A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Review of Jeffrey M. Ringer's Christian Rhetoric and Civic Discourse: The Religious Creativity of Evangelical Student Writers

Paul LynchSt. Louis University

(Published December 20, 2019)

Upon its publication in 2006, Sharon Crowley’s Toward a Civil Discourse won almost every major award for a book in rhetoric and writing studies (RWS): the 2006 JAC Olson Award, the 2007 NCTE Russell Award, the 2008 RSA Book Award, the 2008 CCCC Outstanding Book Award. Civil Discourse offered a theory of rhetoric meant to break a major deliberative impasse that Crowley observed in American culture and politics. On one side, she saw a reactionary religious rhetoric whose apocalyptic fixation relieves its adherents of the obligations of deliberative engagement. On the other is a classical liberalism marred by its own trained incapacities of reason and rationality, incapacities that disable engagement with the passions. Crowley argues that rhetoric might break this deadlock since it has “a major advantage over liberal strategies of argument insofar as it is able to address ideological and emotional claims as well as rational ones” (23). Her project was to press rhetoric’s advantage in order to invent a rhetoric that might actually speak to and with the beliefs, commitments, and ideologies of religiously passionate people. In her measured review of the book, Beth Daniell described Crowley’s explication of rhetoric as one of the best available (81). Yet she also questioned Crowley’s framing of the problem, which left behind those Christians who are neither fundamentalist nor apocalyptic. Christianity should not be reduced to a single (and hotly contested) version; nor should it be seen merely as an obstacle to public deliberation. To the contrary, Christian faith—including the evangelic faith that Crowley sometimes conflates with apocalypticism—is also a resource for public deliberation.

This is the thesis Jeffrey M. Ringer sets out to prove in his Vernacular Christian Rhetoric and Civic Discourse: The Religious Creativity of Evangelical Student Writers (Routledge, 2016). Ringer explicitly frames his project as a response to Crowley’s call to pursue new paths of invention; and he thus positions his work as a form of agonism rather than antagonism. (The feeling is apparently mutual: Ringer notes his amicable discussions with Crowley over their disagreements.) Ringer nevertheless worries about what he sees as a killer dichotomy at the heart of Civil Discourse, a dichotomy he encounters in other scholarly depictions of religiously motivated students—in Gesa Kirsch’s suggestion that religion is repressive while spirituality is generative (8) and in Keith Gilyard’s assumption that his conservative Christian students are incapable of rhetorical creativity (9). Though rhetoric and writing studies has begun to shake this binary habit, Ringer insists that there is more work to do, and his book advances that inquiry with a careful study of how Christian first-year composition (FYC) students draw upon their faith as a resource for their writing. Contrary to popular (and, too often, academic) opinion, Ringer argues, faith is not something on which Christian students simply insist (deliberative and democratic consequences be damned). Rather, faith is something religious student rhetors are constantly re-creating, always taking into account purpose, audience, and context.

This kind of invention produces what Ringer calls a “vernacular Christian rhetoric.” He finds the seed of this idea in Leonard Primiano’s notion of “vernacular religious creativity,” which Ringer defines as “the conscious or unconscious process of negotiating religious beliefs in order to make sense of and potentially adjust one’s faith commitments in relation to social, political, cultural, discursive, and institutional contexts” (3). Vernacular Christian Rhetoric and Civic Discourse is an attempt to casuistically stretch the idea of vernacular religious creativity into rhetoric and writing studies. To do this, Ringer draws upon folklore studies and the sociology of religion, both of which, he argues, offer “a fuller, broader, more nuanced picture of the vernacular religious creativity…than is currently available in rhetoric and composition scholarship” (23). These resources allow Ringer to articulate his theory of vernacular religious rhetoric in the book’s second and third chapters. In those chapters, Ringer understands “vernacular” to include the everyday ways that evangelicals speak about, think about, and practice their faith.He thus avoids focusing on the divisive, binary issues that seem to define the public meaning of “evangelical.” In fact, one of the key services provided by Ringer’s scholarship is a redefinition of the term itself, which has too often been understood as represented solely by certain kinds of prominent “evangelical” leaders such as, say, Jerry Falwell or Billy Graham. Evangelical Christianity encompasses much more than conventional (mis)understandings would suggest. Nevertheless, Ringer uses the term because there simply is no better one available. He defines it according to four criteria: the importance of personal conversion; the centrality of the Bible; activism, in both proclaiming the faith and working for social change; and, finally, “crucicentrism,” or a belief in substitutionary atonement. Though the fourth is a matter of some debate, most evangelicals would identify with the first three (5-6). Those three “active ingredients” of contemporary evangelical Christianity animate the kind of vernacular religious creativity Ringer sets out to observe.

