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Rescripting Christian Education for Performative Practice

Luther Seminary Convocation
Saint Paul, Minnesota
9 January 2002
Mary E. Hess

[Please note: the following presentation was made in the context of a three day event that centered on the text from 2 Corinthians 4:7-15. A handout accompanied this presentation, on which citations and references were noted. You can find that handout at The presentation also included an extensive PowerPoint slide show, which, due to copyright issues with regard to images and video excerpts I cannot place here on the web.]

Every semester, when I begin to teach my introductory course in Christian education, I face the same dilemma: students enter my classroom eager to pick up and use the most effective tools in religious education; and I have very little to give them.

Why is this? It’s not because there aren’t piles of wonderful curriculum materials. It’s not because I don’t care about how to support effective Sunday schools. At heart, the dilemma is bigger than that: most religious education now takes place in contexts other than those controlled or even designed by religious institutions. And most religious learning takes place in a wider cultural context where even the symbols and stories we place at the heart of our faith are told and interpreted in ways religious communities rarely access, let alone actively engage. We are facing, in short, what Ronald Heifetz calls an adaptive challenge. He is a long time adult educator who works in leadership education, and he has described two kinds of challenges – technical, and adaptive. His classic description of the two goes something like this:

A person in pain goes to see a doctor. The doctor diagnoses a broken wrist, puts the person’s wrist in a cast, and healing commences. The process of prescribing and implementing the cast is a technical challenge. The extent to which it is successful depends in large measure on the doctor’s ability to align the person’s wrist bones properly and get the cast done well. The patient’s responsibility is primarily to interfere as little as possible in the process.

In another instance, a person in pain goes to see a doctor. After many tests and other consultations, the doctor eventually diagnoses extensive heart disease. In this case there are only a few things the doctor can do technically. The healing challenge here becomes one of supporting the patient in coming to terms with their illness, and adapting to the necessary changes in their lifestyle. In this case the doctor and the patient together face an adaptive challenge: they must work together in ways that have very little to do with technical skills, but much to do with relationality and meaning-making, with habit and behavior.

I am convinced that the challenges we face right now in supporting teaching and learning in communities of faith in the middle of media culture are adaptive challenges, not primarily technical ones.

Let’s take a few minutes to think about this, and look at some examples. Here are two excerpts of recent nationally televised events. Each one is about four minutes long. Here’s the first one:

[show excerpt from Bush address, going from just after “wave in defiance” through to the beginning of the hymn where the flag waves and then transitions to an image of the cathedral]

Here’s the second one:

[show the clip from the DVD, beginning in the middle of the Springsteen song, and going through to the beginning of the Wonder song, in the refrain]

Were you familiar with these events? The first is taken from the service held in the National Cathedral on Sept. 14. The second is an excerpt from a much more widely broadcast and viewed ritual – the Hollywood fundraiser called “A tribute to our heroes” that aired on September 21.

What did you notice about these clips? If we were a smaller group and had more time, I would invite you to share with each other. But for now, let me point out just three things:

1. Both of these are televised events. The first one was broadcast once at noon on September 14th. The second aired simultaneously on multiple channels in the US and abroad, and was watched live by, conservatively, 89 million people. Later it was released in DVD format.

2. Both of these events elicited powerful feelings on the part of people who viewed them – probably they still do, even these many months later.

3. Both of these events constructed particular representations of religious meaning. Both of them, that is, shaped a sense of what it is to believe in God and what one ought to be doing with that belief.

In short, both of these were vivid and compelling examples of religious education. Yet neither of them was broadcast by a specific community of faith. In fact, it’s quite unclear the degree to which either was even organized within a specific community of faith.

When I label them as “religious education” please understand that I am not trying to claim that they are the only kind of religious education, or even that they are in any way something to emulate in churches. Rather, I am trying to point to the concern with which I began this presentation – that we, in communities of faith, are facing an adaptive challenge, not simply a technical challenge, when it comes to promoting teaching and learning communities because our teaching and learning occurs in a larger context over which we have very little control.

A year ago, when we first sat down to talk about themes and ideas for this convocation, I came up with the title “rescripting Christian education for performative practice.” That’s a big mouthful! And certainly a year ago I had no idea where it would lead me, or perhaps more importantly, where the world would lead me, in the meantime. All I knew was that if we were going to talk about congregations as communities of teaching and learning than we had to talk about different ways of seeing and doing what that means. We had to talk about the adaptive challenges we are facing.

