Evangelical Rhetoric and the Discursive Practices that Students Bring to College Writing

Female authors who share personal narratives in blogs, social media posts, podcasts, and book-length memoirs are gaining in influence among evangelical communities. This presentation focuses on three Appalachian writers: Rachel Held Evans in Dayton, Tennessee; Aimee Byrd in Martinsburg, West Virginia; and Hannah Anderson in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia. These three writers have become prominent among evangelicals, which the Pew Religious Landscape Study finds to be the most common religious identity in southern Appalachia. Furthermore, their work reflects diversity that is often buried within public perception of evangelicals as radical and intolerant. I examine the ways that Evans, Byrd, and Anderson advance dialogue through their life writing, and the influence this discursive practice has on contemporary evangelicalism. In particular, I examine their reflections on the conservative gender roles that evangelicalism has often promoted, and the ways that these writers portray faith and social engagement in their communities.

I then suggest implications for the growing prominence and popularity of spiritual life writing. Evans, Byrd, and Anderson gain wider audiences than do many male pastors, and their influence suggests that personal narrative is supplanting the sermon as the organizing event of evangelical culture. As a result, students from evangelical backgrounds enter college writing courses with a high regard for the rhetorical power of personal narrative. Scholars like Jeffrey Ringer, Emily Cope, and Heather Thomson-Bunn have studied the tension between religious faith and academic norms, focusing on students’ social positions and their uses of the Bible in academic writing. I build on this previous research by turning to students’ uses of personal narrative as a source of knowledge and form of persuasion. Writers use personal narrative to facilitate connections between readers, and shape the future of evangelicalism in and beyond Appalachia.