The National Communication Association held its annual convention at two downtown Chicago hotels in November. Hundreds of sessions, thousands of papers, and I only have room to write about these four:

• I sorely need to spend some sustained time reading the works of the late Jesuit scholar Walter Ong, which is why I appreciated Jeet Heer's fine tribute to Ong in the July/August issue of Books & Culture. In a session entitled Papers in Honor of Father Walter J. Ong, Corey Anton of Grand Valley State University directed our attention to the fundamental tension in Ong's thinking about the emergence of the individual in human history. Communication is how we come to know ourselves as individuals, but that process is inseparable from how we come to know others. Ironically, Anton says, "we come to experience ourselves in our own interiority only as we learn to speak, and speech is learned with and from others." We are simultaneously on an inward journey, deeper into our self-awareness, and an outward one, using communication to enhance our understanding of the world around us. "It is speech that gives persons the 'distance' to divide and gather elements of the world" as well as "to first become able to enter into themselves," Anton says. The concepts of "I" and "thou" emerge in concert. As Ong wrote, "Because speech is always already dialogic, the interiority of persons grows and develops out of and in response to common contextual situations and others' previous utterances."

As a result, humanity is on a nonstop trip Ong called "the interiorization of consciousness," and yet it requires external means to proceed. Thus, Ong said, literacy and print arose naturally out of oral culture. They were the tools humanity used to continue its "interiorization." "Orality needs to produce and is destined to produce writing," he wrote. "The word must die and be resurrected if it is to come into its own." Anton, who was comparing Ong with Edward Becker, said the two disagreed on one fateful question, a question that would be fruitful for further study of both writers (and, we may add, communication in general): Was literacy inevitable? If so, then we were destined to see the emergence of the individual in civilization, evolving from communal consciousness to self-consciousness—"liberated," Anton says, "into autonomy."

• Calvin College professor Quentin Schultze's admonishment that public speaking textbooks are among the most boring things that are published about a fascinating topic (more on this in a minute) was still on my mind as I filed into a session called Teaching Language, Language … in the Public Speaking Classroom. I was a little concerned when the panelists started talking about getting students—particularly those from foreign countries—to "speak better." When the first presenter noted that littering one's speech with tacked-on interjections—"you know," "isn't it," "couldn't we?"—tends to be more common among female speakers, I shot up my hand. I pointed out that these interjections actually function as important affirmations and invitations of the listener's presence and participation, which female speakers tend to value more than males do. Rather than instructing students that these statements are somehow "bad," and contributing to their power to cast females as less intelligent, I urged that teachers clarify the difference between standards of formality in the classroom and the morally acceptable informal habits of speech everyone uses outside it.

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The next presenter affirmed this difference, saying she tells her ESL students that they must learn to "speak two dialects" of English, "standard speech" and "street speech." But after her stern admonishment that only standard speech is acceptable in classroom and lecture settings, I relished her use of the phrase "terribly important" (using "terribly" to mean "to a great extent" instead of its literal definition, "in a way that induces terror"), and her fond recollection of a colleague who "was so absolutely terrific."

• Enough trivialities; on to the ontological essence of the universe. David Hume's "Of Miracles" posed a challenge to Christian belief that has weathered three centuries, writes Gregory Anderson of London's International Community Church, in his paper "Testimony to Transcendence: George Campbell (1762), Richard Whately (1819), and C.S. Lewis (1947) Against David Hume's 'Of Miracles.'" The three Christian rhetoricians of Anderson's title all contended with Hume, and Anderson credits their rhetoric—more than their philosophical robustness—for their effectiveness. "They, like Hume, owe their success to rhetoric rather than theology or philosophy," Anderson writes.

C.S. Lewis may have made the biggest splash in refuting Hume. When his book Miracles: A Preliminary Study was published, he made—imagine this!—the cover of Time magazine. Lewis demolishes Hume's presumption of the "Uniformity of Nature" by arguing that "probability cannot itself be probable." ("Lewis was a master of turning the tables on his opponents," Anderson notes.) Lewis's provocative claim is this: "We have impounded both uniformity and miracles in a sort of limbo where probability and improbability can never come. This is equally disastrous for the scientist and the theologian."

