What’s Your Rhetorical Situation?

By: Dr. John Burkett

Arguably, the most important development in rhetorical theory in the last fifty years is the situation (see Lloyd Bitzer, “The Rhetorical Situation,” Philosophy & Rhetoric 1, no. 1, 1968). During the same decade (1960s), President Kennedy created the White House Situation Room to gather intelligence for responding to crises. Journalists later started “The Situation Room” to report worldwide situations. Certainly situation is now a concept. The rhetorical situation recognizes that all communication and action is responsive (or classically dialogical), responding to prior rhetorical situations. The concept’s lesson is that situations call for reflection and research.

The Apostle Peter implies this concept when he instructs Christians how to prepare for the ultimate rhetorical situation: “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give an answer (apologos) to everyone who asks you for a reason (logos) for the hope that is in you, with meekness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15). In classical rhetoric, logos means a reasoned statement like a thesis statement (Aristotle, Rhetoric 3.6.2), and apo– signifies reply; so the key noun “answer” (apologia) means to give a reasoned response. To be ready, one needs to assess the situation and the best answers to it.

Writing handbooks start with this concept: “Begin by taking a look at your writing situation” (Rules for Writers 1a). Assessing the rhetorical situation starts with two questions: “Who is my audience?” and “What is the question or problem?” Many successes and failures of communication can be traced back to how well a writer has considered these questions.

In the Writing Center and composition classes, I ask student-writers of all levels: “Who are your target readers?” and “What problem are you seeking to address?” Most student-writers are unprepared, never considering that they face a rhetorical situation and that how they understand it determines to a large extent the effectiveness of their writing and the efficiency of their writing process. For the research question defines focus and purpose. Then the audience (or how one imagines audience) shapes everything else: what genre is expected, what sources one selects, what reasons and evidence one writes, as well as choices of style, tone, and voice. These in turn shape your reader’s motivation.

The rhetorical situation not only helps writers but also readers start well. For instance, the first assignment a student usually encounters in a semester is the critical book review. So in the Writing Center, I ask, “What motivated the author to write the book?” A reader can only understand a book in relation to its situation. Every writer picks up a pen or taps a keyboard in response to some perceived problem or opportunity. Thus, a book reviewer should ask certain kinds of questions: What problem prompted the author to write? Has the author understood the situation accurately and fully? What qualifications and perspective does the author have to address the problem? Has the author proposed an adequate or significant thesis in reply to the problem? These “rhetorical” questions generate critical thinking for writing a review.

The situation is a foundational concept of communication: helping readers to understand, writers to compose to the point, leaders to respond wisely, and all people to speak or act appropriately. In the words of wisdom, “He that answers a matter before he hears it, it is folly and shame to him” (Prov. 18:13). The rhetorical situation extends this wisdom asking for reflection and research, especially for being “always ready to give a reasoned reply” for your faith, hope, and love.

Dr. John Burkett serves as Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition, and Director of the Writing Center at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Exploring Hope Podcast: Young Earth Creationism and Evolution

This week on Exploring Hope Podcast, Dr. Keith Whitfield and Dr. Jamie Dew sit down with Dr. Ken Keathley to discuss the Young Earth Creationism movement championed by Ken Ham and others. What parts of Darwinism, if any, do YEC proponents accept? How does your view of the earth’s age influence a view of evolution? What is the difference between macro and micro evolution and with which view does our scientific evidence comport? Tune in as Dr. Keathley shares his expertise on these issues and helps us have a more informed opinion about the creation account and science!


In Case You Missed It

Dr. Jamie Dew shared a post on his personal blog about doubting…and why it happens to us all from time to time. Dr Dew writes:

I’ll admit it. I have had my moments when I wondered if it’s actually true. In fact, I’ve had more than just moments. Those who know me best know that it’s been the seasons of wondering and questioning that ultimately led me to studying apologetics and eventually philosophy. Before I knew it, I had become an academic.


Here’s one thing I’ve found. Believers tend to think something is terribly wrong if they have doubts about their faith. “Perhaps”, they think to themselves, “doubt indicates that there is something wrong with Christianity, the Bible, or even Jesus.” And since they don’t want to insinuate that anything is wrong with Christianity, the Bible, or Jesus, they suppress and conceal their doubts. And in the off chance that they actually talk about their struggles with fellow believers, they might be scolded for their uncertainty as if they have failed morally.


