Here’s a rather lengthy essay on the integration of faith and learning in my discipline. It’s a chapter I wrote in` the book Keeping the Concept by Spring Arbor University Press.
Of message and motive: a rhetoric of faithfulness
In the beginning was the Word.(John 1:1).
For communication scholars, that seems like a good place to begin, with the logos, the expression of an idea. According to the Apostle John, the logos was worked out through the incarnation and is the root and life of our faith. God is expressing himself, communicating his character and his plan, revealing his glory. He does this effectively and relentlessly, as the God who speaks to us, listens to us, and even argues with us.
The creation story tells us God spoke our world into existence and illuminated it. “Let there be light,” He says. And so by faith we understand the world itself was framed by the Word of God (Hebrews 11:3). In a Christian university we begin our understanding of communication with this simple idea: God is a communicating God, and we are made in His image, as communicating beings. We too have this power, to create a world. We are bearers of His image, and stewards of His power.
That’s the way it is, and has been. From the beginning.
To what end, then, do we direct this power of revelation and creation? What do we make with it and of it? For good or evil, the first thing we make is relationships. We are known by the things we say and the way we say them, even as we know God by what he says and does. Both verbally and nonverbally we are constantly saying “This is who I am. Know me.”
We tell God who we are and call it prayer. We tell each other and call it conversation. We tell ourselves and call it thought. Or paranoia. We seek and manage connections, creating a world of friends or foes. And then we live in that world, calling it a community.
A university is a community of learners. Without communication no such community exists. The two words share the same root, from the Latin “communis.” When we have things in common, we have community. When we find things in common, we have communication. As Quentin Schultze notes, “When we communicate, we create, maintain and change shared ways of life. Communication enables us to cultivate education, engineering, business, the media and every other aspect of human culture. ”
The study of how we create and maintain these shared ways of life is both ancient and relevant. Genesis tells the story of the first man, fully capable of speech, naming the animals and blaming his choices on his wife—and on God himself. Job, arguably the oldest book in the Bible, relates a series of conversations between God and the Father of Lies, and between a man and his erstwhile friends, and between this same man and his God.
The story of Babel is the story of language and recognizes its power: “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them (Genesis 11:6).” The wisdom literature of Scripture is replete with observations and advice about the responsible use of this power: keep your promises (Ecclesiastes 5:5), tell the truth (Psalm 15:2), and, sometimes, keep your mouth shut (Ecclesiastes 5:2).
According to Aristotle, we harness this power and persuade each other though logical, ethical and emotional proofs. He defined rhetoric as “an ability, in each particular case, to see the available means of persuasion,” and 2,300 years later his analysis of those means is still the basis of most college texts on public speaking. Although his own mentor Plato focused on private discourse (dialectic), Aristotle tried to recover public rhetoric from the abuses of the sophists and laid out a framework for audience analysis, a framework which Aristotle scholar and translator George Kennedy call “the earliest systematic discussion of human psychology.”
Later St. Augustine continued to focus on the effective and ethical aspects of communication. In a sense Augustine recovered rhetoric for the church, arguing that truth was not enough. Message and method were both important. Eventually Christian scholars constructed a model for a liberal arts education, which begins with the Trivium of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric.
This approach dominated the study of communication in Western colleges and universities until two world wars in the 20th century caused scholars to consider the implications of the mass media, particularly as they related to the study of propaganda. In 1963 Wilbur Schramm, Director of the Stanford Institute for Communication Research, published The Science of Human Communication, identifying the four “founding fathers” of modern communication research as political scientist Harold Lasswell, social psychologist Kurt Lewin, Sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld, and experimental psychologist Carl Hovland.
By 1960 most speech departments, still influenced by classical tradition while attempting to accommodate an emerging social science paradigm, had become departments of communication. Research continues along both lines, in a sometimes uneasy peace, providing theoretical and practical understanding of four basic contexts: interpersonal, public, mass media and intercultural communication. Em Griffin’s popular introductory text on communication theory calls these two frameworks scientific and interpretive, and the interaction between these approaches in some ways strengthens the discipline.” Each provides its own map of reality, however, although a map is not the same thing as the reality it represents.
Helping students makes sense of these maps is the task of any communication department, and the task at first seems daunting. To begin with, students are most interested in the more practical aspects of communication, such as how to get a date or a job. And they live in a postmodern culture where the arts and the academy challenge every way of knowing and every claim of truth, often to the point of despair.
But in a Christian university the idea of truth and the search for it have yet to be abandoned. What we offer is wisdom in a biblical sense, which has both theoretical and practical implications for communication. John Peck and Charles Strohmer define biblical wisdom as “the way you see life and how you act in it according to the way you see it.” Proverbs 8, for example, personifies biblical wisdom as “the craftsman at His [God’s] side…rejoicing always in His [God’s] presence.” We are craftsman, applying biblical principles to real problems. Faith without works, as the Apostle James notes, is dead.
