From Toys to Tools: Reflections on Redeeming Our Screens

Les Taylor reflects on his efforts to turn screens into tools to help cross-cultural workers engage with cultures where they serve. Through discussions of films that present how people from other cultures see their own culture, he showed students and workers that they can begin to discover the thoughts of those in other cultures long before physically stepping into the communities.

From Toys to Tools: Reflections on Redeeming Our Screens

Mission Round Table 16:3 (September–December 2021): 11-15

Les Taylor

Before joining many other COVID-19 refugees in March 2020, Les Taylor had lived and worked in Southeast Asia for twenty years with his long-suffering (and saintly) wife and two (remarkably well-balanced) children. Since completing his doctorate at a university in Southeast Asia, he has held a series of research fellowships in local universities and taught intensive courses in local seminaries.

Introduction

In this article, I reflect on my experience of helping a mix of East and Southeast Asian Christians and a range of cross-cultural workers engage in the cultural and religious contexts God has called them to serve in. In addition to serving as informal mentor to many, I have taught intensive residential postgraduate courses in a range of seminaries. Although my specific area of academic expertise and experience as a practitioner is primarily in one Southeast Asian culture, I am confident that the lessons I have learnt will be relevant to those committed to engaging with other cultures where they live. Those interested in my journey of putting scholarship to work in the service of mission should read my articles in earlier issues of the Mission Round Table.[1] I greatly admire the Apostle Paul—his biographer in the book of Acts presents his presence, comfort, and credibility in a variety of contexts. Like paintings, seminal films, albums and songs of musical genius, and literature, Scripture must be more than read. It must be reread for the simple reason that, as our experience of how God works in the world grows, we see new things as we reread. In Acts 17, Luke relates Paul accepting an invitation to present, in the local university, arguments he had been making in Athens’ local marketplaces and synagogues. Remarkably, in his guest lecture, Paul quoted Greek philosophy and poetry. Had Paul not led the life of an itinerant preacher, healer, religious provocateur, and organiser, the bookshelves (or, more likely, scroll shelves) in his study might have included more than the Torah. There would also have been Greek works that were widely read and often quoted when he sought to share the good news of the kingdom of God.

Who are today’s philosophers? Who are today’s poets?

Philosophical treatises and poetic anthologies might be spotted on the bookshelves and coffee tables of bespectacled, over-educated bookworms. But most now encounter new ideas through films and today’s best-known poets are songwriters. Furthermore, we watch films on our laptops and listen to songs on our mobile phones. Conventional publishing continues to thrive and I have no plans to rein in my advocacy for reading. Reading needs to be embodied, encouraged, and funded. The best leaders are readers, as this is one of the ways organisations avoid re-inventing multiple wheels. My argument is that we need to redeem the screens that so easily distract people from being fully present in the corners of East and Southeast Asia where we live, work, and witness. There are many ways that the screens we view can be redeemed and toys become tools. But this requires curated collections of media and recommended reading to be prepared and made available to those whose formation we are responsible for. Before proceeding, let’s remind ourselves of snapshots slipped in by Mark that reveal challenges experienced by Jesus as he formed his disciples.

Episodes of low-level exasperation in the Gospel of Mark

As the Gospels are the authorised biographies of the life and teachings of Jesus, the episodes of low-level exasperation included by Mark are there for a reason. I am confident that I am not the only one involved in either forming practitioners or discipling people with no biblical knowledge or personal experience of the risen Saviour who is encouraged by the following snapshots.

Let’s begin with Mark 8:14–18.

