This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Destroying the Village in Order to "Save" it.

            In Washington, DC, a crisis has been manufactured over something the government used to do routinely: raising the “debt ceiling” so it could pay expenses already incurred.  A particular faction of politicians is threatening to send the government into financial default, a circumstance that could cripple our already weak economy and destroy the government’s ability to function.  Some of them explicitly say that this destruction is a good thing because it will in the end be good for America.  They are destroying the government, and probably the economy too, in order to “save” it.
            We’ve heard this sort of thing before.  Back during the Vietnam War some American official was infamously quoted that the military had to destroy a village in order to save it.  This perverse logic is not an isolated case.  It represents a stream of bad practice with deep roots in the Western tradition.  When the Spanish Inquisition or other authorities were busily burning witches and heretics at the stake, they were torturing people to death in order to “save” them, that is, save their souls from an even worse fate in hell.
            This is all based on a doctrine that somehow weaseled its way into Christianity.  The doctrine is Original Sin, and its most virulent form is called Total Depravity.  It basically holds that, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, the consequence was that the Image of God in them and all their descendants was thoroughly erased, leaving nothing in them that was good at all.  Human begins then became essentially and fundamentally evil.  The only answer to this predicament had to come from outside of them: from God’s free act of grace in Jesus Christ.  Grace comes to people as an alien force, imputing Christ’s goodness to them by replacing their evil natures with his good nature. 
            The 5th century theologian, Augustine of Hippo, came up with this, reacting to the doctrine and practices of another theologian, a teacher from Britain named Pelagius.  Augustine wanted to protect God’s free grace and exclude any possibility of people saving themselves by their own initiative and action.  Therefore, God is totally good, and people are totally bad.  I know it’s an over-simplification, but the upshot is that God saves us by destroying our evil nature and replacing it with Christ’s good nature.
            (One of the more disgusting effects of this doctrine was the belief that unbaptized babies were transmitted directly into the eternal torment of hell.  The Presbyterian Church did not reject (or at least qualify) this cruel insanity until 1903.) 
            This interpretation is nowhere found in Scripture.  Genesis does not say that God’s Image in humanity is obliterated by the Fall.  The New Testament does not talk in terms of people having to be completely annihilated before God’s grace can come to them.  This doctrine, though it became pervasive in the West for both Protestants and Roman Catholics, is not generally accepted in the Eastern Orthodox churches, who look to more of the early church teachers than Augustine for their insight.
            Whatever Augustine was trying do to, the doctrine of Original Sin may have brought some comfort and stability to those who had to endure the horrors of living in the Roman Empire as it collapsed and was repeatedly overrun by gangs of violent thugs.  I don’t know.  It is about the ultimate triumph of God’s grace, after all.  However, when this doctrine was grasped and applied centuries later by a resurgent church and powerful empire, it became the source of untold misery, pain, murder, fear, and atrocity.
            The consequences of this doctrine were awesome and nauseating.  It meant that, in order to “save” them, the church often got into the business of destroying individuals and cultures.  It turned evangelism – which is supposed to be the communication of the good news of God’s love for the world in Jesus – into violent, genocidal conquest.  This was Charlemagne’s approach to conquering the Saxons.  This was the justification for the repeated exercises in mass-murder on behalf of medieval business-interests we call the Crusades.  It was used to rationalize regular pogroms against the European Jewish communities.  And it was also the model followed by European conquerors when they invaded the New World.  In order to receive Christ, a people’s society, religion, morality, politics, and economics had to be totally wiped out.  This distorted version of Christianity has destroyed countless indigenous peoples in order to “save” them.
            In pastoral terms, it is the source of the cult of self-hatred and crippling guilt that has psychologically oppressed Christians for a thousand years.  If you don’t hate yourself, your body (especially your sexuality), your thoughts, your imagination, your dreams, your emotions, you can’t receive eternal life in Christ.  Countless Christians have had their souls (and bodies) tortured by this doctrine, and it continues to this day in conservative churches in both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Wherever we find guilt, and fear, and self-hatred, and wherever we find people willing to do violence to themselves or others in the name of some kind of abstract “salvation,” there we have this un-Biblical and catastrophic doctrine of Original Sin/Total Depravity. 
            Naomi Klein’s important book, The Shock Doctrine, has to do with this same mentality, used today in the service of global Capitalism.  The explicit and deliberate practice is to destroy individual people, economies, neighborhoods, nations, whatever… so that the triumphant Capitalist order may move in and replace it.  They exploit natural disasters like the Indian Ocean tsunami, or Hurricane Katrina, using them as pretexts to displace and disenfranchise poor and working people and their communities, and replace them with large, profitable business enterprises, which mainly benefit the wealthy.  The same strategy is used with industrial accidents like oil spills.  And if there are no disasters or accidents, they manufacture them.  This was the intent of Bush’s invasion of Iraq: to destroy Iraqi society and replace it with a Capitalist paradise.  (It didn’t work.)  And of course the current “crisis” over the debt-ceiling and government spending is another instance of this. 
            In order for the “destroy it in order to save it” logic to work, one has to believe in the total worthlessness and even evil of the thing to be destroyed/saved.  That is why, once this mentality takes hold, compromise becomes impossible.  You don’t compromise with “evil.” 
            Finally, the “salvation” that is promised by this secular, literal corruption of the good news is, for those being “saved” completely abstract and imaginary.  The ones really gaining the benefit are the ones doing the killing and stealing of actual resources and labor.  The message is: “You are totally evil.  You need to be killed so you can be born again in heaven.  In the meantime, we have good news for you, which is that you get to serve us.”

