Tuesday, August 5, 2008


Over the past few weeks I've been re-reading Helen Keller's The Story of My Life as a way to further wrestle with how we appropriate language--particularly religious language (see Chapter Seven "The Art of Immersion" in The God-Hungry Imagination). Postliberal theologian George Lindbeck refers to Keller in The Nature of Doctrine, noting how language doesn't merely define our experience but in many ways creates it. So I was curious to see if his assessment of Keller holds up when reading her autobiography.

For the uninitiated, her story goes like this: Helen was rendered blind and deaf at the age of 18 months and was thus robbed of language and speech. Until her teacher, Anne Sullivan, came along when Helen was seven, Helen had no way of connecting the world of sensory perception (taste, smell, and touch) to any sense of meaning in the world. She was, as a friend of mine described it, "raw data," all impulse and emotion. Then one day Anne took her out to a water pump, and while the cold water was pouring into Helen's hand, Anne signed the word for w-a-t-e-r over and over again. Helen suddenly understood. She now wanted to know the name of everything she touched. Suddenly her world held meaning. It wasn't (as so many people seem to think of language) that the world had held meaning before and Helen simply needed language to express it; it's that without language she was unable to experience the meaningfulness of the world at all.

Sociologist Christian Smith speaks of language in a similar way in his book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press, 2005). His concern is that today's teenagers are "incredibly inarticulate" about the religious beliefs they claim to hold--despite their ability to articulate all kinds of other important information. They haven't been taught religious language and belief, and thus, it's not surprising that religion plays only a small role in their everyday lives. It holds little meaning beyond their immediate impulses and needs. He contends that religious beliefs can be "no more vaguely real" for people if they can't articulate them--indeed, that "Articulation fosters reality."

I expected Helen Keller's experience to play this out on the level of basic language, but I didn't expect it to speak so eloquently to issues of moral agency or even faith. She writes, of her water-pump experience, that earlier in the day she had deliberately shattered a porcelain doll which Anne had given her. At the time she felt no remorse. But when they returned from the pump, after she had learned the names of more than a dozen things, she went to the broken doll on the floor and wept. The doll now had a name. It was no longer an arbitrary object in the universe. It was connected to other objects and to people she loved, and she now knew what she had done. Articulation fostered a new kind of reality for Helen that hadn't existed before.

But that's not all I discovered in The Story of My Life. The edition I read included letters from Anne Sullivan about her work with Helen, which highlighted both Anne's giftedness as a teacher but also her strange ineptitude in answering Helen's questions about God. She (as well as Helen's parents) seemed to think that religion is a set of beliefs (as opposed to a way of life that has its own grammar and narratives and practices). The assumption was that teaching Helen abstract beliefs about God would be difficult and could only lead to error--but Anne has no trouble defending Helen's ability to grasp other abstract ideas. I can only assume that Anne's own religious faith was impoverished to the point that she could not imagine how a small child who was blind, deaf, and mute could understand what Anne herself did not. However, Anne demonstrates her wisdom as a teacher when she directed Helen to interacting with a minister who helped Helen understand "the Fatherhood of God." Intriguing stuff!

More later.

Amazon Reviews

Anyone up for posting a review of The God-Hungry Imagination on Amazon.com? So far this book takes the record for the longest-running un-reviewed book among all my titles. Very strange. So if you're feeling inclined to comment, question, gush, snark, or complain about this book in a public manner, feel free! I'm game.

Friday, July 25, 2008

SOULfeast II

A quick shout-out to the folks who attended my workshop on The God-Hungry Imagination at SOULfeast in Lake Junaluska, NC this past week: You were a fabulous group, and I hope you come away as enriched as I feel having spent time with you all. Please stay in touch.

Another shout-out to the youth & adults who attended my workshop on C. S. Lewis & J. R. R. Tolkien--great questions & discussion! I especially appreciated your enthusiasm in the spontaneous scavenger hunt for the lost hearing aid. You gotta love those unplanned intergenerational group bonding moments. (I wouldn't have thought of a hearing aid, myself, but God is clever like that). Anyway, if you're interested in learning more about C. S. Lewis, you can read my blog article "Good News for Toy Soldiers" on the official CSL site.

