catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 5 :: 2009.02.27 — 2009.03.13


Reworking the recipe

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to hear Bill Strickland speak at the Jubilee Conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  After his childhood of poverty was transformed by opportunity, Strickland went on to raise millions upon millions of dollars to build the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, a multi-disciplinary arts program in his home neighborhood in north Pittsburgh. 

Several times throughout his speech, Strickland referred to his formula for serving the poor: sunlight, affection and good food.  With that formula, he didn’t just build any old building that would have been sufficient to house people and equipment.  He designed a beautiful, extravagant building.  His slides showed photographs of sunlit art galleries, bright hallways filled with live flowers, a 350-seat concert hall and more.  Without sunlight, without affection, without good food (and Strickland may also throw in flowers and art), the Craftsmen’s Guild may have seen some measure of success, but would not be as effective at serving the whole person.

Seven habits, twelve steps, three things – “recipe for success” language is often overly simplistic, reducing complex processes and realities to middle school lab experiments.  However, such simplification can be necessary as we attempt to transfer knowledge and ways of being from one culture to the next.  Though there’s a lot more than sunlight, affection and good food to the success of the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, Strickland will undoubtedly find this basic outline of priorities helpful in reaching his goal of seeing 200 more cities around the world adopt his model of serving people in the neighborhoods where they live.

We humans follow a similar process with religious traditions.  We want to pass traditions down (and over), but as cultures are always shifting and changing, we necessarily boil traditions down to their essentials.  Consider the story of the early church’s negotiations about how to properly offer the gospel message to those outside of Jewish tradition.  It was one of the first recorded discussions about essentials and non-essentials in Christianity.  And the conclusion of the debates? 

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.  If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. (Acts 15: 28-29)

We would “do well” to consider how these four essentials might be applied to life in Christ in our current contexts – wrestling with the issue of humanely slaughtered meat, for example.  However, any contemporary faith community’s four essentials for beginning to live the gospel would look completely different from these historical bullet points, as well as from one church or denomination or even individual to the next. 

This state of diversity isn’t just an excuse to throw up our hands and surrender to the marketplace of ideas.  In spite of the infinite shades of meaning and belief in the world, we are each shaped by a peculiar tradition with discernable threads of “essentials.”  These common elements bind us together with others in the difficult and joyful gift of human community and we fully invest in that gift when we seek to learn about and understand our traditions.  We can also come to understand what the distinct charism of our community has to offer the Church and the world.

Sometimes, however, learning and understanding will result in a call to prophetic criticism of our traditions.  Being able to define the essentials we inherited can help the discernment process when we bump up against key missing ingredients.  Sometimes, a missing ingredient simply results in a slight nuance of flavor-a flavor which may even be preferable to some.  However, like forgetting the baking soda in a batch of bread, certain missing ingredients threaten the whole project, resulting in an end product that meets some other definition. 

Lately, I feel as though I’ve been bumping up against a few missing ingredients in the tradition of my youth; whether they’re akin to a pinch of sage or two cups of flour is yet to be seen.  Certainly my individual personality has mixed with my inherited tradition to result in certain over-emphases and blind spots unique to me, but for the sake of both myself and the areas of life in which I’m a steward, I feel a need to wrestle with these ideas.

I’ve written before about an overemphasis on the mind’s way of knowing.  This realization has been part of a personal desire to correct my penchant for head knowledge over other kinds of knowledge, but I also recognize that my tendencies have been nurtured by the qualities of a denominational tradition.  I’m feeling drawn to discover how the mystical and contemplative traditions help enhance a Christian view of knowledge that isn’t so beholden to the Enlightenment addiction to reason.  Years after it was recommended to me, I finally picked up David G. Benner’s appropriately slim book Surrender to Love.  In the very first chapter, he explores the difference between believing in a set of God’s qualities and knowing God:

Think for a moment about knowing your spouse or best friend.  If this is a genuinely intimate relationship, you would never confuse knowing this person with holding correct views about her or him.  Genuine knowing – personal knowing – involves much more than head knowledge.  It involves a relationship; it involves the heart.

If God is love, he cannot be known apart from love.  He cannot, therefore, be known objectively.  One cannot observe him from a distance and know him.  To do so is to fail to genuinely encounter his love.  One can encounter divine love only up close and personally.

Having seen the effects of overemphasizing a distorted personal piety that ruins Christians as the light of Christ in the world even while making us suitable consumers of culture, I’m quite phobic toward this kind of language.  However, I suspect I need to surrender my fussy eating habits in order to begin experiencing the full enjoyment of God’s presence and this surrender requires opening myself to ways of knowing that feel uncomfortable at first.  Akin to this pull for deeper ways of knowing, I’m hearing voices within and on the margins of my communities calling for a deeper understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit, particularly as we enter into an age in which Pentecostalism is putting down deep roots in the global South.

Lately, I’ve also been reflecting on a poverty of language in my tradition.  Related to a preference for head knowledge, my language can be heavy on logic and moderation, light on imagination and imagery.  I’m finding this tendency has effects especially for my work with students, as my husband and I attempt to wake them up to the destructive systems in which they (unknowingly) participate.  In a world that needs more wake-up calls, there are too many lullabies.

Thankfully, there are Christian writers and thinkers who are constantly seeking to re-imagine the possibilities of our language to shape better practice.  Already decades ago, Donald Kraybill was vividly describing the qualities of “the upside-down Kingdom.”  David Dark has helped open up the language of “apocalyptic.”  Tom and Christine Sine are building on language of “conspiracy” to help make connections among an organic community of Kingdom conspirators.  And Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmat are unfolding the definition of “empire” for our current cultural context in North America.  The caution of turning any one way of speaking into an idolatrous rubric for understanding scripture is well-heeded, but not an excuse to avoid vibrant language and imagery altogether.  For example, at a time when the language and imagery of consumption are so powerfully present, mild language and private protest may form the foundation of a personal response, but not a prophetic, communal response.   To cite one of Flannery O’Connor’s most oft-quoted ideas, “To the hard of hearing, you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures.”   When sight and hearing finally begin to return, we are enabled to perceive the nuances of the Spirit, where before we were ignorant of any movement at all.

These realizations about the missing or insufficient ingredients in my traditionally handed down recipe for Christian faithfulness are just the beginning of a journey-or perhaps the middle of a journey.  And there, I suppose, is another flaw of “recipe for success” language: the implication that there is a point of completion, which is where the metaphor of a journey is perhaps more appropriate.  Maybe in seeking clarity, I’ll become aware of ideas and practices that were along the path the whole time, but hidden to me because I wasn’t asking the right questions.  Maybe I’ll have to let go of certain qualities that I’ve come to believe define me.  Maybe I’ll find companions I wouldn’t have discovered, had I not wandered down this way. 

I can only hope that each step will be guided by unceasing prayer, that the Holy Spirit would enhance my perception of all that surrounds me, and that somehow, mediated or unmediated, I would encounter God along the way.  Then perhaps the outward embodiment of knowledge I seek can be one with an internal life fully formed by – and always re-forming – the best story ever told.

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