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).
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.
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).
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]