In a fascinating recent blog post on Rob Bell and the nature of advertising rhetoric, Alastair Roberts managed to describe one of my least favorite styles of blogging:
If you read many blogs, especially from a certain brand of progressive evangelical, you will notice similar styles of writing and thinking in operation. Sentences are brief, there are numerous single sentence paragraphs, sentences in bold, or fragmented statements. Anecdotes and engaging narratives are consistently employed. Rhetorical questions, potent images, and controlling metaphors are used extensively. Such writing typically persuades by getting the reader to feel something. The responses to such pieces are almost always emotive and affirming, very seldom critical (and critical responses are hardly ever interacted with carefully).
Now, to my mind there’s nothing inherently wrong with narratives with emotional hooks, bolding and italicizing things occasionally, metaphors, potent images, rhetorical questions, and so forth. All of them have their place at that right time and the right moment. Indeed, some writers could stand to use a little more of that. (Although, let’s be honest, the UNDERLINE, BOLD, AND ITALICIZE EVERYTHING INCESSANTLY THING IS KIND OF ANNOYING AND CHEAP.) Scripture itself is soaked in varying modes of discourse, especially narrative and potent image. That said, the over-saturation of these modes of communication in blogs of this sort is kind of like the difference between a packet of Sweet & Low saccharine or a teaspoon of sugar in your coffee; one seems like a counterfeit designed to mask the quality of the substance, while the other enhances it.
Roberts goes on:
In an age dominated by advertising and the manipulation of feelings for the purpose of persuasion, the proliferation of conversational and self-revelatory styles of discourse, designed to capture people’s feelings, where logical argumentation once prevailed, shouldn’t surprise us. Where persuasion occurs through feeling, truth becomes bound up in the authentic communication of the ‘self’ and its passion, rather than in the more objective criteria of traditional discourses, where truth was tested by realities and practices outside of ourselves. This is truth in the mode of sharing one’s personal ‘sacred story’.
It is for this reason that narrative, anecdote, metaphor, and potent images are so important for such approaches. All of these are non-argumentative ways of drawing and inviting you, the reader, into the feelings of the text. They also serve as ways of avoiding direct ideological confrontation and engagement. By couching what would otherwise have to be presented as a theological argument in an impressionistic narrative they make it very difficult to frame disagreements. The most effective communicators of this type tend to be those who elicit and direct feelings most consistently. It can almost be as hard to have reasonable argument with such people than it would be to argue with an advert.
While Roberts might be guilty of over-privileging rational, logical modes of reasoning and argumentation in his criticism, there is a real danger when the church over-corrects and plays into the postmodern fragmentation and evasion of thought. Testimony is an inherently biblical mode of discourse, but testimony is susceptible to cross-examination. Biblical testimony is not intended to subvert the intellect, but engage it, as well as the more affective dimensions of our souls. Paul gave his own testimony to be sure, creatively used potent imagery, and so forth, but then gave a sustained biblical argument that can be followed, disputed, and wrestled with. (cf. Galatians)
Alright, this whole thing was quick and off-the-cuff. The point is, if ya’ll spot me drifting into land of advert blogging, you have my permission to call me out.
Soli Deo Gloria