Moss, A Community Text Arises

Moss,  Beverly J. A Community Text Arises: A Literate Text and  Literacy Tradition in African-American Churches. Cresskill: Hampton, 2003. *part of the Language and Social Processes series, ed. Judith Green & Ginger Weade & Carol Dixon.

Quick sum: In exploring connections between religious and academic community literacy, Moss began to see that literacy study of Af-Am church affiliation is valuable because of the role of literacy in the US as a marker for success as well as illuminating questions such as

  • how language is used and,
  • what counts as literacy?

Previous treatment of Af-Am literacy has claimed that literacy acquisition is non-existant at home, within a ‘literacy vacuum,’ which accounts for supposed Af-Am literacy deficiency. Moss demonstrates that this is clearly not the case. The robust and complex literate repertoire that Af-Americans deploy within church communities (and by extension, at home) can be valuable if scholars “broaden the domains in which literacy is studied” (3). One realization that comes from scholarship which has looked outside academic literacy more broadly is that “what constitutes ‘community literacy’ for each of these communities (and communities like them) does not necessarily match what is known as school literacy” (3). Thus, scholars have operated under the assumption that  literacy skills and literacy texts are ubiquitous from community to community. But attending to literacies “extra-curricular” to use Burton’s term, would allows us to define literacy in context.

What Moss contributes is a site, Af-Am churches, which are a prime loci of “political, social, intellecutal…and inventive…movements within Af-Am communities…making it one of the longest standing, powerful institutions in this country” (5). Her analysis is guided by the following four questions:

  1. What constitutes a text, particularly a literate text, in this setting?
  2. How are what has been traditionally viewed as the components of the rhetorical situation–rhetor, audience, message–affected by an alternative view of text that I argue for in this book?
  3. How does this ‘new’ concept of literacy and text function in Af-Am churches?
  4. How does this alternative conceptualization of literacy and text impact on traditional notions of literacy and texts? (5-6).

Foundational to her analysis is the sense of literacy as a ‘social process,’ which has three key components:

  1. the presence of multiple participants in the literacy event
  2. the presence of intertextual relationships
  3. the influence of cultural norms and ideology that shape the way participants, intertextuality, and discourse interact (7)

Though intertextuality and joint construction of literacy texts inevitably raises questions of intellectual property and text ownership in academic circles. Who owns the text that ministers may compose and congregations help to shape and interpret?

Literacy as cultural artifact means we can study it as both process and product.

She concludes in her last chapter with the following pedagogical imperative, which in her case actually makes sense in terms of connecting her site of study and her conclusions about the nature of literacies:

“By asking students and teachers to bring in and analyze samples of formal discourse…from their home communities, several things are accomplished:

  1. Teachers and students will become researchers looking at discourse outside the classroom.
  2. The choices that the students and teachers make about what counts as formal discourse will provide some insight into the type of discourse that each values.
  3. Teachers will broaden sites for learning beyond the walls of the classroom.
  4. If enough participants bring in different types of discourse as samples, students and teachers will begin to get a sense of their home discourse as not the but one model, and teachers may similarly see academic models in the same way.” (159)

Finally, she sums up the contribution this book makes by discussing what its findings reveal about literacy:

This book demonstrates that literacy is a complex social process that points to reading, writing, and speaking as interrelated acts with indistinct boundaries. This study points to composers of texts and consumers of text not as having separate roles but as having interdependent, sometimes interchangeable roles. It is these independent, interchangeable roles, these indistinct boundaries, and the cultural norms that govern them that are at the root of literacy as a social process in African-American churches. (160)

Key terms: community literacy, literate practices, literacy event (Heath) hypothesis-orientated ethnography (Hymes), deductive, inductive, code switching composer, intellectual property, iterable, rhetorical appeals, the researcher

Key peeps: Derrida, Reverend M, Dr. N, Reverend P, Aristotle, Farr, Weinstein-Shr, Taylor and Dorsey-Gaines, heath, Scribner and Cole, Scollon and Scollon, Hymes, Lincoln & Mamiya,


…as I examined the sermon and the roles of the ministers and congregations in producing the sermon, it became increasingly difficult if not impossible for me to conceive of the sermon as anything other than a community texts where multiple participants must be present to ‘write’ in order for the text to exist. That is, the African-American sermon is a text that not only emerges form a unique community institution, but it also functions uniquely in that institution. Its role very much depends on the relationship between the participants in the worship service to create and shape the text. In short, African-American sermons, a major literate text in this community institution, are sites of interaction between writer or speaker and audience, sites where, occasionally, audience becomes speaker and speaker becomes audience. (138)

In thinking about the ministers’ rhetorical strategies for building community, what emerged form the data was pathos, ethos, and logos not as three separate appeals but as interdependent, bounded appeals where reason, common sense, faith, emotion, cultural knowledge and persona are all bound so tightly together that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to pull any one element out to stand on its own. (151)

This text, the African-American sermon, calls the single-authored, single-voiced, expository academic written text into question at the same time that it illustrates its alternative. (152)

The greatest problem faced by many students whose primary model of a literate text does not match that of the primary model in academic literacy is finding the tools to help them recognize the sites of negotiation, be they sites of conflict or common good. And the next problem they face is having the proper strategies to turn these sites into resources that can make them multiliterate. These tools and strategies must be taught in the classroom if literacy and language learning are to take place. (157)

