Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Rhetoric and Dialectic

Cry of the Prophet Jeremiah, Ilya Repin, 1870
If we were to read only the King James Version of the Bible, we might be forgiven for imagining that there is some sort of distinctive manner in which its characters converse or write on God’s behalf; some sort of major communication hurdle which either repels us or needs to be laboriously surmounted over time.

Of course a moment’s reflection would tell us this idea is nonsensical. When accurately rendered in a current iteration of English or any other language, the Bible is much easier to read and understand than is often thought. Its translators do their job more efficiently and with increasing frequency as years go by, which is very much to our benefit.

In fact, we often make understanding the Bible far more difficult for ourselves by failing to recognize in it the same features of language that we employ day after day in our own conversations.

Oh, we certainly can’t fail to notice things like imagery and figures of speech in scripture. Who can forget “camel through the eye of a needle”, “the stone that the builders rejected” or “the seed is the word”, to name only a tiny fraction?

But what about basic techniques of communication and forms of persuasion which are such a frequent part of normal conversation we often find ourselves using them unconsciously? What about things like rhetoric and dialectic? I’d suggest these are just as common in scripture as in modern usage.

And recognizing a rhetorical argument and being able to distinguish it from a dialectical one can certainly clear up an awful lot of interpretive confusion.

Rhetoric and Emotion gives seven variants on the definition of rhetoric that stress slightly different aspects of the device, including “the undue use of exaggeration or display”, “the study of the effective use of language” and “the art of making persuasive speeches”. From these we may reasonably conclude that rhetoric seeks to win arguments primarily through provoking an emotional reaction in the listener.

We all use a certain amount of rhetoric. There is nothing innately dishonest about an emotional appeal. With some audiences it is the only sort of appeal that gains any traction.

Rhetoric may involve figures of speech, exaggeration, oversimplification, the use of tear-jerking anecdotes, saying things one does not really mean and even, from immoral rhetoriticians, the use of outright lies; all in order to persuade its audience emotionally. At its worst rhetoric presents itself as misrepresentation and propaganda. At its best it cuts to the core of an issue, making an argument pithily and emphatically.

A child resorts to primitive rhetoric when she cries “I hate you!” to her parents and promptly dashes up to her room wailing at the top of her lungs. A teenager resorts to a slightly more refined form of rhetorical manipulation by declaring “I wish I’d never been born!” As logical arguments they are rubbish, but they can still be emotionally devastating if you are unaware that they are usually just technique, not truth. Though it’s remotely possible either statement is true, in most cases wise parents will remain calm, rightly interpreting such pronouncements as having the force of something along the lines of “I really dislike your current parenting style”.

As we become more mature, our use of rhetoric becomes less obvious and clumsy and thus more effective when we employ it. President Obama, for instance, has mastered the form.

Dialectic and Logic

Dialectics or dialectic, on the other hand, attempt to persuade an audience through logic, rather than via the manipulation of its emotions. calls dialectics “logical argumentation” and “the art or practice of logical discussion as employed in investigating the truth of a theory or opinion”.

Comparing the Two Forms

There is a tendency to think of dialectic as a higher form of argument and rhetoric as a lower one. It has also been said that dialectic is the most natural tool of men and rhetoric the most natural device of women. I think this latter statement is a fair one, though of course the exceptions to it are so innumerable as to render it all but useless in the analysis of any specific situation.

But both are simply methods of persuasion and communicating ideas. Neither is essentially righteous or wicked in and of itself. Both dialectic and rhetoric may be employed dishonestly, with malevolent intent; or forthrightly from generous and loving motives. I’m not sure that one form is “higher” or “lower”, though many will have practical reasons to prefer one method of persuasion over another.

Mr. Spock on the original Star Trek TV series almost invariably eschewed rhetoric in favour of dialectic, and it made for a distinctive and appealing character. It was the almost complete absence of emotion-based argument that emphasized his alien-ness and made him memorable. But to be human is to use rhetoric.

The writers of scripture employ both forms of persuasion.

Why is it Important to Distinguish between the Two?

Well, for one, it preserves us from goofy interpretations and from contriving a lot of overly elaborate explanations of things we read in scripture when we observe that its writers (and the Lord Jesus in particular) use language pretty much exactly the way we do — though of course without dishonesty, contrivance, lies or distortion.

