Talking about faith

/ 16 July 2011

Christian Smith makes an interesting set of distinctions in a recent essay. He suggests that there are at least three forms of religious speech:

(1) serious, articulate, confident personal and congregational discourse of faith
(2) respectful, civil discourse in the pluralistic public sphere
(3) obnoxious, offensive faith talk that merely offends other people
(p. 60, "Moralistic therapeutic deism" in Passing On the Faith)

He then goes on to argue that "American religious teenagers are very concerned to observe the second of these forms of speech and to avoid the third." But I wonder to what extent our public environment has pretty much labelled (1) as the equivalent of (3)? Or perhaps more accurately, since we rarely hear (1) in pop media, the default position is to assume that (3) is in fact the extent of what's possible in faith discourse.

One primary reason I'm so intrigued by the possibilities of digital storytelling in the process of faith formation has to do with the different kind of space that a digital story inhabits. It is, to use Michael Wesch's language, possibly the most private space on the planet and at the same time the most public [citation is 21 minutes in]. That is, when you create a digital story you are the author, and like a YouTube vlog, it's just you and the camera, or you and the materials you're editing together. But once you publish it to a site like Feautor, Vimeo or YouTube, it's available to anyone in the world who has access to the net.

I think such a space has the potential to foster the articulation of faith in as serious, confident and personal a way as possible, since the process of creation is at once so free and so much under the control of the author. At the same time, once it is released into the public sphere, people have the choice to engage it, or not, and if they choose to engage it, can do so under their own conditions. To quote Michael Wesch again, this kind of "anonymity + physical distance + rare and ephemeral dialogue = the freedom to experience humanity without fear or anxiety" [citation is 29 minutes in].

There is a further challenge, however, that digital storying to date has not really engaged, and that has to do with how one goes about telling a communal or collaborative story from and to an entire community. Most digital storytelling has been structured to tell individual, personal stories. When you watch such a digital story you connect with it, or not, in a personal way. But what does it mean to try to convey the story of a community and to connect with people in a communal way? I don't know if digital stories have much to offer in that vein, unless perhaps we can imagine their resonance to be something more akin to that of poetry, where an exquisite articulation of a very specific moment carries universal resonance from its very particularity.

Why am I wondering about this today? Well, in part because I'm trying to work out how to help communities of faith use digital storytelling for faith formation, and in part because the experience of engaging the final Harry Potter film has such a global resonance to it. I think there's something interesting and important to draw from this convergence. I just haven't puzzled out what it is yet.