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Spiritual Modalities

Prayer as Rhetoric and Performance

William FitzGerald


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Spiritual Modalities

Prayer as Rhetoric and Performance

William FitzGerald

Spiritual Modalities shows what rhetoric has to offer the conversations about prayer—its emphasis on situatedness, with its insistence (and Burke's insistence especially) on seeing language as inseparable from bodies, attitudes, values, contexts, and culture. William FitzGerald captures that additive quality and stands to lure scholars from other fields into rhetoric.”


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A bold recasting of prayer as a rhetorical art, Spiritual Modalities investigates situations, strategies, and performative modes of discourse directed to divine audiences. Examining how prayer “works,” Spiritual Modalities reads prayer’s situations and strategies, its characteristic acts and attitudes, to advance an understanding of prayer as a basic expression of our rhetorical capacities for communication and communion. This groundbreaking analysis demonstrates how prayer draws on fundamental capacities to engage other beings rhetorically to argue that we are never more human than when we address the nonhuman.

Spiritual Modalities is notable in its aim to articulate a critical rhetoric of prayer in a secular idiom. It draws on 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. The book also takes a multicultural and multimodal approach to prayer as rhetorical performance. The texts and practices of prayer represented range across religious traditions and historical eras and include both verbal and physical modes of divine address. The book will be of interest to scholars researching religious language, Burkean approaches to discourse, practices of memory, and media studies.

Spiritual Modalities shows what rhetoric has to offer the conversations about prayer—its emphasis on situatedness, with its insistence (and Burke's insistence especially) on seeing language as inseparable from bodies, attitudes, values, contexts, and culture. William FitzGerald captures that additive quality and stands to lure scholars from other fields into rhetoric.”
“This is a profoundly useful book. Spiritual Modalities not only explores in depth the rhetorical power of prayer; it also provides abundant critical and theoretical resources for the further study of this ancient yet still contemporary speech-act genre. Creatively employing Kenneth Burke’s dramatism as an interpretive lens, this systematic, postsecular analysis skillfully reveals prayer as a cognitive scene of address, a material act of invocation, and a social attitude of reverence. Spiritual Modalities is a significant contribution to the ongoing religious turn in rhetorical studies and the human sciences more generally.”
“William FitzGerald’s Spiritual Modalities: Prayer as Rhetoric and Performance is a clarion call: a call for scholars of communication to re-engage research on prayer.  In an age made more anxious by its own technologies, Spiritual Modalities asks why humans across cultures and times have enacted this enigmatic but fundamentally human behavior.  What motivates us to address the sacred, and what do we expect from it? Relentlessly intellectual, Spiritual Modalities is one of the most important, sustained, and theoretically sophisticated engagements of religious rhetoric since Kenneth Burke’s Rhetoric of Religion.”

William FitzGerald is Assistant Professor of English at Rutgers University.



List of Abbreviations

Introduction: Prayer: The Rediscovered Country

1 Prayer and Its Situations: Meditation on Kairos and Krisis

2 “Hear Us, O Lord”: Audience and Address in Communicating with the Divine

3 Invocations of Spirit: Prayer as Speech Act

4 The Dance of Attitude: Prayer as the Performance of Reverence

5 Performing the Memorare: Prayer as a Rhetorical Art of Memory

6 Bodies and Spirits in Virtual Motion: Prayer and Delivery in Cyberspace

Conclusion: Does Rhetoric Have a Prayer?


Works Cited




The Rediscovered Country

However badly needed a good book on prayer is, I shall never try to write it. . . . In a book one would inevitably seem to be attempting, not discussion, but instruction.