14 Now the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. 15 And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.” 16 They said to one another, “It is because we have no bread.” 17 And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? (NRSV)

In this phase of his ministry, Jesus was travelling with his twelve disciples, who were followed by the crowds he had taught and healed. As this was before the advent of AirAsia (and before disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic), he travelled by foot and boat. This meant that he was tired. Like any effective leader, he had delegated specific logistics to his disciples. A throwaway comment about the dangers of the local legalists was monstrously misinterpreted by the twelve. His first reaction could be paraphrased as “You still don’t get it, do you! Where are your eyes? What have you been doing with your ears when I open my mouth?” Attention deficit disorder (ADD) might not be as new as some say! In Mark 9:30–32, we are informed that Jesus travelled to Jerusalem after his transfiguration. He “passed through Galilee,” but did not want anyone to know this. This was because he was focused on “teaching his disciples.” He reminded them that “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” Mark adds that the twelve “did not understand what he was saying.” Furthermore, they were “afraid to ask him.” Be encouraged! Things that are important need to be said more than once. I often find myself saying, “I am saying this more than once not because you are dumb! It’s because it’s important!”

Another episode of what I have referred to as low-level exasperation occurs earlier in Mark 4:1–20, while Jesus was teaching the crowds about the kingdom of God.

1 Again he began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. 2 He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 3 “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. 6 And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8 Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.

In verses 9 and 10, Jesus urges any of those with ears to “listen” and “hear.” Once he was alone with both the twelve and “those who were around him,” he was asked about the parables. He explained that they had been “given the secret of the kingdom of God,” but, to outsiders, “everything comes in parables.” The reason was that, for the time being, these outsiders may “look, but not perceive” and “listen, but not understand.” He asked, “Do you not understand this parable?” Should this be the case, “How will you understand all the parables?”

He explains:

14 The sower sows the word. 15 These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. 16 And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. 17 But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. 18 And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, 19 but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. 20 And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.

As a professional coach, mentor, and educator keen to redeem our screens, a number of points struck me. Stories are things that are interacted with. It is nothing short of delusional for us to expect everyone to immediately “get it.” Disciple makers must be in it for the long haul. This snapshot in Mark has nothing to do with calling out legalists or Jesus’ multiple reminders to the twelve about his—and their—call to service and suffering. Mark relates details about what Jesus did after his public telling of a cryptic parable. For all sorts of reasons that cannot be dealt with here, most of us are more familiar with—and, therefore, more enthusiastic about—systematic theology than narrative theology. The Holy Scriptures contain the story of God that begins with his creation of the cosmos and ends with the sending of Jesus and the Holy Spirit (which leads on to the continuation of the story with the Spirit-directed ministry of his disciples even to the present). Big ideas and timeless truths contained in Scripture are not presented as abstractions. They are contained in stories. Stories are to doctrine what cups are to coffee or tea. Stories worth listening to, reading, or watching must be chewed over, retold, reread, or re-watched. Moreover, it is almost always the case that some sort of explanation or facilitated discussion is required before those we are forming will “get it.”

Beyond the bookworm bottom line

Inspired as he was by the Holy Spirit, I should not be surprised at how Mark’s inclusion of these details has encouraged me. I do not interpret these episodes of low-level exasperation as examples of failure. I am able to celebrate my successes, but I have learnt more from my failures. Indeed, more of us should document our (often faltering) first steps. Is it possible to objectively assess one’s personal success? I ceased attempting this many years ago, after concluding that most either grossly overestimate or underestimate how well they have done. After resolving to make decisions based on who I am (rather than who I wish I was) and to develop the gifts God has given me (rather than be jealous of those given to my many mentors), I incrementally tweaked how I sought to serve Asian and Western co-workers in our fellowship and also anyone committed to wider kingdom causes. What have I learned from the practitioners—along with others—whom I journeyed with, who have successfully dispensed with their training wheels? In other words, is there anything in common with how cultural and/or religious outsiders overcame their cultural blind spots and religious prejudices?

Those now confident in the corner of East or Southeast Asia that God had led them to understood that learning is much more than an intellectual journey. As anyone who has mastered a sport or musical instrument—but, most importantly, a new language—will testify, learning is an emotional journey. As such, a deeply people-centred and pastoral approach to forming practitioners is required. Secondly, in our increasingly multicultural fellowship, accommodations must be made for practitioners who are non-native English speakers. I also add that more of us must be committed to working with anyone limping with a range of learning difficulties.

