Chapter 3: Religious Discourse as Public Rhetoric

Rediscovering the Sacred: Perspectives on Religion in Contemporary Society
by Robert Wuthnow

Chapter 3: Religious Discourse as Public Rhetoric

Every community is awash in words. Religious communities are no exception. Sermons, prayers, singing, creedal recitations, and discussion groups make up the very being of such communities.

In recent years the flow of religious discourse has spilled into the public arena with increasing intensity. Religious broadcasts fill the airwaves and direct-mail solicitations fill our mailboxes. Bishops issue statements on social issues such as nuclear disarmament and economic justice. A pope stumps the country delivering homilies. Preachers become presidential candidates. And media specialists try to make sense of it all.

Social scientists have in recent decades developed a fairly standard way of studying the relations between religion and public affairs. Opinion polls are the method of choice, supplemented by occasional applications of content analysis, in-depth interviews, and discussion of broader social developments to provide context. As a result of this often valuable research, we have a good sense of the public’s tolerance for religious leaders making statements about various kinds of social issues. We also have some data about the issues clergy say they speak about. And we have many studies of the ways in which religious beliefs and attitudes toward social issues correlate — fundamentalism and bigotry, parochialism and conservatism, conservatism and views of the priesthood, moralism and attitudes toward abortion, religious preference and voter orientations, to name a few. We even have frequency counts of the kinds of themes that are expressed on religious television shows or in religious books.

But on religious discourse as discourse we have virtually nothing. It is as if our standard methods have trained us to think of religious communities (and not just religious communities) as silent worlds. People have religious beliefs, convictions, and sentiments. They harbor predispositions, orientations, and commitments. They behold religious symbols, and these symbols give meaning to their lives, help them construct reality, and provide them with security and a sense of belonging. But they do not speak.1

Or if they do speak, our standard methods register only the surface features of their discourse. For instance, we may cull through the transcripts of religious broadcasts to see how many of them touched on abortion, school prayer, the Supreme Court, or politics in general. We may scan the titles of religious books to see how many fall into various preconceived categories: theology, family, self-improvement, sexual relations, and the like. Or we may ask church and synagogue members or clergy whether they have discussed topics such as personal crises, moral issues, politics, or the federal budget with fellow parishioners. But none of this gives us any indication of the ways in which religious discourse is actually put together.

It may, of course, require more than a leap of religious faith to argue that the actual composition of religious discourse is itself important. To someone trained in the social psychology of opinion research, discourse is likely to be relevant only as a means of tapping into the deeper attitudinal predispositions that supposedly govern behavior. Discourse is in this view ephemeral, unpredictable, superficial; only the underlying mindsets are meaningful. We want to discover how personalities are put together, not to invest time in the study of meaningless chatter.

 Discourse Rediscovered

There has for some time been a movement in the social sciences to bring discourse back into the picture. In addition to the contributions of small coteries of ethnomethodologists and conversation analysts who have always studied discourse, we now have the formidable (and often forbidding) legacy of Foucault’s decentered poststructuralism, Habermas’s borrowings from speech-act theory, Derrida’s language-focused deconstructionism, and a more scattered array of empirical investigations focusing on public discourse.

We need not become camp followers of the esoteric theoreticians to appreciate the importance of understanding religious discourse, however. Much of this discourse is highly codified in sacred traditions. Its practitioners gain competence in its use through long years of training and experience. Homiletics and hermeneutics are required features of most pastoral educations. How-to books abound — for preaching, leading discussions of religious texts, proselytizing. Even the sacred traditions themselves recognize the importance of the word, the kerygma, as the vehicle of creation, reconciliation, and community.

That much we could discern by immersing ourselves for any length of time within a religious tradition. Any competent practitioner of the faith could testify to the importance of discourse. But when religious discourse enters the public sphere — when it becomes public rhetoric — we confront another, perhaps equally compelling, reason for trying to understand it. Some of it seems to affront common sensibilities so deeply that we find it difficult even to focus on what is being said; in other instances this is less of a problem. For example, I usually spend some time having students look at direct-mail solicitations from religio-political organizations in a sociology of religion course I teach. Sometimes I also ask them to sample a few religious broadcasts on television or to watch a short video of fundamentalist dialogue in class.

Generally the reaction from my privileged, sophisticated, tolerant, upper-middle-class white juniors and seniors is repulsion. They find fundamentalist discourse so alien to what they are used to thinking that their processing capacity breaks down. Why?

Put the same students in an upper-middle-class white Episcopal church or Jewish synagogue and the response, of course, is quite different. But why "of course"? Close inspection of the content of the discourse in these different settings may reveal a great deal of overlap: talk of God, love, forgiveness, faithfulness, and so on. Apparently the discourse is packaged — framed, structured — in a more meaningful way in one context than in the other.