—C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer

The phenomenal rise in demand for books and merchandise devoted to religion or spirituality over the past twenty years has not been confined to specialty stores or niche markets. Spirituality is big business. Indeed, books on “soul care” regularly top best-seller lists, and websites devoted to religion proliferate as our digital roots deepen. Noteworthy in this development was the 2000 publication of Bruce Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez—its subject a text obscurely lodged in the Bible’s first book of Chronicles: “Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, ‘I gave birth to him in pain.’ Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, ‘Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.’ And God granted his request” (4:9–10, NIV). Wilkinson claims this prayer holds “the key to a life of extraordinary favor from God” (8). Many were curious whether this claim had merit. Indeed, evangelization on behalf of the prayer resulted in sales of more than ten million copies. Its success spawned spin-offs in deluxe and teen editions, study guides, and paraphernalia (key chains, wall plaques, coffee mugs, and so on). The prayer’s “message” about God enlarging one’s territory resonated with many at a time when a gospel of prosperity had gained currency in Evangelical circles.

Wilkinson sees in this neglected prayer a tool for unlocking material blessings: “I challenge you to make the Jabez prayer for blessing part of the daily fabric of your life. To do that, I encourage you to follow unwaveringly the plan outlined here for the next thirty days. By the end of that time, you’ll be noticing significant changes in your life, and the prayer will be on its way to becoming a treasured, lifelong habit” (86). Although fueled by a potent blend of method and hucksterism, Wilkinson’s exhortations are squarely in a familiar framework, where prayer functions as a strategy for meeting spiritual and material needs. The underlying message of both the biblical text and Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez is simple: God grants requests appropriately performed. Both reflect a widespread belief in the rhetorical power of prayer—that divine beings can be appealed to with profit.

The Prayer of Jabez appeared soon after I began the project that would become Spiritual Modalities. At the time, a project on prayer and rhetoric seemed on the fringes of respectability in scholarly circles. The Prayer of Jabez provided evidence both for and against this established judgment. I recall being struck by its naive reductionism: recite this prayer, this way, to these effects. Yet here was a text sparking keen interest in prayer, even though many readers questioned its facile pronouncements in favor of more nuanced perspectives on prayer’s presumed efficacy.

About a year later, the events of September 11 would usher in more sober perspectives on prayer’s power and limitations, uses and abuses. With the dawn of a new millennium came the realization that religion would not readily yield to secularism. If anything, religion seems more relevant in an anxious age of clashing cultures and profound uncertainty. And prayer, as a signature expression of religion, seems less an artifact of a particular culture or era, something to be outgrown or overcome, perhaps, than a practice fundamental to our condition as beings blessed, or cursed, with language.

This is the insight that informs this book. Prayer is a discursive art in which capacities central to our human experience with language come together with respect to supersensory, superordinate, supernatural reality, typically imagined in the form of culturally significant otherworldly audiences—divine beings with whom human beings enjoy rich, complex relationships. However grand or modest the claims made about it, prayer is notoriously difficult to delimit. Efforts to do so tend to wall off prayer to the neglect of its porous relations with other discourse.

Spiritual Modalities explores these relations using rhetoric as an interpretive lens. In doing so, it responds to a growing call to articulate the intersection of rhetoric and religion. As early as 1961, in The Rhetoric of Religion, Kenneth Burke asserted that “the study of religion falls under the heading of rhetoric in the sense that rhetoric is the art of persuasion, and religious cosmogonies are designed, in the last analysis, as exceptionally thoroughgoing modes of persuasion” (v, emphasis in original). In 2000, Walter Jost and Wendy Olmsted motivated a groundbreaking anthology, Rhetorical Invention and Religious Inquiry, by asking, “Are rhetoric and religion in some sense ‘essentially’ wedded?” They responded that “when firmly placed within religious, social, and intellectual history or located within the study of theology, the convergence of rhetoric and religion takes one to the most central issues of several fields—philosophy, psychology, literary history, and art—interpreting relations between self, language, and world that are central to past and present cultures as well as to their forms of life” (2). And, at the 2005 biennial meeting of the International Society for the History of Rhetoric (ISHR), President Laurent Pernot called for a substantial reengagement with religion in rhetorical studies, identifying prayer and hymn as modes of discourse demanding particular attention. By this time, a turn to religion was evident in rhetorical scholarship addressing theology, preaching, and the place of religious discourse in the public sphere.