When the planes hit the World Trade towers on September 11, certain aspects of life as we know it here in the United States changed. I think that most of us, at least for a little while, paid new attention to what was important in our lives. Many of us asked – and continue to ask – new kinds of questions. And some part of our world – a world that here, in the upper Midwest amongst the middle class has always been pretty stable and ‘safe’ – appeared more vividly uncertain, more perplexing and even perhaps more afflicted.

Paul writes, in his second letter to the Corinthians: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.” I think we can hear this text differently than we might have last summer. And I think that that is a gift.

For those of us who inhabit middle class worlds, for those of us who carry the comparative safety and stability of white skin privilege, for those of us who are US citizens without any effort, I think that there are many texts in the bible that are hard to inhabit, difficult to understand, and painful to perform. So much of the biblical witness is a witness to those on the margins, it is a call to protect the “anawim” – orphans, widows and the alien – it is a language and worldview that makes most sense to those on the “underside” of history.

So September 11 was a gift of sorts, not one that I would ever seek, and not one that I would ever wish upon anyone. But still, an opportunity for all of us to remember what is important, what is at the heart of our life together, and to renew and revisit a text like Paul’s.

What does it mean to “always carry in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies”? I think this is a profoundly important question, and I hope that in the next two days we will give you lots of opportunities to think about it.

This afternoon, in this time I have with you, I’d like to approach this text as a catalyst for considering the challenges involved in supporting teaching and learning within communities of faith. I’d like to use it as an opportunity to think about rescripting Christian education for performative practice. And I’d like to do that in three parts.

First, I’d like to begin by thinking about the models we have for teaching and learning. What do we think we are doing in communities of faith? What are we about in teaching and learning?

Then I’ll take a model and use it to think about the script we have for Christian education. What is our script for Christian education in our current contexts?

Finally, I’d like to talk about performative practice. Paul exhorts us to “always carry in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”

Making anything visible in our bodies suggests what I mean by performative practice, and I’d like to work with you on ways to support this kind of teaching and learning, this kind of practice.

Any of you who have ever taken part in a dramatic play know that you begin with a script, and while the script is to govern what you and your fellow actors engage in, it has only the barest indications of what to do and where to go. Part of what a director does is to help actors think about their motivation for certain actions, as well as to consider the way the whole process works together – when and how actors move in a particular scene, what kinds of props and other physical objects interact, and so on.

The script provides some basic and important substance and foundation upon which to build meaning, primarily through dialogue. Then the people who gather – to inhabit the script, to support its action, or to engage its enactment as audience – play with the script to make it come alive. No play can happen without all three – the basic dialogue, the people who seek to inhabit it, and the people who are drawn into meaning-making in watching it unfold. Each time the play is performed, new meanings are created. No two performances are ever alike, and the context in which a play is performed has a crucial impact on its reception.

So, too, with learning. And so, too, with understanding the biblical witness. Paul writes: “we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…”

We can begin to imagine some of the context in which he wrote, and we can imagine for ourselves some of what the disciples must have been feeling. But we do not know in any certain way. Simply repeating his words will not help us, because wooden dialogue does not feel real. We must perform it, we can not simply voice it. It is a pattern of practice, not a stark and systematic statement of belief. It means nothing if we don’t allow the script to become part of us to such an extent that we no longer know where the text ends and our lives begin.

Learning and teaching within communities of faith ought to carry with it a mandate to support this integral commingling of the divine and human narratives. Terry Tilley writes:

“It is hard for Christians… to hope for heaven in a culture wherein immediate gratification is the norm, or to understand what holiness of life could be in a culture idolizing conspicuous consumption and material possessions. To believe in heaven and hope for eternal life require participation in a practice or practices that are not immediately gratifying… To seek holiness requires participating in practices that shape one’s desire not to consume and to have ‘things,’ but to love God and one’s neighbor as oneself. The means are knowing how to engage in those patterns of actions and attitudes that seek the goals and carry the vision; mere knowing that cannot suffice. Mere notional belief will not do.”

We need our teaching and learning in communities of faith to be about knowing how, not simply knowing that. There is an important underlying assumption here: that knowing in this way requires participating, that mere information does not equal real knowledge. In seminary language we would say there is an epistemological issue at stake – that how we define knowing is crucial to what we mean by teaching and learning.

