Dr. Theon Hill (Ph.D.) joins Tim and Rick to discuss radical rhetoric: What is it? How is it a form of civic engagement? And when should we use it? They also consider whether the Old Testament prophets were radical rhetoricians, the tensions between the prophetic voice and the winsome voice, how radical rhetoric as a form of engagement is similar to and different from conventional rhetorical approaches, and Colin Kapernick taking a knee. This is part 1 of a 2-part conversation with Dr. Theon Hill on radical rhetoric.
Theon Hill: When we say radical rhetoric, I'm really getting at this idea of how do you communicate when you need to communicate something that everyone needs to hear, but no one wants to listen to. And I think the prophets give us an example of this unfiltered commitment to truth, even when they know people are going to reject what they have to say.
Tim Muehlhoff: Welcome to the Winsome Conviction podcast. My name is Tim Muehlhoff. I am a Professor of Communication at Biola University in La Mirada, California, and I'm also the Co-Director of the Winsome Conviction Project with my good friend, Rick. Rick.
Rick Langer: Tim, thanks for the introduction. I'm Rick Langer. And as Tim mentioned, we are sharing responsibilities for directing the Winsome Conviction Project here at Biola. I'm also one of the professors in the Biblical Studies and Theology Department, and I'm the Director of the Office of Faith and Learning.
And it's a special treat for us today to have Dr. Theon Hill with us from Wheaton College. And Theon, you have been doing some remarkable work over the course of the years about the relationship between rhetoric and social change, particularly as related to race, culture, American politics, things like that, and paid particular attention to areas of what's called radical rhetoric.
I am not the communication scholar here in the room, so I'll let you guys have a radical rhetoric conversation, but the importance of this kind of conversation for our civic engagement, public advocacy, and just really the flourishing of our community. So I'm really excited to talk to you. Thanks so much for joining us here on our podcast.
Theon Hill: Thank you so much for having me. It's a blessing to be with you brothers.
Tim Muehlhoff: Well, thank you. Hey, with thought we'd start with some background information, Theon. You have spent a good amount of time over the years helping white evangelicals understand the issue of racism within America. Before we talk about how you accomplished this, could you tell us a little bit about your personal history, how this task came to you, and why you were willing to wade into it?
Theon Hill: Yeah, that's a wonderful question. I was raised in the suburbs of Chicago with two parents who were deeply passionate about the legacy and persistence of structural and systemic forms of racism, both in the criminal justice system with my father who was a criminal defense attorney in Cook County, which is where Chicago is, for over 30 years, and my mother, who was a public school teacher in the Chicago land.
And they raised me with a deep awareness of the relationship between my Christian faith and the impetus to fight for justice. And so when I got into high school, I became aware that I just had a deep passion to continue the work that they had modeled for me throughout their lives. And so I knew that whatever pathway I went into, whether it was a nonprofit, whether it was an academic route, I wanted it in a central part of my vocational pursuit to be the fight for justice, and in particular, racial justice in my life. And I think their example is more than anything else, what led me in this direction.
Rick Langer: So Tim asked that question really nicely about you've spent a lot of time kind of interpreting for white evangelicals, some of these issues about race. I might have asked that question as Theon, what were you thinking? It strikes me that this could have been a rather perilous, difficult, problematic course you embarked on. How has this been for you?
Theon Hill: Yeah, I might, if I can reframe it a little bit. I think if you're speaking about a theme like justice, we don't just want to be preaching to the choir. So what we want to be doing is testifying to the truth of justice wherever God grants us an audience.
And so for me, I've had several opportunities to engage with my dear brothers and sisters in the white evangelical community. There's also been opportunities to engage with other communities.
In terms of the white evangelical community, I think one of the challenges there is you're trying to tell a group of people about a reality, not only that they've never experienced, but that everything in their experience tells them is not as bad as what I'm telling them it is. ].
Rick Langer: Huh.
Theon Hill: And so you're often fighting to try to communicate reality, share experiences, and raise awareness where there's a fierce desire to cling to a perverted form of innocence. I don't want to see, I don't want to know, I just want to cling to the America, to the church that I know it to be.
Rick Langer: And because that was their firsthand experience, it's natural to cling to it in some sense, because that's what they "know." But on the other hand, that doesn't mean that they're experience... We should know that intuitively, I guess I would think, that you wouldn't think automatically that your particular experience was the experience and certainly not the universal experience, but we do tend to think that way.
