Manner Trumps Content Like it or Not

rope bridgeI promised last week I’d do a follow up to to my previous post, Two Things Preachers Need to Know. Toward the end of that post I threw out the idea that manner trumps content like it or not. I’m increasingly convinced this is the case. Numerous studies have shown that what people hear and what we say aren’t the same thing. People relate far more to tone, appearance, manner etc. That is all ‘noise’ which often serves to interfere with the content of the message. But I’d like to take us back a couple of millenia to learn from Aristotle on this one.

Aristotle observed that there are three aspects involved in successful communication – logos, ethos, and pathos. Logos is the content of what we say; ethos is the integrity, character, and trustworthiness of the speaker; pathos refers to whether or not the speaker can make us ‘feel’ the reality, urgency, and importance of the message. And here’s the bit preachers need to understand. Logos fails to reach destination without ethos and pathos. You can like a speaker and not buy his message. You can be made to feel the truth of an unsound argument. But you won’t by the argument you perceive to be uninteresting, irrelevant, or untrustworthy. Ethos and pathos are like the bridge across which you freight your argument. And here’s where we return to last weeks thoughts on the view which says ‘give it to ’em straight.’ Remember most unconvinced folk don’t understand much of the gospel, they think they actually do understand it, and are suspicious and skeptical about ‘church’ and ‘religion.’ The ‘give it to ’em straight’ crew reinforce all their preconceptions – people feel like they’re being ticked off and they tune out. Failure of ethos and pathos inevitably means failure of logos.

Now I know the objections run as follows:

1. Paul deliberately rejected rhetorical approaches in Corinth. Yes, he did in Corinth – he didn’t in Athens. Beware making a universal application from a particular situation.

2. Surely God opens blind eyes – this all sounds a bit Arminian. Yes, God is sovereign, and we’re also called to make the most of every opportunity (Col 4) and speak ‘persuasively’ (Acts 14:1).

3. Spiritually dead people don’t connect  with ethos and pathos – they’re spiritually dead and we’re the aroma of death. And yet, paradoxically we’re still called to be salt and light (Matt 5), and to live such good lives that our deeds may be seen (1 Pet 2). So there’s a way in which both can be true at the same time. The unregenerate can say ‘we’ll hear you again on this’ (Acts 17).

4. Aristotle is worldly wisdom, not biblical truth. As Calvin said, all truth is God’s. Common grace is everywhere, and Aristotle, where true, is borrowing God’s capital and using it. Rhetorical forms (like those spoken of by Aristotle and Quintilian) are clearly in use in the NT in sermons and letters.

So, given where people are coming from don’t be afraid to invest in ethos and pathos as the bridge across which you move your argument. That bridge is fragile and require investment. While you might think the guy who dresses up in a giant inflatable chef suit to do his kids carols talk is ‘fudging it’ consider whether there’s some relational capital being build – whether in fact a bridge is being erected connecting real people and their world to the message of the Bible. Once this fragile bridge is in place perhaps, just perhaps, people may give your message the time of day. Fact is manner trumps content, like it or not.