Institute on Religion and Democracy
May 20, 1999
An ecumenical church educators conference in February, involving 2,000 local church educators, pastors and teachers, focused on the importance of "stories" and "storytelling." But many of the speakers at "FaithOdyssey" in Chicago declined to cite the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the central story for fallen humanity.
Although sponsored by 12 mainline denominations, FaithOdyssey's plenary speakers and workshop leaders often sounded more like spiritual post-modernists than Christian educators. Their themes seemed to imply every "story" is unique and valid, subject to no objective standard of truth. The church's mission was portrayed as one of affirmation and listening, rather than conversion and transformation.
"Stories are what we must use to make new fiction and new narrative by which to live," explained Linda Vogel of United Methodist Garrett Seminary in Chicago. "We are a story formed people," she noted, citing stories from the Scriptures but also "stories that continue long after the [biblical] canon was closed."
Cynthia Campbell, president of Presbyterian McCormick Seminary in Chicago, seemed to agree. "Who we are is not answered entirely by affirmations of faith, but by stories, tales vignettes, metaphors." She told the educators their task is to recover "our memory...or create a memory," and to "keep telling tales and weaving your own story into the fabric of that great Story."
Perhaps the most New Age of the Faith Odyssey speakers, and the most creative in offering new stories, was Doug Wood, author of a book called "Old Turtle," and composer of such songs as "Earth Songs" and "Deep Woods, Deep Waters." In his remarks he shared lore from the Cree Indian tribe.
"My favorite stories all have to do with the earth, with our relationship to the earth, and to the moon and the stars and natural things," Wood said. "It's about seeing God in one another and in the beauty of all the earth." It's possible to see the world as the Bible, and everything around us full of "sacred Scriptures," he explained.
He cited people, rocks, trees and streams. "All of these things are conduits of the creative force or whatever we want to give a name to it, whether Yahweh, or God, Tichi Mantow or Wacum Toncho or Allah or Osana Bookha or Mahaho or any of hundreds of other names."
Many people and cultures have concluded that true wisdom can be found in the universe, Wood approvingly mentioned. Anything will talk to you if you love it enough, he said, again citing the moon and stars. "The world can communicate to us."
Wood said he had learned a great deal from his old teachers and grandfather, but also many "non-human teachers," such as rocks and trees and plants and animals. "And to me there isn't any difference. It's just the community of life."
"The creative essence of the universe comes through each person you pay attention to," Wood concluded. He is writing a new book called "Holy Ground" about sacred places such as Jerusalem, Mecca, and holy sites for Buddhists, Aborigines and other indigenous peoples. Its theme is that all "ground beneath our feet is holy ground."
Mary Elizabeth Mullino Moore of the United Methodist School of Theology at Claremont, California, and author of "Ministering with the Earth," echoed some of Wood's New Age themes. She invited all the participants to pray with their bodies.
Moore called "FaithOdyssey" a "journey with no beginning and no real end." She described a world of "tears and laughter, ...where monkeys chatter, ...where rivers splatter, ...where hurting matters, and people's lives are shattered and ecosystems tattered." And she spoke of a world "where God is a friend and a creation without end."
Her theme was "quilting the future." She said God does speak to us "through the splendor of the mountains or the quietness of mountain stream, through the people who love us and the people who hurt us."
Moore described the "story-teller dolls" made by Pueblo Indian women. Like the Pueblo doll makers, we are "feeling the clay and letting it tell us what it wants to be." And we are reproducing the patterns of our ancestors.
"We drink from our own well," Moore affirmed. She said it was a tragedy that the controversy over the 1993 Re-Imagining Conference had become so politicized, because imagination and re-imagination are so essential to faith. "If we can't imagine, we can't follow Jesus," she said.
She urged the audience to "gather fabric" for their quilt by meditating in silence during her speech and by "imagining" a new design. While participants meditated about the "sacred people" and "sacred places," in their lives, Moore read poetry about rivers and rocks. She invited listeners not to think about the future as "moving down the line...from sin to glory, from sin to salvation to eternal life. But think about it as moving into circles."
"Walking into God's world is walking in circles," Moore said. She also encouraged "education filled with moments of being with other people and the earth." And she noted that education has less to do with biblical literacy and more to do with "biblical knowing and creation knowing." She suggested education should stress appreciation for people who are different not only because of viewpoint, race, and class but also sexual orientation.
