Benjamin Sherick graduated from the University of Calgary in 2015 with a Bachelor of Arts - Honours First Class in Communication Studies and a minor in Religious Studies. His academic interests include rhetoric, pop culture, music, and religion. He currently resides in Alberta with his wife.
A pastor stands in the pulpit on a Sunday morning and, drawing on the book that both he and the congregation agree to be the holy words of God, preaches with conviction and fervor. The pastor attempts to persuade the congregation regarding the truth of Christianity. This is a rhetorical act. It is a call to action. It is an attempt at relating.
In the third pew, a dedicated churchgoer sits skeptically. Although she agrees with the propositions coming from the pulpit, she is not persuaded. This stems from a more personal concern. For one reason or another, the pastor’s persona alienates her. He is not a credible rhetor. In other words, the pastor’s ethos prevents the churchgoer from identifying with him.
According to classical conceptions, rhetoric is concerned with persuasion. Aristotle (c. 335/1984) defined rhetoric as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion” (p. 24). Rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke (1969) later suggested that an additional motive of rhetoric is to cause identification between the rhetor and the audience: to create a connection (p. xiv). Woodward (2003) notes that Burke built upon Aristotle’s foundation of rhetoric, particularly the concept of a rhetor’s ethos, in constructing his theory of identification. Aristotle stated that in order to persuade (and Burke would later add, to cause identification), the rhetor must construct and portray an appealing persona within the context of the rhetorical act. This is the rhetor’s intrinsic ethos. However, this is only half the equation. Audiences are also involved in the process of identification, and they interpret the rhetor’s ethos. Their interpretation can be influenced by the rhetor’s extrinsic ethos, or reputation. For this reason, Isocrates suggested that rhetors must also pay attention to their extrinsic ethos.
This article summarizes the findings of the undergraduate thesis The Ethos of Mark Driscoll: Rhetorical Analysis of a Sermon in the Context of a Preacher’s Public Reputation (Sherick, 2015). The project sought to understand how a contemporary pastor’s ethos affects his audience’s ability to identify with the pastor and potentially be persuaded by his claims. In other words, to what extent does the ability to persuade rely on ethos as an aspect of identification? To answer this question, the project asked two sub-questions. First, how does a pastor construct and present intrinsic ethos within the bounds of a sermon? Second, to what extent is a pastor’s extrinsic ethos a factor in the audience’s interpretation of the pastor’s overall ethos? A pastor’s intrinsic and extrinsic ethos will either enable or prohibit identification, which in turn will enable or hinder persuasion. These conclusions can also be applied to rhetors more generally.
The research focused on the case of Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church. Mark Driscoll was the controversial pastor of Mars Hill Church, a multi-campus church based in Seattle. For most of his career and especially throughout 2014, Driscoll was a magnet for controversy. Amidst increased criticism, Driscoll resigned from his position in October 2014. This led to the dissolution of Mars Hill Church in December 2014.
This project filled a gap in the scholarship relating to rhetoric and preaching. A search using the University of Calgary library’s search engine combining Christian genre terms “preaching” and “sermon” with rhetorical terms “ethos,” “identification,” and “rhetoric” yielded few scholarly works directly related to this project’s research question. While much scholarship exists on ethos (i.e. Benoit, 1990; Braet, 1992; Leff, 2009; Rummel, 1979) and identification (i.e. Baxter & Taylor, 1978; Davis, 2008) from a rhetorical perspective, as well as religious and theological scholarship about preaching (i.e. Augustine, 426/1958; Campbell & Cilliers, 2012), sources explicitly linking the two in a way that helped answer the research question were rarer. For this reason, I selected sources that spoke on rhetorical theory more generally (i.e. Aristotle, c. 335/1984; Too, 2008; Woodward, 2003) and then adapted those sources to the discussion of preaching.
As a persuasive act of public speaking, preaching is a rhetorical act that occurs on a weekly basis. Through this case study of a Mark Driscoll sermon in light of his reputation, the project summarized herein made the links between preaching and rhetorical theory explicit. It applied rhetorical concepts such as ethos to Christian preaching in a way that has rarely been done.