            There is a version of Original Sin that is faithful to the Bible and to Jesus.  This is one in which the Image of God was not obliterated in the disobedience of Adam and Eve, but covered over, soiled, defiled, obscured.  But the point is that deep with human beings there remains this spark of the divine, God’s Image.  We are infected with evil; but we have not essentially become evil. 
            Seen from this perspective, the action of evangelism is not a matter of destroy-and-replace, but cleanse-and-release.  It is about liberation.  The practice here is to locate and build on the good already in existence within people and cultures, and at the same time critique and encourage the removal of elements that still draw them into sin.  The good in people was not obliterated, but buried.  Evangelism means unburying it.  It means healing and making whole, which is what Jesus did when he met diseased or possessed souls. 
            There are no examples of Jesus destroying anyone or anything in order to save them.  Jesus does not heal by killing a person and giving them a different life.  He did not destroy the Temple (indeed, he mourned its future destruction) but cast out those who defiled it.  His healing ministry is about liberation: letting the true, blessed, and good person shine forth.
            Finally, it is important to note that Jesus’ actual practice is utterly useless to human imperial projects.  Jesus’ liberation does not mean bringing something foreign to people, but releasing the Image of God already within them.  It is a selfless, sacrificial task that completely gives itself for the good of the other.           

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Wild Goose 11.

   The music at the festival was outstanding.  You could almost have done nothing but listen to music for the 4 days.  I already talked about the first night's performers.  There was somebody good every night.  But the last night, Saturday, was phenomenal.  I think the highlight of the whole event in terms of the music was Sarah Masen singing Bob Dylan's, "It's Not Dark Yet."  She interpreted this haunting song like opera. It was breathtaking.
   The song has that Dylanesque apocalyptic flavor of so many of his greatest songs.  Here it is:

Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day
It’s too hot to sleep, time is running away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal
There’s not even room enough to be anywhere
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain
She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind
She put down in writing what was in her mind
I just don’t see why I should even care
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
Well, I’ve been to London and I’ve been to gay Paree
I’ve followed the river and I got to the sea
I’ve been down on the bottom of a world full of lies
I ain’t looking for nothing in anyone’s eyes
Sometimes my burden seems more than I can bear
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
Copyright © 1997 by Special Rider Music

   It's not dark yet, but it's getting there.  That sentiment sums up a lot of our situation right now.  I can only wonder if events like Wild Goose aren't too little too late.  This sense is intensified by some of the reaction to the festival in the media.  The festival was reviewed in The Economist, of all places.  They gave their customary, superior, dismissive, self-righteous take on something they don't particularly understand, or want to.  According to them this was an insignificant gathering of hippies and anachronistic liberals.  One wonders why they gave it space.
   The media connected to the religious right has been more vicious, led by the Institute for Religion and Democracy.  The IRD worships Capitalism and hates just about everything anyone does who attempts to follow Jesus Christ.  They charge the festival with being "gnostic" which only means they don't know the difference between gnosticism and mysticism.
   My point is that the darkness deepens in these days when our society is convulsed by paranoia, hysteria, bigotry, and lies, as evidenced by the Tea Party and its deliberate paralysis of government.  That much of this masquerades as "Christian" is even more depressing, but, of course, nothing new.  
   More and more the prescription to counteract all this darkness is simply to follow Jesus.  And that is what Wild Goose was about.  It was a gathering of people seeking to deepen and strengthen their discipleship of Jesus Christ.  
   It looks like it will get darker before it gets brighter.  But Wild Goose was a hint of a new dawn.   

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Wild Goose 10. Bolz-Weber, Rollins & Anderson.

Nadia Bolz-Weber.

            Bolz-Weber appeared at the Coffee Barn venue, where presenters were asked to tell their own personal stories.  And hers was fascinating.  Bolz-Weber is tattooed, funny, articulate, and impassioned about both the faith and church-planting, in particular her own community. 
            She said that we’re all simultaneously sinner and saint (she’s a Lutheran).  God is always coming to us.  No one climbs up to God by their own efforts.  The Bible is important because it bears Christ into the world.  Christ is at the center, and there are concentric circles radiating outward.
            Liturgy is a gift: we receive it and pass it on.  She is perhaps surprisingly enamored of traditional liturgical forms, as we saw in her Bluegrass Liturgy earlier in the festival.
            She finds it an apt description of the Christian journey that we are “commuting from who we are to who the church is.”  Her own story reminded her of Mordecai’s words to Esther: “But you were born for such a day as this.” 
            To start a church you have to realize that you won’t get anything out of it for a while.  Her own situation is that the denomination pays half her salary.  In return the denomination gets to benefit from the creativity and inspiration of the church.  The church benefits from “church tourism” and visits from seminarians.
            She says she only experienced love and support from “the mother ship” of her Lutheran denomination.  (Imagine that!)  If denominations are interested in starting new churches they need to give them an education and money and then trust them.
            Boz-Weber doesn’t know if it possible for a traditional church to be evolved.  But the key would be to read your context!  The culture is changing so rapidly that it will not be the same in 5 years.  “’Jesus bids you come and die’ (Bonhoeffer) will never be big in the marketplace,” hence faithful and committed churches will always be small.
            The mindset has to be anti-excellent and pro-participation.  They started with 3 or 4 people who did everything.  The ethos is zero-obligation and high commitment.  People become committed when they realize they are trusted with things.  Finally, you need to take prayer seriously.