But, even though inquiry at the intersection of rhetoric and religion continues to advance, prayer has yet to be substantively engaged. Indeed, so thoroughly rhetorical is prayer it hardly seems in need of interrogation as such. Specific prayers or genres of prayer may invite interpretation as texts, yes, but prayer as a mode of discourse? In addition, prayer resists theorization not ultimately directed toward practice. Finally, problems of scope and method arise in moving beyond the analysis of specific texts to more general claims about prayer as rhetorical action. Prayer is decidedly not a monolith. Whose prayer, then, to study? What genres and what performative modes?

As the first systematic study of prayer in relation to rhetoric, Spiritual Modalities addresses a deficit to advance a deeper understanding of both. It examines prayer as a “rediscovered country”—a locale at once strange and familiar. The best guidebooks succeed in both familiarizing and defamiliarizing their subjects. With this in mind, Spiritual Modalities presents prayer in language distinct from a religious idiom, yet sympathetic to prayer’s abiding religious concerns and to claims made on its behalf. That language is rhetoric.

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James characterizes prayer as “the very soul and essence of religion” (464). The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas maintains that prayer is tasked with nothing less than “repairing the ruins of creation” (“Prayer Without Demand” 233). Finally, Kenneth Burke proposes that “the man who does not pray cannot build his character” (ATH 322). Such earnest pronouncements invite speculation about prayer’s situations and strategies, modes and motivations. If, in the elegant formulation of Saint John Damascene, prayer is “a raising of the heart and mind to God,” how might this insight be understood in discourse less theologically motivated? I read the present moment as opportune to rediscover the power, richness, and sophistication of prayer as discourse. Rhetoric—the “architectonic art”—can and must flex its theoretical muscles to respond to prayer more robustly than it has (McKeon 201). Yet how best to proceed in an effort of rediscovery?

Rediscovering Prayer as Spiritual Modalities

Prayer can be located in many places—etymologically in petition and praise, psychologically in the individual soul, sociologically in the practice of a society, anthropologically in the expression of a culture, and even economically in the accounting and exchanges of commerce. Finally, prayer can be located essentially in some purity of act or state of mind in relation to divine beings. All such efforts divide prayer from other discourse and distinguish this kind of prayer from that. In contrast, a rhetorical approach to prayer encompasses all these locations or orientations, taking as its chief orientation what human actors do in performing prayer and the interpretive frames that inform that performance.

Spiritual Modalities is not a work of cultural or intellectual history. It advances no claims about prayer’s development in theoretical or practical terms. Nor does it establish a narrative about the place of prayer within rhetorical studies or about rhetoric’s role in prayer as a formal compositional art. Rather, as a sympathetic application of methods to materials, it articulates rhetorical principles operating in prayer, particularly insofar as prayer exemplifies these principles.

To bring prayer and rhetoric into relation, there are few better places to begin than with a burnt offering before a deity—“communication” at its most elemental. In the book of Genesis, brothers Cain and Abel perform such sacrifices (4:1–16). For reasons unexplained, Abel’s animal sacrifice pleases the Lord, whereas Cain’s plant sacrifice does not. Soon after, Cain slays Abel in the fields from which Cain has gathered his offering. Whether the attitude that leads to this first fratricide is cause or consequence of Cain’s sacrifice being rejected is left unclear. But the implication is clear: words and deeds communicate an essential attitude of their performers. Something is amiss with Cain’s attitude and therefore with his act of sacrifice—it constitutes “bad rhetoric.” In juxtaposing these instances of successful and failed rhetoric, this Bible story implicitly recognizes prayer through sacrifice as a performance of attitude through acts of communication. The proper attitude for prayer can be characterized as “piety.” This account argues for reverence as a fitting term to describe prayer’s pious orientation toward someone or something as manifested in socially constitutive communicative acts.

