Popular culture is full of theological searching, we just have to be open to the conversation! We can’t be afraid of questions.
Students who sign up for Mary Hess's course on Christian education shouldn't expect to learn a laundry list of Sunday school tricks. That's because her approach is more like musical improvisation.
"The people learning in our churches are so diverse," she says. "I can't give my students a curriculum that will work everywhere. They have to learn to improvise."
Hess teaches the "basic scales" of educational theory, including needs assessment, curriculum development, providing support for different kinds of learners, supporting small group processes. But she also explores "principles of improvisation," such as reading a congregational context and developing programs that will nurture and challenge a particular learning community.
She believes that our understanding of what it means to know "religiously" has been too limited, too cognitive and too distant. Faith, and the understanding we can grow to have about our faith, is deeply relational. As Hess says, "You can have information about God, but having information is not the same thing as being in relationship with God."
She points out that as a Roman Catholic layperson, she is differently situated in a congregation than are clergy. "I take very seriously the leadership that grows out of a congregation, and the ways in which laypeople can empower each other to learn and to grow theologically," she says.
With a background that includes an undergraduate degree in American Studies from Yale, a master's in Theological Studies from Harvard, and a PhD in Religion and Education from Boston College, Hess is well prepared to ask difficult questions in our post-modern, mass mediated culture. "What does it mean to nurture loyalty to a specific community of faith in a world of many faiths?," she wonders, and "How can we support congregations in their quest to become outreach-oriented learning communities?" In particular she is deeply engaged by the difficult questions that emerge in a world where "Will and Grace" and "Providence" are more often understood as television shows, than theological categories.
"Popular culture is full of theological searching, we just have to be open to the conversation! We can't be afraid of questions," Hess says. "We must trust that our communities of faith have something to offer people. We don't need to be defensive or controlling, we need simply to trust ourselves and trust God."