Tips for Rhetoric from Hypnosis

When I was in highschool, I found a little red book on hypnosis in my school library. I flipped through the pages, saw a section on inducing sleep states, and read it. When I was a kid I always struggled to sleep. The method in the book, though it was meant for trained psychiatrists to utilize on patients worked swimmingly. I used to have very few good nights of sleep. After reading those few short paragraphs, I found myself having few nights of bad sleep. The change was remarkable.

Anyway, I was at a used book store Monday night and happened upon the exact same book. Out of nostalgia I bought it. I actually read it this time. It’s a neat primer on the state of hypnosis in therapy and for public performance at the time of its writing.

One of the chapter titles is “Rules of Thought.” It’s a compelling chapter and remarkably similar to William James’ remarks on hypnosis in his magnum opus Principles of Psychology. Anyway, I think of hypnosis as just individualized rhetoric for therapy purposes so I thought I would show the “rules of thought” from the chapter and give brief thoughts on how they can be used to the art and science of persuasion:1

  1. Every thought or idea causes a physical reaction.

    On the face of it this is true as our brains do things when we think. Not only so, but our thoughts often come from sensations, all of which are physical in nature. Even further, though, if you think thoughts about previous experiences, emotions associated with them will often occur. With those emotions, the associated physical symptoms will happen. I can think of specific times I have felt great anger and my heartrate increases. This is important for rhetoric for several reasons, but mostly just that our anthropology typically functions as a data based system: I give people facts, they process them, then their minds make their bodies act accordingly. Aristotle knew this didn’t work. In reality, advertising is so effective precisely because advertisers know that, whether our minds are immaterial or not, our bodies are physical and the needs and experiences of the body typically determine human action.

  2. The expected sensation tends to be realized.

    When I was a Greek student, we were told that “the fog” would occur. This is some time period wherein everything is confusing and everybody is confused. I was only in the fog until I memorized my verb endings. But many people who did this felt confused about easy to understand concepts. Why? I think they were told to expect it. I’ve taught Greek to high school students using the same college text books. I never mention “the fog” and nobody ever complains of confusion beyond their own failure to study or coming across a particularly difficult sentence. Indeed, a friend who works as a draftsman learned Greek with no fog whatsoever.

  3. Imagination is more potent than knowledge when dealing with the mind of another; or: Imagination of the audience is more potent than his knowledge…Imagination is more powerful than reason.

    Jesus used loads of images to insult the Pharisee’s way of life. If he had just said, “they do bad things.” Nobody would have remembered and the Pharisees themselves would have just ignored him. The visceral reactions to Jesus’ teachings seemed to stem from not only their obvious truth but the imagery used to grip people.

  4. Only one idea can be entertained in the mind at the same time. Corollary: Conflicting ideas cannot be held at one and the same time.

    Moving from idea to idea in a speech before people grasp what was said can be very damaging to your persuasiveness. Also, people may become nervous and uncomfortable hearing things that don’t match up with their accepted worldview. We don’t “entertain” our worldview, so much as base our lives upon it. But when people try to entertain a new idea for the purpose of possibly believing it, great anxiety can occur if it conflicts with the beliefs upon which they base their lives or imagine they base their lives. Because of this, great gentleness is necessary in a speech or conversation when helping somebody see a truth which they have yet to grasp personally. This might be why scientific consensus seems to change as a previous generation of scientists dies.

  5. An idea, once accepted, tends to remain until replaced by another idea or is forgotten. And: Once an idea has been accepted, there is opposition to replacing it with a new idea.

    This is relatively similar to what came before.

  6. An imagined condition tends to become real if persisted in long enough. Or: A mental attitude tends to reflect itself in the body structure and the physical condition.

    The Greek fog above? This is it. But it goes further. I’m not sure if you can convince people to become well of physical problems. Although, John Sorno’s book on back pain uses psychotherpeutic methods to alleviate back pain and the book has a tremendously positive reception on Amazon. I’ve had power-lifters with physical back damage recommend it to me because they said after doing what it said, they stopped having back pain. The book of Psalms does mention a similar reality as well, “Psa 16:8-9 ESV I have set the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. (9) Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure.” The Psalmist’s personal experience is feeling physically well in response to practicing God’s presence. Obviously, “mind over matter” is not always true. Perhaps it isn’t ever true. But there is an element of persuasion that involves observing people’s outer posture and attitudes in order to see if a different form of verbiage is necessary to convince them of an idea due to their positive/negative frames of mind.

