Ched Reflects on Theological Animation

We travel around North America and abroad as educators and organizers, moving among a wide cross-section of faith-based organizations, communities and congregations, teaching, listening, challenging, encouraging and networking. "Theological animation" is a holistic pedagogy seeking to integrate disciplines of popular education, evangelism, political organizing, pastoring and theological reflection. 

At the center of this approach is the practice of relectura: a "rereading" of the Bible in light of concrete struggles against violence and oppression past and present. The Judeo-Christian tradition of sacred story is older, deeper and wiser than we are, and we believe 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 Word and world are brought to bear on each other at every turn. 

(At left, the cover of Ched's "Say to This Mountain" featuring a print by his mother, Charlotte Myers.)

When and where this kind of “theological animation” 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 we 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.

Right: Ched leading Bible study by the Ventura River, photo Tim Nafziger

Our 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 we describe our 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 cartoons. But this is exactly the problem. So we use intentionally the double entendre of "animation." We've explained the first meaning above--facilitating a "coming to life."  The next paragraphs reflect on the other meaning.

One of the cultural founts from which I draw inspiration is early American animation. Years ago my brother 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. Image source: ). 

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 back 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.