“Remember the faith that took men from home
At the call of a wandering preacher.
Our age is an age of moderate virtue
And of moderate vice
When men will not lay down the Cross
Because they will never assume it.
Yet nothing is imposssible, nothing,
To men of faith and conviction.
Let us therefore make perfect our will.
O God, help us.”—T. S. Eliot, Choruses from ‘The Rock’
“We must be able to articulate a Christology that informs our liberalness. Too often I have been in conversations where it seems that our positions inform our understanding of Jesus. Yes, this is hard to separate for humans, but if we call ourselves Christian and in order to be taken seriously, we must be able articulate how Christ informs and grounds our beliefs. If we do not, then we run the risk of turning Christ into the vehicle through which we live our beliefs rather than our own selves being the vehicles through which we live out our faith in Christ.”—Bruce Reyes-Chow, on how liberal Christians lose credibility
PARIS—At a press conference Tuesday, the World Heritage Committee officially recognized the Gap Between Rich and Poor as the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” describing the global wealth divide as the “most colossal and enduring of mankind’s creations.” …
While numerous individuals have tried to cross the Gap Between Rich and Poor, evidence suggests that only a small fraction have ever succeeded and many have died in the attempt.
Its official recognition as the Eighth Wonder of the World marks the culmination of a dramatic turnaround from just 50 years ago, when popular movements called for the gap’s closure. However, due to a small group of dedicated politicians and industry leaders, vigorous preservation efforts were begun around 1980 to restore—and greatly expand—the age-old structure.
“It’s breathtaking,” said Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, a longtime champion and benefactor of the rift’s conservation.
Somebody asked me on Twitter today why I was part of Outlaw Preacher since we all seeemed like a bunch of argumentative jerks. I wrote this partly in response to him, but really because I needed to say it to all of you, and to myself. I’ll post it on Facebook and Tumblr.
Some of you know my story, how I grew up in and struggled with conservative charismatic evangelicalism. I won’t rehash it here, because it’s an old story with beats that will be familiar to many. Suffice it to say that I tried to leave my faith once, returned to it with a vengeance for a few years, and ultimately found the cognitive dissonance required for orthodoxy to be more than I could bear. As many of the disaffected children of evangelicalism do, I ultimately found myself identifying as an emergent Christian. For many of us, the Emergent Church is a way to retain our Christianity. For others, it’s a conduit out.
When I first found the EC, it seemed like someone had thrown me a lifeline. Finally, here was a way to believe without sacrificing my intellect, or feminism, or progressivism. Here was a group of (relative) liberals who understood the theology and vocabulary of evangelicalism and the neuroses it engendered (one reason I found it difficult to be comfortable in the progressive mainline church). Here was a way to be true to the revelation of God’s creation and the world at large while remaining in the nurturing bosom of the community I was raised in. Of course time, human nature, and cold reality will take the bloom off any rose, and now, several years later, having further divested myself of my childhood beliefs and comforting fictions, I began to wonder if the EC was not the lifeboat, but rather the current pushing me further out to sea.
I think I could be fairly described as a whirlwind of waxing and waning attention and enthusiasm, and I often am enticed and excited by something only to watch my energy dissipate before I can act on it. My faith, I suppose, is the same- even in my quasi- or un- belief I often follow the old time religious rhythms of mountaintop-camp meeting-revival high and valley of despair low. Last winter, I learned of a conference (Transform) that sounded interesting and made plans to go, only to find my interest waning by the time it rolled around. Transform is described as a missional church planting network, and I a) am extremely averse to the term “church planting” (those damn Acts 29ers*) and b) think missional is a nice buzzword, but not much else. Despite some reservations, I decided to go on the basis that there would be some good speakers, it would be a good reason to visit my hometown, and that Steve Knight (the founder of Transform) was a good guy.
I ended up really enjoying Transform. I had a good time with my ATL traveling companions, heard several great speakers who reminded me why I still believe or want to believe in God (hint: it has to do with Love), and had two curious encounters. The first was with a group called the Outlaw Preachers. I had vaguely heard the name before and had the general impression based on the name that it was a bunch of old dudes trying to be cool, kind of like Rick Warren with his goatee and Hawaiian shirts. I heard a bunch of these guys were throwing a party at their motel and decided to attend, attracted by the promise of pizza and a mysterious homemade hooch (which turned out to be a mixture of Mountain Dew, lemons, and anti-freeze). After this further interaction I determined that the outlaw preachers were NOT in fact aging hippies trying to recapture their youth but rather tattooed young folk who thought they were too cool for the rest of us. At any rate, I would have written these “Outlaw Preachers” off were it not for the second curious encounter.
