college travels

Friday, May 04, 2007

thoughts about nooma

Okay, so it’s taken me a while to catch up … but this morning on the train into work I watched my first nooma dvd. Some of you will be gasping at the tragically slow pace of cultural integration that I’m displaying, others will be gasping at the knowledge that Youthworks College has paid for one of these tools of Satan that are guaranteed to spell the end of Christianity as we know it. True to character, can I perhaps suggest a more measured response…

So I watched ‘flame’ – it’s about Song of Songs, or actually about the three different words for love in Hebrew that are used in Song of Songs – in brief, companionship, commitment and sex. Rob Bell describes these three loves as three flames and builds to his major point that the flames were meant to burn together, to create ‘the big flame’, rather than going for the emptiness that comes from trying to get all the heat we’re created for only from the flame of sex without the combination of companionship and commitment. In the fifteen minutes Bell takes to share these thoughts we see him driving to a remote location in mid-winter USA and then carrying two fuel cans through the snow. Towards the end of the clip we see his destination – a HUGE pile of dead trees over which he pours the contents of the ‘gas cans’ resulting in one of the biggest bonfires I’ve ever seen – the point is rammed home: don’t miss out on the big flame.

As a piece of gripping communication, this is right up there. It’s visual communication as cinema and television has trained us to receive it – basically there’s a talking head, but a talking head set within a narrative, and a narrative that isn’t full of ‘flashing arrows’ that tell you exactly what’s going on. Here’s a piece of visual communication that is engaging our mental capacity – we listen, we watch, we try to work out what’s going on (where’s he driving to, why has he stopped, what’s in the jerry cans, what’s the fuel for, is he really going to light that?), we feel the cold of the snow and the heat of the flame.

As a statement of Christian theology, this is perhaps a vast improvement on many a youth group talk – planned on the run, built around the latest funny story that landed in your inbox that week, with a stray bible verse conscripted into service to keep the rector happy. Rob Bell is right, that the way the Bible talks about love is more multi-dimensional than our use of the English word love often suggests (‘I love my wife and I love tacos?!’). And yes, we are made by God so that sexual love would only be deeply satisfying in combination with commitment and companionship and the attempt to make sex satisfy all our longings for love is as pitiful a comparison as a lighter flame with a mighty bonfire.

The other implication of the point that ‘the three flames were meant to burn together’ is that companionship and commitment isn’t as good without sex. That of course will raise significant problems for all but one of our human relationships (so I don’t really love anyone other than my wife?) not to mention all of Jesus’ relationships (was he a man who never really knew how good love was?). It’s something that Rob Bell never gets to addressing in this ‘discussion starter’ but then it is a ‘starter’ not a main course, and so hopefully the youth minister who knows how to use a DVD player and data projector is also wise enough to discuss human sexuality. Unfortunately there’s no further direction given for the discussion to follow other than a print version of the material which is just as hip and spare in it’s message as the video.

As a piece of biblical exegesis it really misses the mark. Other than the information that Song of Songs is an erotic love poem we’re left without much sense of what this book is about (though how many sermons on Song of Songs have you ever heard that made sense of what this book is about! So I offer this critique with all the gentleness I can muster!). The image of the great flame does come from the text (see chapter 8:6-7) but our attention isn’t drawn there. The necessary connection between the three words for love is drawn without any explicit justification from the biblical text.

Now of course, that final critique can spell the death of any resource in the exegesis loving evangelical church. But again, remember that this is a discussion starter not a training program in exegetical method. And again, much will depend on the ability of the youth minister to read and explain the Bible (and again, it’s unfortunate that there are no resources in the nooma package to help with this task).

So, given all that, how are we going to respond?

Well, I can already see that ‘we’ being bible-loving-evangelicals will respond in a variety of predictable ways:

§ Some will reject this outright (bad exegesis, bad theology, and they’ve obviously spent too much money on frivolous things such as production quality, money which could have been spent on the poor or on another evangelism training program);

§ others will use it cautiously, picking and choosing which bits to run with (partly because it’s a good quality resource and we might as well use what’s available and partly to really annoy all those people who think it’s from the devil);

§ and I’m sure that some will decide to produce a theologically sound evangelical version of the concept, mimick the packaging, choose a similar but slightly daggier name (ruark), and produce a product that wins on theology and bible but comes a sad second in production quality and narrative depth.

Okay, I’m cynical. Maybe someone will come up with a winner on all counts – but as we worry about all these sorts of options are we perhaps going to end up neglecting the great strength of gospel ministry, the number one basic element of sharing Jesus with young people?

Just talk to them! Spend time face to face; share with them the stories of God – about those who loved well and those who didn’t, about David and Jonathan, about Solomon and his thousand, about Jesus and John, about Paul and his instructions to the Corinthians; ask questions about their lives, about their love lives; share with them about you, about your life and loves, about what you understand and don’t understand from the Scriptures.

I’m happy for people to use all manner of tools and technologies to help people engage with one another as together we engage with the Lord. But without the desire and intention and skills for personal connections, a hip video and a big video screen will struggle to advance the kingdom of God. A life shared in imitation of and empowered by the life of Christ shared and given for us has always been the technology of choice of this Kingdom’s King in the plan to draw all people to himself.