This, it seems to me, is the heart of the matter when we consider religious discourse as public rhetoric. Is it that Jerry Falwell’s ideas are so alien to the American democratic tradition that thoughtful intellectuals dismiss them on rational grounds after careful consideration? Or does the structure of Falwell’s discourse itself lead them to dismiss his ideas out of hand? We may be correct in saying that FaIwell’s ideas are indeed alien to the ways in which most academics think. But I suspect there is more to it than that. The reason we know they are alien is probably, in part, because of the way in which his discourse is put together. By the same token, we may find the U.S. Catholic bishops’ statement on nuclear disarmament much more compelling (my students do), and part of the reason is probably that it contains a discursive structure with which we are more comfortable.

Communication about Societal Goals

Let me broaden the scope a bit more. The issue is really not whether academics can appreciate Falwell’s or the bishops’ discourse better, although that may be important too. The issue is whether different segments of the society can speak effectively to one another about broad issues of societal importance. At present, much evidence (including some from the kinds of opinion surveys I have just maligned) indicates that religious conservatives and religious liberals in the United States are deeply divided — on nearly everything. The two groups are also about equal in numbers, each constituting about 40 percent of the adult population (judging from the ways in which people categorize themselves). And both sides express enormous hostility and misgiving toward the other.2

The reasons for this hostility and misunderstanding are extremely complex. They include historic precedents, different organizational trajectories, and even class differences. But they also reflect different styles in the use of public discourse. Like my students, religious conservatives can walk into a church and sense almost instantly that it is "too liberal" for them. How?

The issue can be broadened even further. Surely this is an instance of what Habermas has called communicative action.3 It exemplifies the problem of different segments of society trying to engage in competent communication about basic societal goals. One side wants to curb abortions; the other side wants to restrict restrictions on abortion. Both sides want to reduce the risk of nuclear war. And both sides would benefit by being able to realize the religious goals of reconciliation and forbearance. But if Habermas is correct, communicative action often breaks down because of unrecognized barriers built into the very speech acts it comprises. We need to understand discourse itself, he argues, in order to participate effectively in the public sphere.

Where to start? I have used the phrase "public rhetoric" in the title of this chapter, and there is in fact a growing literature on public rhetoric to which we might turn. Efforts have been made to suggest ways in which public rhetoric may differ in stable and unstable settings. Content analysis has been done on presidential speeches to test these ideas empirically, for instance. Some effort has been made to determine whether popular television preachers consistently express themes presumed to be compatible with values in the larger society. Other studies have examined moralistic themes, success motifs, and images of the collectivity in public speeches.

Though promising, the literature on public rhetoric is not what I wish to consider here.4 I wish to focus instead on the possibility of mining recent works in the field of literary criticism for some insights into the structure of religious discourse. A very ample tradition exists here as well, especially because religious texts have been fair game for literary analysis for a long time. Two works of fairly recent origin, however, seem particularly valuable.

Literary Models

Northrop Frye’s The Great Code: The Bible and Literature is a masterly analysis of the biblical canon by one of the foremost literary analysts of our time.5 It is an attempt to say, from a literary standpoint, what is distinctive about the biblical texts. Frye focuses on language, myth, metaphor, typology, imagery, narrative, and rhetoric. In so doing, he demonstrates the importance of discursive structure to the communication of religious meaning. He also supplies some general concepts, as well as numerous substantive hints, about how to analyze religious discourse. Although the book deals specifically with the Bible as a written text, the analytic framework is sufficiently broad to be applied to many other kinds of religious discourse as well.

Susan Rubin Suleiman’s Authoritarian Fictions: The Ideological Novel as a Literary Genre is quite different.6 With the exception of a rich twenty-page section on "exemplary narratives," which focuses on biblical parables, the book is not about religious discourse at all. Its examples are drawn primarily from the works of nineteenth- and twentieth-century French novelists (Balzac, Aragon, Bourget, Nizan, and others). She is concerned, though, with a particular kind of novel — the novel that attempts to persuade its readers of the validity of a doctrine. And in this, her work is immediately relevant to the study of religious discourse.

The two studies complement one another. Frye’s creates a stage; Suleiman’s fills in the props. From Frye we learn some of the ways in which the arrangement of words in religious texts influences their meaning. From Suleitnan we discover some of the particular strategies that writers and speakers may use to shape that meaning. Both are concerned with the restriction of meaning — that is, with the ways in which the relations among words influence the variety of interpretations that can be drawn from those words. Together they give us clues about the ways in which religious discourse may function in public settings.

It is important, before we launch into more specific arguments, to understand what these writers believe to be distinctive about religious discourse. Suleiman includes religious discourse within a larger set of communication that she describes as "ideological" or "authoritarian." This kind of communication attempts to persuade readers or listeners f the correctness of a particular way of interpreting the world. Usually it refers explicitly to, and identifies itself with, a recognized body of doctrine or a system of ideas. This defines a very broad category of communication including philosophical and religious discourse. But it apparently does exclude many other kinds of communication, such as nversation that is not aimed at persuading someone of a particular point of view and discourse oriented solely toward description or enrtainment (though this is not to say that these other forms of discourse ight not have some ideological overtones).

