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Bearing Witness: The Rhetoric of Influence

Anyone who has read the Gospels will know that Jesus understood the power of rhetoric.  Yet, Christ’s rhetoric (unlike its Greek counterpart) contributes little to the art of formal persuasion.  Jesus spoke often in riddles, parables, and imponderables that re-arranged the human soul, and he spoke with a ‘sword’ that put the ultimate question to all of our artful dodging.  To put it another way, Jesus did not try to win any cultural or religious debates, prop up any regimes, nor, according to the same logic, did he try to ‘win’ any souls over to a purely ideological commitment.  The focal point of his many one-to-one conversations with other people seems to have been the persons themselves; nothing ever interfered with that salient reality when Jesus testified of the Truth.  Jesus both attracted and repelled people not because he won arguments, but because he illumined dark hearts.

When Jesus talked with a man or woman, he did not do so with ulterior motives: he spoke to the person for their own good not just for the good of the ‘cause’ (although his ‘cause’ was the only true ‘good’) or out of some selfish need to attract followers.  He never allowed that his interest in a person might wane if they failed to respond in the right way (yet, he wasted no time in the bandying of words).   Jesus never referred to the people he talked with as ‘contacts’; Jesus did not formulate proven methods for ‘reaching souls’.  Jesus did not massage the Truth in order to gain followers (‘let the dead bury the dead’), but, by the same token, he refused to allow a false standard of truth to keep a person out of the Kingdom of Heaven. 

As Elton Trueblood has observed, Jesus employed a keen wit more often than we allow (picture that rich man trying to squeeze through the eye of a tent-peg), and he rarely avoided an opportunity to discomfit the status quo (mocking the tithing of mint, for instance).  To be sure, Jesus honed his rhetorical skills to perfection, but not solely in the service of debate or some discrete set of doctrines cut-off from real life and imposed upon other persons without discretion.   Jesus’ rhetoric embraced the whole of life– the entirety of man’s existence.  Jesus spoke not only to a given culture but to an entire world; he shaped his conversations to change individual lives and, at the same time, the course of human history.  In order to do this, Jesus embodied and taught a profound way of life; he was no purveyor of silly clichés, shallow mantras, shrill polemics, cornering sermons, or blasts of triumphal superiority. 

Jesus did not sacrifice Truth for the sake of some personal or collective neurosis (‘I’d better get some converts, or I might not be saved!’), and Jesus never used the Truth to batter a person into submission.  Jesus did not retreat into selfish isolation or sally forth with a need to prove himself—he did not exhibit the spineless timidity or, alternatively, the brittle aggression of the spiritually self-absorbed.  Jesus never knocked on a person’s door only to deliver the paralyzing line, “Hi, I’m a Christian—are you saved?”

Years ago, my wife, Heidi, and I spent our 3 month honeymoon climbing rock walls in Yosemite.  While living in ‘Camp 4’ (the traditional camp-ground for the motley climbing population) we met two recent graduates of an Ivy League University.  We soon joined forces and the four of us enjoyed weeks of climbing up big walls and airy granite peaks.  Climbing forges strong partnerships as the trust factor must be high given the inherent risk.  One August evening, after a hard day of climbing, one of our new friends suddenly produced the following question: “Karl, are you a fundamentalist Christian?”  This same person had just that week announced that he, too, would now be a vegan (like us) and while that had surprised us (at first, he had playfully mocked our vegan life-style), I had not expected a question regarding my faith, since we had said virtually nothing about it.  After a moment of reflection (after all, I am not a ‘Fundamentalist’, as I do not hold to the doctrine of ‘verbal inspiration’) it occurred to me that I could only say, “Yes, I am a fundamentalist Christian—I believe that the Bible is the very Word of God”.  There was a rather long pause—at last, my new friend muttered the following reply: “Well– you are the only fundamentalist Christian I have ever liked!”

—Karl G. Wilcox is just completing his 6th year teaching at Southwestern Adventist University. He has previously taught at Newbold College and Weimar College.

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