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Multimedia Witness in Christian Worship
By Tex Sample
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2005 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Story and Practice
Stanley Hauerwas tells a story about his six-year-old cousin. The little boy is in Sunday school in a church outside Dallas, and his teacher is telling the class about the Crucifixion. While he knows the story of Jesus on the cross, this is the first time in his young life that he begins to understand that the cross is an event of great agony for Jesus. It, of course, disturbs him so he attempts to get the teacher's attention by raising his hand. She fails to notice him, so he begins to wave his hand. When this doesn't work, he stands at his seat and now waves vigorously. Finally getting her attention, he shouts out: "If Roy Rogers had been there the s.o.b.s couldn't have done it!"
Now, I like Roy Rogers. In fact, when I compare his movies to the levels of violence on TV and in the cinema today, it is pretty mild. In those days Roy shoots the gun out of the outlaw's hand. Today's action heroes may first knock their sinister opponents into a giant gear box to be ground into hamburger before being then deposited into a dissolving acid as the last act before placing their "remains" in a rocket ship headed for the surface of the fiery furnace of the sun. Roy is better.
Still, the six-year-old makes the mistake we Christians repeatedly make. We take God's story and we are forever placing it in another story. He and we take the story of a nonviolent savior who has at his disposal, according to scripture, a legion of angels should he want them, but asks for no such violent rescue. He faces the torture, the agony, and death on the cross peaceably. He does not take up the sword.
Getting the Story Right
When I first began to attend church regularly, my Sunday school teacher was a man I shall call Mr. Archon, the New Testament Greek word for ruler. It is not his real name. He was quite prominent in my town, a man of some means. What is more he was a charismatic man, a person with a lot of magnetism about him. I don't recall that he ever told anyone what to do. When he wanted something done, he always asked. He never ordered people around. He had a kind of authority about him that made you want to do it. A good teacher in Sunday school, he held our interest, and he convinced us without seeming to demand it.
About once a month it seemed, maybe more often, he taught us that African Americans were not fully human. They were cursed by God, and they were to be ruled over by whites. Segregation of the races was to be maintained at all cost, and it was our responsibility as Southerners, as Mississippians, and as Christians to support the separation of the races and the rule of whites.
It just so happens that there was a retired missionary, Miss Harriet Annette Buehl (not her real name), who also taught and worked with children and youth in our church. She spent thirty years as a missionary in Korea and came back to my hometown in the late thirties after the Japanese required her and other U.S. church personnel to leave. She was retired and living on a missionary pension.
I don't remember her ever taking on Mr. Archon in any overt way. Certainly she never confronted him. She could hardly take him on and stay in that church or that town. Still, it seemed that every time Mr. Archon taught us those terribly racist things, Miss Buehl countered that teaching. And I don't know how she did it even to this day, at least not completely. I don't remember her ever saying anything explicit as a rebuttal, again, a risky move in that world. Rather, she had us sing "Yes, Jesus loves me" which she taught us in Korean. (I can still sing the song in Korean after all these years, though my pronunciation has a distinctly Southern [U.S.] accent.) But she also taught us the song Somehow I know that the connection between the two songs is basic to Jesus' love. You don't have one without the other.
Jesus loves the little children,
all the children of the world.
Red and yellow, black and white,
they are precious in his sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
Miss Buehl also took us to her house and showed us art and artifacts from Korea. There were toy houses, beautiful dolls, intricate paintings of landscapes and people, wall hangings, and much more. It was my first experience of anything I remember outside my own culture, and Miss Buehl placed all of these things in the story of Jesus' love. To this day I do not know how I learned it, but I know that Miss Buehl was right about Jesus, and Mr. Archon was wrong about "colored people."
You see, Mr. Archon took God's story and put it in the racist story. Miss Buehl took the racist story and put it in God's story and called it fundamentally into question. I understand this to be the narrative work of the church. Without Miss Buehl's teaching and witness I have no idea what direction my life would have taken.
There may be nothing more basic than getting our stories right. Stanley Hauerwas sees as clearly as anyone how much our lives are shaped by the operative story or stories that work on us and through us. The individualism in our culture often obscures how much we are shaped by the story, the history of our lives. We often see ourselves in this culture as free autonomous individuals. We fail to see that this is a story, and a false one. It conceals how profoundly we are shaped by such fictions. In the very act of seeing ourselves as free individuals, we cover up all the ways we are formed that we do not choose, including some in which we are not free at all. For example, we do not choose the times in which we live or the culture in which we are raised. We do not choose our mother tongue with the profound, inerasable imprint it has upon our thought, our feeling, and our orientation to "reality." We are by no means the free autonomous individuals of modernist, Enlightenment thought. One of the ways we, as the church, struggle against this kind of captivity is to gain greater clarity about the unfaithful stories that shape our lives and by a more self-conscious participation in God's alternative story as a different form of life. It is crucial that God's story be the formative story of the church if the church is to be the church.
