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The Drama of Grace: A Pentadic Analysis

I woke up with this on my mind this morning. I’m going to write it out. This is exactly what the dropped chapter of my book was about, if you’re ever curious, but this will be in normal talk (not weird geek-speak).

Rhetorical Criticism

As with any academic discipline, rhetorical criticism has several “branches.” There’s the Neo-Aristotelian sort that reinterprets and reduces Aristotle to effectiveness and analyzes a given example of dead-white-guy talk against the five canon (invention, style, delivery, organization . . . and what was that other one? Oh yes, memory!). Most Neo-Aristotelian stuff was a history lesson that diverted away from the text altogether. So Edwin Black came along in 1952 and said, “Hey! What happened to the speeches? And why are we only talking about the effective ones. Let’s find the ‘strange and moving’ ones.”

And the discipline really blossomed from there. We still have the historians who painfully and carefully reconstruct the context of particular rhetorical situations. We’ve got close-textual guys who talk about the text, the whole text, and nothing but the text; they see speeches like literature — beautiful works to be unfolded and appreciated. We’ve got ideological critics (Marxists, feminists, etc.) who identify and judge the power discourse in all sorts of texts (buildings, ads, recipes) against a particular set of values. I’m, of course, being overly reductionistic about this, but it is a blog post.

Kenneth Burke 

These are all my teachers. I had a Neo-Aristotelian. I had a Edwin Black sort. I had a bunch of historians. I had a close-textual guy. I had a a few ideological dudes. But I put most of my money on Burkean criticism.

Kenneth Burke looked at the drama of a given text. His pentad is rather familiar: agent (who?), act (what?), agency (how?), scene (where?), purpose (why?). But the answers to those questions are never as simple as the speaker, speaking, on TV, in America, to get votes. Burke wanted us to get behind those immediate details and see what drama the speaker is re-creating. What’s his story?

And . . . there are basically two: tragedy and comedy. The purpose of tragedy is to purify a person or group through some kind of death (literal or figurative). Tragedy needs a scapegoat to take the guilt and punishment for everyone else to be pure. Burke argued that all human endeavor was bent toward tragedy. We want perfection, we fall short (Paul’s lingo, not Burke’s), we look around for someone to blame (the Jews, the poor, the oddball, the dissident), we expunge/punish/kill that person, and we’re perfect again! Which, as you can guess, just reboots the whole process. If that sounds somewhat familiar to Christian ears, it should. Burke had a bit of a morbid but agnostic curiousity with Christian theology (to him, it was the best example of rhetoric in the West. To take an infinite God and explain Him to finite creatures!), and he saw Christ’s death as the archetype for tragedy (he was wrong, but I’ll get to that later).

Burke was disappointed in tragedy. He saw it too much. Human beings too easily throw their own “under the bus.” Deeply disturbed by what he read in Mein Kampf, he proposed comedy instead. In comedy, there is no expunging or punishing or killing; there’s correcting and critiquing and laughing at the flaws we all share. Rather than reach for perfection, poke fun at human foibles. Rather than point fingers at the weirdo in the corner, look inside at yourself and see your own problems in him. Rather than kill off the unsavory element, correct and educate. We’re all fools, Burke assumed, and we all need critique.

Comedy isn’t ignorant or hypocritical or permissive or forced unity. It can get heated. It can get intense. But Burke urged us to see our “others” as adversaries, not enemies. You kill off your enemies because they are evil. But you argue with and correct your adversaries because they are simply mistaken. Grant always reminds me of this when I get too intense: “Honey, they aren’t evil, just mistaken.” Ack — I hate it when he listens to me. 😉

A Christian View

Burke got it wrong when he concluded that Christianity originated tragedy. And that’s why I picked up Walter Wink in the first place. In describing his “Myth of Redemptive Violence,” Wink finds tragedy’s pagan roots. Pagan creation myths, for instance, describe our beginnings as starting with death and chaos and violence and with life springing from that tragedy. God tells the story differently. His world began as “very good,” and human beings messed it up.