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"The only way out of this limbo turned out to be an 'innate sense of the fitness of things,'" Anderson says, a sense Lewis insisted does not replace "close inquiry into the historical evidence," but underlies and informs it. Skeptics, as Anderson summarizes Lewis, "were not able to account for the aesthetical pointers to something beyond themselves and a very closed universe." Sometimes, neither are Christians, Anderson adds:

The evidentialist model of apologetics is very popular in conservative Christian circles. The facts are mustered and the faithful are convinced. This is the method of Campbell. Lewis, while not neglecting historical evidence, shifts the accent from testimony to transcendence.

• After all the jargon and windbaggery of the more empirically-minded NCA sessions (in one session, a respondent bemoaned the fact that most NCAers are subpar in using eye contact, even though "these are practitioners of communication!"), it was refreshing to hear Quentin Schultze's extemporaneous and engaging address to a meeting and dinner of the Religious Communication Association at Moody Bible Institute.

Schultze noted how nearly all of the presentations at the convention—the non-RCA ones, at least—presumed a "naturalistic," mechanical model for human communication: a sender of a message, in response to certain stimuli and for certain functional reasons, encodes a message, transmits it, and a receiver decodes it. Period. Few scholars acknowledged the spiritual side of communication that the work of Ong and Lewis explored, and few acknowledged the phenomenon of miscommunication which so pervades our lives in a broken world. Schultze called this "dissonance"—he could have said dysfunction—and noted that the Jewish tradition tends to capture this with more honesty than the Catholic or Protestant ones (we Protestants, in particular, are infatuated with order). Schultze emphasized that religious scholars must not settle for trite secular models, but should make the most of the window they have on the colorful, bewildering, and transcendent aspects of human communication.

Nathan Bierma is editorial assistant at Books & Culture. He writes the weekly "On Language" column for the Chicago Tribune.

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Related Elsewhere:

Books & Culture Corner appears every Tuesday. Earlier editions of Books & Culture Corner and Book of the Week include:

"Summer's Ebullient Finale" | A richly varied anthology offers a "spiritual biography" of autumn. (Nov. 15, 2004)
Autumn Books | Some that stand out in this season's plenty. (Nov. 15, 2004)
Reaching the Light | A review of On Broken Legs: A Shattered Life, a Search for God, a Miracle That Met Me in a Cave in Assisi. (Nov. 09, 2004)
The Prayers of a Self-Governing People | A psalm for Election Day. (Nov. 02, 2004)
In Memoriam: Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) | Remembering a philosopher who never forgot about death. (Oct. 19, 2004)
Whose Independence? | All the Founding Fathers of America celebrated "independence," but what the word meant depended on who was speaking. (Oct. 12, 2004)
Darkness Visible | An unsparing new memoir by the author of Slackjaw. (Oct. 05, 2004)
After Worldview? | A lively conference offers a state-of-the-art assessment of the concept of "worldview," with both advocates and dissenters represented. (Sept. 28, 2004)
A Forgotten Founder's Fatherhood | Race, nature, and patriarchy meet in Rhys Isaac's biography of early American diarist Landon Carter. (Sept. 21, 2004)
The Great American Hustle | The first volume of an ambitious new history of America highlights the engine of "worldly ideals"—and the role of evangelical religion in creating a distinctive American identity. (Sept. 14, 2004)
The Poet Who Remembered | Poland (mostly) honors Czeslaw Milosz upon his death. (Sept. 07, 2004)
Be Careful What You Pray For | The strange tale of the controversial Bishop Pike and his fatal quest for relevance. (Aug. 31, 2004)
Book 'Em! | The concluding installment of our three-part midyear book roundup (Aug. 24, 2004)
(Not Just) Summer Reading | Part 2 of our midyear report on outstanding books. (Aug. 17, 2004)