What’s Emerging? A New Story
Dave Csinos, the founder and president of the Faith Forward Conference taking place in Nashville May 19-22, is excited by what is emerging in Christian education curricula today. He sees more taking place than just surface changes. New forms are reflecting the revitalization of emerging Christianity and that diversity is just what Dave hopes participants at Faith Forward 2014 will experience and continue to build on together.
What strikes Dave as particularly relevant is that the diversity of Christian belief and practices that is taking place today is happening within denominations. Dave doesn’t think denominations are falling apart necessarily, just that the walls separating Christian denominations are becoming more porous. In other words, differences exist within as much as between denominations and that forces curricula writers to think outside of the big box, one size fits all, denominational model for church school curricula that dominates the market today.
In my video interview with him, Dave observed two common threads emerging amidst the diversity:
- Reimagining story. Rather than there being one, unifying Biblical story or interpretation that we all agree upon, we are trending in a new direction. The question being asked today is how do we help children and youth find themselves on the inside of a Biblical story that their story is helping to shape?
- Holistic faith. Children are more than students in our classrooms. Their lives exist outside of the one hour a week that we see them. How can we respond to children as whole beings with concerns, questions and faith journeys deserving of a holistic church experience?
A Role Reversal
I think Dave is making some keen observations here, ones that I find encouraging for the future of Christian formation. In particular, I am intrigued by what it means to “reimagine story”. I don’t think Dave is referring to a new way to go about storytelling, which is a skill set that can be used to tell any story. He is pointing to a change at the level of story itself.
Typically we think of our own story as autobiography, a narrative we tell about ourselves that is also authored by us. Saul, the zealous defender of the faith, is a good example of this type of autobiography. Saul cast himself as the good guy engaged in a righteous campaign against a dangerous heresy. It never occurred to him that he was not doing God’s work “ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.” (Acts 8:3)
Ah, but on the road to Damascus the risen Christ interrupted his story with a question: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Paul was knocked to the ground by this question – how was it possible that rather than God’s defender, he had been God’s persecutor all along? That’s a story about himself that was rather painful to hear. But as he discovered himself to be a persecutor who was being forgiven by his victim, Saul became Paul, able to give this testimony: “But I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace.” (Acts 20:24)
What happened to Saul also happened to other two disciples on another road, the road to Emmaus. As theologian James Alison explains, Cleopas and his companion were Jews and Jewish identity was interwoven with the story told in their Scriptures of being a chosen people. But when Jesus, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself,” he was doing more than giving them a new interpretation of scripture – he was re-interpreting their place in God’s story. Like Saul, their autobiographies underwent a dramatic revision. In fact, they realized that their own stories were richer and more powerful when re-written by someone else. Here’s an excerpt from James Alison’s curriculum, Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice, in which he describes what happened to those two disciples on that first Easter:
If you were a Hebrew of the time, the books of Moses and all the prophets were not only your religious history. They were your entire political and cultural history as well. It was the entire story within which Cleopas and N [the unnamed disciple] had grown up and which had given them to be who they were. And he was telling them to themselves from an entirely new angle, one that they had never heard before.
Imagine, if you like, in the case of the United States, someone beginning to tell a couple of Americans the real story of their country, from let us say the perspective of some native inhabitants of the land at the time the Pilgrim Fathers arrived. The real story behind the feast of Thanksgiving, what it looked like to have their food supply destroyed by these white folk who turned up, what was really going on with the declaration of Independence, the economics of African slavery, the Civil War, the decimation of the Native Americans, the Great Depression and so on. Well, we can all imagine this history told from different perspectives.
But here the story they are being told is not designed to make them feel bad about being who they are. It is an integral story, it’s not just a collection of disjointed bits of ‘minority perspective’, it’s a whole, and it makes sense to its listeners. Later on they describe their experience of undergoing this act of interpretation by saying “did not our hearts burn within us?” They knew that they were being told the truth, and hearing it was turning upside down who they thought they were, and how they thought they belonged. They were, as it were, being re-narrated into being.
Re-Narrated Into Being
What does it mean for us to be re-narrated into being by the presence of the risen Christ in our midst? For the same presence encountered on the Damascus and Emmaus roads is the one we encounter at the Communion table: the memory of a victim of violence telling us his version of events, interrupting our tidy, autobiographical stories. As each of us encounters the risen Christ, we discover ourselves to be more like Saul than we’d like to think, more prone to being persecutors in the name of God than we are comfortable imagining. As René Girard notes in his commentary on Paul’s conversion:
In response to Paul’s question, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Jesus answers, ‘I am Jesus whom you persecute.’ Christian conversion is always this question that Christ himself asks… Humankind is never the victim of God; God is always the victim of humankind. (I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, 191)
If our autobiographies tend to sound too much like puffed up press releases, the story that God is slowly rewriting in our hearts is more realistic and more miraculous – yes, we are persecutors without knowing it but we are loved expansively and unconditionally without knowing it, too.
As I mentioned at the start of this series, Phyllis Tickle so prophetically observes, the Spirit of the living Christ is blowing through the church today, nudging us into new stories about what it means to be followers of the crucified and risen one. In his article Phyllis Tickle, René Girard, and the Age of the Spirit, my colleague Adam Ericksen notes that in John’s Gospel the Spirit is called the parakletos or lawyer for the defense. This Spirit opens our eyes to see that the ones we condemn may in fact be Christ among us. As René Girard observes: “We should take with utmost seriousness the idea that the Spirit enlightens persecutors concerning their acts of persecution. The Spirit discloses to individuals the literal truth of what Jesus said during his crucifixion: ‘They don’t know what they are doing.’”
Emerging Questions for Christian Formation
In our times the Spirit is disturbing the stories we like to tell about our own innocence and the guilt of others. Like Saul, Cleopas and his companion, the Spirit is coaxing us into receiving a new story which reaches us through being forgiven by the risen victim sojourning alongside us. Beyond being skilled and entertaining storytellers, our role should involve coaxing our children and youth into receiving new stories about themselves through encounters with the Spirit of forgiveness and truth. Christian conversion is a movement from holding tightly on to our desire to write our own stories, to relaxing into receiving a generous, loving rewrite from the living God.
There is an aliveness to the movement of the Spirit, a liberating power that should infect our Christian formation programs from early childhood through adulthood. If my intuition is correct and we are open to having our stories given back to us in new and surprising ways, the utterly alive and joyful Spirit of the risen and forgiving victim will be found among us at the Faith Forward Conference next week. I hope to see you there or meet you soon somewhere on the road.
Suzanne Ross blogs at the Raven Foundation and Teaching Nonviolent Atonement here on Patheos, where she uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Suzanne on Twitter @SuzanneRossRF.