As I continue to blog my way through Dialectic of Freedom by Maxine Greene, chapters 3 and 4 turn to consider the predicaments and life stories of women, African Americans and immigrants. Chapter 4 will look at the experience of African Americans and immigrants; Chapter 3, ‘Reaching from Private to Public: The Work of Women,’ looked at the experience of women. My interest in these chapters is to discern how Greene understood freedom, and how freedom is achieved via her discussion of the particular details of the experiences of women and minority groups.

The chapter contained various expressions of Greene’s definition of freedom:

Freedom involves the ability to question cultural stories: ‘the kind of freedom that will permit [men and women] to choose what they will become in whatever they decide will be their common world’ (p.63).

Freedom involves ‘people gaining—simply through their coming together—the power to act and the power to choose’ (p.76).

Freedom is found in ‘personal becoming’ (p.80).

Freedom means considering ‘the possibility of an alternative social order’… making ‘the effort to come together with others in order to transform, or to find openings, or to resist’ (p.82)

The chapter elaborated on the task of questioning the ‘givens’ in life in order to open a space for choosing an alternate future. For women, Greene wanted ‘to make questionable the categories that have contained feminine lives and, by so doing, to alter the other labels and categories that compose the taken-for-granted’ (p.58). To do this we need to ‘listen’ and ‘pay heed.’ Greene described this process as ‘telling the truth,’ drawing on Heidegger’s use of the Greek alētheia, meaning ‘to un-conceal.’ Once we lay bare life’s ‘givens’, then who knows what might happen! Green wrote, ‘when any human being, tries to tell the truth and act on it, there is no predicting what will happen. The “not yet” is always to a degree concealed. When one chooses to act on one’s freedom, there are no guarantees’ (p.58).

One of the givens that need to be laid bear is what Greene labelled the ‘mystifications’ about women. A ‘mystification’ is a dominating cultural story or myth that is demanded by a particular social reality: stories such as ‘woman as love goddess’, or ‘woman as mother and homemaker’ (p.63). Even though women living within such stories may make free choices about how they will live out that story as an individual, the mystification has ‘narrow[ed] the spaces in which they could choose’ (p.60). Those stories need to be challenged, not because living within a particular ‘mystification’ is necessarily a bondage—a woman may choose to dwell within the ‘woman as mother’ story—but that story must be chosen freely. The difficulty with challenging hegemonic mystifications is that the experience of living within a confined story diminishes our ability to see and evaluate the story itself.

The purpose of education therefore is to to create spaces that allow and enable such questioning, places where ‘freedom is invited to sit down’ (to quote Hannah Arendt). Greene concluded her chapter this way: ‘It remains a matter, for men and women both, to establish a place for freedom in the world of the given—and to do so in concern and with care, so that what is indecent can be transformed and what is unendurable may be overcome’ (p.86).

I was particularly intrigued by what Greene wrote about mystifications that confine our choices because it connects with what I have thought in the past about the stories told in western culture about youth and young people. We tell the story of youth as a problem in need of a solution; of adolescence as a challenge calling for help and support; of youthfulness as a lifestyle to be indulged; of young people as a resource to be exploited; or of youth as a gift to be received. These stories, or mystifications, not only direct our actions and words and thoughts towards and about young people, but they constrain us and narrow our capacity to choose otherwise. From Greene I am also realising the way these stories constrain young people themselves such that they end up thinking about themselves only in terms of the mystifications that their social settings force upon them. Oftentimes that means shifting from one story to another to another as they move between school, peers, home, church, sporting club, etc. This is not freedom.

I reflected in the previous post about the difference between the theological freedom emphasised in the New Testament (freedom from sin, for relationship with God and service in imitation of Christ), and the social freedom Greene pursued (freedom to choose within the social space). I want to reaffirm my conviction that these two visions of freedom are not in competition with one another; they just need to be set in theo-logical order. It seems to me that while youth ministries preach a message of theological freedom, we do so within various mystifications that inhibit social freedom. I wonder therefore whether it is because some young people feel (whether tacitly or focally) the contradiction between an espoused theological freedom enclosed in a system of social constraint that they decide to abandon the church, if not the faith?

I am indebted to my friend and research colleague Rowan Lewis for opening my eyes to the ‘young person as resource’ story that is often present in evangelical youth ministry. Our fascination with models of youth ministry can end up valuing young people only as fuel to maintain our systems for Christian formation or discipleship. The youth minister’s task is focused on maintaining a system: young people enter as un-churched ‘contacts,’ move through the various elements of new-comers’ Bible study groups, basic discipleship training, leadership development programs, service and mission projects, until they emerge from the other end of the system able to invite newcomers’ to Bible study groups, to lead basic discipleship training programs, to mentor developing leaders, and participate in Christian service and mission. The system can be effective and ‘the ministry’ might grow with impressive results, but have we lost sight of the spiritual formation of particular and unique young people along the way? The ministry will be stable and predictable, but this may not be such a good thing—Greene would name stability and predictability as the results of concealment, not of truth or freedom. It would be tragic if our well-intentioned methods of ministry were to overlook the unique and new work that God was doing in the lives of the young people in our care.

