Atmospherics

Gaslamp Musician

San Diego is unique among cities I’ve visited; the air is soft rather than kinetic. Nothing jars (at least in daylight), save perhaps the thick homeless population downtown. These aren’t the cleaned-up homeless of Mustard Seed Ranch, but gritty street sleeper types. I paid the gentleman in this photo $5 for the privilege of taking his picture. When I dropped my bill in his hat, he asked me out, so I don’t feel like I exploited him. In fact, I wonder if he exploited me, given the fact that he managed to blow enough air into a saxophone to play entire songs despite the tubes and tank …

Because the atmosphere is so calm in this border town, it was a great place to ponder the weighty ideas I grappled with at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion.

My first day began with a reprimand from a stodgy old man in a suit and spit-shined shoes. He objected to my cushiony red, open-toed sandals and blue jeans. I could have been offended (Miss Manners would say that his rudeness was a worse breach of etiquette than my inappropriate dress), but I played along, and even commiserated with him about the general decline of formality in American culture, citing dapper novelist Tom Wolfe, who, I believe, wrote about this very subject a few years ago for The New York Times.

I was relieved to see Scot McKnight wearing his brand new blue jeans at the session about the emergents. Or was this simply another indication of the decline of rigorous thinking as Mr. Suit suggested? After all, on Sunday, N.T. Wright dismissed the postmoderns as “fluffy.”

The discussion between McKnight, Tony Jones and Diana Butler Bass was more helpful to me in understanding what emerging/emergent is all about than anything I’ve read thus far, which, admittedly, isn’t much. (I’ll detail the session in a separate post tommorrow.) Here I’d like to note that McKnight attends Willow Creek Community Church and Butler Bass is a liberal Episcopalian. As Jones described it, each has one foot in emergent and one foot in their respective communities. Having spoken to Butler Bass after the session, I suspect she might frame her involvement with emergent differently.

Jones said he had grown up in a combination mainline/Young Life congregation and was unaware of the tensions between evangelicals and the mainline until he went to college. Jones credited Leadership Network for snatching not only him and other emergent leaders out of obscurity, but Rick Warren and Bill Hybels before them. So what exactly is Leadership Network and who funds it? Briefly, it’s a parachurch organization founded in 1984 to “identify, connect and help high-capacity Christian leaders multiply their impact” with the support of corporate “Alliance Partners.” One wonders about this interplay of corporate and sacred at the forefront of contemporary evangelical/emergent culture. Maybe it’s nothing; I suspect it’s something, especially since Jones mentioned book publishers’ role in emergent’s ascendance.

The session was moderated by Keith Matthews of Azusa Pacific University. I had interviewed Matthews for my profile of Dallas Willard, but that interview was cut from the final draft. Matthews was assistant pastor to Brian McLaren in McLaren’s early days of ministry and said in his introduction to the panel discussion that he has a “love/hate relationship” with emergent. I asked him about this in the Q&A. He mentioned Dallas Willard as his mentor and repeated what Dallas had said to me a couple weeks ago: some things needed deconstructing–like Modernism, but at some point one must reconstruct. Matthews thinks the emergents are still somewhat stuck in deconstruction.  To be fair, Jones called emergent a safety net for those who are about to abandon organized religion altogether. Tommorrow, a full outline, including what I am titling Jones’ “Theology of the Couch.”

This theme of deconstructing modernisms and reconstructing something in their place transcended the sessions I attended. In this post I’d like to make some observations about this overarching idea and briefly describe my sensory perception of the conference. In the next few days, I’ll post highlights from some of the individual sessions.

After the emergent panel, I attended a plenary session with Tavis Smiley. The contrast was striking. Jones had mentioned that 85-95 percent of those who preach in both evangelical and mainline churches are white men. At his church, the voice of the white male preacher is not amplified above the rest. I didn’t get how this works, but some technique is employed so that everyone can hear the person who actually does the talking without them talking over congregants. At the “Covenant with Black America” session, standing ovations for black men and women were generous. First for the incoming president of AAR, a black woman, next for PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley, whose book, The Covenant with Black America, was the first non-fiction book by a black-owned publisher to top The New York Times bestseller list, then for Cornel West, whom Smiley described as the leading public intellectual of our time, and for a scholar who is about to be promoted to department chair in his field at Princeton. These mostly African Americans were celebrating the haphazard deconstruction of a racialized society and the equally haphazard and lurching reconstruction of one that Smiley hopes will run on love.