Peter Rollins and Vince Anderson.

            Anderson sat behind a piano; he reminded me of a bearded, Christian Tom Waits.  He sang a song, “Living on the Halleluia Side.”  Rollins spoke between musical offerings. 
            There is a devil in our churches that we say does not exist: pride, self-righteousness, judgment.  How many of us participate in a system that denies doubt and professes certitude?  What material and liturgical practices do we use?  We’re all playing a game even though we know it isn’t true.  The people get a little security and assurance.  But what if we took the security blanket away – church, liturgy, theology?  We materially enact certainty to avoid the reality of doubt.  The role of the minister is to believe on your behalf.  Same with most church music.  Vicariousness is pervasive, as is transference.
            Liturgical space and acts need to reflect our suffering.  Express the darkness, or it will come out in destructive ways.  Anxiety is already there: what we need is the bravery to acknowledge it.  How do you express your own brokenness so it speaks to the brokenness of others?  Often we want someone to solve our suffering – but what we need is a community of suffering: where that brokenness is expressed liturgically.
            Rollins and Anderson have a plan.  They are going to hire a bus and go through the Bible Belt, asking people to bring their doubt to the surface.  Rollins calls it “pyro-theology.”  Doubt is really a sign of courage.  We need to experience the unknowing.  For an alter call he suggests a declaration of doubt.  The church should be the place to go to experience unknowing.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Wild Goose 9: Communion, McLaren

Sunday Morning Communion + Brian McLaren.

            We gathered at the main stage for an open-air communion service on Sunday morning, the crowd huddled in the few shady areas on a very hot day.  Brian McLaren was the preacher and his text was Acts 16:11ff.  Paul and his associates are in Philippi, a Roman colony.  Think: Guantanamo.  One of the messages in this passage is how the gospel spreads through the power of hospitality.  In Verse 16 we are introduced to an exploited young woman, a slave girl.  When Paul releases her from her bondage, she is “saved.”  One way to translate “Christ” is “liberating king.”  Slavery was the basis of the Roman economy; Paul interferes with it and so draws the ire of the establishment who were profiting from the girl’s talent. 
            The story of the jailer tells us that people do not participate in the empire willingly but because they have to.  Paul’s strategy involves turning the tables on the magistrates, causing them to be afraid of their superiors.
            As McLaren was speaking he was interrupted by “security forces” who proceeded to round up all the men in the congregation between the ages of 16 and 35.  They were herded into an enclosed area off to the side.  They would question each man and several were hustled away.
            Meanwhile, McLaren talked about how we have been effectively intimidated into not responding to violence, torture, and war.  One example of people for whom we need to stand up was our Muslim sisters and brothers in Palestine.  The New Testament is full of songs of praise and protest.
            The drama continued.  Some in the congregation began to respond to the activities of the “security forces” by trying to free one of the men who was bring taken away (my wife claimed to be his mother and vouched for him, signing papers to get them to turn him over to her).  I joined a group that was surrounding the “jailed” men, encouraging them to escape.  Eventually, the “security forces” were overwhelmed and had to make a run for it.
            McLaren kept on talking.  The good news for the middle class is that we are allowed to switch sides and work for the Kingdom of God instead of for evil.
            After the sermon/drama, the service continued, led by Paul Fromberg.  We communicated with loaves of bread and cups of wine provided by the people.  Then worship morphed into a communal, shared lunch.
            It could have been better organized and focused.  (20 minutes of thanking the various individuals who organized the festival could have been done at another time rather than in the middle of a communion service.)  But it was a great celebration, and a meaningful exercise.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Wild Goose 8. Rollins, McColman.

Peter Rollins.

            I arrived in the middle of Rollins’ talk, but it was not hard to get the gist.  Rollins applies a withering critique against conventional religion, the traditional church, and the standard views of God.  What does it mean to talk about sin as “separation from God,” if the god from whom we are separate is false?  Rollins contends that our religion hides our real brokenness from us; it tries to seduce this false god into blessing and accepting us.
            Jesus, on the other hand, said we should experience God, the true God, by loving. The moment you lose “god” and start saying yes to life, you begin to live in the mystery of God.  Religion needs to be overcome because it tells us we are all ok.  It represses our darkness and brokenness.  In religion we try to hid from ourselves. 
            What would a church look like that didn’t do this, but exposed it as idolatry?
            For there is a God, a transcendent reality.  We know that resurrection is certain because we are alive. 
            Religious experience is not on experience among others; it is how we experience anything.  It is about transformation.
            Rollins suggested an antidote to the Alpha Course, in which people learn Christianity in 12-weeks: the Omega Course, “exiting Christianity in 12-weeks.”
            What if the coyote ever actually caught the Road Runner?  Oscar Wilde said that they only thing worse than not getting what you want is getting what you want.  Many charismatics have learned that after you “get God” it becomes like an addiction.
            Rollins’ conclusion: “If God is love then you have God every time you love.”  In love you both get and don’t get what you want.
            Rollins’ engaging style, his Scottish accent, and his sense of humor help communicating what is actually a very revolutionary message.

            I had heard about Rollins but never actually read his stuff.  He seems to be riffing on a Tillichian “God beyond god” thing, combined with a Barthian anti-“religion,” with a touch of Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity,” all filtered through post-modernism.  I find him saying things similar to what the much maligned and misunderstood “Death of God” theologians were saying half a century ago.  Our religion invents a false god designed to separate us from the true God we can’t know but whom Jesus talks about and reveals.  This invented religion comforts us but it does not allow us to grapple with our true selves any more than it connects us to the true God.
            Like so many of the presenters at Wild Goose, Rollins gives us a Christianity that is exponentially more demanding and powerful than standard, watered-down, domesticated Christianity.  

