It’s a rare and wonderful day when I get to spend an hour alone with two of my favorite leading lights of the progressive Christian landscape. And so it was this week, when I found myself sitting in a creaky chair in the choir alcove of the beautiful, historical St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Denver on a crisp fall afternoon, knee to knee with Brian McLaren and Nadia Bolz-Weber and my iPhone DropVox recorder. Brian was in town promoting his excellent new book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World, and Nadia Bolz-Weber, founding pastor of the emergent liturgical Lutheran Church House For All Sinners and Saints, was hosting. I asked the two of them if they’d sit down with me for a half hour to talk. They graciously agreed, and an hour flew by as we discussed the latest Pew survey numbers, the presidential election, the future of Christianity, and weight lifting. Part 1 of the conversation follows. I’ll post Part 2 on Friday.
Everyone’s talking about the latest Pew Forum Report which came out earlier this week, showing a 25% rise over the last five years of those who identify as “religiously unaffiliated.” One in five Americans now claim “none” as a religion. And perhaps most interesting is that of those religiously unaffiliated, 68% say they believe in God, but 88% are not looking for religion. What is your reaction to these numbers? What does it mean for the future of Christianity? How are we doing?
Brian: Well, my first reaction is that we’re moving still closer to a tipping point, and the tipping point will either be toward a revitalized fresh expression of Christian faith or increasingly ghetto-ized, insular expressions of Christian faith. I also think this is just more data about how our religious leaders have not been listening for decades. Or only listening to the insiders. And as more and more people are on the outside, it behooves us to start listening. If all that religious leaders have to do to is listen to the complaints of their current attenders, they will be obsessed with…
Nadia: Carpet color…
Brian: …carpet color and organ music and the sexual habits of people, and they will miss the momumental concerns of the people on the outside, like, are we going to kill each other? What are we going to do about a fragile planet? Who’s going to stand up for the 99%?
So Nadia, you’re in a church that is growing, and where you have a more non-traditional way of doing Church …
Brian: And a lot of your people are the people who are part of that statistic…
Nadia: Yeah, most of my congregants would be in that “religiously unaffiliated” group in some way. Very few of the people that go to my church were regularly attending a church of any kind before they started attending House for All Sinners and Saints. And they’re absolutely regular now in this community.
I’ve been trying to figure out since it started why they’re coming. I don’t have a definite answer, but I have some suspicions. We are unafraid to name despair, and we don’t shy away from speaking the truth about our own brokenness and the brokenness in the world. And I think people want to hear something that feels like it’s actually true and breaks their heart and gives them something to look at besides their navel for some kind of hope in the world.
People have said that they’re really drawn to how traditional this church is – I mean, the liturgy is very traditional. And there’s so much chaos and transition and uncertainty in their lives, so to come to a place that holds some kind of structure for them every week is really reassuring. And for people being a part of this community, their belonging-ness is not based on what they’re intellectually assenting to at the moment, so it’s not about signing on to certain doctrine. In some ways, I really don’t feel responsible for what the people of my church believe, but I feel very responsible for what they hear, so the language and the liturgy and the preaching is rooted in a particular perspective. But somehow, people are able to interact with that perspective in the ways that they feel comfortable. I don’t think the answer is to jettison tradition or a clear theological articulation … there are ways in which my church is very traditional that people find reassuring. It’s just that their belonging-ness isn’t determined by how much they’re signing on to that.
Someone asked me recently what unites the people in my church. I think it’s having an open table. Everyone is welcome at the table and that’s such a strong principle in our community.
I love what you said, “I’m not responsible for what people believe … but I am responsible for what they hear.” So yes, all are welcome, but not everything goes. You’re very clear about what you believe.
Nadia: Right. If somebody came up to me and said, “It makes me really uncomfortable that you talk about Jesus like he’s God,” I’d say, “Well that’s kind of a non-negotiable.” I have a very orthodox Lutheran theological perspective. Now, if you asked all my parishioners how many of them have an orthodox theological perspective, I’m not sure what the percentage would be. But they don’t want me to become more like them. They’re not asking that of me, and I’m not asking that of them. But I’m allowed to hold an office where I make a very particular type of proclamation.
That seems to be a critique of the progressive church – that it’s getting watered down to meet the “all are welcome” philosophy.
Nadia: That’s certainly my critique.
Brian: In the book I just wrote, I talk about how we have two unacceptable options in Christianity right now. We have a strong Christian identity that’s hostile and filled with a lot of hostility, and then we have a weak Christianity that’s very tolerant. But what people are looking for is a strong Christian identity that is more than tolerant, it’s benevolent. So it’s not watering things down on the one side, but nor is it holding our beliefs like a weapon on the other side. Someone said to me recently, “when our choices are between the blind leading the blind and the bland leading the bland, we need a better option.”
Nadia: All I have to talk about is my own community, but I do also think that there are a lot of people who understand that “the emperor has no clothes,” and are very aware of that in terms of what’s happening in the economy, the educational system, consumerism, society in general. And so they’re a bit suspicious of institutions and presumed authority. But one thing that’s different about House is that while its very traditional, we say we’re “anti-excellence, pro-participation”… somebody can walk into my church and they don’t have to be deemed worthy or skilled enough to read the gospel during the liturgy. Anybody can walk in and choose that job off the table to do it. So people are actually leading liturgy from within the community. They’re a community of producers, not consumers. So if you look at society and realize certain things have some cracks in them, there’s a whole population out there – especially young adults – who really see the cracks.
And people are “content creators” in a way they never were before. If then they step into a church and are no longer in any way a content creator, but only a consumer, then why in the world would that work when in every other aspect of their lives there is so much interaction?
