by Eric Elnes
I. A Quirky Reaffirmation of Baptism
Last week at the Wild Goose Festival in Shakori Hills, NC, I experienced a reaffirmation of baptism of sorts, mediated by a United Church of Christ minister and avid Darkwood Brew viewer, Ian Lynch. Here’s a photo of that baptism, 1/100th of a second before it happened:
The baptismal waters were a bit unconventional, I’ll admit – the chilly waters of a dunk tank set up to raise funds for the festival – but the reaffirmation was no less real for me. I had been waiting exactly 31 years and 24 days for it. And it was good!
Here’s a photo of Mark Clark, one of the five highest officers in the United Church of Christ celebrating my quirky reaffirmation with me. The fire you may notice in my eyes is real.
This is a story of spiritual awakening, of exodus, wilderness wandering, and tabernacle building. It’s also a story about the Wild Goose Festival, Convergence Christianity, and America.
II. The Great Divide
It could not be a more perfect week to share this story. As we celebrate July 4th this week, we remember the saints and sinners of old to whom we owe a great debt of gratitude for founding the most impressive and prosperous country the world has ever known (in our humble opinion). While we could be accused of bias, there are not many in this world who, if they study American history, can fail to be impressed by the ingenuity, determination, and boldness that resulted in a ragtag group of outcasts and adventurers rising to such swift and global prominence.
Given the present state of politics in our country, many wonder if we can make it last; if we can continue to operate as one people without pulling ourselves to pieces or crumbling as every empire has done before us.
As nasty as the political divisiveness is – which is certain to get worse before it gets better, I am “cautiously wildly optimistic” about America and its future. I’m cautiously wildly optimistic because I see developments taking shape which almost no one seems to be seeing right now. If they are real, they hold great promise. If they are fanciful illusions … well, I may have to remove the word “optimistic” from my statement and seek therapy.
So this reflection might be called that of either a lunatic or a seer. You’ll have to decide for yourself. Spoiler alert: I’m probably neither. I may be just a dreamer. But sometimes my dreams come closer to reality that anyone expects – myself included. So if nothing else, I invite you to dream with me for a few minutes.
III. The Great Foreshadowing
What any serious student of history will recognize – which most seem to have forgotten these days – is that developments in religion frequently foreshadow developments in politics.
A recent, unfortunate example of this foreshadowing, can be seen in the relationship between mainline Christians and evangelical-fundamentalist Christians. Conflict between these groups went from a simmer to a boil in the 1970s, yet political bipartisanship during this same period remained high. Republicans and Democrats had their differences, but it was not at all unusual for members of both parties to vote in large numbers for bills and resolutions introduced by their opposition. Bipartisanship would not start to fray around the edges until the early 1980s. It did not completely unravel until decade or more after evangelical and mainline Christian leaders had stopped talking to each other and mainline Christians felt they had more in common with people of entirely different faiths – including pagans, star worshippers, and believers in the Giant Spaghetti Monster – than they did with evangelicals.
What few have noticed, however, is that while politics has become locked in a game of fratricidal brinksmanship in recent years, Christianity has been experiencing quite different shifts. These are positive and hopeful shifts that the mainstream media has almost completely missed or ignored.
What’s happening is not that conservative Christians are becoming liberal, or vice-versa. These camps remain far apart. No, what’s happening is that there has been a major exodus taking place on both sides of the Great Divide. Many no longer believe what their fathers and mothers did, on either side. Even the fathers and mothers themselves have been changing.
As I walked across the country with CrossWalk America in 2006, I found mainliners who were no longer content to eliminate from their faith and practices whatever the conservatives were doing badly. They were wanting to reclaim Jesus for themselves – but not the Jesus of the fundamentalists. They were getting into Bible studies for the first time in years – but not reading the Bible literally or inerrantly. They were actually praying and opening themselves to having a personal relationship with God (Imagine that!). They were in the process of becoming Holy Spirit people without becoming Holy Rollers.
