Friday, March 24, 2006

Does Christianity Need a New Language?

In his book Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue, Robert Johnston suggests that theological discussion is more likely these days to occur following a movie than a sermon. To support his point, he quotes Ken Gire as saying that movies give their viewers "an experience of transcendence" more consistently than many worshippers find in church. In his review of Reel Spirituality, Princeton professor C. Clifton Black responds boldly to this point by stating: "Gire may be right. If so, something in Christianity has gone terribly wrong." (Theology Today, July 2001, p. 274).

This whole issue may not make much sense to those who view film and television shows as nothing more than "entertainment." Until church members break free of this restrictive evaluation of film and tv, they will likely find themselves sitting among congregations whose median age is rising faster than an audience at a Tom Jones concert, wondering where all the young people have gone.

Now I am not saying that we need to turn our worship services into a spiritual version of the local cineplex, although some have done so. Ironically, I have never been greatly in favor of the use of film clips in worship, in part because they are often used so poorly as just an aid to prop up bad preaching. But Black's question continues to hover: what has gone wrong in Christianity that people, particularly younger people, are engaging these Hollywood stories more effectively than the communication of the church?

Pierre Babin, a specialist in Christian communication, has stated that "audiovisual-oriented people [are] being born, and we [can] no longer speak to them as we had spoken to them in the past." People being born today are coming into a very different world than many of us entered into. It is a world that trains them to think and communicate in a visual, story-driven way. There is a reason why people today become so emotionally invested in a show like Lost or allow a movie like Star Wars to consume their life (as I once had a student confess to me that "Star Wars is my life"). Stories are the means by which a culture creates meaning and shared identity. In an earlier post, I raised the issue of why TV matters. One answer is because it matters to the young people in our culture and churches. These are the stories that speak to their soul in a way that many churches are not. Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, recognized this when he said that he had no interest in creating a show that would be forgotten as soon as it was over, but he wanted to make a show that would be loved, that people would have a need to see.

What is the church to do? Many church leaders are struggling to communicate in a meaningful way with the younger members of our society, but finding that the messages and methods that connected in the past are no longer doing so. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a moment of prophetic insight, suggested many decades ago that for Christians to continue to impact the culture, they would need to find a new language. He says:

All Christian thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew . . . It is not for us to prophesy the day (though the day will come) when men will once more be called so to utter the word of God that the world will be changed and renewed by it. It will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming, as was Jesus' language; it will shock people and yet overcome them by its power. (Letters and Paper from Prison, 300)

How can the church discover (or perhaps recover) this new language? Might Hollywood give us a clue? One of the reasons why the stories of Hollywood resonate so powerfully with the youth of this country is because many of the people producing them understand the power of story and metaphor for communicating in today's culture. These are elements that we have long neglected in the church because story and metaphor deal in indirection and implication rather than direct propositions. They show rather than tell. And yet story and metaphor are one of the primary methods of communication in Scripture (psalms, prophecy, parables, apocalyptic). There are not a lot of sermons I've heard in my life that I can recall to this day, but the few that I can are sermons that engaged the language of story and metaphor (several by Mike Cope from my days at the College Church).

My students sometimes accuse me in my classes of raising more questions than I answer (especially when I teach "Revelation" which is an intentional strategy), and I am basically doing that here as well. I don't know what the solution is, but I do know what some of the questions are. Such as: Do we in fact need a new way of communicating in the church? Is this the time for the language revolution of which Bonhoeffer speaks? If so, how do we create this new language? How can we embrace story, metaphor, and symbolism in a way that allows the gospel message to speak to our culture with renewed force and power?


At 12:22 PM, Blogger Tim Castle said...

I wonder if we would need such a "language revolution" if we had been involved in "language evolution" all the way along, letting our methods of speaking the message of Jesus adapt as the culture's listening and learning styles changed.

It seems to me that if our "formal assemblies" are going to find a way to communicate to ongoing generations, we're going to have to start with adapting our styles of personal expression of the Good News of Jesus. Each of us will need to learn to tell how God has made an impact for us, using stories and allegories. For a lot of us not-quite-young-enough-to-be-postmoderns, that's going to take some work. For those who are postmodern, for the younger generations, it should be a bit easier, if we can get us all hooked on Jesus enough to let religion (the things we do to live out our faith) flow from a real connection to Him.

