Reviewed by Christine J. Gardner, Communication, Wheaton College
To communicate faith, one needs to live one’s faith. This is the unifying theme of this broad collection of essays edited by John Sullivan. Communicating Faith is an important resource for scholars and practitioners in the areas of Christian education and spiritual formation. Sullivan is professor of Christian education at Liverpool Hope University in Great Britain, and his experience as both a teacher and administrator are reflected here in thoughtful essays that dance (to borrow one of Sullivan’s metaphors) between the practical and theoretical.
The strength of this collection is its focus on embodied communication. The chapters are organized into six thematic units, including introductory essays on faith and communication (“The Grammar of Faith”); the home and parish (“Baselines”); primary and secondary education (“The School Context”); universities, both religious and secular (“Higher Education”); and the cross-cultural contexts of Africa, Ireland, the United States, and contemporary Europe (“International Perspectives”). The final section (“Aspects of Communication”) addresses uses of communication technologies and offers reflections on communication theory. Specific case studies range from ethnographies of an adult Bible study and school preparations for First Communion; interviews with teenagers about postmodernity; an analysis of the novel Atonement by Ian McEwan; an Ignatian reflection on Catholic school leadership development; and a review of evangelization strategies in Africa, to name a few. Some readers may wish for more attention to the specifics of the faith message, but that is not the aim here. The focus is on modes and methods of delivery, not content. Sullivan and his colleagues largely represent a Catholic faith perspective, but this does not unduly limit the broad applicability of the essays. The chapters take a more ecumenical stance, where the content of the faith being communicated takes a back seat to the particularities of the person doing the communicating and the person who is receiving.
Most of the essays address the professional faith communicator – the teacher, the university scholar, the parish priest or lay leader, or the cross-cultural missionary. That is perhaps why Clare Watkins’s essay on “Communicating Faith in the Home” stands out from among the offerings. She addresses the ordinary roles of mothers and fathers who want to share their faith, not because they are paid to, but because they believe their children’s futures depend on it. Watkins’s essay is a good example of the primacy given to the human agent in this collection of essays. She labels the Christian home as the “domestic church,” the site of foundational faith training. Intentionality in communicating faith to children is beside the point: as Watkins points out:
[W]e are teaching our children about the faith even when we don’t mean to: when I’m cross with Mrs. B. across the way; when I think my TV program more important than listening to my daughter; when I fail to let prayer, or sacrifice, or thanksgiving, or the language of faith have any place in our domestic conversations, beyond the liturgical events of Sunday church. We teach our children the ways of faith because they can see unerringly the extent of our own faith, and the integrity with which we live it and allow it to transform family decisions and practices. (38-39; emphasis in original)
This is a general theme across the essays: even for the professional faith communicator, our actions often speak louder than our words. Watkins offers a thoughtful account of how the Christian family is truly countercultural, enmeshed in the busyness of the culture in which it resides while at the same time challenging anti-authoritarian claims by holding fast to a common way of life. Parents set the example through their private prayers, a practice that is even more important to communicating faith in the home than forced family prayers, Watkins writes. The home is the lay expression of the church according to a theology of the domestic church, anchored in the sacrament of marriage. Whereas the essay acknowledges difficulties with this model (presumably any of the contemporary redefinitions of “family”) without suggesting any correctives, the essay presents an ideal model worth striving for, with implications that extend far beyond the home.
With so much valorization of embodied communication, Ros Stuart-Buttle’s essay on “Communicating Faith and Online Learning” voices a welcomed perspective. She begins by affirming both the imago dei, the “sacramentality of the created world and human living” (329) and the pervasiveness of the Internet. Stuart-Buttle, a researcher and practitioner in the area of online religious education, unashamedly offers a pro-technology view. She questions whether unexamined assumptions about the harms of Internet-based technologies have placed religious educators in the position of “losing touch with where people are at today” (333). This is not to say, however, that she ignores the centrality of relationships and community in religious education. She raises valid concerns about the Internet merely fostering “networked individualism” (335), as well as challenges to authority, identity, and presence that are created by virtual interactions. Even so, the excerpts she includes from some of her adult students’ Internet-based exchanges praise the honesty and openness of their online communities. In essence, the medium may be virtual, but the relationships are real. Technology is not problematized as much as it could be here; Stuart-Buttle asserts that a virtual learning community must be accessible to all and offer a safe, supportive space for conversation (337), but these are goals of non-virtual learning communities as well. What is it about the act of writing an e-mail about one’s spiritual journey or asking questions about faith in live messaging that may foster intimate disclosure and feelings of community in ways that sharing in an adult Sunday School does not?
Those interested in communication may want to start with the last section of the book first. John Sullivan’s concluding essay is one of a few essays in the book that offers a sustained discussion about how communication works. Sullivan identifies personal relationships as central to communication, highlighting four main aspects of communication as found in Scripture. First, the task of communicating faith begins by acknowledging that God is already communicating in and through his world. Second, Sullivan attempts to lower expectations, cautioning the reader that most attempts at communication will fail. Third, he reaffirms the central theme of the book that the best way to communicate faith is to live one’s faith. And fourth, Sullivan encourages a shifting of focus from the message of faith to the receivers of faith.
Sandwiched between his helpful reminder of the primacy of the agency of God and the importance of embodied, audience-centered communication is Sullivan’s most captivating point, yet it receives scant attention: How are we to proceed if most of our attempts to communicate are doomed to fail, particularly when the content of the message has eternal significance? This seems to be an assumed, although not explicitly stated, corollary to the first point: faith is God’s to communicate, not ours. Yet, as the purpose of this volume attests, this is only half the story. Sullivan would do well here to complicate the pro-embodied communication perspective by elaborating on the impact of miscommunication on Christian education, and even more radically, the potential violence that is directed toward the other in attempts to bridge the unfathomable gap between sender and receiver.1 The essay by Stuart-Buttle on the role of new communication technologies begins to raise some of these complicating questions, but a collection of this size would have benefitted from more of these voices.
Sullivan ends the volume in the second-to-last essay with his meditation on dance as a metaphor for the process of communicating faith. Dance provides structure and spontaneity (350), a holding on and a letting go (351). Of course, the dialectic described here is true of teaching in general, whether religious or not. What is missing here is an acknowledgement of varieties of ways in which we stumble and trip more often than flow and soar. Yet this back and forth movement of the dance aptly describes the communication and education processes. Gratefully, outdated transmission models of sender and receiver are largely ignored. As Jeff Astley writes in his essay, “Forms of Faith and Communication,”
The Christian communicator must take on the role of a translator, standing in between the Gospel tradi-tion and the learner, interpreting the one to the other and promoting a dialogue between the “Christian story and vision” and the learner’s own biography, life experience, beliefs, and hopes. This dialogue has the potential to change both sides. (30)
In this way, the dance of communicating faith is not just between the communicator and the learner, but includes the matter of faith itself. It is the varieties of this dance that this collection of essays so eloquently addresses.