Carl McColman.

            McColman is a spiritual journeyer.  In the past he wrote books as a neo-pagan.  Then he converted to Catholicism.  His most recent work has been on the Christian mystical tradition. 
            For McColman, as I suspect for most Wild Goose people, contemplation changes us, and because it changes us it changes the world.  Contemplation is not a distraction from but a support for social justice work.  Change agents often begin with a perios of retreat (as with both Jesus and Paul).  We breathe in, and in that place of stillness, transformation happens.  The pattern repeats itself.
            Contemplation means “I look at God and God looks at me.”  It allows the chaos of the mind to slow down.  We live in the silence between our thoughts.  You make yourself vulnerable to the possibility that God will radically change you, creating a space in which our lives can change gears.  There is a sense that God is both out there and in here.  There is an opening to possibility.  We enter a space where God can play with us. 
            “Taking delight in the Lord” means that God is passionately in love with us and wants to play-flirt with us.  We are entering into a playful presence.
            We know that Christ is present: we are the body of Christ.  We have the mind of Christ.  We are partakers of the divine nature.  We are baptized into God’s presence in our lives.  Solitude and community are both part of the Christian life.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Wild Goose 7. McLaren, Claiborne.

Brian McLaren.

            McLaren appeared in the geodesic dome to address the question: “What in the world should we change first, if we could?”
            He listed 4 major world crises:
            1.  The planet: we are living in an unsustainable way, such that extinction is a distinct possibility.
            2.  Poverty: the bottom third of the world population is collapsing; the middle third treading water; and the top third getting wildly more wealthy.
            3.  Peace: with 1 and 2 above we also get a rise in violence, from the local to the global.
            4.  Religion: we need an inner transformation in order to address 1, 2, and 3 above.
            This framing of the question makes the issue of spiritual growth the primary crisis for humanity.  If we can somehow solve that, everything else starts to fall into place.
            The fork-in-the-road options:
            a-  We need a more just global economy: we need regulations that will control the excesses of corporations… but there is very little hope here in reality.
            b-  We can put our efforts into local solutions.
            How do we live in both of these worlds?  How do we manage these two solutions?
            Meanwhile, we do what we can.  Wild Goose is an agent of fermentation for fair-trade, among other things.
            The whole system is bound to collapse anyway, but the toll of human suffering will be unimaginable.
            So we are looking for signs of hope.  For instance, he pointed out “the greening of Eritrea,” in which that small, new country is experimenting with salt-water agriculture.
            Life will be far better for all of us in a regenerative economy.
            The consequence of injustice, in the Scriptures, is exile.  Are we still in exile?  Republicans privatize profits and socialize costs.  We don’t want to save unjust systems; we want to transform or replace them.  This requires many, many hours of hard work.  For instance, with regard to the local people trying to address the long and costly war in eastern Congo: the secret is trial and error, and honest accounting.
            The church cannot solve these problems; they are too big.  The transfer of wealth over the last 30 years is staggering.  Corporate-controlled media filters the news.  We have seen a massive redistribution of wealth from the many to the few.  We need to recover “the joy of paying taxes” as a matter of personal responsibility.  But then things like the military budget indicate how we all share in the responsibility for the mess we’re in.
            Perhaps it will come down to local production.
            The church is important in stimulating people to do good.  If there is a collapse, the church will be there.  Maybe we should hold “collapse drills.”  He gave an illustration from the South African township of Soweto, where local people organized around the neighborhood latrines.  The organizations were the basis of the resistance against Apartheid.  When a collapse happens, community organizing is everything.
            Capitalism produces wealth, but distributes it poorly.  (Socialism distributed well, but didn’t produce much.)  Right now Capitalism is the only show in town.  So we have no choice but to imagine a “conscious Capitalism.”  There are many people who are not just interested in making money; some actually want to do good. 
            Maybe it isn’t about our money so much as our source of energy.  Coal and oil get work done.  But what we have to learn to do is get this year’s work out of this year’s sunlight (instead of milking the sunlight of the past, preserved in fossil fuels). 
            What does it mean to have your primary identity in God’s Kingdom, not nation states or corporations?

            McLaren’s talk was sobering, to say the least.  I think he is right about community organizing, rooted in churches.  But I think most churches are clueless about this.  We have been domesticated slaves to the dominant system for so long that we don’t know how to follow Jesus.
Shane Claiborne.

            Shane gave his spiel that I have heard several times.  It is very inspiring, funny, and powerful.  He lives in a community called The Simple Way, in Philadelphia, where they witness to God’s love by actually living with the poor.
            He pointed out that Christians are perceived by young people as having three characteristics:  1.  They hate Gays.  2.  They are extremely judgmental.  3.  They are hypocritical.  Why would any young person want to be associated with such an institution?  Shane hopes that maybe in 20 years Christians will instead by known by God’s grace.
            He quoted Dr. King, who asked, “Will we be extremists for hatred?  Or extremists for love?”

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Wild Goose 6. Picha, Scandrette.

Steven Picha.

