|Abstract:||Through a long-term, ethnographically based study of a progressive Protestant church, Rearticulating Religious Rhetoric: Literate Activity and Semiotic Remediation in a Progressive Christian Church pushes back against the field’s common conception of religious rhetoric, a conception narrowly focused on the genre of the sermon and the figure of the fundamentalist Christian. My project makes the case for a more expansive understanding of religious rhetoric, arguing that churches are institutions that are written into being through the interplay between the professional writing practices of clergy and the vernacular community literacy practices of their membership, practices that are both richly multimodal and intertextual. The professional composing of clergy is semiotically complex across both the church’s physical and digital spaces, setting what Jennifer Trainor (2008) has called the "emotioned rules" for the community. Church members then engage with, transform, and push back against these emotioned rules as they create and share compositions of their own that combine their faith with civic engagement toward greater social justice. My findings suggest that religious literate activity is far more social, collaborative, and flexible than previous studies have allowed.
In Chapter One, I argue for the necessity of Rearticulating’s focus on progressive churches and multimodal practices. In recent years, the field has focused almost exclusively on evangelical and fundamentalist Christians to the exclusion of moderate or progressive religious communities. I also contend that the recent turn within Writing Studies towards multimodality and semiotic production needs to be brought to bear on the study of religion. Curiously, previous studies of religious literate activity have largely ignored how religious professionals and communities use a variety of modes to make meaning, even though gesture, embodiment, and visual and sonic rhetorics have always already been a part of religious literate activity across traditions.
Chapter Two continues my call for studying religious literate activity as a multimodal phenomenon by explicitly outlining the methodology I used to do so at one particular church, Community United Church of Christ (CUCC). I describe the methodological underpinning for Rearticulating as semiotic remediation (Prior & Hengst, 2010), a conception of literate activity that is grounded in attention to practices rather than particular genres of finished texts and attention to multiple semiotics (talk, reading, writing, gesture, image, interactions with the physical environment, etc.) as they happen concurrently. I discuss the methods I used to carefully trace the literate practices of my participants, as well as include the descriptions of many of the smaller groups I followed within CUCC. This chapter also discusses my positionality as an insider-outsider to the communities I study, as well my decisions in terms of respecting participants’ sense of sacred space as they participated in religious activities.
Chapter Three argues for greater attention to the semiotic agility (Prior, 2010) that pastors display as professional writers, using the lead pastor of CUCC as a case study. As the larger field of Writing Studies has become more and more concerned with the study of professional and workplace writing (e.g., Henry, 2000; Brandt, 2015; Roozen & Erickson, 2017), I contend the field should also attend to the full range of professional composition practices of clergy and other religious workers. This chapter provides a documented narrative (Roozen, 2010) of the professional writing practices of a lead pastor, illustrating the wide range of composition practices she engages to keep her church running. Pastor Leah’s professional writing practices range from inscribing a wall mural while she is preaching at the front of the church, to writing prayer station texts so that church members can have embodied interactions with elements of Biblical stories, to experimenting with social media algorithms as she advertises the church to a wider public. Through all of these practices, I highlight Leah’s ability to deftly interweave different types of semiotics, a far cry from the static ways that the field has previously portrayed religious rhetors.
Chapter Four brings the lens of emotioned rules (Trainor, 2008) to bear on the Biblicism (Juzwik, 2014) of CUCC’s clergy and membership. I argue that understanding the emotioned rules of the community as they read and interpret a religious text is crucial to understanding how that community uses that religious text in service of social justice and civic engagement. While not an exhaustive, once-for-all list, I elaborate on five prominent emotioned rules I observed at CUCC during my fieldwork, which were established both from the top down (e.g., denominational initiatives, Pastor Leah’s use of wider semiotics) as well as the bottom up (e.g., members’ lived experiences with Bible studies). I then show how these emotioned rules are used and negotiated through interactions over the Biblical text.
In Chapter 5, I continue the discussion of emotioned rules, this time in the context of the church’s Pub Theology book group as they collaboratively wrote and performed a Sunday service that exhorted fellow churchgoers to action surrounding racism in the criminal justice system. While the Pub Theologians did occasionally worry that they were simply “preaching to the choir,” I argue that composing this service was a complex exercise in remediation and intertextuality, both as participants navigated the community’s emotioned rules during the composition process, and as they turned the content of “secular” books into fodder for a sacred service. I also track how two Pub Theologians brought these new ideas into separate workplace projects, illustrating the blurry boundaries in my participants' literate lives between what are usually considered separate domains by the field: community literacy, religious rhetoric, and workplace writing.
I conclude with a brief vignette, inspired by a visitor to Pub Theology whose experience with the group intersected with many of the literate practices described in the dissertation. I also offer suggestions for further research, particularly for the necessity of examining the literate and rhetorical practices of progressive communities in other faiths as well as the necessity of bringing a semiotic remediation lens to bear when researching literate practices in more conservative faith communities.