The heart of literary criticism is the notion of rhetoric. Quality rhetoric is important and necessary. It seems to me, and to the Greeks, that a democracy demands a responsible, well considered rhetoric. It is absolutely necessary that we participate in legitimate conversation about important issues.
Rhetoric demands that we reclaim the use of metaphor. Our mindless search for relevance and literalness has gotten us pretty lost in the cosmos. Metaphor or comparison between two ostensibly dissimilar phenomena is absolutely critical to creative problem solving. Metaphor, along with other mysteries, have been victims of 20th century pretension and pomposity.
Gertrude Himmelfarb, On Looking Into the Abyss, laments that great literary works are no longer read–and if they were, there are no rules for interpreting them. In philosophy, indeed in all communication, truth and reality are considered relative. With no rules the rhetorician is invited to come to any conclusion he wishes. He is invited to pretty shaky ground. Gordon Conwell Seminary professor David Wells in God in the Wastelands argues that evangelicalï¿½Christians who believe in a personal relationshipp with God– and non-Christians have both drunk from the trough of modernity. We have both embraced a sort of existential faith instead of a confessional faith. If it feels good do it and believe it. Unless evangelicals participate in serious apologetics, God will be â€œweightless.â€
The rise of relativism has had disastrous results. The British historian Philip Johnson laments â€œthe great vacuumâ€ that has been filled with totalitarian regimes and fascile thinking. Rhetoric ferrets out truth. If there is no truth, can there be any sense of authority? And can a society survive if there is no authority? Without a legitimate, honest, well considered rhetoric, will history be reduced to the â€œpleasure principle?
In some ways the American Evangelical Christianityâ€™s loss of rhetorical skills–and I think rhetoric is akin to apologetics–has presaged disaster in many arenas. Without rhetoric Christians have no tools to engage modern culture. In some ways we have lost the mainline denominations to neo-orthodoxy and we have lost the university to liberals. Today the vast majority of American, indeed, world leaders come from 12 universities and not one is a Christian university (Wall Street Journal). Where are the Jonathan Edwards? C. S. Lewis? Good thinking, good talking, may redeem the Church from both the Overzealous and the Skeptic. Rhetorical skills may help us regain the intellectual and spiritual high ground we so grievously surrendered without a fight (Alister McGrath, Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity). George Marsden in The Soul of the American University and Leslie Newbigen in Foolishness to the Greeks both conclude that we Christians have conceded much of American culture to modernism by our inability to merge thought and communication in a cogency and inspiration that persuades the modernist culture. Without the main tool to do battle–rhetoric–Evangelicals allow orthodoxy to be sacrificed on the altar of relativism. It all begins, I believe, with our inability critically to analyze the classics.