Rhetoric and Religion: Perspectives and Prospects

William FitzGerald, Rutgers University-Camden

With an increasing sense of urgency, many in both the public square and the academy are grappling with the rhetorical potency of religious discourse: its insistent claims, its totalizing impulses, its constitutive as well as disruptive energies. Within a secularized academy, efforts to encounter--and even counter--a resurgence of religious rhetoric have been complicated by divergent ways of speaking and thinking about religion, ways that frustrate easy rapprochement. And yet, as 20th century scholars as varied as Bakhtin, Burke, Derrida, Geertz, Mailloux, Ricoeur, and Rorty have demonstrated, critical attention to the rhetoric of religion can open both religion and rhetoric to refreshing insights and new prospects.

Following in the tradition of Kenneth Burke's landmark The Rhetoric of Religion (1961) and Walter Jost and Wendy Olmsted's more recent collection Rhetorical Invention and Religious Inquiry (2000), this workshop will consider the ‘turn' toward religion in rhetorical studies with an emphasis on how rhetorical perspectives on religious discourse, beliefs, and practices may advance the vital task of speaking--hopefully--to the contemporary moment.

Collectively, through critical reading and wider ranging conversation, we will consider the various ways that rhetoric and religion intersect, addressing, among others, these questions:

-- What are the implications of articulating the rhetoric of religion as opposed to a rhetoric of religion?

-- Which genres, topics, figures, appeals, and proofs mark discourse as religious?

-- In what public, communal, and/or private spheres, does /should religious rhetoric occur? What are religion's rhetorical boundaries?

-- In what ways does religion present rhetorical studies with opportunities to expand, to refine, or to reframe the scope and character of its present concerns?

One particular focus of the workshop will be renewed attention to prayer (language addressed to God or the gods) as a significant site of rhetorical action, one whose abiding concerns with the performance of piety, the identification of interest, and the transformative power of language invite critical scrutiny.

It is my hope that workshop participants will bring to our collaborative inquiry their rich and unique experiences with religious rhetorics and, in so doing, contribute to our shared understanding of the many promising lines of research at the intersection of rhetoric and religion.