  7. A suggestion once followed tends to create less and less opposition to successive suggestions. (halo effect).

    In persuasion you build ethos/credibility with people after you persuade them of something. This is just true. I’ve heard it called, though I don’t remember where, the halo effect. This is dangerous for pastors or radio hosts because your research can get sloppy in direct response to the level of trust people put in you. I suppose it can also happen with parents. Authorty carries great responsibility, especially if that authority includes, of necessity, persuasion.



1  James T McBrayer, The Key to Hypnotism Simplified. (New York: Bell Pub. Co., 1956), 113-136

Jesus, Rhetoric, and Dialectic

In the past I’ve written pretty extensively about the difference between rhetoric and dialectic. The distinction between the two, I think, can be quite important for understanding Scripture. Here’s a short review:

  1. Dialectic is the art of using logic and facts in order to find what is true. In reference to discourse (written or spoken) it is essentially the posture of either science or exposition. It’s purpose is chiefly truth.
  2. Rhetoric is the art of determining what is persuasive use well as using it. It’s purpose is chiefly feeling.

Dialectic can be used rhetorically and rhetoric can be made to sound like dialectic to put on an air of intelligence. In one sense, dialectic is a form of rhetoric, as it invites careful attention, dispute, and acceptance of its claims once they are determined to be based on true evidence and valid argumentation. The combinations are as variable as are human motivations.

When reading the gospels (themselves a form of rhetoric) one of the places where Jesus is pretty clear about what makes for a morally whole and upright existence is his endorsement of honoring your parents by caring for them financially:

Mar 7:9-13 ESV  And he [Jesus] said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! (10)  For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ (11)  But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”‘ (that is, given to God)– (12)  then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, (13)  thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”

Elsewhere, Jesus is fundamentally opposed to hating even enemies. Yet, when trying to snap people out of an insensibility of what is required of his disciples he says:

Luk 14:26 ESV  “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

Yet, one of the prime assumptions of Jesus’ ministry is that you will follow the ten commandments (Luke 18:20), love your neighbor, and that you desire to avoid eternal death by seeking eternal life. So when Jesus tells us to hate even our lives, is he telling us to have no joy, no pleasure, and no sense of self-preservation or self-love? Or is he proposing an outrageous overstatement to get us to consider the facts of the case, that you might not be up to the task of going to preach with him?

By the way, right after Jesus says this, he says that to be his disciple (at least to be his disciple in the sense of travelling with him) requires a careful consideration of the costs just as any war or building project requires.

One of the things I always hate (literally) about election season is the predilection of pundits to pile up a series of claims meant to arouse anger, love, or sympathy with how bad said pundit feels about this or that candidate and therefore you should vote and believe accordingly with no support other than appeal to emotions. The problem is that the rhetoric is not based on a solid foundation. “I feel really bad about [insert politician here], therefore s/he is unacceptable!” People mistake rhetoric (arousing emotions) for fact and argument (dialectic).

A similar mistake can be made with Jesus. Because we use sarcasm and “snark” so frequently, we often or maybe always seem to mistake it for argument. Not only are we handicapped because of our own sense of humor, but it’s not always easy to distinguish Jesus’ cues, because we aren’t with him and cannot hear his tone. To add to those two problems, it also feels unusual to think of the Bible as a book of humor.

It would seem that the best  practice is to compare Jesus’ apparently outrageous statements with his apparently literal ones as in the case mentioned above. Similar tactics could be used to understand Jesus’ apparent disdain for the syrophonecian woman. Jesus has taught that God would call people from east and west while the Israelites would miss out on the kingdom. So his apparently harsh attitude is rhetoric, suited for a purpose which was apparently achieved (the woman’s daughter was healed).

Can you think of other examples of the rhetoric dialectic distinction being helpful for understanding the gospels?



Roles of Imagery in Our Worldview

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how rhetoric, advertising, and imagery in general can influence our view of the world.

This got me to thinking about the nature of suggestibility and achievement as well as the relationship of false expectations to achievement.

The research on these subjects is pretty vast, so you’ll just have to look it up (I’ll probably post a bibliography in the bottom).

Anyway, suggestibility is the state of being primed to accept an idea without argument or coercion.

In one study, easily suggestible students were told that a cognitive game with no known effects on IQ would increase their intelligence and it did. Teachers typically want students be convinced of inferences through argument but of their abilities through suggestion (arguing a person in a state of self-doubt into a state of confidence is difficult). “Won’t you be able to do this if you try it?” “Imagine yourself as the kind of person who regularly does her homework. Do you like that version of yourself? Try doing your homework.”