It is at this point that it becomes particularly relevant to think about teaching and learning in relation to knowing. And to do so, I’d like to share two different models of teaching and learning with you, both of which come from the work of Parker Palmer.

Palmer argues that we have tended to think of education as a very instrumental and linear process. Here’s one of the pictures he uses to explain that statement. Can you see how in this picture, there is the subject – here – and then there is an expert in that subject – here – and then there are novices or amateurs – here – who learn about the subject through the mediation of the expert? These little squiggly lines Palmer calls “baffles.” He uses them to suggest that knowledge flows in one direction only here. The expert “takes” information from or about the subject and transfers or imparts it to the amateurs. Teaching and learning become essentially a process of transfer and reception. Teachers transfer information, and students receive it.

In this model, it is very clear who the teacher is – the one who provides the bridge for the “pure” content of the subject to the amateurs. It is a very linear process, and the teacher is instrumental to it. Not just because it would not happen without the teacher, but also because the teacher becomes, in effect, an “instrument” by which the information is conveyed. In this model – and in our day and age of smart machines – you could begin to see how the teacher might be replaced by a computer program, or some other machine. But perhaps there is another model we could use. Perhaps there might be more to say about the process of teaching and learning then this one diagram and the ideas it holds. Palmer suggests that there is, and he uses this picture to talk about it.

Here the subject is at the center. That is, the thing or things, the ideas or concepts, the feelings and actions that we want to learn from, are at the heart of the process. Palmer calls this the “great thing” around which we gather. Then – here – are each of us. Each of us is a knower who is in relationship with the “great thing” which we desire to know. And each of us is also in relationship with each other. Here there are no baffles causing information to flow in only one direction, there are simply multiple ways in which to learn about something, multiple relationships by which we come to know.

At the heart of Palmer’s model is his assertion that “we know as we are known.” In fact, a marvelous entry point to his thought is the classic little book he titles simply “To Know as We are Known."

In this diagram it is not so clear who the teacher is. Indeed, there are likely many teachers, each with something to share.

Perhaps in this model it is more accurate to think of a teacher as someone who is a little bit further down a particular path of learning about the great thing at the heart of the sphere. Someone who can share what she or he has encountered thus far, and help others along the path.

But it is also accurate in this model to perceive that someone entirely new to the study of the great thing might have something equally important to contribute to the learning and knowing involved.

This model of teaching and learning suggests that knowledge is a dynamic, relational process, rather than a static, isolated quantity. It suggests that the “great thing” in the middle of the diagram might be a script for our participation in the construction of knowledge, as compared to the first model, where knowledge was something isolated from most people, and simply transferred through the mediation of a teacher.

This model also has more to contribute to our understanding of knowing how, as opposed to knowing that, than does the first model. Think for a moment about the ways in which we hear of Jesus teaching. Various gospel authors draw pictures of Jesus in the middle of groups of people, working with their questions; using analogies drawn from the contexts around them; often answering one question with another question. “Who are you?” receives “Who do you say that I am?” “Who is my neighbor?” evokes a story and a question in response. The communities of people who gathered around Jesus were hungry for answers, but they received stories and more questions, and were thereby drawn into new patterns of practice.

If we were to use this model for communities of teaching and learning in congregations, what would we put at the heart of it? What would be the “great thing” around which we gather? What would be the script we would seek to inhabit?

Darrell suggested this morning that the apostolic script for the church in mission is the biblical witness. I think he’s right. I think the script at the heart of this model has to be the biblical witness.

Some of my students have disagreed with me about this. Some think that it is God at the heart of the diagram, God is the “great thing” around which we gather to learn. Others have suggested that it is some person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ perhaps, or the Holy Spirit. I think all of these answers have something to commend them, but I keep coming back to the biblical witness. Why is that?

In part it is because I am deeply worried about the ways in which human beings have over time made claims to “know” God, or at the very least, to know what God is communicating to us. Certainly we have very vivid and recent examples in front of us of people who claim to know what God is communicating – so clear, in fact, that they rejoice in committing other people to following a path that leads to death and destruction.

If we truly do know as we are known, and we put God at the center of the sphere, at the heart of the model as the great thing we gather around, then our conversation is constrained to each of us contributing our perception of who and what God is. This is not a bad thing, and is certainly a powerful and important learning process! I think it might even be a good basic description of what we are about when we talk about proclamation. But I wonder if it is the only way to think about religious education? I wonder if when we talk about teaching and learning in communities of faith we might consider the more limited “great thing” at the heart of our model to be the living tradition of the people of God – found first and foremost in the biblical witness, the text as well as our ongoing encounter with it?

