Telling it slant!

© Revd Rex A E Hunt
Director of Communications
Assembly Communications Unit
Uniting Church in Australia

• Presented to the Australian Churches Media Association, Annual General Meeting Sydney, NSW
29 October 1990.


TELLING IT SLANT! SYMBOL, IMAGE AND METAPHOR. . .

There is a story about metaphor and imagination that has been travelling around which I found delightful.  I first came across it through the work of American priest and storyteller, John Shea.

Let me share it with you.

Once upon a time, there was a very pious couple.

They had married with great love and the love never died.

Their greatest hope was to have a child

so their love could walk the earth with joy.

Yet there were difficulties.

And since they were very pious, they prayed, and prayed and prayed.

With that along with considerable other efforts,

lo and behold the wife conceived.

When she conceived,

she laughed louder than Sarah laughed when she conceived Isaac.

And the child leapt in her womb

more joyously than John leapt in the womb of Elizabeth

when Mary visited her.

And nine months later

there came rumbling into the world a delightful little boy.

They named him Mordecai

and the sun and the moon were his toys.

He was outgoing and zestful,

gulping down the days and dreaming through the nights.

And he grew in age, and wisdom, and grace

until it was time to go to the synagogue 

and study the Torah, the Law of God.

The night before his studies were to begin 

his parents sat Mordecai down 

and told him how important the Word of God was.

They stressed that without the Word of God

Mordecai would be an autumn leaf in the winter's wind.

He listened wide-eyed.

Yet the next day he never arrived at the synagogue.

Instead, he found himself in the woods,

swimming in the lakes and climbing the trees.

And when he came home at night,

the news had spread throughout the small village.

Everyone knew of his shame.

His parents were beside themselves.

They did not know what to do.

So they called in the behaviour modificationalists

who modified Mordecai's behaviour,

so that there was no more behaviour of Mordecai's

that was not modified.

Nevertheless, the next day he found himself in the woods,

swimming in the lakes and climbing the trees.

So they called in the psychoanalysts

who unblocked Mordecai's blockages

so there were no more blockages for Mordecai to be blocked by.

Nevertheless, the next day he found himself again in the woods,

swimming in the lakes and climbing the trees.

His parents grieved for their beloved son. There seemed to be no hope.

It was at this time that the great Rabbi visited the village. 

And the parents said, 

"Ah! Perhaps the Rabbi..." 

And so they took Mordecai to the Rabbi and told him their tale of woe.

And the Rabbi bellowed, 

"Leave the boy with me, and I will have a talk with him."

Mordecai's parents were terrified. 

So he would not go to the synagogue 

but to leave their beloved son with this lion of a man... 

But they had come this far, so they left him.

Now Mordecai stood in the hallway

and the Rabbi was in the study and he looked through the door at him and said, "Boy, come here." 

Trembling, Mordecai came forward.

And then the great Rabbi picked him up and held him silently against his heart.

His parents came to get him and they took Mordecai home.

And the next day,

he went to the synagogue to learn the Word of God.

And when he was done, he went to the woods.

And the Word of God became one with the word of the woods

which became one with the word of Mordecai.

And he swam in the lake.

And the Word of God became one with the word of the lake

which became one with the word of Mordecai.

And he climbed the trees.

And the Word of God became one with the word of the trees

which became one with the word of Mordecai.

And Mordecai himself grew up and became a great man.

And people came to him who were broken inside, and with him they found healing.

And people came to him seized with inner panic.

And with him, they found peace.

And people came to him who were without anybody

and with him they found communion.

And people came to him, with no exits at all.

With him, they found possibilities.

And Mordecai often said, 

"I first learned the Word of God

when the great Rabbi held me silently against his heart."

Like John Shea, perhaps I should declare I have nothing more to say, but also like him I will keep talking!

oo0oo

Way back in the 1960s, a Canadian called Marshall McLuhan stunned the academic and communication world with the simple phrase 'the medium is the message'.

"The medium, or process, of our time - electric technology - is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life. 

It is forcing us to reconsider and re- evaluate practically every thought every action, and every institution formerly taken for granted" (McLuhan 1967:8).

While many have argued with him, much of what he said and did, raised the level of consciousness about what and how and when we 'communicate'.

Some of his concepts even rubbed off on to religious communicators.