In Christianity we are primed to resist temptation based on the believe that our personal history was interrupted, not just in at our conversion or baptism, but miraculously through the life of Jesus Christ. While there are certainly spiritual realities behind all of this, the simple idea of “considering oneself dead to sin” really does help one to resist it on the human level. Research shows time and again that consdering oneself up to a task predicts one’s ability to achieve said task.

On the other hand, having false expectations can be very unhelpful.

For instance, I think that movie montages, commercials, and the concept of diet pills have convinced people (without argument or coercion) that their weightloss and exercise problems can be solved easily and quickly.

But, as every Rocky fan learns, doing 400 pushups after watching Rocky II won’t get you in shape unless you watch the movie every day.


Here’s a problem in evangelical culture, then. The idea of a giant, “Aha!” moment conversion in which one instantly stops sinning, has deep knowledge of God, complete wisdom, and insight into evangelical taboos is a common enough notion. It’s not evident in the way that people treat new Christians usually (although, I ‘ve seen it happen and it isn’t pretty). But it is evident in the way many Christians feel inadequate, not simply because they fall short of God’s glory, but because they look at Paul or Peter’s example in Acts and think their faith must be too small or some such thing, when in fact they are in a process.

So in one case, having the image in mind of being dead to sin can make one less susceptible to temptation. But on the other, expecting the Christian life to identical to that of Jesus or Paul by instant transformation is an expectation that does not match reality.

I think that conversion probably needs to be spoken of in images more akin to what the Christian life actually is:

  1. The beginning of a life long journey (an exodus?)
  2. The starting point for the process of naturalization into a new kingdom
  3. Adoption into a family with little to no knowledge of family customs
  4. Enrollment in school (discipleship)

Anyway, imagining oneself as one truly is, a person with all the resources available to them that Paul or Peter had is not unwise or unhelpful or untrue (2 Peter 1:3-11). But such imagining must be accompanied by the same thing Paul and Peter did: daily effort. Paul’s apparently instant moral transformation was build upon a lifetime of “exercising to have a clean conscience before both God and man.(Acts 24:16)” This continual state of self-management probably explains Paul’s quick adoption of Christian moral norms. Many people have untrained moral habits upon conversion, so following Christ is a process of learning supernatural and natural virtue all at the same time!



What are people like? What I learned from Copywriting

Since I teach rhetoric, I’m always looking for ways to give my students an edge and this leads me down all sorts of great rabbit trails: books on hypnotism, psychology, watching speeches by famous politicians, ancient rhetorical manuals, books on family systems communication, and even books on marketing.

Today I started Victor Schwab’s classic, How to Write a Good Advertisement.

He wrote it in the 1940s and one of his main points is that you have to advertise to the people who will be buying your product, not to the person you are, that you wish you were, or that you wish everybody was. He gave this list of what he thought was an alarming trend in the United States in the 40s. He thought people were leaning toward:

Success— instead of— Integrity
Spending— instead of— Saving
Restlessness— instead of— Rest
Self-Indulgence— instead of— Self-Discipline
Desire for the New or Novel— instead of— Affection for the Old and Tried
Show— instead of— Solidity
Dependence— instead of— Self-Reliance
Gregariousness— instead of— Solitude
Luxury— instead of— Simplicity
Ostentation— instead of— Restraint
Easy Generosity— instead of— Wise Giving
Quick Impressions— instead of— Careful Thought[1]

If he’s right, and he is. And if things are worse today, and they are. Then what does this mean for evangelists and pastors?

When Paul evangelized Felix, this happened:

Acts 24:24-26  After some days Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, and he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus.  (25)  And as he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you.”  (26)  At the same time he hoped that money would be given him by Paul. So he sent for him often and conversed with him.


Now, Paul’s method is summarized by Luke here and we discover that this went on some two years. But I do wonder, when we share the gospel and we start by talking about self-control or right/wrong and the people to whom we speak do not even comprehend these concepts, where must we start?





[1] Schwab, Victor (1942) How To Write A Good Advertisement: A Short Course In Copywriting (Kindle Locations 1206-1216). Pickle Partners Publishing. Kindle Edition.


Hell or Why I am a Christian: Pathos 1

My first emotional reason for being a Christian is the one that is often treated as the least worthy reason to care about Jesus. It’s the doctrine of hell.