After this enthusiastic event, I attended a session called “Radical Life Extension: Implications for Eschatological Visions of the Religions.” Forget deconstruction; Aubrey de Grey, a biologist with The Methuselah Foundation,  is a zealot and self-proclaimed humanitarian who believes human beings will eventually live into the 4 digits. Like all utopians, he gives little credance to the possibilities for his dream to morph into a nighmare. The world he would like to reconstruct is one where Scientism does in fact rule, even if, as he suggested, aging has no evolutionary purpose. Human beings are ultimately fair and rational in de Grey’s utopia, as evidenced by the way we allocate funds for education. They will, therefore, allocate life-extending interventions judiciously.   : )

de Grey was no advertisement for his work. At 44 years old, he said he runs and thinks as fast as he did when he was 24, but his long hair is greying, his eyes are sunken in with dark circles beneath them, and his abdomen length beard did nothing to advance the picture of youth and vitality that he is selling. I snuck out before the discussion of eschatology.

I wandered the Gaslamp District for a bit and ate a platter of Baja lobster taco, burrito, and chowder. Then it was on to a reception for journalists. There I met a documentarian from the BBC, the news editor of The Christian Century and his lovely wife, a freelancer for Religion News Service, a couple of award winners for in-depth religion reporting from an Ottowa newspaper, and one PR person who promised to help me win the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowship that I was turned down for earlier this year.

I left my apartment at 5:30 am and crawled into bed exhausted sometime after 11pm.

Yesterday I left home at 7am and made it to San Diego in an hour. My day began much more pleasantly the second time around, with a discussion of Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor‘s book, A Secular Age. I had this session on my agenda, but my new best friend, the PR guy, had said I shouldn’t miss it, so I scratched the other possibilites off my schedule. Lo and behold, Mr. PR was thanked in the introductory remarks because AAR has been trying to get Taylor to speak for years, and he was responsible. If he can accomplish that, perhaps he can indeed help me with the fellowship. One never knows.

Taylor was less interesting than those gently critiquing his book, but he humbly conceded their points about the 800+ page tome. The tightly packed room made the session more challenging physically than any other event. The talks were worth enduring physical discomfort however. Here again Modernism and Atheism were eloquently deconstructed, while “Cosmopolitanism” was offered as an alternative to any particular religious perspective. I’ll expound on this theme later in the week.

After the end of the Q&A was announced, the moderator pointed unexpectedly to the back of the room, where Cornel West boomed out his question with poetic force. He wanted to know if Taylor had ever been tempted to abandon faith as a member of the Academy. Taylor reiterated something Dallas Willard had said when I interviewed him two years ago. Taylor said that when he and a friend arrived at Oxford or Cambridge, I can’t recall which, many years ago, they lamented together the philosophical junk that was being peddled. The friend was eventually converted and became a renowned analytic philosopher, but Taylor decided that his only choices were to either leave philosophy or confront the ideas that he found vacuous. He remains a practicing Catholic and a philosopher. John Wilson, editor of Books and Culture, later told me he plans to write something on Taylor’s book for B&C. While he likes the man, he has problems with the book.

Next I sat in on a session called “Black Theology: New Times, New Methods” at which a name came up that I had heard from Tavis Smiley: James Cone is apparently the dean of Black Theology and any black pastor who doesn’t know this should, according to a panelist from Fuller Seminary, be ashamed of themselves. What needs to be desconstructed, according to these brilliant minds, is white, European modernist Christian theology, to be replaced by one that relies on the earliest texts, which are African. Indeed, IVP was advertising a book called How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind by Thomas Oden. I had gone to this session hoping to gain some understanding about the unique contributions of African American theologians to the community of faith, but even the elder-statesman of the panel said there really was nothing new in what was said by the participants. They said it brilliantly however. The high proportion of black attendees at the conference made me wonder if they are overrepresented in religious studies and underrepresented in other fields, or if black cultural identity has been so interwoven with faith that it makes what N.T. Wright later said about God’s absence from public life sound almost foolish, or at least neglectful re. civil rights movements here and elsewhere.

Wright made me glad to be an Anglican, and believe me, I’m not always sure what I’m doing as an Anglican. It seems to be the best available option, however. My particular congregation is politically conservative, it being located in Newport Beach and all. I am not a conservative. I’m a moderate, as evidenced by my broadly pro-life views on immigration, racial justice, embryo issues, etc. So it was good to hear Wright critique the religious right in his talk “God in Public?” He called it a fumbling attempt to bring God back into public life. The White House apparently doesn’t like this assessment and let him know it.

Wright also talked about deconstructing Modernism, which by the way, isn’t a monolithic thing. He suggested, with audible relief, that we are moving into post-postmodernism, or need to. He suggested a radical kingdom theology for public engagement based on the gospels (again reminiscient of Willard), and advocated a trajectory entirely separate from the Fundamentalist/Secularist deathmatch. This session was the most packed of any I attended. When I got up to leave during the Q&A, I literally had to climb over people who were jammed into the aisles.

