It’s been more than a week since I attended the three-day Emergent Theological Conversation at Yale Divinity School, but I still feel the love. The bonhomie. I can’t think of when I’ve been among a large gathering of Christians—in this case, some 300 pastors, church leaders, scholars, and students—that was more full of genuine warmth and…niceness. People had their theological differences, sure, but those differences seemed insignificant in such an open, laid-back group.
The Emergent church movement, in case you’re new to it, seeks to reform the way evangelicals and mainline Christians think about faith. A group so loosely organized many proponents call it a “conversation,” rather than a movement, Emergent re-examines Christian teachings in light of postmodernism, and it emphasizes community fellowship and social responsibility. Emergent folks want to make the church more inclusive and welcoming; they’re all about friendship and gentleness and hospitality, and those virtues were on abundant display at Yale—and in a manner that was in no way as annoying as it may sound.
Add to all that sugar and spice some serious reflection about the attitudes and values that make us our human best. The featured speaker was Yale Div School prof Miroslav Volf, whom Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has called “one of the most celebrated theologians of our day.” Volf devoted one morning to discussing his book, Exclusion and Embrace, which examines how exclusion leads to contempt and violence, and how acceptance and welcome (or embrace) lead to forgiveness and reconciliation. The next day, Volf discussed his wonderful new book, Free of Charge, which is about “giving and forgiving in a culture stripped of grace,” as the subtitle puts it. If anyone brought a bundle of bitterness to this conference, they checked it at the door.
Well, with perhaps one exception. On Tuesday afternoon, we had the choice of nine breakout discussion groups we could attend. I picked a session led by Andy Crouch, who is a columnist for Christianity Today and is on the editorial board at Books & Culture. Andy was recently put in charge of Christianity Today International’s “Christian Vision Project,” a three-year, multimedia endeavor funded in part by the Pew Charitable Trusts. As described in the conference schedule, the project will “ask big questions about culture, mission, and the gospel and introduce a broad range of pastors, scholars…activists…and artists to a wider audience.”
Andy explained the Christian Vision Project, and he asked us to brainstorm ideas for it, which we then shared. Andy urged us to put ourselves in his shoes: “If you had three years, three magazines, and a million dollars, what would you do to help Christian leaders think deeply and creatively about ministry in the 21st century?” Again, I’m quoting the description he provided in the conference handout. Andy insisted we consider everything discussed during the session to be off the record, and I’ll respect that. My point, anyway, is about what happened after the session.
I wanted to introduce myself to Andy because I’ve enjoyed some of his writings, and we know some of the same people. And I figured he might have come across my work. My book received very nice write-ups at both Christianity Today (here) and Books & Culture (here), and Andy and I were both included in The Best Christian Writing 2004, for which Miroslav Volf—small world—had written the introduction.
Anyway, I walked up to Andy and told him my name and mentioned some of the people we both know. He didn’t say anything; he just turned around and started wiping the dry erase board he’d used during the session. Then I mentioned that I run SoMA, and he put down the eraser and said, “Oh yeah. The magazine with big attitude.”
Big attitude? I was confused. Was he thinking of a site with something about “attitude” written on the homepage? “Uh, I don’t think so…”
“The ‘Mutual Autopsy’ site,” he said.
“Yeah. That’s me!”
“Right,” he said, flatly. “Big attitude.”
I took a stab at small talk—mentioning an essay he’d written, his Christian Vision Project. His replies were terse, and his eyes were elsewhere. Then, no joke, he turned and started talking to a young woman standing off to the side. Whoa, I thought. Dissed by a guy from Christianity Today—at what may very well be the most collegial theology conference in the history of Christendom! I’ll admit, SoMA isn’t afraid to go after sacred cows, and for all I know I may have gone after a cow that Andy reveres. But still… Here I’d just been spitballing ideas for his Christian Vision Project—ideas he’s trusting I won’t reveal here—and then he all but tells me to “talk to the hand.”
Nice meeting you, too, Andy!
Here’s the odd thing. Fifteen months ago, Andy wrote a CT cover story about Emergent that I found clever but that had infuriated some Emergent folks because it portrayed them as a bunch of hair-obsessed metrosexuals who are forever primping in the mirror. “Gentlemen,” Crouch wrote, “start your hair dryers—not since the Jesus Movement of the early 1970s has a Christian phenomenon been so closely entangled with the self-conscious cutting edge of U.S. culture.” It was a cute way of suggesting that Emergent is trendy, more style than substance, and it was a characterization clearly not intended to endear the movement to Christianity Today’s core conservative readership. As I say, Emergent folks weren’t thrilled.
So fast-forward to this month, and there’s Andy Crouch, at an Emergent conference, giving me crap for having attitude.
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