Testimony is a personal story that calls for a response. The rawness and intimacy of testimony give it enormous power: it is the very closeness of the story—“this happened to me”—that compels us to believe it.
In this entry for the Understanding Religion series, we’ll look at…
how testimony in religious settings works,
why testimony is important for understanding religion, and
what the limits or weak points of this form of knowledge are.
I’ll also share examples to help you see this approach in action. If you have a favorite example of testimony, I hope you’ll share it with me and other readers in the comments section (below).This, by the way, is the general format I’ll be following for the entire series, which covers different ways of talking about and thinking about religion. Learn more here.
The easiest way to recognize testimony is by its reliance on personal experience for authority. “You can trust this because I was there to witness it firsthand.” To doubt the story risks hurting your relationship with the person who is sharing his or her testimony, so the other easy way to recognize testimony is by the pressure you may feel to validate the other person’s point of view. Otherwise you risk implying that the person is dishonest, misinformed or misguided (or outright duped), even delusional. Of course, it’s also possible to believe the person really did have this experience, and you may still choose not to act on the knowledge because you have other stronger or more compelling experiences and knowledge that you trust more.
Just because testimony is personal, doesn’t mean it lacks structure or technique. Some ways of sharing testimony are more persuasive than others. Like all forms of storytelling—and testimony, at heart, is a form of storytelling—it generally follows a three-act structure:
The beginning introduces a problem, such as the person’s struggle to find meaning or purpose in life, and the middle carries that problem to the breaking-point, or climax. The crisis is resolved in the end. But testimony adds one more important component, which usually appears throughout the story in hints and foreshadowing before it finally emerges fully at the end:
Call to action (or invitation to respond)
So unlike, say, a campfire tale or a short story in a magazine, the testimony asks you to do something in response to what you hear. Outside religious contexts, you can probably think of easy examples of this, such as the several scenes in Batman vs. Superman that portray people testifying at hearings about whether or not the superheroes are good for the city or its greatest threat. When I was a foster parent, I was occasionally required to testify in front of a judge about the needs of my foster kids and what support I thought the birth parents might need in order to parent them successfully.
Let’s look at a specifically religious example of testimony. The 3-minute video clip below, “Who is Jesus?”, is the most popular response to this question on YouTube. It is an evangelical Christian testimony by JP Pokluda, a minister at Watermark Church in Dallas, Texas, who runs a youth ministry called The Porch that serves over 3,000 people. It’s very likely that this clip is regularly shown to participants in the program he serves.
This testimony is really interesting to me because it uses technology—a high-quality video production—on a site that is known for its raw personality, YouTube. The setting, YouTube, adds to the feeling that this is just a guy sharing his personal story with us, even as the quality of the video reminds us that testimony has structure and technique. I’ll say more about technique in testimony after my second example below. For now, look at how Pokluda emphasizes his firsthand experience of traveling around the world and studying various religions. He offers us some relief from the burden of investigating for ourselves: “I did this and struggled through this, so you don’t have to.” This video displays all the characteristics of testimony.
The other reason I was drawn to this testimony is the title—“Who is Jesus?” If I googled the question on YouTube, I might have expected to get historical or theological presentations, not a guy talking about his pornography addiction, yet this video has a whopping 800,000+ views on YouTube, blowing historical productions like PBS’s hour-long documentary From Jesus to Christ out of the water. To be fair, PBS would have aired the documentary on television (in April 1998), too, but it does not have equal presence on YouTube, a site whose style favors testimony. Amazingly, Pokluda achieves this result without giving either historical or even much theological information about Jesus. He doesn’t actually answer the question he posed!
I want to circle back to this point below, when I talk about the importance of testimony for understanding religion. Before that, though, let’s look at one more example of testimony, this one from a Christian pastor named Chris Katzer, “I’m Done: Why I’m Completely Walking Away from Church, Ministry, and Most Everything ‘Christian.’” This testimony is not aimed at outsiders so much as at his fellow Christians, to address something that worries him about the church. Katzer opens like this…
I promise, it’s not you, it’s me.
That, I’m convinced.
I’ve tried, I really have. Twenty-two years of ministry—even more time, simply being a “Christian.”
I can’t do it, and it’s high time to call the wizard out from behind the curtain.
This whole American-Christianity thing, I’m just not good enough. I can’t pull it off.
Church, ministry, “Christian” stuff—I simply don’t have what it takes.
What follows is a litany of all the things that amaze Chris about “you Church people,” which he often follows with a self-deprecating statement like this one:
Honestly, I just can’t keep up like you. I’m so far behind from being a “real deal Christian.” And quite frankly, I’m ashamed of my incapacity to spiritually perform at your level. I truly don’t know how you field that kind of pressure and keep good going with all the spiritual consequences ahead of you if you don’t. Your fear management skills must be impeccable.
