On Disciplined Writing, Part 2: Theology and Writing 101

By: John Burkett

Editor’s Note: Dr. John Burkett is Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition and Director of the Writing Center at SEBTS.  This is the second installment of three. This is an edited version of a post which originally ran in 2009.

Theology and Writing Theory 101.

Contrary to popular opinion, writing is not a “subject” or a “course,” nor merely “expression,” but it is an art of communication. The words communication and community come from the Latin communis, meaning “common.” Written communication is a community art: learned in community, serving social discourse, and building bridges of understanding (first in ourselves and then between people) constructed by language in our everyday conversations. We may think of writing as concentrated (in both senses) communication.

God the Author and the Conversation of Mankind.

Applying an analogy from speech, I’ve said that reading and writing are like a conversation, meaning that writing is the “talking” phase of those conversations in which we have an interest. After “listening in” on a conversation by reading (and research), at some point you will desire to “talk back.” By writing, we enter the conversation, “talking back” or “answering” or “elaborating,” sometimes by dialoguing with an author in the margins of our book or by responding in a more formal genre.

Reading and writing are always dialogic, making writing the responsive phase of a dialogue or conversation. When I write, I am responding, considering an author’s actions and words–words being symbolic action.

Our dialogic drama begins with God as a Trinity and as an Author. We remember, of course, that Moses wrote as a response to the wondrous works and words of God, that the biblical prophets wrote as a response to their God-given burdens, that the psalmists wrote as a response to God’s promises and salvation, that the apostles wrote in response to the fulfilled promises in Jesus Christ and in response to the concerns of the churches, that the church fathers wrote our catholic creeds as a response to schisms, heresies, and concerns for grace and truth in their time.

In a more modest sense, I am writing in response to an invitation, also to the “literary crisis” that occurs every year in our country, and to a certain call of God, who desires his church family and his family’s elders to be proficient, if not excellent, readers and writers, interpreters and communicators.

The Holy Trinity and the “Dialogic Self.”

It is St. Augustine, that beloved professor of rhetoric, who intimately examines our dialectical psychology and epistemology in De Trinitate and who beautifully expresses his own “dialogic self” in his Confessions, in which he addresses God from beginning to end. Augustine presses dialectic to its extremity, suggesting that the conscious self is itself a dialogue–a dialectic between the human self and God and others in community. According to Augustine, our “dialogic self” is always already in dialogue with, and “possessed” by, another voice–namely (at some level) God.

Augustine is most profound when he examines our dialectical psychology and attempts to understand the divine through understanding the self in analogy (of being) to, in relation to, and in imitation of the Trinity. According to Augustine, the human self is an “imago trinitatis,” reflecting the inner sociality of our Triune God (see De Trinitate, books 9-15). Augustine’s Christian psychology is radically different from the modern, quiet, indivisible Cartesian self, based on a simple monistic substance. Rather, Augustine’s “dialogic self” suggests that the verbal dialogue within the self is the ontological individual-social condition, which is our foundation for understanding how communication and writing work.

Secular scholars are privy to our interior-social condition and discuss how our “inner sociality” becomes externalized in our writing. For instance, writing theorist Kenneth Bruffee states, “If thought is internalized conversation, then writing is internalized conversation re-externalized.” Bruffee, I believe, is correct, but as Christians, we can say more, for instance, suggesting that dialogue is a theological imperative because we are “hard-wired” with other-regard.

In our short study of theology and writing theory, we understand by informed faith that God is an Author (the Alpha and Omega), that God is a “social” Trinity, that mankind is created in the image of the “social” Trinity, and that man imitates God by authoring many conversations. This theological perspective humanizes the writing process and makes it a central part of creating and sustaining meaningful community (and “interpretive communities”).

Thus, to abandon dialogue–to neglect reading and writing–harms us more immediately than it harms others. Alternatively, when we engage ourselves and others by reading and writing, we engage in a meaning-making process that benefits self and others when done respectfully.

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.