Ethos, Pathos and Logos.
We have Aristotle to thank for these. The art of rhetoric is not new or recent and goes right back to ancient Greece. The challenge when thinking about these three keys and public speaking is they are all about persuasion. Bringing people round to a way of thinking or challenging beliefs and values already held by the strength of an argument and getting people to change their minds, rethink, be inspired and spurred on, be challenged.
With persuasion comes the possibility of manipulation. So, as we think about each I want to highlight the positive, bring the focus in on Jesus and encourage you to see these as tools to help you think through a talk or public speaking opportunity and how you might go about it.
To unpack them, I am going to use Paul – a master at communication – and then have us ask, “What about us then?” how do we use these tools in a way that aids what we are saying and doesn’t become the focus or be used to mislead people.
This word is used a lot right now, companies think about their “Ethos”, or their values – as people vote today (in the UK) they might well be thinking about the values, character and ethos of those on their ballot papers. Ethos adds credibility. We might appeal to those listening to us based on our character, our “right” to talk about the topic because of our experience of knowledge of the subject – we have earned the authority to speak on it. We have the authority to speak on it.
Paul :: The apostle Paul, in writing to the church in Corinth, reminds the people of his credentials,
Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.
1 Corinthians 9:1-2
Powerful words, and Paul even uses rhetorical questions – the answers being “of course!” There is discontent and trouble and confusion in Corinth about a whole load of things, (one of the reasons they get two letters!) Paul appeals to them – stating the credentials of an apostle and that he, Paul, meets the requirements. They can and should be paying attention to what he is saying.
What about us then? :: Another aspect of credibility is whether we believe in the person who is communicating with us. I will be honest here, I have found it difficult to know what to believe as I have prepared to vote today. Every “argument” has a counter argument from others, every statement being made as if it was an immutable fact appears to be shaky – take the deficit as an example. On the one hand you have David Cameron waving a piece of paper in the air to remind us that when the coalition came to power in 2010 there was no money left . . . and, being Prime Minister we might think – well, that makes him credible. Then we have a former Governor of the Bank of England saying that Labour were not responsible for the deficit and the recession . . . I say this not to make a political point – but to emphasise how hard it is to have credibility and retain it – in a world of shifting views, opinions and individuals who can shift their own values at times in order to achieve power or gain an advantage.
So, I think in terms of ethos we should be thinking about our integrity. What is it that we value that is not up for grabs? How will we speak of things? I don’t want to speak with apparent authority on topics I know nothing about – a big challenge, who anyone can take to twitter and write or say anything – a big challenge when others might pursue a “trend” and we don’t want to get left behind or left out. We need to be authentically ourselves. We need to be real. This being real makes a massive difference. Our credibility is linked with our lived experience of what we might be talking about.
Our ethos, our values have to be things we live. Our ethics are our practice. I add credibility and an authentic voice to what I say by, well, doing what I say!
When we preach or speak, how do we address people? Are we saying “you” need to, “if only you would”, “you need to get your priorities straight”, “you need to sort your life out”, “you need to come to Jesus”?
Or, do we say “we” and “I”? Do we identify with the words we might be saying – do we acknowledge that we do not have it sorted and add authenticity and reality to our words because we too are on a journey of working stuff out and discovering who we can be? Our “ethos” then, does not become simply a tool we pull out of the bag to get people on side.
Our ethos IS who we are. A book I noticed yesterday that has recently been published is called, “Jesus Swagger : Break Free from Poser Christianity” – the fact that such a book got published suggests we have a problem with our ethos!
For anyone who has ever heard an “altar call”, you might be familiar with this kind of statement, “If you die tonight, are you sure you will go to heaven?” (this is a pathos appeal – an appeal to the emotions – in this case, fear!) This one, for me, has some real challenges – if I know that saying something in an emotive way might illicit a response, do I go after that response? If I can make people laugh – does what I say become all about bringing the funny? If I can tug the heart strings by showing pictures during the talk of fluffy animals? If I can have orchestral music playing while I speak in hushed tones?
You get the idea.
Paul :: This guy really is fascinating, again in 1 Corinthians – before Paul has appealed to his readers based on his right to apostleship he comes in with some real pathos (which is also where we get the word, pathetic),
When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirits power, so that your faith might not rest human wisdom but on God’s power.
1 Corinthians 2:1-5
These words, where Paul talks about not preaching with wise and persuasive words are extremely persuasive! Ironic.
This passage is lit up with emotion. He is acknowledging his own weakness, knowing that unless the Spirit comes in power – whatever he says would only be with human wisdom, eloquence, cleverness, persuasive . . . It is self depreciating in the extreme. Yet, Paul is these contradictions because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in His life. This is the same man who says, in his letter to Timothy,
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. Christ Jesus came in to the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.
