Reflections on Sacred Rhetoric

Iain D Campbell

'The ratio of grind to glamour is three to one'.


This was an off-the-cuff remark made recently on a UK television documentary on the topic of oratory. Taking January's Presidential inauguration in Washington as its cue, the programme traced the history of rhetoric, and noted its belated return to the political arena; as one of JFK's speechwriters put it, 'after eight years of a president who could barely manage the English language, the world is responding now to a president who is an intellectual'. Heady stuff.


The relation of oratory to politics is one thing, but it is the relationship between classical oratory and Gospel preaching which continues to fascinate me. That is probably because one of the first books I read on the subject of preaching was Dabney's 'Sacred Rhetoric' (now published as 'Evangelical Eloquence'), which draws on the principles of classic rhetorical practice, and claims it for the pulpit.


Notwithstanding Paul's indispensable caveat that the gospel is 'not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power', the gospel comes with words nonetheless. Faith does come by hearing words. And words, at any level, as one commentator on the documentary put it, have the power to make people 'conceive, believe and achieve'. Words, to quote from a clip from President Bartlett on 'The West Wing' (surely the best President you guys never had), 'when spoken out loud for the sake of performance are music; they have rhythm and pitch and timber and volume; these are the properties of music; and music has the ability to find us and move us and lift us up in ways that literal meaning can't'. All of which reduces to Demosthenes' famous dictum that what matters in oratory is 'delivery, delivery, delivery'.


Which brings me back to the opening quotation. In preparation for public speaking, according to one commentator, the ratio of grind to glamour is three to one. The glamour of five minutes of productive words can only be achieved by the grind of (at least) fifteen minutes of reading, researching  and hard thinking. Preaching, of course, is not soundbite; it is not polished rhetoric; its effect does not rest on the irresistible logic of the preacher's argumentation, but on the irresistible grace of the preacher's God.


But preaching, like oratory, is public speaking, and demands our highest attention, and our conscientious preparation. Shall we offer to the Lord that which has cost us nothing?