            Almost accidentally (I walked the labyrinth one morning and as I was picking up my stuff to leave I met Steve Picha, whom I had met a couple of years ago in Albuquerque.  He invited me to stay for his men’s spirituality thing, which I took as a sign from the Spirit…), I gathered with some men in the Prayer Garden.  The theme here was masculine spirituality.  We did an interesting exercise: blindfolded and given a number, which we had to keep to ourselves, groups of us had to line up in sequence without talking.  The outside-the-box pieces were the fact that some of us were 0 or -1.  Several issues emerged: first, there was no way to avoid being physical, as that was the only way to communicate.  Second, it illustrated the way our assumptions are often erroneous, which is something men are having to deal with increasingly in the world.  Third, issues of power and frustration emerged because invariably one or more men in the groups tried to take charge and line the others up according to their, usually wrong, vision.
            We processed that for a while, realizing that the best stance to take in our changing world will have to include humility, openness, and cooperation, not to mention some attention to our bodies. 
            Picha then reflected with us on some more general themes: eldership, mentoring, the way the industrial revolution separated men from the earth and from their own families. 
            In the end, we went around the circle and spoke of personal concerns.  I had several men approach me later in the weekend affirming what I mentioned.

Mark Scandrette 2.

            Scandrette began by asking what it means to seek the way of Jesus in an urban context today.  He wants to rediscover the holistic gospel of Jesus – the Way of the Kingdom of God.  This is not something we can do with just our minds.  Frustrated with standard models of church life, Scandrette and several friends hit upon the idea of a “Jesus Dojo.”  A dojo is a Japanese institution; it is a place where you go to learn a particular way.  More like a workshop or a studio or a lab than a classroom.  It is an active space where formation and practice are supported and taught.  A Jesus Dojo is a place where you go to learn to do as Jesus did.
            They wanted to take Jesus seriously in terms of what the Lord says about “money and stuff.”  “There’s a lot of us talking smack and not doing jack.”  We are longing for a more holistic path: we need to pray instead of just talking about prayer, etc.
            So they began experimenting.  What if we took Jesus literally about selling our possessions and giving the proceeds to the poor?  But they would make it a playful, not an oppressive and legalistic process.  They would frame it as simplifying their lives.
            So they developed a plan to take on a specific practice of Jesus for a period of time, then re-gather to discuss and summarize their learnings.
            In the process they began to realize there’s a new way to be human, that Jesus exemplifies.  For one thing, we feel closer to people with whom we take steps to realize our dreams.  They would launch a new dimension of this process every week, learning to shift into a new way of life by taking Jesus seriously as his disciples.
            This is the way real disciples have always been made, from the New Testament on.  A Jesus Dojo is a group experiment inspired by Jesus in which people get together and take steps of practice in terms of real needs, and reflect on what has been learned.  In the New Testament we find 40-50 specific things that Jesus said to do, summarized in the Lord’s Prayer.
            They discovered that gathering once and month is not enough; this work needs people to check in with each other at least once a week.  It is like being in a rabbi-apprentice relationship with Jesus.
            Over time, they identified three different kinds of activities here:  first, there is the personal experiment, which often has to do with addressing one’s own phobias.  Second, there is the group experiment, taking on a particular practice together.  And finally, there is the “public offering,” in which the groups invites the larger community to take risks together.
            What are the barriers to life in the Kingdom of God?  For example: What if we gave up media for 40 days?  What if we chose to wear only two outfits for 40 days?  What if we gave up eating meat for a period?  And so on.  The point being to see what happens, both within the people and in the gathering.  Our life together becomes a meditation on the Sermon on the Mount. 
            There is power in making and keeping a promise; and it’s a lot easier in solidarity with others.
            Scandrette is finding, both in larger communities and among Christians, much ambivalence about church institutions.  Followers of Jesus have to connect with things that have resonance in their local communities.
            All-in-all, I found Scandrette’s talk to be one of the most exciting things I heard at the festival.  But very challenging.  It resonates with some things I have been mulling over related to a gathering of people seeking to follow Jesus.  This is what the festival was all about: Following Jesus.

Wildgoose or Wild Goose?

            I am finding some confusion about the actual name of the festival.  Mostly, it is called Wild Goose, two words.  But the t-shirts when we got there, and other things, indicate Wildgoose, one word.  I don’t know why the difference.  (My theory is that they ran up against another Wild Goose Festival, in Missouri, and had to differentiate for various reasons, some of them perhaps legal….  But, as I said, I don’t know.  Maybe it’s a colossal typo.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Wildgoose 5. Tickle, Pagitt.

Phyllis Tickle.

