"Intense conversation" by Sigfrid Lundberg via Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) - Bakhtin

#CertStudy, Day 9: Language, dialogue, & digital storytelling (Bakhtin, Pleasants)

This post is part of a series wherein I blog my way through studying for the doctoral certification exam in the Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Read the first post here.

Full disclosure: Amazon links in this post have my affiliate code built into them. If you follow one and purchase something, I’ll get a small commission. Thanks for supporting Learning, Faith & Media and my other work.

Let’s start with a reminder of one of Lewis & Moje’s critiques of … let’s call it naively contextual theories of identity. (I’m one way at work, one way at home, one way at the grocery store, one way online, etc.) Their point is that there’s a radical particularity and a genuinely contested negotiation involved in one’s agentive enactments of identity at any given moment.

The “givenness” is significant: Who am I speaking to? What do I want to communicate about myself? (Especially vis-à-vis the other people I’m with or even just thinking about?) What are the ideological stakes of particular strategic choices in this moment? You get the idea.

Well, near as I can tell, one of the most significant thinkers in examining the role of language in these sorts of negotiations is Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin has a similar (and in Lewis & Moje’s case, explicitly influential) analysis of how individual words establish their meaning (literally “come alive”) in a particular socio-ideological (or to use the Bakhtinian buzzword: dialogic) context.

For Bakhtin, the meaning of a word is dependent on its speaker, in dialogue with both the referent object or idea as well as an anticipated reception and response from the hearer. All these factors (local factors, shouts the New Literacy Studies canon; particular contextual and situational factors, Lewis & Moje specify) are in play for meaning-making:

Indeed, any concrete discourse (utterance) finds the object at which it was directed already as it were overlain with qualifications, open to dispute, charged with value, already enveloped in an obscuring mist-or, on the contrary, by the “light” of alien words that have already been spoken about it. It is entangled, shot through with shared thoughts, points of view, alien value judgments and accents. The word, directed toward its object, enters a dialogically agitated and tension-filled environment of alien words, value judgments and accents, weaves in and out of complex interrelationships, merges with some, recoils from others, intersects with yet a third group: and all this may crucially shape discourse, may leave a trace in all its semantic layers, may complicate plicate its expression and influence its entire stylistic profile. (loc. 3903)

Because it’s just so gorgeous I have to do one more:

If we imagine the intention of such a word, that is, its directionality toward the object, in the form of a ray of light, then the living and unrepeatable play of colors and light on the facets of the image that it constructs can be explained as the spectral dispersion of the ray-word, not within the object itself … but rather as its spectral dispersion in an atmosphere filled with the alien words, value judgments and accents through which the ray passes on its way toward the object; the social atmosphere of the word, the atmosphere that surrounds the object, makes the facets of the image sparkle. (loc. 3916)

All this has lots of implications for thinking not just about identity as it is negotiated through language acts, but also authorship, understandings of audience (and its inextricable role in dialogue), etc.

Healther Pleasants, in a book all about sites of learning as sites of possibility,uses Bakhtin’s idea of the  centripetal (toward the center) and centrifugal (away from the center) forces of language. Centripetal forces “allow[] us to be ‘seen’ by others as enacting recognizable identities,” and centrifugal forces “provide opportunities for innovative interpretations of existing language and discourse in the service of making each of our identities a uniquely fashioned construction rather than an essentialized and static caricature” (p. 210).

In other words, centripetal forces tend toward pushing us in the direction of using language in unitive ways (“speak like everyone else and you’ll fit in”) and centrifugal forces are the more chaotic and creative movements in which our novel uses of language take on their full, complexly “sparkly” effect (to return to Bakhtin’s metaphor for “the living word”).

Pleasants ran an ongoing digital storytelling afterschool program and was especially attentive to the ways her participants used language both to join unitive discourse communities (academic literacies, conventionally accepted storytelling techniques, etc.) and to innovate and even rebel (toward language patterns more typical of their out-of- than in-school usage, unconventional storytelling approaches,  etc.).

I think Pleasants’s centrifugal/centripetal framing is a rich way of analyzing her ethnographic data. For a chapter-length piece, I’m not sure I’d want much more theory bogging things down. But there’s definitely a lot more grist for the “theorizing digital storytelling mill” in even the short excerpt I read from Bakhtin’s The Dialogic Imagination.

Let me speak briefly to two interesting ideas:

(1) What Bakhtin so richly calls the “living word” (rich especially in the context of Christian religious education) is the “stuff” that makes remixing powerful:

The living utterance, having taken meaning and shape at a particular historical moment in a socially specific environment, cannot not fail to brush up against thousands of living dialogic threads, woven by socio-ideological consciousness around the given object of an utterance; it cannot fail to become an active participant in social dialogue. After all, the utterance arises out of this dialogue as a continuation of it and as a rejoinder to it—it does not approach the object from the sidelines. (loc. 3908)

When a digital storyteller chooses a particular piece of popular music to accompany the story, or a inserts a particular photo from a poignant life moment, or quotes a particular poem or song lyric in the narration, that person is bringing along a lot of baggage (an intentionally “loaded” word—Bakhtin delightfully calls these meanings “the sclerotic deposits of an intentional process”).

This interpretive baggage might be associated with that media artifact in the teller’s personal experience, or in the popular imagination. Remixing/sampling is about “using” that baggage, sometimes centripetally (say, the Luther Vandross sample in Kanye’s “Slow Jamz”), sometimes centrifugally (say, a Girl Talk mashup).

In other words, Bakhtin would likely agree that remix is a powerful lens for teaching interpretation, audience analysis, empathy, etc. It’s a way of getting people thinking about communication within communities of shared identity and values as well as across differences. Mary Hess has written about the need for these skills in 21st-century religious education. As Bakhtin puts it elsewhere “language, for the individual consciousness, lies on the borderline between oneself and the other.”

(2) In fact, that quotation continues like this:

[Language] becomes “one’s own” only when the speaker populates it with his own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention. Prior to this moment of appropriation, the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language (it is not, after all, out of a dictionary that the speaker gets his words!), but rather it exists in other people’s mouths, in other people’s contexts, serving other people’s intentions: it is from there that one must take the word, and make it one’s own. (loc. 4131)

Yes, this excerpt further elucidates the point about remix, in ways that also point out the very Piagetian process of gaining expressive facility with language. (We encounter an unfamiliar word or usage of a familiar one, we compare it to what we already know, we either incorporate it into our existing understandings or change those understandings, and then we go about using our new knowledge—first tentatively then with increasing confidence.)

