Thursday, May 24, 2012

You Tell'em Diana!

When author Diana Butler Bass made a presentation to the House of Bishops some years ago I found it fascinating...I should have been on the edge of my seat. Her research, seminary professorships, six books and group presentations have made her the prescient voice for the future of American Christianity, notably mainline Protestantism, for our time. Professor Bass is also a nice person and there's the problem. Mind you, I'm not advocating that she get more edgy or spit in someone's eye, no, her ample research tells the story of how mainline denominations have an open moment before them, "a creative third way" (34) that they can discern and act upon...or not.

It's the adoptive (not "adaptive") quality of the institutional church I'm wary of. And so, true to form, I had heard--since not verified--that she was asked to speak at The Episcopal Church convention in Indianapolis this summer. Good, if it's true, but this applies to any national venue trying to appropriate a prophetic message. We have a joke in Occupy Wall Street about this kind of will be a matter of months before the church develops a Lenten study guide entitled, "What was the Occupy Movement REALLY About? What does it say to Christians today?" The Church trades conversation and polite attention for action. Worse, it delegates justice to a few who are emissaries for the rest. For Bass that is close to a tragedy, "...justice is also a verb, something we do to get there--the  acts of envisioning, marching to, and embodying--the promised land. Justice is not a program, a political platform, or a denominational position on social issues. No, justice is the pilgrimage of the beloved community." (170)

Why is justice the harder exercise among other themes of "(rediscovery) of ancient traditions, spiritual practices, and emotive worship" (3) which she cites in places (and spaces) of renewal and hope for the church? I think she is right to say that justice had been mis-appropriated from liberal politics, initially, and, at base, it is a spiritual struggle. (160) The parameters remain difficult to detect; in "Christianity for the Rest of Us," Trinity Rector Jim Cooper glibly riffs on converting pilgrims (215) but five years later was to discover acting on that would be a difficult exercise. He might have been better served to re-read pages which described Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church in Seattle and the courage of Pastor Paul Hoffman as he invited the homeless poor to tent on church property. (163)

It's enormously hard "(to be) generously open to change and the remaking of those very traditions." (34) That's Diana's graceful way of saying this: for a system dedicated to ponderous deliberation the end game is order not responsiveness. 

And so, Occupy and Bass arrive at the same place, she in her research (253), Occupy in its shunning of hierarchy and ranking. Local is better.

Those who have left the institutional church, like David Hayward, "graffiti artist on the walls of religion", can have the privileged view of prophecy. Doesn't his work convey truth? 

And he's in good company; Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of a day when "religionless Christianity" would be upon us. We'd know that time when "being religious" had no relevance in fact. Is that now? To be clear this is not an era of "no Christ" but rather a startling new span when we would be jolted by God's presence from an entirely new and unexpected direction.

Those of us who are  snarky by nature will be rooting for Diana as she makes her foray into the bowels of institutional, ecclesial life but with low expectations. Better they read  her books, go home, pray, connect with a community of faith and then get off their asses. Sorry, was I too blunt?

Please see: Books by Diana Butler Bass: Christianity for the Rest of Us (referenced here), Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, The People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story


  1. George---

    Thanks for talking about my work in your GREAT blog. And thanks for saying that I'm nice. I'm afraid that not everyone shares that impression (much to my late mother's worry) and some of my close friends refer to me as a "radical with pearls." I think, as you read the books of the last decade, you'll sense the increasingly urgent tone--including saying the the church needs to "Act up" in order to change.

    I do have a question, though: I've been invited to speak at General Convention?? I'm afraid that either someone sent the invitation to the wrong place or I've not yet been asked! I guess institutions are slow, too! ;-) Anyway, I dream, hope, pray, and work that Christians will get off their bottoms and PERFORM the fullness of God's reign to change the world.

    1. Great apologies to sources seemed certain she (you) were to speak. If they haven't sent the invitation--they damn well ought to. So, I'm saving the title in that hope!

    2. Ah, friend--you never need apologize to me! And I love the title--I feel my current vocation is to tell the truth of these things and open a compelling vision for the future of faith. Peace to you!

  2. George, thanks for your post referencing Diana's work. I have just begun to read Christianity After Religion, and I know I'm going to say, "Yes!" many times as I read on.

    Thank you, Diana, for your voice, which I pray will soon be heard by our church...not simply heard, but acted upon. I hope it's true that you will receive an invitation to speak at GC 2012.

    nakedpastor is on my Google reader, along with your blog, George. He is gifted and very wise, with wisdom harshly taught him by the church.

  3. Enjoy your descent into oblivion; be sure and say "Hi!" to the Shakers.