Logos, Logos, and LOGOS: A Rhetorical Analysis of Televangelism

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A look at the rhetorical elements at play in televangelism.


  • Logos, Logos, and LOGOS: A Rhetorical Analysis of Televangelism For those on the outside looking in, televangelism is not a noble a calling, and in fact, most people envision the Televangelist as a slick-haired conman smooth talking the elderly out of their pension checks. While Im not making an attempt to discredit the indignation behind such sentiments, I hope to use this rhetorical analysis to illustrate that, like most everything in life, its not that simple. Sure, the idea of a corrupt religious leader fleecing the ignorant masses makes for a succinct, cohesive narrative, but this route is much too easy to follow to be useful (not to mention much too offensive to the followers of the Televangelist). Instead, I would like to show how the rhetoric of televangelism is artfully and strategically created with a mix of both classical rhetoric and contemporary marketing to produce a diverse range of reactions among potential audiences. To begin with, this analysis will focus on the cornerstones of the rhetorical worldlogos, pathos, and ethos, and how, within the realm of televangelism, the boundaries between these three begin to blur. I will also point out how this blurring creates the impression of a cohesive brand image for televangelists and why this co-opting of marketing strategies is important to their success. Secondly, I will hypothesize some potential (yet realistic) audience responses to televangelism and why, from a rhetorical standpoint, even the naysayers are vital to the well-being of the Televangelists empire. Finally, I will conclude with an investigation of where my analysis begins to break downwhere the argument stops being about televangelism in particular and starts applying to religious rhetoric (among others) more generally, as well as where this line of thought stops being useful within televangelism itself. Crossing the Logos/Ethos Divide The concept of logos plays an important role in Christianity. Even though much religious knowledge requires faith to believe, like most Western institutions, Christianity appreciates the power in our society of the logical argument and makes frequent use of it to provide evidence for their claims. On top of this, the concept of logos has important theological implications as well, concerning the divinity of Christ and reality of the Trinity. From the first chapter of the Gospel of John:

    In the beginning was the Word [logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God [] And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a fathers only son, full of grace and truth. John 1:1-2, 14 (NRSV) While logos does seem to get a lot of love from Christianity, both ethos and pathos are often ignored entirelyat least in word. However, within the realm of televangelism I believe that this rejection of the two is only skin deep, and in fact, I believe that the two are vital to the creation of a televangelistic logos.

  • Take, for example, Joyce Meyer. Her brand of straight-shooting, no nonsense wisdom has earned her a long-running television program, Enjoying Everyday Life, numerous book deals, and the distinction of being one of the most visible figures in American Christianity today. Meyer is known for a preaching style that combines all the best aspects of the Midwestern, feminine, sensibilitycompassionate real-talk; tough love. While a more traditional rhetorical analysis might separately explore her teachings (logos) and her persona (ethos), I believe that the two are intimately connected.

    There are number of her teachings that we could explore, but for our purposes, lets just look at a short quote from Meyer, spoken in an interview with Larry King in 2005: Well, you know, I can go sit in the garage all day and that don't make me a car. Just because someone sits in church week after week doesn't make them a Christian. (Meyer) To me, Meyer just doesnt get any more colloquial than this. From the easy-to-grasp car analogy to the improperly conjugated (perhaps intentionally?) dont, everything about this quote just screams middle American religious wisdomI can practically hear the amens coming from the crowd, and in fact, I am inclined to agree with her. Now, lets imagine that Joyce Meyer didnt say that. Instead, what if that was written by someone like Sren Kierkegaard or St. Thomas Aquinas? What happens to the wisdom then? In my opinion, it becomes greatly diminished. Obviously, Kierkegaard and Aquinas had no idea what a car was, but even aside from that, the statement just seems too practical or low-brow for themnot one of their greatest hits. Or, lets consider the opposite. What if Joyce Meyer took the pulpit one day to opine about the sickness unto death or the cosmological proof of God? At the very least, it would be out of character. This isnt to say that Joyce Meyer isnt as smart as Kierkegaard and Aquinas or that shes not qualified to speak about those things, but rather, Im saying that, as a televangelist, Joyce Meyer knows the sort of ethos she wants to project and realizes the limitations that places on what her audience will approve of as acceptable logos. In this sense, logos and ethos are not separate, but rather, Meyers ethos is creating the condition of possibility for her logos. This blurring of the line between forms of persuasion may not be intentional on the part of the televangelist (of course, Im not implying that its a natural link either), but it does provide them with tangible benefitsnamely more viewers, and by extension, more income. However, this is not confined solely to televangelists, and in fact, it appears that the televangelists themselves are taking a page out of the Marketing 101 handbook by using this blurring to create a brand image for themselves. While it may seem sacrilegious to impose this capitalist slant on Christianity, the televangelist is dependent on it for his or her survival. With advances in technology and reductions on the price it takes to create a television program, televangelists are up against

