Apr 21, 2010

Notes on the rhetoric of Jonathan Edwards' 'Sinners in the Hands of Angry God'

1. What have we done to make God mad? The sermon is filled with descriptions of divine rage but it isn't ever clear why. We're at fault, for sure, "provoking his pure Eyes," and we can't stand it, "cannot bear the Fierceness and Wrath of the infinite God," but the reason isn't explained.

God, Edwards says, "abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the Fire; he is of purer Eyes than to bear you in his Sight; you are ten thousand Times so abominable in his Eyes as the most hateful venomous Serpent is in ours."

What's rhetorically brilliant about this is that instead of arguing guilt, or attempting to construct it for us, Edwards instead assumes it, but more than that, assumes we feel it. We condemn ourselves, supplying our own guilt, confessing to filth we feel, crimes of which we have not been accused.

Our guilt is a great, untapped reservoir under the surface: he just drills and our guilt gushes forth.

2. Who is he talking to? The personal pronouns shift as the sermon progresses. Edwards starts with the first person plural, we, which can be a bit presumptuous, but is also very non-threatening, since he's not saying anything about anyone he wouldn't also say of himself. He then switches to the second person singular, speaking directly to the unnamed audience member who is damned, saying repeatedly and pointedly, you. This is forceful, even violent -- "there is Hell's wide gaping Mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon" -- yet also allows for that force, in part, because each individual listener can displace that pronoun, so it applies to someone else. It's possible, at this point, to urge Edwards on in his diatribe, since he's not speaking to you-you, he doesn't know you and couldn't mean you, even as there's an uneasiness that this isn't true.

Edwards then takes this ambiguity and uneasiness and ratchets it up, shifting to the third person plural, they. But who are they? Even as one might look around to see who is being spoken of, even as one might feel relief at the shift away from you, Edwards defines they as those who don't think they are they, as those who are, at that exact moment, looking around: "it may be they are now at Ease, and hear all these Things without much Disturbance, and are now flattering themselves that they are not the Persons, promising themselves that they shall escape."

The rhetoric works so that they only way an individual is not the one being spoken of -- and how horrible is it to hear yourself spoken of like this, like you're not even there? -- is if he or she confesses to being that person.

The shifting pronouns involve this ever-heightening, horrible uneasiness a little logic trap, which can only be resolved by coming forward and confessing.

3. The metaphors, ostensibly all about God's wrath and the precarious human state, often involve tension, and increasing tension. "The Bow of God's Wrath is bent, and the Arrow made ready on the String, and Justice bends the Arrow at your Heart, and strains the Bow ..."

There's almost a high pitched thrumming sound to the sermon, as if Edwards is plucking at the too-tighten strings that can't take any more strain and the tension tightens, tightens and tightens -- until the listeners cry out to make it stop.