Here are a couple of situations in which recognizing rhetoric at work may save us some interpretive grief:

Emasculating the Text

David J. Stewart, for example, is unable to recognize a rhetorical device when it pokes him in the eye. When Paul says, in connection with legalistic Jews who were trying to persuade Gentiles to be circumcised unnecessarily, “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” poor Mr. Stewart recoils in horror.
“The NIV is actually saying that the Apostle Paul wanted the false prophets (trouble makers) to go cut their genitals off. ‘Emasculate’ means to ‘castrate.’ Now how would that make anything better for the church of Galatia? The NIV translation doesn’t even make any sense.”
Unfortunately for Mr. Stewart, it isn’t just the NIV that will grind his gears on this subject: the New Living Translation, the ESV, the NASB, the Holman Christian Standard Bible and the ISV all use similar language. And all the translators that use more delicate phrasing such as “cut themselves off” still leave the passage open to the other rather more natural reading. It is even legitimate to arrive at that interpretation via Mr. Stewart’s beloved KJV.

Now if Paul is simply employing a rhetorical device here, the problem disappears without a ripple. But that would be unfortunate for Mr. Stewart, who seems not as concerned with finding the meaning of the Galatians passage as he is with jumping on his soapbox to extol the supremacy of the King James Version.

Of course having a bunch of Judaizers castrate themselves would not make anything better for the church of Galatia, and Paul does not genuinely wish them to do so. But he does very much want the Galatians and us to understand that legalism is such a terrible, corrupting, freedom-wrecking, soul-destroying, anti-Christian ideology — especially when we drag others down with us — that a little personal mutilation would be a minor issue by comparison.

He’s just using rhetoric to make the point, that’s all.

Rape in Jeremiah

Another instance where the recognition of a rhetorical device in play would probably calm troubled waters is Jeremiah’s alleged use of a word meaning “rape” in his complaint to God. Here is the passage that has gotten numerous commentators and translators in a knot: 
“O Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived;
you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me.”
It has long been recognized (I think I first read it back in the eighties) that what we read as “deceived” in most versions, ancient and modern, are two Hebrew words most often translated “seduced” and “raped”. But since that makes for a pretty grim image, almost all translators soften the blow by using English words that are not so evocative and potentially inflammatory. “Coerced”, “seduced” and “enticed” are as far as modern translators are willing to go. These may accurately reflect the meaning of the first verb but not the second. Here systematic theology intrudes on translation, with less than ideal results.

Much scholarly debate has raged around how to translate the words patah and hazak. Here’s one example. I freely admit that I haven’t a clue what the most faithful translations might be; I’m not a Hebrew scholar. But I’ve read the hazak = rape meme from writers that are wildly liberal and in papers from conservative Dallas Theological Seminary grads, so I do know the debate exists and that it is not satisfactorily resolved by saying “I don’t like that image!” in a loud voice. Further, my theological and natural discomfort with the image of rape is not ameliorated by the idea that God instead “deceived” his own prophet, when scripture is clear that God cannot lie.

It is of course evident that whether the word “deceived” or “raped” is used, we are dealing with a figure of speech, not any kind of grotesque literal statement. And we are dealing with rhetoric, not logic. Jeremiah is describing how he feels about his experience. Such impressions are necessarily subjective. In the extremity of his distress he is using a very powerful image to make a point.

Is that possible? Well, let’s see: Jeremiah was a sensitive man. His job in God’s service caused him to feel bitter, disappointed, alienated from his people and full of self-pity. It made him so miserable that several times he wrote that he wished he’d never been born. He encountered nothing but resistance and outright hatred from his own people as he preached God’s message, including the Jewish authorities. In the passage under dispute, he had just been released from stocks and public humiliation. As Infogalactic neatly synopsizes it, he “was attacked by his own brothers … imprisoned by the king, threatened with death, thrown into a cistern by Judah’s officials, and opposed by a false prophet”. The best treatment he ever received was from a foreign king.

Might Jeremiah have felt “raped” by his experiences, if we understand him to be speaking rhetorically? I don’t think it’s reasonable to entirely rule it out just because we have a strong reaction to a particular word.

He could well be using language just the way we do when we are overwhelmed. He could be saying in the strongest possible words available to him, “I did not get what I expected when I signed up to be a prophet”.

It is also possible, of course, that we don’t know everything about the nuances of Hebrew thousands of years ago, and that this word has a range of meanings that included both rape and a more general sort of overpowering. There may be nothing whatsoever worth flapping about.

But even if there is, recognizing a rhetorical device when it appears is certainly preferable to alternative readings of this verse and many others.

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