At the cross, however, Christ “finished” the story of tragedy. He turned us all into comedians. The debt was paid. Sacrifice was over. The law of love was restored. We believers were “very good” again in the eyes of God.

In other words, God’s story of redemption is a comedy. Burke didn’t know it. He knew it was possible and assumed we could only get a glimpse of that comedy every so often. But in Christ, there’s no need to kill or expunge or punish. We are complete in Him. It is finished.

So Grace is a totally different drama. It is Burkean comedy. The Gospel is the opposite of pagan tragedy in every way.

The Drama of Grace

And when you look at the stories in Scripture, every one of them is a comedy. Every one is about Grace in Christ. Tragedy is a pagan perversion. It is all a human can imagine outside of God.

Awhile back a friend brought over her favorite Bollywood movie. I had never seen one before. The production values were impressive. Colorful costumes, lively music. She told me that all the Bollywood stories are the same:

  • Boy grows up.
  • Father arranges marriage for boy within the caste.
  • Boy meets girl outside of caste.
  • Boy and girl are married.
  • Father rejects boy. “You are dead to me.” Father concludes.
  • Boy leaves for London with wife. Boy builds a successful, happy life which should make his father proud.
  • Boy returns to Father. Boy begs for forgiveness. “I am dirt. You are a god to me.” Or something similar.
  • Father very reluctantly half-forgives him.
  • The end.

Compare that to God’s version — the Prodigal Son.

  • Boy grows up.
  • Boy leaves Father with his inheritance.
  • Boy blows all his money and ends up living with swine.
  • Boy figures life as his Father’s servant is better than this.
  • Boy returns, prepared to say he’s dirt.
  • Father, who has been looking for him, sees him returning and calls the caterer and presses a new Armani suit for him.
  • The end.

It’s entirely different story. The “good son” — the one who stayed around and thought his father loved him for how he had worked for him all these years — was still stuck in tragedy. Just like the workers who worked all day long for their pay. They thought it was about them. It wasn’t. It was about the Father’s generous love. The story of Grace is God’s story. It’s the Gospel.

But . . . .

You may be thinking, “Yeah, but, Camille. I don’t buy it. You were mean to me. You said something ugly about so-n-so. You talk about Grace but you don’t live it out. You’re ruining God’s grace by __________.”

Yeah. I mess up. You’re right. I was sorry then, and I still am. But honestly, rather than hoisting me on my own petard, you’re proving my point. If this story were about me, you’d need to throw it out because I’m just totally unable to cut it (tragic stories by their very nature rise and fall on human consistency. If you hear demands to be consistent, look for the tragic mechanism.). But it’s not about me getting it right all the time. We’re all prodigals (even the good son that stayed behind was a prodigal because he didn’t know that the Father just loved him because the Father was good. The son thought the Father loved him because the son did good.). We all end up with the swine.

But living with the swine doesn’t ruin God’s Grace at all. I can’t ruin it. It’s not about me. I can’t let it in and out by my actions. It just is. I can live in it and I should. I mean, nobody wants to dine on swill, but sometimes we’re too stupid (not evil!) to know any better. And I’m still the Father’s child even sitting with the hogs.

What Grace Isn’t

I’ve perceived some talk that presumes Grace is saying “please” or being calm or smiling while you punch someone in the throat. Or Christian rhetoric is always polite and mannerly and well-groomed. No, Grace isn’t a function of style. It’s not just nice. It’s a whole new story. A whole new drama. A completely different rhetoric.

One of the most gracious stories in the Gospels is Christ’s driving out the money changers out of the temple. That was our story last week in Children’s Church. As we colored the picture and talked about it, a little girl across from me observed that the money changer looked very, very angry. I’m sure he thought that Christ wasn’t full of Grace at all. Now, we all know He was! Christ was not being “nice.” He didn’t say “please.” He wasn’t smiling. He wasn’t calm. But angrily and forcefully driving out the corruption from His Father’s House was the most gracious thing He could have done. It was shocking! But it was comic correction (to use the Burkean vocabulary).

The Story

And this has been my goal since my professor explained it to me way back when. How can I make this event into a comedy? Or, better yet, how can I make this a Grace story? How can I tell this in the light of the Gospel?