Here’s another thing I’ve found. Doubting is NOT—no matter what some might think—an indicator that there is something wrong with Christianity, the Bible, or Jesus. Doubting is an indicator that WE are limited as knowers. Doubting, uncertainty, and questions are not a result of some problem with Christianity. These are the results of our humanity. That is, they are part of the human condition and are shared by people of every worldview perspective. It’s just part of what it’s like to be a human and something that we all—no matter what worldview we hold to be true—have to deal with.


Having said that, let me say three things: Relax, Reflect, and Research.


At his blog The Wardrobe Door, Aaron Earls recently wrote an article discussing how nostalgia looks forward, not backwards.

Nostalgia may be the dominant force in modern culture.


Popular TV shows long since cancelled are receiving new life. Gilmore Girls is coming to Netflix almost 10 years after the show’s run on network television ended. Other shows are being rebooted or recast. Virtually every hit movie is a derivative of something that was successful in the past. Whether it was a book, TV show, comic book, or movie, the completely original film seems rare these days. It can be tempting to write off nostalgia as nothing more than the last gasps of an extended adolescence. We want to relive joys from our younger years and recapture cherished memories.


In a way that may be true. After all, nostalgia can be used as a replacement for honoring the past through traditions by simply commoditizing it. Within the church, nostalgia is often used as an excuse to avoid doing the hard work of understanding modern culture and simply calling people to embrace a bygone era. But that is only part of the story. Nostalgia is more than a pining glance backwards. In reality, it is a longing look forward that is simply misplaced.


At the Southeastern Women’s Life blog, Bekah Stoneking shared a post titled When God Calls, Just GO. Bekah writes:

“Professional ministry” never crossed my mind.


Though I grew up in the church and though a lot of my friends in college were pastors or pastors’ wives, it never clicked for me that people actually went to school to “do” ministry. I suppose I thought that everyone just served the church alongside whatever else they did (shout out to my parents, an engineer and a nurse, who are excellent examples of doing just that!)


Before I graduated from college, I felt like God was leading me to go to seminary (a rather foreign concept) and as I researched schools and degrees, I became overwhelmed. And whenever I’d think about what I’d do after seminary, I would become confused because I had no idea where I fit in. For a few months, I tried to press on, talk to friends and pastors, and make a plan but the more I searched, the more I realized that I was a woman.


What do women in seminary do? What do women in professional ministry do? I felt particularly gifted in teaching and public speaking but…what does that mean?


It didn’t make sense so I just pressed “pause” and stopped talking about it. I got  into a good groove teaching second graders in a wonderful school district, serving in my local church, and spending my summer and winter breaks D-leading at youth retreats. Then one November morning, I met a friend for breakfast. When she sat down, she quietly leaned across the table and said, “Bekah, I think God talked to me in the bathroom. I’m supposed to ask you when you’re going to seminary.




Okay then.


At The People’s Next Door, Keelan Cook shared how the Spirit is the source of our supply.

Ministry to others comes from the overflow of a heart filled with the Spirit.


You have heard it before. I have too. I have preached it before, but it is worth repeating. Ministry to others comes from the overflow of a heart filled with the Spirit. If we are to be the kind of ministers that God asks us to be, then we will only do so by abiding in him. Seminary student, aspiring to the ministry, hear these words: ministry is not simply about how much you know. Pastor, remember the demands of ministry and family cannot serve as excuses for distance from the Father. Such is a recipe for disaster in all areas. I was freshly reminded of this while studying Mark’s gospel with my church. In the fourth chapter, Mark makes a statement. It is small and subtle, so it is easy to pass over. Nevertheless, it is a principle that rings true and serves as a guide to the minister.


“Pay attention to what you hear. By the measure you use, it will be measured and added to you,” states Jesus in a conversation with his disciples (Mk 4:24). These words come at a transition point in a teaching discourse by Jesus, and they serve to tie together much of the previous thought on hearing the word of God and the responsibility that brings. At the beginning of the passage, Jesus delivers the parable of the sower. He cautions listeners about the manner in which they receive the word. There are multiple ways to receive God’s word but only one that produces fruit. “But the ones sown on good ground are those who hear the word, welcome it, and produce a crop: 30, 60, and 100 times what was sown” (Mk 4:20). The admonition of Christ is to be open to the word, to hear it with gladness, welcome it, and let it do it’s life-producing work in your heart. Fruit grows in the lives of those who receive the word rightly.


Dr. Chuck Lawless recently shared ten ways to listen better as a church leader.

All church leaders have church members who want to talk with us at times. Sometimes it’s an emergency. At other times, it’s a longer-term need. Many of us, though, aren’t the best listeners. Here are some ways to do better.