I have been in Atlanta this week, and I would like to file a report with the internet. If you arent' interested in my insistence on finding a meaningful Christian faith, but read my blog for some other reason, this would be a good post to skip.
Emergent Village is an experiment in underwriting an ongoing conversation about the Christian faith. While manifestations of this conversation are often criticized from both the right and left of the Church, it continues to be, for me, the one place where sanity and hope can be found.
One of the things that Emergent Village does is to host an annual "Theological Conversation", where highly respected and influential figures, mostly theologians, sit down with pastors, and lay people, and weird outliers ( like me ) and discuss their ideas. I keep going to these events because I have a faith which I cannot shake, even though I mostly agree with people who think there are many good reasons for staying away from Christianity.
Mostly, I don't show up at these to rub elbows with the luminaries. The reason I attend these things is to have face time with the other lost souls who are looking for meaning in a faith which so often seems broken and in need of healing, but which we cannot let go of. So it kind of doesn't matter to me who is the famous person, what matters to me is the friends I will sit and eat meals with, and the things we will laugh about, and the stories we will tell about failure and struggle, but also about prophetic vision and hope.
So if I were REALLY going to tell you what happened this week at "The 2010 Emergent Village Theological Conversation Post-colonialism and the Missional Future of the Church", I would have to tell you about reading poetry to each other in a corner of an Irish pub, or seeing people holding the micro-bronsink and talking about the authority of text, racing through an exhibit in the art museum before rushing to the airport, or the chance to wonder with another friend about what we in the privileged class need to learn from post-colonial voices, while playing golf.
But everyone wants to know "How was it?", so I will now attempt to talk about the "official" program, even though it is really the unofficial part which seems to be the most cherished part of these events for me. I can't really give you a five point overview, because I am not able to operate that way. This is just "How it all passed before my eyes". ( for example Julie Clawson, one of the great people I get to hang out with at these events, blogs a completely different experience from me, at onehandclapping and I recognize she and I as having been at the same location, but as you can see if you read her piece, came away with a very different impression )
Before I got here, I wasn't actually that excited about "post colonial missional blah blah". A lot of criticism from the left of Emergent Village was centered around issues of diversity, and this conference almost felt like a reaction to criticism, trying to prove something, and not a comfortable next step. I wasn't interested in getting my "Post Colonial Missional" merit badge and it was only my love of the people who make up the emergent conversation that got me to Atlanta.
Plus, I was already well aware of the horror that Christianity seems to leave in it's historical wake. And sitting down for two days and listening to people talk about it didn't seem to be something which would actually be helpful to me. So I was not a tremendously enthusiastic listener as the conference began. Once things started though, that changes almost instantly. It started at a lunch before the first session, where I actually got to talk to Richard Twiss, one of the speakers.
Richard Twiss is a Lakota follower of Christ. His story parallels mine in that in some ways. We were both captured by faith, sort of against our wills, and then turned to the church to ask "What do I do with this faith?", and then we have both spent years trying to unlearn some of the things that we were taught in our faith-youth.
I read Richard's book "One Church Many Tribes - Following Jesus The Way God Made You", and I was NOT excited about listening to Richard before I came to the event. The book seemed to be mostly an Evangelical-aimed apologetic that a uniquely Native American Christianity could still be considered Christian, and even Evangelical. I don't have any question that there should be a uniquely Native American Christianity, or even that there should be a Native American relation to the Christ story which is so different that it makes it hard to call it Christianity. So I was not expecting to learn much from Richard Twiss.
What I learned at the lunch was that in most of the Native American Church, the predominant view is that Western Christianity is the perfect truth of God, and that any "uniquely Native American" aspects of faith are considered evil-which-must-be-expelled. I think I, as a Silicon Valley Nerd, feel like "my people", have been treated in a way which parallels some of this (not in the genocide and oppression, but in the colonization of an "other"). We have been told that our culture is evil and bad, our ideas of truth and beauty are misinformed, and that we must come inside the church and do all the things churchy people do, and become like them, because that is what God wants. I heard Richard Twiss as someone who has been fighting a fight for many many years, and that his struggle was close enough to mine in this area that I could learn from listening to his story.
So every time Richard spoke of praying and drums and dancing, I was searching in my mind for what the parallel of that would be, and feeling more hope that I would find these things than I have in a long time.
The next speaker was Musa Dube. I was not able to finish her book "Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible" due to time constraints, but I did read a lot of it. I loved what I read. Here was an author willing to say out loud what has always seemed to me to be the dirty little secret of Christianity. The Beloved Bible is actually in many ways a horrible nasty book. The things that God does, or God tells his people to do, are awful. How then is God good?
While I claimed earlier that I was comfortable with the idea of a Native American faithfulness which did not look like Christianity, I found myself, in reading this book, becoming uncomfortable with where the book seemed to be headed in it's formulation of a post colonial faithfulness. I needed to hear more, to to understand more of this discomfort I was feeling, because I wondered what it was I was uncomfortable with.
So I listened as she spoke, as she told stories, and as she sang. I began to understand my fear a little. For me, I was transformed by my encounter with the Jesus story. However this transformation had nothing to do with intellectual assent. I just discovered that I believed, as if belief had been given to me. I had been evangelized before then, and it was a horrible experience, I ran away from people who tried to tell me the Good News. For me, the part of my story where I am transformed, where the Michael who exists after the gift is somehow different than the Michael before the gift, is very important.
As I listened to Musa Dube talk about how violent the Bible is towards "other", it felt to me like I was losing my story of becoming other. If the violence and destruction left behind Christianity is the inevitable consequence of the biblical approach to the other, and a post-colonial faith is by necessity therefore accepting of people and cultures as they are, what is left to believe in? I clearly seem to have this idea of transformation from one thing to another at the core of my concept of faith.
I repeatedly heard, in Musa Dube's book, hints of a set of ideas which would do trememdous violence to my faith, and I kept waiting for her to complete those sentences, to say it out loud ...
It never came.
I think the biggest lesson I learned from this whole conference is watching how Richard and Musa spoke to us. In the sense that they are outsiders, made wise by their long years of wrestling with the things we are only now seeing, they could have said ( as we often do when given a chance ) "I am an outsider, I see you and your struggles clearly, I can tell you what is wrong and what you should do". However, neither of them did that. Neither of them made us into someone who needed their help. They refused to do the thing which was done with them, even when people almost begged them to do it, to tell them "What does this means for Western Christians".
Instead they showed us some things about how to be friends, and how to tell stories, and how gifts of generosity and hope can be shared.
The third speaker was Colin Greene, author of “Metavista: Bible, Church and Mission in an Age of Imagination.” If he cared, I would have to buy him a pint and offer my apologies, becase I totally tuned him out. In an early panel I heard him trying to rescue the notion of "biblical" equating to "god-shaped" by hinting at some ironic hermeneutic which you could glean from the text by some clever gesture and my brain just switched off.
I am not saying I don't have anyting to learn from him. In fact I think the imaginary conversation between us over that pint might be really interesting. I think there is a uniquely American way forward which is different from the European way forward, or maybe even from the Irish way forward, and I think I could have gone a long way towards discovering that, had I been ready to listen, but I wasn't. I'm taking all the blame for that. Maybe I was just burned out, and had no more energy for processing new and chalenging thoughts. I hope I have a chance to hear him speak at a future date when I am more open to listening.
That's the news that is fit to print of my week in Atlanta. I'm looking forward to showing up the next time Emergent Village opens the doors.