When our daughter died, I read a lot of stories from moms who described their lost children as “too good for this world.” I thought, “No. That’s not it. That’s deifying the child — sacrificing her for this lousy world. Christ already finished that.” And I’ve tried to tell Elise’s story as a comedy. That doesn’t mean you end up laughing at the end. It means that her death is not a tragedy that purifies me, but a horrible event that God has made into something beautiful (hence the name of this blog).

When God blessed us with our sons, we were thrown into a tailspin. All this praying for children, now what? How do we raise them? God brought us to understand that instead of expunging evil from their lives or treating them as a sacrifice for our sins, Grant and I must live out the Gospel in our parenting. Correcting, of course, but never expunging or rejecting them based on their mistakes. Our actions or their goodness doesn’t save them, after all; Christ does!

There are more stories that I could relate. Some are too fresh still. I fail often, I assure you. And I’ll do it again. God, I believe, is teasing out this drama of Grace all the time. I mean, it’s one thing to tell the story of Grace when you’ve got it altogether. But how do you tell the story when you’re the scapegoat in someone else’s drama? That’s a toughie. And I’m still working on that one. . . . Christ does pretty well with that though.

So I’m trying to tell the stories of my life as the drama of Grace — as corrective comedies that point toward God’s goodness. So . . . what’s your story?

[tags]Kenneth Burke, Rhetorical Criticism, Productive criticism, Burkean comedy, comic correction, tragedy, stillbirth, Grace, pentad, dramatistic criticism[/tags]

20 thoughts on “The Drama of Grace: A Pentadic Analysis

  1. This reminds me of Advanced Public Speaking. I still have Wink’s book on my shelf! I just looked at it the other day. 🙂

    I pre-ordered your book from Amazon today. I’m greatly looking forward to reading it. I’ve been anticipating it coming out for a long time now.

    Hope you’re doing well!

  2. Camille,

    When Clay and I went through a horrible time of personal rejection
    and crisis at the hands of abusive church leadership, I spent a long
    time wanting the drama to just cease to exist. And then one day it
    dawned on me that it was all for my good, even the most painful aspects
    of it all. And slowly, one day at a time, I began to see that God was doing
    a new work, just as you have so perfectly described it. I was no longer
    the same person.It was at that point that I began to have an inkling
    what grace really was and that every aspect of my life had to
    express it. I can honestly now say that I am thankful for the horrible,
    ugly experiences. They taught me how to be a person who longs
    for grace in my life and who can’t wait to extend it to others.

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts….

  3. But how do you tell the story when you’re the scapegoat in someone else’s drama? That’s a toughie. And I’m still working on that one. . . . Christ does pretty well with that though.


    Christ just came waltzing back into the camp. With bells on. And a great big grin.

    Plus, he named names! My favorite of Christ’s sayings: “Mary!”

    Go tell…

    A faithful witness delivers her soul.

    Be not dismayed at their faces.

  4. Question:

    In this rhetorical system of grace, how does Christ’s death fit in? It seems to me that God couldn’t just forget all of our blunders and rebellions without some kind of payment. To do so would call into question His justice and holiness.

  5. In this rhetorical system of grace, how does Christ’s death fit in? It seems to me that God couldn’t just forget all of our blunders and rebellions without some kind of payment. To do so would call into question His justice and holiness.

    Hey, Andrew. That’s a huge question and a very good one. I can’t say that I can answer it all, of course. Why did Christ have to die? I asked the same thing several months ago, and a dear friend pointed me to Louis Berkhof for an explanation. In his discussion on atonement, he makes that point clear: Christ had to die, and in so doing, He changed us! So I’ll let the systematizers do the work for me.

