Christianity After Religion


In her Acknowledgments at the end of Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, Diana Butler Bass says, “These pages are my long-considered answers to questions a book and a teacher raised during my senior year in college.”  Christianity After Religion is one of those books that took me a long time to read.  Not because it was difficult, but because it required me to look at questions that have lingered around my faith and life for years.

Raised in a very religious home, faith has always been an integral part of my everyday life.  It was not merely a program to be consumed a couple times a week at our local church.  It was giving thanks at every meal.  It was hearing the Bible read each night as we gathered in my parents’ bedroom.  Those readings closed with us all kneeling beside the bed and expressing prayers to God. The church of my youth taught me that when some tenet of that faith was challenged by culture or science or another doctrine, the first response was defensive because the challenge seemed to attack the very foundations of all the provided meaning and purpose for every aspect of my life.  Religion had been framed as a no-holds-barred death-match…winner-take-all.

There was a point about 12 years into my vocational ministry that this framework made absolutely no sense to me.  My denomination had been embroiled in religious/theological/cultural battles for 20 years and the lines that were drawn between the sides didn’t seem to be significant or substantial enough to justify the carnage being wrought between good and faithful people (Diana Butler Bass has a wonderfully succinct description of this battle on page 233).  It was for damn sure draining my very soul.  A journal entry I made during that time simply said, “God, if you’re there, cool.  If you’re not, cool.”  I had had enough.

During that time, my family was a part of a community of faith that seemed to be a refuge from the battles…a spiritual DMZ so to speak.  No doubt, our congregation was labeled by those in the fight, but my pastor, Dr. Larry Taylor, and the good people of that community had remained true.  There was something different for me about that place.  These people were not sheltered by any means and if pressed for a position on the issues of the day, whether religious or political, you would get an impassioned and well reasoned opinion from anywhere on the continuum of possibilities.  But, we were ultimately followers of Jesus in a place called Emmanuel Baptist Church and that community was more important and life giving than any one political/theological position.

When looking back, I recognized that I had experienced this same type of community in a couple of places before.  In the Baptist Student Union at LSU led by Frank Horton, and in the college department of First Baptist Church, Baton Rouge, led by Anne and Jack Lord.  Rather than soul-sucking battles for “truth”, I found life-giving and transformative spiritual community.  It was in these communities of my college days that I felt a call to vocational ministry.  And it was Emmanuel Baptist Church that helped salvage that call from the hubris of denominational leaders seeking to tear apart such communities in the name of their particular versions of truth.

By the time I reached Chapter 7 and read Diana Butler Bass’ description of The Great Reversal, I recognized she was describing those communities from my past.  These were not utopian by any stretch.  But when taken as a whole, my experiences in those places were lived examples of belonging, behaving, believing (in that order).  Butler Bass’ connecting this vision of community with spiritual awakening was exactly the appropriate link to make and her practical actions of “prepare, practice, play & participate” placed the lofty aspirations of such an awakening on the solid ground of experience and tangible action.

Christianity After Religion has become a foundational book for me.  I’ll read it again and, with difficulty, will attempt to find more space for notes and thoughts in it’s margins.  I recommend it very highly.  And I recommend you take your time.  It’s not a “page-turner” and I mean that in the absolute best sense of that term.



100 posts

That’s a nice round number.

32,027 words

WOW!  that’s a surprising number!

Clicking the “publish” button on post #99 the other day made me aware that the next time I clicked that button would be for post #100…a good time to reflect on this little 3 year old experiment I’ve called “…so…here we are in the field.”

I’ve been far from disciplined in my writing. A quick scan of some of my past posts shows that.  “Lots of bases covered” is probably a little overstated, particularly in the “covered” area.  I’ve posted on faith, theology, politicssports, Facebook, etc. Some of my favorite posts got very little notice (like THIS ONE, or THIS ONE, and THIS ONE.  (What the heck…one more.  This one is not anything that I wrote.  Just a link to an interesting article about what makes people happy.)  I even sniffed the “blogging big-time” once with a post about being unfriended on Facebook which made the WordPress “Fresh Pressed” list for the day. I didn’t know what that meant until my page hits went from a handful a week to well over a thousand that day. Of course that “fame” was short lived and reality struck again.