Paul writes that “we have this treasure in earthen jars,” which in part is why I want to keep the biblical witness at the center of the model. But I also pull away from putting God at the heart of the model because I am clear that the biblical witness is actually a stream of witnesses, many of which disagree with each other. In other words, it is itself a script for argument.

Kathryn Tanner, a Christian theologian who has spent significant time thinking about the various ways in which we currently conceive of "culture", and then in turn how those conceptions interact with theology, has suggested that:

"Christian practices are ones in which people participate in together in an argument over how to elaborate the claims, feelings, and forms of action around which Christian life revolves.”

I have found the single most important question people bring to the biblical witness is precisely that one – what does it mean to “know how” to elaborate the claims, feelings and forms of action around which Christian life revolves? When we struggle to understand a particular biblical passage, it’s not for the abstract purposes of contributing to scholarly archives somewhere, but because we want to inhabit this script, we want its language and ideas to become our own.

The kinds of questions raised within communities of faith these days are not over whether or not to have the biblical witness as our script, but HOW to do so. What would it mean to use Palmer’s model and put the biblical witness at the center as our script for Christian practice?

I can immediately hear some of my students objecting – we can’t do that, that would be works righteousness! So before I go any further, let me be clear that what I am proposing here is larger than a specific definition of Christian practice centered on some form of “doing” for salvation. It is, instead, an assertion that teaching and learning communities can be reinvigorated by having at their heart the “great thing” that is a conscious and intentional engagement with the argument of what Christian practice is and how we are to engage it, that is, with the biblical witness.

This is not a definition that precludes proclamation, it is simply a focused definition of Christian education. This definition of religious education honors the distinct and specific ways in which various Christian communities have struggled over time. It suggests, for instance, that the debate over “works righteousness” has been and perhaps can continue to be a lively argument.

But as a model for learning communities it has many additional benefits. It suggests, for instance, that there is something around which Christian life revolves (there is a script!), and yet it leaves how we embody that script to be specified by the arguments in which we engage as think through, work through, pray through, our ways of being in the world. It is a model for Christian learning, above all else. And it provides a way to engage our differences as crucial insight, crucial knowing.

If we are all knowers, all teachers and learners; and, if the great thing we put at the heart of our study is an ongoing argument over Christian practice, then arguing is not only possible, but life-giving and liberating. We need not fear our differences, but take encouragement from the ways in which they heighten our insights, and provide room for multiple images of Christian life to emerge. Conflict over ideas would be welcomed as a way to clarify them.

Indeed, Parker Palmer has another quote that I think is relevant here, he writes that when we practice this form of teaching and learning, this putting of “great things” at the heart of our scripts:

"We invite diversity into our community not because it is politically correct but because diverse viewpoints are demanded by the manifold mysteries of great things.

"We embrace ambiguity not because we are confused or indecisive but because we understand the inadequacy of our concepts to embrace the vastness of great things.

"We welcome creative conflict not because we are angry or hostile but because conflict is required to correct our biases and prejudices about the nature of great things.

"We practice honesty not only because we owe it to one another but because to lie about what we have seen would be to betray the truth of great things.

"We experience humility not because we have fought and lost but because humility is the only lens through which great things can be seen – and once we have seen them, humility is the only posture possible"

I can’t think of a better way to put Paul’s admonition that “we have this treasure in clay jars” at the heart of our learning, than to practice what Palmer calls the grace of great things. Indeed, if we put the biblical witness at the heart of our model, if we say that the script we are trying to make come alive is “an argument over how to elaborate the claims, feelings, and forms of action around which Christian life revolves" than it is not only Christians who may be a part of this argument, but those beyond our immediate self-defined community as well.

I have been most challenged by the biblical witness as it finds itself performed in multiple cultures, in different languages and locations. And I have learned crucial lessons about Christianity from people who are not themselves Christian – particularly those who have been the subject of systematic persecution at the hands of Christians. And I am also very conscious of how much the argument over what it is to be Christian is contested in popular mass media.