Frye Sets the Stage

Frye perceives religious discourse as more distinctly differentiated. Biblical discourse at least (he does not attempt to generalize to, say, primitive myths) makes use of poetic and metaphoric imagery but also purports to tell a historic story. And yet these stories are not merely descriptions of the past; they are told to convey specific ideas about the sacred and its relation to society. Frye claims that it is extremely important that biblical stories be regarded as "historically true," even though external sources of validation are generally lacking. A distinctive feature of religious discourse is that it presents itself as truth through the ways in which the discourse itself is internally arranged. This means that a biblical text must avoid making certain kinds of claims that would render it subject to external verification and must also demonstrate certain kinds of internal coherence. For example, no evidence (Frye claims) exists for the life of Jesus outside the New Testament; consequently, the writings that refer to Jesus must conform to certain criteria to avoid making this a problem: "Evidence, so called, is bounced back and forth between the testaments like a tennis ball; and no other evidence is given us. The two testaments form a double mirror, each reflecting the other but neither the world outside" (p. 78). Frye stops short of trying to capture these criteria in any simple formula. But his view that religious discourse depends heavily on its own internal arrangement constitutes the basis for one of the central themes of his analysis.

He expresses this theme metaphorically. Religious discourse revolves around itself, Frye asserts, creating both centripetal and centrifugal motion.7 The centripetal aspect refers to the "primary" or "literal" meaning of the text. It depends on not questioning the words, not looking for deeper meanings or applications or connections, but simply taking the story at face value, as for example, in reading the Exodus story as an account of a historical episode. The centripetal aspect is also illustrated by the quotation about the two testaments forming double mirrors. Centripetal meaning derives from what other biblical scholars have called its "intertextual coherence." One text within the biblical canon refers to another, and that one refers to another, thereby providing a kind of closed system — a system that reinforces itself. Centrifugal meaning, in contrast, refers to the more numerous connotations and layers of interpretation that "spin off" from a religious text. The Exodus story may be taken not simply as a historical account but as a message of hope, an illustration of redemption, a metaphor of new life or even of revolutionary possibilities. Frye suggests that religious discourse invites both these kinds of meaning, that it encourages both a closed reading and an open horizon of broader meanings, and that it functions effectively only when these two forces are held in tension.

Frye provides numerous examples of the ways in which the construction of religious discourse sets in motion these two opposing tendencies. He observes, for example, that the biblical texts are filled with metaphor, especially metaphors of the "anti-logical" A-is-B variety (e.g., "Joseph is a fruitful bough"). Others — most notably Ricoeur — have made the same observation, arguing that metaphor contributes to the multivalency of biblical meaning and thus to the enduring appeal of biblical texts.8 But Frye’s argument is different. He agrees that metaphor can open up multiple layers of meaning — can, in his terms, generate a centrifugal force that opens the text to larger interpretations. At the same time, Frye suggests, metaphor also closes down possible meanings. When a text states that "Christ is God and man," it must also be read literally despite its reason-violating message. Metaphor, in this sense, sets in motion a centripetal force that restricts the text to a narrow interpretation. Always there is the possibility of both kinds of interpretation. And yet the very way in which the metaphor is constructed also predisposes it to be interpreted in one way rather than another. We will return to this point, but for the present it will do to establish the point that metaphor illustrates one of the ways in which the relations among words (as much as the words themselves) are important to the interpretation of religious discourse.

Paradoxes of Self-Reference

Frye also examines the dual, opposing tendencies evident in biblical uses of imagery about time, history, nature, and even discourse itself. The last of these is especially interesting. There is, as Niklas Luhmann has recently observed, a paradoxical quality in religious discourse that imitates the paradoxical character of life in general.9 Frye’s analysis emphasizes the extent to which this paradoxical quality is suggested by the Bible’s own references to itself. It is a written text and therefore it has a beginning and end and is subject to questions of internal coherence

— all features of centripetality, of the closing down of possible meanings. Yet the Bible also points to "a speaking presence in history." It is a text that implies an absence of boundaries, an openness to new revelations a centrifugal tendency. Moreover, religious discourse is deliberately ambiguous as to which of these orientations is being referred to at a given point. The phrase "word of God" refers both to the Bible itself and to that "presence," for instance. Only by examining the context in which a phrase like this is used can we determine which meaning is implied. Again, it is the relationships among words — the broader configuration — that determines what they signify.

