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Authentic Communication: Christian Speech Engaging Culture

Tim Muehlhoff, Todd V. Lewis
Published by IVP Academic in 2010

It is the perennial discussion topic at Christian university faculty workshops and seminars. It is the seemingly-elusive goal of the Christian college classroom. It is the subject of concern among education policy experts and educational philosophers. Simply stated, the questions raised by those interested in the integration of Christian faith and learning are nowhere near a resolution: What is integration of faith and learning? What is it not? Can it be done? If it can be done, should we do it? What might it look like? How can it be assessed?

Fortunately, for those whose vocations are collaborations of the campus, the church, and the culture, InterVarsity Press has inaugurated its Christian Worldview Integration Series(CWIS) edited by Biola’s J. P. Moreland and Baylor’s Francis J. Beckwith. Authentic Communication joins three earlier volumes in the series on education, psychology, and political science.The publisher is currently marketing the four-volume paperback set online ($70.40).

One concern that ripples throughout the volume is the authors’ heavy reliance on theological scholarship from within the dispensational and revivalist traditions. Had the authors also drawn upon evangelical scholarship informed by Reformed, Wesleyan, Anglican, and other Christian traditions, the resulting work would be more robust. Promotional literature for the series defines faith and learning integration as the process of “structuring the mind so we can see things as they really are and strengthening the belief structure that ought to inform the individual and corporate life of discipleship unto Jesus.” Muehlhoff and Lewis are Biola University communication studies professors with conservative, evangelical pedigrees. Those readers who might have expected evidence of series co-editor Beck with’s more Roman Catholic or even catholic (small “c”) commitments will perhaps be disappointed.

Authentic Communication delivers on its promise to direct us toward “reclaim[ing] a deep appreciation for human communication” (30). While speech activity is central to the human experience, the general public—and most certainly the academy—often neglect the millennia of scholarship focusing on symbolic activity. In the case of communication studies, Christian scholars are more fortunate than their learned colleagues in other disciplines because the corpus of scholarship generally supports and illuminates the traditional Judeo-Christian worldview. To borrow the language of Moreland and Beck with’s preface to the series, integration in communication studies can be considered from a complementarity view, a direct-interaction view, a presuppositional view, and a practical application view. Communication studies is an academic discipline into which Christian academics may plunge with a great degree of confidence regardless of the view of integration they embrace.

That confidence is especially apparent in the first four chapters of the book, “Part One: Understanding the Components of Communication.” The section begins with a chapter-length polemic that establishes the importance and power of words in the public sphere as well as in relational contexts. Chapters 2 and 3 are especially engaging essays that focus on “Perspective Taking.” Here the authors skillfully weave scriptural principles, interpersonal communication scholarship, and intercultural communication research with their own personal experiences. Many in the Christian academy—not only the upper-level communication majors who are the target audience for this volume, but faculty, administrators, and students across the campus—would benefit from reflecting on the important role of empathy, listening, and turn-taking.

These early chapters feature the fluid mixing of important—I would argue seminal—work by linguists, rhetoricians, social psychologists, and communication scholars with excerpts from the Old and New Testaments. Thus the authors highlight the decades of classroom experience and intellectual finesse they bring to this work. Meaning, thought, and language are explained from a social scientific perspective and deftly demonstrated in the teachings of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, Muehlhoff and Lewis consistently exude a pastoral spirit as when they write that

[s]ecular theorists can help us understand the semantic dimensions of our word choices, but only God can transform our choices into meaningful expressions that not only allow us to worship him but also to draw others toward him….[T]he true power of our ability to communicate with others is merely a shadow ofwhat we were created to do. (78)

Chapter 4 provides a clear explanation of persuasion theory that is informed by a Christian ethic. As was the case with the Apostle to the Gentiles during his time, we and our students must be convinced that we are not judged by the “standards of contemporary sophists” during our time (96.) The sophists may “use tricks and devices to influence people” (97). We,on the other hand, can learn from Paul’s example by knowing “enough about rhetorical standards to attempt to adapt to his [or our] audience[s]” (97).

“Part Two: Applying Communication” moves readers more fully into a practical application view of integration, to make use of Moreland and Beckwith’s nomenclature. Here, as in Part One, Christian thinkers will feel at home as the integrative tasks are considered. The eight chapters that comprise this section are arranged in a logical manner. There is some overlap in the chapter topics, but the authors address conflict management (chapter 5), forgiveness (chapter 6), the messages of popular culture (chapter 7), Christians as a counter public(chapter 8), counter publics and postmodern culture (chapters 9 and 10), the so-called argument-culture in which we live (chapter 11), and social justice (chapter 12). The thoughtful reader recognizes the structural logic in Part Two as the book progresses from interpersonal, through cultural, and ultimately to global principles of eternal importance.

