1989 ICS Niagara Conference
Perspective Report by Carol-Ann Veenkamp
Everyone loves to listen to a good story. Through stories we learn about the past with an eye to the future. One could even say that “we … are story-shaped and story-shaping creatures.”
“In fact we are constantly making sense of our experiences, and we arrange them in a plot that helps explain what happens,” Dr. Harry Fernhout told approximately 700 conferees gathered at the 31st annual ICS Niagara family conference.
Fernhout, who is ICS’s senior member in education, presented the conference theme, “Educating disciples: Shaping Memory and Vision” in a two-part keynote address.
Learning through stories
Fernhout pictured education, in the home and church as well as in the school, as a process of bringing learners into a shared story — a story which carries our past or collective memory and inspires our vision of the future. If’s important to note that this process is not limited to education by Christians, he said.
However, Christians seek to educate within the context of the biblical story in which their own personal story or worldview is rooted.
“To have a biblical worldview, then, is to soak ourselves in the biblical story so that our life-practice testifies to the truth of that story,” he said.
The difficulty lies in the disparity between the worldviews promoted by the world and the Bible. As disciples or followers of Christ we are called to faithfulness in the midst of the cultural story of the world, while at the same time belonging to the story of the Bible. This means we have to be on our toes when we encounter memory and vision-shaping both in the world and when we wish to attach the adjective Christian to our educational efforts, Fernhout said.
Disciples need story
But in order to educate, disciples need a story that helps define discipleship. Quoting from John Westerhoffs A Pilgrim People, Fernhout said that “stories are for all ages … at the heart of the Christian faith is a story, not dogma.”
The biblical story is foundational; it is a story that communicates faith and it provides a framework for an imaginative way of ordering our experience.
“Our most important educational task as disciples is to be immersed in the story from which we learned our identity as disciples.”
But to learn God’s story, our beliefs and actions depend on our internalization of that story, making God’s story our own.
“If we are steeped in the biblical story, then with God’s blessing our lives come to tell the same story.”
Christians cannot keep the story of the Bible at arm’s length; the human need and love for stories finds its deepest expression in that story which embodies our most basic convictions. And telling and retelling that story benefits all generations for as they make it available for children, adults grow in possessing the biblical story for themselves.
Keys of memory and vision
Two key sides of biblical consciousness, which all our educational efforts need to cultivate, are memory and vision.
In his first address, Fernhout said the content of learning is really the collective memory of what people have come to know as valuable in their efforts to shape a way of life.
“A living story needs a community of people capable of remembering and reinterpreting it … here we must begin with a renewed emphasis of a biblical consciousness of life as discipleship.”
Theologian Walter Brueggemann tells us that “A loss of biblical consciousness is equivalent to suffering from amnesia — a loss of memory.” Such a loss makes it impossible for our faith in Christ to authorize our lives. This amnesia accounts for the fact that we have in many cases become encultured into the secular story of the good life. In this situation Christians urgently need to reappropriate biblical memory.
“Our … educational task, is to bring the claims of the biblical story and the collective memory into which our culture invites us into creative, often tension-filled dialogue,” Fernhout stated.
Memory as leaven
The process starts with the recovery of biblical memory as the leaven of our educational efforts. While the scope of this challenge can be discouraging the memory is hope-filled, for the God of Genesis keeps his promises and has the power to make thing.s new.
But we have to remember that the biblical story has more than a past; it also has a future or a vision to sustain it. Shaping the vision of disciples educationally means imbuing our educational storytelling with a frame of reference that is “covenant-historical.” This framework shows enduring commitment on the part of both parties against the backdrop of a vast deposit of precious memories.
Imagination builds on the pulse of the story present in memory; it allows us to envision the future. But a vision must be rooted in biblical memory to keep it from being merely a flight of fancy. A biblical vision projects biblical memory into the future to see what God wants us to do. Memory and vision-shaping are the unifying concepts for the whole scope of our educational efforts as Christians, Fernhout said.
Spirit of trust
Fernhout also pointed out that it is fundamentally important to enter into this educational task of ours in a spirit of trust, remembering that the “education of disciples has survived for centuries and will probably survive our generation as well.”
The original 12 disciples were not supermen, yet to them Jesus entrusted the future of the entire church, Fernhout stated. For the one resource Jesus could count on was that the 12 were steeped in the story of their own community. If we do our best to be infused with both the memory and the vision of the biblical story, we too can go about the task of educating disciples with confidence.