During her workshop, Moore announced that angels exist in many forms, such as the ancestors or "ghosts" of deceased ancestors. She asked the audience to be still and "allow the presence of those spirits to be real to you" and to "sit with those spirits until they bless you."
Moore and Wood were not the only speakers to employ Native American spirituality and folklore. United Methodist minister Ken Bedell of St. Louis University, citing "traditional stories" as a powerful force for faith, introduced Vi Hilbert, an elder of the Upper Skagit tribe.
Hilbert, who spoke by teleconference, told of a story from her tribe called "Lady Louse." Singing in her tribal tongue, and then translating into English, Hilbert told of a louse (singular for "lice") who lives in a large house, has no friends, gets lost in the house and is never heard from again. The story ends on that inconclusive note.
"Through Lady Louse you can reveal who you are," Bedell observed appreciatively. "It is truly a beautiful story." Hilbert said she has used the story to "touch" many lives, even in prison counseling.
Unlike Hilbert, Barbara Essex of the Pacific School of Religion did not resort to folklore about insects. Instead, she condemned "right-wing conservatives" who overshadow more "compassionate" mainline church leaders. She bemoaned the large numbers of Christian men attending Promise Keepers rallies, despite its "racist benefactors." She complained, to applause, about the "malicious and sick manner" in which the U.S. Congress had impeached President Clinton.
Essex interpreted the Gospel account of a crippled man by the pool of Bethesda as a story of racial and political injustice. "Sorry, no bi-lingual education for you," she recounted of that man as a representative of society's oppressed. "Sorry, no affirmative action for you...Sorry, no livable wages for you...Sorry for no employment opportunities for you."
As Jesus told that crippled man to rise up and walk, so Jesus tells us today to work for social justice, Essex affirmed.
Presbyterian Elizabeth Caldwell of McCormick Seminary spoke of the importance of involving children in the worship service beyond just choir participation and candle lighting. "I love to have children serve communion," she remarked. Caldwell also urged inclusive language regarding God. "I like God as Father, but I also like God as mother, redeemer, creator and parent. I love many names for God."
"Be an ecclesial [sic] termite," Caldwell advised. "Gnaw away at traditions that need to be gnawed away it...and that need to be re-examined." Linda Vogel, who shared the podium with Caldwell, concluded, "We must choose which stories we will claim. Then we must rehearse them to our children."
Emile Townes of United Methodist Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City spoke as a self-professing "womanist" or black feminist theologian. She said, as a Christian ethicist, she analyzes the world through the prism of race, gender and the environment.
"Sometimes we get a lot of mixed messages when we take the Bible seriously," Townes said. "We can sometimes slide into making the Bible an idol...In some of our churches the Bible takes the place of God." Paul was the first contextual theologian, Townes said. What he said in Corinth did not always line up with what he said in Thessalonica. "It's a compelling book but not an idol," she stressed.
Not all of the speakers at FaithOdyssey were as provocative as some of the persons quoted above. Many simply addressed educational issues of technique, such as how to employ "multi-sensory" technology that will appeal to young people. Most of the hymns and liturgies used in worship sounded traditional.
Lutheran theologian Marva Dawn presented an orthodox message about a God who "is always at work intervening in the world." She stressed the distinction between worship and evangelism. "If we turn worship into evangelism, then God doesn't get the worship He deserves," she warned. Yet she also cited the importance of making disciples.
Dawn's presentation was unique. Few, if any, of the other major "story tellers" at FaithOdyssey expressed great interest in winning persons to a personal faith in Jesus Christ, promoting personal holiness, acknowledging the Christian revelation as objective truth, or offering Christian apologetics to answer the claims of alternative religions and philosophies.
Instead subjective personal stories were praised as part of the richer mosaic of a larger Story, whose chief focus is humanity, or perhaps the cosmos, but not necessarily the biblical deity. The Scriptures were presented as one valid story among many others.
FaithOdyssey offered its 2000 Christian educators many spiritual journeys but no certain or even desirable destinations. As such, the tribal story of "Lady Louse" who got lost inside her own house was maybe a very apt parable.
Sponsoring denominations of FaithOdyssey were the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the American Baptist Church, the Church of the Brethren, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Reformed Church in America, the Presbyterian Chrch in Canada, the United Church of Christ, the United Church of Canada, and the United Methodist Church.