31 August 2008

An Odd Christian Genre?

This past Wednesday, I was asked to “Give my testimony” at the faculty meeting of my new school. This simple request, traditional among many Christian groups, threw me into confusion. It wasn’t not the public speaking aspect that upset me (I can ordinarily give a paper, read poetry, or lecture with only minimal and short-lived nervousness), but the bizarre and unnatural expectations I associate with the odd Christian genre of “The Testimony” itself.

The idea of sharing with your fellow believers the specific acts of grace in your own life is a very good idea. It is healthy to encourage one another with tales of personal mercy and redemption. It is uplifting to hear other people’s stories of real change in lifestyle and real connection to Christ in their internal lives. So the basic premise is good.

And the word itself, “testimony,” bears witness [gentle pun intended] to the positive aspects of this narrative form. There is, of course, the legal definition, a sworn formal statement in a court of law. But then there’s the old-fashioned meaning, which is “a solemn protest or declaration.” Then there’s an alternative definition, “evidence or proof.” (All from the concise OED). It is right and good for believers to declare their faith before many witnesses, to affirm their commitment aloud in a body of the faithful. It is right and good to recount the evidences or proof of God’s work in one’s life. So the original definitions reveal what is good in the concept of a Christian testimony.

However, in practice, the giving of testimonies is rather odd. First of all, people often add strange emotional responses into their delivery. More disturbing than that, however, is the pre-determined narrative structure into which testimonies are supposed to fit. There are, in my experience, only two narrative forms that are permissible—and really they turn out to be the same. The first is the “I was born into a Christian home and accepted Christ at a young age, but it didn’t really make a big difference into my life until such-and-such life changing event or decision happened and everything has been perfect since then.” The second is the “I was born into a non-Christian family and lived like the devil until such-and-such life changing event or decision happened and everything has been perfect since then.” You see? So the first really big problem, in my observation, is the assumption that everyone’s life ought to fit into one of these two almost identical story-patterns. And what’s worse, this assumption is built upon certain theological beliefs that (I think) are unexamined and probably wouldn’t hold up to severe doctrinal critique or exegesis. These theological beliefs have evolved out of teachings about ordo salutis (the order of salvation: what is the sequence of events when a person gets saved, i.e, God regenerates him, he realizes his sin, he trusts Christ for his forgiveness, he is justified, sanctification begins, and after death and resurrection he is glorified) and about the exact nature of the atonement (what precisely happened, metaphysically speaking, when Christ died on the cross? Did He take our sins? Did He substitute Himself for us? Did He satisfy God’s judgment? Did He serve our sentence for us? and so on). I believe that discussions, debates, creeds, and confession on these topics and very important. I believe that it matters, for example, whether a person believes and then is born again or is born again and then believes. However (and here’s the huge caveat) I also believe that our theological language is metaphorical and should be held with a certain spiritual humility. However we understand redemption and atonement, we need to remember that this is a human formulation we have developed from our understanding of the Scriptures. Yes, it ultimately originated in the Bible itself—but it really originated in a human interpretation of the Scripture, whether Luther’s or Calvin’s or Wesley’s or Aquinas’s. You see? So it seems at best inaccurate and at worst spiritually arrogant to insist that everyone’s Christian journey narration needs to fit a certain story-pattern because of closely held theological assumptions.

If I am misunderstanding the reason for the storyline template, please enlighten me!