The doctrine of hell, some experience of post-mortem divine punishment for misdeeds in the present life is rejected by many intellectually and by even more practically. In fact, many people seem to reject the notion of God precisely because they find the doctrine of any sort of hell unconscionable. I’m not writing this to defend the notion of hell. Remember, this is in my emotional reasons section for why I’m a Christian. But think of it this way, instead of rejecting the notion of God because hell is a terrifying notion, consider the possibility that it is real. Whatever it is: eternal destruction, eternal torture, fire, darkness, hanging out with all the losers and jerk you hate and who hate you for eternity, etc, it can’t be pleasant. On top is hell clearly being terrible, versions of it have been believed by billions of people. Now, billions can be wrong and often are, but our instincts have a tendency to point us in the right direction if we consider them at the bar of reason.
The possibility of a post-mortem punishment for immoral behavior worth checking out. Here’s why I care about hell. In real life, my normal motivation for doing the right thing is usually ease in the moment. My life is set up so that moral behavior requires little effort. I’m not sure how good of a person I would be if times got tough. But nevertheless my desire for ease does cause me to consider the possibility of hell with concern. If misdeeds are punished, then that conflicts with my desire for ease. Because of the possibility of hell there are three things I can think of to do just in case (these are not contradictory):

  1. Seek forgiveness from whoever invented or cares about my morality.
  2. Be as excellent of a person as I can (not just outwardly, but learning to desire goodness inwardly).
  3. See if some religion seems true and adhere to it.

Why I am a Christian

A few months ago I reevaluated this question from the angle of rhetorical appeal.

I did this because as I’ve grown older I’ve had two somewhat opposite experiences:

  1. I’ve studied logic much more carefully.
  2. I’ve learned that, in general, while people are rational (their behavior has rationale), they are not reasonable. We do not operate solely on the basis of dispassionate reason.

These two facts made it seem prudent to think through my commitment to Christ using the three modes of appeal: pathos, logos, and ethos.

  1. Pathos
    1. Hell
    2. Tribalism
    3. Cosmic Story
    4. Social Life
    5. Happiness
  2. Ethos
    1. The moral credibility of Jesus
    2. The moral credibility of Christianity’s best
    3. The power of Western Civilization
  3. Logos
    1. Why I think God exists
    2. Why I think Jesus was raised

I’ll write a series of short posts explaining each of these. They aren’t meant to be comprehensive. In a way they can’t be. I’m too long winded to be interesting if I tried to be. Secondly, I have a blog, I’m not a scholar or an author. So don’t expect anything here to be particularly novel or great. But hopefully, if you’re a Christian with doubts or a non-Christian with questions, this will help you toward Jesus.

On Rhetorical Aims and Defense Against the Dark Arts

There are two modes of public discourse that deal with syllogisms:

  1. Rhetoric – the art of persuasion
  2. Dialectic – the art of discovering/explaining what must or may be true or false based upon facts and reasoning.

The thing about these that is important to remember is that dialectic is not always effective when used as rhetoric. Many people have no patience for examining things as they are. But rhetoric can use the skills of dialectic to appeal to those who enjoy feeling smart but do not, perhaps, understand how logic works or who do not understand the facts of the case. One may look at the relationship between  rhetoric and dialectic thus:

  1. Pure dialectic – Exact discourse using facts and logic (think math lectures)
  2. Truthful Rhetoric – Rhetoric that appeals to emotions while being backed up by careful research or absolute truth.
  3. False-Dialectic – Attempted dialectic that the wielder does not realize is actually rhetoric.
  4. Sophistry – the intentional use of emotional rhetoric to convince people to act/feel/believe without reference to the truth.

There are three modes of persuasive rhetoric:

  1. Deliberative
    Meant to persuade people to act.
  1. Judicial
    Meant to convict or defend people based on their deeds.
  1. Epideictic
    Used to raise support for and adherence to group values. In other words, it is meant to inspire or please the hearers. A secondary use is to portray a person, group, or idea as honorable or shameful.

You’ll find it useful to be able to distinguish between each type of rhetoric (note: many authors cannot even do this).

For instance, Christians often use epideictic rhetoric that is designed to inspire deeper commitment to Christ amongst believers to share the gospel with outsiders.

