Karl Barth famously proclaimed that ministers should preach with the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. Cathleen Kaveny’s book speaks to an issue snatched from today’s headlines: the easy resort to uncompromising political denunciation by office seekers and social media. As for the Bible, the long arc of her argument suggests an alternative subtitle: From Jeremiah to Jonah.

Kaveny is not a preacher; she teaches law and theology at Boston College. As befits its title, her text is a judicious assessment of the philosophy, history, and practice of what Matthew Arnold called the rhetoric of “fire and strength.” A term of art for such speech is jeremiad, named in honor of the gloomy prophet. Kaveny believes the jeremiad can be a proper tool in public debate, but, using her governing metaphor, it is chemotherapy for the body politic. Prophecy can cure, but, wrongly used, it can destroy the very body it aims to save. Her title captures her message: “prophecy without contempt.”

In this lengthy book, four different perspectives on political discourse are given extensive analysis: the philosophical approach, an historical account of the use of the jeremiad in Puritan New England, an analysis of the political polemic in the 2004 presidential contest, and the author’s recommendations for when prophecy is legitimate in the public square. A coda covering Lincoln’s second inaugural address and the book of Jonah offers an ultimate caution for anyone who would take up the prophetic mantle.