Prayer is par excellence a performance of attitude—at once interior and exterior, a matter of soul and of body. The production and circulation of discourse is likewise central to prayer. Prayer occurs in social networks linking performers communally across time and space. Though localized in individual bodies, prayer is not only personal but also social. Individual prayer is authorized and sponsored by communities of practice. Its abstract, meta-rhetorical character permits its easy migration into new sites of performance.

In simplest terms, prayer can be described as “talking to God (or some other divine being).” To go beyond these terms, it is necessary to describe the forms such “talk” may take and the motivations that inspire this activity. Enter rhetoric.

A practical rhetoric of prayer would appropriately emphasize prayer’s genres and their enabling assumptions to encourage certain kinds of performance and discourage others. Indeed, there is no shortage of such practical rhetorics in the form of devotional handbooks and model texts. As a critical and also secular rhetoric, however, Spiritual Modalities articulates principles governing prayer in terms that may be alien to the practice and understanding of the discourse communities it examines. The risk in such efforts, of course, is getting important things wrong. The reward is seeing things not fully visible from inside and thus making connections across domains of practice regarded as distinct.

The relationship between prayer and rhetoric can be understood in two basic ways. On the one hand, prayer is a part of rhetoric, a particular use of language for thoroughly persuasive ends; it extends practices of communication among human beings to communication between human and divine beings. In this regard, praise or petition directed toward divine audiences is generated from rhetoric similar to that directed toward human audiences. On the other hand, regarded as especially sincere and soul-searching language, prayer serves as a counter to rhetoric, perceived as insincere or self-serving speech. In this sense, prayer is a vital, arguably necessary, proving ground for a more perfect rhetoric. Indeed, one can go so far as to claim no other discourse realizes ideal communication more than authentic acts of prayer.

Even though it can be seen as a resource for elevating discourse, efforts to distance prayer from rhetoric, or to oppose them altogether, are counterproductive. Conceived as sacred discourse, set apart from the ordinary by association with the transcendent, prayer has acquired a counter-rhetorical cast, much as scientific discourse is viewed in certain quarters as rhetoric’s other. It is not that prayer goes unrecognized as persuasive language. It is that prayer aspires to ascend the ladder of language to discover a purer language, a rhetoric beyond rhetoric, even transcending language altogether to achieve a state of perfect, wordless communion between human and divine beings. This impulse toward rhetorical purity challenges the inherently mixed motives that mark, or mar, discourse.

By contrast, a less pure perspective sees in rhetoric a foundation for all symbolic arts. I submit that this perspective, which fails to respect boundaries some would establish for prayer or rhetoric, offers the greatest potential for understanding prayer’s discursive nature. It sees prayer not as exceptional discourse set apart from or even opposed to ordinary language, but as rhetoric distilled and abstracted to allow for its application in extraordinary contexts. It designates core functions of discourse that make communication possible, and it acknowledges the impulse toward purity and perfection in prayer. Indeed, “prayer” is a name assigned to practices of a better rhetoric.

This perspective negotiates between prayer as ultimate source and ultimate destination of ordinary rhetoric. It places prayer at the center of things people do with language, rather than on the periphery. For prayer is concerned precisely with our capacities to engage other beings in communion and communication, seeking their cooperation through instruments of language. As address to divine beings, prayer abstracts and amplifies aspects of discourse constitutive of all communication. Spiritual Modalities recognizes prayer as a cognitive, social, and material practice by which human beings locate themselves (by a defining and refining of motive) in relation to the divine. As discourse addressed to divine beings, prayer is designed to work out our human character and condition as beings at once “languaged” and embodied. Often highly specific in its ends, prayer is concerned with the well-being of persons and communities in relation to the divine, perceived as significantly invested in that well-being.