One other basic point to be gleaned from Frye appears in his final chapter: religious discourse tends to evoke either the centripetal orientation or the centrifugal orientation as a kind of overarching gestalt from which all its internal content is viewed. Religious discourse has both these tendencies inherent within it, says Frye, but its practitioners have generally gravitated toward one pole or the other. Some have felt more comfortable emphasizing the closed aspect of biblical meaning; others, its more open, expansive interpretations. Frye himself seems inclined to favor the latter, if one or the other must be chosen. But he attributes the tendency toward polar orientations to the ambivalent quality of biblical discourse itself. On the one hand, he suggests, the nonrational, metaphoric construction of religious discourse invariably draws the practitioner toward additional layers of meaning. The texts themselves seem to invite the reader to relate ordinary experience to them, thereby developing continuously elaborated interpretations of both. Frye writes that "the dialectical expansion from one ‘level’ of understanding to another seems to be built into the Bible’s own structure, which creates an awareness of itself by the reader, growing in time as he reads, to an extent to which I can think of no parallel elsewhere" (p. 225). It is for this reason, Frye believes, that religious faith can never be reduced to simple doctrinal statements but requires re-creative action and thought to the point that it becomes too complex to understand and thus produces an inevitable degree of inherent doubt. Those who regard religious discourse in this manner, Frye suggests, emphasize its multiplicity of meaning, its centrifugality. In their view, the proper approach to religious discourse is one that says "there is more to be got out of this" (p. 220).

There is, however, the opposing tendency as well. Religious discourse does fold back on itself. It does exclude many interpretations. It damns heresy, hypocrisy, and wrongdoing. It begs for a literal reading. And this, coupled with the uncertainties inherent in its centrifugal interpretations, encourages some to emphasize only the centripetal orientation and find security in delimiting the range of biblical interpretations. As Frye puts it, "man is constantly building anxiety-structures, like geodesic domes, around his social and religious institutions" (p. 232). This orientation deemphasizes freedom, variety, multivalency. It seizes on those metaphors that are most conducive to exact, literal renderings. To some, this itself is heresy, of course. But to Frye it is a normal reaction to religious discourse. Using a graphic image, he concludes, "the normal human reaction to a great cultural achievement like the Bible is to do with it what the Philistines did to Samson: reduce it to impotence, then lock it in a mill to grind our aggressions and prejudices" (p. 233).

Suleiman Supplies the Props

I mentioned earlier that Frye fulfills a kind of general stage-setting function for thinking about religious discourse. Suleiman is more helpful for supplying the specific props. Her book is replete with examples of the ways in which texts restrict possible interpretations in order to drive home the validity of a particular ideological position. She helps us understand, in Frye’s terms, the centripetal forces at work in religious discourse. And by contrast, we can also appreciate how different structures may reinforce centrifugal tendencies. There is, in fact, a striking resemblance between Suleiman’s interest in meaning and Frye’s (although she cites Frye only once, and then in a different context). She contrasts two kinds of novels — one that exhibits centrifugal tendencies, the other in which centripetal forces predominate. "Modernist" novels, she says, seek to "multiply meaning" (or even, as Barthes observed, to pulverize it). The roman a these, in contrast, "aims for a single meaning and for total closure" (p. 22). Her concern is with the latter.10

One of the ways in which certain kinds of texts or discourse close down the array of possible meanings, says Suleiman, is through sheer repetition. By saying things over and over, texts reveal the way in which we should interpret them. If there is confusion or ambiguity the first time around, by the nth time we should be clear. This sounds like an obvious — and simple — point. But Suleiman demonstrates that the study of repetition in texts is anything but obvious or simple. If something is repeated exactly the same way at different points in a text, it actually fails to achieve its goal of creating greater clarity. There has to be redundancy, but it has to appear in different settings and across different features of a text before we will get the point. To show how this might work, Suleiman develops an elaborate taxonomy describing the "principal constituents" of any narrative text. At the level of the story told, she distinguishes characters, contexts, and events. And at the level of discourse (the telling of the story), she distinguishes narration, focalization, and temporal organization. She also offers a number of subdistinctions, such as those describing the various qualities of a character and the kinds of narrative functions fulfilled by characters’ actions. Having made these distinctions, she is then able to show all the possible permutations of circumstances under which redundancy might or might not be present. For example, redundancy might consist of the same event happening to two or more characters in a story. Or it might consist of the same event happening two or more times to a single character. At a wholly different level, redundancy might consist of the narrator pronouncing the same commentary several times about a single character, or indicating several times that his or her information has come from a single source. In all, Suleiman discusses twenty-three types of redundancy.