That creativity, he finds, is an always evolving response to rhetorical situations. Vernacular religious rhetoric is not about proclamation so much as negotiation, and Ringer finds ample evidence of this negotiation in the writing classroom. From the vantage of the classroom, Ringer offers the book’s primary evidence: a series of three case studies of ordinary young people taking writing classes at a mid-sized, northeastern public university. In addition to being writing students, “Austin,” “Kimberly,” and “Eloise” all attend the nearby “Greenville Evangelical Church,” where they all participate in a similar array of social and religious activities (12). Ringer follows them as they manage their desire for authentic religious expression within the proto-public space of the composition classroom. There, they confront audiences similar to those that they will likely encounter in the wider public sphere. These include not just those who balk at religious appeals in “secular” debates, but also those who dismiss religion as nonsense, full stop. When they run into these challenges Ringer’s interview subjects do not simply proof-text or Bible-thump. Rather, they rethink their approaches and hatch new strategies.

Ringer arranges these approaches and strategies into a three-part typology of casuistic stretching, values articulation, and translation. To take one example: in an argument about the relative merits of public and Christian schools, Ringer’s student Austin casuistically stretches his belief in the primacy of Christianity to allow for freedom of choice, even at the risk that one might not choose Christianity. To support this point, Austin does what many religious students have done: he quotes the Bible and he does so selectively. But what’s surprising here (surprising at least within RWS’s literature on religious students) is that Austin is selective in favor of accommodation rather than exclusion. That is, Austin is not citing the Bible to favor of his predetermined position. He is instead casuistically stretching his understanding of the Bible in order to make his views more appealing to his audience. It is “a messy, convoluted move…that bears significant risk” (77). But the risk is to Austin’s understanding of his own faith. Austin does a better job of reaching for intersubjectivity across difference than he does of simply articulating the tenets of his faith. Most importantly, those very tenets drive Austin to want to engage in the first place. As Ringer notes, this attitude represents “a complete reversal of the all-too-common narrative of the unyielding fundamentalist Christian students in composition scholarship” (82). The reversal of this narrative is the central and timely contribution of Vernacular Christian Rhetoric and Civic Discourse. Ringer’s subjects are not unyielding about their faith. Instead, they are inventive.  

Some readers may wonder whether three case studies presented in the book offer enough support for this conclusion. But the richness and specificity of those case studies, along with Ringer’s careful explication of his methodology in the book’s appendices, should allay concerns about sample size. Defending his methodological choice, Ringer argues that the purpose of such interviews is not to provide grounds for universal claims, but rather to challenge dominant narratives. In this case, the particular dominant narrative he wishes to challenge is common both in and outside of RWS. Ringer notes, for example, a 2007 survey of American university faculty by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research. Their findings reveal that, while university faculty feel warmly about many religious groups, they are most likely to have negative feelings toward evangelical Christians (168-169).

Meanwhile, Ringer also challenges the teacher-research paradigm that has so dominated RWS inquiry. In that paradigm, a religiously motivated student somehow “outs” himself by citing scripture or otherwise claiming religious authority, and the teacher puzzles over how best to respond to this “problem.” To be fair, our field’s reflection on these students has been self-questioning and in many cases self-implicating (Goodburn 1998; Carter 2007). Regarding this latter and more generous mode of reflection, Ringer’s book represents a major advance. Rather than waiting for religious students to come to him, Ringer has gone to them. In so doing, he is able to see, in real time, the rhetorical growth of religious student rhetors.    

Crucially, Ringer treats religious belief as worthy of consideration and expression in public. This attitude toward religion and religious discourse makes this book very important. As John Duffy has argued in his recent Provocations of Virtue (2019), the field continues to see the classroom as a place where we might begin to cultivate healthier rhetorical habits—habits formed by generosity and sympathy rather than reaction and dismissal. Scholars of religion, meanwhile, argue that faith continues to drive political deliberation in the United States despite declines in weekly attendance or formal affiliation (see, for example, Putman and Campbell, 2010). In other words, evangelical Christian rhetoric—in its many varieties—seems likely to remain a major force in American public discourse. Insofar as we see our classrooms as training grounds for ethical public participation, we must therefore include religious rhetoric as an area of study. That study, moreover, should address not simply how best to interpret religious discourse, but also how best to produce it. Ringer’s work invites the field toward this necessary and more open engagement.

Works Cited

Carter, Shannon. “Living inside the Bible (Belt).” College English, vol. 69, no. 6, 2007, pp. 572-595.

Crowley, Sharon. Toward a Civil Discourse: Rhetoric and Fundamentalism. U of Pittsburgh P, 2006.

Daniell, Beth. “Whetstones Provided by the World: Trying to Deal with Difference in a Pluralistic Society.” College English, vol. 70, no. 1, 2007, pp. 79-88. 

Duffy, John. Provocations of Virtue: Rhetoric, Ethics, and the Teaching of Writing. Utah State University Press, 2019.

Goodburn, Amy. “It’s a Question of Faith: Discourses of Fundamentalism and Critical Pedagogy in the Writing Classroom.” Journal of Advanced Composition, vol. 18, no. 2, 1998, pp. 333-53.

Putnam, Robert D., and David E. Campbell. American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. Simon and Schuster, 2010.