“A Theory of Vernacular Rhetoric: The Case of the ‘Sinner’s Prayer’ Online,” by Robert Glenn Howard

Howard, Robert Glenn. "A Theory of Vernacular Rhetoric: The Case of the 'Sinner's Prayer' Online." Folklore 116.2 (2005): 175-91.

Reviewed by Candace Epps-Robertson, Virginia Commonwealth University

The World Wide Web has become a second home for most people. It is easy to see how the Internet has changed the way we do almost everything: shop, communicate, share information, even how we connect spiritually. While the Internet is often thought of as a simple connection of pages, texts, pictures, and media, Robert Glenn Howard's "A Theory of Vernacular Rhetoric: The Case of the 'Sinner's Prayer' Online" proves that there are certain texts online of a much more performative nature.

As Howard explains, the Sinner's Prayer has roots in Christian Protestantism and can be found as early as the eighteenth century in revival movements. The prayer can take on different forms, but it normally most always has an admission of sin and a petition to request that the Divine (Jesus) enter into the person's life. For Howard, the prayer should not be viewed as a "text" because, as he argues, it is conceived as a deeply personal and emotional appeal to God.

Howard then examines the Sinner's Prayer online through a vernacular rhetorical analysis. This allows Howard to examine the epideictic nature of the prayer and how it is used. Howard begins his article by first outlining one of Burke's most fundamental theories: language is action. Howard traces this idea through Clifford Geertz (who was influenced by both Burke and Max Weber), quoting Burke's ideas on language as being a web of symbol systems. Because for Burke we are creatures who live in language, our lives are, as Howard says, mediated by symbol systems. This serves as a theoretical groundwork for what is to follow for Howard: a necessary look at how the prayer works to convert non-Christians while simultaneously calling those who are already Christian to testify of their faith.

Howard continues to quote Geertz, whose very Burkean view of language he clarifies in noting, "for Geertz, there is a performance of communication in every symbol, and every performance is also an action, and behind every action lies an implicit motive.” In many ways this sounds identical to Burke's own description of language in Language as Symbolic Action. Howard comes back to Burke to help further Geertz's claim that webs of significance serve to connect human action to communication; in making reference to these webs, Geertz is, by implication, supporting Burke's resolute claim that all human communication (all such web spinning) is rhetorical because it is motivated.

Howard's establishment of language as action then leads logically into his next claim- that rhetoric, more than just persuasion, is also an architectonic principle of language that links action to symbol systems. As Howard points out, this definition charges rhetoric with being present not only in traditional forms of speeches, debates, and sermons, but also in all language. As Howard asserts, it also occurs in the everyday and informal discourse through which we construct our daily lives.

After making these claims, Howard then establishes a theoretical foundation for vernacular rhetoric by first reviewing and deftly defining how the word vernacular originated in our language and how it made its appearance in the field of rhetoric and communication. Howard does an excellent job clarifying the web of connections he observes before his analysis when he writes,

Since all communication is also action, it is motivated. In the sense that all acts have implicit motives, these motives can be inferred from the rigorous analysis of documents. If the study of rhetoric is the inference and critical assessment of these motives, the study of vernacular rhetoric is the analysis of them as they are expressed in communication practices.
For Howard, this type of analysis can disclose how the Sinner's Prayer does not exist as a static online document.

Howard examines 100 websites containing discourse that referred to the Sinner's Prayer. He found that the websites were usually evangelical but that the prayer also appeared in some non-traditional places on the web. For Howard, looking at where the prayer was on the web could be used to learn the motivations of the person who created the web page, enabling him to reveal the way in which natively learned behaviors lead to a recognizable motive in the online environment. Howard's main claim through this analysis is that it shows how the prayer has been placed on websites by people both to provoke others to become Christian and to serve as a place for those who are already Christians to recommit and understand their faith again. This reveals that the prayer does not have just one intended audience, non-Christians, but that it is also meant for those who are already believers in the faith.

One example Howard uses is that of an Alaskan fur selling website where the prayer appears. Howard asked why, and the website author indicated that it is intended to help convert non-Christians and to ensure that their customers know they are Christian and to help spread the faith. This application helps to show the two roles that the prayer has online, and through Howard's vernacular analysis, both roles are clearly identified.

In so doing, Howard also offers a great illustration of how Burke's theories permeate our modern discourse. Burke's webs are woven in the World Wide Web.

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Review of “A Theory of Vernacular Rhetoric: The Case of the ‘Sinner’s Prayer’ Online,” by Robert Glenn Howard by Candace Epps Robertson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.