Will Video help adults learn?

by John Wijngaards, the Tablet, October 1993.

The Director of Housetop Centre which produces Christian videos, pleads for a reappraisal of symbol and image.

Some time ago I attended a lecture on the divine motherhood of Mary. The speaker defined a mother in these terms: ‘a woman who, having provided an ovum that is subsequently fertilised by an external agent, prepares it for infusion of a soul and nurtures it from her own bodily substance till it can be physically separated from her’. A girl sitting next to me whispered in my ear: ‘Obviously, the poor fellow never had a mother’.

Trying to define everything in conceptual notions characterises our Western culture. It is a disease that has crippled our thinking, whether as theologians or scientists. Motherhood encompasses so many ineffables: feeling a child drink your milk and drain your energy, the first smile and the first tantrum, cuddles and smacks, teaching a child to speak and act on its own, transforming a bond of utter dependence into a mature relationship. When will we stop thinking that faith can be saved by text, or doctrine by a catechism?

The importance of the audio-visual media, and particularly of video, should be seen within this context. It is not just a question of organising the media to fall in line with our religious purposes; as if that could be done. We need to open our eyes to the wider implications of approaching faith through images. As preachers and believers we will have to shed our reluctance to think in sound and symbol.

I believe the time has come for us to realise that our religious beliefs cannot be adequately expressed in logical concepts. We should acknowledge that our Christian perception of reality, though not unreasonable, goes beyond reason. We have learnt to be critics; what we need to learn now is to be mystics at the same time.

Clear thinking will always be required. We need to define our faith within the framework of rational choices. We also need to rid ourselves of the parasites that tend to infect religious practice: magic, superstition, fundamentalism and fanaticism. This is, perhaps, where a catechism serves a purpose. But our critical faculty should not, to the extent it does now, obscure the more mysterious, exciting, overwhelming, often frightening and always fascinating aspects of our universe. We have to recognise religion for what it is: mystery.

This insight has immediate relevance for adult faith formation which is rightly being seen as a priority in our parishes and in the upper forms of our schools. What is required is not a mere presentation of orthodox doctrine however lucidly explained, but rather a holistic approach. Research has shown that RCIA and related programmes succeed best if they combine oral instruction, the presentation of audio-visual ‘parables’ and critical analysis within a process of personal growth supported by a group.

I believe that Christian video courses are a valuable asset to groups that seek to deepen their holistic understanding of their faith. But the setting must be right. The group must be prepared to face real questions, to deal with doubt and anger, and to liberate religion from its ‘infant’ status.

Childhood toys

An alarming statistic in the recent publication of the European Values Survey (1992) is the low percentage of people who find religion important in their lives. Only 30% give it a high ranking. A mere one in five mention it as a priority value worth passing on to their children. No more than 18% hold that shared religious belief is crucial for a successful marriage.

The traditional Christian Churches are losing support, whether we measure this in terms of Sunday practice, confidence in leadership, orthodoxy or adherence to Christian morals. But the decline of interest in religion itself is arguably much more serious. It affects Church-goers no less than the unchurched. How has our modern world succeeded in pushing religion to the fringes?

The pundits ponder the reasons and rightly see them in secularism, individualism and the changes brought to our pattern of life by technology. John Hull of the University of Birmingham has summarised much of this in a shrewd perception. He contends that in our modern culture religion has come to be linked with childhood (see What Prevents Christian Adults from Learning?).

Adults look back upon their childhood as a time when they were safely protected in the home, when things were simple, when decisions were made for them, when they were not exposed to the rigours of employment, bureaucracy and rationality. Childhood was also the time when religion came naturally. Think of Christmas cribs, Easter eggs and FirstCommunion. ‘The age of eight is the high water mark of religiosity in the life cycle of many a modern person’, Hull tells us. ‘Scepticism, secularism, rebellion, boredom, sex and pop songs set in very quickly after that pious age’.

As people enter the rational and competitive world of adults, the majority tend to discard religion with their childhood toys. They lapse, or end up as marginal Christians. Others, who refuse to face the conflict between adult modernity and Christian faith, retreat to their Sunday worship as a safe haven. They are then socialised by the church into a perpetual childhood, Hull says. Others again engage in cognitive bargaining, modifying part of their belief system to maintain its plausibility with modernity. Only those who are willing to ‘learn’ can find the right balance of faith and modern living.

Hull is absolutely right in positing the need of ‘learning’ for an adult Christian faith to survive. Our experience in Housetop shows that such learning requires a wide range of study: recognition of the historical processes in which Scripture and the Church lie embedded, openness to the new scientific insights and social values, and acquaintance with other religious traditions. But, most of all, learning will need to pass beyond critical analysis into a renewed appreciation of myth and metaphor.

