension that arguably rests at the center of the discussion about religion and religiously committed students in composition studies, and his reminder is an important one for readers of RRCT to remember. Amorose notes—positively—that “the sometimes heroic efforts of rhetorical outsiders like those in this volume” can help to renovate rhetoric in Christian tradition, which he contrasts with insiders to Christian tradition who espouse worldviews that delimit rhetorical possibilities (138).

The volume as a whole, though, emphasizes the fact that it’s hard to categorize the rhetors it discusses as insiders or outsiders. Hertzberg shows that Paul is an insider to both Jewish argumentation and the early Christian tradition. The Mormon women Gere describes draw on rhetorical resources to locate themselves simultaneously in their faith tradition and in wider American culture. Tolar Burton demonstrates that Mary Bosanquet’s attempt to exhort rather than preach reflects her status as both a rhetorical insider and outsider to Methodism. Much the same can be said about how the Hart sisters and Eliza Snow in Adams-Roberts, Collings Eves, and Rohan’s chapter enacted apostolic rhetoric, as well as about how the twentieth century Protestant women missionaries Seat describes leveraged gender ideals in order to subvert them. Rand’s discussion of the resistance rhetoric of Seventh Day Adventism, much like her 2001 CCC article on evangelicalism, underscores the rhetorical possibilities of such stances, namely that they can help lay bare what John Schilb calls “dynamics of power” (qtd. in Rand 27). And while Perkins’s Tina did resist rhetoric in troubling ways as a result of her fundamentalist perspective, Sara—the other student Perkins discusses—is able to write as a rhetorically-minded evangelical Christian. My point here is that RRCT demonstrates overwhelmingly that drawing boundaries around “insider” or “outsider” when it comes to Christian tradition is fraught at best. And that’s a good thing.

In his epilogue to The Rhetoric of Religion—a dialogue between The Lord and Satan—Burke records The Lord as frequently reminding Satan, “It’s more complicated than that” (282, 287). And that is ultimately the contribution I see RRCT making to composition studies: we may tend to construct all-too-neat boundaries between the rhetorical and Christian traditions, but it’s always more complicated than that. RRCT extends the conversation about religion and religiously committed students in rhetoric and composition by simultaneously extending and blurring its boundaries, by prompting us to rethink notions of transfer through a more complex metaphor of renovation, and by reminding us that the Christian and rhetorical traditions alike are rife with ingenuity and creativity.

To which readers of RRCT should respond with a hearty “Amen.”

Works Cited

Anderson, Chris. The Description of an Embarrassment: When Students Write about Religion. ADE Bulletin 94 (1989): 12-15. Print.

Burke, Kenneth. The Rhetoric of Religion. Berkeley: U of California P, 1970. Print.

Dively, Ronda Leathers. Religious Discourse in the Academy: Creating a Space by Means of Poststructuralist Theories of Subjectivity. Composition Studies 21.2 (1993): 91-101. Print.

Goodburn, Amy. It’s a Question of Faith: Discourses of Fundamentalism and Critical Pedagogy in the Writing Classroom. JAC 18.2 (1998): 333-53. Print.

Nowacek, Rebecca. Agents of Integration. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2011. Print.

Perkins, Priscilla. ‘A Radical Conversion of the Mind’: Fundamentalism, Hermeneutics, and the Metanoic Classroom College English 63.5 (2001): 585-611. Print.

Rand, Lizabeth A. Enacting Faith: Evangelical Discourse and the Discipline of Composition Studies. College Composition and Communication 52.3 (2001): 349-67. Print.

Vander Lei, Elizabeth, and bonnie lenore kyburz, eds. Negotiating Religious Faith in the Composition Classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2005. Print.

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