I continue to not only read what anthropologists and historians are writing about Southeast Asia, but also advocate that others begin to do so. More is caught than taught and few will ever grow to be someone they have not seen. Despite being a dyslexic disaster zone until my late twenties, with the help—and, I would add, the Christ-like patience—of many mentors, I learnt to compensate by viewing my laptop as a tool, not just a toy. I eventually experienced for myself the transformative power of reading the books my lecturers and mentors curated for me. That said, rightly or wrongly, I do not profile myself as having successfully convinced many others that reading omnivorously could increase their levels of comfort and animate engagement. This is despite ceasing, years ago, to recommend 100–200 page books that are accessible to most with an undergraduate education. Could they afford these? Was this realistic for non-native English speakers? My new default was to email electronic versions of short articles.

I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been told, “I don’t read” or “I don’t learn by reading.” I have no interest in being profiled by anyone as a grumpy, pale, stale male. One of my personal development goals is to grow old, grey, and gracious. Below, I relate ways that I have experimented with to move beyond the bookworm bottom line by using media when serving fellow followers as both an (informal) mentor and a (more formal) lecturer. To reiterate, most of these were explored in the postgraduate courses I have taught in a range of seminaries in East and Southeast Asia.

Throughout our increasingly connected world, authors continue to write. To reiterate, conventional book publishing is thriving. Asian novelists write in both Asian languages and English. Works of the former are increasingly translated into English. Rightly or wrongly, most young practitioners who cross cultural and religious lines in order to serve others spend much more time in front of the screen. Few are bookworms. Most millennials choose to acquire skills by watching videos rather than reading recipe books or user manuals. Being called a bookworm is often a compliment, but referring to people as “screen addicts” is derogatory. I prefer my “redeeming our screens” bumper sticker to saying (with a deep, pale, stale, male sigh), “If you can’t beat them, join them!”

My experience is that people a lot younger than I would much prefer participating in a fun evening of food, film, and facilitated discussion than at a book club. I celebrate that our organisation takes our calling seriously, but I also think that we all need to have a bit more fun. Spending an evening around food and film might be fun, but—more importantly—most millennials I have sought to serve are introduced to and critically engage with ideas. Most modern day (fellow) iconoclasts have been inspired by watching Fight Club or the first of the Matrix trilogy. The medium is as important as the message. Indeed, some say that the medium is the message.

I confess that the three-letter F-word “fun” was the last thing on my mind when I first required my postgraduate students to interact with a mix of articles and films.

I had been invited to teach a one-week block course. In previous courses I taught, almost no one had completed their pre-course reading. This meant that students arrived feeling very much on the back foot. Remember: successful students have climbed an emotional Everest before they begin ascending this intellectual one. How could I help students arrive having already “got into the zone?” How could I help more arrive with some assessment balls already in the back of their net? Instead of assigning compulsory pre-course reading, I prepared a mix of carefully chosen films exploring themes of interreligious contact, comfort, and conflict between Christians and their non-Christian neighbours. I assigned these to groups of students, who were introduced to each other on the first day of the course. Should inadequate internet connections have prevented them from downloading these and/or they needed help accessing the non-English subtitles, these logistical pickups were dealt with on the first morning of the course. This meant that students could make sure to view their assigned film by the first evening of the course. In the days that followed, students were required to give a series of group presentations that summarised the main themes in the film, as well are some highlights (via the data projector). I facilitated discussion of these films that others had not viewed. This did not prevent students from offering their thoughts and reactions. Not only did this approach introduce students to some of the issues that this course explored, but this work was done by fellow students—not the scary foreign lecturer they had only just met. The themes explored through these films were developed in my lectures and compulsory readings. I provided electronic articles of all these, which, I note, few printed off. Interacting with media made it easier for students to read from their screens. This required some short tutorials about how students could move beyond profiling their laptops as toys by introducing them to online dictionaries and text-to-speech functions of their operating systems.

