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Bethany Keeley-Jonker and Craig Mattson notice that some of their best speech students practice a delivery so controlled it feels uncanny. This essay traces such “zombie speech” not to students’ worldview assumptions but to affective norms in conventional speech pedagogy. The essay appropriates Christian theology to reorient the practice of speech in keeping with a newly identified value: “immanent publicity.” Ms. Keeley-Jonker is an Assistant Professor, and Mr. Mattson a Professor, both of Communication Arts at Trinity Christian College.

Imagine for the moment a professor—say, one of the authors of this essay—whose institution asked her or him to teach every course from a Christian perspective, including a basic skills course like Public Speaking 101. Hunting for intersections between oral presentation and the Christian faith, she or he could start with a careful review of the six or seven public speaking texts stacked on an office shelf, sent at the sometimes dubious largesse of academic publishers. And sure enough, all these books address problems potentially addressable by Christian doctrine or worldview analysis: ethnocentrism, plagiarism, deceitfulness, to name a few. Of course such questions about unethical exclusivity, fraud, and deceit could conceivably arrive in courses from a range of disciplines: education, social work, physical therapy, chemistry, criminal justice. And in almost every case, one can find something usefully doctrinal or perspectival to say. But the fact that doctrine or worldview proves so quickly and generally useful makes us a little suspicious, especially when efficient generalities elide the particularity of disciplinary praxis and perspective in a given course.1 We would like to notice the ways that a skills-based, methods-focused course—in our case, Public Speaking—presents professors and students with problems for which Christian faith proves resourceful. We are thinking in particular of problems rooted in material, embodied, and emotional concerns. In a Public Speaking class, such concerns arrive for teachers and students as problems of affect.

The term affect is defined variously across disciplines. Our use of the term draws on Brian Massumi’s distinction between affect and emotion. The more common term, emotion, is the socially recognizable label given to an indefinable but palpable “liveliness” that Massumi and a growing host of theorists are calling affect:

An emotion is a subjective content, the sociolinguistic fixing of the quality of an experience which is from that point onward defined as personal. Emotion is qualified intensity, the conventional, consensual point of insertion of intensity into semantically and semiotically formed progressions, into narrativizable action-reaction circuits, into function and meaning. It is intensity owned and recognized.2

In this case, the emotion would be stage fright, or communication anxiety, whereas the affect would be the indeterminate energy that student speakers and audiences experience in the live speech event.

The first day of speech class is often bubbling with affect, as students introduce themselves to each other with over-eager laughter, indirect gazes, shaky knees, trembling hands, and sometimes frozen facial expressions to the classroom. But when instructors move quickly to offer reassuringly familiar or technical labels for these phenomena, either as “stage fright” or “communication anxiety,” they sometimes forget that each speaking situation comprises not only anxiety, but also other kinds of affect essential to a dynamically functioning public address. When Christian professors reassure stage-stricken students with the very biblical injunction, “Be not afraid,” they may elide other biblical passages calling people to fear, to revere, to tremble. We should like to ask how such passages put in question the received wisdom of the modern public speaking tradition—that communication anxiety should be governed and engineered and ultimately replaced by a cheery calm? We acknowledge that talking about affect is difficult in any disciplinary context, especially given needs for scientific legitimacy and assessment accountability. But paying attention and bearing witness to elusive realities should be, we contend, a specialty of Christian thought.

This essay draws on Christian thought to address affective questions in the speech classroom. First, we examine the affective norms of conventional public speaking pedagogy, by looking at common tropes in speech textbooks.3 Then we search out the affective consequences of this pedagogy, especially in an eerily calm and tightly controlled mode of delivery which too easily turns the classroom into a kind of “uncanny valley.”4 Finally, we argue that affective problems in uncanny speech provide an unlooked-for opportunity for Christian theology to intersect with rhetorical practice, not simply by commending an improvement of the speaker’s worldview or moral character in order to improve her speech, but by re-voicing teaching and learning. Instead of interiorizing and individualizing speech—which we fear leads students into uncanny delivery—Christian theology (for example in the work of Miroslav Volf and David Bentley Hart) holds promise of helping teachers and students alike to find their voices in the basic speech course.

Uncanny Affect as Pedagogical Effect in Conventional Textbooks

Uncanny cultural figures might serve as metaphors, such as the robot or horror monsters that are neither alive nor dead; but in this essay we invoke this idea with the term uncanny and the types zombie and vampire to suggest a speech that is animated but, in a manner of speaking, undead. Of course, the speaker continues to live and breathe, but the speech approaches engagement with reality, audience, and rhetorical force, without fully arriving. We should like to argue, through close examination of representative textbooks, that uncanniness is an affective effect of well-intentioned pedagogy.