Theon Hill: Exactly, and I think it's very easy to look at me and even try to delegitimize what I'm saying while I'm saying it. Well, Theon, you have a PhD or you work here. Clearly, it cannot be as bad as what you're saying it to be. So I think not only do we have some experiences, but we look for evidence to validate our own experiences, and that's what makes the conversation fairly difficult in some of those spaces.
Tim Muehlhoff: And Theon, we're both communication professors. And I do kind of a wild exercise in one of my classes. I show them scenes from Steven Spielberg's Amistad.
Theon Hill: Oh yes, of course.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, and the scene, he depicts the Middle Passage.
Theon Hill: Yes.
Tim Muehlhoff: I remember the first time seeing it. It's even hard to articulate my reaction, but when I show it to my students, predominantly white, we just sit there and we say, this could not have happened.
Theon Hill: Right.
Tim Muehlhoff: One, we know very little about it. And Spielberg himself has made the point, when it comes to Schindler's List, that's the Holocaust everybody knows about and you're taught about in high school.
Theon Hill: Right.
Tim Muehlhoff: When you come to the African Holocaust, it is almost like I cannot believe this happened. And so for you to step up, and I love your definition of rhetoric, of creating reality.
Theon Hill: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: When you create this reality to a predominantly white audience, what pushback do you get? What do people respond when you try to paint an America that is just not relatable to the experience of many white evangelicals?
Theon Hill: Yeah, and I should note that you mentioning Amistad has me ready to say, give us us free, but I'm going to withhold, you know. I'll withhold that impulse right now and answer the question, but the response is generally one of fighting to defend an identity. So if what I'm saying about the nation, about our history, about the church, if that's true, then there's a lot of questions that need to be raised about some of our treasured theologians, some of our cherished institutions, some of our annual rituals. Do we need to be sensitive to how that might be interpreted differently? I mean, this is what Frederick Douglas is saying in 1852, when he says what to the slave is the 4th of July.
So I think in terms of trying to communicate it, there's a defensiveness because I think many of them secretly realize the implications for the conversations we're having with regards to race for their own individual and collective identity. We have to rethink who we are as individuals and as a people, if what many people who are striving to fuel a race consciousness. If what we say is true, we have to rethink a lot of things.
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, so I'm dying ask, what in the world is your approach to this? Going in knowing that you're going to receive this defensiveness, not just an intellectual defensiveness, but an emotional defensiveness. I'm thinking of the proverb that says an offended brother is like a fortified city.
Theon Hill: Sure. Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: How do you step in, and from a communication perspective, give it in a way that people can receive it, and it doesn't deteriorate in a heartbeat what we're seeing in the argument culture today?
Theon Hill: Sure. Yeah. I think when we're trying to engage in some of these spaces, it's very tempting for us as communication professionals to think, how can I adapt my message to the audience? And I'm not saying that we should not be audience conscious, but I think sometimes our pursuit of adapting to our audience can actually prevent us from saying what actually needs to be said.
So for me, as someone who studies radical rhetoric to your point earlier, Rick, what's really important to me is to speak the truth first. So my primary concern is always fidelity to my message. That actually, for me, displaces an audience centered approach. Once I've been faithful to my message. Well, if I can explain it, if I can use illustrations, if I can use explanations in a way that's going to resonate with someone, I'm going to do that. But first and foremost is, am I being truthful? Am I being honest? Am I being just in how I'm approaching this issue?
And I think as we're looking at that particular pursuit, it's important to me not to try to be someone's Holy Spirit. I can't be someone else's Holy Spirit. So my calling as a Christian is to be faithful to the truth. If I've done that, I'm going to let the Holy Spirit work in the heart of the individual.
So I think that's really the approach that I take. I try to as much as possible use devices like irony or other things to try to explain it in a helpful manner, but ultimately, I can't force people to understand what they don't want to understand. And I think for many of us, we think it's, oh, they're innocent. They don't understand.
And I think James Baldwin says this powerfully in his book, The Fire Next Time. It's innocence that constitutes the crime because at some point we have to realize people are trying to stay innocent. No one's trying to get this. And that's where I've probably come down in my communication strategies when it comes to some of these hot button topics of race.
Tim Muehlhoff: Can we define some terms real quick?
Theon Hill: Let's do it.
