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My wife reminded me recently of this talk from Ken Robinson about changing education paradigms. In it he refers to the concept of ’Divergent Thinking’ and this book, which I might get around to reading some time. For now all I’ve done is a quick google for a summary, and came across this article by Natasa Pantovic from, of all places, The Times of Malta.  

Knowing that blog posts like this are about thinking out loud (and responding to random websites you wander across), my thought today is whether there is any value in the concept of divergent thinking in relation to engaging with Scripture? (And hence, should I spend a bit more time thinking about divergent thinking for my thesis?)

Pantovic introduces divergent thinking like this:

It is a thought process used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possibilities. Instead of taking obvious steps and walking along a straight line, one looks at different aspects of the situation, creating different results. Divergent thinking is often used as a parallel of convergent thinking that follows a particular set of logical steps to arrive at one solution.

When we think about how we live today as Christians, conservative evangelicals have often been characterised as promoting the ‘one way of thinking’ approach. One example is the ‘blueprint’ approach to guidance: God has a particular plan for your life that you’d better make sure you find and stick to! As a result the promise of divine guidance becomes a source of stress rather than comfort. 

The caricature of control-minded conservative evangelicalism is that there is one right answer to every theological question, and that the task of ministers (especially of youth ministers) is to make sure the flock knows those answers. This is why, so we are told, young people aren’t interested in this ‘brand’ of Christianity because they’re not interested in control-minded traditionalism.

All caricatures are false in most ways and true in some ways. I don’t know any fellow conservative evangelicals who would claim to know everything there is to know, or even that such a feat is possible for human beings, redeemed or not (Deuteronomy 29:29 comes to mind, and not only to me and those students who have heard me go on about it often enough). That said, I know plenty of people who draw circles of fellowship far more tightly than I would think is appropriate, on doctrinal issues that are far more open to debate and divergent opinion than they suggest is possible.

I’m not about to fall in with the ‘God is a mystery’ crowd and give up any suggestion of being able to make truth-claims about God, Jesus and the spiritual life. But when it comes to working out what it means for an Australian teenager to live out their identity as ‘God’s elect, strangers in the world’ (1 Peter 1:1, quick shout-out to all my LiT friends), I suspect there is far more scope for ‘exploring many possibilities’, ‘looking at different aspects of the situation’ and ‘creating different results’ than our tradition is used to. 

While God is ultimately a mystery, what God has revealed to us in Christ through the gospel is clear. If it wasn’t there would be little point paying attention to the prophetic word ‘as to a lamp shining in a dark place’ (2 Peter 1:19). We’re not claiming that the light of Scripture brightens up every crevice of this life (we’re in a dark place waiting for the morning star to rise after all), but we are holding on to Scripture as a lamp to light a path that will be clear enough to follow for now.

The gospel is clear; it’s life that is the real mystery – the wisdom literature reminds us of that just as much as an honest look at our experience does. And in this mysterious life, there’s plenty of scope to engage teenagers in the task of thinking together about various ways we might navigate it successfully together.

Pantovic lists a number of activities that school teachers could use to promote divergent thinking. All of them in some way seem to me to be activities that youth ministers could use to engage young people with Scripture:

• Learning how to ask questions;

• Learning how to think and meditate – students are allowed to think and explore their own learning patterns, and to invent new ones, students are given time and space for reflection;

• Creating bridges to abstract concepts using common experiences, experiments and experiential learning. Teachers should not separate learning from life; they need to find ways to use nature as a learning setting;

• Brainstorming can be used as a tool that generates a series of random associations, stimulating creative processes;

• Working in collaboration with others – at individual levels, competition frequently kills creativity; working in a group stimulates brain activities. Tables and desks should be grouped together;

• Making students create stage sets where they can act out scenes from books they would have read or act out a dialogue between historical figures, analysing a scene through the eyes of many different spectators;

• Using creative writing – writing anything that comes to mind about the given subject;

• Utilising both music and art: learning acting with its scenography, filming with its editing, and perspective, drawing and painting with mixing colours and mastering the emotions versus shades or shapes, dancing and its choreography, sculpting, photography with its framing and lighting;

• Practising sport – working with tactics, movements and techniques, and teamwork;

• Creating rich, stimulating environments using materials created by student. Changing displays regularly to provide a stimulating environment for brain development.

Sitting at my desk thinking all these thoughts is interesting enough; but what I really want to find out over this course of study is whether any of these ideas can actually work in practice, and whether they would actually have any success in helping young people live lives of greater faithfulness and joy. So if there are any real youth ministers out there who have managed to read all the way to the end, I would love to hear your thoughts, and hope we can be in regular conversation around these things over the next few years.

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