But besides hitting my Piaget trigger, the word “appropriation” fires off another association more relevant to religious education. Fowler’s imperfect but useful work on stages of faith names a key transition (often in young adults) as the individuative-reflective move wherein the believer “need[s] not simply to replace their old tacit ideological system with a new one but to choose from a place of freedom. Authority must be relocated ‘within the self’ (p. 178–179)” (that’s me quoting Fowler somewhere in The Seasons of Adult Faith Formation).

At some point on your faith journey, you have to choose what’s going to work for you. You’ve got to claim it. You’ve got to decide what it means and what that means for how you live your life. You’ve got to, returning to Bakhtin above, “make it [your] own.”

I think the whole reason why making media is a valuable faith formation activity is that in the process of curating/designing/designing—images, music, narration, story arc, etc.—you’re not just claiming the words, you’re claiming the ideas you’re expressing in them. Telling a faith story is a way of first teasing out and then (pro)claiming the epiphanies and convictions to which your experiences have led you.

Image: “Intense conversation” by Sigfrid Lundberg via Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

Maze (representing negotiation) - "Sociocultural Perspectives Meet Critical Theories"

#CertStudy, Day 8: Identity in “Sociocultural Perspectives Meet Critical Theories”

This post is part of a series wherein I blog my way through studying for the doctoral certification exam in the Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Read the first post here.

Full disclosure: Amazon links in this post have my affiliate code built into them. If you follow one and purchase something, I’ll get a small commission. Thanks for supporting Learning, Faith & Media and my other work.

OK, as promised, I finally want to say a brief word about Cynthia Lewis and Elizabeth Birr Moje’s important 2003 piece “Sociocultural Perspectives Meet Critical Theories”, particularly how the authors treat identity, agency, and power. I’ll end with a few words relating this material back to my project in the making.

Their basic argument goes like this: Sociocultural theories of learning (situated cognition, activity theory, communities of practice, etc.—see my cognition overview) have an important flaw. They do a good job of capturing the richness of the immediate context (the social relationships of the group, or the structure of the activity itself, or the dynamics of moving from peripheral to full participation), and how that immediate context shapes individual actors and vice versa at the micro level.

But Lewis & Moje contend that these theories are less adept at handling how micro-level behavior carries and constitutes broader institutional forces and vice versa. So, yes, local literacies are important (see my discussion of New Literacy Studies), but they’re important precisely because they are a site of the negotiation and exercise of power frequently in conflict with wider (hegemonic) forces.

In other words, sociocultural theory needs a more complex critical consciousness, a view of power, agency, and identity (and discourse, and ideology, etc.) that works not just within the micro-level unit of analysis  but also macro to micro and micro to macro. It needs to acknowledge that “power …  is produced in and through individuals as they are constituted in larger systems of power and as they participate in and reproduce those systems” (p. 1980).

So, for example, they examine some teacher professional development activity transcripts (white teachers learning to thoughtfully read and incorporate multicultural literature in their classroom). They show how activity theory provides a useful framing for studying this group in action, but they bring in critical discourse analysis to better surface the ways the ideologies of the participants are at work in their interactions. This hybrid approach (hence, “Sociocultural Perspectives Meet Critical Theories”) helps us see the participants as partly denying (and thereby reinforcing) their white privilege and partly acknowledging it (to lay the foundation for its possible construction).

What all this has to do with identity and agency is this: taken on their own, these sociocultural theories run the risk of oversimplify our thinking about identity. These theories may not fall victim to the notion that identity is singular and fixed, but they can lead to an only slightly less naive idea (represented in some ways by Goffman and certainly by my “masks” GIF) that identity corresponds neatly to context.

Following Bakhtin, Stuart Hall, and others, the authors claim that identity “can be considered ‘an enactment of self made within particular activities and relationships that occur within particular spaces (geographic, social, electronic, mental, cultural) at particular points in time'” (1983). It’s always being negotiated, and that means the same activity might give rise to different performances or enactments depending on the other factors at play in that activity in that moment.

This leads to an understanding of agency that grapples with both the potentialities and the limitations involved in an individual’s exercise of power: “Agency, then, can be thought of as the strategic making and remaking of selves; identities; activities; relationships; cultural tools and resources; histories. Agentic acts can also remake relations of power, although we want to assert that acts can be agentic even when they do not remake large-scale structural relations” (p. 1985, emphasis added).

I need to wrap up here (some exciting work to finish for tomorrow …), but a few comments on why all this theory matters to a research program in digital storytelling:

  1. Digital storytelling gives participants the opportunity, to some extent, to break the spatial, temporal, and other contextual boundaries that necessarily frame any shared activity. If you’re telling stories about your life, you’re constantly referencing other times and places, other relationships, other activities, and bringing the meanings of those memories to bear on the learning taking place in your more immediate surroundings. The activity itself brings to the surface the identity negotiation by crashing other life and learning contexts into the context of the digital storytelling workshop.
  2. Another interesting methodological possibility (one I plan to write about more in future posts) is the idea of making that boundary crossing even more explicit by doing the research in two parts: first doing the story circle workshop together, then reflecting back in a different mode and context to further discuss the meanings brought to the fore. First make the media, then take a step back and interpret the media. (Spoiler alert: I’m trying to work in podcasting as a second mode of participatory ethnographic sense-making between researcher and participants—there could even be the possibility of some podcast stories comprising part of the dissertation proper.)
  3. Speaking of making media, the emphasis I added to the quotation above about agency as the strategic “making and remaking of selves” points out something I think is especially powerful about digital storytelling. The strategic choices one makes in choosing “the moment,” writing the script, “seeing” and “hearing” the story through visuals and music, etc.—these decisions make explicit in the storytelling process the decisions we implicitly make every day as we enact our identities. That’s why Lambert and his colleagues consider StoryCenter both an arts organization and a site for (therapeutic, almost) identity work, which is what they identify explicitly as the stakes of their mission.
Image credit: "Camping" by cotaro70s via Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0) - reminds me of research pedagogies

#CertStudy, Day 7: The “research pedagogies” tradition

This post is part of a series wherein I blog my way through studying for the doctoral certification exam in the Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Read the first post here.