Similarly, in political races, people might have a tendency to read articles that are designed to increase loyalty to an already accepted candidate and mistake the article for a sound piece of truthful deliberative rhetoric (meant to convince people to vote for so-and-so) and then use this same rhetoric to talk to friends who buy into a different platform. Both people might be using rhetoric meant to inspire the committed of their camp to greater devotion and invective meant to shame those in the camp who are thinking of leaving against one another. This will quite literally have the effect cementing each person deeper in the opposing camp.

If you want to test, for instance, what type of rhetoric you use and where it is on “truthful rhetoric to sophistry” scale that you might ask these questions:

  1. Pure Dialectic
    1. Am I considering evidence contrary to my conclusion and fitting my conclusion to this evidence or explaining the evidence in a way that allows it to still stand?
    2. Am I doing/teaching a programing language or mathematical proof?
  2. Truthful Rhetoric
    1. If I play fast and loose with my language for purposes of appeal, are my premises defensible if I qualify and explain them?
    2. Is my emotional appeal intentionally based upon aiming at the feelings that the facts should result in rather than the feelings that are expedient for my purposes?
    3. Am I willing to make my evidence available for examination by other parties, even if for rhetorical purposes, I leave it out?
  3. False-Dialectic
    1. Am I simply repeating what somebody else said without having investigated the facts or followed the logic myself?
    2. Is there no potential counter evidence to my conclusions?
    3. Am I using emotional buzz words whose referent is hard to pin down?
    4. Could the premises in my argument be just as easily applied to another point of view?
    5. Do I actually believe my premises, dilemmas, and so-on?
    6. Do I feel shocked that somebody reasonable disagrees with me?
  4. Sophistry
    It’s hard to do this by accident.

Now for the types of rhetoric. Beware, this is where you’ve got to be brutally honest with yourself. If you’re claiming to attempt to persuade people to act, but you keep answering “yes” to epideictic style questions, it is likely that you’re using rhetoric meant to inspire people with whom you already agree. Similarly, if you’re using shaming tactics to convince people of facts, then you’re trying to use epideictic or deliberative rhetoric for judicial purposes. This may be effective, but it takes true/false out of the debate. It turns you into a sophist at best and a jerk at worst:

  1. Deliberative
    1. Do I want people to act in a certain way?
    2. Am I appealing to moral principle or future consequences?
    3. Am I arguing from principles to which my audience ascribes to practical conclusions which I think are good?
  2. Judicial
    1. Am I referencing testimonial evidence about the past?
    2. Am I referencing physical evidence?
    3. Am I referencing character/trait evidence of the persons or artifacts involved?
  3. Epideictic
    1. Am I making assertions without reference to evidence?
    2. Am I making claims which I know people like me will applaud?
    3. Am I saying things meant to make people not like me seem shameful?
    4. Am I trying to make an individual/group/idea look, not guilty or innocent, true or false, good or bad, but shameful or honorable?

Now, the reason all of this is important is that you want to know how to be a morally good rhetorician and you need defense against the dark arts. Here are some good reasons to have an instinct for what a piece of rhetoric is attempting and then the types of rhetoric being used or the types of rhetoric to use to avoid being disgusting (see how I used a shame word):

  1. Epideictic appeals can effectively manipulate emotions enough to get you or I to act in a way that does not align with our principles by an intentionally murky appeal to them. This happens in drug advertisements.
  2. Epideictic appeals, which feel so effective because of the nature of the language used, can be done sophistically without reference to any truth value at all. When I’ve been a character witness, I was appalled that this form of rhetoric was used by the prosecutor when the nature of the apparently shameful deed was precisely what was in question.
  3. Many times, in the case of persuading others concerning what is true or false, people will still appeal to the utility of believing this or that thing. While I think that utility is a good tool to persuade people to consider your case, utility does not determine truth. “Of course God is real. You don’t want to go to hell do you?”
  4. Judicial style rhetoric, because it requires arguments concerning probability, time, and cause/effect is very susceptible to sophistry because when reasoning to the best explanation of the facts, one might have a tendency to theorize before all the facts come in. Such a theory can prejudice one’s interpretation of new evidence. In the legal system, this is especially interesting because one could be in the position of trying to cast doubt upon the guilt of a truly guilty person or reason to the explanation that somebody is indeed guilty when they are not. Jurors who are not trained in careful reasoning may have a difficult time interpreting evidence well. Learning to use this rhetoric with a strong dialectic background and learning to interpret it is very important for justice (see how I’m using deliberative rhetoric to convince you to study dialectic?). Note: I know of at least three lawyers who semiregularly read this stuff. Am I off base?