Our Lady of Guadalupe and the emerging Methodists

Our_lady_of_guadalupeOne of the trend stories right now in hip evangelicalism centers on what is called the "emerging church," a concept that is rooted in postmodernism and is just as hard to define.

Wait a minute. Can something be "rooted" in postmodernism?

Anyway, you might be wondering: What, precisely, is an emerging church? Is this a kind of megachurch for people who know "The Matrix" by heart? Are these churches for evangelicals with NPR coffee mugs on their desks?

I need to admit right up front that I have not been able to grasp this concept, in part because I am a premodern church kind of guy. Still, I am fascinated by the people involved in this post-contemporary church, post-suburban megachurch movement. I think they are searching for something real in our media-saturated culture.

One aspect of this movement that troubles me is its emphasis on taking pieces of ancient Christian art and worship and then, blender style, combining them into something that is brand new and very Protestant, yet the people involved in the service think that what they are doing is very old and even catholic, with a small or a large "c." Here is a glimpse into one such church from a column I did not so long ago.

The first thing people do after entering the quiet sanctuary is pause at a table to light prayer candles for friends and loved ones, the tiny flames adding to the glow of nearby candle trees.

The ministers wear oat-colored, hooded robes tied at the waist with ropes and guide their flock through ancient prayers, a litany of confession and silent meditations marked by a series of bells. Hymns are accompanied by an ensemble that includes fiddle, acoustic guitar, wind chimes, pennywhistles, a Bodhran and even bagpipes. . . .

This is not your typical Southern Baptist service. Nevertheless, this Celtic service is held every Sunday at this historic church in Lynchburg, Va.

This is not, needless to say, the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s church in that fair city. This is a "moderate" Baptist church with gender-neutral liturgies, progressive politics and lots of other, well, NPR-coffee-mug traits. It is trying to embrace symbols, but not sacraments, ancient traditions, but not the ancient doctrines. It’s a postmodern thing. For another glimpse of this movement, click here.

For some time now, I have been wondering when this trend might swing over to the true religious left. Now, I realize — believe me, I realize — that all kinds of experimental, even syncretistic things are already happening over there. That’s not what I am talking about. I am not talking about taking pieces of non-Christian faiths and splicing them into Christian life and worship.

If you want to see this kind of liberalism in full flight, check out the website of the St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in, where else, San Francisco. This is the congregation that has made headlines with its elaborate, dance-driven Eucharists and its giant Eastern Orthodox-style iconography of "dancing saints" — which when finished will include Charles Darwin, Cesar Chavez, John Coltrane, Martha Graham (naturally), Eleanor Roosevelt and many, many others. Some people consider this church’s approach brilliant. Others see it as heresy and, to boot, a deeply offensive warping of the traditions of other believers. But, hey, it is free speech.

As you might guess, all of this is prologue to an interesting religion-news article from the mainstream press (seeing as how that is the purpose of this blog). The Chicago Tribune recently dug into what happened when a United Methodist congregation decided — with a nod to its Hispanic members — to bring a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe into its sanctuary. On top of that, the congregation actually decided to use some elements of Catholic spirituality.

Well, it was hard to mix Methodists and the rosary. Reporter Manya A. Brachear noted that some of the charter members of the Amor de Dios United Methodist Church immediately hit the doors — headed out.

Pastors of other Hispanic Methodist congregations objected too. They said praying to the Virgin equaled idolatry. And Roman Catholics in the neighborhood worried that the church might be selling itself as something it was not.

Still, Rev. Jose Landaverde allowed the statue to stay. He says he sees no harm in embracing a tradition — the Virgin is an unofficial national symbol of Mexico — that might bring people closer to God.

"It’s coming from the people, which is the real presence of the Holy Spirit," said Landaverde, 31, a student pastor from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. "You cannot bring theological debates to the people when they need spiritual assistance."

Ah, but there is the question. Did this well-meaning mainline Protestant pioneer bring Catholic theology into his sanctuary, or merely a comforting statue with powerful cultural symbolism? This is not an insignificant question for mainline Protestants, who have seen their churches age and fade in an era of increasingly cultural diversity.