During one of the sessions, I tweeted the following: “Sometimes I feel like breaking up with Jesus, but then I have a weekend like this, and I remember why we’re still together.” I got a couple retweets, one of them from a gregarious fellow named Phil Shepherd. I later found out he was especially chatty because he was high off his ass on (legitimately prescribed) painkillers, but that’s neither here nor there. Phil really liked my tweet, and came up and introduced himself to me and said he thought I seemed like a cool person. We chatted for a bit, he told me about his church in Texas, and exchanged contact info. Phil was one of these so-called “Outlaw Preachers,” which he explained to me was a twitter hashtag and the community that had grown up around it. I started to listen to some of Phil’s podcasts, including some of his “Sophia series,” interviews with women who inspired him and who were making a difference in the world around them. I thought that there might be something to these Outlaw Preachers it if such a great guy was part of it. A few months later, an “Outlaw Preachers Reunion 2010” was announced, and I thought I might want to attend. I liked that it was cheap, and that the ethic was very DIY- come as you are, contribute if you want, hang out and have fun. They didn’t seem set on having a lot of big name speakers, and the ones that were- Jay Bakker and a teleconferenced Brian McLaren- seemed like they were in it for the fellowship and not the chance to market themselves.** Overall, there was a loose, shaggy feel to the undertaking, and that was something I appreciated. I signed up and told Phil I looked forward to meeting him again there.
I started to follow the #outlawpreachers hashtag a bit more closely, engaging on only a few occasions. At one point, some twitter wars broke out between several people, which I will not elaborate on other than to say that the internet makes us ALL crazy, but I tweeted a rant to the hashtag about how we should not argue on twitter, which was ironic because I argue on twitter ALL THE TIME, which is why I gave it up for Lent. A few people responded to me with a “right on,” and a few others (from what I gathered reading between the lines) were rightfully wondering who the fuck I was and why the fuck I was telling them what to do. I was contacted by this guy named Brandon, an asshole I remembered from Transform.*** Brandon and I ended up having a great conversation about the limits of twitter and online communication in general, and how easy it is to misunderstand and hurt one another when we are just tiny faces in a profile pic. We told each other we looked forward to meeting at OP10 . I tell this story not to dredge up or make light of past hurts, but to explain why I ended up coming to OP10 in the end- I would have felt stupid not coming after all that.
And the fact is, I started to have second thoughts about going. My wintertime depression was kicking in and yet again, I was wondering “why is it again I’m still hanging on to this Christianity thing?” I began to wonder if my faith was not unlike that of many of the families I see in the ICU. They watch their loved one as his or her body is sustained by machines and drugs, desperately scanning the eyes for any small flicker of light, anything that would assure them that someone is still there. They do this because they can’t bear the reality that the flame is rapidly fading and may already be extinguished. Perhaps I was the one who couldn’t bear to face reality. I couldn’t remember what it was exactly I ever thought I would get out of the weekend.
And so I came to OP10 with a bitter, cynical, and wary heart, half hoping I might find something to grab onto and half hoping I could finally fling my belief away for good. And this is when I had my third curious encounter. I’m not sure when, or how, it happened, but I got to know you all. Despite resolving to hang back and keep above the fray, I started to let you all in. Okay, well alcohol probably had something to do with it. But I listened to your stories, and realized that you weren’t losers trying to be cool or cool people trying to be cooler, or anything but people who have suffered, and felt cast off or alienated, and are trying to form a family. People like me who are a little tentative and scared, and who cover their scars with a thick layer of sarcasm and affect. People who might be a little messy or emotional at times. Here we were, people who could say there was no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, gay nor straight, agnostic nor believer, heretic nor fundamentalist- not because we had left our identities behind us, but because we refused to let them bind us. And in that sacred space and time, I remembered why it was I was there.
Because when I read this, from 1 Corinthians 12, I cry:
Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.
Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
Or the next chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, or Romans 12. I was there because there is in the Christian story a beautiful vision of love, of the Kingdom of Heaven within us and among us. I want to believe that in the various mingled facts and fictions of the Bible, that this is one true thing I can hold on to. What I saw this weekend was people who also want to believe that.
I’m not naïve. I’ve been a part of a lot of “families” and relationships that have fallen apart, and a few that have stuck together. I know that it takes hard work, that there is friction, and weather, and entropy, and all the forces of nature to contend with. I don’t know that just because we had this amazing experience in Memphis that it will necessarily carry us to the next year or the year after that. It may be that Robert Frost is right when he says that nothing gold can stay, and that’s it’s foolish to ruin the beauty of a fleeting moment by trying to extend it to the next. But I want to believe that it’s possible, and I want to try with you all.
Thank you for letting me be a part of this. Thank you for sharing your lives and your gifts. Thank you for blessing me with your wit, grace, beauty, and talent. At this point, I’m typing this through my tears at 2:30 in the morning, and I know I need to hurry up an post it before I think better of wearing my emotions on my sleeve like this. May God bless you and keep until we meet again.
*Acts 29 is a pyramid scheme/cult which recruits idealistic young Christians concerned about the plight of the “unsaved.” They convince these poor folk that they will “save souls” by “planting churches” that they will fund by sacrificing every shred of dignity they have to beg for money. You will be approached by these adorable seeming folk, often in newly married pairs, who will ask you to “partner” in “ministry” with them, which is code for “fork over the dough.” They have been trained in high-pressure sales tactics and will not give up until they have money in hand. They will then, knowing you want to get them off your case, manage to finagle the names and phone numbers of your friends, family, coworkers, hairdressers, dentists, mechanics, and so forth. You will lose some relationships over this as people will be very angry with you. Once the 29er has enough money, they will move to another city (they can never stay in their own city) and proceed to attract “converts” with church-set coffee shops and rockin’ worship bands. Also cool AV equipment. All this effort will result not in converting any actual unbelievers but rather in poaching Christians from churches that only have drip coffee pots and worship leaders who are not as hot. While this is not a pyramid scheme in the classical Ponzi sense, as I do not believe any Christians are actually making money off of it, I am pretty sure the makers of mid-range commercial espresso machines, Taylor guitars, Zildjan drums, and American Crew hair gel are laughing all the way to the bank. OK, sorry, this is a long footnote.
** A third “name,” Pete Rollins, was originally announced, and while Pete is a cool, down to earth guy and a great speaker, he tends to inspire a gawd-awful lot of pseudo-intellectual wanking amongst his fanboys, and for that reason I’m sort of glad he wasn’t there.
***Brandon is not really an asshole, but I thought he was at the time.
An exclusive designer clothing shop in Buckhead features clothing in no more than three sizes, is named after a Clash song, and features a mural of the Sex Pistols. I guess Johnny Rotten knew what he was talking about when he sang “Your future dream is a shopping scheme.”
Cee-Lo’s “Georgia” is probably the fourth greatest song ever written about the state, after “Georgia on My Mind,” “Midnight Train to Georgia,” and “Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Maybe fifth if you put it after “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” I can’t decide on that one. The only states I can think of with more songs written about them are California and New York, which makes sense (although, to be fair, the NY ones are more about the city rather than the state). The thing is, Georgia’s nice and all, and I don’t mean to knock it, this doesn’t make sense to me. Surely there are states more deserving of great songs. Can you think of any a) good songs about states or b) states more deserving of good songs (i.e., no college fight songs or cheesy novelty songs)?
Songs written by Sufjan Stevens and any song written about Texas don’t count
“Young Christians have not jumped ship in record numbers solely because evangelicalism offers nothing that appeals to them socially and aesthetically, but because its intellectual crisis is so dire that it responds to moral dilemmas with little more than fear, nostalgia, and, most disturbingly, hints of bigotry.”—David Sessions on what’s wrong with Brett McCracken’s Hipster Christianity
“These days my life, I feel it has no purpose
But late at night the feelings swim to the surface
Cause on the surface, the city lights shine
They’re calling at me, come and find your kind.”—The Arcade Fire, Sprawl II
I’ve seen a lot of “where were you when” and “never forget” posts on Facebook and Twitter today, and I’ve resisted posting anything of my own because it’s hard to know what to say that won’t smack of cheap sentimentality. But as the day’s worn on, I’ve realized that I have to say something, if only for myself, if only to process my thoughts and feelings surrounding recent events that, like a once latent and now active infection, threaten to re-open a wound I thought was well on its way to healing.
