When We Talk About Christian Education: A Review of "animate.Faith"
There is no more important aspect of religious life than Christian formation. As someone who preaches and participates in liturgy, I know about and believe in the importance of their formative properties. But the truth is, without active engagement in conversation about the life of faith, what it is, what it might be, most Christians remain in the shallow pool. It isn't just Evangelicals, lamented by pollster George Barna as having faith an inch deep and a mile wide, who need to deepen their faith. It's lots of American Christians.
So anytime someone comes up with an interesting new way to talk about the things we should be talking about—as Westminster John Knox did some years back with the downloadable studies at The Thoughtful Christian, and as Sparkhouse has done now with animate.Faith—I want to shout about it from the rooftops. (Full disclosure: my friends Paul Soupiset, Brian McLaren, and Lauren Winner are major contributors to this project.) In a culture where people are willing to listen to dynamic talks and are engaged by dynamic images, animate.Faith offers dynamic reflections from some of the most thoughtful members of the Christian community on the Bible, spirituality, church, and God.
I'm especially drawn to a couple of pieces from this project. Lauren Winner, one of the most voracious readers I know, talks with grace and intelligence about how we read the Bible—and why we should read it differently than we do, say, Pride and Prejudice or The Great Gatsby, both great books, both reread by many. What is it about the Bible that makes us read differently? Well, as Lauren points out, as much as we might love Jane Austen, we don't want to take her words and make them a part of ourselves: "You don't want to take her into yourself wholly, bodily, in quite the same way as we want to feed on scripture." The Bible is worth taking seriously—more seriously—because it is life giving in a different kind of way than other great books.
Lillian Daniel responds to the culture's common refrain that members want to be spiritual but not religious (see her great new book When "Spiritual But Not Religious" Is Not Enough) by reminding us how important it is to have rules imposed upon us. Instead of treating religion as a buffet where we choose what looks good to us in the present moment, perhaps it should be more like dinner at mom's house, where she feeds us what she thinks we need. Mother Church imposes rules and makes suggestions based on two thousand years of tradition and practice, and they probably are good for us—even if we don't necessarily like them all. "It's pretty easy," she notes, "to play by the rules of a religion in which you write your own script. Much harder to find meaning in the words of a book that we did not write for ourselves, from a very different time."
And Brian McLaren, as always, is clear and cogent in explaining the twin poles of American Christianity: absolute certainty (if you don't believe everything we believe, you're a heretic) and absolute relativism (if you believe any of that faith stuff too literally, you're an idiot). The truth, as Anglicans have always argued, lies somewhere in between; neither is a completely satisfying position. Brian puts it this way: "If Fortress People [those advocating certainty] reduce God to concrete facts, Cloud People [relativists] reduce God to foggy opinions. If Fortress People turn faith into a vicious fight about who's more right, Cloud People reduce faith to a kind of inconsequential leisure activity."
Paul Soupiset's illustrations are a vital part of this material, both on the videos and in the journals. They're whimsical and entertaining—and absolutely perfect for the material they accompany. Look at his illustrations in the Personal Journal for Nadia Bolz-Weber's lecture on The Cross. Paul gives us—in an interesting and visible way—the chance to interact visually with the 2000 years of debate about what Jesus did when he died on the Cross.
I am an author, preacher, and educator, and I know from painful experience how hard it is to make the core tenets of Christian belief accessible, engaging, and—let's be honest—entertaining for parishioners. What I love about animate.Faith is that it talks about what I think needs to be talked about in Christian formation—and it does so in a way that encourages people to watch, listen, and reflect for themselves.
For more conversation and to view samples from animate.Faith, visit the Patheos Book Club here.
Greg Garrett is the author of works of fiction, criticism, and theology, including Faithful Citizenship from Patheos Press. He is Professor of English at Baylor University, and a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal Church.