Whether all these redundancies are equally important and whether they can even be distinguished neatly in specific cases remains open to question. We can, however, benefit from the general thrust of her argument without agreeing with it in every detail. She shows us two things about discourse analysis that go well beyond the kind of word counting that has been used by content analysts to measure repetition and thematic emphases. First, many kinds of redundancy may be built into texts in ways that are more subtle than the usual methods of content analysis would reveal. For example, we may need to consider verb tenses and personal pronouns to ascertain whether characters generally use the same "voice" or not. We may want to examine the settings in which dialogue occurs to see how similar or different it is from one instance to another. We may even need to see if the order in which narrations and their interpretations are given tends to be the same or different throughout a text. Second, we learn from Suleiman’s discussion that an entire discourse cannot be treated as a single text for purposes of examining repetition. For example, we could learn only a little about repetition by counting the number of times the word abortion appears in the transcript of a religious broadcast. Meaningful analysis entails dividing discourse into a number of analytic categories into different narrations, characters, events, sequences, and the like — to determine how much redundancy exists across these various categories. We would want to know, for example, whether the use of the word abortion in a religious broadcast occurred only within narratives or in a wider variety of discursive forms, whether it was spoken by more than one narrator, whether it was spoken in the same "voice," whether it occurred consistently in a particular kind of sentence structure, and so on. All of these could reinforce a particular meaning attached to the word on the one hand or could call forth a variety of interpretations on the other.

Exemplary Narrative and Apprentices

Other chapters of Suleiman’s book deal less formalistically but nevertheless effectively with particular patterns of discourse that seem to be employed frequently in ideological texts. For example, many such texts contain what she refers to as an "exemplary narrative" — that is, a story embedded within the larger text that reveals by example how we are supposed to think, act, or feel. She examines religious parables as one illustration of these kinds of narratives. Her purpose is not to show, as others have, that parables lend themselves to multiple interpretations. Rather, she means to show that the capacity of parables to make any point at all depends on a particular style of construction. In the first place, we have to be able to recognize a parable as an exemplary narrative. Usually we are able to recognize them as such because the speaker makes an abrupt change in tense and mode, thereby setting off the narrative from what has preceded it. Often there is a direct imperative as well that enjoins the listener to pay attention and to look for the point ("If you have ears, then hear"). And sooner or later the story itself becomes sufficiently enigmatic to demand an interpretation. Indeed, Suleiman asserts, the whole purpose of a parable is to set up a situation in which an interpretation is needed. Often the audience in the text actually asks the narrator to supply an interpretation, thereby speaking for the listener outside of the text. For example, Jesus’ disciples routinely asked him to say what his stories meant. And typically the narrator supplies an interpretation. The exemplary narrative works because it conforms to this identifiable construction. It establishes a relation between a sender and a receiver within the text that evokes a similar relation between the text and its actual reader or listener. It tends to be sufficiently general to allow for a wide range of identification: Jesus’ parables are about "a sower," "a woman," "a father" who had "two sons." It occurs within a larger textual context that invests it with intentionality. It also tends to be interpreted by an authoritative narrator who experiences little or no challenge to his authority from other characters or voices in the larger text.

Another specific literary device that Suleiman discusses is the use of apprentices and stories about apprentices to help drive home the author’s ideological intent. Here is her definition of an apprenticeship story: "two parallel transformations undergone by the protagonist: first, a transformation from ignorance (of self) to knowledge (of self); second, a transformation from passivity to action" (p. 65). Or, more simply, an apprenticeship story is about a hero who goes forth into the world to find himself and who achieves this goal by undergoing a series of adventures or tests. Religious discourse is, of course, replete with such stories — from the biblical stories of Jacob, Joseph, Jesus, and Paul, to modern equivalents about religious converts, to such fictionalized variants as Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones.

Like the exemplary narrative, apprenticeship stories work because they conform to certain rules of construction. In addition to the apprentice, various antagonists must be introduced to provide contrasts and to present hurdles to overcome. Often there is a guide or mentor who functions not only to help the apprentice but to make explicit the lessons the apprentice has learned. Above all, a virtual identification must be created between the reader and the protagonist. This is often accomplished by dialogue between the guide and the apprentice that parallels the dialogue going on between the narrator of the text and the reader. For instance, Jesus counsels his disciples and receives questions from them in a way that permits the reader of the text to ask the same questions and receive the same answers. This sort of thing also takes place when the apprentice is a figural actor who exemplifies general characteristics of a certain social class or a particular time. Bunyan’s Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress evokes images of the Puritan artisan more generally, just as do the communist heroes of the twentieth-century fiction that Suleiman analyzes.

Applications to Ordinary Discourse

All of Suleiman’s examples come from formal texts (novels, fables, parables), and all of Frye’s examples come from the biblical canon itself. The question thus arises as to whether any of their conclusions are valid with respect to the analysis of more ordinary kinds of religious discourse. Can we expect to find the same level of importance associated with complex structural arrangements in simpler and more spontaneous discourse, including verbal discourse, or is this the stuff of which only the sophisticated texts of great traditions and talented writers is composed? One way of gaining at least a partial answer to this question is to consider whether or not the professional clergy who transform the more sophisticated literature of religious traditions into verbal discourse have any training in such matters.

