Emergent Church Meets Language Arts (Part 1)


AlphaTangoBravo / Adam Baker

How do you market the gospel of English class to a lost and fallen culture? Adopt the most Christian of terminology, appropriate the most theological of rhetoric, and you too can save the world.

Wilhem and Novak’s new book Teaching Literacy for Love and Wisdom (2011, NCTEdescribes a blend of  philosophy, science, and literature that wants to be new, but I don’t think it acknowledges the roots that have run deep in Christian thought, providing a context and a vision for a fully integrated intellectual, vocational, imaginative, and spiritual life.

For example, the authors seek to link or “consiliate” various strands of human thought and education into a coherent whole, much as John Henry Newman effectively did in his The Idea of a University (1852). They skim over accomplishments of important thinkers who came before them in this realm. Appropriate attention is given to Dewey and Rosenblatt, and a smattering to Pradl. The wisdom of peace, love, and caring is linked to art, as Christian humanism has shown for hundreds of years, and as journals such as Image, whose supporters have included Denise Levertov, bear witness today. (Levertov’s poem “Writing in the Dark” is used in the book.) But the book should be praised for its noteworthy achievement of modeling how a dialogue between peers can evolve into a paradigm for viewing their teaching. Their conversation can inspire us, serving as it does as a model for our own inquiry and reflection. It lets me know how important my own reflective correspondence with a colleague of 21 years has been to our evolution as teachers. A distinctive feature of their language is its excessive use of charged spiritual terms of renewal, awakening, and healing to feed readers (or the Pharisaic standards-based culture we hope to justify ourselves to) the spiritual “milk” needed as “nourishment” of democracy. A little of this is effective, but it can feel as though it overstates the case.

Terminology such as “new life” and “transubstantiation” is playfully and joyfully used. As a Christian myself, I am enthused about the interplay between faith language and pedagogical goals. Yet when alluding to the object of such faith, the writers suggest that creativity’s life force has been inherited from past and present writers, passed along a chain whose beginnings recede into the distance “ad infinitum”, whereas logic and biblical faith would force a conclusion that all created effects have an origin – a prime mover, a first creator.

As to saving the world (a stated purpose for literature study), one concept from Brian MacLaren may help to point the discussion in a new direction: to focus on salvation and world peace as the authors have done is to formulate the question too “low”. It is “down here”, but meaning and spirituality are actually “up there” somewhere. The uses and emotions excited by good reading, writing, and thinking may have broader and more life-changing aspects than even the authors suggest (and they suggest literature is well able to cause change). While they speak of “joy”, we ought properly to speak of the sources of joy. Although the authors deny claims of any “mystical” or “magical” properties inherent in a meaning-making experience, their arguments seem otherwise to be drawn from Christian reasoning and experience, but may be neglecting the role that belief and the supernatural play in changing the world for the better. That is, what would be the harm in allowing a possibly mysterious process at work in literature’s effect on readers, or in the joy of teaching and learning with our students?

Perhaps, rather than focusing (as it seems to in Chapters 1-4) on the lower (yet noble) aim of how democratic literacy can mend a broken humanity, the “worldview” they present could describe how many of life’s noble enterprises (human actions) follow from deeply held “personal truths” (human beliefs). They declare that one goal of dialogue, no matter what other divergent feelings or opinions of individuals, is to cause people to evaluate their actions in light of their beliefs. Such self-examination will produce responsible students and citizens.

No doubt, a poem can spark a conversation among equals about life’s value and meaning; but if the goal is to : “collectively choose life” and “to save the human world” (p. 72) would a participant feel free to suggest that the human world is not worth saving, or that death is a valid choice? Is this also a bit of a heavy burden to place on literacy teachers, and on imaginative literature itself? What would be the role of revealed literature in that case? (The Hebrew scriptures, Christian New Testament, Qur’an?) Such sacred texts often have the acknowledged purpose of offering life, improving the world, or saving and renewing it.

If there is a hierarchical linchpin over the classroom conversation such as a deity or a founding document (Judeo-Christian God or The U.S. Constitution) which serves to equalize participants and if necessary arbitrate between them, it may help. A foreseeable problem with the evangelical marketing of “English class” as a life-changing enterprise is its possible clash with skeptics on both sides: those suspicious of the transcendental flavor of the arguments found in the book because a) they are not quite Protestant enough or b) thy are not secular enough.

One understands that Wilhelm and Novak want for every teacher and student is to experience what it means to be fully human, and they see that literature is a start, but that every area of academic study belongs to that experience. Specifically addressing spirituality in connection with Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences, the authors clearly understand that their territory intersects with the deepest of human experiences and meanings. Christian educators subscribing to a philosophy of religious education already accept that spiritual education is significant in a young person’s life, and have probably adopted a perspective that all subjects, curricular, and co-curricular activities serve as opportunities for teachers and students to practice integrating divine and human truths into daily life.

In brief – the authors’ project dovetails so well with Christian educational goals that it is foreseeable that they will partner with faith communities and teacher education programs at religious universities to communicate to the nation at large their holistic vision of “reading, writing, and living as creative and imaginative pursuits”.

To be continued…


1 Response to “Emergent Church Meets Language Arts (Part 1)”

  1. July 24, 2011 at 3:17 am

    -No doubt, a poem can spark a conversation among equals about life’s value and meaning; but if the goal is to : “collectively choose life” and “to save the human world” (p. 72) would a participant feel free to suggest that the human world is not worth saving, or that death is a valid choice? Is this also a bit of a heavy burden to place on literacy teachers, and on imaginative literature itself?”-

    These are really compelling questions. As a writer for young readers, I often personally feel the burden of the very end of this paragraph, myself.

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