The Art of the Fool By M. Casey Knue

During the Renaissance the term “fool” designated those who were tasked to entertain the elite of society. Often the title of the fool had nothing to do with actual intelligence. On the contrary the fool would often employ great wit to craft and weave jokes, songs, and tales as Robert Armin’s Flat Foole does in Foole upon Foole.1  His primary objective was to please the audience—being employed by the rich and educated to relieve the working mind with harsh contrast in buffoonery and jest.2  Sadly, the renaissance fool and modern teacher bear undeniable similarities. It seems as though the respected role of the teacher is becoming the role of the entertainer. The educator has become the fool. The enlightening and substantial content once demanded of teachers has been willingly forfeited for well-woven words, silver-tongued rhymes, and dancing jingles of the fool. Has the world accepted the colorful rhetoric of the fool in place of the challenging lessons of the teacher?

Allow me to briefly illustrate what I mean. Last year I attended a forum on the topic of missions in the Church. The audience was not the most eager to prompt the speaker with questions regarding the topic. However, a few brave souls took to the task. After each question was raised the speaker quickly disarmed the inquiry and moved on. Now one may ask, “is that not the purpose of argument—to disarm and dismantle the counter’s query?”  While yes, it was the manner in which the questions were handled that was most shocking. The speaker did not use well-thought out, calculated logic or wisdom birthed from experience to answer the questions. Rather, the speaker would point to a simple, understood principle that was conceptually true though not directly applicable to the question. The audience was presented with a classic red herring argument.3  The speaker would dodge or avoid the specific question by responding with an unquestioned principle that, honestly, no one in the forum would ever dispute. However, the speaker never truly answered any of the prompts—nothing was said.

On the other hand, and perhaps equally at fault, was the audience. The audience nodded, smiled, and at times vocally encouraged the red herring deception. Perhaps it is fair to acknowledge that the speaker did have one great weapon to his advantage, the ability to speak well, or rhetoric. Logic and true dialogue were lost in the weaving of beautiful words and undeniable statements that truly had nothing to do with the issues presented. This situation begged, nay, pleaded the question, “can beautiful rhetoric hide poor logic?”

Now, perhaps, is the best time to define the two terms that will be used frequently throughout this article. The first word that will be used often and already has been used is rhetoric. Rhetoric is the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing. Logic is the science that deals with principles governing correct or reliable inference. Simply put, valid logic is sound thinking. This is not to say that all logic is right. However, it will be used to determine the quality of thought that goes into a message. Logic should be preeminent when anyone goes to speak. The terms have been defined and the question on the table remains, “can beautiful rhetoric hide poor logic?” To answer plainly, yes. This article is not meant as an affront to those in the seat of academic instructor. Quite the contrary, it is an acknowledgement that at some point there was a shift in the realm of learning and speaking from substance to presentation. The world is shifting, the Church included, in this delicate realm of communication. Mankind desires the art of speaking to be made beautiful, but has forgone the intrinsic beauty of the message and sought the extrinsic value of the fool.

We can explain this practically through a classical method of teaching—the Trivium.4  The Trivium is a classic style of education that leads the student through three primary avenues of knowledge as they grew in their scholastic tutelage. The three avenues were, in order, Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric.5  The first stage, Grammar, is the ordering of facts and basics of reality in a systematized fashion. Grammar as the modern world interprets it differs from this definition, but for the purpose of this essay, grammar will be understood as it is in the Trivium. The next stage is Logic. Logic is the “why” of Grammar. Logic is the completion of what is learned in Grammar and is now being explained in fullness, harmony, and sound reason. The final piece of the Trivium is Rhetoric. This final stage in the educational process cultivates the ability to clearly articulate the former two schools.

The issue of modernity is that the scholastic studies have, in a practical way, divorced the former two schools from the latter. Too many have sacrificed classical grammar and logic for unbridled rhetoric. The danger in this is that a good speaker—an exemplar of rhetoric—has the ability to convince the audience of whatever it may be that the speaker desires to impart. The issue of a good speaker “getting-away-with-murder” is directly related to the story about the missions forum and the two-fold guilt of both the speaker and the audience. This can be explained by a paradigm shift that is occurring in modern education. The switch is related to the decline of public thinking and an increase in desire for the speaker to impart information about the topic without objection.

This shift has developed a schism in the personal lives of the listeners. A transition of this nature has caused a departure from studiousness and an increase in apathy and desire to be taught, with complete trust in the teacher. The problem is that there is a lack of accountability.The audience no longer expects substance for speakers. Rather, they are looking for charisma. As a result of the belief that the ability to articulate implies sound content, all accountability has been lost. This assumption has caused many to open up to well-polished speakers who speak into and influence their lives in a reigns-free manner. This shift is becoming widespread and is no different in the Church. Churches spend thousands of dollars to hear the “best” speaker on a topic. However, one must evaluate when a church or organization hires the “best” speaker and find out if they really are the best. More than likely, they are just the most articulate speaker on the topic.