Just one pseudo-intellectual's two cents.

At 1:17 PM, Blogger Greg said...

Good thoughts. I especially like your comment about individuals needing to share their life stories within the community. I have come to believe that such a thing could be very beneficial in a variety of ways, not least of which is bridging the gap between the older and younger members.

At 1:52 PM, Anonymous John R said...

Has not this language gap always been the case? Is not this the whole KJV only discussion?

It seems to me that many of the older members of the church simply do not want that language bridge to be gapped. "Gimme that old time religion, it was good enough for grandpa and it's good enough for me." about sums it up.

I personally doubt that a "revolution" will happen. I simply think that we are actually seeing the "evolution" that Mr. Castle speaks of. Evolution is a very slow process but in 1000 years we might just find that our language has suddenly been changed.


At 2:59 PM, Blogger Radec said...

John--unfortunately I'm not sure our church has time to evolve slowly over time. I agree with Tim; we have neglected to grow and evolve with the world around us as a living church should and now we are struggling to keep our younger generations. From my perspective, my church is the same as it was when my parents took me as a young lad 25 years ago. The only thing that has changed is the average age of the members.

At 6:05 PM, Blogger k2 said...


i was thinking the same thing when i read your comment on tim's comment. we try to create that dynamic in our small groups that we use instead of having an evening service. we try to get the younger generation in groups with older generational people so they can share their lives. its hard to do that if you don't create an atmosphere where they basically have to. people don't generally come up to someone of another generation and say, "hey, what's eating you? i might have something that i can say that can help you. i have gone through somethings in my life and i think i can help you with them as you go through them."

am i being too naive? i think we can learn a lot of things from "the other" generation. we only need to communicate. that may happen with this other language that dietrich is talking about.

great post. your blog has become one of my favorites. "i like the way you talk. uhm-hmm."

At 7:40 PM, Blogger Greg said...

Thanks for the comments. Here at Rochester College we have had student testimonies in our assembly program for a long time. Recently we started adding faculty testimonies to the mix. I think this is a very effective way of connecting students to faculty and creating community.

At 11:59 PM, Blogger dena schultz said...

I am a member of Genesis the church in Royal Oak, MI. Some would say we have it all wrong due to our use of hollywood film clips,artist creating during the sermons, not to mention starbucks coffee anytime you feel like it. I have to say it is very effective and useful. I once heard it said,"technology is the modern-messiah". We have to be creative! dena

At 6:12 PM, Blogger KMiV said...

I liked that book. I also enjoyed "A Matrix of Meanings" by Detweiller and Taylor. I heard these guys talk at the ETS meeting here in Portland. I was amazed at how many of the older scholar/preachers criticized them for their buying into culture. Their point was that much of our culture is reflecting media. If we want to engage our culture we do need to engage the media.

For example--Rock Music. Groups like Creed, Evanescence, Joan Osborne, 3 Doors Down, U2, and now Brian (the converted guitarist from Korn) are talking about God, Jesus, and the church in their music. I am amazed at how many young people identify that. What a great set of illustrations for sermons and our classes!


At 9:56 PM, Blogger chris said...

Great questions. It strikes me as funny (peculiar) that the new ways of communicating are really just the old ways of communicating. Now, Jesus did not have the electronic toys that we do, granted. However, the methods have always been there for us to emulate. Only the media has changed in some huge ways. Unfortunately, our forms (the way we do things) in some cases, have become more important than our function (communicating the gospel in whatever way works in the culture we find ourselves). This requires a flexibility that has to be intentional. It goes further than the language it seems. We must be focused on the function and commit to whatever method works. It may be different in different churches, different parts of town, different parts of the region and country... maybe even different folks within the same church body locally. This may require a revolution of a larger scale.

At 11:40 PM, Blogger hkmart3 said...

This post and following comments has really got me to thinking. I've recently been using some film clips to initiate some class discussion at church. It's been fun. But these comments have also made me realize that some things I've been doing in our small group meetings (we call them 24/7 groups) are quite related to this "expansion of our language." Our group likes to think they're studying the Bible. But they also like to talk. I've realized that if we do not frame things in a way that allows as many as possible to "share their story", our "Bible study" is not very effective, and really just a lot of empty words. Stories apply.


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