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New forms of telling a very old story

September 16, 2011

Washington

For as long as there have been Christians, believers have used a variety of media ― art, literature, music, architecture ― to articulate and communicate the spiritual rumblings of their inner lives.

But the Christian world has never seen someone quite like Greg Fromholz.

Fromholz, an American ex-pat who lives in Dublin and works with youth for the Church of Ireland, wrote a memoir titled Liberate Eden but couldn’t find a publisher. His work, they said, was a bit too iconoclastic for their tastes.

One publisher pronounced the book “just too different to be Christian.”  

Undeterred, the 40-year-old Michigan native decided to take his book ― he calls it “theo-poetics” ― in a wholly unconventional direction.

This spring, Fromholz published Liberate Eden in a digital-only format for iPad, iPhone and iPod. It's available for $6.99 at Apple’s iTunes app store.

The text, written in lyrical, daringly self-revelatory prose, is interspersed with music and video of the author ― sometimes speaking, sometimes not.

For the chapter he titled “Sleepwalker,” there’s a video showing Fromholz waking up at 7 a.m. and going about his day with a blindfold. The video concludes with the author running through the streets of Dublin on a rainy night, still blindfolded.

“He is comforted by his lack of sight,” Fromholz writes. “We have become so arrogant, cocky and comfortable, believing ourselves to have cornered the market on faith, or invented the Starbucks of Christendom. We first need to, indeed must, shake ourselves free from the belief that we have all the answers and need to acknowledge that God is much bigger than our churches, our egos and us.”

“Repeat after me,” he says. “`I do not have all the answers.”'

If, as Marshall McLuhan once said, “the medium is the message,” then how the message is delivered is as important as the message itself. And Fromholz gets that.

Fromholz has grasped the reality that new media ― smart phones, the Internet, social networks ― are a way for believers in the 21st century to express their innermost thoughts in the same way that stained glass windows told the story of the gospel in the Middle Ages.

His digital Liberate Eden presents an old message in a new medium, allowing readers to interact with his story and ideas not only through the written word but also through music and film ― the global language of our younger generations.

Scrolling through Liberate Eden on my iPhone earlier this week, the experience felt more multifaceted than simply reading pages in a book. It engaged my senses in multiple ways, embedding the words of the message into my imagination in dynamic and vivid ways.

Church is also a medium that should be a living, breathing work of art, changing and transforming as our needs and sensibilities evolve. That’s not to say the message of the gospel should ― or even could ― change. But its expression and presentation needs to be dynamic lest it grow lifeless and stale.

“Church must be a place that does not suppress hunger but rather creates it,” Fromholz says. “A place that does not hide its limited knowledge of grace but projects it. A place with no walls and only open gates. The church must be a wild deer in the urban centers. The mess should be on God’s apron.”

In another passage, Fromholz describes an exercise in which he invited congregants to use a big black marker to write words describing themselves on a plane of glass.

Liar. Alone. Lost. Abused.

The words we use to describe ourselves are emblems of our emotional and spiritual scars ― “eternal tattoos,” Fromholz calls them. They can obscure the light, warping the image in the reflection.

When the congregation finished inscribing their sacred graffiti, Fromholz smashed the glass with a baseball bat.

“The beauty of broken glass is that it makes a sound, it crunches beneath our feet,” he says. “If we listen closely, we will hear the crunch of broken glass under the feet of others and we will realize that we are all human, that ... Jesus became human to be the way; we must remain human to show the way.”

Liberate Eden is an extraordinary and tangible outside-the-box ode to a life of faith. It walks the same path as Jesus, whose own life and message is all about radical mercy and eternal freedom from the things of our own making that keep us penned in, boxed and tethered.

In the flickering pixels of a video screen, we see and feel words that have a heartbeat, movement and breath ― a very contemporary face on an eternal story.

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