On September 11, 2001, I was in my 9am class at Marymount University in Arlington, VA. I got out around 10:30 and trekked to my car to exchange one heavy nursing textbook for another in preparation for the next class. As I headed back out of the garage, I met with a fellow classmate.
"School is canceled for the rest of the day," she said. "We all have to go home."
"2 planes crashed into the World Trade Center, and another into the Pentagon."
"The dean just told me. It’s all over the news. They’re canceling classes."
I stood for a moment, like everyone else on that day who wasn’t actually on the scene, in slack jawed disbelief, trying to process what sounded like a plot point from a Tom Clancy novel. I got into my car and turned on the radio, trying to find a news station, thinking that it couldn’t be that bad if they hadn’t bothered to interrupt the greatest hits of the 80’s, 90’s, and today. I settled into a station and listened as the newscasters described the scene in New York and the one just a few miles down river from me.
At this time, there was still a great deal of confusion as to what exactly was going on. There were reports (speculations?) of bombs planted in downtown DC, and a possible evacuation. I figured I’d best get the hell outside the beltway ASAP- who knew what would happen? Rioting? Looting? A nuclear weapon? I listened to the description of the flames, and the jumpers, and the towers’ collapse with despair and disbelief mingled on my face as tears welled up in my eyes. I was stopped at a light and the car next to me honked its horn.
The woman inside gestured to me to roll my window down. “Are you listening to what’s happening?” she asked. I nodded yes as the tears threatened to spill over. “Are you okay?” she said.
"Yeah. What about you?"
She nodded yes. The light turned green as we looked at one another, finding comfort in the kinship of shared horror, the need for human connection outweighing the desire to stay safely ensconced in the personal protective shells we call automobiles. “Be careful. Get home safely!” she cried as the cars behind us grew restless and began honking.
"You too!" I called earnestly as we went our separate ways.
I made my way to my parent’s house in the western DC suburbs and spent the rest of the day planted in front of the TV with my brothers, watching the infinite loop of plane, collision, explosion, inferno,and collapse, numbed by shock and lulled into a trance by the endless repetition of images and the dulcet tones of Peter Jennings.
A few days later, I attended a prayer service with my mother. Many businesses and homes were flying American flags, but the gas stations, most of which were owned by Middle Easterners, seemed to have the most and the biggest flags. There had been reports in the news of Muslim women coming to work without their hijabs, dressed in the most non-descript clothing possible, some even wearing khakis to emphasize their conformity to American norms. We prayed, among other things, that the nature and origin of these attacks would not be cause for violence or division within our country, amongst our own citizens. We prayed that, in the words of St. Paul, we would not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
After church, my mom asked me where I wanted to eat lunch. “How about Moby Dick?” I said, and she agreed. Moby Dick House of Kabob is a DC Persian food chain, and while I was genuinely hungry for hummus and kabob-e-joojeh, I was desperate for some way to tell people, don’t worry! I know you are not like the people who attacked us. You are our neighbors. You are us.
I have never seen so many lily white faces at Moby Dick at one time. While Middle Eastern food is hardly exotic in the diverse and cultured environs of DC, the patrons were usually at least 50% Arab/Persian/etc. At the restaurant counter, a man asked the proprietor how business had been since Tuesday, and he said not too bad. A lot of people had come in to show their support.
It is human nature to look for a silver lining in the darkest and heaviest cloud, and in the days and weeks following the attacks, there was a lot of speculation about how this event would change us, all of us, all Americans. We heard about New Yorkers being nice! In the streets! To complete strangers! Travelers stranded at far-flung airports, unable to fly home, were taken in, fed, and even clothed by shiny-faced, good-hearted locals. Comparisons were made to the solidarity, cooperation, and band-of-brotherness we exhibited during World War II (conveniently ignoring that whole internment camp business). Op-eds extolled the virtues of the American character; the pluck, determination, and can-do attitude that built this nation from a scattered collection of ramshackle forts and settlements founded by hardy pioneers, opportunists, criminals, and religious extremists into a vast and shining city on a hill, spanning a continent, shore to shore. We, the people, once again believed our own hype, our founding myth. We believed in freedom, and liberty, and peace love and understanding, and that was why they hated us, because we were so damn virtuous.