This active faith causes the Apostle Paul, a rabbi trained in Old Testament traditions, to reject the Greek ideal of abstract truth and argument. Peck and Strohmer put it this way: “Greek wisdom set so high a value on the beauty of literary form, logical analysis, and sophisticated vocabulary that these qualities alone became the authenticators of truth. If it was skilled rhetoric it was true. Here was an idolatry of mind and speech that produced a style of communication that lost interest in truth for its own sake.”
In 1 Corinthians 1 and 2 Paul goes to some length to contrast God’s wisdom with the world’s wisdom, which in his case was most decidedly Greek. God’s wisdom, he argues, is wiser than man’s wisdom and appears foolish (1:25). But he is not calling here for a message rooted in emotion or intuition, but for a grounded and applied wisdom rooted in the Gospel itself. As he puts it, “We do speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom integration of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began (2:6-8).”
Because we have different ways of seeing the world, Christians proclaim and do things differently. Certainly hidden and conflicting assumptions cause communication to break down (the Gospel appears as foolishness). But it doesn’t end there, as postmodernists might suggest. Our wisdom affects our heads, our hearts and our hands, leading to a constructive and hopeful engagement with our neighbors. For while we recognize that communication doesn’t always work well, we believe it does work. It is limited and flawed. It has gaps and slippage and ambivalence. As Christians would say, it is fallen. But it reveals as well as conceals, and it creates closeness as well as distance. It is a fire and a poison, but it can also be a fig tree and a fountain (James 3).
Our constructive and hopeful engagement depends on two truths, and they suggest something about the perspective unique of Christian higher education. First, as Christ taught, communication comes from the inside out. He says, “the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart (Matthew 15:18).” Even his argument against swearing is not so much that we shouldn’t as that we shouldn’t have to: “But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil (Matthew 5:8).”
This focus on character is consistent in all biblical teaching about communication, and is stated clearly in Ephesians 4:15: “Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” For Christian communicators, motives matter. It’s not just what we say, or how we say it. Ultimately it’s not even about why we say it. It’s about who we are. We speak the truth in love. This is the mark of effective, mature communication— an integrity uniting message with motive to create meaning.
This sort of credibility is the focus of much communication study, from Aristotle to Hovland, from both the interpretive and scientific paradigms. Deception has been defined and measured by Burgoon and many others. But in all of this, results are the primary focus. And the results that are measured are largely changes in thinking, not changes in behavior. But Christian scholars are interested in how we persuade people, and why we persuade people and what we persuade them to do. We want to know about methods and messenger, about motives and message. Communication should be authentic, proceeding from the inside out.
The second perspective we offer is that it should also be responsible. We are not only interested in what we meant to say, but in what others understood. We are concerned about the whole process, from motive to effect. And we have some ideas about what that effect should be.
So what is this responsibility, and what is its outcome? The writer of Ecclesiastes offers one conclusion: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man (Ecclesiastes 12:13, KJV).” Note how this collector and organizer of wisdom literature connects what we believe with what we do. But despite his apparent protestations to the contrary, is there a purpose to everything under the sun? Yes. He suggests several times “there is nothing better” than knowing and doing the work God gives us with gratitude and joy.
He also offers a glimpse into his own approach for constructing a message still studied for both its elegance and advice. He says he “pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs [and] searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true. The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails (Ecclesiastes 12:9-11).” As communication scholars and practitioners this is the power we have, and the work to which we are called: Researching and creating messages that sound right and are right (upright and true), messages which persuade (goad) and reinforce (nails) Godly wisdom.
Schultze has explored this work in Communicating for Life. The subtitle, Christian Stewardship in Community and Media, returns us to the creative power we share with God, and our responsibility for it. He suggests we are co-creators of culture, specifically charged to foster communities of shalom, an ancient Hebrew word suggesting the presence of God in every day relationships. It is more than peace. It is a world in harmony with God’s purpose and design, a world where “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other (Psalm 85:10).”
Does this stewardship suggest anything about the hopeful and constructive engagement with the world to which we are called? Can it help us watch a movie or give a better speech? Can it help us build stronger marriages and families? Or reach across cultural barriers with understanding and patience?
Certainly, but it allows us to do more. It allows us, like Christ, to clothe the Word in flesh, as imitators of Him. In the beginning was the Word. But then, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:13-14).” Grace and truth. Motive and message.
That’s the way it has been, and should be. From the beginning.
Beebe, G. A Concept to Keep. Spring Arbor University Press; Spring Arbor, 2003.
Griffin, E. A first look at communication theory. McGraw Hill: St. Louis, 2003.
Kennedy, G. On rhetoric: A theory of civil discourse. Oxford University: New York, 1991.
Peck, J. & Stromher, C. Uncommon sense: God’s wisdom for our complex and changing world. Wise Press: Sevierville, TN, 2000.
Schramm, W. The science of human communication. Basic Book: New York, 1963.
Schultze, Q. Communicating for life. Baker: Grand Rapids, 2000.