We would have to query clergy on this issue to find out, but we do know that seminary training routinely includes courses in sermon preparation and hermeneutics, and we know that the material used in these courses often reflects a great deal of sophistication about the matters we have been discussing. Consider, for instance, the advice given in two of the most popular texts on preaching, Elizabeth Achtemeier’s Creative Preaching: Finding the Words and Leander E. Keck’s The Bible in the Pulpit.11 Both are highly self-conscious about the importance of words — not just the deeper truths words convey but the words themselves. Achtemeier writes, for example, that "if we want to change someone’s life from non-Christian to Christian . . . we must change the images. . . in short, the words by which that person lives" (p. 24). Both are also mindful of many of the specific issues raised by analysts such as Frye and Suleiman. Keck, for instance, decries the tendency seen in religious broadcasting and among fundamentalists to reduce religious truths to simple doctrinal formulas. For the modern highly educated person who believes "that truth is glimpsed momentarily and in fragments, that it lacks symmetry, that it is awkward and angular as it breaks through to us," he suggests, the very phrasing of religious discourse in consistent, propositional statements will sound unreal (p. 42). The kind of text that asserts a single imperative (Suleiman’s "ideological" text) should be avoided at all costs, he says. Instead, emphasis should be placed on simply relating the biblical stories, and conscious attention should be given to letting the diversity of different characters shine through. Rather than using the authoritative voice of the traditional narrator, he suggests, the preacher should tell stories that reveal his or her own vulnerabilities and thereby permit greater identification by the audience. Achtemeier, also writing primarily for clergy in liberal mainline churches, offers similar advice. Speak about actions, she urges, rather than propositional truth; retell the biblical stories, but tell them in conjunction with — and parallel to — stories from everyday experience so that parishioners can identify with them.

Another, more direct way of illustrating that the analysis of discursive structures is relevant to understanding religious discourse is to look briefly at some actual examples of religious discourse. I suggested earlier that this kind of analysis might prove useful for understanding the cultural chasm currently separating religious liberals and religious conservatives. Frye’s distinction between centripetal and centrifugal emphases seems relevant to this distinction. And the advice of Achtemeier and Keck seems to suggest a certain affinity between the centrifugal emphasis and the more liberal orientation. Are the same kinds of differences evident in actual sermons?

Two Examples

Consider the following: the pastor of a liberal Protestant church preaches a sermon on the story of the prodigal son called "Intolerable Love"; across town, a preacher at a small fundamentalist church delivers a sermon called "The Meaning of Life." If we had not been told one was given in a liberal church and the other in a conservative church, could we have placed them correctly merely from examining the two transcripts? Or, perhaps more importantly, what do the two texts reveal about the differences between liberal religious discourse and conservative religious discourse?12

This is not the place to examine the two texts in detail, but we can illustrate how some of the points we have been discussing might be applied.13 From the surface content of the titles alone, we would get little clue as to the underlying differences between the two. Both speak of broad existential, psychological themes; neither focuses specifically on a religious or biblical phrase. Moreover, when we consider the structural arrangement of the words in each title, we also see similarities: both are quite brief, both contain a primary noun and a modifier of that noun, and both relate the noun and its modifier in a way that seems sufficiently paradoxical or contradictory to evoke a question: how can love be intolerable, how can life have meaning (specifically, a single meaning — "the meaning of life"). Yet (with a little sleight of hand that comes from peeking ahead and thinking of Frye’s basic distinction), we can already sense that one text is going to emphasize centrifugal meanings and the other, centripetal meanings. We sense this from the fact that "intolerable love" genuinely opens up all sorts of questions and possible answers, whereas "the meaning of life" implies that something as vague and complex as "life" is going to have a simple interpretation that can be called "the meaning" (consider the quite different implications that would be evoked by the phrase "the meanings of life" or even "meaning in life").

Pushing into the body of each text, we find further similarities and differences. For example, both employ some of the devices Suleiman discusses for creating an identification between the audience and either the narrator or characters in the story. In one, the speaker begins: "Who of us can read the story of the Prodigal Son nowadays without a catch in our throats?" The pronouns are all plural; they categorize us and the narrator together. In the other, all the pronouns are singular. But they occur in a sequence of questions that collectively encompasses everyone in the audience: "How can I handle death? How can I overcome my feeling of loneliness? How can I better manage my time?" As the sermons progress, though, we increasingly see two different patterns in the relations suggested between narrator and audience. In the sermon about intolerable love, the narrator seldom refers to himself; he consistently uses plural pronouns; and when he does refer to himself, he refers to someone who is himself struggling, learning, uncertain, weak. He objectifies the story and relates it to himself and to the collective "we" with phrases that make the latter dependent: "like a resentful child," "broken," "caught." In the other sermon, the narrator tells numerous anecdotes about himself; he becomes a much more intrusive object in his own narratives; and in these stories his authority is never challenged. Indeed, they are often apprentice stories in which the speaker as apprentice encounters other people and then observes their confusion and supplies them with answers. But they are not genuine apprentice stories of the kind Suleiman analyzes. They show the speaker as one who has already found the answers or who instantly recognizes them or sees their applicability to others’ problems. In short, the role of the narrator in the text proves to be a key to the relatively more "ideological" or "authoritarian" tone of the second sermon in comparison with the first.