In this connection Karl Barth argues that we must not locate the Christian faith in a presumed larger set of categories or some presumed more encompassing story. Basic to what follows here is an attempt to keep faith with this claim. The most unfaithful and sinful betrayals of God occur precisely in those times when we place God's story in another story and attempt to make God's story serve that idol. I think here of the ways in which God's story has been placed in the narrative of slavery, or of patriarchy, or of heterosexism, or the stories of economic and political orders.
In a book concerned with rhetoric it seems especially important to be on guard against the temptation to find out what is persuasive and then bend or "translate" God's story to fit it. The notion of translation is a dangerous one. In his book Two Hundred Years of Theology Hendrikus Berkhof surveys the attempt by the church to translate the Christian faith into the language of the modern world, a language that becomes increasingly secular. He uses the analogy of the church as a boat navigating the river of time. But as the boat comes upon the sand banks and shallows of modernity, it has to throw out cargo in order to sail through. Such a strategy leads finally to an emptying of the vessel just to manage the obstructions of the modern, secular world and to stay afloat!
It is not my intent to engage in this translation strategy, for at least two reasons. One is that the secular world is in so much trouble of its own. The second is that the church needs no such strategy, and I suggest another later in this chapter. But I hope to reverse the pattern of placing God's story in the "requirements" of rhetoric and to propose the ways that rhetoric can serve the faith intrinsically.
As important as it is to get our story right, it is also critical that the concrete, material practices of our lives be intrinsic to that story.
The Practice of the Story
Peggy and I were at a party at a friend's house. They have a large living room, and I am tucked away in one corner talking to a man who works in government service. Having served in many places over the past twenty-five years he has rich experience and great stories. I love a good story, and he is plying me with one after another. He is a good storyteller, and I am having a fine time.
Suddenly his spouse starts coming in our direction. Upon noticing that she is about to join us, he enters into a practice I experience over and over again. In fact, I experience this practice so often I call it a ritual and give it a name. The name of the ritual is "Honey, I am talking to a minister, so watch what you say."
By the time she gets to us, she's got the message. She says,
"So, you're a minister."
"I'm a United Methodist."
"Ah, I used to be a Methodist."
"Yes, but I'm not one anymore. Nowadays I'm into Native American spirituality."
"I see, and which tribe do you practice your Native American spirituality with?"
"What? Oh, my, I'd never do anything like that!"
"I see, then, perhaps you work with a shaman or some holy person?"
"Oh dear God, I would never do anything like that."
"I see, then, perhaps there is some group you practice your Native American spirituality with?"
"You're putting me on, aren't you? You know I wouldn't do any of those things."
"Well, what do the mean you're 'into Native American spirituality?'"
"Oh, I read a book, and I saw Dances with Wolves."
This story illustrates what the scholars who study such things call "mere belief," the idea that you can engage matters of ultimate commitment and conviction merely by believing in them. Dean Hoge, Benton Johnson, and Donald Luidens call this "lay liberalism," where mainline Protestant Baby Boomers do not have "meanings," but "notions." This latter term notions, conveys ideas that make no demands on those who hold to them but "can be bandied back and forth like verbal playthings." Mere belief seems to require little more than leisure activities like perhaps reading a book and engaging in selective offerings of pop culture.
I want to contest this as sharply as I can. I contend that if our beliefs are not embedded in practices, entire territories of our lives, what we know, what we feel, and certainly what we are committed to and convicted of will never come into play. Indeed, there are things we will never know, things we will never feel if we do not practice them. Such people are formed by some kind of practices, but they are not formed by practices around what they merely believe.
Knowing through Practices
For twenty-three years Barry Tedford was my neighbor and a good friend. During that time he worked as yard foreman in a lumber company specializing in walnut. He knows walnut with the kind of intimacy that work requires. I like to make things with walnut but on a small scale. I am not good at it or skillfully formed by long practice with it. So when I get a piece of walnut, I talk to Barry about how I intend to use it.
Barry holds the walnut board in his left hand. He licks the inside of his right thumb and then strokes the board. As he does so, he makes sounds: "Hmmm ... hmmm ... hmmm." Then he hands it back to me and usually says one of two things. Either he says, "Tex, all walnut is beautiful; but that piece is gonna split on you, so be careful with it." Or, "Tex, that's a beautiful piece of walnut; do something special with it."
I go back home, go into a room by myself where Peggy cannot hear me. I hold the board in my left hand. I lick the inside of my right thumb. I rub that board, and I make sounds: "Hmm ... hmm ... hmm." You know what happens? Not a blooming thing!