Affect can be a highly elusive reality, but it is nonetheless a force shaped by explicable norms.5 One window into the affective-shaping norms of contemporary speech instruction appears in the public speaking textbook predilection for lists of prescriptions—Speak up! Rehearse 10xs! Arrange your points logically! Envision stunning success! Tense and relax your muscles! Make eye contact for 1.5 seconds at a time! Remember, stage fright is normal!6—are easy to make fun of. But as Matt McGarrity’s examination of communication textbooks suggests, these publications do offer an important chance to notice how pedagogy encourages a particular form to student speech.7 Even more importantly, textbooks “record daily pedagogical activities,” which give us a chance to trace how speech instruction might be forming student voices.8

The first thing to notice about these textbooks is their preoccupation with equipping students to control their own affect—an understandable move given the loneliness a speaker can feel behind a podium. But as Nikolas Rose has argued in the Foucauldian tradition, although the pathos of stage fright feels deeply private, such personal feelings have become in late modernity something to be publicly managed through techniques and technologies.9 In public speaking courses, these would include mindfulness, relaxation, positive envisioning, workshop exercises, reflection journals, digital recorders, cameras, supporting DVDs, and websites with model speeches. Rose notes that late moderns have been encouraged and equipped “to act upon our bodies, souls, thoughts, and conduct in order to achieve happiness, wisdom, health, and fulfillment.”10 Accordingly, this “expertise of subjectivity” aims in the public speaking classroom to empower stage-stricken students by addressing them with accessible, personable prose and vibrant graphic design—all of which evokes a pedagogical apparatus that guarantees that anyone can manage the chemistry and psychology of communication anxiety. In many cases, this therapeutic technique includes a series of empowering counsels for getting control over one’s own nervousness through bodily and mental techniques.11 Perhaps the most common device is to normalize the practice of public speaking by comparing it to an everyday communicative practice. “In many ways,” notes Stephen Lucas, “public speaking requires the same skills used in ordinary conversation.”12 Steven Beebe and Susan Beebe similarly note that public address has “has much in common with conversation, a form of communication in which you engage every day.”13 This therapeutic move uses an illumining comparison to empower the apprentice speaker by strengthening her self-knowledge.

A second aspect to notice in speech textbooks is their emphasis on mandatory confidence. It is not sufficient that professionals be able to speak; they must also speak with confidence. Despite the tolerant and friendly discourse that characterizes textbook instruction, the demand for confidence presents urgently: “If you didn’t realize just how important this class could be to your professional success,” notes textbook author Deanna Sellnow,

You must realize it now….Employers know they will train their employees again and again as new technologies emerge. Communication skills, however, are foundational. Once learned, they prove beneficial regardless of your role in an organization.14

The anxious student behind the podium probably never thinks to ask why so many resources—salaried professors, numerous course sections, expensive textbooks, supportive websites—come to the frank aid of her fearful subjectivity. But Rose’s analysis of the contemporary pervasiveness of therapeutic technique suggests to us an economic urgency behind calls for speakerly confidence. Neoliberal society depends on “the form of relations of exchange between discrete economics units pursuing their undertakings with boldness and energy, ever seeking the new endeavor and the path to advantage.”15Applying Rose’s account to the public speaking classroom, we note that confident speech helps to “produce the most social goods and distribute them in the manner most advantageous to each and to all.”16

It might be objected that although public speaking textbooks do emphasize the usefulness of speaking well for getting a good job, the economic motive is countered by the civic. Hence, a representative textbook discussion of “citizens [who] gather to discuss issues affecting them” practicing “discussion characterized by certain assumptions about the need for cooperative action and subjective judgment to resolve a problem.”17 Similarly, another popular textbook argues in good civic fashion, “Public speaking is a primary mechanism for bring people together, for getting them to share perspectives and values, so that they can recognize who they are or can get something done.”18 Does not this make public speaking pedagogy, with its emphasis on good citizenship, a site for resistance to merely economic accounts of civic life? Unfortunately, as these quotations suggest, speaking textbooks tend to subjectify and individualize public-mindedness, by blurring the lines between the public and the interpersonal. Textbooks cast public communication as a kind of “public intimacy” best described in in a dialogic model in which a speaker and a hearer offer each other respectful feedback as they address an agreed-upon predicament, examine rational solutions, and seek consensus.19 What Jenny Edbauer Rice says of public sphere theory appears to apply to public speaking pedagogy as well: both are “informed by a conversational model that imagines a back-and-forth civic discourse among multiple participants.”20

We might sum this analysis by saying that public speaking pedagogy today creates calm public speaking subjects by making affect therapeutically supervisable. These norms appear in a professionally and politically recognizable mode of effective delivery that might be characterized as a level-voiced, neutrally toned, interpersonally focused exchange of ideas. But sometimes this pedagogy results in more than it pursues or prescribes, including what we are calling uncanny speech.

Keep Calm and Deliver Uncanny Speech

In our experience, there are two moments when, during an oral presentation, professors and students find themselves in the uncanny valley of nearly-alive public speaking. Envision first, an eerily quiescent student speech made by someone that everybody thinks of as a “good student.” She may well be a skilled writer, a logical thinker, a double major, an honors student with a 3.8 cumulative. Her presentation is well organized, exhaustively rehearsed, and yet emotionally—strange. The student may be smiling, nodding, gesturing, looking around, and clicking through PowerPoint slides with precision, but there is a peculiar emotional quality to the presentation. At times, it looks detached or manufactured; in other moments and from other parts of the audience, it looks like barely repressed emotion. To its credit, the delivery has no conspicuous marks of stage fright. It meets every expectation on the assignment protocols and earns the compliments of other students, even those who find themselves on the edge of an impolite yawn. We call this the Zombie Speech.

