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Public speaking is one of the most common courses that one will find in the general education curriculum. Yet, we recently discovered that every Protestant university but six does not use a bit of Christian rhetoric when describing what they teach for that required class.1 All the course descriptions look just like any other secular university.

Now, we realize that course descriptions do not exactly tell you what is taught in the course, or the perspective taken by the professor. We do not mean to claim more for this discovery than is warranted. In fact, when Perry first mentioned to Lesa this recent discovery, he wondered if by gathering all the course syllabi for this course at these institutions, he would hopefully find some robust forms of Christ-animated learning. Unfortunately, I (Lesa) noted that this hope may be misplaced. I had previously collected many such syllabi for Communication Research Methods courses at one time.2 and also found little faith integration nor even the mention of “the liberal arts” in the syllabi. Much to my own dismay, my own syllabi are woefully inadequate in explicitly naming many of the Christian and Liberal Arts commitments I cover in these courses as well!

Overall, we find it ironic that in course descriptions where one would hope that Christian rhetoric about a course would be taken seriously, one hardly finds a trace of Christian rhetoric. The course descriptions give the impression that institutions have taken the Christ-added approach to their public speaking or speech courses. They hope Christian thinking will naturally enter the course if they require enough Bible courses.

Granted, education in rhetoric, or what is usually taught today as “public speaking,” has an ancient heritage even among the pagans. As one course description that does not mention Christianity notes, “Since ancient Greek and Roman times, rhetoric has been taught both as the foundation of a liberal arts education and as an essential skill of democratic citizenship.” Yet, this description is why we are suspicious of certain Christian approaches to the liberal arts. A Christian approach does not simply involve combining some Bible and theology classes in their general education with secular forms of the liberal arts. A true Christ-animated liberal arts education, however, does not happen naturally. It takes arduous work. So, what could Christians have to offer this art?

One college suggests their Public Speaking course, “is for students who want to learn how as a leader to engage in public speaking on the many occasions when as a Christian leader one is called upon to speak in non-church settings across a wide spectrum of settings (e.g., to the media, at political meetings and rallies, social events).” Now, that description tells us nothing about what might they offer in those public speaking situations about how Christians might speak differently. Three of the other syllabi mention something about offering a “biblical perspective” or “a biblical worldview.”  That certainly should not be hard. After all, the Bible has an incredible amount to say about how we speak publicly.

Two of the descriptions give some mention of two other key components. One mentions it involves helping students “use the gift of speech for good.” One would think that would be a basic perspective offered in every Christian course description. We all know Hitler was a great speaker (and he did not take a university class to acquire the skill). However, a more difficult skill is what a Christian university should offer—using the liberal art of speech for good.

A seminar also mentions a key virtue that must be acquired in the context of the biblical drama. It notes its first-year seminar “initiates a four-year process in which students form a learning community marked by trust in God and each other.” There’s a key virtue necessary for Christian public speaking.

Overall, these course descriptions give us three of the eight elements that should be addressed whenever one thinks Christianly about a basic liberal art. First, the art should be placed in the Christian story. Indeed, Genesis 1 gives us the first and most important public speech, God’s speech which brings reality into existence. The speech and the world it created were good. As image bearers of God, part of our cultural mandate is to steward speech in the same way by using it to create good rhetoric that sustains and nourishes, or potentially challenges, the culture in which we live.

God also loves beauty, and our speech can be beautiful in both content and form. Just look at all the Psalms and scriptures that have “wordplay” in which we delight! We image God through creative and beautiful speech in and of itself, true to the liberal arts. Moreover, just as God is trinitarian, we are created and embodied for communal speaking (not just individual) as a community joins in praise.

Of course, Adam and Eve listened to the alternative public speech from the serpent, which produced the Fall. As a result, we have been dealing with fallen speech and its results ever since. This is why we need a second key element in any integration project—rules for Fall control. The most important one is that we should not bear false witness (“An honest witness tells the truth, but a false witness tells lies.” Prov. 12:17). There are also certain Christian verbal practices that result from the fall, such as exposing evil (Eph. 5:11), lament (Psalms, Lamentations and other prophets), confession (I John 1:9), and repentance (throughout the Scriptures) to God and others. These are the beginnings of redemptive speech.

What else does redemptive public speech entail? Jesus is the Word made Flesh who came to destroy the work of the devil (John 1:1; I John 3:8).  In other words, redemption involves a third important part—just like the redemptive Word made Flesh, our redemptive words need to be directed toward good ends or more specifically, God’s purposes. We find it astounding that every course description but one failed to mention that public speaking is only good when connected to a good purpose. Indeed, as the devil who speaks lies (John 8:44) and the devil’s followers (e.g., Hitler, Stalin, Mao) show, it is a liberal art that can be wielded for the greatest evil imaginable. Why would a Christian course description not mention the ethical end of the liberal art? After all, a liberal art, such as public speaking, is not a good in and of itself!

Hopefully, Christian professors of public speaking also help students acquire the fourth element: the Christian virtues necessary for excellent Christian speech, such as speaking the truth in love, joy, gentleness, kindness, self-control, humility, and more. Personally, we would like to see more hope in the Christian public speakers we hear. God’s people are called to remember and speak God’s past faithfulness to remain strong in the face of opposition, hardships, and alternate narratives. The telling of God’s faithfulness is for God’s glory and praise as well as our development of wisdom and discernment. Things are not always what they seem, as Christ’s death on the cross illustrates; What seems like defeat may actually be victory.

