05 October 2008

Iambic Admonit: An Odd Christian Genre?

Iambic Admonit's blog has some interesting thoughts about that odd Christian genre, the Testimony:
An Odd Christian Genre?:
in practice, the giving of testimonies is rather odd. First of all, people often add strange emotional responses into their delivery. More disturbing than that, however, is the pre-determined narrative structure into which testimonies are supposed to fit. There are, in my experience, only two narrative forms that are permissible—and really they turn out to be the same. The first is the “I was born into a Christian home and accepted Christ at a young age, but it didn’t really make a big difference into my life until such-and-such life changing event or decision happened and everything has been perfect since then.” The second is the “I was born into a non-Christian family and lived like the devil until such-and-such life changing event or decision happened and everything has been perfect since then.” You see? So the first really big problem, in my observation, is the assumption that everyone’s life ought to fit into one of these two almost identical story-patterns. And what’s worse, this assumption is built upon certain theological beliefs that (I think) are unexamined and probably wouldn’t hold up to severe doctrinal critique or exegesis.

I once participated in an evangelism training programme, Evangelism Explosion. One of the first things that new trainees were required to do was to write out a testimony, and read it out to the training group. And most of these testimonies did in fact fall into one of the two categories that Iambic Admonit describes: the "Christian upbrining" model or the "reformed gangster" model.

And when trainees went out to evangelise (two trainees with an experienced trainer) then at the beginning the only thing the trainees would be expected to do would be to give their testimony.

Since the Evangelism Explosion training programme was developed by a Presbyterian minister, D. James Kennedy, I assume that its basic presuppositions were Calvinist, but that also seemed a bit odd -- if Calvinists believed that people were predestined to be saved or damned, a testimony seemed to be redundant.

I felt a bit awkward about this requirement. I could see the point of it in the training. If you are trying to commend the Christian faith to others, then you need to be able to articulate why it is real to you, and many people, faced with the need to do that, don't know where to begin. Hence the training, awkward as it may seem to begin with, is intended to help people become confident in speaking about their faith.

Yet in my experience the best testimonies have been spontaneous and unrehearsed, called forth by circumstances. There's an Afrikaans saying, "wat die hart van vol is, loop die mond van oor" -- what fills the heart flows out of the mouth.

What seems most odd to me about the genre is the expectation, in some Christian circles, that people can be put on the spot and asked to give a testimony in front of a bunch of fellow Christians. For some, indeed it is a fixed part of the ritual. It is that, rather than the genre itself, that strikes me as odd. I'm glad to say it is not part of Orthodox ritual.

But I found Iambic Admonit's thoughts on the matter interesting.


Bishop Alan Wilson said...

I'm sure the best "testimony" is deep speaking to deep from the abundance of the heart. Mass training in technique it seems a strange way to go about it, but perhps focussing people on their own story is a good plce to start

Eric James said...

I agree it is odd and telling of underlying doctrinal assumptions. I recall being terrified as a new protestant the first time I was asked on the spot to give my testimony. As a genre, however, it can be an interesting entertainment, as evidenced in radio programs such as "Unshackled" or Jack Chick tracts!

Yvonne said...

I think this behaviour occurs in other contexts - when you turn up at university aged 18, everyone asks what you got for your A-levels and why you chose your course. Fortunately you're not asked to testify how university changed your life until the end of your degree course.

Also it seems bizarre to ask new converts why they adopted their religion; surely it would be more valuable to wait until they had some years' excperience.

(You can by now take it for granted that I think evangelism and proselytising are wrong, so I won't bother to comment on that aspect.)

Steve Hayes said...

Bishop Alan,

Actually I found the training in "technique" quite useful. A memorised outline helped people to put their thoughts in order, and once they'd got the hang of it it didn't seem so horribly artificial, though some never got the hanng of it. It was quite well thought out.


I make a distinction between evangelism and proselytism, but I've written about that here so I won't add anything at this point.


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