What motivates people to write? More specifically, what induces authors to attempt to persuade others to change their behavior? In his essay, “The Christian Paradox: How a Christian Nation Gets Jesus Wrong,” Bill McKibben boldly attempts to do just that. He uses the rhetorical tactics of analogy, exemplum, and hypophora to move his audience to action by developing a convicting argument for the paradox of American Christianity while challenging his readers to reflect on the hypocrisy of their own faith. Through the strategies the English languages affords, McKibben appeals to his readers through ethos, logos, and pathos, to convict his fellow Christians of their own inconsistencies.
Ultimately, he attempts to convince his readers that “America is simultaneously the most professedly Christian of the developed nations and the least Christian in its behavior” (McKibben 86). First, in an effort to create deeper understanding of his argument, McKibben uses the rhetorical device of analogy to showcase the absurdity of the paradox that is American Christianity. By using a comparison of two ideas, an analogy helps readers to better grasp the argument that the author is getting at. In McKibben’s first analogy, he illustrates what he means by a paradox by comparing the logic of the hypocritical Christians to French women who purport to “stay thin on a diet of chocolate and cheese” and goes on to state that the paradox “illuminates the hollow at the core of our boastful, careening culture” (86). In this example, the author likens the absolute illogic of women trying to stay thin by only eating fattening foods, to the actions of Christians, who claim to follow Christ but do not obey what He commands.
If you imagine the actions and love of Christians as the foods which we use to nourish our walk with Christ, then the actual behaviors of Christians are instead the chocolate and cheese that ultimately pull you further away from your goal. McKibben uses another analogy to highlight the harmful actions of Christian leaders who misuse their authority. Even though what they preach is not biblical, they claim authority and profess to know what they are talking about, when in reality, “They’re like the guy who gives you directions with such loud confidence that you drive on even though the road appears to be turning into a faint rutted track” (McKibben 95). The analogy itself further explains the effects of the Christian leaders’ directions without explicitly stating it.
By giving a mental picture of the consequences of listening to these misguided leaders, likening it to a road that leads to darkness, the author recognizes and capitalizes on the beauty of analogy. Ultimately, the author uses analogy to further his argument of logic, by helping the reader to see more clearly the folly of his own. Next, McKibben uses exemplum, or the device of example, to illustrate his points in a relatable way. Throughout the essay, he gives example after example of purportedly “faithful” Christians who are, in reality, hypocrites. To illustrate his argument that Christians have replaced the other-oriented gospel message with a call to living comfortable lives that ultimately are self-seeking. His description of sermon titles of many churches is particularly eye-opening, since they are centered on self-help and advice on topics of money management and parenting. McKibben calls the churches out on their secular focus by citing examples.
Following Jesus’ example of using parables to help His followers understand His point, McKibben even uses an example that would be familiar to his readers, demonstrating his sensitivity to who his audience is, “A rich man came to Jesus one day and asked what he should do to get into heaven. Jesus did not say he should invest, spend, and let the benefits trickle down; he said sell what you have, give the money to the poor, and follow me” (95). The author knows that by using this biblical example, which Christians would be familiar with, he can drive home his argument that many Christians are missing the point.
Simultaneously, this example builds the author’s credibility by citing a source that his readers would be shamed to reject – Jesus. Finally, McKibben uses hypophora to catch the reader’s attention and ultimately appeal to him through relatability. Hypophora is the technique of asking a question of the reader, but then immediately giving the answer. McKibben’s most obvious use of this is when he asks, “Are Americans hypocrites? Of course they are. But most people (me, for instance) are hypocrites” (88).
Through asking the simple question, McKibben breaks up the natural flow of the essay and refocuses on his central argument. However, he also goes on to add that he himself also falls under the category of a hypocrite. In an essay that can easily be viewed as one who thinks himself “holier than thou,” McKibben makes clear that he too is guilty of the crimes he condemns. That last sentence is critical; without it, the impact would not be as great.
Here and in other instances, McKibben builds his credibility by relating to his audience. Through the power of rhetorical devices, the author makes his appeals of ethos, by building credibility through citing examples, pathos, by relating to his audience with hypophora and using relevant examples, and logos, by using analogies to help the reader see the logic of his arguments. Each of these builds a framework for a convincing and convicting appeal to his audience to reflect on the way they view their own faith and perhaps move them to change their behaviors. Although, as a whole, the essay seems condemning, it ultimately betrays the author’s deep concern for his nation and his Christian brothers, as evidenced by his final words, “we have made golden calves of ourselves-become a nation of terrified, self-obsessed idols” (McKibben 97) His desire to reverse the damage that has been done motivates him to write this scathing review of American Christianity.