In chapters 5 and 6, solid traditional and contemporary communication studies researchis in evidence. Every North American interpersonal communication textbook includes a significant treatment of conflict. Its treatment here is no surprise. What signals that this is auniquely Christian treatment of human communication is the graceful and gentle treatmentof the topic of forgiveness in human relationships. Furthermore, the authors’ willingness todisclose their own communication-related struggles and experiences sets this book in a category of its own.

Chapter 7, devoted to meaning in popular culture, is appealing for at least two reasons. First, the emphasis on engaging culture rather than withdrawing from culture is stirring. Second, the chapter incorporates a fine, basic application of the critical methods of rhetorical scholar Kenneth Burke, thereby demonstrating the practical nature of rhetorical theory. In this case, the authors chose Barack Obama’s speech on the role of religion in the public sphere as the artifact for critique. The construction of a Burkean analysis—something that upper-level undergraduate communication majors should be beginning to do themselves—in the process of addressing messages found in popular culture is appreciated from a pedagogical perspective.

Using Nancy Fraser’s concept of “counter publics”—that is, “members of subordinated social groups” who “challenge the dominant culture’s understanding of their beliefs and the message they advance”—chapter 8 proposes that Christians find their collective voice in a sometimes hostile world (147). As William Wilberforce did in advancing the antislavery agenda in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England, so Christian communicators can serve and lead their culture today. Daniel Brouwer’s treatment of “counterculture as communication”takes on special relevance here. Countercultures may act in oppositionality, by withdrawal,or through engagement with the dominant culture. The authors of the current text argue convincingly that engagement with our culture is the appropriate response of concerned Christians.

The two chapters devoted to Christianity and postmodernism in the communication discipline (chapters 9 and 10) are easily worth the purchase price of the book. As noted, communication scholarship has much historically in common with a biblical worldview. Nonetheless, postmodernism has made inroads within the discipline. Convincing students of communication that they need to understand postmodernism is a challenge in itself. The authors takeup that challenge and propose a means for engaging in dialogue about the important questions raised by those who “view truth as being culturally relative” (167). The ideas of postmodernism are not unique to our age and herein the current text gathers strength to tackle meta narratives, Truth, reality, and meaning, among other thick questions.

This text offers up a challenge to Christians in the academy. While it would be easy to bemoan the advances of postmodern thought, Muehlhoff and Lewis wisely acknowledge postmodernism’s influences, recognize its queries, and argue that it fails as a satisfactory worldview. What refreshing advice to be told that as “Christian communicators, our job is to help people understand that some of the directions postmodernism sends them are helpful, while some are not” (180).

Linguist Deborah Tannen proposes that we live in a “pervasive warlike atmosphere thatmakes us approach anything as if it were a verbal fight” (182). This communication climate she terms the “argument culture.” It is the topic of chapter 11. Must we immediately position ourselves as adversaries to all those with whom we disagree? Perhaps we have created our own public relations crisis where “outside the Christian community [people] overwhelmingly see Christians as being judgmental individuals who feel spiritually superior to others”(183). Assuming for a moment that this is indeed the current norm describing how Christians are viewed, Muehlhoff and Lewis propose that we learn about “abnormal communication” as practiced by Jesus and Paul in the public sphere. The lessons are clear and challenging.

The final chapter of the book focuses on social justice. The communication studies discipline is a leader in the academy in “teaching for social justice.” This practice ought to be celebrated and its potential harnessed by Christians in higher education. Of course, Christians are active in “good works” that are orchestrated as ministry or charitable efforts. The authors here challenge students to consider the possibility that we should “link arms with those outside the walls of Christian universities or our churches” to serve in common causes(209). The end effect would be not only “[c]ollaborating with others on social-issues projects”in order to eliminate “acts of injustice,” but also to begin a conversation with our colaborers[sic] about the very notion of justice” (209-210).

In short, Authentic Communication is an excellent text for use in the upper-level communication classroom. It will also find an audience in other educated, but uninitiated readers whoare members of a faith-based campus community. Seldom is one book able to weave Mikhail Bakhtin, Martin Buber, Jean-François Lyotard, and S. I. Hayakawa together with Frank Dance,Ronald Arnett, Julia Wood, and John Durham Peters. Authentic Communication does this and applies contributions from John Wesley, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, L. Gregory Jones, Eugene Peterson, and Ron Nash as well. The book is a treasure.

Cite this article
Daniel S. Brown Jr., “Authentic Communication: Christian Speech Engaging Culture”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 40:3 , 328-331

Daniel S. Brown Jr.

Daniel S. Brown, Jr., Communication Studies, Grove City College