Now consider a second, apparently unrelated problem not uncommon in the public speaking classroom: student speakers who look only at the professor as they speak. The often high-achieving student, mindful of scholarships, anxious to maintain a top-level GPA, reduces the complexities of audience interaction by staring a little fiercely at the one person who doles out the grade. We call this the Vampire Speech because everything that the speaker says sounds eerily, unnervingly like, “I vant to get an A.” Like zombified address, vampiric delivery is a problem of affect because the speaker is alienated from the immediate and complex particulars of the speaking situation. In other words, in a class dedicated to public speaking this is speech devoid of publicity.

Both of these modes of uncanny speech can baffle the speech instructor, as she stares down at her rubric wondering how to describe what has just happened. We believe that one persuasive theoretical account of uncanny delivery arises, somewhat indirectly, in Joshua Gunn’s essay about “public release” of private sounds in civil society.21 Pundit chatter about tennis players who grunt (Maria Sharapova) and political candidates who scream (Howard Dean) or cry (Hillary Clinton) suggests that there are unspoken rules about permissible noises in public. Public release of inadvertent speech or sounds, in other words, norms how we define eloquence.

The trick is to understand involuntary or uncontrolled speech as that which measured speech always threatens to reveal—that every time we witness masterful eloquence, there lurks the possibility of a hiccup or belch waiting to rupture the ruse of public propriety.22

Gunn argues that gender essentialism tends today to define eloquence in terms of moderate tones and deeper pitches.23 We believe that uncanny delivery in the public speaking classroom registers a similar problem—speakerly affect governed by dubious cultural norms—although such speech looks more like “public withholding” than public release.

“Solving” such a problem can foster the Zombie or Vampire Speech. By managing the trembly knees and shaky voices, the pedagogical discourse also filters out the complex particularities of full-voiced, fully relational speech. The uncanny result is discourse that could be delivered by anyone to anyone at any time and anywhere. We believe that this blandly universal delivery, though it looks subtractive, actually exhibits an affective excess. Like Gunn’s analysis of public release, we suggest that the public withholding of uncanny speech indexes pedagogical norms of control, confidence, and interpersonal warmth. But enforcing these norms can be counter-productive. As Jonathan Crary has noted, efforts to govern subjectivity—such as the just-described public speaking norms—eventually fail. At some point, the squeezing of subjectivity into a particular culture norm starts “squirting” whatever you were trying to contain in the first place, in this case speakerly affect.24

So, what should the speech instructor do when faced with uncanny speech? The uncanny speech creates a problem for contemporary pedagogy’s therapeutic technology: how does one distinguish clearly between effective and zombified public speaking? Should the professor simply say that the Zombie Speaker simply needs to warm things up by being more personal? But then, what if this prescription in turn produces the Vampire Speech and becomes too personally directed? Tell the student to pull back from her too-direct eye contact? Eventually this kind of critique depends on a secret sliding scale with the result that students are crafting their speech toward an ideal only tangentially related to their immediate speaking situation. In such cases the effect of the uncanny speech is an effect of conventional speech pedagogy.

Years ago Richard Rorty used to shrug off his critics with the dismissive remark, “Stop talking that way.” His ironic prescription against prescriptiveness implied a way of being an individual in public as an alternative to the rationalist, universalist citizenship of conventional Enlightenment political theory.25 Materialist rhetoricians like Barbara Biesecker have been saying much the same thing to rhetoricians for the past several decades, as they critique rationalism and individualism in idealist rhetorical theory. In contrast with a modernist model of public communication that “implicates a morally autonomous self,”26 Biesecker redefines the rhetorical situation not as one stable subject (the speaker) interacting with another (the hearer) but instead as a collection of subjects and discourses being made and remade through the encounter.27 Her construal reflects the “molecular” rhetorical materialism of Michael Calvin McGee for whom speakers and hearers and speeches and situations and desired changes are all immersed in an immanent plane of rhetorical action.28

Unfortunately, this rhetorical theory has not made much headway into the public speaking classroom, perhaps because a Rortyan stop-talking-that-way approach to speech instruction has a hard time saying, “And start talking this way.” But starting is really more what we desire than stopping. Though we have pointed to a weakness in the neoliberal/therapeutic discourses of the public speaking textbook, we do not wish to abandon its goals fully. We certainly still want our students to grow toward more competent citizenship and perform well in their jobs but we also seek something in excess of those goals, something canny rather than uncanny, alive rather than undead. This essay puts forward Christian theology as a way to start talking in a new way without resorting to prescriptive idealism. That new way is quite simply a matter of starting to speak Incarnationally.

