Friday, May 14, 2010

Talk@VST: "Biblical Narrative in an Age of Twitter" (Barbara Brown Taylor)

I traveled to UBC on Tuesday to attend a lunchtime talk. Thanks to VST and the Peter Hayes grant toward sponsoring the lectures, we in Vancouver were able to listen first-hand to a world-class preacher. Dr Barbara Brown Taylor is one of my favourite preachers and authors. I see how effective she was in terms of communicating with wit, humor, honesty and poise. She has a magical ability to weave words together into beautiful prose. The lecture sounds like musical notes strung together melodiously. It gives me encouragement, to learn to revere the power of words. Entitled, "Biblical Narrative in the Age of Twitter," Taylor talked about the intersection of faith and culture, the biblical faith, with the contemporary culture of today.

With wit and humor, she helps the audience lower their guards with her plain honesty and simplicity. Describing her clumsy experiences with technology, she begins with a heartening disclosure of her limited TV signals (one!) and the intrusion of cell phones into the lives of her students, something she says has never truly comprehended. She shares an important observation, that faith and culture seems to be clashing, just like 'virtual reality' being at loggerheads with 'actual reality.' The deeper danger is not the clash but the losing of self. OK. I know that. What else?

She talks about our own lives' narrative. That the real meaning of freedom is in terms of giving attention, awareness, and effort to appreciate people. Those of us who have read her book, "Geography of Faith - An Altar in the World," will be familiar with this. Essentially, her key note is that it takes a story (our life) to make a story (our calling). With anecdotes and stories from her wide literary library, Taylor puts together an enjoyable talk that we can identify with. The most humourous part of the talk is the part about the 'living novel' project she read about, from a student who tattooed a word 'and' on her arm. The organizers of this project will invite participants and volunteers to choose one word and tattoo it on their bodies. At a specified date, volunteers will turn up at a location to stand with other volunteers with their chosen word tattooed on them as well. Depending on the number of people who turns up, the organizers will then put the people together to form phrases, which will determine how the living novel will look like. It can be a bizarre experience, like a human scrabble where instead of letters, people come as words.

My Comments
The whole talk was delivered like a living narrative. Those of us who attends her talk, thinking that it is something to do with technology cannot be more wrong. Taylor's gift is not in explaining the do's and don'ts of technology usage. Her talent lies in the ability to craft a story with words, and astute observations of contemporary culture, backed by biblical faith. She is a world-class preacher.

I learn that when we give talks, it is a powerful way to communicate narrative by being able to narrate our lives with it as well. In our modern age (age of Twittter), where people tend to rush, push and shove, we need to learn to connect, to recognize our own limitations, and to engage culture as persons. In other words, in an age of Twitter, when we engage culture, there are 2 things to note. Firstly, we need to be conscious of our own life narrative, who we are, what defines us. This helps us understand who we are regardless of what is happening out there in the world. Secondly, we need to recognize that the world is changing constantly. Sometimes, the best way is not to explain the world away through problem solving or solution seeking. The best way is to use a story (our life) to tell the story (our engagement with contemporary culture).

"Biblical Narrative in an Age of Twitter" is a compelling title to remind us of these 2 thrusts. Remarkably, Taylor provides us another insight, in that sometimes it is not us who choose the narrative, but the narratives that choose us. Above all, our narrative of life is based on what we give our attention to. This is the single most important nugget I take home that day. Thanks Dr Taylor.

I left the lunchtime talk with a personal autograph from Barbara Brown Taylor. Awesome. If only this talk has been more widely publicized.


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