Back to Basics Column with Dr. Chuck Fromm
The written/spoken/embodied Word of God touches us and forms us in myriad ways. We encounter it through not only the living Word Jesus within us when we embrace Him as savior, but by the way the authoritative text of Scripture is communicated: via speech, touch, fragrance, sound, prayer, song, visual art, performance art, live and scripted drama. Our communities of Christian faith are literally formed by the “Text.” Each is a textual community.
Textual community is a term I discovered when working on my dissertation conceptualized by Bryan Stock.* To paraphrase his and others’ description, it is a group knit together, whose very life, process of thinking, sense of personal and shared identity and relationships with each other and those outside are organized around an authoritative text. And the community is formed by education and the varying systems (in our case, Christian faith traditions/religion) that communicate the text through interpreters.
Fluent in the Language of Communication
Have you ever thought of your pastor or worship leader as a charismatic (gifted) interpreter of the text? Maybe not, but look at Paul and his epistles. Look at N.T. Wright, John Piper, C.S. Lewis, Amie Semple Macpherson, James Boyce, Calvin, Luther, the Wesleys, Annie Armstrong, John Knox or anyone of a hundred Psalm, hymn, and spiritual songwriters through history, or film directors, or visual artists. See how vividly and poignantly Rembrandt tells the story of “the prodigal son.” They don’t simply read you Scripture, they interpret it. Now it’s true, it can be interpreted clearly… or not; truly… or not; in the Spirit…or not, but the text is, unquestionably, at the center of the community and forms it. Most Christians wouldn’t question that, but the ramifications are mind-boggling.
The shorthand term for communication technology is media. And the function of media is mediation. Just as Jesus is the mediator between God and man, mediation connects the text to the community and forms it. This means taking the substance, the matter, the content that we wish to communicate and putting it into some form, or representation, that will convey our ideas. But the forms of media, the methods of mediation, the representation that takes place in each type of mediation—from speech to writing with a quill pen, from the printing press to radio, TV, and the Internet, to virtual reality—are not neutral. The message itself as understood by the audience is shaped by the tools we choose to communicate with and those who use them as they interpret it.
This means that we have to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each type of mediation and/or interpreter, and be sensitive to what happens when we translate our messages from one type of mediation to another.
So with that in mind, let me tell you a story.
In the Beginning
Valdesius, whom some have called Waldo (c. 1140 – c. 1205), illustrates the transforming power of the Word—the authoritative text of our lives—to form culture-shaking communities. A key new vocabulary word to learn is re-mediation…Waldo’s story evolves over time, and as it is told and retold (remediated), the story is touched by and touches many lives over many hundreds of years. It touched mine when I was doing research some year ago.
Just like you and I, Waldo’s story begins with God—in this case, God as earthly mediator in the person of Jesus. Most of you have read Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man, where he tells him to sell everything he has and give it away, then adds, “Come, follow me!” (Mark 10:17-27). The young man is unable to accept Jesus invitation, and the story of his “No” becomes an implicit call to us to say, “Yes.” We feel a visceral pain when we hear the story, wondering what we might have done in his place.
People who were there and lived and breathed and saw the encounter spread the story by word of mouth, so that each person who heard it also heard the invitation…and many who heard said “Yes.”
The invitation is later written down (remediated) into the Gospel narrative in Mark and Luke, spreading far and wide as words on a page: “text.” Then the text gets turned back into speech through people reading it out loud and preaching from it and praying and singing it. And with each repetition, the words of Jesus, “Come, follow me,” the invitation rings out. The story is “sticky”—it spreads as the church grows.
On the Way to Waldo
In fifth-century Rome, St. Alexius (before he was sainted, of course) hears the invitation and takes its call literally. Although there is more than one version of the story of Alexius, the prevailing one goes something like this: St. Alexius was a rich fourth-century Roman nobleman who decided on the day of his wedding to remain chaste and to avoid the entrapment of earthly honors. With his wife’s tearful permission, he left for Syria and lived in poverty and prayer for seventeen years until he began to be honored as “a man of God.” And once again, he fled recognition and privilege and returned home to his Father’s house. His parents did not recognize their son, but welcomed him as a beggar and gave him work, providing him a tiny space under the stairs as his living quarters. Alexius labored there and also taught children about God until his death as a stranger in his own family’s home. He gracefully endured mistreatment from the other servants, and only when he died, and an identifying piece of paper was found on his body was it realized who he was. Like Jesus who lived as a stranger in the world he made, unknown for the most part although He was its Creator and heir of all things, Alexius chose to live the story of The Rich Young Man and at the same time the story of Jesus—to remediate it in and through his life: enact it (enactment). Becoming the story is the most powerful form of communication (then it is possible for others to be formed by merely being in proximity, watching and imitating). But where you may ask is “Waldo?”