Canny Affect and Incarnational Pedagogy

Sometimes in the name of Incarnational theology, Christian speech textbooks have offered little more than a theological paraphrasing of the therapeutic prescriptivism in secular textbooks.29 These authors and others are to be commended for at least making the connection between public speaking pedagogy and Christian theology, though we cannot help wishing they had drawn on more sophisticated reflections on theology and rhetoric.30 Instead, Christian approaches to and adaptations of speech instruction tend to promote a perspective Ken Chase critiques as prescriptive idealism.31

Chase traces this idealism to an unfortunate analogy between the Incarnation and effective message adaptation. The logic works like this: God adapts God’s self in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ; human communicators should go and do likewise. This rather tidy analogy unfortunately supports an essentially modalist account of the Incarnation.32 In contrast, Chase notes that a more adequate account of the Incarnation describes Jesus, not as the Father’s adaptation of divine substance for a human audience, but rather as the exact fullness of who God is to humankind. Treating the Incarnation as a kind of universally replicable move misses out, at one and the same time, on the infinity and particularity of Jesus as the speech of God. Jesus speaks the inexhaustible life of God but does so in a particular form. But if what matters about the Incarnation is that God the Father found a way to adapt God’s self for a human audience, then Jesus himself in all his concreteness is not as important as the idealized message he represents. Jesus becomes a kind of Spark Notes that humans skim in order to be ready for heaven.

This reductiveness makes for bad theology; it also fosters what Chase calls a “truncated view of rhetoric,” reinforcing an unfortunate dualism between style and substance.33 Further, such a thematizing of the Incarnation in terms of “principles of audience adaptation” tends to support an ever-receding ideal for eloquence. McGee sums this conception of eloquence with devastating efficiency:

We judge a piece of discourse to be deformed, imperfect, or perverted. We then imagine it possible to reform, perfect, or recreate it. Using our prescriptive rhetorical “theories,” we dream a more effective or more moral speech than the one we have heard. Finally, we turn the world upside-down by thinking that our imaginings are “real.”34

Although this essay has already noted that Christian professors are uniquely positioned to address the problem of uncanny delivery, current religious rhetorical theory has tended to reinforce the prescriptivism of contemporary speech pedagogy.

We propose that Christian professors continue to engage the Incarnation, but to do so more robustly. We should like to note the historic Christian confession that Jesus not only reveals God to humans, but also humans to humans.35 Jesus is what God most fully has to say; he is also what humanity has to say. No doubt post-structuralist rhetoricians would warn that construing any kind of speech as the proper sound of human utterance is dangerously totalizing. But, our claim need not set up Incarnational speech as a fixed, flat, and spiritualized ideal, something reducible to the prescriptions of a textbook. Instead, this utterly humane speech is concretely particular—as particular as the lips, tongue, and teeth of a first-century Jew who combined pitch, cadence, force, and quality in a delivery that humanity had forgotten was possible. But in Jesus, who is the very form, the very speech of God, this particularity is also infinitely varied. The Incarnation takes up and delivers the church into truly human speech that unfolds polyphonously, endlessly varied, constantly idiosyncratic, ceaselessly new.

This need to give voice to an eloquence that is at once utterly particular and inexhaustibly varied helps explain a dynamic of differentiation throughout the Bible. The God of Holy Scripture is constantly calling people to use unique aspects of their identity or social position to articulate his life and word in the world: think of Ehud’s left-handedness, Esther’s beauty, Gideon’s timidity, even Moses’ stutter. We believe that this biblical attention to diverse capacities should shape speech pedagogy by calling speech students to testify in their own voice. This call counters traditional pedagogy’s tendency to pursue universal, abstract modes of speech, like those critiqued by McGee. Miroslav Volf might describe a tendency to elide distinct voices as a regrettable move “from the particularity of the body to the universality of the spirit.”36 Volf describes this ecclesial embodiment vocally when he argues that the gospel calls believers “[t]o speak in one’s own religious voice,” by which he means “to speak out of the center of one’s faith” in a way that is both responsive to other faiths and resourceful for those faiths.37

What this emphasis on particular voices suggests to us is that the uncanny speech, for all its tediousness and oddness, is not merely a technical problem, a failure to meet set criteria on a universally recognizable rubric for Effective Public Speaking. It is an aesthetic failure but it is also an ethical failure, a grievous distortion of the eloquently human speech of Christ. When speakers forget what this sounds like and fall into zombified address, teachers and students alike feel disappointment at the undead speech; all had quite reasonably hoped for more, hoped for some quality of humanness and aliveness irreducible to a rubric item or an assignment description. Christian teaching might suggest that what we had hoped for is a participation in Christ’s eloquence, in that truly human speech that is not a fixed ideal but rather a live event of Incarnational exchange. The nature of this exchange is most frequently experienced as gift, as an act of self-giving relation between speaker and audience. Chase imagines a “fully immersive view of the rhetor-audience relationship,” in which “[a]udiences are not so much ‘adapted to’ as they are ‘participating with’ the rhetors’ own formative processes.”38 Speech as imagined by the gospel need not be a demonstration of relational or rhetorical mastery, a trumping of other voices, but is instead a participation in the eloquence that Christ embodies and calls us to extend. We describe this eloquent form as publicly immanent speech.

