In mission I often talk about the need to break the gravitational pull (just search “gravitational Pull for a shed load of posts on here around that) of church, and how we need to break out if we are going to engage people more meaningfully. I was wondering where the current centre of gravity was in the church, is it dispersed, centralised or on the centre, how we shift it so it becomes a centripetal force sending people out to love and serve rather than a centrifugal force that is self serving?
Yet in many ways I’ve been asking the wrong questions. When we think about the incarnation we see a move from the centre to the edge. We see a christ figure who by his presence completely shifts the centre of gravity from the religious community to the margins. The locus of God is on the edge, it is outside the church, beyond the institution, outside the doors. Jesus didn’t sit with the marginalised because by his presence the centre of gravity shifted and the margins ceased to be the margins by the presence of the incarnated God. (HT to John Swinton)
This completely shifts how real meaning making then can happen, and calls into question the validity of the meaning making that takes place within established religious communities. It completely challenges notions of discipleship based on banking knowledge within a structure. It pulls the rug out from underneath notions of sacred and secular, and calls the walls to dust.
I am not musical but woke up thinking about polyphonics and following on from the last post I was reflecting on how we seek harmony in the gospel texts rather than embrace a more polyphonic approach. Indeed even if you google the definition of harmony In the OED it cites the gospels as an example of parallel narratives that combine into a continuous narrative text.
Wikipedia describes “In particular, polyphony consists of two or more simultaneous lines of independent melody, as opposed to a musical texture with just one voice, monophony, or a texture with one dominant melodic voice accompanied by chords, which is called homophony.”
We tend to read the gospel stories and are drawn towards harmony, and I wonder how much of this is due to the type of cultural conditioning I mentioned in the previous post. What is the gospel if our desire for a harmonious approach is a conditioned response? What if we resisted harmony and embraced a polyphonic read of scripture? Let’s take for example the Christmas story, with four different accounts, with different empathises. When did you ever hear a polyphonic read of the Christmas story where the Mark frames the story with Jesus as an adult, and the focus on shalom, a political challenge to Ceaser and a challenge to the very notions of power. Matthew uses geneology to connect to the tradition and the Hebrews to firmly locate Jesus in that narrative, he struggles drop the dream of empire, but writes a gospel challenging the religious order and embracing the religiously excluded. Lukes story is different with the focus on the marginalised, and reimagining the story challenging the economic order, embracing the economically excluded. Then in John the word becomes flesh, moves into the neighbourhood and collapses 100s of years of Hellenistic thought. They all push for different narratives, and in doing so collapse notions of harmony, but instead offer texture, hope and a deeper polyphonic landscape, where those who have ears to hear, eyes to see, can hear and see the Christ entering into thier culture, and challenging that culture like no one before. Something that is all too easily lost in the search for harmony. I’m all for holding in tension the different narratives, but we need people who are captured by the political challenge of Mark, sold out on reworking power, people who embrace a new economic vision of Luke, and the religious order challengers of Matthew. People who push these texts to their extreme, live out and champion thier calling, not because they follow Matthew or Paul, but because they are captured by Jesus’ radical message and are confident and comfortable playing their part in the polyphonic story. This is why the metaphor of polyphony works, because it isn’t about setting up walls between the different emapathies but releasing people to be free to sing with all thier soul and when I see people living that in fullness I can see its beauty even if it’s not my for me, and so crosses my cultural boundaries at a heart level. I wonder then if this might move us beyond the divisiveness that has resulted from all trying to sing from the same hymn sheet and instead see the church starting to make a noise worth hearing.
People often say the gospel never changes, but what is this gospel that speak of? For many Christians when it comes to questions about mission and culture, at the forefront are phrases like “how do we proclaim the gospel afresh to every generation? How can we speak relevantly with watering down the message? ” I wonder if these the host of other simular questions speak more of our own anxieties and cultural conditioning than we realise.
Any reading of Acts 17 will tell you that the reality is that the “how” of ministry is shaped by the “who, when and where” of culture. But maybe the question we should be asking is “what” is ministry?
Culture is thick with meaning, and we navigate culture both as individuals, (some with greater awareness of the impact culture has on how and why make certain choices) and as society (where individuals and the circuit of culture is always operating and forming). A person is both an individual and a member of society. Because of this, any personal relationship a person makes with their deity (namely God), it is a result of the relationship the greater society in which he belongs has with that deity. Our understanding is that religious belief originates in the mind of the individual, when it is actually a product of collective thought. (I nicked that last two sentences from here as its a good spin on Durkhiem but the link is broken for the whole article).