We ought not therefore just provide young people with a limited number of choices regarding which outcomes they might pursue. We need to listen and pay heed to what is actually happening for young people, and give them the space to find the story within which they will make their choices. We ought to give young people freedom to choose from the mega-stories of life: will young people choose the biblical mega-story, or will they choose to live out of western consumerist-hedonism, or islamist terror-adventurism, or any other worldview or social imaginary on offer. With Paul, we have no need to manipulate or trade in half-truths, but ‘by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God’ (2 Cor 4:2). We continue to seek to present the gospel in all its truth, goodness, and beauty; reasoning, explaining, and defending what we have come to believe. And we continue to point out the inconsistencies and shadows of alternate stories. But in the confidence that the Spirit of God will call and keep those who belong to Christ, we are free to renounce what is disgraceful and underhanded. And when young people do choose faith in Christ, we ought to give them the freedom to choose the midi-story of how they will live out their particular life of discipleship: will they be an evangelist, a children’s ministry leader, an artist, a politician? And if our youth ministry structures aren’t able to accommodate the faithful imaginings of young people then perhaps our structures need to be questioned and reimagined. Who are we to suppose to dictate and curtail how the Spirit of God might move in the children of God?

Creating this sorts of spaces for freedom requires personal mentoring and support in small groups marked by openness and trust. Youth leaders need more than the ability to give the right answers; more importantly they need to be people of ‘concern and care’ who will be devoted to knowing and serving a particular group of young people in the name of Christ. Youth leaders need a willingness to go along with the imaginings of young people, ready to prod and challenge, but not to dictate and direct. This will require confidence in the process to work its way through to the end; a confidence I would argue is a result of confidence in the Spirit of God to call and keep those who belong to Christ. Therefore, youth leaders need to be people of deep conviction—not such that they are a picture of someone who has moved beyond ‘the search’ for ‘personal becoming’ (to use Greene’s words), but someone who displays the determination and trust to continue the journey of spiritual formation in light of their freedom in Christ.

In large group settings I suspect that the manner in which youth ministers teach the Bible needs to shift from declaring what is to offering what could be. I’m not suggesting a watering down of our conviction (“I used to think that Jesus was the Lord, but now I’m not so sure… but he might be!”), but a change in tone as a result of a change in expectations about our audience. Despite outward labels we know that youth groups are made up of some young people who confidently identify as Christians, some who don’t, and some who aren’t at all sure. All of them face the developmental challenge of exploring and choosing from life stories. When we declare ‘what is’ we assume that everyone in the group accepts this truth and the young people must work out whether they are simply ‘in’ or ‘out.’ I’m wondering now whether that shuts down the search; removing their freedom to really choose even as we offer them a simple choice. Instead, by offering the gospel promises as giving shape to a life that could be theirs, we are inviting young people to consider how this story could be that alternative social order that would transform their lives. Those who identify as Christians will be strengthened in their choice and agency; those who aren’t and those who are uncertain will be challenged to consider how they will respond to this gift from God.

That we could be free from sin and death in and through the work of Christ is a message of truth, goodness, and beauty that must be proclaimed with all the energy that God provides. Because we we know this theological freedom, our ministries ought to be ones that promote social freedom wherever possible. And having created environments where young people are free to imagine how things might be otherwise now that they are free in Christ, who knows what might happen?!

2 thoughts on “Maxine Green on Freedom & Women… and Youth Ministry

  1. I particularly like the paragraph in which you question who we are to curtail the way the Spirit of God may move our young disciples.

    One of the difficulties those like Greene who have sought to bust open the categories, for example, of ‘woman’, have encountered, is that in doing so it challenges neighbouring categories, for example, of ‘man’. Much of the push back against the work of women’s studies has been from those, not so concerned by who ‘women’ are in our midst, but in protecting the constructed territory of ‘man’; and, more optimistically, some of the most fruitful extension of women’s studies has been the more holistic field of ‘gender studies’ in which the excavation of categories of men and women is done in concert.
    Just as a men are not only/always/uncritically to be understood as leaders of women, so I wonder about the relationship of leaders with young people.
    As we adventure in broadening the vision of who young people are in our midst, it requires some humble work of offering up who ‘adults’ are in relation to the young. Possibly, the nomenclature of ‘leader’ can in this process bear some rigorous augmentation, modification, or perhaps even amputation.

    • Thanks for taking the time to read and to comment Beth. I agree that re-imagining young people will involve re-imagining adults as well. In my thesis I’ve been using the language of ‘adult mentors of young people’ as an omnibus term for parents, teachers, youth ministers, etc. My reading of a biblical anthropology continues to see a place for young people to be discipled by elders. So there is something in ‘leadership’ that I don’t want to lose, but I agree that there are mystifications of leadership that need to be interrogated. All very reminiscent of Mark 10:42-45 of course.

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