            Tickle opened her remarks by saying that Wildgoose is history-making.  Then she went on to restate her thesis about the 500 year cycles in the Latin world, when everything in the culture changes.  (This is all spelled out in her book The Great Emergence.)  Basically we’re  now in the midst of one of these cultural rummage sales during which a lot of obsolete junk is cleaned out and some old things are rediscovered, and new forms emerge.  Tickle is the first person I know of who has given a plausible name to this new era, which post-Modernism has been pointing to.  She calls it the Age of Emergence.  It is not just a religious phenomenon, but affects the whole of our culture, and by extension the whole world.  “Emergence Christianity” is one facet of this movement.
            This is the first time we have gone through one of these tectonic shifts and known what was happening.  Therefore, we can be calm and unafraid about it, and hopefully react with less violence.
            One of the characteristics of this particular shift is that there is now too much information for us to rely on experts for anything. 
            The new Christianity will have at least four characteristics:  it will be non-hierarchical, it will be non-institutional, it will be expressed in social justice, and it will not presume to "say what God thinks."
            The overarching question she sees is “Where now is your authority?”  On what do we depend?  Who makes the rules?  She briefly traced the history of the last such shift, which she calls the Great Reformation.  The authority then was sola scriptura; Luther substituted the Bible for the Pope.  For the past 150 years this authority has been gradually crumbling.  In 1906, the Azuza Street Revival saw the birth of Pentecostalism.  Authority has been shifting to the Holy Spirit ever since.  (In fact, drawing on Joachim of Fiore, she suggests that our current shift is even bigger than these 500 year adjustments; it may be part of a 2000 year cycle.  Judaism and the Age of God the Father lasting for 2000 years, from Abraham to Jesus.  Christianity and the Age of the Son lasting another 2000, until now.  With the Age of the Holy Spirit now dawning.)  In any case we cannot overemphasize the role and presence of the Holy Spirit in what is now happening.
            Tickle understand there to be three subquestions that Emergence Christianity will have to deal with:  one is the fact that there are many different religions in the world, calling Christian exclusiveness into question.  A second is the question of what a human being is, which impacts all kinds of other issues, from the death penalty, to bioethics, to abortion, to torture, to sexuality.  The third is the atonement.  She reminds us that original sin doesn’t emerge in Christianity until Augustine, and the traditional penal-substitutionary theory of atonement comes even later.  Neither is inherent or necessary to Christianity; both are being seriously questioned today.
            She made a digression to discuss the differences between “emerging” and “progressive.”  Progressives are about what “we” can do for “them,” thus still maintaining a dualistic approach.  They remain interested in politics and institutions.  Progressives are the “last hurrah” of liberal theology.  Emergence, on the other hand, is about what we can do together.  The dualism dissolves into partnership and mutuality.
            One problem she sees is that Emergence Christianity has a tendency to sidle towards Gnosticism, but she didn’t really clarify this.  Gnosticism is about as dualistic as it gets.
            She also sees the Quakers as an early proto-expression of emergence: with their focus on communal discernment and rejection of experts.

            Later in another venue she explore in more detail the “What is a human being?” question.  We are made in the image of God, but we don’t know what that is.  The answer we receive from Descartes, which characterized the Modern/Reformation Age, ie. that we think, doesn’t work.  Other animals have been shown to think, communicate, use tools, feel emotion, and so forth.
            Maybe what makes us human is that we can remember a past and project a future.
            In the drug age we are discovering that personalities can shift.  We are a chemical wash over a thicket of neurology.  We are in the soul-forming business, but we don’t know what a soul is.
            Animals do not (so far as we know) ask why.  Animals do not hymn or pray.  If we know what this is we would  know what a soul is.
            At bottom what we will discover is that, whatever we are, we are together.  We are not human as isolated individuals, but in context, in community.  We are also in process, becoming, on the way.
            Christianity is incarnational: soul, body, and spirit are united.  How we manipulate the body impacts the soul and spirit as well. 
            Maybe the human is the one who keeps asking the question.  Maybe it is that we can create beauty.  Maybe it is our ability mutually to forebear, that is, it’s all about love.

            My response to the “What is human?” thing is actually pretty orthodox.  “In Jesus of Nazareth true humanity was realized once for all.”  (Confession of 1967)  To discover, identify, and become truly human is to look to and follow Jesus.  And all that implies….

Doug Pagitt.

            Pagitt talked about his latest book, The Inventive Age.  He too finds us in a major change in American culture, though his are not so grand and sweeping as Tickle’s.  Churches come into being in a certain context.  Roman Catholic churches come out of an agrarian context.  The industrial age produced mainline Protestant churches, characterized by competition.  Pastors were like middle-management, selling their brand.  The information age gave birth to the evangelical-mega-church movement: churches build education wings, developed curricula, focused on learning and new information.
            The new cultural situation is the inventive age and its desires.  The new church will not look like the former manifestations, but have much more variety.  It will build on the human need to make meaning and beauty.  Structurally, churches will look like cooperatives.  They will be relational, with no center, and based on network connectivity.
            Without buying into the whole schema of these successive eras and their reflection in the church, which I think has a lot of holes in it, I do think his insight into the shape coming/emerging church is right.  All forms will persist.  But the energy will be with the decentralized, networked, flat, distributed, flexible, and open expressions of ecclesial life.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Wildgoose 4 + Scandrette, Dark, Fromberg

Mark Scandrette 1.

            Mark Scandrette led a group in a time of meditation.  Beforehand he gave a brief introduction: stillness prayer is a physical act of repentance: to return to the presence of the Creator.  Even just stopping and sitting is itself a radical statement.  We sat in silence for about 40 minutes.  It was wonderful… though somewhat uncomfortable since I was sitting on a rock.

David Dark.

            I missed the first part of Dark’s talk.  He was full of quotes.  (Probably an enneagram 5….)  Here are a few:

“To be ‘spiritual but not religious’ is like being human but not flesh and blood.”  Phyllis Tickle.  
“Poetry is never a choice; it is a verdict.’  Leonard Cohen.  
“True religion is constantly open to repentance.”  Don Shriver.  
“Poetry is the older form of analysis.”  Alan Ginsburg.  
“Poetry is the news that stays news.”  Ezra Pound. 

Here’s some more, apparently from Dark himself, filtered through me:

--If you don’t use your imagination, someone else will use it for you.
--What you believe is what you see is what you do is who you are.
--We are learners of truth, not copywrite holders.
--Your witness is what you are already doing, not what you say it is.
--Confession is where we start receiving the witness of others.

