Word is not the same as words; the paradox of Christian teaching.

Jesus often taught in pictures: ‘the kingdom of God is like……….’ etc. 

Perhaps Jesus was aware (after all He stands both inside and outside of time and space as we understand it) of the colloquialism that ‘a picture paints a thousand words,’ or that Ignatian spirituality would later stress the importance of meditative techniques in which participants imagined their way into a given gospel account, either a parable or an historical event. Maybe Jesus was also aware that twentieth century educationalists and psychologists would discover NLP  which stresses that individuals are programmed to learn either through words, pictures or feelings.

Of course Jesus had to paint pictures and encourage the use of the imagination because he was bringing the good news of the kingdom into a largely illiterate society. But more than this, he was bringing the kingdom into a society controlled by  the most skillful of wordsmiths; the Scribes and the Pharisees.

‘Surely not!’ I hear you say! It’s hard for us to imagine a society such as this, isn’t it!?

Forgive my cynicism.

However if my cynicism has some merit there are surely lessons to be learnt?

Contemporary wordsmiths, such as me, need to understand and adapt their ‘teaching styles,’ accordingly. A visiting lecturer once made this point to me. She told me how effective my lectures were for students who learn through words, but how useless the same lectures were for ‘visuals’ and ‘kinesthetics.’

Looking back I think that I was guilty of two sins.

First, I was indulging my own preferences (I like words and can’t see the point of graphs, pie charts etc!l) without considering the needs of others.

Secondly, there was in reality a bit of a power game going on, you see in today’s world we really do endorse and promote those who are good with words. Richard Dawkins ‘theology,’ for instance, only sells well because he is good with words (by way of encouragement his sales are minuscule compared to the religious best-sellers, so please let’s keep a sense of proportion). The Scribes and Pharisees commanded respect, and not a little fear, because they were good with words, and they knew it. Words and power are inextricably linked.

Christian educators are therefore faced with a paradox: We are charged with preaching the gospel afresh in every age, in other words introducing individuals and communities to The Word, without necessarily relying on words. Word with a capital W cannot, should not, be reduced to  words. Too much emphasis in our teaching on words is to deny the possibility of  a Divine encounter with those who, through His creation, relate through pictures and feelings. How we teach goes back to the doctrine of creation!

So all of this leads me to these  questions:

‘What constitutes good Christian teaching?’

‘What doctrines and ethics that should guide our teaching?’ 

‘Does our teaching style simply confirm the status quo?’ Sadly, for many churches, perhaps (again paradoxically) those who stress a ‘strong / good teaching,’ I suspect that it does!

Post script:

My favorite picture this week was of Egyptian Muslims standing guard for Roman Catholics as they went to Mass. I was going to include the picture but decided not to (honesty moment – it is partly because I am a technophobe), so why not as a quasi Ignatian exercise imagine yourself into such a scene?


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