Speaking from Immanence, Speaking to Publics

Historically, theologians have used the term immanence to refer to God’s intimate involvement with the creation.39 Such a conception of God’s immanent voice shapes Volf’s description of Abraham and Sarah’s own immanent response to God from a contextually specific, culturally particular “belonging.”40 The God of Abraham and Sarah, in other words, calls people into redemptive work from within irreducibly specific cultural conditions. In the public speaking classroom, professors and students can practice this immanent involvement, this particular belonging, as a mode of delivery characterizable as speaking-from. This term, adapting Michael Polanyi’s “from-to” knowing, names the way audiences can sense a speaker’s “indwelling” of the speaking situation through a demonstration of careful presence and attentive belonging.41 Speaking-from acknowledges one’s belonging, one’s embeddedness in the concrete, contingent, and resourceful aspects of a given situation. Think for a moment of the simplest elements of vocal production: questions about force (How loudly should I speak?), pitch (How much of my registers should I use?), quality (How do I want my voice to feel to my hearers?), and time (How should I cadence my speech?). These questions entail that I speak from my own identity and within a particular situation.

In contrast speech that could have been spoken by anyone; speech that seems to come out of nowhere; speech directed toward nobody in particular can turn a public speaking classroom into the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision. We might call the Zombie Speaker’s delivery speaking-at because it tries to transcend immanence to the specifics of identity, register, place, and time. But this attempted universality misses what immanent theorist Gilles Deleuze would call “a plurality of centres, a superposition of perspectives, a tangle of points of view” that goes with richly situated discourse.42 Immanent speech begins, we argue, by noticing how speech webs speakers into a dynamic belonging to the speech’s ever-shifting situation. Immanent delivery entails speaking belongingly.

So much for immanence; now what about publicity? For Volf, belonging is not enough. One also needs what he calls distance from one’s own cultural context—hence the call of Abraham to leave his ancestral home and, in the company of Sarah, Lot, and a small host of others, to go to an unforeseen country.43 “To be a child of Abraham and Sarah and to respond to the call of their God means to make an exodus, to start a voyage, become a stranger.”44 The public speaking classroom constantly reminds teachers and students of the interval between speakers and hearers—not only in the experience of stage fright itself but also in the constant pressure of misunderstanding and the sometimes strangely disparate ways various people experience a given speech among audience members. In the public speaking classroom professors can encourage their students to venture across the communicational interval between speakers and hearers by the practice of speaking-to a public.

To get at the publicity of public speaking think again of questions speakers must answer about their own vocal production, questions about force, pitch, quality, and time. These are not only questions about immanent relation to a situation; they are also unavoidably social questions. Student speakers cannot answer such queries without recourse to the public they are speaking-to. If all they have is what they are speaking-from they may well have affectively charged discourse that is nothing but an intensely dyadic address—the Vampire Speech. This just-you-and-me approach to speaking can generate the charisma we might associate with a heart-to-heart mode of speaking but its uncanny focus makes hearers uncomfortable. Such immanent speech secretes; it does not address.45 What a Christian eschatology could bring to speech instruction and practice, then, is a commitment to the possibility of speaking-to a public. Indeed, such publicity finds a model in God’s self-giving life, especially in relation to his church. What may be most striking about the publicity of God’s speech is that the calling-out of the ecclesia is contextually situated without being situationally determined. We appropriate and redirect Michael Warner’s rhetorical scholarship on publicity in order to assert that what makes God’s people a public is not an ethnicity or a constitutional document, so much as the simple fact that they are addressed by and addressing the Triune God.46

If we can engage our students with elemental questions about delivery, we quickly begin making decisions about affective investment and social involvement. And this distance-and-belonging decision-making turns our attention to those voices that are shaping our speaking-from and our speaking-to. Such immanently public speech involves the speaker in the relational particulars of a given speech world while being attentive to excess of any one of those relationships. In contrast with the detachment of the Zombie Speech or the narrowness of the Vampire Speech, immanently public speech is fully involved with a situated audience without reducing to a merely interpersonal exchange.


We began this essay by asking a question: how might Christian theology intersect effectively with a basic skills course like Public Speaking? We have proposed that teachers can help students participate in the human speech of Christ by learning to speak in their own voice within complex publics. Is this essay proposing a distinctively Christian approach to teaching public speaking? Hardly. Our argument depends, in fact, on significantly overlapping insights from affect theory and post-structuralist thought. Accordingly, our Christian approach to speech instruction need not be limited to religious topics only, not least because the Incarnation takes into itself all of creation, all of human life. But by focusing on the Incarnation’s consequences for delivery—that is, for the material, embodied, pre-cognitive aspects of speechmaking—professors make possible a complex attention for the ethical dynamics of eloquence and effectiveness. If our essay’s wager wins out, our proposed approach to speech problems should spark affective questions in other disciplines and courses. Our hope is that this essay will serve as a provocation for other professors to notice immanent problems, to articulate those problems in keeping with Christian theology, and then to use such re-articulations to guide students toward a more robust Christian obedience.