            Dark was speaking in a venue called the Geodesic Dome.  The dome was made out of branches roped together.  The theme for talks in the dome was “A question I can’t answer.”  Having missed the beginning, I don’t know what Dark’s question was, and for the life of me I can’t infer it from the part of the talk I heard.  But he was interesting anyway.
            He seemed to be saying that everyone is religious, even anti-religious people.  Even anti-religion is a form of religion.  Our religious commitments are revealed in our daily life.  He also talked about “the myth of critical detachment,” which is a common refrain of postmodernism. 

Paul Fromberg.

            Fromberg is a priest at the St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, in San Francisco.  His talk was in the “Storytelling Tent.”  He focused on food, with an emphasis on the Eucharist.  He favors a radically open communion.
            The function of the Eucharist is to re-member the body of Christ in a world that seeks to dis-member people.  The Eucharist confects reality; even the furniture also has to do with the reality: the table has to be one where everyone is welcome, because we want to be made real.  Distinctions are irrelevant.  Jesus demands that everyone be fed right now.  His open table is what got him into trouble.  He was undermining his followers’ devotion to purity rules.  It was a radical gesture, to incorporate the unprepared.  God is already here; now you must respond. 
            We see God’s justice in Jesus’ actions: indiscriminate desire for each one of us: for all, not just some.  The kosmos works against God’s justice, telling us we’re not good enough, there’s not enough to go around, our bodies are filth, and only by killing will we be saved.  He takes our fear and spins it into a massive tissue of repentance.  The truth does not defend itself.  Jesus used no retaliation.  It would have destroyed his mission, which was to reveal the love of God.  Justice has nothing to do with violence.
            Jesus is radically inclusive at his table.  Eucharist recreates human imagination to see what is true: we are one body.  There are no divisions.  Jesus identifies with victims and enemies, for we are with them as well.  Read everything through the cross.
            In answer to the inevitable question about Paul’s exhortation about participation in the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians 11, Fromberg pointed out that Paul is saying that it is necessary to “discern the body.”  Paul would say that the genuine ones in the community are the inclusive ones, not the ones who put various (often self-serving) fences around the table.
            Fromberg’s talk reminded me that one of the recurring themes of emerging Christianity is openness.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Wildgoose 3. Psalters, Wilhelms.


            The music the first night was highlighted by Psalters.  This band is unlike anything you’ve ever heard.  They travel around the planet in a black bus, and apparently live a kind of communal existence.  Their music is almost indescribable in its drawing from many sources and its energetic performance.  I describe them as “tribal,” and their set was characterized by intensive drumming.  One memorable lyric was, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions; the road to heaven is not paved.”
            They performed a version of the classic, “Sixteen Tons (I Owe My Soul to the Company Store),” which I interpreted as a commentary on our economy.  We have devolved into a situation where the economy is so controlled by big business that the collapsed and oppressive context of the song relates to all of us now.  They pay us so we can buy stuff, and borrow money from, them.  We work hard; they get richer off us.
            Psalters are fantastic!  They have an integrity and an energy that gets the gospel across unlike any other performers.  They are light-years from the often saccharine and gutless music that passes for "Christian rock."

            (The evening was topped off by a long set from Michelle Shocked.  She might have been the most well-known of the performers all week.  Her music was very good, and her story intriguing, but she indulged in far too much chatter for my taste.)

Pamela Wilhelms.

            To continue in that vein, the next morning I went to hear Pamela Wilhelms talk about “the emerging regenerative economy.”  This was in the “prayer garden,” an open area punctuated by rocks big enough to sit on.  I initially approached Wilhelm’s talk with some skepticism.
            She began by saying that we need to be curators of hope, as we make this shift to a regenerative economy.  On the one hand, there is the fact that, of the 100 largest economies on the planet, 53 are corporations and 47 are nation-states.  On the other hand, she noted that “the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment.”  (Most mainstream economists are blissfully unaware of this rather obvious fact, preferring to believe that the environment is an infinite source of free resources and an infinitely expansive dumping ground for our waste.)
            Wilhelms noted that we are a democracy and the people have the power, if they will use it.  It is better to have a reasonable and realistic plan than to approach every issue as a fight.  Her approach is to look for the life in the system and use that for leverage in changing the whole system.  (Which is similar to a “contextual” approach in missiology, where the churche looks for the places in a situation where God is already at work.)
            Wilhelms said we need to look for “for profit” companies that do good.  We have to learn to measure wealth by the quality of life, not, as now, by the speed with which we kill things.
            In the emerging regenerative economy we need pictures of what can be, what we want to move towards.  This is important because the normal approach of progressives/emergents is to predict catastrophe if nothing changes.  A positive vision would be more fruitful. 
            If the system is to change, the consumer/voting/investment base has to change.  One way to do this is by focusing on the “triple bottom line.”  In other words, instead of looking only at financial profit, this would also address social and environmental effects.  The “triple bottom line” takes into account social, environmental, and economic results.  This system is already in place in “B corporations.”
            One of the things we will have to do is choose lower economic returns on our investments. 
            The mindset of young people has palpably changed.  She refers to young people today as “the justice generation.”  I hope she is right and that this lasts.
            Basically, Wilhelms’ hope is that we can develop a “conscious Capitalism.”
            My response (and I had a long talk with her later in the week) is that, although these instances showing the emergence of a conscious Capitalism are great, they are still very small.  Yes, big things always start small.  However, my suspicion is that once anything like this starts to gain some traction, the larger system will start clamping down.  “Conscious Capitalism” could be a contradiction in terms.  What if Capitalism is inherently based on waste, greed, exploitation, rape, and pillaging?  What if that’s it’s DNA and it is essentially evil and unredeemable?  They will quickly make “conscious Capitalism” illegal.
            We need to form communities of sharing and resistance now, and not be surprised or discouraged by the coming clampdown.