“Becoming the story is the most powerful form of communication.”
The story of St. Alexius holiness and humility spread and was eventually written down as an inspiration to the faithful. Alexius’ “yes” to God reenacts the original invitation telling the story of the rich young man “as it should have been.” It was interpreted and remediated in word and song and shared, till one day, a brief 700 years later, Valdesius/Waldo, the rich man of Lyon, France encounters the “jongleurs,” the worship leaders of his day, itinerant minstrels singing a New Song and telling stories. They re-enact the story of Alexius’ re-enactment of the story of “The Invitation.”
Did you get that? Like Alexius, Waldo takes the story to heart, becomes the story, literally, and makes his life a medium for its re-telling (re-enactment).
Transformed by the Text
Waldo was deeply moved, and changed by his encounter with God. The jongleurs song was a medium for the invitation. Waldo answered the call, selling all he had, which was considerable, feeding the poor. Waldo embraced the truth of Scripture and is quoted as saying “No man can serve two masters, God and mammon. That you may learn to place hope in God and not in riches.”
He paid two priests to translate Scripture from the Vulgate and write it in the common language, the vernacular (another form of remediation), so that others would hear it in a form they could understand (this, more than 200 years before the Reformation). His preaching birthed a host of preachers, men and women, the poor of Lyon, who preached Bible stories in town squares and Basilica, literally turning on the light of literacy in a dark world. These charismatic interpreters communicated the Word to many who did not read, yet, hearing could then repeat the stories to others. This touched off a revival…that provoked a crackdown from Church authorities, afraid of losing their interpretive monopoly. Yet, the movement—textual community—survives to the present day. Waldo’s embrace of Christ led to his death and many of his followers were burned at the stake. What we know about Waldo is what his enemies wrote about him in trial transcripts. In re-writing with his very life the story of the rich young man, he also joined the stories of Stephen, Paul, Peter, and countless saints martyred before him. Christ was enacted first through Alexius and then Waldo. And the story remains sticky and spreadable.
“No man can serve two masters, God and mammon. That you may learn to place hope in God and not in riches.”
– Peter Waldo
I see worship communication and textual community at the heart of the story of Waldo, “the rich man of Leon,” founder of the Waldensians, who experienced the story of St. Alexis in words and music from a jongleur, and was transformed by God’s interaction with the “production of the sacred.”
In Waldo we see the original story Jesus told remediated in various ways and forms by various people. A Mediation or “mediator” for that matter attempts to be transparent, pointing to a reality other than or beyond itself, or doing it so well as not to be noticed. But all human form is noticed… and ultimately can hijack the mediation.
All new technology is an attempt to make the role of the previous technology ‘mo’ better: improved. It is a way to make the mediation device more transparent and thus effective to use.
Waldo’s story illustrates what I mean when I counsel you to look at history and at the practices of your own church tradition with new eyes—trained by knowledge of the development of communication technology and with some elementary concepts from communication theory.
In effect, what I’ve given you is a methodology for understanding the history of your faith tradition. To track the media, mediation, remediation, movement from speech to text and back again, to understand your story and to remediate an invitation that is Scripture-based, spreadable and sticky, so people will step into the story, and enact it in such a way that Jesus is made present and community is formed.
At the heart of Christian community is not only the Bible, Scripture, the authoritative Text, but the very living Word, Jesus who is both the “medium and the message,” who transparently points to the Father as He speaks. And the more we rest in His reality, the more we will communicate as He does. We’ll extend the Invitation to Follow Him and to worship our Triune God in Spirit and Truth.
*(Textual community is not only applicable to congregational communities, there are many communities large and small that exist to one degree or another formed by and around “authoritative text.” Examples of textual communities may include your neighborhood HOA (community built around an agreement); or a country’s law or constitution which form a huge textual community; there is a community of editors around the APA style guide and so on.)
*In examining the story of Waldo and his followers, Brian Stock found that the conventional terminology of “church,” “sect,” and “denomination” provided a set of labels that were inadequate to the task of explaining or classifying such groups. The phrase that he invented to replace the conventional terminology, “textual community,” describes “a group that arises somewhere in the interstices between the imposition of the written word and the articulation of a certain type of social organization. It is an interpretive community but it is also a social entity” (1990:150).