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448 pages
Sep 2004
Baker Academic

In The World: Reading And Writing As A Christian

by John H. Timmerman & Don Hettinga

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An Introduction to Rhetoric

Think about the writing you like to read. What are its qualities? Perhaps it attracts you with a fresh, clear style. Perhaps it shows you something new, opens a world you have not seen before, or reminds you of one that you might have forgotten. Perhaps it stimulates you, makes you want to argue or shout; or, perhaps, it gives you a quiet feeling and makes you ponder the ideas or images presented.

The writing you do for classes and for your career should have the same qualities, those that make us say “This is good!” Good writing, however, doesn’t just happen. It takes work, and it takes a basic understanding of what writing teachers call rhetorical situations. Every time we write, unless we’re scribbling in a diary or musing in a journal, we’re addressing a public audience, and we want to say something to that audience. The audience may be an audience of one, or it could be a cast of thousands, but however large it is, we writers are writing to it for some purpose. We want to make the readers laugh or send us money, we want them to understand something the way we understand it, or we want to inspire them to action. But whatever our goals, we want our readers to be affected by our writing.

This means that successful writing needs to begin with critical thinking, with problem solving. We might have some sense of topic or even a writing. We also need to think about what our intended audience knows or believes about the topic. We don’t want to overwhelm them by giving too much esoteric information too quickly, and we don’t want to bore them by telling them things they already know. We want to use language that fits the situation, and we want to write in a style that’s appropriate to the final form. You already do this instinctively. The language and style of an email message you send to friends is different from the language and style of a lab report or term paper that you submit for a class.

Every time we write, whether we’re conscious of it or not, we’re working with a rhetorical situation with three variables that determine how we write what we write: purpose, audience, and persona. Our understanding of those three variables will shape the choices we make as we compose. If we don’t have a firm grasp on each of these variables, chances are that our writing will slip away from us, or we won’t even be able to get started. Very often the writer who feels blocked, the writer whose wastebasket brims over with crumpled drafts, doesn’t have a clear sense of the rhetorical situation.


When we write, we are writing in order to say something. We want to explain, to cajole; we want to argue, to implore; we want to humor or admonish—we want to do something. Yet as obvious as this point seems, we often forget it when writing for an instructor’s assignment. Sometimes the assignments we receive do not encourage clarity of purpose. Sometimes we lack the time to write the paper we want. Sometimes we are simply careless. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that all too often we hide the purpose of our discourse. Notice how the following paragraph hides its purpose:

    The real disasters in life come when you get what you want. For almost a century now, a great many intelligent and well-meaning people have argued against any form of censorship of art and entertainment. Within the past twenty years, courts and legislatures have found these arguments very persuasive so that censorship is now a relative rarity in most states.

Although this seems to introduce a paper that will argue against gratification of desire or that will detail the scarcity of censorship, that is not the case. The author of this paper was really attempting to argue for censorship of pornographic material. Unfortunately, his purpose never becomes clear.

At other times, the problem comes not from the lack of an apparent purpose but from trying to say too many things at once. Notice how this writer starts her essay moving in several directions at the same time:

    The Middle East is a hot spot for the United States right now. Much talk about whether or not our country should follow the course of further involvement has been in the news lately. The United States already has large amounts of money invested in Israel, but it would seem that supporting the Palestinians is necessary to achieve peace. Understanding the problems in the Middle East is difficult. Most people agree that direct involvement like that of Iraq leads in a blind path to nowhere. However, the situation is complex, and much of the information coming from Israel or Palestine is one-sided. Also most Americans are more concerned with Al Qaeda and believe that Israel has a biblical right to own its territory.

While we know that the author is writing about the Middle East, that is about all we know. Her precise subject is not clear. Will she write about the U.S. commitment to Israel? Will she discuss the Palestinian perspective? Will she make an analogy between the war in Iraq and the conflict on the Gaza Strip? Will she write about the complexity of the situation? About Al Qaeda? American popular opinion? About an American view of biblical history? As readers, we are impatient; we want to know where an essay will take us. As writers, we need to consider our audiences.


If all writing should say something, it should say something to someone. Closely paired with purpose in writing is audience. Again, the point is obvious but often ignored. All the elements of style—diction, syntax, tone—can work for you in addressing your audience.

We talk to children differently than to adults; we address a teacher in a different manner than we address our parents. We make those adjustments in our spoken language almost automatically. We need to do the same thing when we write. But this is more than a matter of using small words and simple syntax when we’re writing to children. It’s more than a matter of sprinkling in a few hip terms in an article for the college newspaper or adding a smattering of terminology in an essay for your psychology class. Writing to a particular audience involves your overall strategy in that particular piece of writing. Developing a draft is like solving a problem—you need to devise a strategy to make this group of people engage your topic the way you want them to. Consider the differences in the following four approaches to a paper on a biblical image.