These virtues can only be honed in public speaking by the fifth element of practice. Practices include controlling our tongue and speech carefully (Proverbs and James). A public speaking class allows for diverse people in the audience to respond to words, lines of arguments, and framings that may help speakers become more aware of and attentive to diverse audiences and their interpretations of, and reactions to, our speech practices.

An oft-forgotten practice of public speaking is the art of listening well (commanded throughout the scriptures). We all are attracted to speakers who are not defensive, repeat a question before answering, and clearly address the question being asked. Often we can listen for emotional or substantive sources of common ground.

Finally, we need models (sixth element), mentors (seventh element), and expert imagination (eighth element) to help us with public speaking. Models and mentors offer the necessary wisdom from which robust imaginations develop. Certainly, having such models and mentors within a Christian public speaking class should help students become wise analysts, capable of looking deeper into speeches/podcasts/blogs and other public rhetoric to unpack hidden assumptions and values for themselves.3

Professors do not lack resources for even explicit Christian teaching in this area. For example, CSR’s bibliography of faith-learning books in the field of Communications lists several books that would be helpful in any public speaking general education such as An Essential Guide to Public Speaking by Quentin Schulze, Authentic Communication: Christian Speech Engaging Culture by Tim Muehloff and Todd Lewis and Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence in a Post-Christian World by Tim Muehloff and Rick Langer. If one runs out of ideas from contemporary texts, one can also gather excellent inspiration and imagination from Christians who have thought about this topic throughout church history. When combined, these elements could help professors engage in Christ-animated rhetoric not only in the public speaking descriptions for their course descriptions but also in their teaching.

We do not doubt that faculty at Christian liberal arts colleges and universities infuse the public speaking course with these Christian theological and moral insights to varying degrees. However, making these explicit in our course descriptions will help both professors and students understand the Christian narrative and content driving the course material and practice.

Footnotes

  1. In cases where the institution used a distribution model and allowed students to choose from three or more courses, our research team did not evaluate all the listed courses. We wanted to focus on the core courses that all or close to half of the students at the institution would be required to take.
  2. I went to all CCCU schools’ communication dept websites in 2011 and retrieved numerous syllabi from research methods courses in communication.
  3. Thank you to a recent meeting with my fellow colleagues in the COM Studies Dept as we were coming up with language for how to frame our Com Knowledge goals. Some of what is in this essay has been refined according to this joint effort! I just read Restless Devices, by Dr. Felicia Song. She unpacks the ways that our digital life is shaping us and ways for us to push back with counter-formational practices.

Perry L. Glanzer

Baylor University
Perry L. Glanzer, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Foundations and a Resident Scholar with Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.

Lesa Stern

Dr. Stern graduated from UCLA and earned a master’s degree and doctorate in communication from the University of Arizona. After teaching 13 years at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, she joined the Westmont faculty in 2007, where she currently serves as Chair and Professor of Communication.

4 Comments

  • Rocky Wallace says:

    “I have seen the enemy, and the enemy is me.” Often, we in Christian higher ed have no one to blame but ourselves for our lukewarm treatment of how we integrate Christianity into our curriculum.

    I point myself and others to the book Servant Teaching, by Quentin Schultz, for how to re-invigorate our classrooms with passion, and sharing/living the Gospel.

  • Greg H Spencer says:

    Excellent observations! We should not assume our students would draw these conclusions on their own. Hearing explicit connections is one reason they have chosen a Christian college. And don’t forget “Reframing the Soul: How Words Transform our Faith.” : )

  • Thanks Lesa and Perry. I was led to write my book to offer a deep and engaging approach to teaching public speaking from a Christian (Augustinian) perspective. I found the same dearth of faith integration that Lesa did in her research. All of the suggestions that Lesa makes for teaching public speaking (or oral rhetoric) from a Christian perspective are addressed in my book — and students love it. In the last week alone I received email notes of gratitude from two students at different Christian universities, telling me not only that they really enjoyed reading my “textbook,” but that it has changed how they think and act publicly as God’s called and equipped communicators. If this sounds like an ad for my book, so be it. If anyone would like to review a copy of my book, please drop me an email. I also have a password-protected website with all of the materials you could ever want as instructor. What a joy to serve faculty and students with faith-inspired, faith-affirming, virtue-cultivated communication resources in an age such as ours, when so much public communication is twisted and perverted in the same ways it was in Augustine’s age. And thank you Perry and Lesa for addressing this important topic. Quentin Schultze, Calvin Emeritus (qschultze@gmail.com).

  • Joel Ward says:

    Thank you for this wonderful article. We struggle to do exactly what you describe in your article and the truth is, there isn’t a common communication text that does this comprehensively. We’ve used many of the ones you mentioned at Geneva College, each with its own strength, but have settled instead on a combination of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, C.S. Lewis Screwtape Letters, the Gospel of Luke especially Ch 6 and Matthew 13, and Cal Newports Digital Minimalism. The thematic need to be constructed rather than simply followed but this has kept us faithful to our mission as well as given us the flexibility to respond to students genuine questions about how to speak well as Christians. Another text we have yet to use but could be Os Guinness’ Fools Talk.

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