Full disclosure: Amazon links in this post have my affiliate code built into them. If you follow one and purchase something, I’ll get a small commission. Thanks for supporting Learning, Faith & Media and my other work.

Part of what has vexed me in my first three semesters of doctoral studies is how to connect my interests in religious education and my advisor’s expertise in literacy studies.

I’m not likely to ever have a job teaching reading and writing per se, especially to young people. And even the highly specialized areas of reading and writing (broadly conceived) that I do teach—i.e., digital literacies in ministry settings—are a little too instrumentalist to be very interesting to very many people in a research context.

Increasingly, what gets me most excited, and what meshes well with the literatures I have good institutional access to, is the notion of making meaning (by/while/through) making media. Quite a few folks in religious education and digital religion have spent time with these questions, particularly in the context of “networked publics,” aka social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, plus online forums for religious people and that kind of thing.

What I have to offer from my positioning as a student of Lalitha Vasudevan (and also of Nathan Holbert, in a slightly different tradition), is experience with what Lalitha and her colleagues call “research pedagogies“—multimodal participatory ethnographic research within “created spaces.” Let’s break that down:

  • Multimodal refers to the process of combining/crossing/juxtaposing multiple cognitive tasks, modes of expression, genres, and media to interpret, critique, and create “texts” in the broadest sense. Creating multimodal artifacts in the research pedagogies framework means recording “pieces of the cultural narrative of the research space … to trace how the cultural dynamics within a research space evolve. By embodying additional narratives about the research in this way, the focus and directionality of the ethnographic gaze shifts; … adolescents produce knowledge in embodied, tangible ways” (p. 189). In other words, studying young people making stuff allows you to learn about the young people partly by looking carefully at what they’ve made—and listening carefully to what they tell you it means.
  • Participatory means “youth and adults are guided by aims that are emergent and negotiated” (p. 189). In a necessarily limited but nevertheless real way, both the objects of learning and even the trajectory of research is an act of co-creation between researcher and participants. This is not ethnography as a “fly on the wall.”
  • Created spaces are where you do research when you’re pretty convinced that institutional spaces are missing something important. In practice, they are often open-ended after-school programs or camps or informal relationships in community spaces. People with the research pedagogies ethos, like lots of folks in New Literacy Studies, need these spaces because they have ethical and pedagogical convictions that don’t lend themselves to manageable study in business-as-usual classrooms, especially in the era of No Child Left Behind and beyond. If you care about local and culturally relevant literacies, for example, it’s hard to get much traction in “schooling model” classrooms increasingly hogtied by “yearly high-stakes testing cloaked in the language of accountability” (p. 6 in Media, Learning & Sites of Possibility).

OK, so research pedagogies is the “how” (and “where”), but where’s the “why”? Let me briefly sketch an answer to nod toward the post I thought I was writing today.

To review, the question is why would someone interested in religious education questions use the methods of literacy researchers, and the research pedagogies methods in particular.

In a general sense it has to do with that idea that literacy is better thought of as a social practice than as an area of content knowledge or even an academic skill per se. Especially in an increasingly digitally mediated world, literacy just means (or if not “means” then “significantly impinges upon”) how we go about our business as social beings.

We write each other text messages and compose elaborate selfies and have to decide in emails whether to have a confrontation in that medium or redirect it to an in-person conversation. Point being: literacy, broadly conceived, is an increasingly important tool in how we make meaning.

And more specifically, in the course of our lifelong learning of the literacies we need to navigate our social worlds, we perform our identities via the agentive/constructive process of encoding and decoding meaning in the “texts” we “read” and “write.”

So if a group of religious learners gather to (in the macro sense) tell stories by (in the micro sense) engaging multimodal literacy practices, what they’re really doing is putting the cultural texts and practices of their religious tradition in conversation with the texts and practices of their broader lifeworlds.

If you sit in space designated in some way as “religious” or “holy” and you tell a story in response to a prompt about a “meaning-full” moment in your life, and if you grapple with how that moment changed you, and you begin to appreciate how the process of telling your story is itself constructing the meaning of your story, and along the way you’re telling bits and pieces of it to your friends and getting advice about communication techniques from your mentor (and hopefully vice versa), and if when you finish your story it’s shared with members of your wider religious community and …

Well you get the idea. If you’re doing all that, you’re exercising your agency to construct your religious identity in the context of community and your own unfolding life story. It’s faith formation at the “intersection” of your story and the Great Story (to borrow an idea from the church I serve).

It’s deep, reflective, relevant, empathetic work, and a religious educator and/as research pedagogies researcher could do a lot worse than to be a co-participant in that unfolding process and be a part of figuring out—from a jointly negotiated frame—what it means for the storyteller’s life and faith—and for the life and faith of the storyteller’s community. We haven’t cared much about that latter directionality, notice, and that’s to our detriment.

OK, next time I really will say more about dynamic theories of identity, which is what I really meant to do today.

Image credit: “Camping” by cotaro70s via Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)

Theater Stage photo

#CertStudy, Day 6: Dynamic theories of identity, part 1 (Goffman)

This post is part of a series wherein I blog my way through studying for the doctoral certification exam in the Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Read the first post here.

Full disclosure: Amazon links in this post have my affiliate code built into them. If you follow one and purchase something, I’ll get a small commission. Thanks for supporting Learning, Faith & Media and my other work.

I missed yesterday so I could push hard on a journal article and finish a video I’m excited to post soon, but I’m back in the saddle today to start writing about theories of identity.

The place where most people interested in identity and the Internet begin is Erving Goffman’s Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life. It is a delightful read—a bit old fashioned and hegemonic, to be sure, but lucid and provocative and mostly right, I think.

Goffman uses the metaphor of players onstage (and backstage) to explore the ways we “perform” identity in public (and private). Onstage we engage in “impression management”; we wear the mask associated with our performance; we adhere rigidly to a carefully cultivated script. Backstage we let our guard down a bit, attend to biological needs, engage in “coarser” banter. But there are “standards of decorum” here too, albeit different ones.

Goffman masks gif
I used this illustration of our different “masks” for different social situations (at home, at school, at church, at work) while teaching this summer in Germany.