Peace out.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Soul Searching

Frankly, I wish this summer held a bit more of that for me, but things have been nuts. But that's not what this post is about anyway. It's about the 2007 documentary from the folks who are conducting the National Study of Youth and Religion (see link at right). They're the ones who brought us the landmark book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton (Oxford). [Incidentally, Christian Smith wrote a fine endorsement of my book, The God-Hungry Imagination: see the post "Endorsements for the GHI"] I've just ordered the DVD, and I'm wondering if there's anyone else out there who has seen it? What are your thoughts? Comments? Concerns? It's the kind of thing I look forward to watching, but not really, if you know what I mean. I can only stand so much bad news about today's teenagers before I need to call up one of them and take them out for icecream, just to remind myself that they are, in fact, human beings like the rest of us.


I'm not sure why the "soul" in SOULfeast is capitalized, nor why feast is italicized, nor why it's all one word, but I DO know that I'm headed there in a week. SOULfeast (http://www.upperroom.org/soulfeast/2008/index.htm) is the General Board of Discipleship's annual spiritual formation retreat at Lake Junaluska, NC, in the western mountains. It's an Upper Room bash, actually, and I'm really looking forward to it. If you happen to be going, be sure to look me up. I'll be leading an ongoing morning workshop on "The God-Hungry Imagination," and a one-time afternoon workshop on C. S. Lewis & J.R.R. Tolkien. I've even gotten all tech-savvy for the occasion, complete with power-point slideshow and video clip (nuh-uh, you say; and I say, chyeah). But never fear: I'll still bring a single candle and my copy of "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" in the spirit of media minimalism.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

National Youth Workers Convention 2008

Thinking about attending the Nashville youth workers' convention hosted by Youth Specialties this November (http://www.nywc.com/)? I'll see you there! I'm leading two workshops: one on "The Role of Imagination in Spiritual Formation" and the other on "Re-imagining Confirmation." The topics will expand on some of the ideas in my book "The God-Hungry Imagination: The Art of Storytelling for Postmodern Youth Ministry" (see link at right), though you won't have to read the book to get what I'm talking about (though, of course, reading the book would only enrich your experience, but then again, I'm slightly biased). let me know if you plan to attend, and maybe we can connect. One of my main stations will be the Upper Room booth in the exhibition hall (more info to come). Looking forward to seeing you there!

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Prelude Gathering

Many thanks to Chris Folmsbee and the folks at the Prelude Gathering in Kansas City (April 23-26) for what sounds like a wonderful discussion of The God-Hungry Imagination. I'm humbled and gratified by the response to my book, and I pray there will be more opportunities for youth workers to gather and learn from one another about the way God uses the imagination to touch young lives. Folks who attended the gathering are welcome to post comments here, or email me at sarah@saraharthur.com.

Meanwhile, final exams and papers are keeping my nose to the grindstone. By this time next week it will all be OVER, and I will be halfway through my graduate program at Duke Divinity School. Hurrah!!!!

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Talking Texts

Over the holiday break I've done some good reading (though not as much as I would like), including Inkheart, by Cornelia Funk (thank you, Claire!); Lost in Austen, a "create-your-own-Jane-Austen-adventure" by Emma Campbell Webster (thank you, Chloe!) and The Remarkable Case of Dorothy L. Sayers, by Catherine Kenney. Here's a quote from the latter: so far the best and most succinct definition I've ever heard of the intriguing concept known as "intertextuality":

"The dense fabric of allusion in Sayer's novels is similar to that found in much twentieth-century literature, including the more literary versions of the detective story, and is an aspect of what is now fashionably called 'intertextuality.' Perhaps in a time when things fall apart, when the function and future of literature is daily questioned and the alienation of human beings from one another is so severe, texts have to talk to each other to make connections. Perhaps, even worse, in these incoherent times only texts can speak to each other." - From The Remarkable Case of Dorothy Sayers, by Catherine Kenney (Kent State University Press, 1990, page 14)

Upon reading that last sentence I had a vision of the library basement at Duke Divinity School, darkened after hours, and all those thousands of unread books slumbering away with neglect--until one of them whispers, "psst!!"