I believe it was as a result of the work of McLuhan, initially, and then later Babin and Ong, that we began to realise, for example, just how much we were locked into a print/logical mode of communication.  And more than that... there was also a realisation as to how print had changed the patterns of both doing theology, as well as the contents of theological discussion and reflection.

In an oral society, the church shaped its communication in story, image and rituals. Following the invention of the printing press, much of this changed.  Tracts and sermons were printed and made available to people for private reading while the bible was placed in every home.

The catechism became the main teaching instrument studied in the privacy of one's home, relacing communal interpretation.

Printing also standardised the Mass, a standardisation which found expression in the Tridentine Mass and which lasted for over 400 years.

Print introduced a communication change. But not all of this change was positive. What concerns me at times is, many church leaders are very critical of the electronic media, of the use of video and the such, but strongly, almost by second nature, support the use of print. Their opposition to the electronic media appears to overshadow any awareness of the negative impact brought about through the introduction of print!

This afternoon, in the spirit of McLuhan and the many others who have continued to shape what he first popularised, I want to suggest that 'telling it slant' is the style and shape religious communication should take - be it in the pulpit, on paper, radio, or on television.

For 'telling it slant' is shaped more frequently by symbol, image and metaphor rather than by argument and persuasion.

oo0oo

The classical models of communication would have us believe that communication has a lot to do with moving information or data from one to another via a channel. While these models may have served us well in the past and that's a matter of opinion, I believe they are no longer valid models for us as religious communicators.

Many of these models are one-way, linear, rationalistic and mechanistic. They were primarily designed to influence, argue or persuade - and were designed around the elements of rhetoric.  If we were to image these models the sorts of images that come to mind would be the hypodermic needle, the shoehorn, the photocopy machine and the bullet.

But while many people still work out of such models, others have been seeking to be shaped by other, more participatory and interactional models.

George Gerbner, the 'grand old man' of US communication research, as he has been described, has said:

"story is the best word I can find to designate the key feature and most distinctive characteristic of human communication. More than any other, Homo sapiens is the story-telling animal. Unlike any other, Homo sapiens live in a world erected, experienced, and conducted largely through many forms and modes of story-telling" (Gerbner 1988: 7)

while theologian Sallie McFague, talking about how we perceive and use language, says:

"belief and behavior are more influenced by images than by concepts" (McFague 1987: 38).

Both these comments would appear to indicate another way of 'being in the world' - a way that could be covered by the term symbolic or narrative.

While rhetoric and narrative are historically 'cousins', they are very different in form and shape.  If we were to image the symbolic or narrative model, the sort of image we would use would be that of a tuning folk, "to strike a chord... that will resonate within and amongst" us (Jacobsen 1989:4).

For religious communicators to talk out of a rhetoric model is to talk 'straight' or 'direct'. For religious communicators to talk out of a symbolic model is to talk 'slant' or 'indirect'.

"All talk of God is indirect..." comments McFague. "I would insist" she continues, "that (language) models of God are not definitions of God but likely accounts of experiences of relating to God with the help of relationships we know and understand" (McFague 1987:34 -39).

While British Anglican John Tinsley says:

"tell(ing) it slant is an imperative for the Christian not simply or primarily in the interests of what is thought to be effective or strategically desirable in getting a so-called message across. These motives are likely to damage the Christian gospel.

"... it is more than an appropriate form of the gospel; it is its essential content, a manner incumbent upon the Christian communicator by the very nature of the gospel.

"The gospel is not only what is said, but how it is said" (Tinsley 1980:164).

oo0oo

One of the interesting areas of study to come out of psychology of latter years, I feel, has been the suggestions related to right brain/left brain.

In a stroke of insight we have been helped, through these studies, to the realisation that there are at least two languages which influences us: one which is the language of reason - objective, definitional, cerebral, logical and analytic; the other, the language of metaphor or imagery - dreams, fantasies, stories and myths.

Some scholars have gone so far as to offer the observation that while there exist these two 'languages' it very strongly suggests they must also be representative of two very different world images.


oo0oo

'Telling it slant' is a 'world image' which has much to do with symbol, image and metaphor - through story.  But why story? Especially when many of us, so it is sometimes claimed, have left behind the story approach to life at the doorway of the preschool and crossed the threshold into adulthood to more logical, didactic ways of making sense of the world!