I like the way Goffman writes about the This Is Water phenomenon:

In the study of social establishments it is important to describe the standards of decorum; it is difficult to do so because informants and students tend to take many of these standards for granted not realizing they have done so until an accident, or crisis, or peculiar circumstance occurs. (p. 68)

Making tacit social practices explicit is, of course, what makes “social turn” disciplines both rich and challenging. In particular, the process is precisely the “stuff of learning” in Lave and Wenger’s situated account of cognition.

Germane to my interest in religious spaces and how they shape the learning that happens there is Goffman’s account of the materiality of these regions.

The decorations and permanent fixtures in a place where a particular performance is usually given, as well as the performers and performance usually found in it, tend to fix a kind of spell over it; even when the customary performance is not being given in it, the place tends to retain some of its front region character. Thus a cathedral and a schoolroom retain something of their tone even when only repairmen are present, and while these men may not behave reverently while doing their work, their irreverence tends to be of a structured kind, specific ally oriented to what in some sense they ought to be feeling but are not. (p. 76)

The mobility afforded by Digital Storytelling on iPads, etc., strikes me as interesting in this regard. What would it be like to hold a faith-based digital storytelling workshop in a Sunday school room? Or better yet a Cathedral? How might the “spell” interfere with or enrich the learning? I don’t have a hypothesis, but I definitely want to know.

We can see a little more clearly some of the implications for reflections on online identity in passages like this one, pondering what happens when we “witness a show not that was not meant for us”:

The answer to this problem is for the performer to segregate his audiences so that the individuals who witness him in one of his roles will not be the individuals who witness him in another of his roles. Thus some French Canadian priests do not want to lead so strict a life that they cannot go swimming at the beach with friends, but they tend to feel that it is best to swim with persons who are not their parishioners, since the familiarity required at the beach is incompatible with the distance and respect required in the parish. (p. 83)

Technology affords (an at least theoretically possible) segmentation of audiences pretty effortlessly, either through choice of public platform, multiple accounts, or scrupulous attention to privacy settings and follower lists. But consider Elizabeth Drescher’s portrait of today’s “integrated digital habitus,” or Meredith Gould’s advice that clergy share not just in their “official voice” but in a more personal mode as well. These reflect a recent blurring of Goffman’s front and back regions (i.e., “there’s no such thing as privacy” online).

Still, we can understand the effects of this blurring in Goffman’s terms. For instance, audience segregation for religious leaders often leads to a problematic lack of accountability (think of the acts we reserve for private spaces and how often they get abused by people in power). It can also create a “peerless pedestal” effect that renders the advice either feeble (for the skeptical hearer, who may not be interested in, say, marital counseling from a celibate priest) or overly rarified and likely unachievable (for the hyper-reverent ones, usually).

By way of a transition now, note that Goffman quotes Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex as an example of the performance of gender, where the unit of analysis is not so much public/private but in the presence/absence of men:

Confronting man woman is always play-acting; she lies when she makes believe that she accepts her status as the inessential other, she lies when she presents to him an imaginary personage through mimicry, costumery, studied phrases. These histrionics require a constant tension: when with her husband, or with her lover, every woman is more or less conscious of the thought: ‘I am not being myself:’ the male world is harsh, sharp edged, its voices arc too resounding, the lights are too crude, the contacts rough. With other women, a woman is behind the scenes; she is polishing her equipment, but not in battle; she is getting her costume together, preparing her make-up, laying out her tactics; she is lingering in dressing-gown and slippers in the wings before making her entrance on the stage (p. 70)

The matter of whether we “lie” when we perform our identities is tied to questions of both agency (from a socio-cultural perspective) and development (in a more cognitive vein). I’ll consider these issues in the next couple posts.


Martial Arts - Ricœur

#CertStudy, Day 5: Paul Ricœur on plot and “productivity”

This post is part of a series wherein I blog my way through studying for the doctoral certification exam in the Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Read the first post here.

Full disclosure: Amazon links in this post have my affiliate code built into them. If you follow one and purchase something, I’ll get a small commission. Thanks for supporting Learning, Faith & Media and my other work.

Today was a St. Michael’s Day, so this is a short post from a short study session. I have a feeling that I won’t be able to escape the gravitational pull of Time and Narrative, but for today two quick thoughts from the introduction to From Text to Action:

(1) Ricœur’s reading of Aristotle on plot (from the Poetics) is really useful. His emphasis is that, from the compositional perspective, plot is best thought of as a sort of process, i.e., “emplotment”(blech, I know).

The point is that plots aren’t some platonic form, aren’t out there in the ether waiting to be discovered or released like Michelangelo’s Prisoners. Plots are designed, basically. Curated, even. They’re pieced together in an intentional order. That order is what forms the narrative “arc” we’re always hearing about, the emotion journey of rising and falling action.

This process of emplotment involves choosing a beginning that lays out the premise of the story, a middle where a change happens, and an end where that change comes to be understood. If emplotment (plot as process) goes well, then the plot (as product) succeeds in “hold[ing] together” context, actions, and consequences.

This all matters to Digital Storytelling as exploration of identity because emplotment is especially difficult (and therefore especially meaningful) when you know (indeed, have lived) the larger series of connected events from which your story is drawn.

Why choose this incident to be woven into a story? Why include this detail to contextualize it? Why do I believe these actions changed me? Why start it here and end it here? The storytelling process opens up an rich exploration of the shared meaning of elements that will recognizably “hold together” (in a way where the meaning really depends on the story).

(2) Ricœur is interested in comparisons between history (as an interpretive endeavor, rather than a purely descriptive one) and fiction writing. He thinks they’re not as different as we might believe, given that the “world” that history describes is not the world immediately in front of us, which of course is true of the artist’s fictional world as well.

This is interesting, for starters, because autobiographical storytelling is a little like history (interpretation of an imperfectly remembered past) and a little like fiction writing (the production or assertion of meaning through deliberative emplotment). Ricœur seems an especially helpful theoretical companion given that he’s interested in their relationship.

But it’s interesting as well because of what storytelling as a creative act (what Ricœur calls narrative’s “productivity”) can do:

“Because it is a world, the world of the text necessarily collides with the real world in order to ‘remake’ it, either by confirming it or by denying it. However, even the most ironic relation between art and reality would be incomprehensible if art did not both disturb and rearrange our relation to reality.” (p. 6)

I want Digital Storytelling in any setting, and maybe especially in a faith setting, to “rearrange my relation to reality.” I want the impact of my created world upon me to change how I see my real lived experience each day. Digital Storytelling isn’t just about weaving a nice plot to illustrate some change that happened to me in the past, it’s about giving that change a fighting chance to genuinely transform me for the future.

