Friday, August 13, 2010

What's New about the Big Tent?

I've been participating in the Big Tent Christianity synchroblog effort that leads into the September conference in Raleigh.  I've been reflecting on what this movement might mean for the church.  I've touched upon this issue in two previous posts, but I'd like to be a bit blunter here:  What's new about Big Tent Christianity?  That is, how does this differ from the National Council of Churches, Churches Uniting in Christ, Christian Churches Together?  (These are just a few of the ecumenical movements that exist).  So, why should we start another one?  Is it because this one is less institutionalized -- that is the folks forming this don't have posts in denominations?   As a pastor of a Disciple of Christ congregation, I'm part of a movement that has from its origins seen itself as a movement for unity among Christians.  I've noted earlier Thomas Campbell's Declaration and Address of 1809, in which Campbell declared that the Church of Christ on earth is:
PROP. 1. That the Church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one; consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ and obedience to him in all things according to the Scriptures, and that manifest the same by their tempers and conduct, and of none else; as none else can be truly and properly called Christians.

Campbell believed that this oneness was inherent in the church -- it is not something we achieve, but something we live into.

With this as a preface, I turn to a posting by Tony Jones, who with Doug Pagitt will serve as co-hosts of the September event.  Tony suggests that this event has the potential to do some real good, but also to really suck -- he's hoping that it doesn't do the latter.  Tony makes three points:

1.  Endless talk about who’s not there. Progressives rightly desire robust diversity in their ranks. Flip through Christianity Today, and you’ll see ad after ad for pastors’ conferences in which the speaking roster is unashamedly full of white men. This is not acceptable among progressives. Good. Yes. I agree. However, one does what one can and then one lives with the consequences. So Philip, Brian, and Tripp cast the net and the invitations far and wide, and got as many acceptances as they could, and the line-up of speakers is still too male and too white. Having said that, there’s nothing more we can do about that now. If we all sit around an bemoan our failures at diversity, we won’t advance the ball down the field.

2.  A Mutual Admiration Society. I don’t think this is unique to progressive Christian leaders, but there’s a tendency for the conversation to devolve into a bunch of back-slapping and high-fiving. The fact is, whenever a group like this convenes, there are politics: Person A used to work for Person B; Person C once served on a foundation board with Person D; Person E is hoping to be hired at the university where Person F is the dean. Those personal connections can stymie robust conversation if everyone is trying to be on their best behavior.

3.  Unwillingness to talk about something far afield. Evangelical leaders, it seems to me, are wont to spew their opinions far and wide, regardless of their expertise in a particular subject. Progressives, on the other hand, tend to stick to their category of expertise and defer to those in other fields. But in order to advance the conversation, we’ll all need to become polymaths. We’ll all need to talk about the Bible and politics and sexuality and justice…and everything.
I think Tony makes some good points here, but ultimately the question comes down to this -- how is this different, and where will it take us? 

3 comments:

Doug Sloan said...

So, why are we here in this Big Tent? If all we are doing is gathering together to say that we can gather together - I'm not impressed.

If there is to be diversity, you make it happen and don't accept anything less. Already admitting that the speakers are "too male and too white" is not just a topic to be avoided. It means either somebody did not do their job OR the timing and organization of the event is all wrong.

The way to avoid a "Mutual Admiration Society" is to choose specific contemporary discussion topics in advance. Will there be a discussion of women in ministry? - this would require the presence of women ministers as speakers. Will there be a discussion of gays and lesbians in ministry? - this would require the presence of gay/lesbian ministers as speakers. Will there be a discussion about bridging the growing animosity between fundamentalists and progressives? - Guess who needs to be there? Are only clergy going to speak? Is it acceptable for laity to think theologically and to have a voice in theology discussions?

How far afield do you want to go? With the announcement that a NOMFET has been developed, non-human sentience just became possible - what are the theological implications? There are volunteers in NASA willing to go to Mars on a 1-way trip - what are the theological implications? Before Hawking, there have been discussions about abadoning Earth - what are the theological implications?

So, why are we here in this Big Tent?

David Mc said...

I suggest an open bar to lessen inhibition and worldly cares. Hey, this is in NC? You could invite you-know-who for lively discussion.

John said...

Jesus went to the places frequented by his friends and opponents alike. He had dinner in their homes. He taught in their synagogues. He didn't necessarily wait for them to come and join him.

Perhaps the way to diversity is for "progressives" to attend the events celebrated by those with whom they seek to share diversity, to attend their events, be uncomfortable, and make their voices heard in their houses. Instead, just like everyone else we develop our own events and look forward to rubbing elbows with our friends friends.

John