In that moment, immediately after 9/11, while we were invading Afghanistan, but before we turned our sights to Iraq, we knew that everything had changed. We were no longer safe in our post-cold war continental bunker, separated from the world’s trouble spots and their accompanying violence by the the protective bubbles of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, well out of reach of any long-range missiles. And yet, we hoped that the change would be for the better, that if we had lost our way in the post-WWII miasma of Vietnam, Watergate, the culture wars, and the rise of soulless consumerism, that we might find it again and become the people we always knew we could be.
Of course, the undercurrent of fear and resentment was there, the Pats- Buchanan and Robertson- and other assorted characters insisting that we were fighting a holy war, planting the seeds of, if not outright calling for, a cultural purging. And I know there were many everyday folk, even before the attacks, who were suspicious of Middle Easterners and Muslims, and distrust of the other is nothing new. But… at the same time, with the exception of those few outliers, the national debate over how to address our security needs centered around the practicality of what to do, not the dogma of who was more righteous. Pundits argued that even though we all knew most Muslims were not terrorists, and true Islam is a religion of peace, it might be necessary to engage in racial profiling for lack of better methods. In order to be safe, we might have to attenuate our democratic ideals, for a little while, at least.
Maybe you think I’m remembering a bit hazily, that the debate over Islam was always as rancorous as it is at present, and maybe I am. However, I would ask you to consider this:
In the late 80’s, my parents refused to sign a petition circulated by the HOA in our neighborhood. This petition asked the county government to shut down the small home school run by a Muslim woman for a few special needs children on a property that was neither in our neighborhood nor on our street but that happened to share a portion of a fence with one house in the neighborhood. My parents refused on the grounds that it was religious discrimination, and if we let people discriminate against them, they’d be coming for us next. In 2001, my mother gladly joined me in my naive outreach to the good people of the Moby Dick House of Kabob, relieved to see a busy restaurant and proof that people like her were not mindless bigots. Later that year my parents and I discussed the infamous “Isaac and Ishmael” episode of The West Wing, an episode that while perhaps simplistic in its treatment of prejudice and racial profiling got an awful lot of people talking (“Everybody at work was talking about it,” said my mother) and sympathising with the one-off beleaguered Arab character. A few years later she told me about a friend she had at work, a woman who was “the best Christian I know. And you know what? She’s Muslim.”
In 2008 my parents were sending me forwarded emails about the secret Muslim origins of Barack Obama, the destructive and anti-american ideology he was indoctrinated with as a young boy in Jakarta, and the violence and hatred at the heart of all Islam. My father, who despite his conservatism once viewed Rush Limbaugh with disdain, now listens to him regularly. I don’t know what their view of the the Park 51/Cordoba House controversy is, as they’ve learned to stop forwarding emails and we’ve both learned to stop discussing politics, but I suspect, given their news sources and friends of theirs who DO forward me emails that they oppose it.
The fault lines- conservative vs liberal, urban vs rural, northern vs southern, common vs elite, true Christian vs “lukewarm” Christian vs non-Christian, real American vs un-American, stretch back almost 400 years, to the profane soldiers of fortune who founded the Jamestown colony and the priggish separatists who landed in New England, the shrewd Dutch merchants of Manhattan, and the various Natives they all managed to displace. They run through the Whiskey Rebellion, the Civil War, and all the conflagrations of the 20th century. We’ve never been one homogeneous people, and there’s never been one America, and we’ve always had to contend with the things that divide us.
But nine years ago there was a brief moment when we believed the dream, and hoped that the collective horror of September 11 might allow us to work through our differences in the pursuit of a common purpose and mend, or at least bridge, the fault lines. “Those bastards don’t know who they’re messing with,” we said. And now, after two long and divisive wars and a bitterly contested presidential election, those fault lines seem to widen and gape as we stand on our opposite sides playing a never-ending game of chicken, wondering who will be first to jump into the abyss, and I have to think, Goddamn. Those terrorists sure as hell knew what they were doing.