Moreover—and this is a bit of a nod toward some new material in the days to come—how I choose to name and act upon these transformations is part of what gives me agency in claiming and living into my identity.

Dramatic Scotland photo - Charles Taylor

#CertStudy, Day 4: Charles Taylor on narrative

This post is part of a series wherein I blog my way through studying for the doctoral certification exam in the Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Read the first post here.

Full disclosure: Amazon links in this post have my affiliate code built into them. If you follow one and purchase something, I’ll get a small commission. Thanks for supporting Learning, Faith & Media and my other work.

Today ended up being a big writing day and a short study day, but I’m trying not to break the chain. So in the interest of time, I want to start assembling some ideas that can contribute to “a richly theorized account of digital storytelling” (thanks, Lalitha). I’m starting with Charles Taylor and Paul Ricouer because they’re theorists read by church intellectuals too.

These are from the chapter “How Narrative Makes Meaning” in Charles Taylor’s The Language Animal.

On a sort of “social turn” reading of narrative theory:

We cannot in any moment after infancy be without a rich sense of what motivates people, of what is important and unimportant to them, of the differences people exhibit in this regard, of the different kinds of characters, which show themselves in different modes of response, of the different possibilities of response, of life plan, of aspirations, and so on. To which we must add ours sense of the different contexts in which people operate—intimate, familial, political, ecclesiastical, governmental—which grows and develops with our maturity. (p. 296)

Increasingly succinct ways of saying that narrative (diachronic) meaning is irreducible to other modalities:

The hero comes through this story to an understanding of his vocation, what his life should be about; and what this consists in can’t just be detached from the story, and fully expressed in its ending. The insight emerges through the story itself. A new way is offered of defining what a human life can take as its central direction … A novel, as a work of art, doesn’t assert anything about human life. It is made up of assertions, but these are about the world of the novel. Nevertheless there emerges what I called a nonassertive portrayal of human life, of its choices, issues, travails, fulfillments; and this can open new horizons for the reader. (p. 298-299)

To convey the insight, we can’t rely simply on the formulation [moral of the story, etc.], but must somehow convey the experience, the felt intuition. This throws us back into narrative: the narrating, first, of the episode; but then also of the key features of our preceding life against whose background the episode had the meaning and the impact that it did. These two faces are linked. (p. 302)

My concluding insight constitutes a reading of the strong experience that triggered it; you can’t really understand the conclusion without some sense of the experience. (p. 308) (elsewhere he calls this “reasoning through transitions”)

A further restatement/expansion of the idea above that emphasizes its compatibility with a constructivist learning model:

understanding the outlook (O) at which some agent has arrived may inseparably require that one understand the experience (E) which led her to it (p. 311)

On the contingency this narrative-based learning:

understanding oneself or others through biography is a potentially endless process. Any interpretation which we reach can be upset, challenged, or amended by a new insight, which will ramify through the whole diachronic gestalt, modifying previous takes, including the one I hold at the present moment. (p. 315)

Who cares?

my plea here is to see the telling of stories in fact and fiction as a creative or constitutive purpose of language. But you can only see this if you go beyond the single sentence and look at texts, complex, drawn-out accounts. This constitutive power is of the greatest importance, because it is through story that we make sense of our lives. We live across time. (p. 317)

however I do it, through my story, I define my identity. And this is central to being a self. (p. 317)

It is through story that we find or devise ways of living bearably in time. (p. 319)

Where is this heading? To put it briefly: If you don’t give faith learners opportunities and encouragement to do this work of growth/integration/sense-making throughout the process of living the story and appropriating the tradition (including early on in life), they miss out on the ongoing opportunity for hope that comes from believing oneself to be on a journey.

Kid writing image

#CertStudy, Day 3: Why/how I learn from New Literacy Studies

This post is part of a series wherein I blog my way through studying for the doctoral certification exam in the Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Read the first post here.

Full disclosure: Amazon links in this post have my affiliate code built into them. If you follow one and purchase something, I’ll get a small commission. Thanks for supporting Learning, Faith & Media and my other work.

As I’ve written here before, the broadest conviction of my research and practice is that digital literacy is an increasingly important part of religious leadership. This doesn’t mean every lay leader or clergy person needs to be able to design a website, or produce a effective online course, or coordinate a sophisticated online marketing campaign. It does mean knowing enough about our new media ecology to understand why these processes and products might be important to the life of a 21st-century congregation.

Digital literacy is a contested term with lots of possible meanings and stakes. But I’m very grateful to my advisor for sending me, in my first semester, on a journey to better understand the recent-ish history of how literacy scholars have thought about reading and writing, both narrowly and broadly conceived.

One of the first distinctions I had to get my head around was what differentiated the field known as “New Literacy Studies” from what had come before. I’m still no expert, but I would not have wrapped my head around the problem so quickly or so well without the article I’ll spend some time with today, James Gee’s “The New Literacy Studies and the ‘Social Turn.'” Much to my delight, it’s that rare (but less rare than it used to be) academic article not behind a paywall.

Part of my task in revisiting and writing about the articles on my reading list is pulling out some big ideas and “money quotes” for my notes, so let me try to deliver on the promise of this post’s heading by doing so.

Gee begins by surveying thirteen academic disciplines that took—or came to be because of?—what he calls “the social turn.” Social turn disciplines/movements were “reactions against the behaviorism of the early part of this century and the ‘cognitive revolution’ of the 60’s and 70’s that replaced behaviorism, both of which privileged the individual mind” (p. 3). If that sounds familiar, it could be because I mentioned the move outward from there in yesterday’s overview of cognitive perspectives on learning.

Behaviorism, in the name of being “scientific,” reduced the human mind to stimulus responses. It confused symbols (language and more) with mere signals (think of Pavlov’s dogs). I first encountered these ideas in the philosophical non-fiction of Walker Percy (Message in a Bottle and Lost in the Cosmos), for whose head start I was very grateful.

The “cognitive revolution” reduced the mind to a computer’s CPU. Programming languages are truly languages, truly symbols, so that was an improvement.

