Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A Review of Painting the Stars from Living the Questions

When I received an email notifying me that Painting the Stars was available for review, I didn't really hesitate. This series is under the banner of Living the Questions, a video series from a much more progressive viewpoint which features prominent liberal theologians and scholars such as Marcus Borg, Walter Brueggemann, John Dominic Crossan, and many others. I jumped at the chance to watch this because I'd heard many positive things about it from colleagues who use it, and because I'm on the market for an educational series for Lent. So I went into this not only as a reviewer, but as a church worker considering it for use in my setting.

The tagline for this particular series is "Science, Religion, and an Evolving Faith," and purports to explore how religion and science are compatible rather than not. It features pastors/priests, authors, speakers, and theologians such as Matthew Fox, Rachel Held Evans, Michael Dowd, and Catherine Keller.

With that kind of a setup going in, I felt pretty confident about this resource. The further I got through the first session, however, I became increasingly bothered by what I was watching even though I couldn't immediately put a name to it. Eventually, it became clearer what this was. Or, to be more accurate, what these things were.

First, there is no real diversity among the speakers. At all. They are all well-educated white liberals, and in turn both in the way they present their ideas and in the larger way their thoughts are edited together, the assumed audience is well-educated white liberals. Just in the first session alone, there were many times when I tried to picture a typical congregation such as my own with its mixture of educational and theological backgrounds listening to this, and from that perspective at some points some ideas are not presented very clearly at all, while at other times it is assumed that the person watching already agrees or can fill in the blanks themselves.

An example: at one point a speaker uses a jazz metaphor for how God invites humanity to participate in creation. I'm familiar with this metaphor already, so I knew that the idea here is that jazz has a basic structure but there is great room for improvisation and freedom to move and create within that structure. Unfortunately, the person presenting this point doesn't really explain the basics of the analogy. Instead, he skips one or two steps before the video just moves on to a new point entirely, leaving most viewers, I would imagine, wondering what he was talking about. This is but one of many instances where the video doesn't quite fully connect the dots for the audience.

Aside from that, this is not a very evocative series. The videos don't ask questions to prompt discussion, nor is the overall tone one of gently inviting viewers to consider these new ideas as a possible alternative to what one already believes. The videos often seem to assume the viewer already agrees or understands. To me, it's Education 101 to present your material clearly and in a basic way such that people may be in dialogue both with it and with fellow learners. If your information isn't presented well, this sort of understanding and dialogue isn't possible, if that is even a goal to begin with.

There are even more basic presentation-related issues than what I've already mentioned. Each session clocks in at around 20 minutes each, which is pushing the limits of one's attention span nowadays, and is essentially one talking head after another using advanced theological and scientific lingo interspersed with lengthy quotes read from thinkers of times past. All of this is set against a soundtrack of background music that is just as droning as some of the people talking. To be blunt, I was bored watching this. How will a group of people less familiar with these concepts stay engaged?

As one considering this for use in my own setting, it didn't take me very long at all to decide to pass. The concepts concerning the intersection of science and religion are important and can generate great discussion in a class setting, but I don't think that this is a particularly good vehicle for conveying them: they aren't presented well in several ways, and would not be very engaging for the typical congregation that doesn't already share the assumptions of the speakers. It looks like I'll keep looking for another resource between now and when Lent begins.

(I was sent a free copy of this video curriculum to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)


Luke said...

I think you have articulated my own misgivings about this title and also about Living the Questions in general. It's an old model of "listen to the experts and adjust accordigly." Whereas, I've found the ANIMATE series to be much more of a conversation start, honors the wisdom in the room, and asks great questions. LtQ, while I agree with the premise, doesn't deliver in the execution, IMHO.

Jeff Nelson said...

I've heard good things about ANIMATE. I'll probably give that a try.

Luke said...

It's pretty awesome. Make the investment in the journals as well and just go through those. Our peeps LOVED 'em.

Ken Alexander said...

I was interested in your review because I agree with many of your reservations about the series, but in fact am committed to presenting it at our Adult Christian Education classes next month.

The ideas in the series are well worth discussing, but I wish it was better organized, which mirrors your concerns. The speakers, most of whom will unfamiliar to our parishioners, are never introduced in a way that establishes their credentials, and then when they talk they drop a whole lot of other names that will be unfamiliar. I fear a common reaction will be: Who are all these people? which will distract from the ideas being presented.

I've decided to add an "introductory" session before we start the video sessions just to introduce the speakers and their key ideas, something I shouldn't have to do for a well-designed series.

I was happy to see I wasn't the only one with these concerns about this particular LTQ offering--thanks.

Graeme said...

I am using the Painting the Stars series and am finding it necessary to key people in to the presenters and to provide a page with the quotes printed. We refer to this during the class and people can take the quotes home for later reflection along with the Supplemental Materials ("Handouts" I call them). As with LtQ2 the pause button is our best friend. Intuitively, I sense when it is time to pause and have a brief reflection and then continue with the presenters. Yes they are white academics but they present thoughts worth reflecting on. As the series goes continues participants build up a good understanding of contemporary progressive Christian faith and its relationship to science. Thank you Living the Questions for another worthwhile series for Progressives.
Graeme McIver
Wellington New Zealand

Jeff Nelson said...

Glad you found a way to use it effectively in your setting, Graeme. I'm still not convinced that it should take that much work to justify using it.

Granny Shirley said...

Rev. Jeff -

I'm a layperson considering using the series you reviewed. It would be most helpful if you would suggest an alternative to Painting the Star module, for which you have such strong reservations. Just have negative conclusion doesn't leave those of us interested in showing challenging subjects to a mixed audience in a public forum.