Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Closed Circle Christianity

I sat deep in my comfy chair, a book in hand, and looked across at my wife, hard at work on her laptop.

I had a question drumming about in my head, as I often do when she is hard at work on her laptop.   The question was this:  We Presbyterians are a literate bunch.  We're readers and writers and users of words.  Wordsmithing is our happy place.

But what Presbyterians are out there now who 1) write and are 2) known as writers outside of our denominational circle?

I know the answer to the first.  I know many writers, excellent ones, who produce lovely books and excellent thoughtful blogs.

But so much of their energy falls back into the denominational system, into our conversations about "being church."  Much of that is necessary, particularly in a retrenching system that's remaking itself.  But that has impacts. Creativity turns inward, in towards the life of the institution, an all consuming vortex of committee work.  Language itself becomes the particular language of the tribe, as I've discovered working with the editors of my upcoming novel.

"Did you mean to say 'living into'?" they ask.  Well, um, kind of.  "You know," I say back.  "Like living into hope?  The CAAAPT iiiivEs FREEE!  You know?  That hymn?"   Just justifiable blankness in response.  That's happened more than once, and I never even used the word "missional."

Creatives inside systems shape themselves to the social and structural expectations of those systems.  It's just how humans function, but it can become a challenge if the ultimate goal is to speak a deeper truth to the broader world.

So I ran a list of writerly folks I know who are part of the denomination by my literate Jewish wife.  Capable writers all.  Names within the Frozen Chosen Circle of Trust.  Not a one of them meant anything to her.  Wait, you've mentioned her name to me, she said.  Oh, yeah, I think I remember you talking about him, she said.

But the ideas, the words?  The awareness of that soul as a creator of content?  Not so much.

Then I dropped the name I was sure she'd know, the one Presbyterian who seems to have regular purchase as a writer of things both literary and spiritual.

Anne LaMott? I said.  "Oh yeah," she said.  I know her stuff, she said.

I've had that reaction before, as I've recommended spiritual books to folks who love to read.  Here, a writer who creates books about faith that connect with a broad audience.  Lamott is Presbyterian, in that she is an active member of a small Presbyterian church.  If their webpage is to be believed, she teaches confirmation class now and again.

What she is not is deeply connected to the mechanisms of our polity.  Denominational identity doesn't mean all that much to her.  Jesus does.  Church does.  But the particulars of our tradition aren't highly relevant.  From what I have heard and seen of her, I can't imagine Anne LaMott at General Assembly, on some committee somewhere futzing over an amendment to an amendment to the first reading of an overture.

Well, I can imagine it.  It'd be...interesting.

Her networks as a writer are primarily extrinsic to her identity as a Presbyterian, which is present...but loosely held.  That loose holding seems nontrivial.

Because the tendency of institutions and organizations to draw us inward is a dangerous one, if spreading the good news is our goal.  If no words of hope radiate outward from the event horizon of our institutional life, then we're hardly a light to the the world.