My family and I recently spent some time at L’Abri in Huemoz, Switzerland. While there, I gave two lectures, arguing that we might mimic the methodology of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes who, instead of speaking from Torah or existing wisdom, created new wisdom based upon his own observations of commonly observable, shared experience. Might we, like the Preacher, cultivate and create alternative wisdom traditions, experiential milieus within which we might make the gospel known through shared experience?
And why would we do that? Because people regularly accept experiences other than their own as their own, a sort of vicarious participation. We’ve all seen this before when a friend or family member quotes a movie, play or book, speaking the words as if they were their very own.
In my lecture, I identified two typical approaches to making the gospel known: data and testimony, the former being non-contextualized, the latter contextualized. Were we to begin with some non-contextualized data – “fear God and keep his commandments, because this applies to every person,”[Ecclesiastes 12:13] – we would certainly take a step towards the other (i.e., the non-believing hearer), but we would, in the end, fail to cross the divide between self and other. The data is, after all, other to both parties; put simply, it doesn’t connect with anyone’s experience, ours or theirs.
But what about testimony? Might it bridge the experiential divide? Yes, but not between us and them. Testimony brings data down to the realm of experience, but the experience is mine, not yours or anyone else’s. It is still other to the other.
But what if instead of data floating out in conceptual space, or testimony brought down to the level of our experience, we might make the gospel known from within the experience of the other? That, it seems to me, would, at the very least, take another step towards the other, and perhaps even more. To speak from within the experience of another is to do more than take a step towards that other; it is to be, in some sense, the other for the sake of other.
“Sounds great,” you say, “but how do we gain access to the experience of the other?” The Preacher begins with a poem, and in so doing, shows us the way from shared experience (1:3-11) through testimony couched in poetry (1:12-12:7) to data (12:13-14). Like the Preacher, I suggested we might use poetry and poetic forms like art to make the gospel known. And this is the point in the lecture when someone asked if this approach might not make art particularly susceptible to abuse (i.e., propagandizing).
I’ve addressed this issue on Transpositions before, but I’d like to have another go, and this time in conversation with George Pattison here in Part 1, and then with William Desmond in Part 2. Pattison reminds us that in seeking to use art we must begin by affirming the integrity of the artwork, and Desmond gives us a metaphysic that seems to support the approach of shared experience. We begin, then, with Pattison’s “Art and Apologetics” in which he notes:
“Serious apologetics can naturally never just be an attempt to reclothe the Christian message so as to make it more easily acceptable to a particular audience. Serious apologetics depends on the theologian recognizing that the themes and concerns of his partner in dialogue are in some way also his own.”
Pattison continues, summarizing his argument as follows: “I should like to suggest four points [essential for considering art and apologetics]…. These four points can be summed up in the words: particularity, integrity, wholeness and pluralism.” Now, it’s that second point that I’m particularly interested in: Integrity. By “integrity,” Pattison “mean[s] that the artist, and not just his or her medium, is bound by a very specific and very distinctive vision and way of working. The integrity of the art is the way in which the artist’s own individuality permeates and impresses itself upon the work.” Now, we might debate his definition, but suffice it to say that affirming the integrity of the work is immensely important, and Pattison’s call serves as a sort of warning against use apart from uselessness.
But what, you say, underlies this assertion of integrity, and how are we to be assured that use does not become abusive? The answer exceeds the limits of this post, and so I’ll defer, answering in my next post.
Christopher R. Brewer is pursuing a PhD with David Brown and he is exploring the possibility of an imaginative natural theology. Along these lines, he is the founder and director of gospel through shared experience as well as the editor and publisher of Art that Tells the Story.
 For those not familiar with L’Abri, it is a study center that was founded by Francis and Edith Schaeffer in 1955. Some may recall Jim Watkins’s post, Christianity, Culture and the L’Abri Community, written this time last year while he and his family were living at L’Abri.
 My post in the recent Imaginative Apologetics Symposium, Gospel through Shared Experience, might serve as a sort of summary, and audio of the lectures will soon be available at www.gospelthroughsharedexperience.com.
 See Christopher R. Brewer, “A Response to Siedell’s ‘Art and Explanation'” and “Of What Use Is Story? Further Reflections Upon a Storied Theology of the Arts.”
 George Pattison, “Art and Apologetics,” Modern Churchman, 32 no. 5 (1991): 24.
 Ibid., 26.