Rhetoric Society of America (RSA) 2007 Institute
"Rhetoric of Religion: Perspectives and Prospects" -- a workshop

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
, Friday, June 22 - Sunday, June 24

Workshop Leader : Bill FitzGerald (Rutgers University - Camden)
Workshop Participants : Laura Carroll, Michael DePalma, Megan Marie,
                                        Christina Knopf, Kurt Stavenhagen, James Webber


This two day workshop examines the intertwined relationship between rhetoric and religion, as these "key" terms bears upon each other in theory and in practice. Our mode of exploration will be to consider, in broad strokes, the multiple ways in which rhetoric and religion intersect; by examining particular ideas about how and instances in which religion is informed by rhetoric and rhetoric is responsive to religion we seek to identify promising trajectories for further inquiry. A fuller statement may be found here.

In practical terms, we will look at how rhetoric contributes to understanding religious thought, language and activity, and why rhetoric, as an academic discipline, benefits from critical attention to religious phenomena. We will do so through discussions that push off from a small selection of provocative readings, through several impromptu writing prompts, and on the last day, through brief, informal presentations of individualized research projects, ongoing and anticipated. If there is a consensus that we should move more quickly toward individualized presentations in our second or third sessions, we can also do that.

A note on the suggested readings: Ours is a summer workshop, not a formal, semester-long seminar; please do not feel obliged to read everything with exacting scrutiny. Rather, read for the 'gist', following threads of interest with an eye to sparking productive discussion. Do read several texts with some thoroughness, however, so that you can help direct us toward issues and questions of significance. And come prepared with genuine and 'devil's advocate' questions for us to consider. For my part,  I plan to highlight and summarize the readings (and, in so doing, justify their selection) as well as draw connections among these and other texts. Wherever possible, I have identified an electronic form (in whole, in part, or in summary) of the readings, and I have also included links to additional materials of interest.

Below the schedule I have also included a list of resources which will continue to expand both before and after the workshop.


Session One : Friday, June 22, 2:00 - 5:00 p.m.

After a round of introductions, our first session will address various ways in which academic disciplines have understood religion and consider, based upon our own disciplinary training and sensibilities, what a rhetorical perspective on religion contributes to the mix. Consequently, our first three readings present seminal statements by major 20th century scholars representative, respectively, of psychological, sociological, and anthropological approaches to religion.

William James. "Lecture Two: Circumscription of the Topic" from The Varieties of Religious Experience. (handout + html)
Emile Durkheim. "Definition of Religious Phenomena and of Religion" from Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. (handout,
        excerpt, summary of EFRL, commentary, biography, background)
Geertz, Clifford. "Religion as a Cultural System" from The Interpretation of Cultures. (handout + pdf, commentary)

Additional Readings:
Jost, Walter and Wendy Olmsted. "Introduction," Rhetorical Inventions and Religious Inquiry. ed. Jost and Olmsted (handout, book)

Session Two : Saturday, June 23, 9 a.m. - noon

Building on the discussion of the previous day, we will use two pieces, one each by Kenneth Burke and Wayne Booth, as a springboard for identifying the "rhetorical" texture of religious thought. Of the two, the playfully irreverent piece by Burke, a summary in dialogue form of his ideas on logology he lays out in his The Rhetoric of Religion. We will look fairly closely at Burke's ideas here and the implications of his methodologies in identifying the connections between logology, or "words about words," and theology, or "words about God." And we will consider (and critique) Booth's effort to discover common ground--in rhetoric--between what are often seen, as they are for Richard Dawkins, as two opposing, irreconciliable sets of beliefs and discourses: science and religion,

Kenneth Burke. "Epilogue: Prologue in Heaven" from The Rhetoric of Religion ( handout + summary; analysis, on reading Burke)
Wayne Booth. "Rhetoric, Science, Religion" from The Essential Wayne Booth, ed. W. Jost (handout)

Additional readings:
Gunn, David. "An Occult Poetics, or the Secret Rhetoric of Religion" Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Spring 2004
Ivie, Robert. "The Rhetoric of Bush's 'War' on Evil" in KBJournal, Fall 2004
"Fun at the Creation Museum": a skeptic's review of the new $27M museum in Petersburg, Kentucky

Session Three : Saturday, June 23, 1:30 - 4:30 p.m.

