Rhetorical Methods in Dispensational End-Time Visions: An Analysis of Reed’s “Of Prophets and Propaganda”

 

Each religion has its own respective views on what the eschaton, the end of history, will look like. Within Christianity, there is one strain of eschatological thought that has garnered enormous influence in the United States over the last century, that of premillennial dispensationalism. Dispensationalism is not unique in its teaching that the return of Jesus to earth will occur—which most Christian sects will readily confess—but specifically because it claims that this return will happen after a “rapture” of believers who will be “taken to heaven to escape the coming apocalypse” in which “seven years of disasters and oppressive world dictatorship” will occur (Reed 468). Randall Reed of Appalachian State University offers a response to this movement which is largely epideictic in nature. Throughout his article, he specifically blames the purveyors of dispensationalism for encouraging a certain foreign policy stance on the part of the U.S. government as well as a number of personal, moral behavioral practices for Christian individuals to follow. As part of this discourse, Reed demonstrates a methodical approach to argumentation by employing several stases of reasoning, demonstrating the “They Say/I Say” structure codified by Graff and Birkenstein, and framing his position around exigencies that have been demanded by his larger academic discourse community.

Even before going in-depth with his argument, Reed makes a point of specifying what dispensationalism actually entails as a belief system. In doing so, he first considers the stasis—or question—of definition. In their Elements of Reasoning text, Edward P.J. Corbett and Rosa A. Eberly mention the use of expanded description and analysis as legitimate rhetorical tools for advancing arguments. Description in this stasis goes beyond a mere dictionary definition, bringing to light “anecdotes, examples, and analogies” (Corbett 75) in order to provide the audience with a better approximation of what is being discussed. To begin with, Reed describes the dispensational belief by summarizing its specific principles. Its adherents, he explains, hold to the belief that Jesus will remove Christians from the world in order to prevent them from enduring a forthcoming “tribulation” in which a “world dictator (the Anti-Christ) … will tightly control political, social, religious, and economic structures” in a way which would bring about unrelenting persecution of ethnic Jews as well as converted Christians (Reed 473). Reed’s audience can also see definitional analysis in his explanation of key figures within the dispensational movement. He places its origins with the Irish Plymouth Brethren, who first formulated the system’s beliefs in the early nineteenth century (469). Today, Reed observes, some of the movement’s most popular representatives are televangelist pastors like John Hagee and fiction authors like Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Both types of spokespersons for the belief system have maintained an enormous media presence for nearly two decades (470-71).

A second stasis of reasoning demonstrated in Reed’s analysis is that of cause. Corbett and Eberly emphasize that a good argument about cause and effect should be plausible, that “the cause we assign to an effect must be capable of producing that effect” (Corbett 90). This is certainly seen in the clear examples of cause provided by Reed. He points to The Late Great Planet Earth, the 1972 book by Hal Lindsey, as having a profound influence in creating a widespread popularity of the dispensational doctrine, specifically because the book was unique in linking biblical prophecy to important world events and conditions of the time like “modern warfare, disasters, and economics” (Reed 469). In Lindsey’s view, these were all indicators that a “global conflict” (469) would be just around the corner, with faithful Christians able to look forward to a salvific escape from that conflict by way of their rapture off the earth. Reed contends that dispensationalism’s popularity grew among prominent individuals and groups within Christian circles directly as a result of the popularity of Lindsey’s book. That the view was also advanced and “supported by Bible colleges and conservative seminaries” (470) is another strong piece of evidence he provides which shows a plausible cause-and-effect relationship. This particular eschatological belief, he shows, rose in popularity as a direct result of the vast amount of prominent leaders who were beginning to advocate it. The movement largely owes its interpretive model regarding prophecy to the Scofield Reference Bible, which Reed calls “the textbook of the movement” because of the exhaustive commentary notes it includes alongside the biblical text. From its first edition in 1909 until 1967, he writes, “it sold between 5 and 10 million copies” (469).

Reed also shows that he is presenting his analysis with a particular argumentative pattern. In their book “They Say/I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein describe a common structure used in academic argumentation in which a view is expressed and then responded to in some fashion or another. This “They Say/I Say” pattern is a suitable way of denoting something which has been previously posited but is now being addressed by the writer (Graff and 18-19). Being such a standard structure of academic composition, it is no surprise that we find Reed demonstrating this very thing throughout his article, most often in the manner of agreement. One template included in Graff and Birkenstein’s book that Reed mirrors is that which says “X’s theory of ________ is extremely useful because it sheds insight on the difficult problem of ________” (57). In Reed’s case, the theory he relies upon is that of Martin Riesebrodt, who puts forth the concept that “religious propaganda” involves the advancement of both “discursive practices” and “behavior-regulating practices” (Reed 468). Reed invokes Riesebrodt’s views in order to bolster his own claims concerning rhetorical practices on the part of dispensationalist leaders (469). Reed mentions, for example, how John Hagee views the State of Israel as being “of paramount importance” (474) in the world. Hagee teaches his followers that any country who declines to support Israel’s policies or its people in any instance is directly inviting the judgment of God. As a result, dispensationalism tends to foster a foreign policy in the U.S. which entails consistent foreign aid to Israel, direct intervention in the country’s affairs, and pre-emptive warfare (473-74).

