In the past fifty years, which North American has had the most radical ideas on church life? My vote is for Maria Harris, feminist scholar and teacher. She’s best known as a religious education sholar, but I think of her as the expert on practical ecclesiology.
Harris is best known for her radical ideas about what churches really teach, as opposed to what classes they offer. Throw out that old notion that religious education is confined to Sunday school classrooms. Harris told us that we start learning about religion the moment we walk into a church building — or as she put it, the whole church is curriculum.
Think about going to a worship service at a congregation you haven’t visited yet. If someone welcomes you at the door, however shyly and awkwardly, you learn that this congregation welcomes the stranger, those who aren’t yet a part of the community. If people give money freely and gladly during the offertory, you learn that this is a generous people. And so on. It works the other way, too. If you want to teach people about generosity, it’s not enough to teach a stewardship class, which Harris would call “explicit curriculum.” We also teach each other about generosity through our actions, which Harris terms “implicit curriculum.” Andf the implicit and explicit curriculums teach different things, everyone’s just going to get confused.
She also talked about the “null curriculum,” what we teach by its absence — a very useful concept to anyone who’s trying to do anti-racism work in a local congregation.
That’s just the beginning of what this quietly radical scholar said. Over the past ten years, her books have been changing my entire approach to religion. Sadly, I just learned she died in February, 2005, after a long illness. You can read a wonderful tribute to her life and work by her former colleagues at Andover Newton Theological School [update: Feb, 2006, tribute removed from Andover Newton Web site], where she began her teaching career.
If you want to get radicalized, try reading these books of hers:
- Fashion Me a People: Curriculum and the Church, Presbyterian Publishing, 1989;
- Jubilee Time: Celebrating Women, Spirit, and the Advent of Age, Bantam, 1996
- Reshaping Religious Education: Conversations on Contemporary Practice, with Gabriel Moran, Presbyterian Publishing, 1998.
Go on. Read one of her books. Radicalize your congregation. I dare you….