Providing Feedback on Faith-Based Claims in Persuasive Essays

Chrissine Rios

By Chrissine Rios, Full-Time Writing Tutor, Kaplan University Writing Center

When providing feedback on student writing, nothing challenges me more than addressing Bible-backed support for claims in a persuasive essay.

I want my feedback to be supportive, so I first affirm the student’s and everyone’s right to have religious beliefs. But I want my feedback to be constructive too, so I make it clear that because religious texts are faith-based, they fail to provide the evidence-based logic needed for an argument to be persuasive in the larger scheme of social discourse.

Who are your intended readers? I’ll ask.

If your intended readers share your religious beliefs and revere your holy text as authoritative, you’re only preaching to the choir, not moving those with differing viewpoints to hear you or consider your argument valid.

 What is your purpose? I’ll ask.

If you want your readers to accept your argument as sound and worthy of consideration, you will need to provide facts and examples that allow readers to think critically and make up their own minds (that your position is the most logical one).

Not everyone can do this—emotionally detach from an issue one feels passionate about, but therein lies the art and science of rhetoric and composition.

Composition has its roots in public discourse, specifically the teachings of Greek philosopher, Aristotle (384 BC-322BC). According to Aristotle’s teachings, effective argumentation involves three rhetorical appeals or proofs:

1)     credibility (ethos): establishing oneself as trustworthy and believable through tone and style,

2)     impact (pathos): connecting emotionally with the reader to evoke a response or action, and

3)     reason (logos):  substantiating ideas with inductive and deductive reasoning and evidence from authoritative sources that reinforces and validates that reasoning, hence the problem with quoting scripture to prove a point in an essay for English composition.

What is the context? I’ll ask.

If we want our readers to see beyond their personal biases, we need to write beyond ours. Part of our work as persuasive writers is to model objectivity and frame our issue in a larger social context than the narrow scope of personal experience.

This also means that if we want our students to see beyond their personal biases, we need to teach and tutor beyond ours too and not make judgments about students who have revealed faith-based opinions in their papers.

We can’t expect to change people’s minds altogether with our arguments because all our readers have personal opinions, faith-based and otherwise. As persuasive writers, our work is to anticipate differing viewpoints, artfully counter argue them using rhetorical strategies, and submit to opposing perspectives too as necessary to establish a point of consensus, agreement, a middle ground.

Ultimately, I want to harness my students’ passion for writing, so they craft an argument that communicates their position, that doesn’t proclaim just one way of seeing but moves an important discussion forward with the momentum of many ways of seeing united for a common good.  Providing quality feedback to Faith-based persuasive student writing is a good place to do this.

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7 Responses

  1. I enjoyed your beautiful and well-conceived article, Chrissine. Like you, I have graded papers based on Aristotle’s precepts of logos, ethos, and pathos, yet, we can see that within these three components there is room for use of all three elements, in varying proportions, in one’s writing. Taking also, into consideration, audience– we tailor the logos, ethos, and pathos of our argument to suit our objective/ purpose. So when grading faith based essays that bring in arguments using Jesus Christ, or Allah, I usually will acknowledge the validity of their faith, but not the validity of their faith based reasoning to support a large audience, comprising of individuals all over the religious spectrum. I also ask my students to be mindful of context, referring to the social and political context for their piece of writing, i.e, bringing into play the social, historical, and political landscape in which their piece of writing is being thrust. How much contextual concern they employ will depend on how wide an audience they are seeking.

    Like you, in essays dealing with abortion or gay marriage, I will point the student to ethics based arguments—I will question their use of their religious beliefs to support these types of arguments, and bring in ethical issues, such as personal freedom, the right to free speech, action, and movement, our Constitutional rights and with these students, I will ask them to weigh their notions, and test them in the face of all evidence– as if they were jurors in a court of law. I will ask them to question their own beliefs on humanitarian grounds and in doing so, bring in the tenets of Locke, Hume, Hobbes, and Rousseau to bear down on their logic and reasoning. This is when I may get into their use of language to define, reason, extrapolate, and pass judgment. Where rhetoric meets philosophy, art, linguistics, and every other branch of human endeavor can be endlessly fascinating. I will also take the liberty of posting my comments directly on Facebook, to see how Mike and others respond.

  2. starknotes says:

    Really good thoughts here about teaching quality writing in a non-religious setting. The truth is that even at my husband’s seminary, where I was able to audit a class, we had to think “beyond the Bible” and take an action-based approach to many issues even within ministry. It really is never as simple as “pick up the Bible, find Jesus, and your life will magically get better.” That’s a nice idea, but it’s theologically shallow. I’ll save that for another post on a non-writing pedagogy blog, though 😉

    As a preacher’s wife and a Christian feminist, I find myself oddly situated in these teachable moments with students who revere the Bible as a reference tool. I’m also a huge fan of Ferdinand de Saussure’s concept of the arbitrary nature of the sign, which thankfully has a place among some Bible scholars I know. When a student comes up to me with a point for a paper that has a backing of “for the Bible tells me so,” I have to take a moment and remember that I am a writing instructor, not a progressive clergy spouse with a penchant for post-structuralism. After all, I cannot ask a student to consider her place in the academic community without considering my own place.