Around the same time, I sought to redeem the screens of a cohort of Serve Asia Workers (SAW) and interns that our team was hosting. We lived together in community for a number of weeks. In addition to Bible study, prayer, sharing of our journeys of faith and call to cross-cultural service in Southeast Asia, and spending time in local communities, we watched a film every evening after we had eaten together. The following day, we discussed what we had watched. If I had been more organised, I would have taken the time to download and make available versions of the films with Mandarin, Cantonese, and Portuguese subtitles. Thankfully, everyone involved not only had adequate levels of English, but soon worked out how they could slow the speed of the movie to make it easier for them to follow the dialogue. Some also chose to download preferred subtitles. These are small-scale initiatives in resisting what political philosophers refer to as neocolonialism.

A third case study that I would like to reflect on is the most moving. I put together a course exploring issues of interreligious intelligence in Southeast Asia that aimed to specifically address issues of victimisation and oppression experienced by Christian minorities. The materials I prepared—Bible studies, lectures, and interaction with media—sought to encourage students to engage, on an emotional level, how Jesus’ interactions with Samaritan (heretics) and (violent) Roman oppressors have contemporary relevance in Southeast Asia. I argued that Jesus’ parables and accounts of his interactions in multi-religious Galilee are primarily prophetic in ways that resemble what Walter Brueggemann has referred to as the prophetic imagination. Bureaucratic attempts at bringing about social and religious change cannot compete with prophetic approaches. At the end of the course that brought together depictions of ordinary people in films with ordinary Samaritans and Romans, I felt the nudge to engage some theatrical Jesus jester act of service or self-ridicule. Dressed in a T-shirt and sarong, and carrying a bucket of warm water and rag, I asked the students to arrange the chairs in a circle. Moving slowly around the group, I individually washed the feet of all my students, praying for them as I did so. I also encouraged the person on the left to pray for the person on their right, after I had done so. By the end of this final session, there weren’t many dry eyes in the room—including mine. I consistently prayed prayers that asked God to give them love for the local Samaritans and Romans they knew. Afterwards, a number of students who were leaders of their denominations related that this was the first time anyone had washed their feet as Jesus had done. A deposit in the emotional memory bank had been achieved. Only God knows whether—and in what way—this impacted their leadership.

In lieu of a conclusion: Some closing recommendations

I wish to conclude with some brief recommendations. The first relates to content. There are very few Hollywood movies that I would recommend. I personally prefer films written, directed, and produced by Muslims. Like novels and short stories, films do much more than simply tell stories. The works of storytellers worth reading or watching the most are those that contribute critical commentaries about their imperfect societies. As cultural and religious insiders, their works often open windows into aspects of these societies that most outsiders would take years to see.

These are some of the films I personally used. Arranged centres on the friendship between two women—an Orthodox Jew and a Muslim—who meet as first-year teachers at a public school, where they learn what they have in common.[2] It explores important cultural values of modesty and the importance of family for Muslims. In Kinyarwanda, a young Tutsi woman and a young Hutu man fall in love amidst chaos, a female soldier struggles to foster a greater good while absent from her family, and a Catholic priest and his parishioners grapple with his suspicion of the Muslims who offer shelter from the 1994 genocide.[3] Mogul Mowgli centres around a British Pakistani rapper on the cusp of his first world tour who is struck down by an illness that threatens to derail his big break.[4] Viewers are introduced to many aspects of ordinary “lived” Islam, including drug use and concerns about spirit possession. My Son the Fanatic portrays a clash of generations and culture as the protagonist—a whiskey-drinking Pakistani taxi driver—is caught between his son and a prostitute when his son joins conservative Muslim friends to decide to clean up their local town.[5] The documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell chronicles the activism of Christian and Muslim women working together to bring peace to Liberia that led to the country’s first female leader coming to power.[6] The title of Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam is a combination of hardcore (a form of punk music) and the Arabic term taqwa, which can be translated as “piety” or “god-fearing.”[7] Like the other films I recommend, these introduce religious outsiders to young Muslims as they live out their faith today. Another documentary that I highly recommend is The Imam and the Pastor.[8] Both the Imam and (Pentecostal) pastor are conservative, confessional religious leaders working to quell violence between Muslims and Christians in northern Nigeria. It tells the story of their reconciliation and how they lead peace-making initiatives. It explores what faith-based grass-roots activism can look like and calls into question assumptions that this is what “liberals” do. The premise of The Infidel is the identity crisis that follows in the wake of a young man discovering his birth father was Jewish.[9] He sets about learning about “Jews” from an irreverent (secular) Jewish neighbour, who introduces him to everyday Jewish food, mannerisms, and literature. Another comedy that I recommend is Where Do We Go Now.[10] A group of Lebanese women try to ease religious tensions between Christians and Muslims in their village led by their (clueless) husbands and sons.