When the great Rabbi Israel Shem Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews,

it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate.

There he would light a fire,

say a special prayer,

and the miracle would be accomplished

and the misfortune averted.

Later, when his disciple,

the celebrated Magid of Mezritch, had occasion,

for the same reason, to intercede with heaven,

he would go to the same place in the forest and say:

"Master of the Universe, listen!

I do not know how to light the fire,

but I am still able to say the prayer,"

and again the miracle would be accomplished.

Still later, Rabbi Moshe-leib of Sasov,

in order to save his people once more,

would go into the forest and say,

"I do not know how to light the fire.

I do not know the prayer,

but I know the place and this must be sufficient."

 

It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.

Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune.

Sitting in his armchair,

his head in his hands,

he spoke to God:

"I am unable to light the fire,

and I do not know the prayer,

and I cannot even find the place in the forest.

All I can do is tell the story, and this must be sufficient."

And it was sufficient.

God made humankind because God loves stories.

oo0oo

I would like to offer some observations:

1. Story sees people as authors and co-authors, who creatively read, or listen to, or resonate with the life experiences of others as those experiences impinge upon their lives, so they may "actually feel the rapture of being alive" (Campbell 1988:5).

2. Story is an open ended, and thus, risky business. There is little control and few guarantees. What people find in the story, they will find in it.

At times people will hear and see and walk away.  No 'impact' is discernible.  At other times, the story resonates deep down.  People hear and see and stay to talk. Something has been touched.

3. Story presents us with a gift.  We may attempt to manipulate them by offering interpretations or reducing them to illustrations, but stories that matter - that are deep down - outlive these attempts.

4. Story provides a framework of experience and gives permission for people to listen to the story in a variety of ways.  And when left free to listen, "persons often make connections with the story that are surprising as well as fully appropriate" (Boomershine 1988:106).

There is much in our media which can also be described as story.  Many researchers have told us that the role of today's media, especially television, is essentially that of storytellers who entertain us with contemporary folk tales and fables, trying to give meaning to the complex problems which face us.

Certainly television appears to be an entertainment medium and a designer of images that foster confidence and faith in the cultural and consumer myths of our time - reflected in the familiar commercials, news programs, sit-coms, media conferences and sporting events.

But there are other stories.  And these stories 'upset worlds' rather than 'set up worlds'.  They are called parables.  Sometimes they appear on our TVs .  Mostly they form an important part of our own religious tradition.

Parables question our dominating myths, challenge their given meanings and invite us on a journey into the unknown, the untried, into risk and mystery.  They were also Jesus' main mode of communication.  But despite their challenge, their were open-ended and non-manipulative.  In fact, some thought his teaching stories were inconclusive and 'lacked punch'.

In the idiom of this paper Jesus would 'tell it slant', coupled with an immense respect for human differences and dignity...

"he picks his steps more carefully than if angels guided them, not to prevent his foot from stumbling against a stone, but lest he trample human beings in the dust... his eye rests upon mankind with deep concern, for the tender shoots of an individual life may be crushed as easily as a blade of grass"

says the Danish philosopher, Kierkegaard - the very opposite of many King's Cross campaigners, and the popularising, sensationalising and commercialising of many of the tele-evangelists.

oo0oo

Over the past five years since I have been in the UCA National Communication Unit, I have been sent one or two TV script suggestions.  The writers of such scripts seem to feel their's would make ideal, and by either implication or bauld statement, better religious television programs and spots, than those appearing on television at present.

In nearly ever case, they conclude with either a moral, or a so-called 'punch line' (an interesting communication image that, isn't it... 'punch line'.  You hear it a lot when ministers get together and describe what it is they are doing in preaching... pow!), or the language and images of past literal, biblical experiences and culture.

Very few, if any, appear to have wrestled with what it means to tell a story which interprets the experiences of persons, experiences which express "security and meaning, identity and sexuality, that protect the memories and hopes that keep people going", (Bluck 198?:16) here and now.

Few too have sensed that the stories Jesus told during his ministry, were secular rather than religious stories, while the language and metaphors used in their scripts are all the petrified ones of another time and culture.

I am sure many of you have had similar experiences.

Much of this mail is again based on the notion that communication is about getting a persuasive and persuading message across, rather than allowing others to resonate with the experiences in the story.

