Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2017

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

First Advisor

Lisa Flores

Second Advisor

Peter Simonson

Third Advisor

John Ackerman

Fourth Advisor

Ted Striphas

Fifth Advisor

Stewart Hoover

Abstract

In the US, the self-help movement and evangelical Christianity have both served as answers to the anxieties around the instabilities of life under contemporary capitalism. The central question that this dissertation is addressing is how the intersection of these two, as evangelical Christian self-help literature, constitute implicit theories of human agency. This dissertation examines the ways that agency is articulated within evangelical self-help literature and considers what kinds of implications these ways of seeing agency have for rhetorical conceptualizations of agency. Self-help literature is a rich site for studying how agency is discussed and conceptualized in popular texts because one of self-help’s primary purposes to address the agency of the reader by finding the reader’s agency lacking and seeking to position the self-help program as addressing this lack. The worldviews that evangelical Christian self-help literature assume situate human agency inextricably in relation to a divine agent, God, and this relationship deeply complicates the vision of agency articulated by the various self-help texts.

To examine these questions about evangelical self-help and agency, I explored the writings of three different contemporary evangelical Christian authors using the analytic procedures of rhetorical criticism. The three authors, Dave Ramsey, Joel Osteen, and Shane Claiborne, provide three distinct evangelical Christian accounts of agency and distinct accounts of the ways that human agency is complicated by relationships, both between people and between people and God. Drawing on the literatures in rhetoric and communication studies on agency and self-help, I advance using the concept of agentic orientation as a means to analyze how these texts constitute cohesive frameworks that narrate different conceptualizations of agency. Each of these self-help authors articulate specific agentic orientations that are organized around a relational metaphor: a temperate capitalist agentic orientation organized around servitude, a submissive agentic orientation organized around privilege, and a radical agentic orientation organized around intimacy. I argue that these agentic orientations offer an opportunity to reflect on the narratives that people have of their own agency and some of the ways that these narratives defy common assumptions about agency.

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