At the same time, such a script for Christian education does not relativize everything, because it appropriately proclaims that there is a center around which we gather, there is a tradition to which we crave access and in which we desire to live our lives fully. A center from which we desire to share light and love with others. Putting this script at the heart of our teaching and learning communities provides enormous room for inquiry – we can think in historical terms (who are the people of God and how have they understood who God is and who they are becoming in relation to God?). We can think in biblical terms (what are the central themes placed in front of us in the biblical witness? How have we engaged these ideas over time? How have we told and re-told these stories?) We can think in theological terms – what are the implications of a particular Christian practice for our understanding of God? We can think in liturgical terms – how do changing worship practices shift our understanding of God? These are all ways in which seminaries, for instance, have structured our communities of inquiry.

But this script for teaching and learning in communities of faith has much wider ramifications. Because it also suggests that we can ask what our own lives might contribute to these questions – even if we don’t spend most or even any of our time in a seminary.

What does popular culture contribute to our way of understanding the biblical witness, for instance? At the beginning of this presentation I played for you two video excerpts that performed specific representations of biblical witness. In the first there was a clear connection being made between nationalist patriotism and religious belief. In the second, there was a sense that love and loss commingle in the relationship with God. Here’s another one:

[show VeggieTales Daniel in the Lion’s Den clip, from the beginning music focused on the king’s door, to just after the crew of three start their little round dance]

All of these clips are part of the ongoing argument that is taking place in our culture right now. What it means to inhabit the biblical witness as a script for our participation is a crucial question. A question whose answers are being worked out in many, many places – many of which are not in any way linked to historically grounded religious institutions.

What can we do about this? Here is where combining Palmer’s second model, the collaborative description of teaching and learning, with a new sense of the biblical witness as a script for our participation, becomes so useful. What is involved in preparing to perform a play? What do we need to do?

First, we certainly need to begin by learning our script! But learning a script entails far more than memorizing words. Wooden, parroted dialogue does not in any way feel real. We need to explore the contexts in which the words were written, we need to imagine the motivations and feelings behind them, and we need to explore our way into making them our own. This is a collaborative process, and itself involves the argument at the heart of our model – how DO we elaborate the claims, feelings, and forms of action around which Christian life revolves?

Who are the learners and teachers in this process? Each and every one of us. Among us there will be people who have been walking in pilgrimage along this path for some time and will have much to share. And there will be people who are brand new, just hearing the words for the first time – they, too, will bring crucial insight.

Second, we need to practice performing. Please understand, the metaphor I’m playing with right now is not meant to see practice itself as salvific. But it does suggest that knowing "how" is more important than simply knowing "that." Many of you may have encountered the work of the Valparaiso Project on the Education and Formation of People in Faith. Or perhaps you’ve seen the book “Practicing our Faith,” or their newest one, “Practicing Theology.” These are all examples of people trying to figure out how to practice performing Christian faith.

Remember what Paul writes: "We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies."

The first half of this quotation we may now have a better sense of. After September 11 we may now feel our ways into Paul’s words more adequately, more deeply. I believe we may know more of how it feels to be perplexed but not driven to despair. But we still need to practice “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”

Actors preparing to enact a play, practice over and over again in multiple contexts, sometimes on their own but more often with their collaborators. Sometimes with minimal sets and costumes, and eventually with a full and complete dress rehearsal. But with any play the practice is not the whole event, because it’s not truly whole until there is also an audience engaged in participation. The audience brings the context alive, and participates in hearing and making meaning out of the dialogue. And that means that no matter how well and how hard the actors have practiced, the audience can change the meaning of what is happening.

This brings me to my third point in how it is we can begin to inhabit the biblical witness as the script at the heart of our communities of teaching and learning. We have to enact this script in multiple contexts, in as many contexts as we can enter into. This is an imperative for mission. Not because we seek in any way to impose our script on others, but because we know, deep in our bones, deep in our souls, that we can only really know this script with as wide a circle of fellow learners as possible.

This picture that Palmer gives us only strengthens Paul’s words, that “everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.” Where two or three are gathered there is indeed still learning and teaching, but where the sphere extends to embrace many more, there is that much more potential for participating in deep knowing.

I am convinced this is crucial with respect to the biblical witness in particular. Scholars invite participants from the past into our midst, helping us to nuance and understand myriad resonances of the script that we might otherwise miss given our ignorance of the original languages. But it is not just the past that we need to invite! I was in Thailand last summer, and learned the story of a young Jesuit who died reaching out to embrace an angry and embittered landmine victim, a young child who carried a bomb into the midst of a school. Religious communicators in Southeast Asia have produced a powerful film about this event, and the text on which it centers – “there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend” – means something much deeper and more whole for me, having encountered it in that community.