The deepest realities of our life cannot be fathomed by the tools of logic. They reveal themselves in the realm of relationships, of feelings, of ultimate purpose and transcending mystery. The problem of our ‘rational’ culture lies precisely in its having isolated our awareness from its natural, unconscious roots. We can no longer relate to persons and things as they are, but only as they are logically defined in the limited categories of our mind.

As Christians we have always instinctively valued symbol and sacrament. Our liturgies celebrate in elaborate and colourful ritual what goes beyond words. Jesus Christ himself has always been understood as the greatest sacrament of all, the eternal and invisible Word made visible in human flesh.

Christianity is more congenial to mythical thought, where ‘mythical’ should not be taken to denote what is imaginary or unreal but what is expressed in basic symbols. Jesus taught in parables. His deeds were tokens and models. His death and Resurrection were signs of lasting significance. We cannot meaningfully talk of God, of the Incarnation, or of divine life in us, without the use of images. Our critical knowledge has to be supplemented with a holistic approach: a mode of presence to earthly and divine realities that is direct and which refuses the detour of discursive mediation.

‘Mystic participation’, to use an expression coined by Levy-Bruhl, came naturally to us as children. As adults we have to rediscover it and purify it. We need to leave the child’s magical fancies behind us while overcoming the limitations of a narrow secular, notional, reductionist view of life. The universe has to become once more the source of awe and true religious wonder. Scripture has to disclose a story of love, of a personal Creator who, in spite of his transcendence, cares for us and lives among us as one of us. We need to reappraise the power of God touching us through symbols. It is in this rehabilitation of images that the video revolution can play its part.

The audio-visual floodgates

Television has become a central fact of modern life. Most homes now possess a colour TV set (87%) and a video recorder (60%). Adults view an average of five to six hours a day; children four hours a day. There is no doubt that we are being flooded with images.

The impact of these images is still being debated. It seems indisputable that prolonged viewing will gradually imbue people with new ideological values. What makes for happiness in life? How to regard suffering and violence? Who in our life fixes the ‘rules of the game’, branding some as winners, others as losers? Will we trust TV when it presents models to live by and solutions to the basic questions of life?

The problem does not lie in our being offered views opposed to our own. It lies in values and assumptions that are not expressed, in selecting some priorities and omitting others, in not allowing a free, two-way dialogue with the viewer. The mass media have been organised along oneway lines. They flow from top to bottom, from the centre to the periphery, from the few to the many. This is where video comes in as a new medium.

Video allows us to record a programme, to see it again, to challenge the views expressed, and to discuss all implications. In the context of learning in groups it provides a valuable tool that can harness the power of sound and image to the process of discernment and growth. Video’s particular strength lies in its ability to make us see values translated in relationships and feelings, to make us enter other people’s lives. At its best, when video presents story, it can provide modern parables that capture the heart of religious experience.

We are told in the Gospel not only that Jesus taught in parables, but that he ‘never taught the crowds without parables’ (Mt 13,34). Jesus knew that the reality of the Kingdom defy logical definition. He realised that stories and images, apart from evoking a better response, often express the core of religious truth much better. This is what Video can help us do for our time.

Video is only gradually finding its niche in religious education. In 1990, of the 50 million video cassettes sold in the UK, 7 million were bought by rental shops, 3 million by commercial firms and 40 million by home users. Religious cassettes numbered hardly 70,000.

As to quality, there is a lot of variation. Some videos present just ‘talking heads’, ministers preaching at unseen congregations from the screen. Others are documentary-style reports on, say, Medjugorje, or Lourdes. Others again serve an immediate pastoral purpose, like marriage preparation or teaching people how to pray. But the most promising development is the emergence of imaginative video courses in which instruction in a course book is combined with story and documentary on video.

The Video Forum in Driebergen aims at stimulating new ideas and at facilitating an exchange of available resources. If English mystery plays found their way to the continent in the Middle Ages and if Flemish and Italian artists could work on the stained-glass windows of England’s cathedrals, a shared search for religious images and how to integrate them in religious education makes no less sense today; which may well apply to topics like divine motherhood.

Research on sexual behaviour in Italy disclosed the effect of a distorted image of Mary on a high proportion of Catholic men and women. Husbands in this group unconsciously identify their wives with the ‘sexless’ Virgin Mary whose motherhood ‘was not tainted either before, during or after birth’ and so expect their wives to ‘be chaste mothers’ and to have no interest in sex. They seek sexual fulfilment with other women whom they consider depraved like Eve. For wives the situation gives rise to severe psychological tensions. They cannot, without feelings of guilt, admit to having sexual needs. Could some problems in our own marriages have the same origin? Rather than defining Mary’s motherhood, would this outgrowth of it not need pruning and healing?

The sensually sensitive Mary of Jean-Luc Goddard’s film Je Vous Salue Marie could be the starting point in a group process of recovering the true Mary from the Gospel text, her warm-blooded motherhood (which does in no way diminish her role in the history of salvation) and healthy Christian sexuality. Images say more than words ever can.