Opposite Flows

Most interesting, though, is the manner in which the two sermons move between simple, univocal meanings and complex, multivocal meanings. The narrator of the sermon on love observes near the outset that the story of the Prodigal Son is a "simple little story." And in retelling the story, his sentence structure underscores its simplicity: "First we have the younger son, the prodigal. We remember him most vividly. He is hungry for life. . . . He acts. . . . He is the experimenter These are simple, short, declarative statements. They reinforce the story’s surface simplicity. The same sentence structure is present as the narrator continues his description of the other characters in the story, the elder brother and the father. But then the narrator switches to interpretation. He announces the switch by stating that "we learn some things" from the story and that this was Jesus’ point in telling the story. Now the meanings conveyed become more complex. The story, it turns out, is not so simple after all. It is a story about envy, alienation, forgiveness, searching, the self, grace, reconciliation. And now the very complexity of the sentences forces the listener to abandon any conception of simple, straightforward interpretations. Here is the key sentence that summarizes the main point of the sermon: "The biblical notion of the wrath of God is not so much that of the anger of a just God, but it has to do with God’s passionate intolerance towards all forms of sin and what sin does to the world which is loved." Forty-four words! Delivered orally, it is little wonder that the story evokes, as the narrator said it would, "a catch in our throats." Meaning is not so simple after all. One probably cannot even grasp it on one hearing. The sentence does not invite clarity. It invites a sense of mystery to be probed, re-examined, and experienced.

Contrast this movement from the simple to the complex with that in the, other sermon. Here the flow moves in the opposite direction. As noted previously, the text begins with some simple questions that draw the audience into their orbit. Each question is short and beguilingly simple. But there are nineteen of them! And they are delivered as a single unbroken chain. Together they signify the complexity of life — the problems of stress, decision making, communication, fear, pain, and the like. Then there is a series of short narratives. Each describes a seemingly simple answer to the question of the meaning of life and then negates this answer with statements that typify confusion, mystery, openness, searching: "he does not know real answers," "you don’t know where you’re going," "we find ourselves never getting anywhere," "what are the real answers," "knowledge does not contain answers," "there are no answers in power," and so forth. The words themselves open up the complexity of the subject. But, as in the other sermon, so does the sheer length of many of the sentences. For example, here is a sentence that describes the confusion among the followers of Jim Jones’s People’s Temple: "Every one of them was steeped in traditional religion, and they left it because they found a group of people that loved them, that gave them more answers, that cared for them, that generated warmth — when all they did was sit in pews and have meaningless things told to them so they could go out and live meaningless lives." Fifty-nine words. The very fact that this is grammatically a run-on sentence places the listener in a situation of openness: the specific clauses of the sentence could go on endlessly. Finally, though, the narrator asks directly, "where’s the answer?" And then he gives the answer: "Jesus is the answer." Note the simplicity of the sentence. Moreover, the sentence is actually framed, set apart from all other sentences in the text, enclosed: the narrator reveals that he saw it on a billboard along the highway when he was driving home from his grandmother’s funeral. Finally, lest there be any confusion on the audience’s part, he makes explicit toward the end of the text, just as the other narrator did at the beginning, that things are really quite, simple: "Does life ever seem mysterious?" he asks. The answer, he says, "is simply found," and then he underscores the point by saying it is "not hard to understand," it is "so simple," and it is "profound in its simplicity." Again he relies on slogans to underscore the point — simple refrains from well-known hymns, short biblical quotations. And twice he puts these statements in the mouths of children.

The two sermons illustrate strikingly the contrast between Frye’s centrifugal and centripetal tendencies in religious discourse. In the sermon on intolerable love, the movement runs from simplicity to complexity, from a restricted literal reading to a figurative multivocal reading. In the sermon on the meaning of life, the direction of movement is from complexity and searching in many directions to simple, succinctly codified answers. The one "opens out" into broader meanings; the other "closes down" possible meanings to a single answer. Is it perhaps this contrast that accounts for the chasm separating religious liberals and religious conservatives? Had we considered both sermons in full, we would have observed that the liberal sermon actually devotes more time to quoting and paraphrasing the Bible than does the conservative sermon. We would have also noted that the scriptural text speaks more directly and objectively in the liberal sermon, while the narrator himself is more intrusive in the conservative sermon. We would have observed, too, that the conservative sermon does not contain a rigid set of "thou shalt not’s" or spell out in propositional statements what it means to assert that "Jesus is the answer." In other words, the two sermons do not differ in many of the ways we might have expected them to on the basis of preconceived notions about liberalism and fundamentalism. The main contrast is in style and in the openness or restrictedness of meaning that is connoted by that style.