    The atonement was destined to affect the relation of God to the sinner, the state and condition of Christ as the Mediatorial author of salvation, and the state and condition of the sinner.
    1. ITS EFFECT WITH REFERENCE TO GOD. It should be emphasized first of all that the atonement effected no change in the inner being of God, which is unchangeable. The only change that was brought about was a change in the relation of God to the objects of His atoning love. He was reconciled to those who were the objects of His judicial wrath. This means that His wrath was warded off by the sacrificial covering of their sin. The atonement should not be represented as the moving cause of the love of God, for it was already an expression of His love. It is often represented as if, on the satisfaction theory, Gcd could not love the sinner until His just demands were met. But then the fact is overlooked that Christ is already the gift of God’ s love, John 3: 16. At the same time it is perfectly true that the atonement did remove obstacles to the manifestation of God’ s redeeming love in the pardoning of sinners and in their sanctification, by satisfying the justice of God and the demands of the law, both in its federal and penal aspects.

    2. ITS EFFECT WITH RESPECT TO CHRIST. The atonement secured a manifold reward for Christ as Mediator. He was constituted the life-giving Spirit, the inexhaustible source of all the blessings of salvation for sinners. He received:
    a. All that belonged to His glorification, including His present Messianic glory. Hence He prayed, when in His high priestly prayer He by anticipation already thought of His work as completed, “And now, Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was,” John 17: 5.
    b. The fulness of those gifts and graces which He imparts to His people. Thus we read in Ps. 68: 18: “Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast led captivity captive ; thou hast received gifts for men ; yea for the rebellious also, that the Lord might dwell among them .” Paul applies this to Christ in Eph. 4: 8.
    c. The gift of the Holy Spirit for the formation of His mystical body and the subjective application of the fruits of His atoning work. This is evident from the words of Peter on the day of Pentecost: “Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He hath shed forth this which ye now see and hear,” Acts 2:33.

    d. The ends of the earth for His possession and the world for His dominion. This was one of the promises made unto Him: “Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession,” Ps. 2: 8. That this promise was fulfilled is quite evident from Heb. 2: 6-9.

    a. The atonement not only made salvation possible for the sinner, but actually secured it. On this point Calvinists join issue with the Roman Cath. olics, the Lutherans, the Arminians, and all those who teach a universal atone- ment. These hold that the atonement of Christ merely made salvation possible, and not certain, for those for whom it was offered. But the Calvinist teaches that the atonement meritoriously secured the application of the work of redemp. tion to those for whom it was intended and thus rendered their complete salvation certain.

    b. It secured for those for whom it was made: ( 1 ) A proper judicial standing through justification. This includes the forgiveness of sin, the adoption of children, and the right to an eternal inheritance. ( 2 ) The mystical union of believers with Christ through regeneration and sanctification. This comprises the gradual mortification of the old man, and the gradual putting on of the new man created in Christ Jesus. ( 3 ) Their final bliss in communion with God through Jesus Christ, in subjective glorification, and in the enjoyment of eternal life in a new and perfect creation. All this clearly obviates the objection so often raised against the penal substitutionary doctrine of the atonement, namely, that it has no ethical bearings and offers no basis for the ethical life of the redeemed. It may even be said that it is the only doctrine of the atonement that offers a secure basis for a real ethical life, a life that is rooted in the heart through the operation of the Holy Spirit. Justification leads right on to sanctification.

    Louis Berkhof. Systematic Theology. (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996). Page 393-94.

  6. I wonder if Berkhof has left something out: the effect with reference to the rest of Creation. Perhaps he explains that else where in his book–which I have not read.

    I will keep thinking, but there is a nagging impression in the back of my mind that Berkhof doesn’t exactly answer my question. Maybe I need to rethink the question. Hmm. 🙂

  7. I really understand the wrestling, Andrew. To be honest, this conversation we’re having is the third this week I’ve had about the same thing!! And I didn’t start any of them, but I find myself joining all of them. 😉

    Part of me wonders if we who are the theological descendents of Calvin the Lawyerly Theologian are just not seeing the whole picture. Is sin a problem because it makes just God angry and He needs to vent it on His Son? Or is sin a problem because it separates us from a holy God? Both Berkhof and my Wesleyan theologian friend point toward the second. So that’s what I’m teasng out. Another friend gave me a lengthy article that I’m digesting still, but I’m not sure that . . . well, agree with it wholly. ::shrug::

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