I noted earlier that so much of the biblical witness is oriented to the margins, to the “anawim” – those who are poor, who are orphaned, who are widowed, who are aliens. Biblical texts are heard differently, performed differently, inhabited differently, in different contexts. We can extend and enrich our own practice and our own knowing by embracing all those who seek to live from this script.

Like any argument, however, and remember that I have suggested that the biblical witness is at heart also a powerful argument, there will be interpreters who will perform this script in ways that we can not and must not condone.

When the State Church in Germany saw the biblical witness as condoning Hitler, it forced other Christians – and those beyond the Christian community – to object. Even our own contemporary religious institutions are only, as Paul notes, “clay jars” into which this powerful witness is poured.

One of the best ways to maintain our humility, to practice the grace of great things I noted earlier, is to require ourselves to try and do so in as many contexts and with as many partners as possible.

Finally, I think there is a fourth thing we can do. Once we have learned our script, practiced it, performed it in many different contexts, I think we also begin to learn how to improvise with it. People I know who are involved with improvisational theater tell me that it is crucial to know the moves and gestures that convey meaning, to know how scripts work so deeply in your being that you can perform even when the script is being changed or you are inventing it as you play. The circumstances around us, the contexts in which we live, are changing rapidly. So rapidly that some commentators say we live in a perpetual state of “blur.” Does this look familiar?

[Madonna clip: begin from sun rising, and go for about 30 seconds]

Others write that we must learn to live by navigating constant whitewater. Whatever the image you use, increasingly we have to recognize that we are being called upon to practice improvisation. Business leaders are responding to these rapidly changing contexts by transforming their businesses into learning organizations. They are creating ways for their employees to make ongoing learning a continual part of their worklives. Can we afford to do anything less within a community of faith?

These four efforts – learning our script, practicing it, performing it in multiple contexts, learning to improvise – take on greater urgency when the contexts are always changing around us.

One primary context in which we learn and teach right now is mass mediated popular culture – from movies and television, to news and documentaries; from books and magazines, to the world wide web.

What did you do when you first heard of what was going on in New York on September 11? Probably turned on your radio or your television set, or ran to the Web. For days following the 11th you could find clusters of people gathered around communication technologies. It used to be that people would gather in their local churches. That still happened that week, and even for weeks afterward, more and more people went to church. But the attendance figures are starting to drop off again, and yet we still turn to our global communications network.

Some people might be quite pessimistic about the health of communities of faith in this kind of context, but I’m actually optimistic.

To begin with, in some of the same ways in which I’m asking you to shift your understanding of teaching and learning from an instrumental to a more collaborative notion, scholars have begun to rewrite their models for how mass mediated popular culture works. That is, instead of seeing mass media as pipelines through which messages are piped directly into our passive brains, scholars are increasingly noting the extent to which people play with, resist, contest and even ignore mass mediated messages. The same Palmer diagram I used to talk about collaborative teaching and learning can be used to describe the ways in which people engage mass media.

There is room, then, for imagining that the teaching and learning communities that we grow in congregations can engage media culture as an essential resource for knowledge, that it could be, even, a source upon which we draw to “know as we are known.” The key, though, is understanding the ways in which some of the scripts provided for our attention there give us practice in performances that are at odds with the biblical witness. Brian Eno (a songwriter and performance artist) writes that:

"familiarity breeds content. When you use familiar tools, you draw upon a long cultural conversation -- a whole shared history of usage -- as your backdrop, as the canvas to juxtapose your work. The deeper and more widely shared the conversation, the more subtle its inflections can be."

Right now mass mediated popular culture is something we’re much more familiar with than most of the biblical witness. And increasingly, given how hungry people are for meaning in their lives, even mass mediated popular culture is presenting to us parts of the biblical witness.

We can and must, as members of teaching and learning communities in congregations, enter into popular culture, into mass mediated contexts precisely to draw on this long cultural conversation. We can work with this shared history to broaden our conversation, and to make our own learning that much more complex and subtle.