It was at this lecture that I ran into both John Wilson and Ted Olsen of CT. Ted was one of those unlucky floor dwellers that I waded past on my way out.

Then it was off to the session I had most been looking forward to, but which was the least interesting. It was called “Evangelicals and Southern California: Factors Shaping Evangelical Identity.” I had thought this discussion was going to be about how the culture of Southern California shapes evangelicalism nationally—a topic that greatly interests me, but instead it was about factors that shape SoCal evangelicalism. There were only two panelists. Daniel Rodriguez, of Pepperdine University, gave a paper on Hispanic ministry that could have come out of the Calvary Chapel play book. He studied two SoCal church networks: Victory Outreach and Praise Chapel, both of which started around the time Calvary Chapel did, but were not outgrowths of it. The other paper, if one can believe this, is the subject of a bright young scholar’s doctoral dissertation on the theology of sports ministries like Athletes in Action and Fellowship of Christian Athletes. The salient point in her talk was that, in the case of Athletes in Action at least, the theology appears to have been influenced by the writings of … are you ready? Arnold Schwarzenegger, and perhaps, as one audience member suggested, Maharashi somebody.

I intended to wrap my evening up at an InterVarsity Press reception, at which Alistair McGrath was scheduled to speak. It was postponed for 90 minutes and I was famished so I crashed the Yale University reception, surmising that the Yalies would have the best food. Smart girl. I ate sushi, brie quiches, rich blue cheese on date nut bread, accompanied by a few sips of Cabernet.

Afterwards, I met an evangelical Lutheran scholar from Hungary who had, oddly enough, connections to both my past and my present. She has friends who attend a Calvary Chapel in Budapest, and had been there to hear Chuck Smith. She wanted to know if there was a thelogical basis for the way Communion was served at the service she attended. The elements were simply placed on the stage with little commentary and no pastoral interaction. I told her this is possible because low-church Protestants tend to believe in the priesthood of all believers. She also happened to have become acquainted with, I think she said, the former bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. She described sharing a cozy dinner with this eminent member of the clergy, at which he spewed profanity-laced vitriole at my church.

The IVP reception included some exquisite chocolate desserts, but McGrath had canceled and I was conflicted between the engaging replacement topic, “The Legacy of John Paul II” and a photography presentation. The thought of leaving the conference without attending a session on the Arts was anathema to me, so I ditched the pope.

In the exhibit hall, there was a stunning photograph of a transgendered sex worker. Sounds out there, I know, but I hoped to see the rest of the series. It was a grand way to end the conference. Golden States of Grace is a traveling exhibit that looks at the spiritual lives of marginalized communities. The artist’s work deconstructs assumptions about those lives and inspires compassion and respect for the humanity of every person created in God’s image.

You might notice that I generally did not choose sessions dealing with doctrinal minutiae, but instead went for big picture themes. Not only does doctrinal minutiae bore me silly, but I’m a journalist who wants to understand our world and where it’s going from the perspective of a variety of voices. In the end, N.T. Wright resonated with me the most, while a couple of African American Phd. candidates from Duke University impressed me the most. I’ll outline Wright’s talk in a couple days. He made me feel safe in my new Anglican identity and for that I’m grateful.

[© cas 2007, all rights reserved.]

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8 Comments on “Atmospherics

  1. James Cone not James Kohn. It took me a minute to realize that you were spelling phonetically. I first thought, “Why haven’t I heard of James Kohn?” The speaker is right: James Cone is the father of black, now African-American theology, though “black” captures better the the sharp-edged nature of the beginnings of his theology.

  2. Thank you Jonathan, and welcome. I will make the correction. I googled it and came up with the spelling I found. Evidentally, I didn’t follow my own good journalistic practice of checking sources. Must get used to being as careful blogging as with traditional outlets.

    Can you give a little summary. I do intend to buy the book that was quoted, if I can find the title in my notes.

  3. I don’t know what prompted me to pop over here from Scot McKnight’s blog but I’m glad I did. I’m working on expanding my world a bit and wow, this post alone was well worth my time. Oh, and I love the “buynothingchristmas” link! Great blog.

  4. Christine,

    The James Cone title was probably “God of the Oppressed,” which is a classic.

    Thanks for posting this very informative recap. I’m looking forward to your posts on Tony’s “Theology of the Couch” and N.T. Wright.

    Shalom,
    Steve K.

  5. Thank you Dianne and Steve for the kind words. I’m a little overwhelmed by the interest today.

    And Steve, for the book title. It’s now on my reading list.

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