1 Timothy 1:15
This, from the same guy who said, in his first letter to the Corinthians, where we have read about his self depreciation and – in his human weakness – his complete lack,
Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ
1 Corinthians 11:1
The pathos appeal that Paul is making here is – look, if I can follow Christ (even me!) then, so can YOU.
What about us then? :: For some, the challenge to appeal to the emotions – either by an exaggerated story or some kind of personal false humility on the part of the speaker – is just too great. Emotion and sometimes therefore, passion are removed from what we are saying. We can become so fixated on not manipulating people and wanting them to make decisions in the “cold light of day” that we sound like we are talking about “Life in all its dullness” rather than life in all its fullness (John 10:10)!
We can’t look at any of these three keys in isolation, our ethos and values will determine how far we go with trying to illicit an emotional response from our listeners.
The vulnerability of Paul and his recognition that it is God’s power that makes the difference makes what he says more, not less powerful. We seem to be a culture within the Church and (especially) with senior leadership of organisations where failure or weakness is not acknowledged or admitted. It isn’t so much whether people are or are not not weak – you just can’t appear to be!
That is why one my favourite writers is Henri Nouwen, he stated this in his excellent book on leadership “In the name of Jesus“,
I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.
Would that this was true! Yet, it is something that calls me – I certainly am not there. I want to be noticed and paid attention to, I don’t want this blog post to be ignored! Yet, I long to say, like John the Baptist did upon seeing Jesus,
He must increase, I must decrease.
I guess THE emotional response that we want to illicit is, “hey, I am just like you – a flawed failure who loves Jesus and longs to be more like Him.” Self deprecation – if we think like this about ourselves – is ok and normal, it isn’t forced or weird. We don’t introduce an emotional tone for effect. We tell a funny, sad, powerful or moving story (whether about our own lives or someone or something else) because it just makes sense for us to do so – it is part of who we are.
Our pathos, our pain, suffering or emotional input in a talk comes from a real place – not a made up place, we don’t “put on” our emotions. Just as our ethos needs to be real – so does our pathos.
Logos. This is where we get the word “logic”. This tool is the one I think we can most often miss the point. Logic is about convincing someone by presenting the facts of the case, here it is – if I can demonstrate to you that 1 + 1 = 2 you believe me. What I am telling you just makes sense! A historical master of this was C.S.Lewis, with his classic trilemma,
You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God
C.S.Lewis, Mere Christianity
He uses logic to convince his audience – we have to decide – Jesus was either a Lunatic, Liar or He is Lord. Christian apologetics continue to use this and other devices in preaching to persuade people of the truth of the Gospel.
Paul :: Quite often Paul uses reasoned argument to make a point. In his most general of books (i.e. one that was not primarily seeking to correct or chastise teaching or behaviour in a church), Romans, Paul unpacks in a logical way what has happened to humanity in order to set up what He wants to say about God’s judgement, in doing so – he gives reasons along the way for why people have no excuse,
what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
However, of all three – ethos, pathos, logos – something explodes into life when as Christians we consider logic. John at the opening of his Gospel says,
In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.
In the greek, “Word” is “Logos”. Jesus is literally the “Logos” of God. Logos should be at the heart of every message, because at the heart of every message should be Jesus. Yet, here is where we can come unstuck!
What about us then? :: We seem to have reduced talking about the “logos” of God to trying to produce logic reasons for why people should become Christians and follow Jesus. We “present” the truth about Jesus – rather than Jesus himself.
Logic as we have come to understood it is not all it meant to the early rhetorical persuaders like Aristotle. If we don’t recover it’s full meaning for John and how he used the word we will preach impoverished sermons and persuade nobody.
For John the “Logos” was God’s active agent in the World. Incarnate, living, made flesh and that word “word” emphasised perhaps one of the meanings for “logos” in Greek which was “say” . . . we have reduced this speaking, living, active word to a set of beliefs that if we can – through reasoned argument – convince people of then they will become Christians.
This is NOT the Logic of God. This falls back towards human reason, human intellect, human eloquence . . . the very thing we have seen that Paul dismisses. for Paul the logic of God was seen and evidenced in the Spirit’s power.
What then for us? Do we have a dry Gospel of logical statements and reasons for our belief – or do we have a living active faith that draws people to us and our message of life and hope in Jesus!
Finally :: Our ethos then should be authentic and real, our pathos should be less about eliciting a response from our listeners than being emotionally vulnerable ourselves, our logos should not be centred on presenting truths about Jesus’ life and why He must be God but on living out this life we now have because we know Him and love Him!