Elsewhere, Reed demonstrates the scope of what “they say” by quoting Hagee himself. In his book Attack on America, Hagee writes, “Today this same Jesus offers you peace and salvation. Embrace Him today. Kiss Him. For tomorrow will come wrath and judgment” (qtd. on 473). Here, again, Reed explains Hagee’s emotional appeal by showing how it fits into Riesebrodt’s theory concerning the rhetorical means of religious propagandists. “The combination of promise, offer, and threat,” Reed tells us, is Hagee’s way of bringing about a “salvific demand, the desire to be spared misfortune and achieve salvation” (473). A second instance in which he mentions the views of Hagee is by describing how he “grounds his own legitimation [as a prophetic authority] in fulfilled biblical prophecies” (474). In a footnote, Reed responds to this example of what “they say” by suggesting that Hagee is merely taking the original biblical passages out of context in order to claim them as being fulfilled, an approach which Reed calls “dubious at best” (474). In addition, he explains, Hagee is more or less “depending on the reader not to carefully study the texts,” and is instead trying to inundate the reader with a “multiplicity of examples,” however deficient they may be (474).

On a similar note, Reed goes on to point out an emphasis in the Left Behind novels of displaying a “positive role model” of particular family arrangements and sexual practices. It is not as though patriarchy is a distinguishing belief within dispensationalism, but the fact that the movement sees Christ’s return as being imminent still serves to “motivate and control behavior” (477) as part of a belief that the faithful will be rescued from judgment. In every instance, Reed ties examples from Hagee and the Left Behind authors back to the observations of Riesebrodt, who theorizes that a movement like dispensationalism is successful in promulgating certain standards of behavior because it provides them within a framework of the “perceived need for salvation” (477). In dispensationalism, this salvation is one from a tribulation that is about to be faced by the rest of the non-believing world.

With Reed, we also see the existence of an exigency, what Killingsworth describes as any problem which “prompts the author to write in the first place” (26). The primary exigency that causes Reed to even begin analyzing this issue in particular is one of incompleteness in past research. In essence, he perceives a void that needs to be filled with additional insights. Despite much sociological and rhetorical research into the subject of dispensationalism’s influence in America, Reed explains, we still lack a sufficient understanding of precisely how the system of belief has attracted and maintained so many adherents among Christians. “Sociological approaches have been more interested in its [dispensationalism’s] influence,” he writes, “than in the mechanics of how the various end-time visions and prophecies are discursively propagated and ideologically reinforced” (Reed 468). But it is also the sheer number of dispensationalists in the U.S. that presents another important exigency for Reed. He notes that the belief system “commands a large audience” and has a “continuing influence in the lives of millions of Americans” (468). The fact that any movement has gained so much allegiance alone means that it is worthy of academic discussion. Rather than being an obscure issue, it is inarguably an important one. By hinging his argument upon these two demands within his own discourse community, Reed’s focus becomes a unique one of exploring the dispensational movement’s means of influence rather than the products of its influence.

The importance of expressing a position within the context of exigencies is that it shows purpose, with the writer formulating an argument after others have helped him or her come to it. Ultimately, Graff and Birkenstein explain that this is a vital way of “bring[ing] something new and fresh to the table” (56-57), contributing to one’s respective academic discourse by improving upon past research and bolstering already-presented arguments, rather than being a parrot who does little more than repeat others. Reed writes from a sociological and rhetorical perspective, which logically lends itself to an analysis that relies upon both definitional and causal understandings. The fact that his argument is so heavily drawn from the stasis of cause, though, is especially helpful in a theologically-oriented discussion. His insights might very well assist present and future individuals in “anticipat[ing] … the negative effects” of similar causes “when we detect their presence” (86). The effect that dispensationalism has had on the distribution of Christian eschatological views, as Reed shows, can be directly tied back to several primary causes. Nevertheless, the popularity of movements like dispensationalism might yet be diminished if only they could be addressed by sociologists, rhetoricians, and theologians alike, even long before they start to gain an ideological foothold. An old adage from George Santayana is well worth mentioning, that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (284). The analysis of someone like Reed can be helpful in preventing such an outcome of repetition because of its uniquely retrospective nature. Those who learn from others’ insights into the past, rather, will certainly be better equipped to help change the course of future outcomes.

Works Cited

Corbett, Edward P.J., and Rosa A. Eberly. The Elements of Reasoning. 2nd ed. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 2000. Print.

Graff, Gerald, and Cathy Birkenstein. “They Say/I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. New York: W.W. Norton, 2007. Print.

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. Appeals in Modern Rhetoric: An Ordinary-Language Approach. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2005. Print.

Reed, Randall. “Of Prophets And Propaganda: An Exploration Of Modern Christian         Dispensationalism Using The Work Of Martin Riesebrodt.” Journal for The Scientific Study Of Religion 51.3 (2012): 468-481. Academic Search Complete. Web. 30 Oct. 2013.

Santayana, George. The Life of Reason: Or, The Phases of Human Progress. New York City: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1905. Print.

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