So what does it really mean, when a Protestant congregation celebrates a novena in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe, parading a "2-foot-high statue around the neighborhood, singing songs and reciting the rosary"?

Other United Methodists — including Hispanics, as well as Anglos — believe that this is going too far. They told the Tribune the statue might even be seen as a sign of oppression, meaning the oppression of Protestants by Catholics in Mexico. The local Catholic pastor feared that the Methodists were merely pretending to be something they are not. Might some Hispanics be confused, not unlike the Jews who respond to High Holy Day ads for "Messianic Jewish" churches? Or is Our Lady of Guadalupe "merely" a cultural or even political symbol?

The article raised more questions than it answered. I hope the Tribune keeps an eye on this trend and, in the future, even asks doctrinal, as well as cultural, questions.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • EV

    “Might some Hispanics be confused, not unlike the Jews who respond to High Holy Day ads for ‘Messianic Jewish’ churches?”

    Indeed, the real confusion comes when Episcopalians hold Guadalupana processions that wind through Latino immigrant neighborhoods like Highland Park here in Los Angeles. In this case, you have someone outfitted very much like a Roman Catholic priest leading the procession. Add swinging censors, and none of this ends up looking remotely Protestant. Then the procession leads into a building that differs little from an American Catholic Church and into a service that resembles a Catholic Mass.

  • Dan Crawford

    If the parading around with the Virgin of Guadalupe were accompanied by a theological understanding of the impact Juan Diego’s vision had on Spain and the Catholic Church and how deeply “catholic” his experience was in terms of the history and tradition of the church, it might not be so objectionable. But a recent news story from ENS on the “significance of the Virgin of Guadalupe” suggests Episcopalians who have made her their new feminist and revisionist icon haven’t a clue, and I suspect the Methodists haven’t one either. Too bad.

    PBS this evening is interested in Protestants suddenly welcoming Mary back into the church after having excommunicated her during the Reformation . Unfortunately, instead of talking to the likes of Timothy George, they decided to interview yet another “feminist” interpreter of Scripture. Too bad for Mary and too bad for the Protestant Christians who really ought to pay more attention to her.

  • http://www.youngandcatholic.com Tim Drake

    One of you talented GetReligion writers needs to dissect this interview with Time editor Jim Kelly and his mocking laughter at Jesus as a possible “Man of the Year.” Here’s the link:


  • Brian Lewis

    The interview reads:

    Kelly: I’ve joked before that we tend not to do dead people. But in the case of Jesus he’s apparently coming back. [laughter]


    Hmm. [laughter] It takes quite a bit of inferrence and possibly a persecution complex to interpret [laughter] as [mocking laughter]. Could it have been [nervous laughter] or [self-amused chuckle] or [reverent laughter] We don’t and can’t know unless there’s some feature that I missed where you can also listen to an audio version of the interview. And Jesus is coming back, right? If people act like they don’t believe that, we should just remember what the prophet Morpheus said in The Matrix Reloaded when Commander Locke said, “Not everyone believes what you believe Morpheus.”

    Morpheus responded: “My beliefs do not require them to.”

    But, back to your post. After the bracketed laughter, the next thing that Kelly says is what I would expect from a responsible journalist.


    Kelly: I think it’s very problematic to do God. Partly because I suppose you could do God every year. And the second thing is, people in different religions view God differently, obviously. So you would have to ask: Who is God? And the third thing is, the interview would be very, very difficult.


    Yeah, so what if they interview God but God, according to their reporters/editors says something that disagrees with our interpretation of Scripture. Does that mean it’s time to convene another blogosphere symposium proving how Time is part of a liberal media conspiracy attacking Christianity.

  • Brian Lewis

    It’s clear that most Protestants, especially evangelical (rarely) and mainline (more commonly) Protestants, who embrace icons don’t embrace the more strenuous aspects of Orthodox faith and tradition. But I believe that they might derive some spiritual benefit from praying with icons and attempting to learn about them. The icons might also begin a process of conversion to orthodox faith.

    Many of the immigrants in this Methodist Church might not know completely grasp that they are in a Methodist Church. But I’m certain they grasp that they are ina church surrounded by fellow believers. If at some point they find aspects of doctrine that they disagree with, they will be free to leave. But if they stay, they may be a factor in a drift toward a more historical Catholic faith.