The first takes the form of a letter to a friend who is not a Christian:

    Dear Chris,
    The point you make in your last letter is right. Christianity sounds crazy when you pay close attention to the images of the Bible. But you’ve got to remember that much of Christianity is a paradox. In part, the images help us understand that. Take the one you complain about—being washed in the blood. Yeah, it is gross if you take it literally, but let me try to explain it. Understanding what washing meant to the Hebrews will help you understand what we Christians mean when we talk about being redeemed or about being servants or about being in the world but not of the world.

The second addresses the readers of a popular Christian magazine:

    “Yuck, Papa!” exclaimed my four-year-old. “I don’t want to be washed in Jesus’ blood. I don’t have to, do I? Where do they get the blood?” Theological concepts we take for granted often become puzzling when we try to explain them to children. Words we read in responsive readings or sing in hymns suddenly sound foreign to us. What does it mean to be washed in blood? The answer to this question is not found in any one place in the Bible, for although this important image has its roots in the tradition of the Old Testament, it is also important to an understanding of New Testament concepts like justification, sanctification, and discipleship.

The third addresses the readers of a tract:

    We all know what it’s like to be dirty. We’ve sweated on the line in the factory or while pushing the lawn mower on a humid August afternoon. We’ve all felt dirty from guilt, too. Maybe it was that time we saw our best friend right after we had been gossiping about his love life. What we said wasn’t terrible, but it sure made us feel guilty later. Maybe you think Christians don’t get dirty. They do, but they are different in one way. They have a way to get clean. The Bible says that Jesus Christ can wash any sins away.

The fourth speaks to the readers of a special column in the religion section of a city newspaper:

    “Soak your shirt in cold water, Adrianne,” called her mother. “I’ll get the Oxyclean.” Most of us are as skilled as Adrianne’s mother at removing a blood stain from a new blouse. Blood is one of those nasty stains that detergent manufacturers warn us about, and we are well prepared to fight it. Consequently, we can hardly help thinking Christians are crazy when they proclaim that to be as white as snow, people must be washed in blood. Even as a metaphor, this does not work. Or does it? The paradox it represents is at the heart of the Christian religion and, therefore, deserves our attention.

You can see the variations in strategy as the writer addresses the same topic for different audiences. The writer has considered what the audience might know or believe about the topic and has tried to meet the audience on its own ground. The letter to Chris acknowledges the audience’s skepticism; the magazine article assumes the audience’s familiarity, perhaps even an overfamiliarity with the topic, and tries to frame the subject in a fresh way; the tract attempts to establish a rapport with readers before introducing the topic; and the column assumes an audience with diverse religious beliefs as well as an intellectual interest in religion.

Paying attention to your audience can help you focus an otherwise nebulous topic. As you consider your audience’s knowledge, beliefs, and interests, you will discover strategies that will help you shape your writing. Notice how the following strategies might help the writer of that paper on the Middle East focus her topic:





Present your own attempts to understand the issue, explaining that none of your previous attempts worked.

You could explain what confuses you about the current situation in the Middle East, thus setting up your readers for an essay that tries to describe the problem.

Use phrases like, “I used to think . . . , but now I think . . .”; or “If you’re like me, you find it hard to understand . . .”; or “Part of me thinks . . . , but another part thinks . . .”

Point out answers or theories that don’t adequately address the issue.

You might explain why the Israeli and the Palestinian perspectives are both inadequate to understand the complete picture in the Middle East.

By pointing out the inadequacies of other explanations, you are establishing your own credibility with your audience. Use straightforward, unemotional prose and solid evidence.

Dispel a misconception.

If your audience either believes or doesn’t believe that Israel has a biblical right to the disputed territories, you could try to set the record straight.

Use phrases like, “Although you (or we) may have always believed that . . . , new evidence (or an honest assessment, etc.) indicates that . . .”

Place the issue in a larger context.

Explain the historical context or political ramifications of the issue.

Shift your focus from the broad original topic to the points of connection between the topic and this broader context. Use solid evidence.