In the process, however, we will need to pay attention to the ways in which the mass mediated conversation is narrow, the ways in which the conversation is exclusive rather than inclusive, the ways in which this mass mediated conversation focuses on some things and completely ignores others. This is, of course, the same kind of concern we must have in relation to learning in other contexts. We are human, and we carry our witness in the earthen jars of which Paul speaks.

Here’s another video clip to consider, one that makes a specific argument over the educational processes we are engaged in, in media culture. It’s taken from a documentary entitled “The Ad and The Ego.”

[show the Ad&Ego clip, going from the “eye” just after the tagline “truth and consequences” to just after Sut Jhally’s fade/dissolve about “denaturalizing our culture” and his statement about construction]

How do we get the fish to see the water? How do we begin to truly see for ourselves the kinds of dynamics at work in our larger cultural spheres?

In part we do so by inhabiting fully a different script, and performing it in those same cultural spheres. This is not an argument for creating a separate sphere – which in any case I don’t believe is possible -- but rather it is an argument for living and improvising in our current contexts with richer resources to draw upon, with a different script to use.

Let’s go back to Paul again: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.”

This is a very different image of security than that fed to us through the performances of advertising!

But we need to know more than "that" it is different, we need to know "how" to live into the differences. Here again is a question that we can take to the heart of our learning and teaching sphere, to the great thing which is the biblical witness, which is the living tradition of the people of God, and inquire: How do we learn to live in this way? How do we learn to live in such a way that we love God and our neighbors as ourselves?

I want to return to an idea I lifted up at the very beginning of this presentation – that these questions exemplify an adaptive challenge, rather than a technical one. If it were simply a technical challenge, there would be ten tips and tricks for coming to a better practice of love (or for that matter, of religious education that helps people “know how”). But responding to an adaptive challenge requires something else.

First, it requires a new model that allows us to imagine different possibilities within our central script. I hope you’ve been persuaded by my suggestion of what we could use as this new model, or if not persuaded, at least have been willing to entertain the idea.

Second, in living with this collaborative model of teaching and learning, these emerging suggestions for ways in which to inhabit the script of the biblical witness, we need to shape our attention differently.

Ron Heifetz, who as I mentioned earlier identified this idea of technical vs. adaptive challenge, argues that the work of leadership requires helping people pay disciplined attention to the challenge, to keep it on a “low simmer.” In other words, if attention becomes too focused on the challenge people flee to authority, and lose their own investment and capability of response; or they do the opposite, and flee into denial.

I think you can begin to see these temptations – of a flight to authority or denial of problems – right in the heart of our current context post September 11. It is certainly very tempting to give up our own reasoned judgment in favor of accepting whatever the government wants to do, or to back away from the fears and dilemmas altogether and simply pretend that life continues on as before.

The same thing has happened within the Christian community however, in relation to the biblical witness. This script that we need to inhabit, this great thing at the heart of our community, raises far more questions than it answers; it poses far more difficult dilemmas – especially for those of us who live relatively powerful, wealthy existences relative to the rest of God’s creation.

It is far too easy as a member of a congregation to appeal to church leaders to interpret the script, to compartmentalize it to a Sunday morning performance, or to ignore it completely.

What does it mean to hold this kind of focus? Neither too sharp nor too fuzzy? Neither too close nor out of sight?

It is not something that we can do alone. It is something that must be done in community. It is not something that can be done in instrumental terms – there is no expert that can give us the technical fix – rather, we need to find multiple ways to focus and challenge our attention.

Sharon Parks, one of a group of a scholars who did a major study several years ago about the factors that support people’s commitment to the common good, writes that one of the important factors her team identified was the ability to sustain a responsible imagination. A responsible imagination requires people to pay attention not only to those narratives and rituals, those stories and actions that make them feel good, but also to those that prompt them to recognize injustice, that may be unsettling or even frightening. In Parks’ words:

"Living with these images, the people in our study appear to know that two truths must be held together — that we have the power to destroy the Earth and the power to see it whole. But unlike many who seek escape from the potent tension this act of holding requires, these people live in a manner that conveys a third and essential power: the courage to turn and make promises, the power of a responsible imagination."

Here is Paul again: "We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh."

Living in this way requires the ability to attend to these paradoxes without being overcome by them. Living in this way requires a creative tension, it requires a certain kind of “simmer” – it is, indeed, an adaptive challenge; particularly in our contemporary media culture.

Why is it so difficult in the larger American context? Why are we so driven to compartmentalize? To flee into authority or into denial?