But it does assume a universal and unambiguous mapping between words and their meanings, and that’s where the “social turn” movements take issue with it. These movements assert that words/language/meaning/interactions/[etc.] can’t exist outside a social context (and, Gee points out, vice versa).

Probably the most recognizable implication of this idea (and the related policy torch carried by the New Literacy Studies) is that there’s no “universal” or “value neutral” English. There are many Englishes used in many different contexts.

We’re not talking just about big-picture dialects (different English-speaking countries, say) but about the “local literacies” that are part of why, for example, white suburban kids in Milwaukee (like me) spoke a bit differently from white suburban kids from Minneapolis/St. Paul (where many of my college buddies were from). The need to acknowledge local literacies is about way more than my confusion about duck, duck, gray duck, though. It’s about avoiding telling entire groups of students that their rich sociocultural knowledge doesn’t count.

(If you’ve read David Foster Wallace’s hilarious and high-minded Consider the Lobster, you’ve been in this territory before in his essay “Authority and American Usage.” I mention it mostly because it contains my favorite teacher confession of all time, in which DFW fesses up to “a mammoth rhetorical boner.”)

OK, so the social turn disciplines say, to put it briefly, context matters to what language means and how we (learn to) use it.

With me so far? I’m gonna skip the middle section, which is a fascinating and important discussion of how the values of the social turn disciplines were coopted/embraced by fast capitalism and, ultimately, what progressive educators might do about that.

For me, the really wonderful and useful passage from Gee’s article involves the work that language does when we deploy it in our messy social situations:

What do I mean by enactive work and recognition work? Think about the matter this way: Out in the world exist materials out of which we continually make and remake our social worlds. The social arises when we humans relate (organize, coordinate) these materials together in a way that is recognizable to others. We attempt to get other people to recognize people and things as having certain meanings and values within certain configurations or relationships. Our attempts are what I mean by “enactive work” and others’ active efforts to accept or reject our attempts—to see or fail to see things “our way “—are what I mean by “recognition work”.

We attempt, through our words and deeds, to get others to recognize people, things, artifacts, symbols, tools, technologies, actions, interactions, times, places, and ways of speaking, listening, writing, reading, feeling, believing, thinking, and valuing as meaningful and valuable in certain ways. We attempt to make each of these meaningful and valuable each in themselves (“this is scientist”, “this is a scientific instrument”, “this is objective information”, etc..) and as a configuration of elements all related to each other in a specific and meaningful way (“this is a scientist at work with her lab assistants engaged in an experiment that will yield objective truth”). (8-9)

In the article, Gee is interested in “enactive” and “recognition” work for its ability to “take back our social theories from the new capitalism, while requiring us to own up to our own projects and engage with other people’s—especially ‘non-academic’ people’s—projects at a variety of levels” (13). I think that idea is pretty compelling and important.

But for the purposes of this little studying exercise and I hope for my research, the point is this: religious education in the midst of viable alternatives to belief (see A Secular Age) is about (at least) three important axes of enactive and recognition work:

  1. Educator does enactive work showing that a religious worldview makes sense. Students recognize such work as sensible or not. We who hope to pass on the faith think this piece is the most important, and we are wrong.
  2. Educator does (partly enactive, partly recognition) work of modeling moderate, critical religious belief in a world where religious diversity is a fact of life and in which religious fundamentalists of all stripes are a significant contributor to global conflict and play an outsized role in tacitly defining faith amid widespread religious illiteracyThis piece, I believe, is actually more important to the future of denominations like mine.
  3. Educator, together with students in either an affirmative, negative, or ambiguous mode, make sense of what these God beliefs mean for the business of everyday living. This piece, I believe, is where activities like Digital Storytelling, play a crucial role.

Clear as mud? Not to me either. But I remember the article a lot better and have the sketch of an argument I can refine. Thanks for staying with me!

Rodin - The Thinker - cognition

#CertStudy, Day 2: Cognition Overview

This post is part of a series wherein I blog my way through studying for the doctoral certification exam in the Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Read the first post here.

Full disclosure: Amazon links in this post have my affiliate code built into them. If you follow one and purchase something, I’ll get a small commission. Thanks for supporting Learning, Faith & Media and my other work.

Cognitive perspectives on learning have, historically, begun purely in the mind and moved outward, so to speak. Cognitive science grew up with computer science, and ways of thinking/theorizing about cognition and computing have been surprisingly (and surprisingly satisfyingly) intertwined.

So in many of the early papers in cognitive science, the brain is regarded purely as a symbol (not signal) processing system, and there’s lots of careful, sophisticated work on schemas, scripts, etc. that you could mistake for an intro to programming textbook if you didn’t look to closely. It’s pretty fun reading pseudocode for how to handle, like, going to cocktail parties and whatnot.

As the science of complex systems came into its own, it began to have an impact on thinking about thinking. Cognitive scientists increasingly began to view the mind as a complex system. Now, rather than a really powerful CPU and detailed source code, the mind becomes a collection of autonomous agents competing for control (think “hungry” vs. “focusing.”) If you want a highly accessible if occasionally infuriating account, try Minsky’s Society of Mind. Just be warned that he’s as dogmatically materialist at Richard Dawkins.

From here it gets more complicated to tell even a greatly oversimplified version of the (already simplified) version I’ve learned. One strand of thinking pushes back on the idea that knowledge is primarily “out there” and learning is a question of figuring out effective ways of shoving it “in here” in ways that stick. We could do worse than to call this the cognitivist tradition (confusing I know). If you’ve read Freire just go ahead and think of it as pairing well with what he calls the “banking model” of education.

We can contrast this view with the constructivist model, which says knowledge is built by the learner rather than deposited by the teacher. This is Piaget‘s big idea. “Built on what?” you ask. On what the learner already knows. So when you encounter something you want to understand, you either assimilate it—fit it into your existing knowledge—or accommodate your existing knowledge to the new information.

Constructionism (Seymour Papert, for a time a Sherry Turkle collaborator) builds on constructivism (zing) by externalizing this vision somewhat. Papert suggests that we build new knowledge in our minds as we build/tinker with our own creations (“object” to think with, though the object can also be a computer program or media or whatever). This gives rise to all kinds of exciting ideas about using computers for learning. Papert thought that computers could be a “mathland” where students learn math the same way French kids learn French by living in France. I happen to think he’s right on the money, about math as well as other disciplines.