  • stiffer competition than ever before. Brand image is the only way for them to distinguish themselves from all the rest; brand image is their only way to snag a captive audience. For example, take televangelist Benny Hinn and his faith healing crusades. From the standpoint of his actual teachings, Hinn is not really saying anything revolutionaryhis theology, at this point, is pretty mainstream (which may be a cause for concern or celebration, depending on who you ask). However, what makes him so widely successful among both live and television audiences is the spectacle of his faith healing. Hinn seemingly possesses the ability to impart the healing power of the Holy Spirit by just touching someone (and sometimes not even that!), and in fact, he even has special personnel to keep patrons from hurting themselves as they collapse to the floor in ecstasy after their encounter with him. In my opinion, I think its very obvious that the spectacle of Benny Hinn (his ethos, his angle, his brand) is definitely more important to his success than his actual teaching (his logos). However, this branding phenomenon is not exclusive to Hinn. In fact, youll find that most successful televangelists do have an angle or niche that theyre trying to exploitMeyer has her colloquial straight-talk, John Hagee has his right-wing ideology, Mark Driscoll has his bad boy persona, and Billy Graham is largely successful because the Old Time Religion nostalgia his speaking evokes. Speaking in Specialized Tongues Like other popular figures, televangelists often have a polarizing effect on societytheir followers are hardcore and devoted, while their detractors are just as vigilant in their opposition. Why is this? In one sense, I believe it has to do with the specialized language of Christianity and televangelism, in particular. In his book, Modern Occult Rhetoric: Mass Media and the Drama of Secrecy in the 20th Century, Joshua Gunn discusses the reason and function behind the specialized languages of contemporary and philosophy and occult texts: The difficult language of philosophy is akin to the difficult language of the occult tradition; both traditions simultaneously obscure the truths their vocabularies seek to deploy, and both utilize difficult language to create readerships. In short, the content domains of philosophy and the occult share a common logic of discrimination. Their prose, like mine, is designed to delight and encourage the reader who is in the know and to annoy, discourage, or perhaps even intrigue the reader who is not. (xix) While Gunn is writing specifically about occult texts (and while any televangelist worth his or her salt would wholeheartedly reject the notion that they are engaging in occult activities), I feel that this concept applies to televangelism as wellBenny Hinn promotes his Miracle Crusades, Creflo Dollar (whose last name is almost too good to be true)

  • encourages his followers to become established in righteousness, and even Jimmy Swaggarts website boasts that it contains the revelation of the message of the cross. To those in the know, these phrases seem as normal and self-evident as ever. In fact, these concepts have probably helped to mold their conception of what it means to be a Christian. However, to the uninitiated, these things are altogether foreign, and, for the uninitiated that are prone to hostility towards religion, these are merely buzzwords meant to help these televangelists fleece their flock. Thankfully (for televangelists), this hostile reaction to specialized language can actually rhetorically work in their favor. In both televangelism and Christianity, the idea of persecution has an important role in how the believer relates to the world, and by embracing the criticisms and accusations of sophistry, both televangelists and their followers situate themselves on the front lines of a (arguably mostly imaginary) ancient spiritual war against Christianity. This persecution helps strengthen the bond between in-group members, and in fact, is embraced because of its biblical basis: Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me [Christ]. Matthew 5:11 (NIV) The Limitations of Analysis While my analysis has focused specifically on televangelism, branding and the blurring between logos and ethos is far from exclusive to this small group of people. In fact, one could argue that you will find this sort of brand self-awareness in all religious leaders, and to some extent, the population at large. Some people may have a more refined, thoroughly investigated brand than others, but in some sense, we all have a particular version of ourselves that we want to portray to the world, and we try to act and say things that work in accordance with that self-image. Secondly, over the course of this analysis, I began to question if the term televangelist is even of any use anymore. In the 20th century before the Internet had come into its popularity, television was a great (if not the best) way to reach a large audience. However, with the proliferation of social media websites, the relative importance of television as a tool of communication has diminished. For this reason, youre much more likely to find Christian teachers tweeting and lecturing via webcast than you are to find them speaking on the Trinity Broadcasting Network or any other religious television station. As the television declines in its popularity does this signal the extinction of televangelists? Also, even when considering the era when TV was king, its hard to pin down a good working definition of televangelism. Is preaching on television the only criteria needed? If thats the case, then that means that Bro. Joe So-and-So, minister of the Podunk Baptist Church who frequently spouts Christian conspiracy theories and foams at the mouth on public access television is just as much of a televangelist as clean-cut dreamboat Joel

  • Osteen. Even though this scenario abides by a very technical, literal definition of televangelism, something about equating these two people doesnt seem right. Defining them by their theology wont work either because many times these televangelists emerge from popular Christian denominations, which means that there are many people who hold these beliefs that arent on television. Similarly, if we distinguish them by their decadent wealth (a vice commonly associated with televangelism) we must include all wealthy religious leaders, regardless of their lack of airtime. Its also important to note that many leaders and churches that would not be considered traditionally televangelical are becoming more aware of the importance of brand image for their ministriesyou would be hard pressed to find a decent sized church in a major city that doesnt have a social media director and/or a public relations consultant on staff. In the end, I like to think that my definition of a televangelist includes a little bit of all of these optionsa charismatic (re: brand aware) television personality intent on obtaining money from their followers under the theological guise of some form of the prosperity gospel.

  • Bibliography The New Revised Standard Version. The Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, 1989. The New International Version. Biblica, 1978. Gunn, Joshua. Modern Occult Rhetoric. University of Alabama Press, 2005. Online. Meyer, Joyce. Interview by Larry King. Larry King Live. CNN. 19 May, 2005. Television.