Yet these same people were bringing with them into the wilderness some of the truly wonderful gifts of their mainline traditions. Gifts like commitment to social justice, openness to other faiths, an appreciation of science, and a greater appreciation for diversity of all kinds.
On the conservative side, people were moving into the wilderness having left biblical literalism and fire-and-brimstone theology behind. They were also leaving behind theological rigidity and conformism, lack of concern for the environment, and most every kind of certainty they had ever clung to.
These folks were taking gifts with them into the wilderness as well, which had once made their evangelical tradition strong. They still loved Jesus, for instance. They continued to engage in regular prayer and Bible study. And they continued to be breathtakingly committed to their faith, refusing to practice it simply as a serious hobby, like many mainliners do.
IV. The Great Convergence
For years now, these two tribes have wandered the wilderness largely on their own, without being aware of, or acknowledging each others’ presence. After all, they were raised to be instinctively distrustful of the other tribe. Thus, their paths may have run parallel but they have rarely intersected.
Ever since that 2006 walk, I have been convinced that if these two tribes ever did pay attention to one another, they’d discover that each tribe is bearing gifts that the other has been longing for. And they would realize that the other tribe is no longer carrying the baggage they’re used to experiencing of the other, too. I have said that when these two tribes converge in the wilderness, this is when Christian faith will once again find its soul and come alive in more powerful ways than we have witnessed in many generations.
In the last few years, I’ve seen more and more evidence that this convergence is actually happening. I’ve seen it when I go out on the road speaking and leading workshops. And I’ve seen it happening here in Omaha, most especially at my church. Until recently, the evidence has only been anecdotal – the product of my personal experience. I’ve wondered if it’s really happening or if it’s just a product of wishful thinking.
But last year at the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina, the evidence went well beyond the anecdotal. Fifteen hundred wilderness-wandering Christians from both sides of the theological Divide gathered in Shakori Hills … and had the most wonderful time together that I’ve ever witnessed. Liberals and evangelicals were acting like long-lost brothers and sisters. They were actually getting along even when they disagreed. They were becoming friends. While differences remained, these differences paled in comparison to the common ground they experienced.
This year at the Wild Goose Festival, the crowd was twice the size, and more diverse than ever. And you know what happened? The energy was twice as great and powerful! Hands down, it was the most beautiful expression of Christian faith and hope that I have ever experienced in mass numbers.
Let me give you just a few examples of the many kinds of Convergence I experienced, some of which I reflected upon in a blog last week.
* I spoke with innumerable evangelicals who experience not the slightest disconnect between praying, reading the Bible, and passionately following Jesus on the one hand, and standing with the poor, healing the earth, and working for LGBT equality on the other.
* I spoke with innumerable liberal Christians who experience not the slightest disconnect between standing with the poor, healing the earth, and working for LGBT equality on the one hand, and praying, reading the Bible, and passionately following Jesus on the other
*I was in conversation until the wee hours of the morning with gay evangelical man who believes in the inerrancy of the Bible and the Virgin Birth, who is as committed to remaining in his leadership role in the Salvation Army as the Salvation Army is to keeping him in leadership. They believe in each other too strongly to separate.
* I learned that when a fundamentalist Christian tells me, that she or he believes that the Bible is the Word of God “only in its ‘original autograph,'” (that is, only in the original manuscript before corruptions could enter through copying and translation) sometimes this means, “The passage we’re talking about does not function as the Word of God for me either” without saying it directly.
* I prayed the Lord’s Prayer to the accompaniment of drums and sitar.
* I sang “Come O Font of Every Blessing” with over a hundred others under a big tent, nearly all of whom sang just slightly more heartily with the help of a hoppy IPA, Cream Ale, or other such “liturgical lubricant.”
* I had dinner with a man whose career included planting a charismatic Pentecostal church and leading a 10,000 member conservative evangelical mega-church, who is now seeking ordination in the (far more liberal) Disciples of Christ.