    It strikes me as a story of competition and evangelism moreso than doctrinal differences. The Catholic church complains that the Methodists are presenting themselves as something they’re not. Well, maybe depending on how you look at it.

    But they’re clearly presenting themselves. The Catholic church has to do more than just say we are the Catholic church, the people will come to us.

    This should not be as great a theological offense as a group such as Catholics for a Free Choice, which I think would be better analogy to Jews for Jesus.

  • Brant

    I’m confused about T-Matt’s connection between the “emergent church” and the Virgin of Guadalupe issue.

    I’m also surprised that a “premodern” kind of guy wouldn’t grasp the drive many non-boomer Christian-types have to place their beliefs in a more meaningful and historical context.

    If the emergent discussion can be described as anything, surely it’s about rolling back many of the American-revivalist-rural and consumerist-market understandings of the church and trying to understand what it was Jesus was talking about when he kept talking about the Kingdom of God all the time. I think it’s generally true that we’re turned off to American evangelicalism, and very much excited about the Kingdom.

    Not everybody’s ready to join the Orthodox church. Maybe we will in time, who knows? In either case, I would think the emergent discussion should certainly be a welcome one for someone like Prof. Mattingly.

  • tmatt

    The connection to me is in the search for SYMBOLS that connect with people, but stripped of the body of tradition and belief that defines the symbols.

    I understand that they are searching for something that has more depth than your typical megachurch experience. I can grasp and appreciate that.

    But what could be more free-church Protestant than to think you can take other people’s sacraments, icons and liturgies and chop them up and create one of your own? That has to be the essence of postmodernity. There is no text, only the meaning that we assign — perhaps in a Wednesday night worship committee meeting where they vote on how to make the ancient rites more up to day and acceptable — to the symbols.

    So the search is valid. But they are fleeing one form of have it your own way Protestantism into another. Right?

    Now, that is my personal feeling. But if you will go to tmatt.net you will find all kinds of columns on this topic where the people in this movement get to speak at length for themselves. They explain their own motives. Look for the Southern Baptist congregation doing Ash Wednesday!

  • Brian Lewis

    TMATT – I’m unsure that any of us has the power to strip symbols from the body of tradition and belief that defines the symbols.

    I think an icon or a statue of la virgen de guadalupe or the sacrament of communion or marriage or whatever you want to discuss has power. That power does not depend on us to believe in it. It’s there.

    Symbols are not just symbols.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but part of the reason that a person who is not Orthodox can not participate in Communion in an Orthodox church is because it is powerful and can even be dangerous to someone who is not a believer and in the proper state of grace/state of mind. I think an Orthodox subdeacon said that to me once, but I could be wrong.

  • http://www.xanga.com/branthansen Brant

    I wanted to disagree with the line about “another have it your way Protestantism”, but dang it: You’re right.


    At heart, of course, this is an authority issue. And I’ll admit, “authority”, even about the small-case “a” type, is a discussion in which I’ve failed to engage fellow emergent-types. And I’ve tried.

    But invoking these symbols is not a part of an effort to strip them from the body of belief that defines the symbols. Among the people I know, the intent is just the opposite: to use the symbols to locate the worship gathering in a larger historical context.

    I don’t think most emergent-types would consider themeselves “Protestant”, for that matter. They view life too sacramentally. Speaking for myself, I’m not protesting the Catholic Church. I’m just not signing up for the whole deal.

    Holy crap. I sound like John Kerry.

  • Molly

    “But what could be more free-church Protestant than to think you can take other people’s sacraments, icons and liturgies and chop them up and create one of your own? That has to be the essence of postmodernity.”

    I think it is the essence of American consumerism. The WalMart-ization of faith where the furnishings are available at low, low prices so folks snap them up to dress up their lodgings and fool themselves into thinking they are living in wealth on blue collar wages.

    However, I agree with Brant that folks who take spirituality seriously are more like antique hunters who know the value of the objects they find and display them for their intrinsic worth rather than for feelings of faux wealth.