blog. There is something about Christian language in the air!
The “age of the rage for literacy” has arrived at all levels of the Christian conversation. There is also a rush to “describe and denounce religious illiteracy,” but neither advocating for Christian literacy nor decrying illiteracy is very helpful if you can’t describe the next step, so that is what I intend to add to the conversation.">
By: Jerome W. Berryman
September 13, 2011
Tom Beaudoin was right in his recent blog. There is something about Christian language in the air!
The “age of the rage for literacy” has arrived at all levels of the Christian conversation. There is also a rush to “describe and denounce religious illiteracy,” but neither advocating for Christian literacy nor decrying illiteracy is very helpful if you can’t describe the next step, so that is what I intend to add to the conversation.
Tom also suggested that “the rage for literacy” may be a symptom of “something new being born that the crisis-discourse wants to suppress.” I think he is right, but we differ about what is being suppressed. My view is that the “crisis” masks the age-old need for fluency instead of literacy and a focus on children instead of youth and adults for native speakers to develop, as with any other language.
My contribution is to stress the need to teach children classical Christian language in a way that fosters playful orthodoxy. By this I mean that children need to be both deeply grounded in classical Christian communication and at the same time be open to new people, new ideas, and the future.
“...teach children classical Christian language in a way that fosters playful orthodoxy”
Teaching Christian language needs to involve the whole circle of the creative process, both the opening and scanning phase as well as the closing and conserving phase. This grounds classical language in the making of existential meaning while it is being learned through play with God and the community of children by means of Christian language. What I mean by “the creative process” may be found in Teaching Godly Play (pp. 136-137), which presents a typology of preferences for aspects of the creative process and in Children and the Theologians (pp.232-244) where the similar structures of love, flow, play, and contemplation is noted, which suggests the central importance of this graceful process for learning and using Christian language.
A major problem for learning Christian language today is that it is so “odd.” Ian T. Ramsey pointed out in his classic Religious Language: An Empirical Placing of Theological Phrases (1957) and made this strangeness explicit by comparing it to the accepted language of everyday and the formal language of science.
Today children spend most of their waking hours in school learning the language and worldview of science and outside of school they are becoming fluent in the language of consumerism. The oddity of Christian language makes it unintelligible and irrelevant to those so deeply engaged in our culture’s language-learning program. For example the basic language functions of scientific knowing and consumerism include addition, multiplication, subtraction and long division. The basic functions of Christian language are sacred story, parables, liturgical action, and contemplative silence. What could be more different?
Children naturally are aware of God’s presence, by whatever name this experience might be called. David Hay’s Something There: The Biology of the Human Spirit (2007) supports this and grew out of work by Alister Hardy (1896-1985), Professor of Zoology at Oxford University from 1946-1961. He founded the Religious Experience Research Unit at Manchester College, Oxford when he retired in 1963 and gave the Gifford Lectures in 1963-1965. His research unit is now called The Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre, and is located at the University of Wales, Lampeter. The experience is there and is part of our evolution. The question is how to integrate Christian language with this experience without distorting or destroying it.
In my own growing up I remember vividly the significance of knowing that there is “something there.” The exact details are sometimes revised over time as with all autobiography, but the God of Power was felt in the numinous and fearful darkness and in the glorious exuberance within and around me in nature, including people. I talked to this God and cried out to the expanding, creative energy embodied in the God of Power about my own life’s limitations. When I was dressed up and introduced to the Church God I learned to be nice and polite in a church-sort-of-way. Gradually, however, I began to speak a kind of Christian language that joined the language of the Church God and the fearful reality of the God of Power to discover that this language was profoundly useful for coping with my existential limits. I was lucky. Most children today have to try to make do with science, rock stars, and video games to cope with their existential limits.
An example might be useful. One Easter Sunday, when I was about five or six, I stood with aunts, uncles, and cousins in the large family garden out behind the barn after church. I had only vaguely listened during church. Now in the garden with family around me, the church across the street, the spring sun warming the brown earth and bits of green pushing up out of the ground into the blue sky—- I realized in a half-verbal way that these two experiences, the God of Power and the Church God, were connected. Without saying this out loud to anyone around me or even to myself I knew what the word “Easter” meant. It was no longer a word defined by a place or other words. “Easter” was a word that drew into itself and yet pointed beyond itself to the power of life’s rebirth.
Gratitude for experiences like this is why I have spent my professional life working on something called Godly Play. It is a way to help children use Christian language to cope with their existential limits while they are learning the art of how to speak it. This learning grasps the language with the body, as in the Montessori tradition of education, so meaning can be grasped with the mind and spirit. Knowing this powerful language is not an end in itself. It is the means to know and be informed by God’s presence beyond, beside, and within.
In the early 1980s I carried on a wonderful correspondence with Edward Robinson, who was then the director of the Religious Experience Research Unit at Manchester College, Oxford. We talked about “speaking Christian.” In those days I was working primarily at The Institute of Religion in the Texas Medical Center in Houston, teaching medical ethics and developing Godly Play as pastoral care in hospitals and Christian education in various parish settings.
We discussed whether Christian language had died or was only sleeping. Edward was discouraged about the death of Christian language, while I was excited about waking it up, because I was working directly with children and had experienced their wonder and curiosity about how the experience of the God of Power fit together with the depths of classical Christian language.
The theory resulting from this clinical work was finally published as Godly Play in 1991. Then came an early version of the method in 1995, followed by the curriculum in the seven volumes of The Complete Guide to Godly Play. In 2009 the method was more adequately described in Teaching Godly Play: How to Mentor the Spiritual Development of Children and the history of theology’s view of children with an evaluation of our present situation was explored in Children and the Theologians.
After working for about fifty years to help children become native speakers of Christian, as a second language, I am still curious why the importance of this isn’t obvious to everyone. This, however, is a long-term approach and we tend to focus on the latest crisis, as Tom suggested. Perhaps, this time the crisis will not be able to suppress the need to help children become native speakers of the Christian language and “playful orthodoxy” will become normal, rather than a mildly interesting oxymoron.
Jerome W. Berryman is the founder of Godly Play and has wide experience working with children ages 2-18. he has written numerous articles and books an presents lectures and workshops throughout the world. Jerome is Senior Fellow of the Center for the Theology of Childhood. HIs latest book is Children and the Theologians: Clearing the Way for Grace . For more information, go to www.godlyplayfoundation.org.