Tim Muehlhoff: So you mentioned, of course you're a student of rhetoric, but you mentioned that a lot of your research has focused on radical rhetoric.
Theon Hill: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: As a crucial form of civic engagement and public advocacy, can you unpack that a little bit of what is the difference between radical rhetoric and rhetoric?
Theon Hill: Yeah, especially-
Rick Langer: Let me add in one complication to include in that, or not complication, but additional thing is to, and how does that connect to terms we use like civility or incivility?
Theon Hill: Sure, yes. So if we want to understand radical rhetoric, the best place for us to go to is going to be the Old Testament prophets. What's interesting about the Old Testament prophets is they do the very opposite of what we would prescribe in many of our public speaking classes and rhetorical theory courses.
We would say that you need to be diplomatic, that you need to be adaptive, that you need to be focused on things like compromise in order to win an audience over. And that's going to come from many ancient Greeks and Romans who are going to tell us this is the best way to win friends and influence people.
The prophets do something very different. Isaiah walks around, buck naked for three years just to tell Israel, this is how God sees y'all.
Rick Langer: I'm so glad I never got that call, man.
Theon Hill: If you read a passage like Ezekiel 16, he literally says, Israel is such a bad prostitute that it has to pay its own customers. That's how ugly it is in God's sight. And so when we say radical rhetoric, I'm really getting at this idea of how do you communicate when you need to communicate something that everyone needs to hear but no one wants to listen to. And I think the prophets give us an example of this unfiltered commitment to truth, even when they know people are going to reject what they have to say.
And we see that this tradition extends beyond just the Old Testament. We see it carried on in Ida B Wells's anti-lynching campaign in the late 1800s. We see it carried on in Martin Luther King, Jr. We see it carried on today by someone like William Barber who are saying things and receiving a lot of pushback, but they're striving to be faithful to a message.
Tim Muehlhoff: Theon, can I, so help me? So I just want to remind you we're the Winsome Conviction Project.
Rick Langer: So now we're in real trouble.
Tim Muehlhoff: So I'm thinking of Proverbs 15:1.
Theon Hill: Sure.
Tim Muehlhoff: A gentle answer turns away rage, but a harsh word stirs up anger. So we have often been, people have often said, we're anti-prophetic.
Theon Hill: Sure.
Tim Muehlhoff: And we are not anti prophetic, but help our listeners how this can be misapplied because I'm thinking in terms of Deborah Tannen's Argument Culture that are you giving license to people to be rude and to bypass civility and what John Gottman calls a soft startup, rather than a harsh startup.
So I see what you're saying, but let's address some misapplications of this. So what are you not saying?
Theon Hill: A lot of this depends on how we're defining terms like civility or winsome or even gentle to get to the Proverbs reference. So if you think about the Old Testament prophets or any number of the activists, they're going to go to the people they're seeking to persuade. Hey Israel, Hey America, we're seeing this concern. You all need to get it together. I'm going to try and say it nicely. I'm going to try and say it lovingly. I'm going to try and say it gently, we might say.
But there comes a time where maybe the sweet talk isn't working. So I have to press beyond just saying it in a way that's palatable for an audience because even me making it palatable, gives you license to turn away from it.
And I think that's really where the prophets are stepping in. It's like, if you read passages like Jeremiah 35, God says, "I sent all my prophets to you. I sent this to you. I tried everything, so it's going to sound really harsh, but this is the only way that I can strive to get your tension."
And so the prophet is responding to, or the prophetic voice is responding to a state of crisis. It's not just everyday talk, but this is a particular type of situation that you're responding to.
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, so this, you may have answered my question, so help us unpack a little bit. You said there may come a time when this radical form of rhetoric is what's needed. Can you give us some of the precursors to that? How do you know we've reached the time where it's now for me to take this turn towards radical rhetoric?
Theon Hill: Yeah, so I may, let's just say you and I have a conflict, or I have a conflict with the community that you're part of. And there's an issue that I feel I need to raise. Hey Tim, here's a concern. Can you hear me out? Okay, you blow me off. Okay, I'm going to try again. Hey, Tim and company, let's keep pressing this conversation forward. We really need to think about this. This is really important. This is hurting us. You all continue to blow me off. At some point, I'm going to communicate it in such a way where you cannot blow me off as easily.