These strategies aren’t merely techniques for effective writing, however. As indicated in the introductory essay, the writer’s attitude toward the audience bears ethical significance. Consider two examples that demonstrate ethical guidelines for consideration of the audience. First, in an argumentative essay, you want to demonstrate that your point of view is correct and reasonable. But do you do this by ignoring the credibility of the other side’s argument? There must be another point of view, after all, or your own point of view is not worth asserting. To argue that oak is wood or that cocker spaniels are dogs simply is not very important unless someone else is convinced that oak is an automobile or cocker spaniels are rabbits. If you want to argue that modern society has to learn to relax more, that must be because modern society works too hard. If you want to argue that students should attend worship services more frequently, that must be because they are not doing so now. To get the reader to take your argument seriously, you need to demonstrate that you know both sides of the issue. Your argument always gains more merit, clarity, and reasonableness if you grant certain concessions to the other point of view. Indicate why modern society works too hard and what the good values of such work might be. Point out why students do not worship frequently enough and what the context for that failure might be. By establishing a certain sympathy, you can communicate with a larger audience—not just those already in agreement with you—and your argument acquires greater influence.

A second example also illumines our consideration of audience. As a Christian writer, you will want to make biblical truth come to bear on your argument. We must understand, however, that Christianity is not something we “tack on” to our daily living. Rather, it becomes an integral part of daily life. In the same way, your Christian view should not be “tacked on” to your essay in a didactic closing statement. It must be integrated into the very fabric of the essay itself. The general concluding Christian statement is often sentimental and sometimes offensive to the audience. Question the impulse to conclude with a Bible verse. The audience must be aware of your point of view throughout the essay. If you close the essay with a comment such as “God doesn’t want us to support the Palestinians,” the audience might be offended. Why? The appeal is stated defiantly, not reasonably, and defiance works to alienate, not to educate, the audience. A mature consideration of the audience would permit the audience to follow your argument step-by-step through the essay, rather than rely on a parting shot in the final sentence.

You need to consider your audience in order to write ethically. You will be writing essays for different purposes and for different audiences. But in each case it will also be profitable to think of yourself as the audience and to ask how you would want to be informed, argued with, or written to. Think of this as “the golden rule of writing.”


The term persona refers to the person doing the writing, the identity you assume whenever you write and the person that readers imagine as they read your writing. Like a real person, this persona has a voice that tries to convince the audience of the truth of your perspective on the subject. You might be writing as a close friend of the audience, or you might be writing as an impersonal expert; you might be writing as a victim, or you might be writing as an activist. To decide on an appropriate voice, you should consider your purpose and your audience as well, for all three things work together.

If, as you work on a first draft, you consider your intentions (purpose) and your reader (audience), you will recognize the importance of your writing voice (persona). You will realize that how you say what you say will affect what your audience thinks of your ideas and, consequently, will determine whether or not you achieve your purpose. If you look back at the chart on page 23, you can see that choice of strategy is clearly tied to definition of persona.

Consider the voice of this chapter. By addressing our audience as you and by using examples, we have tried to create an informal, helpful voice. We could alter that voice by changing our diction, our syntax, or our attitude toward the audience. Compare what we have already written with the following paragraph:

    All discourse entails the use of a persona, a fictive identity that communicates the rhetorical stance of the author. Integral to this strategy is voice, the personification of style. One needs to select an appropriate and authentic voice in order to enjoy success as a writer.

No doubt as you read this version of the opening of this section, you imagine a different persona, one more formal and academic.

As with purpose and audience, your creation of a persona carries certain ethical implications. Recognizing that you adopt different personas for different purposes—an informed persona, a highly formal one, an authoritative one—you bear a responsibility to maintain a consistent persona within one essay. If you write timidly and questioningly at first, then shift to an energetic, argumentative voice, then to a skeptical, scornful voice, the audience will be thoroughly confused.

But consistency isn’t the only important issue. As a Christian, you will want to pay close attention to the type of persona you create. You need to remember that the eyes of others are on your persona, just as they are on your person. Consequently, you will want to shape a persona who will bear witness to your faith. Here the significance of paying attention to the other side of an issue becomes important once again. You may believe that abortion is murder, but to use a persona who shouts that belief at the reader, pointing an accusing or condescending finger at her, may not be the best witness. On rare occasions we may need to speak prophetically to the world or to our communities, but even then we should write under the rubric of the Great Commandment, to love our neighbors as ourselves. The fruits of the Spirit should be evident in our writing, just as they should be evident in other aspects of our lives.

You will want your persona to represent your beliefs honestly. While the secular writer may be content with any persona that works successfully with the audience, the Christian is not. Saint Paul considered this issue in his second letter to the church at Corinth. In writing to that church, he anticipates their complaint that he might be using a dishonest persona: “For they say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.’” To such complaints, Paul responds, “Let such people understand that what we say by letter when absent, we will also do when present” (2 Cor. 10:10–11 NRSV).

For you as for Paul, clarity and honesty of persona should be an ethical issue to which you pay close attention.