Sunday, March 25, 2007

Carbonated Holiness

“Carbonated holiness”--that’s the way Anne Lamott describes laughter during her March 23rd interview on NPR’s “On Point”.

The whole interview is worth listening to but what a great phrase! I can’t wait to read her newest book, Grace(Eventually).

And Now, Mainline Protestantism

I’ve just finished reading Diana Butler Bass’ Christianity for the Rest of Us. I enjoyed it a lot more than her The Practicing Congregation, which I read last fall because of a reference to it in one of my D.Min. classes. Christianity for the Rest of Us is based on Bass’ three year study, funded by the Lilly Endowment, of mainline Protestant church congregations. For the study, Bass traveled the U.S. (especially the Midwest and the South) checking out 50 congregations from 6 mainline denominations that she’d heard were “spiritually vital”. She and her research colleagues then got to know 10 of them in more depth, spending the equivalent of two to three weeks with each over a period of several months. Christianity for the Rest of Us is a report of the learnings and insights from those field visits.

Bass’ book is upbeat, pointing out that there are lots of different forms of “emerging” mainline Protestant churches that are growing and thriving. She picks out ten “signposts” (i.e. individual and community practices) that she found many of the “new village” congregations practicing and discusses each of them briefly, illustrating each practice with stories and examples from one or more of the ten congregations. Among the signposts are hospitality, contemplation and silence, healing practiced at many different levels (emotions, physical, interpersonal, and cosmic), sharing stories of personal transformation (testimony), justice, and an appreciation for the connection between beauty, art, and mystery. Along the way Bass debunks many contemporary myths--evangelicals don’t have the only thriving congregations; progressive churches have not lost a positive connection to tradition; and it’s not all about having the right kind of music in worship. She also discusses many of the common characteristics of emerging churches, mainline or not: the hands on, experiential focus; the flattening of the community from “top down communities of authority toward more participatory forms of church”; and the rediscovery of ancient practices.

Some of Bass’ observations about thriving mainliners are new to me, but ring so true. Politics in these vital congregations is understood, not as partisan policy platforms that can be divisive, but as hands-on personal politics, where people go out to build a house for Habitat for Humanity, work on issues of global warming, or set up a homeless shelter and where such work clearly grows out of both the desire to embody the ways in which the teaching of Jesus has important social consequences and a transformative Christian hope. Also intriguing is the idea that these congregations are post-postdenominational, finding ways to remix “new old" tradition and heritage, practice, and wisdom so that it speaks to contemporary nomads who are hungry for a home place.

My one complaint with the book is that often, when Bass tells stories about a congregation, she uses the same background descriptions several times, which becomes repetitive and boring. I want to say to her ‘Can’t you tell me anything else interesting about this congregation rather than what you’ve already written (in some cases, several times)?” And my fear reading Christianity for the Rest of Us is that, rather than seeing these congregations as a challenge for more mainline Protestant congregations to move in a spiritually vital direction, folks may see Bass’ study as a reassurance that the mainline denominational crisis is not as dire as other studies suggest. All in all, though, I’d say that Christianity For the Rest of Us offers an interesting analysis of the way emerging church practices are playing out in mainline Protestant denominations across the country.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

In Campo Di Fiore

What He Thought

Heather McHugh

We were supposed to do a job in Italy
and, full of our feeling for
ourselves (our sense of being
Poets from America) we went
from Rome to Fano, met
the Mayor, mulled a couple
matters over. The Italian literati seemed
bewildered by the language of America: they asked us
what does "flat drink" mean? and the mysterious
"cheap date" (no explanation lessened
this one's mystery). Among Italian writers we
could recognize our counterparts: the academic,
the apologist, the arrogant, the amorous,
the brazen and the glib. And there was one
administrator (The Conservative), in suit
of regulation gray, who like a good tour guide
with measured pace and uninflected tone
narrated sights and histories
the hired van hauled us past.
Of all he was most politic--
and least poetic-- so
it seemed. Our last
few days in Rome
I found a book of poems this
unprepossessing one had written: it was there
in the pensione room (a room he'd recommended)
where it must have been abandoned by
the German visitor (was there a bus of them?) to whom
he had inscribed and dated it a month before. I couldn't
read Italian either, so I put the book
back in the wardrobe's dark. We last Americans
were due to leave
tomorrow. For our parting evening then
our host chose something in a family restaurant,
and there we sat and chatted, sat and chewed, till,
sensible it was our last big chance to be Poetic, make
our mark, one of us asked
"What's poetry?
Is it the fruits and vegetables
and marketplace at Campo dei Fiori
or the statue there?" Because I was
the glib one, I identified the answer
instantly, I didn't have to think-- "The truth
is both, it's both!" I blurted out. But that
was easy. That was easiest
to say. What followed taught me something
about difficulty,
for our underestimated host spoke out
all of a sudden, with a rising passion, and he said:
The statue represents
Giordano Bruno, brought
to be burned in the public square
because of his offence against authority, which was to say
the Church. His crime was his belief
the universe does not revolve around
the human being: God is no
fixed point or central government
but rather is poured in waves, through
all things: all things
move. "If God is not the soul itself,
he is the soul OF THE SOUL of the world." Such was
his heresy. The day they brought him forth to die
they feared he might incite the crowd (the man
was famous for his eloquence). And so his captors
placed upon his face
an iron mask
in which he could not speak.
That is how they burned him.
That is how he died,
without a word,
in front of everyone. And poetry--
(we'd all put down our forks by now, to listen to
the man in gray; he went on softly)-- poetry
is what he thought, but did not say.