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In the beginning was the Word

30 January 2015

Rhetoric is essential to preachers as well as to politicians, argues Andrew Davison


"Preached to death by mad curates": satirical engraving of a sleeping congregation by William Hogarth (1697-1794)

"Preached to death by mad curates": satirical engraving of a sleeping congregation by William Hogarth (1697-1794)

THE heated argument about which of our political leaders should be entitled to take part in April's tele-vised General Election debates assumes that being given such a public platform is automatically an advantage.

It may, indeed, serve the interests of democracy, but few of us expect to be impressed and dazzled by the eloquence of our party leaders. Compilers of dictionaries of quotations can rest easy, and a comparison with Winston Churchill, the 50th anniversary of whose death we mark this month, is not worth making. Recent decades have given us little to compare with "This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning." Or, "Never. . . was so much owed by so many to so few."

Rhetoric currently fares better on the other side of the Atlantic. Barak Obama's way with words catapulted him to the presidency. Criticism of the President today is often based on the charge that, having delivered a brilliant speech on a difficult topic, he thinks he's solved the problem. And, compared with Abraham Lincoln, even President Obama's oratory falls flat.

Rhetoric originated as a civic art in Ancient Greece, and was seen as essential to the flourishing of democracy. In medieval times, it was taught in universities as part of the trivium (with grammar and logic). After the American and French Revolutions, exponents of the new Republics looked back to Cicero for rhetorical inspiration. The subject survived on the classical syllabus of English public schools, but it is little taught today. It certainly doesn't appear on the National Curriculum, presumably on the erroneous logic that we advance the cause of the ordinary, poor, and disadvantaged by depriving them of the tools of the rich and powerful.

If political rhetoric lies in dishonour today, politicians are largely to blame: for using it too little, or too much; for neglecting the power of well-chosen words to inspire us; or for inspiring us with words not matched by deeds. The language of our politics is typically either dull or deceitful.

Within the Church, we rightly distrust any victory of style over substance, but every preacher needs to be a wordsmith. St Augustine addressed the importance of rhetoric for the Christian preacher in the fourth volume of On Christian Doctrine. Our liturgies put words into our mouths, week by week, well composed or not.

I've been jolted into thinking about the part played by rhetoric in all of this by a recent book by Mark Forsyth, The Elements of Eloquence (Icon Books, 2013). It's about turns of phrase; about the clever devices that do so much to contribute to good prose style. Forsyth's book is crammed with examples, with the Bible second only to Shakespeare for quantity. St Paul emerges as an artful writer, not least in his love of lists, whether straightforward, as with the "works of the flesh" and the "fruits of the Spirit" (Galatians 5), or in some more particular guise, perhaps as anadiplosis, where the end of one line is taken up by the beginning of the next (Romans 5.3-5), or as epistrophe, where every sentence or line ends with the same word or phrase (1 Corinthians.13.11).

CHRISTIANS will find no better demonstration of the value and legitimacy of rhetoric than from the lips of the Incarnate Word. Just to scratch the surface of the Gospels, we find the hyperbole of the speck and the plank, and (like a hyperbole taken even further) the adynaton of the camel and needle (a comparison made with an impossibility).

Jesus understood the power of threefold repetition (or tricolon), as in "eat, drink, and be merry," and the elegance of the chiasmus, with its symmetric reversal: "The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath," and "Judge not, that ye be not judged". Today, the repetition of a word for emphasis (epizeuxis) may have become a hackneyed formula, beloved of politicians ("education, education, education" - T. Blair) and estate agents ("location, location, location"), but it also serves to describe the linguistic force of the most chilling sentence in history: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

IN THE 21st century, we tend to value simplicity above all else in prose. Forsyth gives us the proper name for such plainness in writing: parataxis. We might call it the Economist style: only stray from subject-verb-object for a purpose.

But simplicity gets us only so far. It can embrace the force and allure of alliteration, and of that three-fold tricolon (the phrase "short, sharp shock" captures both), or of any of the other "figures" illustrated above from the Gospels. Simplicity is the bedrock for speaking well in church, but it is not the whole story, as much that is best in Anglican liturgy illustrates.

Forsyth quotes the Book of Common Prayer almost as much as he quotes Jesus. In Economist style, pleonasm (saying something more than once in different ways) is a vice; in the Prayer Book, it shows its virtues. We have "to love and to cherish", when either verb would suffice, and "Dearly beloved . . . gathered together. . . join together", where any of these pairs of words could be pared down to one ("beloved - together - join").

In fact, well-judged verbosity is everywhere to be found in the Prayer Book. Consider the prevalence of merism, enumerating in parts what could be said more briefly, but flatly: "For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health" rather than "whatever comes".

A line in the Prayer Book which never fails to please me for its transgression of the rules of plainness is in the invitation to confession: "and make your humble confession to Almighty God, meekly kneeling upon your knees." "Upon your knees" is extraneous, since we can kneel no other way. Forsyth names what is so elegant about this phrase: it uses polyptoton, the repetition of a word in different forms: "kneeling. . . knees". In the Bible, we find "I have become a foreigner in a foreign land," and "harpers harping with their harps".

The Prayer Book was the Church of England's first, and no doubt greatest, attempt at liturgical indigenisation, and "indigenised" language is not quite the same thing as the common tongue. English has different registers, not least for speaking and writing. The Book of Common Prayer was couched in a register that is not really that of written English (even of the time), and not quite that of spoken English (of any social back- ground). That is precisely because liturgy - because prayer - is not quite like any other human endeavour. Writers of liturgy today, take note! The liturgy gives us words that are written to be spoken - to be spoken to God; and to one another; and to be spoken together. There is more to that than plain-ness.

RHETORIC need not be the tool of charlatans. Jesus used language creatively, to speak forcefully and memorably; St Paul employed every trick in his bag to communicate the gospel. Preaching and praying need to be heartfelt but, as the Saviour and the foundational theologian of Christianity demonstrate, that need not be neglectful of style for the sake of substance - nor substance for style.

The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge.

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