So when we use short hand like “proclaim the gospel” or “the message” It immediately slips us into a much more culturally conditioned way of operating than we think. Over on BiblePirate.com I love what Matt has been doing with the bible text in his unauthorised versions, and his playful podcasts, In particular Eve as hero rather villain (listen here) and I wonder how much that radical read of Genesis 3 should change the way we approach issues of contextualisation, and syncretism and the what of the gospel that we speak of.
So one of the things I explored in this post was the role the institution might play in helping those on the edge network in order to build a level of resilience that stops said institution crushing the emerging change taking place.
I think that the early days of the emerging church people networked well, but as things developed people got busier and stuff got harder. The energy levels needed to organise and stay on the edge were immense, so most people seemed to invest in there own networks. It was great to have Steve Collins stay for a few days and get some his take on those early networks and conversations, how people wrestled with theology and practice in private email groups, before the ubiquitous Facebook. It seemed clear that in early days the networks did help some people survive and probably build enough momentum and longevity, for things like Fresh Expressions, VFx, CMS pioneers etc to start that were more centralised. Yet many of us have reservations about the direction that some of these more centralised movements are taking, some of the colonialising approaches, and some of the roots in organisational anxiety.
So how can we support and network the lone nuts recognising in doing so that organised religion might be plotting its own downfall. Which I think is key part of the christian story unless a seed falls….
Perhaps there are few places that might resource drawing the lone nuts together, for example there are first followers now within the institution (thinking of pioneers into some of the institutional networks I have encountered like Tina Hoggitt, Paul Bradbury, Nigel Pimlott, Ian Bell, Ian Mosby, Mark Berry Janet Sutton webb) or there are a few places left like Greenbelt that could develop something. One of the things that has shifted is that there are different voices and voices in different places. As ever youth work seems to be at at the forefront of R&D for church, so we need those voices but there are also several networks on the edge of organised church, like VFX, CMS, Incarnate. At the last national FX thing I was at, Andy Freeman talked FX about being a Network of networks, but Im not if this is what they had in mind or even maybe there is a role for Nick to develop if the CofE is serious about setting Gods people free.
I found myself saying this twice in the last few days, that maybe we need to add to the words of Jesus as Christians don’t half have some funny ideas about what it means to love you neighbour. Its amazing that such a simple instruction from Jesus to “love our neighbour” can get corrupted. Some how we have managed to take something so simple and qualify it, say we are loving people when being judgemental. Maybe because Christians can be so stupid we need to add to the word.
Love you neighbour so that when you leave they feel they have been loved.
On Monday Im going to post on Transitology and change in my new role based on THIS post (6 years ago). One of the things Im particularly interested locally is the rise of network based Fxs and how working with loops of change from within the system might help build resilience and platforms for change. (Watch THIS 8 minute video if you are familiar) with the concept.
I have been struck recently by the number of calls for more “telling” of gospel. There has been a much higher level of criticism that we have lost the art of telling, often it has been generalist aimed at organisations perceived to be more concerned with a social gospel. Sometimes it has been personal, but usually both a bit misguided and I often think spoken from a lack of confidence in the gospel itself, in the past it was about replacing the hard work of loving your neighbour with a trite message that was spoken from a distance. Sometimes that distance was the pulpit and sometimes that distance was maintained even in the one to one conversation when proximity is not the issue.
It is very easy to replace the gospel with a pale imitation that disconnects words and actions. Recently I think it has been more nuanced and the gospel has been replaced by actions or franchised models of action that play on Christians insecurities that we need to “tell” people more explicitly why we are doing this or that project, and these models suggest they are joining back up the circle of the spoken and the social gospel. BUT they miss the point and Too often these models are a masquerade of proximity, a false notion that confuses being physically nearer people through meeting a need, when in reality there is no real relationship. It is a confidence trick built on sand, where people think they’re joining up the social and spoken gospel, but because it’s rooted in fear or anxiety, it can be just as trite as a message spoken from a pulpit in decades gone past. Yet perhaps even more worrying is that like any good confidence trick, neither the actor nor the recipient know they have been scammed until it’s too late or perhaps they ever know.