For a rhetoric of prayer, Kenneth Burke’s theory of dramatism, introduced in A Grammar of Motives, offers a particularly robust framework. Indeed, Burke’s pentad of motives (act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose)—later to include a sixth motive, attitude—seems specially designed to articulate prayer’s rhetorical character. Centered in action, these motives provide headings for reading cultural artifacts (texts, philosophies, political systems) by which phenomenal complexities are reduced to more manageable terms. Used regularly, a motive becomes an ism, an ideological foregrounding of one motive above others. As Burke observes in Permanence and Change, “motives are shorthand terms for situations” (29). At any moment, a single motive such as “scene” or “agent” may serve as key term (or interpretive lens) in a theory of motivation.

Applied to prayer, Burke’s motivational grammar reveals discourse addressed to divine beings to be positively brimming with motives. Inherently dramatic, prayer can be read as staged performance in multiple settings, involving complex dynamics of audience and purpose and relying on a wide range of verbal and material instruments to structure its communicative events. Burkean dramatism offers six pure motives and as many as sixty mixed motives in the form of dramatistic relations (“ratios,” e.g., act-scene, scene-act, agent-purpose) to serve as interpretive frames for reading and performing specific prayers and prayer in general. Each avenue of approach selects certain aspects of the whole to emphasize. These approaches structure how prayer is understood and performed.

Spiritual Modalities reads prayer through the three primary motives of scene, act, and attitude. These motives bring out dimensions particular to prayer, yet also fundamental to discourse in the broadest sense. Here I propose that prayer fuses distinct, though interrelated, elements of discursive performance expressible as a “scene of address,” an “act of invocation,” and an “attitude of reverence.” Although one can characterize prayer as “address,” “invocation,” and “reverence” without relying on Burkean terms, Burke’s dramatism offers a systematic, nontheological framework for what those who pray do with language.

Most theological accounts of prayer are principally invested in the motives of agent and purpose. Their focus is on the nature of prayer’s human and divine agents as the authorizing ground of discourse. Prayer’s purpose, consequently, is to realize divine-human relations through discourse. Spiritual Modalities neither supports nor challenges particular theologies in posing complementary questions about prayer as rhetorical performance. How is communication possible between human and divine beings? Where does this communication fit within a broader social order such that it matters profoundly if divine beings are not addressed? How to account for the range of practices, in various media, that can be identified as falling under a heading of “prayer”?

Burke’s diverse contributions to rhetoric are only several strands among many that I bring to bear on prayer. These include the deliberate interplay between multiple rhetorical vocabularies, classical and modern, in their application to prayer, which, I would argue, is vital for advancing the larger project of Spiritual Modalities: to naturalize prayer within the purview of rhetoric. I do so by demonstrating in prayer a welcome receptivity to rhetorical inquiry. A governing principle in my project is to avoid reductive approaches to prayer, even at the risk of leaving the central term in prayer itself open, at some level, to productive misunderstanding.

The range of my representative texts and practices is consequently broad; I have selected these idiosyncratically, not primarily as objects of study in themselves but as illustrations of theoretical principles with which my account is concerned. I do not read texts presented here within particular traditions. Although these texts represent prayer beyond the traditions of monotheism, they could arguably range more widely still, across non-Western religions. Even so, the examples considered amply demonstrate prayer’s phenomenal diversity.

Plan of the Book

Spiritual Modalities traces the cognitive, social, and material dimensions of prayer as a rhetorical art. Chapter 1 develops a rhetorical lexicon centered about twinned notions of need and opportunity to read prayer as a situational art. It pays particular attention to contemporary notions of exigence and to classical concepts of kairos and krisis as conceptual tools for locating discourse in a performative context. After surveying rhetorical approaches to situation by Lloyd Bitzer, Kenneth Burke, and Scott Consigny as fitting models for understanding prayer, it examines common typologies of prayer and explores notions of prayer as performative space. In particular, it argues for prayer as a space of “rehearsal for living,” a space in which rhetors practice ethical subjectivity in relation to divine audiences. The chapter concludes with an extended reading of Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer” as an exemplary instance of prayer as discourse both situated and situating.