"Religion as story leaps from imagination to imagination and only then, if at all, from intellect to intellect" (Greeley 1988:67).

oo0oo

This year I took study leave and spent some of that time talking with colleagues here and overseas.  When I asked one how the unit fared with incoming mail, suggestions and comments, I was given a copy of a list of what others had stated should be the objectives of their TV work.

The list read:

1. to convert, evangelise, proselytise;

2. to build up the membership of the churches;

3. to support the church, or a theological viewpoint;

mid-way through the list were:

4. to disseminate information;

5. to enhance the self image of christians;

while down near the bottom:

6. to offer alternative programming;

7. to develop media for in-church use;

8. to keep religion on the public agenda.

I wonder where each of you would place your television and radio work on this list?

As I study this list I have a feeling I know where I would like to see my meagre efforts, and they are much closer to the bottom of the list than the top.  And claiming some images borrowed from another, that work has a lot to do with "preparing the soil..." It is closer to "raising curiosity" that might "overhear a whisper", rather than "yawning at a shout about the 'same old thing"' (Marty 1961: 138 -139).

As religious communicators, I would want to say we have a responsibility to continue to search for new ways and means of communicating the gospel.  But ways which are not only shaped by what we believe is the nature of that gospel, but also how that is shaped.

For some of us, this will mean moving beyond where we now are, to new possibilities and new metaphors and new images. I would like to think that 'telling it slant' through symbol, image and metaphor might form part of that rediscovered if not new, shape.

But it may also mean we will all need to encourage the church to foster new models of church and community, not just new models of communication. We may need to help the church renew the meaning of 'church'.

oo0oo

In a beautiful comment which stirs the imagination, Frederick Buechner offers some advise for preachers. Maybe we are not all preachers but if we were to change just one word in that comment it can say a lot to us as communicators.

I offer it in its amended form, as a gift:

"if communicators are to say anything that really matters, they must say it to the part of us where dreams come from... the inner part where thoughts mean less than images, elucidation less than evocation".

SOME RESOURCES WHICH HAVE HELPED SHAPE THE PAPER...

Bausch, W. J. (1984). Storytelling. Imagination and faith. Connecticut: Mystic. Twenty-third Publications.

Bluck, J. (n.d.). Speak or squeak? The church's search for credible evangelism. Christchurch: New Zealand. Published privately.

Boomershine, T. E. (1988). Story journey. An invitation to the gospel as storytelling Ten: Nashville. Abingdon Press.

Campbell, J. (1988). The power of myth. NY: New York. Doubleday.

Fore, W. F. (1990). Mythmakers. Gospel, culture and the media. NY: New York. Friendship Press.

Gerbner, G. (1988). "Telling stories in the information age" in B. D. Ruben. (Ed). Information and behavior. Vol. 2. NJ: New Brunswick. Transactional Books.

Goethals, G. T. (1990). The electronic golden calf. Images, religion and the making of meaning. Massachusetts: Cambridge. Cowley Publications.

Greeley, A. (1988). God in popular culture. Illinois: Chicago. Thomas More Press.

Jacobsen, S. (1989). "Process theology and the preaching moment: Some reflections". Photocopy. In private circulation. CA: Claremont. Process and Faith. Center for Process Studies.

Marty, M. (1961). The improper opinion. Mass media and the christian faith. Philadelphia. Westminster Press.

McDonnell, J; F. Trampiets. (Ed). (1989). Communicating faith in a technological age. Slough: Middlegreen. St Paul Publication.

McFague, S. (1987). Models of God. Theology for an ecological, nuclear age. England: London. SCM Press.

McLuhan, M; Q. Fiore. (1967). The medium is the massage. England: Middlesex. Penguin Books.

Real, M. (1989). Supermedia. A cultural studies approach. California: Newbury Park. Sage Publications.

Shea, J. (1983). An experience named spirit. Illinois: Chicago. Thomas More Press.

Tinsley, J. (1980). "Tell it slant" in Theology 83, 693, 163 - 170).

Traber, M. (1987). "The illusion of 'mission as marketing"' in The Ecumenical Review 39, 3, 318 - 326.

Watzlawick, P. (1978). The language of change. Elements of therapeutic communication. NY: New York. Basic Books.

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