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Rhetoric book looks at 'second coming'

August 26, 2008

In the fall of 2003, Sharon Crowley, now a professor emerita of English, was browsing in her local library to find an audiotape to listen to on her commute to ASU.

For no particular reason, she picked up a tape of the novel “Left Behind,” by Tim LaHay and Jerry B. Jenkins.

“What I heard stunned me,” she wrote in her book “Toward a Civil Discourse: Rhetoric and Fundamentalism.”

“While waiting for class one day, I mentioned to some graduate students that I was listening to a frightening narrative involving mass disappearances, earthquakes, firestorms, and the general collapse of civilization.

“The students recognized the tale immediately. One picked up its thread while others joined in, and they recited the entire narrative of the apocalypse, from the Rapture, when Christians who are saved will be taken bodily into heaven, through the Great Tribulation and on to the Glorious Appearing when Christ will return to establish his thousand-year reign on earth.”

Crowley wrote that she was, apparently, the only one who had never read the book of Revelation, and her interest was sparked. “I began to study Christian apocalyptism,” she said.

What she found in her study frightened her on several levels, enough so to compel her to write her “swan song” book about rhetoric and Christian fundamentalism.

The book has won four major awards, and no one is as surprised as Crowley at its recognition.

Some people believe books about rhetoric “are museum pieces,” she said, but rhetoric is “relevant right here, right now."

“I want to make rhetoric useful and alive for my colleagues across the country.”

Her most recent award is the Rhetoric Society of America Book Award for 2008. Along with receiving the award, Crowley was named a Fellow by the Society in recognition of her "sustained and distinguished scholarship, teaching and service."

In the preface to the book, which is aimed at the academic community, she writes that the more she studies fundamentalism, and its belief in the apocalypse, the more intense becomes my desire not only to dissent from it but to warn others of the ideological dangers it poses to democracy.”

Crowley believes that the United States is dominated by two powerful, antagonistic discourses—liberalism and Christian fundamentalism, and that each group paints a very different picture of the United States and its citizens’ responsibilities.

She sees little common ground between the two, and very little disagreement because Americans don’t want to offend each other.

But how does one dissent from apocalyptism? Will its believers be willing to listen to those who disagree?

These questions are at the heart of “Toward a Civil Discourse.”

Crowley shows how rhetorical principles could provide the foundation for such discussion and examines the consequences to society when argumentative exchange does not occur.

She notes, in a chapter titled “Ideas Do Have Consequences,” that Rousas John Rushdoony, “a postmillennialist and the driving intellectual force in this movement, aims to bring about apocalypse by transforming America into God’s earthly kingdom as prophesied in Revelation.”

Crowley quotes author William Martin on “how a reconstructed America might look” if apocalyptists have their way:

Among other things, there would be no welfare state programs such as food stamps, unemployment or Social Security because “families would be expected to take care of their own.”

There would be no schools, so parents would have to home-school their children. The only people permitted to vote would be Christians who belonged to “biblically correct” churches.

And, “Reconstruction also requires that the U.S. Constitution and its attendant body of law be rewritten to conform to biblical law, particularly that found in the Old Testament.”

Though Crowley says this is a scenario at the very far edge, it still gives a hint of what some fundamentalists desire for the United States.

Crowley suggests rhetorical means that could be used to open dialogue between fundamentalists and liberals, and she says, “I end with the hope that my readers will find, or open, many more paths of invention than I have been able to name here.”

In addition to the Rhetoric Society of America Book Award, Crowley also received the 2008 Conference on College Composition and Communication Outstanding Book Award; the Gary A. Olson Award for best book on rhetoric and cultural studies from the Association of Teachers of Advanced Composition and JAC: Journal of Advanced Composition; and the David Russell Award from the National Council of Teachers of English.