The alert reader has surely noticed that, for all our discussion about uncanny speech, we have been chary about identifying what canny speech would sound like. Some of our reticence is probably traceable to our critical allergy to thematizing a specific sound or totalizing a particular voice. But in Incarnational theology, Jesus as the speech of God and humankind gives the infinite a particular sound.47 Jesus’ particular voice, after all, finds inexhaustible variegation in the speech of the church. What might this infinitely varied particularity sound like? For starters, think of someone speaking with grief or humor or indignation, so much so that the audience sensed at any moment that she could give way to unmanageable tears or laughter—and yet did not.48 Such speech, no matter its subject, can exhibit both the particularity of immanent relation and the complex wildness of publicity.

Our discussion of immanently public speech has emphasized the importance of particular voicings in and from the Incarnation. A little counter-intuitively, this emphasis on vocal particularity arises from doctrine about the infinity of Christ’s voice. As Hart observes, “its infinite character is expressible only in being committed to others, to the tradition that bears forward the gesture of Christ’s presence, entrusted to the Spirit’s power to repeat the gift across time.”49 Clearly, Christians’ enactment of Christ’s speech will slur and stutter at times, but that possibility for rhetorical zombification does not eliminate the urgent need in the church to give voice to God’s life in the world.50 Translated into public speaking pedagogy, that means that each student needs to learn to speak in her own voice, which further suggests that classroom work depends integrally and constantly on vigorous instruction about oral delivery.

Most speech textbooks begin with a big-picture view of the speech process, followed by discussions of research, arrangement, style—and then, finally, get around to delivery. Part of this delay to discuss delivery traces all the way back to Aristotle’s On Rhetoric, which dedicates barely three pages (out of two hundred and twenty-three pages in George Kennedy’s English translation) to the subject of delivery.51 Contemporary textbooks carry on this reticence about delivery, at least in part because the field of communication studies has sought disciplinary legitimacy by turning away from orality toward more scientifically determinate aspects of human exchange.52 Given our incarnational commitments to embodied and material life, we think this pedagogical reticence about delivery is an unfortunate business. What would happen to public speaking instruction if delivery were its constitutive practice?

For one thing, making speech integral to the classroom would upset the unquestioned authority of writing as the preferred modality of college instruction and as the most reliable marker of educatedness. Instructors could instead privilege speech by replacing low-risk writing assignments with low-risk speech assignments. Asking students to deliver responses to reading assignments orally in two-minute prepared remarks would make the work of finding their own voices an ongoing project. Instead of concentrating an individual’s anxiety on “presentation days,” students would come to see speech as a communal activity whose expressiveness spans a broad range of affects. A delivery-oriented classroom might become a place where new voices develop.53

Cite this article
Bethany Keeley-Jonker and Craig E. Mattson, “Stop Talking that Way! An Affective Approach to Uncanny Speech in the Christian College Classroom”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 45:2 , 143-158