The first of three chapters centered in methods of dramatism drawn from Burke’s Grammar of Motives, chapter 2 emphasizes the significance of prayer as a scene of address. It critiques Larry Dossey’s Healing Words as a contemporary antirhetoric of “prayer” (imagined as indirect, agentless action at a distance) to advance a detailed treatment of prayer as a complex auditory scene involving a range of audiences positioned as hearers and overhearers in relation to prayer’s human speakers. Informed by Bakhtinian notions of addressivity in addition to Burkean notions of address, the chapter concludes by recognizing divine beings as perfect audiences for an experience of “being heard” in prayer. This experience serves meta-rhetorically as the principle underlying our human rhetorical potential.

Chapter 3 shifts focus from the scene-act relation in chapter 2 to the act-scene relation to examine prayer as the concrete performance of address. It argues that invocation, or the calling upon some unseen presence or power, is prayer’s definitive speech act (just as address is its definitive scene) because, through invocation, human and divine beings are summoned into mutual presence. Beyond their capacity as summons, invocations strategically name and thereby channel divine agency. Reading Jonathan Culler on the “embarrassment” of apostrophe, the chapter explores distinctions between poetic and rhetorical acts of address, arguing for invocation as a rhetorical encounter with “the real.” Finally, it turns to the ethics of invocation, by examining philosophers Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, and Jean-Luc Marion on rhetorical approaches to invocation as a pragmatic and political act. It concludes by considering the capacity of invocation to call upon the vocation of its speakers to bring new situations into being.

Chapter 4 completes a conceptual arc established by the previous two chapters with the addition of attitude as a motivational term marking the manner of rhetorical performance. Through examination of attitude’s psychosomatic character, the chapter argues for prayer as embodied performance. Specifically, prayer performs reverence, or the gracious acceptance of hierarchical relations. The chapter further illustrates the performative dynamics of reverence in the rhetoric of praise and closes with a close reading of a Kwakiutl ritual addressing the sockeye salmon, upon whose beneficence the Kwakiutl depend for their survival. This complex rhetorical situation extends notions of reverence beyond praise to the gods to consider rhetoric as an ethic of responsive and responsible discourse.

Chapter 5 situates the performative practices examined in preceding chapters in social and material settings of time and place. It identifies prayer as a rhetorical art of memory, the fourth of classical rhetoric’s traditional canons. It argues that prayer is a socialized craft of both communication and commemoration. It closely reads a single prayer to Mary in Catholic tradition, the Memorare, for its illustrative range of memorial practices. Extending Paul Prior and Jody Shipka’s notion of “chronotopic lamination” to prayer, the chapter concludes by marking prayer’s memorial (and methodical) operations at multiple levels.

Finally, chapter 6 extends prayer beyond individual bodies through attention to classical rhetoric’s canon of delivery. Exploring a dialectic between prayer as said and prayer as sent, the chapter considers the performative interface between prayer’s speakers and audiences, especially in its migrating from embodied practices of oral performance to performances of virtual presence in textual and digital environments. It argues that prayer is a complex encounter with the real through the virtual, the spiritual through the material. This encounter long precedes digital modes of communication, but prayer finds its performative logic (as a rhetoric of delivery) intriguingly epitomized in just such communication. The chapter examines two representative websites that facilitate online prayer in order to articulate a model of prayer, and in particular intercessory prayer as discourse in virtual motion connecting both human and divine agents in active models of community.

Spiritual Modalities’ readings of select, but profound, dimensions of prayerful discourse together demonstrate that, by design, prayer assembles into performative wholes our human encounters with our potential as discursive beings. Never are we more ourselves as linguistically enabled, embodied beings than when we perform appeals to our counterparts in divine beings as manifestations of the real. The enabling assumption of my account is that prayer serves, above all, as a practical meta-rhetoric whose ultimate purpose is to sound out the limits and possibilities inherent in social cooperation imagined at its most thoroughgoing. This is prayer’s implicit promise.

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