* I stood on stage proclaiming before over a hundred people my heart-felt love and appreciation for a man (Frank Schaeffer) whom I passionately hated in the 1980s and 90s for his key involvement in building the radical Christian Right. I now hope our families can vacation together – not simply because he has changed but because I have changed.
* I sat under the stars with a liberal minister (and avid Darkwood Brew viewer) who has always preached that the church needs to move beyond its walls and into the streets. As a result of the festival, he said he has discovered that the biggest wall he needs to move beyond is his own prejudice against Christians from more conservative traditions. He has decided to revisit his charismatic Pentecostal roots to see if he forgot to take something valuable with him when he left.
* I felt my heart pounding while listening to the story of a pair of Moody Bible Institute students who were booted off Moody Radio after they tried to bring one too many “heretical” voices like evangelical progressive Brian McLaren on their show. Instead of backing down, they started the “(Re)vangelical Podcast” as a way of “stirring reformation and reform within evangelical Christianity.” Listenership went from “about 4” to a thousand or more almost overnight.
*I found that what inspired me most about the (Re)vangelicals, was the fact that these 20-somethings are a fair shake more conservative than the guests they feature, but feel strongly that difference is something to invite, not shun.
* I’m not sure I met a single person who, if asked, didn’t at least suspect that God’s love is greater than can be contained or experienced in any single religion.
* I’m not sure if I met a single person who, even when not asked, did not adamantly state or believe that God is neither Republican or Democrat.
* I encountered so many fans of Darkwood Brew that I lost track of the number and reported to my wife back in Omaha that there were “tons and tons.” And it was little wonder. Darkwood Brew is itself a place where evangelicals and mainliners are gathering together in large numbers and experiencing community.
Many more examples could be offered, but in short, I experienced a way of being Christian at the festival that seems to be several steps beyond “emergence” or exodus. I experienced a convergence between Christians who have been on a wilderness journey for some time who are beginning to find each other and become friends.
It feels right now a bit like the New Moses (Jesus) is calling upon the theological liberals and evangelicals across the country to share the precious gifts they’ve left “Egypt” carrying in order to build a Tabernacle in which we may all meet God together – a Tabernacle that, like the Tabernacle of old, may move us step by step to a land of Promise.
V. The Great Hope
If such a Convergence is really happening, then I am “cautiously wildly optimistic” about the political future of America as well as our religious future. If religious developments continue to foreshadow political ones, then what we can expect to see if this Convergence Christianity takes hold is a massive exodus of people from both sides of the Great Political Divide. It will be an exodus in which people slough off whatever baggage of their political party that has become untenable and burdensome, yet continue to carry the rich gifts that have always brought life into both parties and made America great. This will be no blending of Right and Left in America, but truly a new way of being American.
Will this ever happen? Or is it just the pipe dream of an optimistic preacher? Honestly, politics were never my thing, and I place my trust in God far more than a political system. I make no strong claim about what will happen in politics.
Yet for most of my adult life I have not believed that I would ever see a time when mainline and evangelical Christians would “sit down together that the table of brotherhood,” let alone begin building a glorious Tabernacle together to the glory of God. Funny things happen when people let down their egos enough for Spirit to enter. Sometimes the Spirit shows up and confounds us all!
Whether or not Convergence politics ever happens, there is one thing of which I am certain: Convergence Christianity has been born. Hope has been reborn. I hope politics comes along for the ride. But whether it does or not, I know that I’m coming along for the ride within Christianity. I hope you will come, too. For together, we’re going to experience the kind of faith that Jesus himself would want to be a part of. It’s the kind of Christianity that reflects a widespread experience of God’s love and grace, and a widespread commitment to living in its light.
Above: Darkwood Brew show director Dinah Gomez (left) and host Eric Elnes (right) showing some love to Wild Goose Festival organizer Michael Morrell (center). Welcome to Convergence Christianity!