Now, there’s another big problem with the whole idea of the testimony being a narrative at all. A narrative, in the literary sense, is a spoken or written account of connected events. It has a narrative voice (the character or persona telling the story) and a clear beginning, middle, and end. The beginning is the exposition, in which the reader/listener learns about the setting, characters, and situation. Then the conflict begins to build (the problem, the difficulty, the mystery). Somewhere at or after the middle, the tale reaches its crisis—its moment of most intense conflict. Then the conflict is resolved (everybody dies or gets married!) and all the loose ends are tied up. You can probably see how this pattern applies to short stories, narrative poems, and novels. What’s odd is the application of this pattern to autobiography, memoir, and the testimony. How can a living human being, with her limited perception and interpretive ability, understand the events of her life well enough to know which were the exposition, crisis, and resolution? How does she know she’s already reached the crisis, if she’s still alive?! Unless she’s extremely elderly and on her deathbed, the crisis might very well be yet to come. Maybe death itself is the crisis. And how can she interpret her life well enough, from God’s perspective, to be able to relate it as a series of connected events? It seems like hubris to say that I know the significance of everything that has happened to me or that I have thought, and to claim to fit them into a cause-and-effect or other significant sequence. How do I know what will ultimately prove to be of the greatest importance in my spiritual development? Perhaps some early incident that lies forgotten in my consciousness will one day emerge and take on gigantic proportions. Perhaps those events that loom largest in my memory, either for wounding and regret or for nurture and joy, will lose their glitter and be replaced by more mundane stages of development. You see?

And of course the last, and perhaps greatest problem with the testimony pattern is the “and everything’s been perfect since then.” I don’t know if people are deliberately being dishonest, or if I just have a messed-up faith: but I want to suggest that perhaps being a Christian is actually more difficult than being a Buddhist, New-Ager, or Atheist (I won’t presume to compare it to the other “great” world religions). Because the daily exercise of faith is terribly hard work. Doubt is the default position for my internal dial. Even the simplest intellectual affirmation of the fundamental points of the creed takes constant, vigilant, intentional mental effort. Maybe that’s just me. But if so, my story doesn’t fit the prescribed pattern. Is it therefore not a testimony? The horrible implication is that I am not saved, because I can’t fit my life into that shape. Well, I can make it fit. I was born into a Christian home, and I did “ask Jesus into my heart” as a little kid, but it didn’t make much difference in my life, and there was a really important commitment later on (followed by a few years of awful doubt, which then subsided during a period of suffering) , and I haven’t denied that promise ever since. But I still see myself as in the “beginning” phase of my story—but then, I might die young. If I died today, my narrative would fit. Exposition until age 13: crisis beginning in that year and continuing until age 18, resolution from age 18 to 29. that would be neat and tidy. But I’d rather live longer, if given a choice: I have books to write, students to teach, a house to finish building and live in, a husband to hang out with, countries to visit, and other huge dreams to fulfill. If I’m given the grace of more years and more goals accomplished, I will be very blessed—and I won’t fit the frame.

So I wanted to put a little of this problematizing into my 5 minute slot on Wednesday morning, but I didn’t want to be insulting to those who invited me to speak. More importantly than that, however, I wanted to be honest. I didn’t want to force my interpretation to fit a particular shade. Here, below, is the written form of what I said (there were slight changes of wording, etc., when I gave this out loud).

I’ll start with the external, narrative facts of my Christian story thus far (even though these outside events are usually the least important facets of such a tale, and sometimes even misleading). The whole idea of a testimony, in which the speaker is supposed to recount her spiritual journey in retrospect, leading up to the present culmination, strikes me as an odd practice for anyone who is not dead!—since we cannot intelligently analyze the structure of our own lives until they are over and we can see more clearly with the mind of Christ. However, those basic autobiographical details can give you a framework into which to fit the more introspective analysis I’ll share after. So here goes.

I was born into a Christian family; my father went to Westminster and held a few pastoral positions off and on when I was a child. He trained me quite thoroughly in the Reformed faith and in what might be called speculative theology. I cannot remember a time when I did not know what was required for salvation—but I postponed a personal decision until I was around five years old. I recall that fear of hell was a major factor in that decision, and also that I prayed some version of the sinner’s prayer several nights in succession in case it didn’t stick!

Although my parents were fairly strict Calvinists in their doctrine, they left the decision of baptism up to me in my years of discretion. This decision, made when I was thirteen, turned out to be extremely important. When I chose to be baptized and to make a public profession of faith, I also made some kind of recommitment—or perhaps it was really my first serious commitment—to Christ. I took a kind of marriage vow, privately, to follow Jesus and be His disciple and believer no matter what I might think, feel, or encounter in the future. Then I affirmed that promise in front of my family and church; and many have been the times that covenant has held me to Christ when nothing else would.