Diss Fit: It’s nice to see a scholar worry over the role they play as the researcher and the validity of ethnography that doesn’t evolve from years in the field site. My own work will raise some critical questions about the nature of doing ethnography, and may push me to think of my work less in ethnographic terms and more in qualitative terms. So when Moss claimed to have anxiety about juggling community and academic audience, voice within her own text, and even her methodological approaches to the study, it was refreshing. Although researcher disclosure does not have to always come in the form of a ‘confession’ about impostor scholarship, it demonstrated her willingness to engage in self-reflexivity, a crucial component of such work. Her work then is valuable because it invites me to raise the following question about my own work as it continues to develop through these exams:

  • How will I negotiate the tension between community and academic audience, who will likely value not only different components of my analysis, but also its approaches?
  • How does Moss deploy textual analysis and qualitative research methods, and what factors influence her choice to use either/both?
  • Who is the text that I compose responsible to foremost?  Why?
  • How can I move beyond static notions of rhetorical situation and instead begin to think/analyze in terms of the rhetorical ecology present within my field site and the scholarship that shapes it?

Detailed Outline:

Ch 1: It is important to think of sermons as having both literacy practices and rhetorical aims. Sermons tend to have both pragmatic and more spiritual or global. They use various rhetorical appeals and have various rhetorical aims; but each can be understood within the triad of speaker, listener, message, and purpose. One homiletic scholar, Craddock, notes that there are two types of sermons. The first, deductive, mimics traditional academic essay in development: “state the thesis, break it down into points, explain and illustrate points, apply them to particular situatin” (qtd Moss 28). The second, inductive, is traced back to Aristotle: “thought moves from the particulars of experience that have a familiar ring in the listener’s ear to a general truth or conclusion” (qtd Moss 29).

The following features mark sermons as Af-Am:

  • usually biblical, meaning content based in Scripture
  • one sentence central idea or thesis
  • most framed by Bible scripture in beginning and a prayer at the end (29)

Ch 2: key similarities that happen in all three examples of the churches, and by similarities I mean events or practices that mark them as inclusive to Af-Am community literacy in church:

  • each church provides the congregation the opportunity to participate in a host of literacy activities
  • each minister is well read and learned in the Western theological tradition
  • each minister is equally learned in Af-Am worship traditions
  • each minister has a philosophy on the nature of the relationship between sermon and congregation

Differences that Moss notes between the three examples:

  • size of the church
  • personalities of the minister and congregation
  • way the minister prepares his sermon

She concludes that “these church communities are sites in which literate texts take prominence and where literacy thrives. They are also sites where alternative pictures of literate texts are offered” (62).

Ch 3: Moss opens this chapter with a reminder that most students learn that form and content are not separate: it is important to know both what to say and how to say it. In Af-Am churches, Moss argues trying to untangle form and content would “destroy the sermon as it exists in African-American churches” (63). As she points to specific examples of creating community through the use of pronouns like “us, we, our” as well as constructing a collective “I,” she highlights that ministers need to sound Black, which she says:

But within the context of this study, this discourse community, and particularly these ministers, sounding Black is a positive concept that focuses, again, on the ministers’ rhetorical skills to create a community within their African-American congregations [as opposed to notions of merely essentialized or ‘hood’ speak]. Sounding Black is significant because it shows that the minister is still in touch with his people and that he is still one of them. (82)

What does sounding Black mean? In the context of these churches, these features are usually present:

  • to use of Black language features [Vernacular Black English/Ebonics]
  • to be educated and have academic credentials [these are powerful individuals within this community]
  • to be good with language

Code switching is often employed as a means to “sounding Black.”

Thus, she concludes on the same note she began: churches want a minister “who has something to say and knows how to say it” (99). The overall goal is to use shared knowledge to teach new knowledge [which further renders this a literacy event]. But using shared knowledge does create boundaries and she raises the question of whether boundary is fixed to a given minister’s congregation. But she claims that her work in this and the next chapter demonstrates that community goes beyond singular church walls.

Ch 4:

Moss examines how Reverend M’s travel to a revival poses interesting questions about community boundaries, such as the nature of rhetorical appeal and what constitutes shared knowledge. Moss views the revival as an interesting addition to the fieldwork/study because it allows her to “illustrate that that the sermon as a literacy event and the literacy traditions that are evidence in the three churches highlighted in previous chapters, are not unique to those three churches” (101). What Moss found in attending the revival was how little changes were made to Reverend M’s sermons, which speaks to the shared community between the home congregation and the revival group. And she goes on to demonstrate how narrative, intertexuality of song and sermon and the reliance on appeals that are appropriate for the community all come together in key ways.

Thus, Moss concludes, this chapter demonstrates that the rhetorical strategies in Af-Am sermons in the three churches are not really bound by time and place (ie, Edbauer Rice’s sense of rhetorical ecology). The sermon that Reverend M gives from congregation to congregation the, is a “complex, multilayered tex” that through both appeals but also song and intertextuality can attend to context and community simultaneously. She states that, “The data continue to show a picture of a text that is shaped by the cultural and community expectations of how oral, written, and musical texts become one and how African and African-American traditions merge to shape the text” (135).


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