  1. Here we drew on the critique of conventionally worldview-focused pedagogy and scholarship put forward by James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009) in which he makes an argument for greater attention to affect in pedagogy. In a similar vein, James Davidson Hunter has critically evaluated overly cognitive approaches to cultural engagement in To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 18-31. Finally, our argument about teaching runs parallel to an essay by Kurt C. Schaefer, “Christian Practices and Technical Courses: Making Integral Connections,” which focuses on a technical course which, like the public speaking course, might seem to resist theological integration. See his essay in Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith & Learning, eds. David I. Smith and James K. A. Smith (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 194-210.
  2. Brian Massumi, Parables of the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 28.
  3. Our essay consults a range of popular speech textbooks, including Stephen Lucas’s The Art of Public Speaking, 11 ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2012), which ranks as a bestseller in Amazon and Google listings of speech textbooks. But we note that other textbooks cited in this paper, despite variation in author and publisher and general approach, speak with conspicuous uniformity. Accordingly, our selection of texts for analysis establishes not comprehensiveness but representativeness.
  4. Masahiro Mori, “The Uncanny Valley,” Energy 7 no. 4 (1970): 33-35.
  5. Joshua Gunn puts it this way: “Tone is essentially pointless, but it is not normless.” Gunn, “On Speech and Public Release,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 13 no. 2 (2010): 28.
  6. For representative instances of such prescriptive-saturate coverage see the following: Cindy L. Griffin, Invitation to Public Speaking, 3rd ed. (Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2003), 157-174; Dan O’Hair, Hannah Rubenstein, and Rob Stewart, A Pocket Guide to Public Speaking, 4th ed. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013), 37-46; Michael Osborn and Suzanne Osborn, Public Speaking, 6th ed., (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003), 183-205 and 381-384.
  7. McGarrity, “Communication Textbooks: From the Publisher to the Desk,” The SAGE Handbook of Communication and Instruction, eds. Deanna L. Fassett and John T. Warren (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2010), 107. McGarrity argues that textbooks “serve as a discipline’s public face,” as they explain “new concepts, provide guidance to first-time teaching assistants (TAs), and serve as reference books for those within and outside the discipline. As such, textbooks highlight how we see ourselves as a discipline and how we project that self-conception to others.”
  8. Ibid., 109.
  9. Nikolas Rose, Governing the Soul: the Shaping of the Private Self, London: Routledge, 1989, 10-11.
  10. Ibid., 10.
  11. A representative instance of this appears in Cindy L. Griffin’s Invitation to Public Speaking, which includes exhortations to thorough practice, modest expectations, positive self-talk, and audience identification.
  12. Lucas, 8.
  13. Steven Beebe and Susan Beebe, Public Speaking: An Audience Centered Approach, 5th ed. (Boston, MA: Pearson, 2003), 5.
  14. Deanna D. Sellnow, Confident Public Speaking, 2nd ed. (Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2005), 7. An extensive discussion of public speaking’s usefulness for professional employment appears in W. A. Kelly Huff, Public Speaking: A Concise Overview for the Twenty-first Century (New York: Peter Lang, 2008), 9-17.
  15. Rose, 226.
  16. Ibid.
  17. David Zarefsky, Public Speaking: Strategies for Success, 4th ed. (Boston: Pearson, 2002), 442.
  18. Kathleen German, Bruce E. Gronbeck, Douglas Ehninger, and Alan H. Monroe, Principles of Public Speaking, 15th ed. (Boston: Pearson, 2004), 7.
  19. One discussion of private subjectivity in public places emerges in Natalya N. Bazarova, “Public Intimacy: Disclosure Interpretation and Social Judgments on Facebook,” Journal of Communication 62 (2012): 815–832. See also discussing of the blurring of publicity and privacy in Nicholas Abercrombie and Brian Longhurst, Audiences: A Sociological Theory of Performance and Imagination (London: Sage, 1998), 68-76.
  20. Jenny Edbauer Rice, “The New ‘New’: Making a Case for Critical Affect Studies,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 94 no. 2 (2008): 209.
  21. Gunn, “On Speech and Public Release,” 1-42.
  22. Ibid., 5.
  23. Ibid., 10-14.
  24. Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2001), 45-46.
  25. See Rorty’s contrast between the metaphysician’s rationalist universalism and the liberal ironist’s minimalist pursuit of public kindness in his Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 73-95.
  26. John Durham Peters, Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1999), 20.
  27. Barbara Biesecker, “Rethinking the Rhetorical Situation from within Thematic of Difference,Philosophy and Rhetoric 22 no. 2 (1989): 110-111.
  28. For McGee, speakers, listeners, speeches, situations, and desired changes bond to each other like atoms in a molecule. The speaker may feel alone at the podium, believing that the speech’s success depends entirely on her. But she performs, says McGee, in a mutually influencing set of relations, just as in a molecule each atom affects all the others. The speaker has actions to take, but so does the audience. So, too, does the situation, which can take on a life of its own. (Think of speeches delivered in rooms too hot for anyone to stay awake.) Even the speech itself can do things apart from the speaker: the language used may have emotional resonance that the speaker is unaware of; the YouTube video she plays in the middle of the speech might overpower everything else she wishes to say. See her “A Materialist’s Conception of Rhetoric,” in Rhetoric, Materiality & Politics, eds. Barbara Biesecker and John Louis Lucaites (New York: Peter Lang, 2009), 29-30.
  29. Religious books discussing public speaking range across popular Christian nonfiction at least across the last century, stretching from Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows (Lanham, MD: Ivan R. Dee, 1924 & 2000) to Joe Carter and John Coleman’s How to Argue Like Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009). But a few representative samples of a broader and (for us dissatisfying) approach to pedagogy are discussable as follows: In his textbook, Quentin Schultze offers a big-picture view of how sinfulness can cause problems in effective communication relationships, thus dealing with speech problems on a larger level than public speaking books typically address. But Schultze’s tendency toward tips perhaps most stands out in discussing the religious and public dimension of speaking. For instance, a sidebar “servant speaker tip” recommends that readers “Learn how to dialogue responsibly with people from other faiths as well as agnostics and atheists” (14). Later, Schultze offers an anecdote about unsuccessfully presenting a religious viewpoint to a