Other ways of moving thinking about thinking (at least partially) outside of our heads:

Situated cognition is all about how the context contributes to thinking/learning. Recall yesterday’s discussion of Jean Lave’s work on communities of practice, etc. There’s also a very famous and fun article about doing math in the grocery store.

Distributed cognition is the notion that the environment doesn’t just shape/interpret our thinking/learning, it can in some ways instantiate it. The paradigm-shifting paper here is about how the flight crew of an ’80s(?) -era airplane—and indeed the plane itself—comprise a sort of cognitive system. It’s a fun read (or at least skim). If you’ve read one of those tiresome thinkpieces about how no one remember phone numbers or state capitals or characters in Dickens novels or whatever because of evil smartphones, the author was pointing out that now our brains form a cognitive system with the entirety of the Internet.

Embodied or grounded cognition is the view that our bodies (i.e., more than just our brains) are involved in cognition in important ways. The theory goes that our minds store these multimodal representations/simulations of physical sensations associated with particular experiences. When we re-engaged with such a process, we access, are guided by, and refine the previous representation. In other words, embodied cognition is, among other things, the cognitive theory behind that expression “just like riding a bike.”

How do these ideas inform the work of somebody interested in religious education? Well, there’s lots of potential examples. Like the fact that those of us who believe worship experiences are an important part of forming faith are more likely to want to those experiences to be richly multimodal—involve moving our bodies, engaging many senses, interacting with other people, and expressing our own powerful ideas in addition to receiving them from others.

As I said yesterday, I think I’m heading toward a dissertation about Digital Storytelling in religious education settings. This is an inherently constructivist/constructionist position: I believe people will learn/practice/claim their faith more significantly if they have agency in deciding what ideas to reflect on deeply, if they have a community of fellow learners to bounce notions off of, if they have a chance to make something of their own and share it with the world, and if they’re invited to think about how the abstract religious concept has concrete, real-world implications for their everyday lives.

There will be time to flesh that ideas out a bit more thoroughly and with a bit more literature. But I think that’s plenty for today.

Stack o' books - certification exam

#CertStudy, Day 1: Introducing the Certification Exam

This is the first in a series of posts wherein I blog my way through studying for the doctoral certification exam in the Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. 

The process will culminate February 9 in a three-hour, open-note (but “closed Internet”) test where I’ll be expected to bring social, cultural, and cognitives perspectives and research to bear on an open-ended question about the intersection between media and technology, learning and education, and my own research interests. I’ll be posting article summaries, “mini-sprints,” sketches of arguments—basically anything to get me reading and writing a little bit each day.

Full disclosure: Amazon links in this post have my affiliate code built into them. If you follow one and purchase something, I’ll get a small commission. Thanks for supporting Learning, Faith & Media and my other work.

One of the things that’s unique (or at least unusual) about our program is its breadth. Thus, the “three-pronged” question structure asking for social, cultural, and cognitive perspectives is pretty much a constant across the sample questions we’ve received. So it seemed like a quick explication of each prong was in order.

Social perspectives on learning and technology are interested in interpersonal kinds of questions. That might happen on the micro-level, with researchers putting some sort of learning-oriented activity system under the microscope. There’s also a strong current of macro-level social analysis running through educational policy research generally and the matter of educational technology in particular (e.g., the history of research on the “digital divide”). Sociologists of education are important resources here, of course, but so too are technologists who work on formal and informal learning tools that have person-to-person (or person-to-“agent“) interactivity at their core.

The “social bin” work that I’m most tuned into is concerned with studying learning generally and literacy more specifically (though still broadly conceived) as an inherently social enterprise. For example, Lave and Wenger have studied learning as it happens in particular situated and social contexts. The idea here is that communities engaged in some shared practice bring people “into the fold” through a process called “legitimate peripheral participation.”

So, for example, if you’re a religious educator or church communicator interested in how technology is changing religious life and leadership, you might get connected with a community of practice collectively engaged in the work of reflective practice in this area. You’d likely start out at the periphery of such a group, “lurking” on relevant Facebook pages, Twitter hashtags, email newsletter lists, etc. or even attending a conference or other gathering. You might try out a couple ideas in your own practice, based on resources or inspiration you encountered in those social spaces.

But eventually you encounter some sort of challenge. So you put a question out to the group. Those who are thoroughly engaged in this work already might point you in some promising directions or connect you with individuals working on similar problems in similar contexts. If that happens enough times, and you do the hard work of trying out the ideas and integrating them into your practice, you might slowly become one of those go-to leaders, becoming a resource for others. You’ve moved from peripheral or novice participation to something closer to expert. Preece and Schneiderman take this sort of perspective in developing their “reader to leader” framework for studying technology mediated social participation.

I think my research is heading in the direction of studying how people make (religious) meaning making media together. So, for example, if I’m part of a Digital Storytelling circle and I have a draft of a video about my experience going “on pilgrimage” to Comic Con, I might get a question about what a pilgrimage is, why this trip was so drenched in personal meaning for me, or whether it’s entirely appropriate to compare my experience to visiting a sacred religious site. The question might shape where I take my draft, might force me to articulate more clearly that the connection for me is about having an embodied experience of sharing and gratitude. Perhaps a fellow participant or the group’s mentor shows me how a certain editing technique or script revision can get me closer to the message they hear me trying to communicate. This is the kind of learning that researchers and designers working in the social perspective and tradition are especially keen to observe, understand, and cultivate.

If the social perspective is concerned with those learning interactions as such, the cultural perspective cares about the sort of aggregate properties of larger groups with something in common. Indeed, Raymond Williams writes that culture is common in two senses of that word. Cultural phenomena are ordinary; they are the stuff of the everyday and (often) unexamined. They’re also shared—the practices, rituals, beliefs and artifacts that “feel like home” to a group of people.

Educational anthropologists (like my advisor, Lalitha Vasudevan) are among those who contribute in this area. But I’m also especially excited by the work of practitioners who respond to the cultural spaces where they work in order to design new kinds of learning opportunities. This move is generally known as “culturally relevant pedagogy” and my favorite example is this video by Leah Buechley thinking about how to diversify maker culture.