And I think that's where if I can give a example for your audience, this is what Colin Kaepernick is doing when he takes a knee for the National Anthem. It was telling because for so many years, people had said, "Well, we don't want any violence. We want you to do it peacefully like Martin Luther King, Jr. Or like this Civil Rights icon."
Here, you have an individual making a peaceful protest, but he's doing it in a way that offends the sensibilities of a large segment of the nation. And that to me is where it's like this situation is so dire, I need to take a stance that I know is going to generate public attention.
Now we can talk about the strategies or various things that happen in terms of how he explains what he's doing. And we can maybe critique some of those things. But in terms of the nature of the protest, that's in line with how I understand and prophetic discourse.
Rick Langer: And would you call what Colin Kaepernick did an example of radical rhetoric, or is it... It seemed actually to me, if I were to suggest winsome conviction alternatives, that actually I would probably point to Colin Kaepernick as actually having been a pretty good model of some of that exactly because it was isn't necessarily strident, but it was really hard to miss.
Theon Hill: Sure. Yeah. I think Colin Kaepernick would be a classic example to me of someone who's embodying this prophetic posture in this moment in a way that's getting attention. It's interesting, Brother Rick, you said it's not strident. And I agree with you. It's not a strident protest, but so many people to took it as that.
Rick Langer: [crosstalk] I did notice that. I did notice that. You're right.
Theon Hill: Yeah. There was a couple of controversies there.
Rick Langer: There was a couple of times that stuff came up. That's true.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. So Theon, a quick comment. You will not believe the last class I took in my doctoral program at UNC Chapel Hill was with Michael Eric Dyson on the politics of gangster rap music.
Theon Hill: That makes me, that warms my heart.
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh my goodness. I still think about this class. And we had to read his book Between God And Gangsta Rap.
Theon Hill: Of course. Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: So he is advocating what you're talking about. There comes a time that the dominant culture will not listen to your message.
Theon Hill: Right.
Tim Muehlhoff: And that's where a gangster rap artist will write a song, be it Cop Killer or whatever, that now you're on the cover of Time Magazine. Everybody wants to interview you because they're mad at the messaging, the mode, not the message. But you get to talk about not only the mode, but you get to talk about the message.
Theon Hill: Yes. Yes. And I-
Tim Muehlhoff: So-
Theon Hill: Go ahead.
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, go ahead.
Theon Hill: No, no, you're good, Brother.
Tim Muehlhoff: Okay. So my only fear is I get that, and maybe this is where white America just never feels like the time is here that this is warranted. We never feel like it's okay for Colin to do what he does using the sacred symbol of our National Anthem. I get that. I'm just afraid that some people are going to say, "Finally, you gave me permission to just say it straight, and I don't need to worry about civility or couching my terms in less offensive ways. Now I can just go for it because I'm always saying nobody's listening to me. Now is the time for me to go into radical rhetoric."
Theon Hill: Yes. I think you've always seen misappropriations or perversions of the prophetic tradition. I mean, there's a reason why false prophets were so popular in ancient Israel. So that's always been an ever present threat, but I would suggest that we shouldn't let the danger of a type of discourse or an approach to social change. We shouldn't let the danger of that being perverted, prevent us from doing what we know to be right. Because we can say let's do this through other means, and this gets to the point that you hinted at there, but what other means do we have? I always have my students ask me, well, we just need more people like King today. And I always ask them, what happened to King? Remind me of that.
Rick Langer: How did that end?
Theon Hill: I was like, the brother got shot and killed because even as much as we like to romanticize him, there's a reason why J. Edgar Hoover viewed him as one of the most significant threats to U.S. security in the 1960s. There's a reason why an assassin's bullet took his life. So I think it's easy for us to say, "Let's find another way to do it." My fear is that whenever we're saying that, can we find a way that offends our senses less?
Rick Langer: Well, Theon, this has been great. And obviously we have a lot more we need to say. But let me just give a quick wrap here, and we'll pick this up in a second part of this podcast because we definitely have a lot more things to talk about here.
So thanks for being with us. Let me just remind our listeners that you can find the Winsome Conviction podcast on Apple podcast or Spotify or wherever we happen to get them. Check us out at winsonconviction.com, as well would be a great place to get some resources. And we want to assure you that this conversation will be continuing. And so, we give this to you in two pieces. We really, really want to make sure you get both of them, particularly in this case. So watch, stay tuned for part two of our conversation with Theon Hill.