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Academics: Strategic Communication

A Christian perspective on strategic communication at Calvin

The role of rhetoric in a Christian education has its roots in the Early Church. Five of the greatest Latin Fathers of the Church (Tertullian, Cyprian, Arnobious, Lactantius, and Augustine) were professional rhetoricians before they became Christians. The other three (Ambrose, Hilary, and Jerome) were thoroughly trained in the rhetorical schools of their time. Some teachers in the Early Church were skeptical of rhetoric, sharing Plato’s belief that rhetoric produced belief rather than knowledge and treated the truth with indifference. But a Christian rhetorical education (and theory) that aimed to unify wisdom and eloquence soon emerged, advanced mainly by Lactantius and Augustine. Augustine, in particular, emphasized that the orator needs expertise in the art of rhetoric along with divine guidance.

Though Early-Christian rhetorical education aimed almost exclusively to train effective apologists and also ministers who could effectively impel the faithful to the Christian life, Christian rhetoricians have extended the realm of rhetoric to cover a full range of human communication. Rhetorical training is beneficial for everyday speaking and writing, as well as for discourse about deeper issues on which God's truth may be obscure to us. A Strategic Communication major, which trains students in rhetorical critique and the creation of messages, will improve students’ ability to “assume positions of influence and bring the Christian faith to bear in the world” (Objective 1. A. “Strategic Objectives and Initiatives 2008-2013”).
The twentieth-century Christian rhetorician Richard M. Weaver observed that rhetoric is a significant kind of power in economic, social, and political life–and therefore its practitioners should receive careful instruction:

As rhetoric confronts us with choices involving values, the rhetorician is a preacher to us, noble if he tries to direct our passion toward noble ends and base if he uses our passion to confuse and degrade us. Since all utterance influences us in one or the other of these directions, it is important that the direction be the right one, and it is better if this lay preacher is a master of his art (Richard Weaver, Language is Sermonic. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1970, 225).

The Strategic Communication major will strive to teach students to become masters of the art of rhetoric, trained in both wisdom and eloquence. Students will receive instruction in critical thinking in order to evaluate issues and messages for the purpose of making wise decisions and participating in communication situations. They will learn to craft sound, compelling messages effectively adapted to their listeners and also to present those messages effectively. Therefore, the Strategic Communication major fulfills the mission of the CAS Department, “to understand, engage and redeem human communication and culture from a Reformed Perspective.”

Calvin graduates will have to think hard about these matters when going into fields such as public relations, which often seem to exemplify Plato’s argument that rhetoric “makes the worse appear the better cause” (in Gorgias and Apology). Yet it was the Apostle Paul who claimed that he had “become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (I Cor. 9:22). Even the most fervent literalist is unlikely to take this to mean that Paul used any persuasive method that worked. Instead, his eloquence was guided by wisdom. A Christian ethical approach to rhetoric is central to what we do, not only in the required course in ethics, but also in other courses as well.

Christians also face the challenges of a mediated age. Jacques Ellul writes that Christians face a rhetorical dilemma:

Either not to make propaganda—but then, while the churches slowly and carefully win a man to Christianity, the mass media quickly mobilize the masses, and churchmen gain the impression of being “out of step,” on the fringes of history, and without power to change a thing.

Or to make propaganda—this dilemma is surely one of the most cruel with which the churches are faced at present. For it seems that people manipulated by propaganda become increasingly impervious to spiritual realities, less and less suited for the autonomy of a Christian life (Jacques Ellul. Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes. New York: Vintage, 1973, 228-229).

Although we will not claim to resolve this dilemma for our students, we think that there is a reason why the Reformed tradition does not incline toward televangelism, a reason that has to do with the approach Calvin takes to issues, rooted in values and skills.

The Strategic Communication major, therefore, develops in students the following core values of Calvin College:

• Wisdom — the Strategic Communication major will train students to recognize the ethical means of persuasion;
• Humility — because students must be willing to accept criticism for improvement and to recognize when other arguments are stronger;
• Honesty — so that students can evaluate and engage opposing arguments and are accountable for their own work; and
• Creativity — because effective rhetorical messages require invention as well as skillful style to engage audiences.

The Strategic Communication major also will serve the mission of Calvin College in three important ways. First, the major will provide training for leadership in the Church. Students committed to the various forms of Christian ministry need excellent communication skills to spread the Gospel and to promote Christian community. Second, the major will provide training for Christian leadership in the broader culture. Students committed to excellence in their professions and their role as citizens need excellent communication skills to do their work honorably and to promote the public good. Third, in addition to enhancing students’ competencies in “listening and speaking effectively, employing graphic and numeric forms of communication, exercising valid and sound reasoning, [and] making discerning use of technology” (“Expanded Statement of Mission,” 28), the major will help students develop a commitment to using those competencies to honor God.