The sheer exaggeration here should clue people in to the fact that Kratzer is not actually going anywhere. He isn’t leaving the church, but he’s trying to help readers understand why somebody might leave.
I am amazed, you are the masters of drawing lines—defining who’s in and who’s out, what’s in and what’s out, what’s good for me, and what’s not. My radar for sin and uncleanliness just isn’t that good. Thank God, you label it for me.
At the very last moment, he finally tilts the scale and reveals what his concern is, with a subtle call to action in the very last line:
I’ve simply resigned myself to a life of trying to fully be myself—relying on Grace and loving some people along the way as best I can, believing that in so doing and in so being, Jesus is somehow pleased.
I’m a firm believer that you don’t lose friends, you lose people who you thought were friends.
And better than that—you don’t stop loving, you just learn to love more honestly.
I sense I’ll be doing the former, and I know, I’ll be doing the latter.
For honesty is the first thing that grows from a life planted in Grace.
Kratzer offers a great example here of the technique involved in testimony. He plays against a popular stereotype—that Christian standards feel, and are, impossible—and uses it to tell us where he thinks people’s hearts really need to be. What’s the call to action here? To be more honest about the tough standards that, in part, the community has set for itself. Kratzer wants to strengthen the value of honesty in his existing community.
We see from this example that testimony isn’t only used to convert or invite people into a community from the outside. Certainly this is its best known use, but it also has a role to play in influencing communities to change something in response to the person sharing the testimony.
Whenever people share their personal experiences, we have a chance to compare what we hear with our assumptions and knowledge from other parts of our lives. Are we missing something important? Does this person’s experience challenge something I take for granted? Testimony keeps us humble, as researchers and as human beings.
Personal testimony can also be a critical space for sharing insights and wisdom. In “Seeking Sanctuary in Our Own Sacred Spaces,”
On Being columnist Parker Palmer describes how his experience with depression led him to insight into the nature of sanctuary and why we need it.
…At times something happens that makes us hypersensitive to all that threatens our souls.
Three deep dives into clinical depression were such “somethings” for me. For long months, I lived in closed rooms with the shades pulled down. When a friend insisted that I get outside more, I said,
“I can’t. The world feels like it’s full of knives.”
In my fragile mental state, casual encounters felt perilous, and reading the news of the day made me feel utterly unfit for life in this world.
His call to action is for each of us to find our sanctuary, in nature or church or our iPod, wherever we can find it, and visit regularly.
We can see from Pokluda, Katzer, and Palmer that the voice of one human being talking with another is also easier to understand than a lot of the other perspectives I’m going to introduce later in the Understanding Religion series. Testimony is relatable, taking the pressure off of an otherwise tough concept to explain (in the case of Pokluda’s YouTube video, substitutionary atonement—talk about a mouthful!). Testimony boils such information down to what it has to do with “you and me.”
Anyone who has been cornered by a zealous person, and anyone who has tried to share his or her testimony only to get the cold shoulder, knows one limit of this form of knowledge: it often comes down to pure trust. It’s just one person’s experience, with no guarantee it can be repeated. As unpleasant as it may feel to say this, if often comes down to the persuasive power of the person doing the sharing, even if that persuasive power comes in its very rawness.
No hard-and-fast rule governs how you should respond to testimony. It depends on your relationship with the other person and on the setting. You would probably handle a one-on-one conversation differently from a YouTube video or a group gathering. It’s important to recognize in all these cases, however, that personal authority is just that—it doesn’t hold much (if any) weight in your life unless you accept and allow it. Religious testimony also can’t directly influence political or legal decisions, only indirectly influence through touching people’s hearts and minds.
Likewise, religion researchers can’t draw broad conclusions about whole traditions based solely on personal testimony, even if they can use it to keep themselves honest in the context of other data.
Finally, testimony can be so emotionally powerful that it may blind a person (either the giver or the listener or both) to information that is less emotionally charged, like statistics, observed beliefs and practices of a group, and historical records. A person who has direct experience of a snake-handling church might not believe the sociologist who says that the odds of getting a snakebite during the service are no better or worse than pure chance. The attendee’s witnessed experience of the event simply may not have felt random in context.
Testimony is probably the most popular way people talk about and understand religion. The emotional foundation, personal witness, and direct appeal to the listener to do something in response make this a valuable, potentially life-changing window into religion and spirituality that we might otherwise never encounter.
But it is also at great risk of skewing our perspective if the speaker’s experience doesn’t reflect that of others in his or her tradition. It also doesn’t carry direct weight in civic life except in its ability to tap into listeners’ emotions for better or for worse. This avenue into understanding religion is therefore best used in collaboration with others, and as a checkpoint for people to make sure their assumptions and claims are fair to the lived experience of people who belong to a particular religious tradition.
This article is part of the Understanding Religion series, which explores the many different methods and approaches we can use to understand and appreciate religion. Find more articles here and share your favorite (or perhaps your most infamous?) experience of testimony in the comments below.
Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.
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