Broader Implications

What does this imply about religious discourse in the public sphere? Perhaps it is the style of discourse that causes it to communicate in some contexts and fail utterly to communicate in others. Perhaps clues are buried in the structure of discourse itself that say to us, "life is really too confusing and here are some simple answers," or "the answers we have are really too simple and we need to recognize the complexity of it all." As in the sentence structure of the two sermons, there may be an implicit emphasis on the priority of centripetal meaning or on the priority of centrifugal meaning. The two emphases may also be spelled out explicitly, as they were when the two ministers employed the word simple itself.

In drawing on Frye and Suleiman, I have made no attempt here to suggest a rigorous, easily codified, let alone quantifiable method of examining the structure of meaning in religious discourse. Indeed, the examples given have specifically shown the precarious bases from which inferences about how texts operate are drawn. The study of discourse is, after all, an interpretive enterprise. It depends on preconceived frameworks — which is why I introduced Frye and Suleiman before discussing the two sermons — rather than on raw induction from the empirical world.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that the study of public rhetoric can advance by following some of the clues suggested by this reading of Frye and Suleiman. We have considered the importance of examining metaphor and narrative not as straightforward thematic content but as building blocks in the construction of texts. We have considered redundancy and special kinds of narrative structures that draw the reader into the text by providing exemplary stories and by telling the exploits of apprentices.

If there is any "simple answer" to the analysis of discourse that goes to an even more elementary level than these clues suggest, it is probably to be found in the examination of distinctions and connections, contrasts and parallels. Metaphor, for example, consists of words that are clearly distinct, drawn from two different realms ("the sun is a chariot"), rather than two words that can actually be equated ("God is sacred"). And as Frye observes, metaphor depends on drawing a connection between these two contrasting words (thus, in his analysis, the importance of is). But we car broaden the idea beyond metaphor. Suppose a different kind of connection is drawn between two contrasting words. It has often been noted, for example, that Flannery O’Connor made frequent use of the phrase "as if for this purpose.14 This kind of connection muddies up our interpretations, forcing them to be more centrifugal than centripetal. When I said earlier, for instance, that it was "as if" our methods forced us to conceive of religious communities as silent worlds, what did I mean? Not that it literally did, but that there is a provocative sense in which this is the case, and giving some thought to this sense may open up the matter for us in unexpected ways.

More generally, issues of redundancy and methods of drawing an identification between readers and characters in the text also boil down to questions about distinctions and connections, contrasts and parallels — which is to say, structural features of discourse. I am suggesting that we need to pay greater attention to this. Religious discourse in the public arena is not simply talk about the gods in an otherwise secular context. It is the use of a certain rhetorical style, a style that conforms to certain rules of underlying structure but that communicates only to the extent that this structure is appropriate for the uses to which it is put.



  1. I have examined the epistemological underpinnings of this approach and alternative approaches to cultural meaning in general in my book Meaning and Moral Order: Explorations in Cultural Analysis (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987), especially chap. 2.
  2. For further detail, see my book The Restructuring of American Religion: Society and Faith since World War II (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988).
  3. Jurgen Habermas, Communication and the Evolution of Society (Boston: Beacon, 1979).
  4. What I find disappointing about many studies of public rhetoric is (a) their tendency to focus only on content, rather than the form or structure of discourse, (b) their tendency to thematize this content, and (c) their tendency to regard these themes as reflections, or reinforcements, of collective values — which apparently lie hidden somewhere in the subjectivity of the collective conscience.
  5. Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982), p. 78.
  6. Suleiman, Authoritarian Fictions: The Ideological Novel as a Literary Genre (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982).
  7. I am aware, of course, of the more general usage of this metaphor in linguistics and literary criticism, as well as the reservations that have been expressed especially by Marxist critics of Frye’s broader theoretical framework.
  8. Paul Ricoeur, The Philosophy of Paul Ricceur (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978).
  9. Luhmann, "Society, Meaning, Religion — Based on Self-Reference," Sociological Analysis 46 (1985): 5-20.
  10. I have had many fruitful discussions of Suleiman’s book and of the problem of meaning-restriction in texts more generally with Marsha Witten, to whom I want to give special thanks. She is currently engaged in some very promising empirical work on this issue.
  11. Achtemeier, Creative Preaching: Finding the Words (Washville: Abingdon, 1980); Keck, The Bible in the Pulpit: The Renewal of Biblical Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon, 1978).
  12. I am grateful to Penny Becker for collecting these and other sermons for me under a work-study program sponsored by Princeton University.
  13. Marsha Witten has written a very useful paper, entitled "The Structure of Symbolic Codes and the Restriction of Meaning: Devices of Disambiguation in a Fundamentalist Christian Sermon," that examines the second of these two sermons in depth, using both quantitative and qualitative methods.
  14. For instance, in the familiar opening sentence of Wise Blood, O’Connor writes, "Hazel Motes sat at a forward angle on the green plush train seat, looking one minute at the window as if he might want to jump out of it, and the next down the aisle at the other end of the car."