More credit is probably due to literature and rhetoric scholars than philosophers for impressing upon me the importance of a text’s rhetorical form and prose style. My philosophical training primed me to concentrate on a work’s contents. This was largely a matter of targeting assessment at the plausibility of premises, the validity of inferences, the soundness of conclusions — basically its operating model of rational argumentation. Now don’t get me wrong, of course I still think there’s value in attending to these sorts of details. It’s a defining purpose of philosophy, after all, to equip its students with the know-how needed to project the discipline’s apparatus of judgment into any given circumstance. (That is, to learn how to carry on its kind of conversation, as it were, no matter the company.) But there can be a downside to limiting one’s focus to this angle of criticism alone, to nourishing oneself on what I now take for an incomplete diet. For one risks losing touch with other sensitivities, other categories of praise and critique, deployed in the conceptual apparatuses other disciplines traffic in as their matter of course. That downside is the shrinking of the capaciousness of one’s own critical sensibilities.
All this just to say that I’ve learned that how an author pitches their voice is not an extraneous detail, mere decoration incidental to what is really being said. So, to correct this oversight, I wanted to take some time to register this lesson to be mindful of the persuasive powers latent in the aesthetic features of texts (philosophical, theological, and other). As Nicholas Lash said it, and said it simpler and better than I have: in the case of theology, “God’s beauty is not well served by ugly prose.”
To illustrate something of the above I’d like to single out a particular literary moment of texts easy to look past, namely, titles. I think a memorable title does more work than we might at first think. Here, then, are some of the titles that once gave my imagination pause when I first happened upon them and have stayed with me ever since.
- The Joy of Being Wrong (by James Alison)
- Suffering Divine Things (Reinhard Hutter)
- No Handle on the Cross: Meditations on the Crucified Mind (Kosuke Koyama)
- Solved by Sacrifice (Robert MacSwain)
- A Community Called Atonement (Scot McNight)
- Christ the Stranger (Ben Myers)
- A Ray of Darkness (Rowan Williams)
- The Wound of Knowledge (Rowan Williams)
Whether the contents of these works sustained the curiosity these titles piqued, though, is a question for another time. For my purposes here, that’s beside the point.