To drive this point home, a historical and modern contrast of well-accepted church speakers needs to be addressed. If one considers the first great American revival, it would not be long before Jonathan Edwards comes to the forefront of the mind. Jonathan Edwards is widely recognized as the first major American philosopher and theologian. He is famous for messages like Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God, but what most people do not know is that he was not a master rhetorician. Simply put, he was not the best speaker. On the one hand, with regard to his writings, he was and is acknowledged as an amazing communicator of ideas, a master of reason, and at times a powerful illustrator. On the other hand, as a speaker, he was monotone and boring. Jonathan Edwards read a manuscript from the pulpit and even though his words and illustrations could be extremely powerful he was neither dynamic in jest nor in tone.6  Nevertheless, he is still revered as a revivalist and powerful preacher whose words still effect the Christian and philosophical world today. But, as much as he was able to defend his cases and present strong statements, it was not in the gleaming, vibrant way that many expect now. Edwards’ strong use of well-thought and calculated ideas is in stark contrast to some of the modern Christian contemporaries who are elevated in prestige today.

One does not need to look far to see that some modern speakers have taken a simpler route. Some are truly amazing speakers and great communicators, but still lack in the quality of messages. A prominent pastor even addresses his own depth in a more facetious way and is close to truth but still lacks the ability to be accurate. He makes the claim in a sermon that,

The reason people do not think I am deep is because I am clear. In our culture we think the more confusing something is the more intellectual something is. So, I made it a commitment to do one of these. Last night as I was getting ready for today I came up with a real confusing sentence. The present will be your past…which will be your present in your future.7

This addresses the issue of clarity within speaking. As much as he is right in that clarity always accompanies quality speaking he fails to recognize he still lacks the essential element—quality. He communicates a substantial issue, but only playfully. The issue within this quote is that he attempts to make an intellectual statement based on the premise that our culture thinks intelligence is something sophisticated or complex. The issue is that clarity is subjective to understanding. That is to say, no matter how well one presents an idea, clarity itself does not give the idea depth. Depth is based on the value of the idea, not the presentation. The pastor addresses the dichotomy that has been created in speaking between depth and clarity but fails to give effort on how to fix it.

Let me continue to illustrate. Consider for a moment a wife giving her husband a gift. Imagine that this man loves to write. His wife thinks long and hard over what to get him and decides, at the last second, a very nice engraved pen would be the perfect gift for him. In her haste though she has little time to wrap it. Now, imagine the same scene but this time the wife decides she will get him a new tie. She puts it in a nice box,wraps it up, and decorates it with ribbon. It is easy to assess which gift is more thought out and probably more valuable to the man. Therefore, we can conclude that the outward presentation of the gift has little to do with the actual value of the gift.

One must ask the question, “Have we sacrificed quality for presentation?” Like the gift, would we rather have something that is not so meaningful wrapped in colorful ribbon and tied with a nice bow, or be challenged by and appreciative of a provocative and compelling message? If we are to be honest we would gladly take a well-thought considerate gift. In the same light, I am convined that we should think more critically about our own speech and how we receive those who speak to us, especially in the realm of the Church.

Rhetoric, or fluid, colorful speaking is not wrong, however, it should be in subjugation to sound logic and reason. It is plain to see that there has been a paradigm shift and the world, Church included, is trading down for the well-woven words, silver-tongued rhymes, and dancing jingles of the fool. The art of the fool is always amusing and enjoyable but should never be valued over the message itself.

End Notes

1. Armin, Robert, and Henry Frederick Lippincott. A Shakespeare Jestbook, Robert Armin’s Foole upon Foole (1600): A Critical, Old-spelling Edition. Salzburg, Austria: Institut Für Englische Sprache Und Literatur, Universität Salzburg, 1973. Print. 9

2. Ibid. Fooles and Jesters: A Nest of Ninnies, vii

3. A red herring is a type of argument purposed to distract the reader or listener from the real issue at hand.

4. The Trivium was a popular style of teaching that was made the standard in Medieval universities. The term Trivium is Latin for “The Three Ways” or the “The Three Paths”.

5. Bauer, S. Wise. The Well-educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003. Print.

6. Clinard, Gordon, Henry Clifton. Brown, Jesse J. Northcutt, Henry Clifton. Brown, and Al Fasol. Steps to the Sermon: An 8 Step Plan for Preaching with Confidence. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1996. Print.

7. Andy Stanley, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nobo3g3RtYI, on “Deep.” Emphasis added.

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