I had no real expectations when I started this blog. My first post alluded to that. I had been hanging out with a lot of “emergent” types at conferences, etc. around that time and it seemed as though one had to have a blog to fit in. It seemed a little ego-centric and self indulgent.  But I finally caved and joined the blogosphere.  It’s good to look back. Sometimes I’m pretty proud of what I wrote. Other times I resist the urge to delete a post altogether. But I guess that’s sort of the point of this little blog.  It’s putting myself and something I’ve created “out there” for someone to see.  What I’ve come to realize is that this blog is not really about ego…it’s about being vulnerable.  I’m not talking about being an exhibitionist with my emotions or intimate thoughts.  It’s about opening up the conversation. It’s about putting something on my mind into words and setting it loose for people to see.  So often, we keep some of these thoughts inside and miss out on opportunities for connection, for deeper relationships and conversations.

So…post 100…it wasn’t really that sexy or provocative.  I really don’t anticipate it getting the “fresh pressed” treatment.  One thing it has been for me is a time to stop and look back.  I’m grateful for the peer pressure unknowingly applied by my hipster emergent friends pushing me to take the plunge into the blogosphere.  I hope if you’ve read this far and you aren’t blogging yet, go for it! (If you do, post your blog address below.)  I’ll bet you’ll enjoy you’re 100th post as much as I have…even if it’s just for yourself!  Peace!

(For a really inspiring talk about “The Power of Vulnerability”, check out Brene’ Brown’s talk on and also her book, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to be and Embrace Who You Are)

Christianity 21

I wanted to go to Christianity 21 but decided to spend money to go to the Jurgen Moltmann Theological Conversation instead…and it was an awesome and formative experience for me (and also sent me scurrying off to buy/read some more Moltmann books).

However, the Christianity 21 thing has stuck with me…particularly after reading/watching some of the responses of folk who were able to attend. The thing that profoundly occurs to me in these responses is how much more is said about the space created by the event to “be” …be followers of Jesus…be in community…be who attendees were created to be. I was struck particularly by 3 comments in the video above:

  • Nadia Bolz-Weber says, …and then there are those evangelicals who have discovered the liturgy, which is…adorable”…One, Nadia is hilarious and profound (check out her book). Much of the energy I have felt in the various emergent type meetings I’ve been privileged to attend has centered around such rediscovery of my tradition and the traditions of others who are also attempting to follow God in the way of Jesus.
  • “We are more often than not people of doubt, who have beliefs than people of faith, who have moments of doubts.” TOO TRUE!!! I believe our getting this bass ackwards in our church “communities” is probably the biggest barrier to authentic community we face.
  • The elderly man toward the end of the video… “This weekend has been something my heart and soul has been waiting for for 38 years…I wanted to go to heaven when I was 75, my password on the computer is heaven75.  I lived 4 more years, I now I know why!” Is that not an amazing statement?  I’m immediately reminded of Simeon (Luke 2:25-35) who waited with great expectation for “the consolation of Israel”…and upon seeing the infant Jesus proclaimed,

29“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you now dismiss[a] your servant in peace.
30For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31which you have prepared in the sight of all people,
32a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”

I’m certain this cannot be written off cynically as just another over-hyped event.  There is something going on here among us.  I for one want to be a part of it.  It has nothing to do with being hip and cool.  It has everything to do with rediscovering the joy of my salvation.

the great emergence…so, uh…, what now?…

I have attended four emergent village events in the last 4 to 5 years.  Two of these events were “National emergent Conferences” held in conjunction with the Youth Specialties National Pastor’s Conference.  One was A Theological Conversation with Walter Brueggemann. And then, this past week, I attended an event based on Phyllis Tickle’s book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why.