And from that point on, the tale is one of internals, and much more difficult to relate. I have inherited an uncomfortable psychology from my forebears, one that offers me doubts and skepticism more often than peace and assurance. Ecclesiastes may be my favorite book of the Bible. I feel that my faith is a constant struggle, like John Bunyan’s, against sins of the intellect. I have rarely been blessed with any kind of tangible sense of God’s presence, and find many of my days (and nights) characterized by these lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnet “Carrion Comfort”:

NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

[I didn’t go on to quote the rest, in which he relates the strength and joy that have come to him since “that night, that year / of now down darkness” when he lay wrestling with his God.”

And yet, thus far God has not allowed despair to overwhelm me, and sent me a husband with a solid and unshakeable soul to hold me fast. The Lord has also given me a string of complementary educational experiences (Bible college, community college Christian liberal arts college, state university, private secular graduate school), which have all worked together to give me multifaceted perspectives on the many denominations of Christianity, the many beliefs and lifestyles of non-Christians, and the many interpretations of both Scripture and human literature. And I cannot complain, for as a counterbalance to my depressive tendencies, I have been granted a disproportionate capacity for beauty. As the writer of Ecclesiastes said, “[God] has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men….” I have been blessed—or stricken—with this sense of eternity, something like Wordsworth’s oceanic sense, something like the “sublime” of the 18th and 19th centuries, something like C. S. Lewis’s joy or sehnsucht. To both Creation and sub-creation, I respond with ridiculous, delirious joy. Both pattern and purpose inform Nature and Art. So I make meaning with words, writing, studying, teaching. And I affirm and almost daily revel in what Hopkins wrote in another of his inimitable sonnets, “God’s Grandeur”:

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.


HilbertAstronaut said...

Do you think the problem (of testimonies falling into one of the two templates you mentioned) could relate directly to Calvinist theology (or perhaps to its modern interpretation)? Personal-salvation-as-process seems very un-Calvinist to me, and to admit that one's post-(re)conversion faith isn't always perfect, is a confession of salvation-as-process, no?

Iambic Admonit said...

I wonder. You might be right, but I don't know why an understanding of Calvinist theology would exclude salvation-as-process?? If one's salvation is eternally predestined from before the beginning of time, why would there need to be a distinct moment of realization? Wasn't an elect person technically saved before that moment?

HilbertAstronaut said...

That's true, God could still save by a process rather than at an instant. In that case, the Testimony still gives praise to the saving work of God.

I'm thinking it's more about form than about doctrine: perhaps the practice of giving a Testimony comes from congregations that believe in "Free Grace" soteriology:

and therefore, the model for giving a Testimony tends to imitate the examples given from believers in that doctrine. It's kind of like "praise and worship" music: it spreads between denominations by imitation.

Steve Hayes said...

I once participated in an evangelism training programme called "Evangelism Explosion" (and since it was developed by a Presbyterian minister, I assume that it was based on Calvinist presuppositions).

The first thing new trainees had to do was write a testimony, and I felt a bit awkward about that, for similar reasons to those you have mentioned.

And yet I could also see that there was a point to it. The New Testament urges us to "give a reason for the faith that is in you", and if one is to share one's faith with others, one ought to be able to articulate it. If you are trying to persuade others to follow Christ, then at some point you need to be able to explain why it is real to you.

I've noticed, however, that the best testimonies, in this sense, are spontaneous, unrehearsed, and given in response to particular circumstances and discussion. It is the formulaic expectations and being put on the spot that make me feel awkward about "testimonies".

Iambic Admonit said...

I have also been trained in "EE" (Evangelism Explosion), and found it a strangely artificial way to share the gospel. Its value, however, lay in the memorization of Bible verses and of practical analogies. My missionary sister says it's a great tool. (Sesoztai, if you're reading this, how about a comment?)