Attention is one of our most precious resources in contemporary US culture. You can see this in the most crass terms, by noticing how many billions of dollars are spent each year attempting to “capture” our attention. In a world that functions with a global communications network, in a world that promises near instant satisfaction of curiosity, in a world that turns even human desire into a commodity to be marketed to the highest bidder, sustaining focused attention that can tolerate tension is not easy.

There is no technical “fix” that can be applied. We are not in need of a well placed cast. We need to revitalize our congregations as communities of teaching and learning who hold at their heart the goal of truly performing the script of the biblical witness. And at the heart of that adaptive challenge is a struggle over our attention. You may think that that struggle focuses on content, but I am convinced it has far more to do with the practices by which we structure our attention.

Remember the video clip about advertising? The fish generally don’t see the water. If Christian education uses a collaborative model, and if we place at the heart of that model our script of the biblical witness, then I think we have to notice that popular media structure most of our forms of attention, in ways that we barely even notice any more – in deed, in ways to which we do not “pay attention.”

We are enacting scripts we’ve learned so well that we have to work hard to see them in a different light, let alone to attempt to perform a different script in the same context. Certainly, right now, you are probably focusing more of your attention on the screen up front than on me. Is this a problem? Not if you are aware of your choice to do so. But what if you are doing so because you want to escape into my authority and thus bypass your own responsibility?

One of the most incisive and interesting presentations of this argument over screens in worship spaces was presented where? I suppose there are numerous answers, but one in particular strikes me as important: on the Christmas episode of the Simpsons this year.

[Simpson’s clip: go from image of church being rebuilt to Lisa storming out of the church doors]

More and more of the compelling religious questions we face in our culture – and hence more and more of the learning that takes place – are being broached in popular media culture. But communities of faith have thus far focused on the challenges of media culture in much the same way that we have conceived of learning – instrumentally.

We have worried about electronic screens and we have worried about the content of popular culture, and in doing so we have sought to figure out how to have either a better “technique” for conveying our own content, or how to have a better way of inoculating people against the dangerous content carried by the electronic pipelines. Yet each of these worries assumes that mass media work in instrumental ways, and even more so, assume an instrumental model of teaching and learning. They assume that religious experts can and must control the performance of our shared script.

I don’t believe either of these assumptions is adequately descriptive of the world we inhabit.

We need at one and the same time to let go of our perceived control over that witness, and be even more engaged in living into it.

We cannot succeed by asking everyone to participate only in “Christian approved” content, or by asking everyone to boycott problematic “secular” content. In doing so we force people into narrow enclaves of Christian identity or we force them into vast trivialization of Christian truths. We force them to flee either to authority or to denial. This cannot be what we mean by Christian identity, and it does us no good to conceive of teaching and learning, let alone apostolic mission, in these narrow ways.

No, we need to think about the ways in which we can invite religious resonance that is always and everywhere present, that is clearly woven into our lives every day and in every way.

We need to find a way to respond to the Holy Spirit’s invitation to play.

We need to find a way to live into the script of the biblical witness, to make it our own.

We need to find a way to engage a responsible imagination, one that helps us to keep our attention at a low simmer, to be “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair.” One that helps us to have the courage to turn and to make promises.

We need to nurture communities of teaching and learning, communities of ministry that help members to identify and share their gifts; communities that help people to voice their vocations and attend to them wherever they are drawn; communities that help people to collaborate across multiple forms of knowing, multiple intelligences, in the search for the “claims, feelings, and forms of action around which Christian life revolves.”

“For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.”

We need to live in such a way – performatively – that this exhortation of Paul’s rings true, and we need to teach and learn in such a way that we can support people in keeping their attention at a simmer. If familiarity truly does breed content, then we have to begin to help people become familiar with the deeper structures of our faith, with the arguments that we engage in because they matter to us – hence why and how they matter to us. And to do so we need to develop a responsible imagination.

In the next two days you will have abundant opportunities to learn with and from people who have this kind of responsible imagination, and who are actively putting it to work on “elaborating the claims, feelings, and forms of action around which Christian life revolves.”

It is my profound prayer that we will all focus our attention in these ways and move outward from here to believe in and to continue to learn with and of the One who binds us all together and at the same time sets us free. Thank you.


Copyright 2001 by Mary Elizabeth Hess

Mary Hess Home Last updated 11 January 2002.