For the purposes of my program’s self-understanding, I see religion as a largely cultural phenomenon. In future posts I’ll be fleshing out some theory about storytelling as an anthropological phenomenon, a universal human meaning-making experience made especially engaging and accessible by cheap and ubiquitous media making tools. And I think my work has always been interested in the intersections between cultures: currently it’s digital culture and church culture, and probably also youth culture.

For example, what happens what you turn a church’s parish hall into a maker space for young people? Well for one thing, the adult mentor(s) need to act less like teachers and more like colleagues. Soep and Chávez have done a lot of both academic and more popular writing on their pedagogy of collegiality, in the context of their work as adult participants in Youth Radio. They’re realistic about the limits of shared power, but they do their best to jointly frame projects with their young collaborators and to let those young people take the lead in investigating and reporting stories once the editorial team has decided on a direction.

For another thing, everyone involved needs to be open to just how elusive truly “shared” values can be. Anytime we advance a monolithic idea of what’s important, there’s a good chance we’re discounting and disadvantaging the wisdom and experience of marginalized groups. Thus, educational researchers with a cultural lens on their work have been among the most critical voices in pushing back on “what counts?” in various learning settings.

OK, I’m approaching my time limit today. And I’m still sorting through my notes from Cognition and Computers this semester, so I’ll save the cognitive perspective for tomorrow. Until then!

Photo: "Deal Beach - Mar 2011 - Do We Think Julie Was Impressed?" by Gareth Williams via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) - Isaiah 40

“Speak tenderly” and … : Prophets on the cusp of hope in Isaiah 40

Second Sunday of Advent:

Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

Listen to this sermon.


Here’s what you need to know about Isaiah to understand the peculiar mixed emotions of the passage we heard this morning:

Almost all of what comes before this passage was written in the time of a historical prophet named Isaiah. Isaiah served in Judah, that is, the Southern Kingdom of the Hebrews.

The Isaiah of history wrote as the Northern Kingdom, aka Israel, was being conquered by Assyria. His advice to the Southern King was basically “Let’s stay out of this: Those northerners have it coming to them. Unfortunately, dear King, so do we here in the south.” The proclamation of Isaiah is mostly pretty grim stuff.

Now fast forward. The second part of Isaiah, was written by that prophet’s followers like 150 years later, during a time of relative celebration. Yes, Jerusalem had been destroyed. Yes, the Judeans of the Southern Kingdom had been taken into Exile by new conquerors: Babylon.

But at the time of this writing, the captivity is ending. King Cyrus of Persia, who is in the process of defeating Babylon, will probably allow the captives to return to their lands.


OK, why does any of this matter?

Partly because the words we heard today make up the opening passage of this second part of the book. After all the doom and gloom of Chapters 1–39, Isaiah 40 begins with a word of comfort.

It’s not a bad first lyric from an Isaiah tribute band, right? It sounded pretty good when we sang it on this way in this morning, and the Bible’s version is worth hearing again:

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

This is the sober celebration of a people who have been through the ringer and know they may not have seen the end of it. For the moment things are looking up, though, and that’s not nothing.

The rest of the passage is full of similarly mixed emotions:

Notice that although the forces “making way” in the wilderness are surely righteous, the preparations also bring upheaval. Making way for the Lord is literally remaking the geography.

Notice that the voice crying out also has a word of warning, tinged with memory and regret: “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.” It’s as if these distant descendants of Isaiah cannot help but wring their hands: “What’s to prevent us from squandering our good fortune once again?”

And then notice that the closing words of the passage turn on a dime. The metaphors move beyond “mixed” into “almost contradictory”:

[booming voice]
See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.

[soft voice]
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.

Notice finally that all this is the source material for yet another poetic tribute. This one came along later still and was compiled as a remix by the artist we know as Mark the Evangelist.

Mark draws on the collective memory of those exiles on the cusp of return to tell the story of John the Baptist preparing the way in the wilderness. This time, deliverance takes the form not of a benign foreign conqueror but a Savior who is from God and of God.

Even the proclamation of John the Baptist, in my reading, brings together those dueling impulses from Isaiah: dread justice and tender compassion.

If you don’t believe me, ask a person who’s had the tremendous privilege of baptizing someone, or hearing a private confession of sins. I don’t care how scraggly his beard was or how many self-righteous leaders he threatened; you can’t be The Baptizer and not have a softer side. You can’t be a prophet and long for justice only and not also the end of hostilities.


I believe we cannot help but talk about God’s mighty deliverance and God’s tender mercy in the very same breath. These authors certainly understood the deeply mixed emotions that come when we dare to hope during or even after a great struggle.

Such mixed emotions carry an important piece of spiritual wisdom for our times, and for the many challenges ahead of us.

The values of hospitality to the stranger, protection for the vulnerable, stewardship of creation, and a just peace on all the earth—these seem to be fast disappearing from our leaders’ list of national priorities.

You probably know someone who is burning hot and bright right now in response, a John the Baptist in his most hellfire-y mode.

Perhaps you’ve “raged out” yourself recently. I know I have.

This is as it should be. Righteous anger is an unparalleled tool for change, especially as it becomes discerning and directed and self-aware.

We need voices crying out in the wilderness. We need reminders of God’s high expectations for us. We need to each take our turn being those voices, on Twitter or the Congressional hotlines or in the classroom or around the dinner table.

We also need to speak tenderly, and be spoken to in kind. We need spaces where we let our guard down and entrust our souls to the people around us. We need intimate human connection, a moment of laughter with a friend, a quiet sigh of appreciation or awe.

We need … not escape or even refuge per se but the perspective and restoration that comes in the midst of sacred moments: of joy, of love, of trust. Those are the sustaining gifts we long to be shared among more of our neighbors more of the time, and to be a greater part of our own lives as well.

If we must find ourselves in the midst of chaos and injustice, Advent is an appropriate time for it. This season of waiting and preparation right on the cusp of hope puts that hope in perspective. And gives it a name.

For Isaiah’s followers, that hope was Zion, the long-awaited return to Jerusalem, to rebuild and worship freely. For us, it is a baby in a manger. Advent will help remind us of all we live and long for, if we let it.

So speak prophetically or tenderly, as the occasion demands. Strike the elusive but life-giving balance shown to us by the prophets, and given as one of many gifts from our saving Prince of Peace.

Photo: “Deal Beach – Mar 2011 – Do We Think Julie Was Impressed?” by Gareth Williams via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)