In the new book Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church, James Beitler III looks at C.S. Lewis’s rhetorical strategy to reflect on what made him so successful at rhetoric. Beitler ascribes to Lewis a rhetoric of goodwill, and fleshes this out in three different categories. Lewis was a powerful and effective communicator because he
1) Defined his audience and addressed them specifically
Beitler writes that Lewis was not afraid to be explicit about the kind of people whom he was addressing in a given context. By deciding who it was that he was most trying to reach, Lewis was able to craft his logical approach in a way that was specifically effective for that audience. This meant, among other things, deciding what particular angle his particular audience needed most, and then putting his ideas where that audience could best access them. Beitler writes, “Lewis’s observations speak to the necessity of learning about one’s audience members before addressing them, and his willingness to do such legwork is an important aspect of his rhetoric of goodwill.”
2) Asserted objective truth humbly.
Beitler points readers to Lewis’s writings on hell—especially The Great Divorce—as exemplifying Lewis’s attitude that truth mattered, and that he (Lewis) needed the truth spoken most of all. Lewis doesn’t divide the world into those who get it and those who should; rather, he preaches intellectual and spiritual repentance to everyone, and to himself most of all. Granting that Lewis could be arrogant (in a footnote, Beitler cites scholarship testifying as much), Beitler finds in Lewis a persistent unwillingness to see himself as better than the ones to whom he was writing.
3) “Cultivated communities of goodwill.”
Lewis practiced the art of friendship. His intellectual work was not created in a vacuum but emerged from relationships in which Lewis practiced the virtues and mercies of grace. Lewis sought out the presence and advice of others, was generous with his critics, and showed kindness and tenderness to his students. On at least one occasion Lewis declined a publisher’s financial offer because he didn’t want to write the scathing review they sought. In other words, Lewis was not simply made of pure logic, but a Christian who lived out the beauty of Christianity and made its claims appeal to the imaginations of those who knew him.
Beitler’s essay on Lewis’s rhetoric is outstanding, and I’m enjoying the rest of the book. By laying out Lewis’s rhetorical effectiveness so plainly, Beitler offers the church at large a model to aspire to. Lewis was indeed brilliant, but that’s not why God used him.