I do not have the kind of long practice and intimacy with walnut that Barry does. There are things I simply cannot know apart from that kind of engagement over a long time. One of the problems with mere belief, with only having "notions" about ultimate issues, is that precisely this kind of formation in the faith does not occur. I am not arguing works righteousness here. God's grace calls us into a new way of life and empowers us in a new range of practices. We can, however, refuse that call and turn away from the practices of worship, prayer, Eucharist, ministry, justice, and peace. Indeed, most people do.
Practice and the Formation of Feeling
A word about feeling and commitment is in order. I notice an interesting relationship between the practices of intimacy and the emotional richness and faithfulness of a marriage relationship. Good marriages require intimate practices. Take kissing for example. Kissing when you leave home, kissing when you come home, and kissing a lot in between are important practices of intimacy. It really helps, moreover, to kiss at some point even when you are having an argument. Some people say you shouldn't do what you don't feel. This is a miserable teaching. You kiss during an argument because you know that a lot more is going on in this relationship than the fact that you are having a disagreement. Besides, our feelings are formed in great part by our practices. I want practices that form a relationship that is far more important than what we may feel at a certain point of disagreement.
Kissing at the best times of your lives, and the worst; kissing when you are jubilant and when you are in despair; kissing in moments of triumph and in times of defeat; kissing in the face of the death of close relatives and friends: These are basic to the formation of a marriage of rich feeling and relational devotion. I see these signs on walls, usually in kitchens: "Kissing don't last; cooking do." I'll be hanged if this is true. I can always eat out. Someone says that you can kiss out too. If you kiss out, you're going to kiss off!
In part, I am using kissing as a metaphor for a host of intimate practices. Speaking the kind word, saying "I love you," touching each other as you walk past, smiling, warm looks of affection, sharing household duties, vacuuming rugs and picking up the house, indicating with a glance an intimate inside joke when with others: These are among the practices that make a couple profoundly married. Still, I don't want to get away from the concrete, material practice of kissing itself. In this culture, at least, when the kissing goes, something dies in the relationship. To be sure, an end to kissing can be a symptom that the marriage is already in trouble; but without it a basic practice of formation is absent. Such is the power of practices to deepen emotional life and commitment.
Practice and Transformation
One of my favorite biblical passages is Romans 12. In verse 1 Paul tells us to present our bodies "as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship." Then comes this striking teaching in verse 2: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect." In verses 3-8 Paul then discusses the different functions and gifts that we have in the church as Christ's Body. But I want to look more closely at verses 9-21. In this section Paul lists the practices that I read as keeping us from conformity to the world and that change who we are. In these verses Paul lays out the practices by which by God's grace we are transformed. Look at just a few of these:
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good. (v. 9)
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. (v. 12)
Contribute to the needs of the saints. (v. 13)
Extend hospitality to strangers. (v. 13)
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. (v. 14)
Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. (v. 16)
If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. (v. 18)
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God. (v. 19)
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (v. 21)
This is some list! Except for the Sermon on the Mount I know of no other more transforming set of practices. A friend of mine for years underwent the unfair and inaccurate attacks of a right-wing extremist. Later this man was jailed for criminal actions in behalf of his causes. Among the first people to visit him in jail was my friend. He then maintained a relationship of caring and visitation until the man's death. Practices like these refuse conformity to the world and transform people so engaged.
This practice of doing good to people who have abused him is a long-standing practice of my friend. I remember once getting excessively angry with him. I said things to him I ought not to say. I was dead wrong. What caught me completely off guard was his mild and gentle response. When I later apologized to him, his response was again gentle and conciliatory. He never held my violation of our relationship against me and never brought it up. We continue to be friends. Such formation of character is constructed by long practice. In his case I see it profoundly related to his long-time practice of nonviolence.
I do not mean to suggest by this that my friend is a doormat or one who will not speak up for what is right. Anyone who has ever debated him knows the power with which he will speak forthrightly for peace and justice and how incisive his argument is. As one who knows what it is like to be on the losing side of such encounter, I can assure you that he is no doormat!
I think, too, of Paul's instruction to practice hospitality. On November 1, 1991, an alienated Chinese post-graduate student at the University of Iowa shot and killed five University of Iowa people and himself. At Thanksgiving later that same month three women, widowed by the shooting of their professor-spouses, cooked dinner for a crowd of about fifty Chinese students.
Surely it is easy for a person to take a racist turn after having a spouse killed by a student of a particular race and then to blame an entire people collectively. But these three women engaged a radically different practice of hospitality and embodied in that practice a challenge to any such racist turn.
Excerpted from Powerful Persuasion by Tex Sample. Copyright © 2005 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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