CAMDEN —Across many different cultures and faiths, the way prayer is delivered can be as important as its message.
William FitzGerald, an assistant professor of English at Rutgers–Camden, casts prayer as a rhetorical art to find its common threads across all faiths in his new book Spiritual Modalities: Prayer as Rhetoric and Performance (Penn State University Press, 2012).
Rhetoric is the art of conveying a point in a convincing, eloquent, and effective way. According to the Rutgers–Camden scholar, these are the same actions that drive prayer.
“When we pray, we are speaking in a kind of self-conscious mode of presentation,” FitzGerald says. “We think about how we come across. We think about delivering the prayer the correct way. We’re mindful of our attitude.”
FitzGerald specializes in rhetorical studies with particular interests in stylistics, speech acts, and the rhetoric of religion. He says prayer is not only about talking to oneself, addressing a divine being or connecting to other human beings.
“It’s all of those things at once. It has multiple audiences, even when intended for one addressee. Prayer is always speaking at multiple levels and across different modes,” the Rutgers–Camden scholar explains.
He says that it is important to note that prayer is as much about physical communication as it is verbal communication. Kneeling down, folding one’s hands, and even sitting up straight are conscious decisions people make when they pray to ensure the prayer is delivered properly.
“It’s mind and body. It’s word and thought. Prayer is performance,” FitzGerald says.
In Spiritual Modalities, FitzGerald also seeks to understand what people have come to expect from prayer. Most importantly, he defines it as an awareness of possibility, not necessity.
“Prayer is very strategic in what it asks for because it’s designed to confirm that recourse is possible,” FitzGerald says. “Prayer doesn’t set itself up to be proven wrong. People are realistic in what they’re looking for and what they’re asking for when they pray. They never ask what good will come of it. That’s because prayer provides hope.”
In his book, FitzGerald draws upon contributions to rhetorical theory from Kenneth Burke along with a broad range of classical and contemporary perspectives on audience, address, speech acts, and modes of performance across all religious traditions and historical eras.
He says prayer is a phenomenon of both cognitive and social memory. It is cognitive because prayer is learned through performance, including memorization, and it is social because it is handed down through textual and oral transmission as a shared resource of a spiritual community.
“Prayer comes in many different forms, but I’m not attempting to catalog it,” FitzGerald says. “The book is a study of the rhetorical fundamentals of prayer: who the speaker is and what kinds of things are being said. It’s about connecting oneself to a cultural tradition. It’s a learned art that relies on tradition and performance.”
FitzGerald teaches courses on modern rhetorical theory at Rutgers–Camden, in addition to courses on the history of rhetoric, figurative language, and media studies.
He received his bachelor’s degree from Haverford College and his master’s degree and doctorate from the University of Maryland.
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Media Contact: Ed Moorhouse