Wildgoose 2: Richard Twiss.

            I first ventured over to the Coffee Barn to hear Richard Twiss, a Native American ex-evangelical whom I had heard of.  The Coffee Barn venue was where presenters were encouraged to tell their own personal stories.  This is what Twiss did, beginning with his grandparents who were taken from their families at age 5, according to federal policy at the time, and made to attend boarding schools where the teachers and staff attempted to literally beat their Native American language and heritage out of them.  There were horrible documented abuses in these schools for generations.  And, though funded by the federal government, many of them were run by Christian churches.  “This was our introduction to the good news,” quipped Twiss.  It is no wonder that Christianity still gains little traction in Native American communities.  Twiss had little good to say about missionaries and mission-trips coming onto reservations even today.
            Twiss entered adulthood virulently anti-Christian, and got involved in the American Indian Movement in the 1970’s, participating in a takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington.  But then, while under the influence of various chemicals, he had an experience of Jesus Christ which changed the direction of his life.  Having been claimed by Jesus directly, Twiss figured he now needed to hang with other Christians, so he became an evangelical.  But he found that this community also demanded that he reject his Native American heritage and culture.  After a few years of this he left evangelicalism and set out on his own new path of integrating Native American spirituality into his faith in Jesus.  He prefers to call this “the Jesus Way,” rather than “Christianity,” which still has so much bad baggage.  He says he found that being a “Christian” complicated and even hindered the experience of following Jesus.
            Twiss asks where Native or Indigenous spiritualities fit into the story of biblical faith.  For one thing, he sees the Trinity as a radical community expressed in diversity.  The whole of creation beings and ends with diversity.  In fact, unity is only possible where diversity exists.  This is contrary to dualism, which divides the sacred from the secular. 
            Twiss encouraged his audience to repeat the litany, “I am ethno-centric and narrow-minded, with limited vision,” as an antidote to the normal arrogance and self-righteousness of Western Christians.  There are no exceptions.  We absolutely don’t know anything absolutely.  We need each other’s understanding of the Bible.  Until we can come into relationship with those who are different, we can’t know how God is present with them.  In an Indigenous way of thinking, we are all relatives.  And in this confession, Twiss includes all living beings.
            Twiss’ talk was accompanied by two costumed Native American dancers, with recorded music.  He noted that in his tradition, dances are prayers.  He himself ended his talk with a chant in Lakota.    

Wildgoose 1.

            Last week Susan and I attended the first Wildgoose Festival, at Shakori Hills, NC.  This was a gathering of people formed by the gospel of Jesus Christ, who are usually identified as “emergent” or “progressive.”  We came from across the spectrum of Christian faith: from evangelical to mainline, from Roman Catholic to Pentecostal, with an emphasis on both social justice and spirituality. 
            When we heard about it, probably last fall, and saw the list of speakers, we immediately signed up.  The presenters included Brian McLaren, Richard Rohr, Jim Wallis, Shane Claiborne, Phyllis Tickle, Tony Jones, Peter Rollins, Tony Campolo, Doug Pagitt, Frank Shaeffer, Diana Butler-Bass, Jay Bakker, and many more.  The musical portion was headlined by Michelle Shocked, T. Bone Burnett, Derek Webb, and Psalters (a wild, tribal band from Philadelphia which we had seen before).  The introductory words:

What is the Wild Goose Festival?
The Wild Goose is a Celtic metaphor for the Holy Spirit. We are followers of Jesus creating a festival of justice, spirituality, music and the arts. The festival is rooted in the Christian tradition and therefore open to all regardless of belief, ethnicity,
gender, sexuality, denomination or religious affiliation.

            We made the 10 hour drive, down the Shenandoah Valley, over the Blue Ridge, and down through central Virginia and North Carolina.  We arrived a day early to set up our campsite and get organized.   The camping was pretty basic: no established sites, just go out in the woods and find a good spot.  We claimed a site near one of the presentation venues.
            As people trickled into the festival, I noticed a wide age-spread, from infants to about as elderly as you can expect people to camp out in the woods.  There were many younger (under 40) people there, which gratified me.  This is the church’s most problematic demographic.  There were also many booths about various social issues, from torture to immigrants to peace to the environment.  And (thank you, Jesus) a beer tent run by a local micro-brewery!
            The festival kicked-off at 4 pm on Thursday.  Our friends from Susan’s church established themselves next to us, and we went to the main stage to hear a gospel choir from Chapel Hill, followed by opening ceremonies featuring some speakers and festival organizers.  The invocation was given by Vincent Harding, an African-American preacher who was an associate of Martin Luther King, Jr.
            There were many, many presentations happening in about 6 different venues, of varying sizes.  So hard choices had to be made.  I elected to go to hear people I was less familiar with.  I am going to summarize some of what I heard, but bear in mind that there was an awful lot going on and I by necessity missed about 75% of it.
            Anyway, I am going to summarize my experience at this fantastic event in the next few blog posts.  I hope it gives you some idea of what this was about.  Maybe you will be inspired to make the trip next year!