Over and above content, my second recommendation reiterates arguments about us all needing to have a bit more fun. I am now based in my country of birth, and I write while completing preparations for a series of mini film festivals that I will host at local seminaries and churches. “Film Festivalettes” is the name we have given to an exciting inter-organisational pilot project with two other mission agencies. My first experiments in moving beyond the bookworm bottom line were unleashed on unsuspecting students preparing for service, but our hope is that these mini film festivals will help our efforts to increase local engagement with the last, least, and lost for the sake of the gospel. In addition to helping local Christ followers serve locally, our hope is that, through these events, God might call new workers to join our organisations. There are a number of reasons for local enthusiasm about this project. The first is that these will begin with the cooking and sharing of Asian food. This is important as, in many countries, the combination of food and film—especially over the weekend—is something that is familiar. These will, therefore, draw greater crowds of young people than conventional events, the highlight of which is listening to a speaker. To be sure, once food has been eaten and the film has been watched, these evenings will conclude with facilitated discussion and stories from East and Southeast Asia. To summarise, adding films to our toolboxes is another way that we can redeem our screens by transforming toys into tools.

 


[1] See “John Sung’s Identity and Ministry amongst the Chinese Diaspora Community in South East Asia—Learning Lessons from a Unique Missional Biography,” Mission Round Table 6, no. 2 (January 2011): 16–18, https://omf.org/mrt-john-sungs-identity-and-ministry-amongst-the-chinese-diaspora-community-in-south-east-asia; “Bivocationalism in Southeast Asia: Stories from the Past and Thoughts about the Future,” Mission Round Table 13, no. 1 (January-April 2018): 12–18, https://omf.org/bivocationalism-in-southeast-asia (accessed 19 October 2021).

[2] Arranged, directed by Diane Crespo and Stefan Schaefer (Cicala Filmworks, 2007), https://cinemaworld.asia/movie/arranged/ (accessed 16 October 2021).

[3] Kinyarwanda, directed by Alrick Brown (African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, 2011), https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1572154/ (accessed 16 October 2021).

[4] Mogul Mowgli, directed by Bassam Tariq (Pulse Films, 2020), https://www.imdb.com/title/tt9892094/ (accessed 16 October 2021).

[5] My Son the Fanatic, directed by Udayan Prasad (Feature Film, 1997), https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0119743/ (accessed 16 October 2021).

[6] Pray the Devil Back to Hell, directed by Gini Reticker (Fork Films, 2008), https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1202203/ (accessed 16 October 2021).

[7] Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam, directed by Omar Majeed (EyeSteelFilm, 2009), https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1519402/ (accessed 16 October 2021).

[8] The Imam and the Pastor, directed by Alan Channer (FLT Films, 2009), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kFh85K4NFv0 (accessed 16 October 2021).

[9] The Infidel, directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh (D’Souza Media, 2010), https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1424003/.

[10] Where Do We Go Now, directed by Nadine Labaki (Les Films des Tournelles, 2011), https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1772424/ (accessed 16 October 2021).

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