    After I remember who I am in this rhetorical situation, I try to see whether a student’s choice of a faith-based topic or subtopic within a work is linked to the more common phenomenon of using personal experience to develop a main point. If I can tie the student’s faith-based argument in with his individual experience around a topic, then I can start the conversation around other students’ experiences and how we can contextualize our individual perspectives (faith included) in a larger academic conversation. I also mention to the student that my husband has had to do the same thing at the seminary, where all students are receiving a Christian education, and yet not all of the students are the same kind of Christian– or, indeed, some of the students might not be Christians at all (a rare but true situation at many seminaries).

    One such student wanted to discuss the power of prayer to heal depression. He had had a wonderful, life-changing experience by praying regularly, and he wanted to prescribe that anyone who suffers from depression might follow the examples he found in the Bible. I began by saying how glad I was that he felt comfortable sharing that experience, that he was in recovery, and that I, too, am a depression survivor who has found prayer helpful. I then asked him whether he thought folks of other faiths might benefit from their forms of prayer, or if indeed meditation might work for people of no particular religious background. He found evidence that shows many kinds of mindfulness practices, including prayer and meditation, can benefit those with mental illness. He expanded his topic and research, then narrowed the focus to discuss clinical depression and meditation/prayer practices among Christians, Buddhists, and non-religious people. I wish I had more success stories like this one, but often I must advise a student to choose another topic, especially if we cannot find a way to expand the discussion and find peer-reviewed scholarly evidence. It’s all about good writing.

  3. wformby says:

    I agree with your ideas Chrissine but within the scope of student writing I am afraid I am a bit more blunt. I explain to my students at the start of every class that they are being trained to be social scientists with an emphasis on the science. In that sense their opinions must informed opinions based upon scientific, scholarly literature. While I don’t specifically exclude the bible unless someone brings it up or tries to use it, I do not allow its use on the basis of its lack of a basis in science. I have had one or two students who have tried to push this issue until they see their grade on their first paper. I then give them an opportunity to rewrite the paper using my rules if they wish. I guess to some this is bullying the students into doing things my way but to my way of thinking they are in college to learn social sciences not theology.
    I know that your approach accomplishes the same thing in a much kinder way but I guess that after 40 years of doing this I have gotten a bit cynical. Sometimes I think students come into Kaplan with the idea that they can do things any way they wish and if they argue enough we will let it go. So I have stopped arguing with them, I tell them up front that this is the correct to do it so get used to it.

    • Diana Gerow says:

      While I would like to be open to theological arguments, I find the process of developing a research paper makes it such that any position that a writer would take would require the support of more than six sources of factual data. Even if the writer were allowed to use biblical quotes, this is still only one source of “research”. Finding five more sources with credible research tends to be the watershed. I find that I do not need to ask students to choose a topic which is not faith-based as a wasted week in the library trying to fulfill that requirement is usually enough to motivate the student to pick a topic that is easier to research.

      As an aside, Templeton has invested vast quantities of money into research which bridges science and spirituality. The question of the efficacy of prayer is one that The Templeton Foundation has invested in researching with a dedicated fervor. Therefore, some research does exist. The trouble is that there is a dearth of evidence-based research in general on faith-based topics. Students really do have to hunt to find those studies.

  4. Jonathan Dorriety says:

    This is a fascinating article especially in that Ms. Rios cites Aristotle’s teachings as fact. There are only about five to seven manuscripts in the world attributed to Aristotle. The oldest manuscript dates 1400 years after it was supposedly written. Yet, there are over 5600 New Testament manuscripts and partial manuscripts in libraries and private collections around the world and the oldest date to only 90 years after it was supposed to be written. So in a sense, we cite Aristotle as fact, but New Testament Biblical writings as “faith-based.” Perhaps facts such as that should be included in “faith-based” papers. It’s just something to think about.

  5. Carrie, Thank you for the awesome feedback. I’m pleased you found my ideas helpful. I think your approach to steer your students toward “action-based” topics is smart. I just read a student essay on prohibiting alcohol abuse in fact, not just alcohol but “excessive alcohol consumption.” The proposed action: read the bible and find Jesus. Some students need examples to help them consider an issue from a different (logical?) perspective, so when it comes to hot topics like abortion and gay marriage, what I do is ask ethics-based questions about the issue–like do you think it is ethical or unethical for the government to force a woman to carry a child to term, and why? Debates on whether or not something is ethical are more powerful than religious arguments because looking at ethics involves looking at the reasoning underlying the laws that apply to ALL citizens in society. But as I began my post, this type of feedback is challenging for me. I’m nonetheless passionate about giving it! 🙂 Thanks, again, so much, for your comment! Chrissine

  6. Carrie Hannigan says:

    Great insights, Chrissine! Although I do not specifically teach persuasive writing right now, your open-minded approach will be helpful with many of my students who want to interject their faith in all their writings. Many of my students are pastors or active in their church and want to use their writing to bring others into their religious communities. These students are disappointed when I restrict them to non-faith-based topics, so that they can’t write about believing in miracles/angels or accepting a religious figure as their personal savior. I base my argument on the requirement of academic sources, which religious texts do not fall into because they have not gone through the editorial process that books and periodicals generally go through. This is still an arguable point for students, but they ultimately have to accept the restriction. I do still try to build on their enthusiasm since their religious communities often reach out to the community to make positive changes. I will suggest topics that are action-based, such as social issues like teen pregnancy or substance abuse; from there, I ask that they use evidence from academic sources to make an impact on the audience, just as you suggested. Thank you for taking the time to write about this topic. Your perspective will be very helpful!

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