Our third session identifies particular discourse practices--figures, forms, topoi, warrants--that seem especially characteristic of religious rhetoric. A second, related strand addresses the situatedness of religious discourse, whether in its own 'private' sphere or within some contested public space. Here I have selected a fairly accessible piece on fundamentalism and its relation to rhetorical practice by Sharon Crowley. For a more theoretical approach to religion in the public sphere, rather than read sizeable chunks of important figures in this debate, such as Jurgen Habermas, John Rawls, or Richard Rorty, I have selected, as an additional reading, a piece by O'Neill that reviews and situates these scholars. An overarching theme here is the relation between religious rhetoric and critique, including the grounds of that critique.

Tracy, David. "Prophetic and Mystical Rhetorics" from
Rhetorical Inventions and Religious Inquiry, ed. Jost&Olmsted (handout)
Webb, Stephen. "Theological Reflections on the Hyperbolic Imagination" from Rhetorical Inventions and Religious Inquiry, ed.             Jost&Olmsted. (handout + similar article, book)
Sharon, Crowley. "On (Not) Arguing About Religion and Politics" from Toward a Civil Discourse: Rhetoric and Fundamentalism (handout + pdf, link, review)

Additional readings:
Derrida, Jacques. "Faith and Knowledge; The Two Sources of 'Religion at the Limits of Reason Alone'" (excerpt) from Religion, ed.         Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1998
O'Neill, Bill, S.J. "Modernity and Its Religious Discontents: Religion and Public Reason" in Jesuit Philosophical Association        
        Proceedings (2004) (pdf)

Session Four : Sunday, June 24, 9 a.m. - noon

Our final session is deliberately sparse so that we can return to pick at threads that have emerged in previous discussion as well as hear from one another on projects about which we welcome responses from fellow workshop participants. I will present work-in-progress on the rhetoric of prayer. What will others present? Our single selection, recognizing the revival of interest in the rhetoric of religion within European circles, is a recent piece from Laurence Pernot, the current chair of the International Society of the History of Rhetoric (ISHR), whose biennial conference meets this year, July 24-29, in Strasbourg, France. Conference theme for 2007: the rhetoric of religion.

Pernod, Laurence. The Rhetoric of Religion (link) Rhetorica, August 2006



REL 607 Ancient Religious Rhetoric  (Jim Watt, Syracuse University)
Comm 374: The Rhetoric of Religion  (Robert Howard, University of Wisconsin, Madison)
English 379: The Rhetoric of Religion (William FitzGerald, University of Maryland, College Park)


Rhetoric and Christian Tradition: Bibliographies

Religion in America/Literary Cultural Studies: http://www.uiowa.edu/~relgrad/bibliographies/hartel.html


Burke, Kenneth. The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology. Berkeley: U California Press, 1961.

Crowley, Sharon. Toward a Civil Discourse: Rhetoric and Fundamentalism. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh Press, 2005.

Cunningham, David. Faithful Persuasion: An Aid of a Rhetoric of Christian Theology. South Bend, IN: U Notre Dame Press, 1993.

Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. [1916] trans. Karen Fields. Free Press (reprint ed.), 1995.

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. [1902]. New York: Modern Library, 1999.

Jost, Walter and Wendy Olmsted. Rhetorical Invention and Religious Inquiry: New Perspectives. New Haven, Yale UP, 2000.

Taylor, Robert. Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.
 (reviewed by Robert M. Bellah)

Yaghjian, Lucretia.  Writing Theology Well. Continuum, 2006. (link)


Tracy, David. "Theology as Public Discourse"

(more coming)


(more coming)