Big Tent God: A Response to the recent Sojourners article

I have spent some time reflecting on the recent Sojourners article about the emerging church conversation being a primarily white (and male) conversation.  I have heard this critique many times in the past, and I highly doubt this last attempt at jabbing the emerging church for its perceived hip white maleness will be the last.   I will agree with those who have said that it’s becoming obvious that the latest cool trend is to declare something negative about Emergent, and I am not remotely surprised that people are using this trend to sell magazines and bolster blog traffic and whatever else people do with fads.

I will also say, for the record, that I found the cover art appalling and sensationalist.  I felt that it chose for the purposes of emotional reaction (which then garner buzz and profit) to ignore the many people I care about in this conversation who happen not to be white.

So my first retort is to say that there are countless people who consider themselves part of the emerging church conversation who happen not to be white.  There are so many, in fact, that I believe it strange for anyone to be able to write an article so thoroughly ignoring them.  (There is, of course, the matter that the article in question does in fact quote women and minorities throughout, which others have mentioned as ironic double-speak.)  I also feel the need to offer a reminder that in our American cultural melting pot, it may be best not to take everything at perceived face value.  Though one may not count me as a “minority” at first glance, my mother is Lebanese and a first generation American.   In plenty of everyday ways, I can give you examples of how I am still learning what “mainstream American culture” does because we’re still fairly new at it.   In terms of my mom’s religious heritage, we are brand new to the Jesus family, and much of our extended family still remains Druze Muslim, so we don’t have the first clue about “white Christian culture” either.   We spent the last thousand or so years NOT being Christian, and we only have about fifty years of practice behind us, if that puts it in perspective.  All of this is to say, many of us come from families who straddle two worlds and cultures and religions, regardless of how “white” we may look on the outside.  To write an article that seemingly places us all in an evangelical white person category is entirely unfair.  I, for one, am neither of those things.

My second comment:  At no point in this movement did any of the much-maligned white male leadership declare that the shift that is taking place in our culture is primarily or even predominantly American, white, middle-class, evangelical, or whatever other moniker one would like to add.  OTHER people have said that; but those of us invested in this conversation have never said it about ourselves.  Just because we may be speaking from one or more of the previously mentioned categories in our own contexts, it does not follow that we have any designs to define the entire movement as such, or even to totalize our own experiences and conclusions about the movement.  The emerging church conversation is not and never has been a totalizing conversation.  It is about seeking to make sense of the global shifts taking place by finding common themes, but it is also about listening to a wide spectrum of voices so that those common themes do not become one note over and above the rest, but a symphony of notes that combine to declare new music altogether.  That begins, as any thought does, inside one’s own context, but the intention has never been to stay there and set up camp.  The longer a person has spent in this conversation, the more aware they become of the conversations going on in Africa and Australia and Latin America and Europe and in countless small communities of faith across this globe that are working to make meaning out of our increasingly complex world.  As Phyllis Tickle often reminds us, this religious rummage sale is more far-reaching than most people first realize.  We may speak from an American perspective, but we speak into a global conversation.

On a more theological note:  I believe in the global Church, meaning that I see those of us who follow Jesus as one large organism called to live in community with one another.  I realize that for much of our shared ecclesial life, we have constructed borders like denominational lines and theological doctrines and yes, geographical boundaries including cultural identity.  In some ways, these borders are real, in that they help us make sense of the ways we are different.  In other ways, these borders are false, because they often mask how much we hold in common.  Clearly, I am of the mind that even our Christian borders present a false reality if we really follow the One who has redeemed all of creation, so boundaries are not particularly my favorite thing.  The story as I see it, and as I wrote, is usually about us being the ones who put lines in the sand and God being the One who lovingly walks through them anyway.  Because God is this way, we ought to be people who by now have learned to see one another, not as “types” but as fellow travelers, even if we disagree with how someone else happens to be traveling at the moment.  So theologically speaking, I find the argument about the exclusivity of the emerging church movement to be confusing, as every friend I have in the conversation shares this belief in the global Church, and in the difficulty of human-constructed boundaries, and in our hope to become people who listen to one another as we travel the road.  That by no means implies we have lived fully into that desire, but it does attempt to say that we truly desire it.

As far as ecclesiology goes, I believe the emerging church, and Emergent Village in particular, advocates a Really Big Tent.  We are happy to debate a matter of theology, but we do so by first seeing both parties as under the same Tent.  In the past year those of us at Emergent Village have been using the metaphor of the Village Green as one way of describing and encouraging this Really Big Tent-ness.  The Green is a place we can gather for conversation and shared life.  There are no gates on the green.  No secret handshakes or passwords, no preferred cultural identities.  If you want to come out and play on the Green and share how God is showing up in your own story, you are more than welcome to do so- you are encouraged and invited to do so, even.   And we hope to continually find ways to foster meaningful connections with one another while we are all there, expanding our understandings of how big this story really is and how there is room for each of us to play our unique part.  For my part, I would love to meet as many of you as possible.  And if one of you happens to begin asking others to leave the Village Green, I will do my best to smile and redirect you again to the Big Tent God we follow- a God who, surprisingly, even still makes room for white American men.

4 Comments

  1. as a Malaysian who’s been quietly participating in the whole conversation since the year 2000, I’ve always seen myself included in the Big Tent. Unless, no one wants to listen or engage in the conversation :-)

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