non-religious audience, but offers a list of “religious terms translated for nonreligious groups” (76) that does not address the very problem his anecdotal interlocutor raised. Quentin Schultze, An Essential Guide to Public Speaking (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006). Another textbook, N. D. Wilson and Douglas Wilson’s The Rhetoric Companion, reflects quite deeply about rhetorical practice, especially in their discussion of style, but their comfortable Christianizing of classical rhetoric may best be summed in their dissatisfying revision of Quintilian’s definition of “good person speaking well” by switching in “godly” for “good.” N. D. Wilson and Douglas Wilson, The Rhetoric Companion: A Student’s Guide to Power in Persuasion (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2011), 20, 123-127. Bill Strom’s brief chapter on public speaking in More Than Talk also highlights interrelated factors in a public speaking situation, but does not offer a strong difference from textbooks presenting public speaking without a religious grounding. Indeed, the longest segment on ethics in this chapter uses Kant’s categorical imperative, rather than any specifically Christian imperative. More Than Talk: Communication Studies and the Christian Faith, 2nd ed. (Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt, 2003), 193-220.
  30. For religious scholars doing important work bearing directly on our project, please see Calvin L. Troup, Temporality, Eternity, and Wisdom: The Rhetoric of Augustine’s Confessions (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, 1999) as well as David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004).
  31. Kenneth Chase, “Christian Rhetorical Theory: A New (Re)turn,” Journal of Communication and Religion 36 (2013): 25-49.
  32. As Chase explains, modalism construal of godhead is a notion that traces to an ancient heresy known as Monarchianism. Modalism construes God the Son as an adaptation of godhead for human understanding (31). But as Chase argues, Jesus is not a role that God plays or a mask that God dons in order to express the divine essence in sundry ways. Such a heresy “sacrifices the plurality of God’s triune persons in the task of maintaining God’s oneness” (32).
  33. Ibid., 33. Implying an ineliminable contamination in rhetorical practice, this conception of the Incarnation combines dispensable and indispensable elements of the godhead, thereby implying that genuine communication replaces “form and flourish” by supposedly purer expressions of truth (34). Using Christian doctrine in this way to improve public speaking actually leaves it decidedly unimproved, stuck as it is on the wrong side of a sharp dualism between style and substance. Instead, Chase conceives of the Incarnation as the persuasive wisdom of God, in which “salvation is found both by those accepting how he speaks and by those accepting what he speaks,” a conception that in which eloquence entails “bringing forth (witnessing) the suasory appeal of truth” (40).
  34. McGee, “Materialist Rhetorical Theory,” 21.
  35. For this account of the Incarnation’s “recapitulation” of humanity, we draw on David Bentley Hart’s discussion. Hart speaks not of Christ’s delivering humanity, but “narrating” it. “Each person is ‘narrated’ by and ‘narrates’ that [human] nature, and each inevitably repeats the pattern of sin that disfigures it; but Christ, in the entire shape of his life, renarrates it according to its original pattern.” See Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, 326.
  36. Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1996), 48.
  37. Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2011), 133.
  38. Chase, “Christian Rhetorical Theory,” 46.
  39. Stanley Grenz and Roger E. Olson, Twentieth-Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1992), 11.
  40. Volf, Exclusion, 37.
  41. Polanyi describes a mode of attention in terms of knowing from and knowing to: “Whenever we use certain things for attending from them to other things, in the way in which we always use our body, these things change their appearance. They appear to us now in terms of the entities to which we are attending from our body” (16). This attending from and to as a way of inhabiting the particulars of embodiment, situation, and relationship is highly suggestive for rhetoric involvement. Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1983).
  42. Giles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 56.
  43. Volf, Exclusion, 37-39.
  44. Ibid., 39.
  45. Deleuze would almost certainly rejoice in this! He would restore the complexity of the rhetorical situation, but only by construing it as “a theatre where nothing is fixed, a labyrinth without a thread.” See Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 56. We note with Volf that Deleuzean immanentist theory goes nowhere because it tries to go everywhere: “just as streams that flow in all directions at one and the same time are not streams but, in the end a swamp in which all movement has come to a deadly rest.” Volf, Exclusion, 41.
  46. Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books, 2002). Warner is interested primarily in “the kind of public that comes into being only in relation to texts and their circulation” (66). Noting that a public is self-organized and that “it exists by virtue of being addressed” (67), he insists (in a way that at least does not contradict and may actually support our ecclesial/theological claim) that “it must be organized by something other than the state” (68).
  47. Hart, Beauty of the Infinite, 320-325.
  48. Gunn, “On Speech and Public Release,” 22.
  49. Hart, Beauty of the Infinite, 339.
  50. Volf’s insight find support in the New Testament letter to the Ephesians, where the communicative gifts Christ gives to the church—apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic, pastoral, pedagogical—aim toward a maturing differentiation in saintly utterance: “speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” Ephesians 4:15, NRSV. We are indebted to David Ford’s discussion of this passage, in which he lays out “a pervasive concern in Ephesians with transformative language as a constituent of salvation.” See David Ford, Self and Salvation: Being Transformed (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 108. Ephesians thus suggests that Christian spiritual and ecclesial formation entail that each of us learn how to participate in the good speech of Christ in our own redeemed voice.
  51. Aristotle, On Rhetoric, 2nd ed., trans George Kennedy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 195.
  52. Joshua Gunn and Jennie Edbauer Rice, “About Face/Stuttering Discipline,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 6.2 (2009): 216-217.
  53. The authors wish to thank Trinity for funding this research and their colleague Mark Peters for proposing helpful revisions.

Bethany Keeley-Jonker

Trinity Christian College
Bethany Keeley-Jonker is an associate professor of communication arts Trinity Christian College.

Craig E. Mattson

Trinity Christian College
Craig E. Mattson is the director of the Communication Arts and Honors Program at Trinity Christian College.