I read this book pretty soon after its release and quickly became a fan.  It is a thin book (literally…only about 160 pages) that sums up the history of the Christian church, submits a framework that maps the various expressions of Christianity we find in North America at this moment, and begins to suggest where we might be going in the future. (obviously ambitious goals for a 160 page book).  Tickle’s assertion is that every 500 years, the church specifically, and the culture more generally, cleans out its attic…has a “rummage sale”.  (Rome, Gregory the Great, Great Schism, Great Reformation, etc.)   Tickle submits that we are in another rummage sale…the Great Emergence.  If you read the book as an academic treatise, you’ll be disappointed.  However, it is an observation of the western church from the perspective of a person whose job it has been to observe the western church. I think Tickle has been observant indeed and we need to wrestle with the frameworks she presents.

Some impressions of the event:

Overall, it was a really good meeting for me personally.  I felt totally at home among the “emergents” gathered, regardless of their tribe (there were Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, a couple of Baptists and some others that were not identified)…I would estimate 300 or so people in all.  The common ground was a group of people who gladly identify themselves as followers of Jesus and who have in common an ethos that’s been tagged “emergent”.

At the same time, the whole meeting felt somewhat pretentious.  Several statements claiming the significance of the meeting rang rather hollow to me.  While I would totally agree that there is something to the whole idea of a Great Emergence, I hardly believe the event I attended could be compared with Luther’s post on a door at Wittenberg.  (in fairness, it was never billed as that).   Whether it will hold such significance or not will depend on the movement inspired by this ethos.

At it’s worst, “emergent,” is merely a cooler, more hip form of western consumer Christianity.  However at it’s best, it is a community of people re-engaging a way of life formed by following Jesus into our broken world…tackling the biggest, most daunting problems our world is currently facing.  It might turn out to be a quixotic endeavor…or it might be prophetic!  My cynicism rests in the former.  My hope rests in the latter.

“emerging church”

I have an idea of what emerging church might feel like. I just can’t picture what it looks like.

When I am in conversations with my “emergent” friends, there is a freedom that I have come to crave. I remember one conversation in Decatur, GA several years ago with some of the “name” people in the emergent church movement. Theology, philosophy, sexuality, profanity, mission, missional, heresy, Jesus, beer, religion, cigars, evangelism, books, film, politics, kingdom of God, etc–all came up in the course of conversation. It came about completely naturally and with very little effort. Such potentially divisive topics were discussed intelligently and passionately. Differences arose but did so in the context of friendships and in a way that the community of the moment was maintained, again, with very little effort.

For me, still acclimating myself to my new-found freedom outside the fundamentalist religious frameworks of my past, the emergent church conversation has been a kid-in-a-candy-store type experience. Not having been exposed to such openness in my past life as a Southern Baptist minister/employee, I became somewhat gluttonous about it. I wanted that type conversation all the time. I wanted it over cold beers among thought provoking friends and I wanted it on a regular basis.

However, as conversations mounted, a sense of “what now?” began to set in. Some of the questions that arose for me were: What does this actually look like?; How do you start such a community?; How do you support such a community?; What does this look like for soccer moms and dads?; Where do you meet in a community that is the antithesis of cool and hip?; What does it mean that this “movement” is tied with cool and hip?. I know the authors of the books and their “faith communities”. I can call more than a handful of these experts and drop in on their regularly scheduled programing and try to find the model to be replicated. Most (if not all of them) would visibly cringe at such a notion. Ultimately, these are very traditional questions that will leave me frustrated in the end.

I think my next step into this realm of “emerging church” is to emerge myself.

emerge |iˈmərj| verb [ intrans. ] “move out of or away from something and come into view”

I believe I have effectively “moved out of or away from” traditional church structures, if not in actual practice, in my thinking. The second part of the definition is now my task–“to come into view.” I must begin to actually practice some of the things I love to talk about. I believe it begins with my own personal spirituality and relationship with God. That sounds like a Sunday School answer. Let me rephrase this task in a awkward yet very informative “emergent” way: I need to begin to follow God in the way of Jesus. The “What does this look like?” questions still arise but the focus at this point of my journey is on my personal practices (The Daily Office, worship, how I spend my time, how I parent, etc).  In the near future, this must transition into community practices.  I believe the mission of God in our world is practiced in community and not in the hyper-individualistic way in which modern spirituality has evolved.  Enough of this rambling…I’ve got to get to work.