That makes me think of the “new monastic” communities that are drawing young people across the country. One of the leaders of that movement, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, talks about how it’s really the practices that attract people to his community. Regular practices, of service, or prayer, done together, that ground us and root us in community.
Brian: I think there’s something unspoken behind that word practice … for instance, the way you practice piano, or judo … the assumption behind it is you’re actually trying to do something, become something. I think that’s one part of this we ought to try to get into words better. I’m going to guess that when people come to your church, Nadia, they’re trying to become more sane, more compassionate … they’d like to practice becoming more connected, more honest, and more reverent…
I think there’s an awful lot of people that traditionally go to church that have forgotten that there’s a telos to it. The old telos was, well we’re going to heaven and nobody else is, so we’d better go to church. But people have grown suspicious of that narrative now, and they’re looking for a deeper narrative. That’s the great gift of churches that are liturgical, because in the liturgy, you’re confronted with some deep mysteries. And there aren’t that many places where we get confronted with deep mysteries…we get confronted with a lot of political hype, a lot of slick marketing…but deep mysteries are pretty hard to come by.
Nadia: And how much do we encounter things that aren’t five minutes old and two inches deep, right? It’s water on the rock, the liturgy … you are being formed by it.
One of the things a bunch of us were talking about during Marcus Borg’s recent visit, was that this vision of Christianity that we’re describing here is so compelling and so nourishing … so why is progressive Christianity still so invisible in this country?
Nadia: This might sound a little harsh but what I’ve seen a lot of in a lot progressive Christianity is people saying “We want to be the good guys, and we want to be really clear we’re not the bad buys, so we’re going to jettison the Bible and Jesus, and we’ll let them have that…” I just feel like the Bible and Jesus are the only two things we have going for us … so I have no idea why we’d want to let go of those. Those things are compelling. Being goodwill industries — while definitely doing Kingdom of God work — is not nearly as compelling as the gospel.
Brian: While I agree with you about that, Nadia, I don’t think that’s happening in very many places any more. I think those places have just about withered up and gone. But I think there are a lot of places that still read the Bible, follow the lectionary, talk about Jesus, but there is just no passion. It is so taken for granted. This is where the re-discovery of the faith, not as a set of as intellectual propositions, but as a set of revolutionary commitments, has been very effectively emasculated from the faith. And re-discovering that is not easy.
Nadia: Yeah, it’s become the Elks Club with Eucharist.
Brian: Actually it’s worse than the Elks Club – it’s the Ku Klux Klan or it’s the White Upper Class Conservative Club, or whatever. There’s some pretty ugly tribal political reorganizations going on that are using our churches as their cover.
So we’re currently in the midst of a very polarizing presidential election, in the midst of a polarized Church and culture. The internet makes it easier than ever to fan those flames, with people labeling other Christians as heretics and drawing all these dividing lines. As one Facebook friend wanted me to ask you, “Where’s the love?”
Brian: Can I say something positively about the election? I was reecntly reading what American Protestants used to say about the rising Catholic tide, and the kinds of books written about Catholics and the stories we told about how Catholics were going to take over the country…it was pure bigotry. It was shocking. So then to think that 100 years later, Evangelicals would line up behind Rick Santorum … wow, we’ve made some progress maybe! And now they’ve lined up behind a Mormon. So in the midst of all the ugliness and vitriol and venom of the election, you watch people abandon some of their old prejudices.
Nadia: For new ones…
Brian: Well, that’s the other side, the trading of old scapegoats for new scapegoats. I think our nation still has not recovered from two traumas. First is the trauma of the Cold War, and right when our nemesis the Soviet Union disappeared, we spent a few years floundering without an enemy, because we defined ourselves so much by having an enemy. And then militant Islam came along at the right moment to give us a new enemy. I think the great spiritual challenge that this election shows us is that we have to find out who we are, without needing an enemy to tell us. And that’s going on in our churches, our political system … we’re facing a very deep identity crisis.
And when you say “where’s the love?”… we’ve lost a narrative of the future. The Republicans, in some ways, have been doing the 1950s and the 1980s on re-run, and in many ways the Democrats are still stuck in the 1960s and they don’t really have a progressive vision anymore either. They want to keep FDR and LBJ’s legacy alive but we’re at this place now where we have a whole new set of problems. A global labor pool, rising mechanization, the rise of a new, global financial elite. We don’t have visionaries telling us how to grapple with these issues. When you think that here we have this election season, and the environment isn’t on the table – one of the most important issues in the world. Everyone’s arguing about the middle class, but nobody’s talking about the poor. In some ways, because we have an African American president, we’ve also taken racism off the table…but I think we’re seeing more examples of racism in my lifetime than ever before … but we can’t talk about. It really is a dysfunctional election.
Nadia: I’m not a very sophisticated political thinker, but I can say I’ve really struggled with how much I “other-ize” people on the other end of the political spectrum. It’s very difficult for me not to be very dismissive and judgmental about them, and I know that it’s not OK.
Brian: As parents, I well remember those nights when all four kids were hating on each other. As a parent, you have a decision – do you decide these two kids are good, and these two are bad, or do you say, no, all four kids are bad? Or do you say, you know what, they haven’t had anything to eat, or they ate too much sugar, or they’re worried about something, and they’re acting out. It might be good for us to look at our conflicted political scene with that kind of parental viewpoint. What has us so wound up that we’re behaving so badly? What are we afraid of? What are we not dealing with? I think we need a bit of national therapy. Frankly, I think that’s one of the jobs of pastoral religious leaders … to try and assess what’s going on and provide a little bit of national therapy.
Click here for Part 2 of our conversation, in which Brian and Nadia talk about what they do when they’re discouraged, their new books, and who would win in an arm wrestle.
Deborah Arca is the Managing Editor of the Progressive Christian Channel at Patheos.