Theological Animation: The educational work of Ched Myers

Note: For Ched's speaking schedule and publications, please visit ChedMyers.org.

About Ched Myers

Ched, a fifth generation Californian, lives in Oak View, in the Ojai Valley and the Ventura River watershed. Over the past three decades he has worked with many peace and justice organizations and movements, including the American Friends Service Committee, the Pacific Concerns Resource Center and Pacific Life Community. With Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries he focuses on building capacity for biblical literacy, church renewal, and faith-based witness for justice.

Ched holds a Bachelors in Philosophy from the University of California at Berkley (1978) and a Masters in New Testament Studies from the Graduate Theological Union (1984). He has served as adjunct faculty at Memphis Theological Seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary, and Claremont School of Theology. Other schools at which he has taught or lectured include: Ecumenical Theological Seminary (Detroit), the Seminary Consortium on Urban and Pastoral Education (Chicago), Maryknoll School of Theology (New York), Virginia Theological Seminary, Phillips Theological Seminary (Oklahoma), Pacific School of Religion (Berkley), Toronto School of Theology, Vancouver School of Theology, Conrad Grebel College University, Lutheran Theological Seminary (Saskatoon), Churches of Christ Theological College (Australia), and Tamilnadu Theological Seminary (India).

Ched travels throughout North America and abroad giving seminars and retreats, teaching, preaching, and facilitating gatherings. He works with Catholic, Protestant, and Anabaptist parishes and denominational offices, as well as with ecumenical organizations. He is particularly committed to faith-based peace and justice efforts such as Christian Peacemaker Teams, Borderlinks, the Catholic Worker movement, Witness for Peace, and the Servant Leadership Schools.

 

About Theological Animation

For the last thirty-five years I have sought to respond to the discipleship call in a variety of ways: as an activist, a wriMountain Coverter, a community builder and a popular educator. It is my conviction that the First World church can only be renewed by rediscovering its witness to God’s dream of the Peaceable Kingdom and justice for all. Historically in the U.S., people of faith have been on the forefront of struggles for social change (in our generation this has included movements for civil rights, labor solidarity, immigrant and refugee rights and disarmament). Today, however, we need to help animate a new generation of ecumenical leadership committed both to the gospel and to social change. In the metaphor of Jesus, our vocation is to "address the mountain" of injustice (at right, the cover of my "Say to This Mountain": Mark's Story of Discipleship, featuring a print by my mother, Charlotte Myers).

Over the past 15 years I’ve traveled around North America and abroad in an attempt to nurture this vision as an educator and organizer. I have moved among a wide cross-section of faith-based organizations, communities and congregations, teaching, listening, challenging, encouraging and networking. I have pursued a holistic pedagogy I call "theological animation" that integrates the disciplines of popular education, evangelism, political organizing, pastoring and theological reflection.

At the center of my approach is the practice of relectura: a "rereading" of the Bible in light of concrete struggles against violence and oppression past and present. I believe that the Judeo-Christian tradition of sacred story is older and deeper and wiser than we are, and that it has the power to transform our lives and our history--but only if we can overcome its domestication under the dominant culture of empire. Our churches – conservative and liberal alike – are often inhospitable to the gospel’s invitation to the cross, to solidarity with the least, and to Sabbath Economics. Our task is thus to rebuild a literacy in which the Word and the world are brought to bear on each other at every turn.

When and where this has occurred throughout the history of the church, communities of discipleship, creative celebration, healing and solidarity with the marginalized have been born, or born again. The same holds true for our time. Countless times I have heard exclamations from participants in our sessions such as these:

"Why haven't we heard this before in church?"

"I've been waiting my whole life to encounter this gospel!"

"I've long suspected there was more in these texts than I was being told!"

Such responses express at once both frustration and hope, and indicate how hungry our people are for an integrative approach to scripture, faith and politics.

My work has three goals: (1) To recover the vocation of evangelism grounded in Jesus' call to radical discipleship, engaging communities of faith across the ecumenical spectrum in critical conversation about the shape of embodied faith today; (2) To help rebuild a broad and deep movement of faith-based witness for peace and justice by supporting, encouraging and interconnecting diverse local, regional and national expressions of faith and action, drawing particularly upon the legacy and lessons of the Civil Rights Movement; (3) To promote and nurture biblical literacy and social analysis among Christians by helping groups re-ground their perspectives in sacred stories and to discern how those visions can be recontextualized in our world.

People often chuckle when I describe my work as "theological animation." Apparently this is seen as contradictory: the serious endeavor of theology is perceived to have little in common with something as fun-loving as animated cartoons. But this is exactly the problem. So I use intentionally the double entendre of "animation." I've explained the first meaning above--facilitating a "coming to life." Here's the other meaning.

One of the cultural founts from which I draw inspiration is early American animation. Years ago my kokobrother Grob turned me on to the work of pioneering animated filmmaker Max Fleischer, whose short features, such as the "Out of the Inkwell" series, pre-dated (and profoundly influenced) Walt Disney. There were two very cool things about Fleischer's cartoons. For one, they rolled to jazz music--at a time jazz was still very much edgy and underground. This manic, free music cohered perfectly with Fleischer's rubbery, weird Vaudevillesque toon characters (such as Koko the Clown, pictured left). Jazz also fit with Fleischer's non-agonistic, non-linear stories. There were no good guys or bad guys, no plot crises in this fabulated toon-world; just characters bumping along to the music, having adventures and silly fun. Theologically speaking, this early art form represented a sort of utopian dreaming, imagining a world in which characters never die or suffer, but instead laugh and dance. (Fleischer invented the time-honored cartoon convention in which characters bounce right up from any and all mayhem.) A vision, in other words, of heaven.

No accident perhaps that Fleischer and many of his colleagues were Jewish immigrants: they were, like the musicians to whom they were drawn, brilliant artists marginalized by the racial-ethnic codes of the times (the first Black jazz player to appear on film was in a Fleischer short). I think of Fleischer's early cartoons as a sort of midrash on America, reflecting a longing for life-after-transfiguration: goofy, happy, all good. And that kind of mystical vision of the world-as-it-should-be should characterize any theology that hopes to struggle for redemption in the real world--which could not be further from a Fleischer cartoon. That's also why I strive to practice theological animation.