Thursday, August 11, 2016

4 ways you can save the church now (and they're not what you think)

Walter Benjamin worked thirteen years on Das Passagen-Werk (The Arcades Project), beginning in Paris in 1927 and still in progress when he fled the German Occupation in 1940. A friend, George Bataille, "hid the manuscript away in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France during the second world war and then retrieved and delivered it to New York at the end of 1947"!!!

It is a work literally dug up and recovered from the rubble of war.

Benjamin called this project "the theater of all my struggles and all my ideas." It is a giant mess of a book, designed to undermine the bourgeois ideological mask that typically overlay historical presentations of the 19th century.

It gave birth to something new: history from below rather than from above. It looks to the rubbish of history, the conquered, the suffering ones, as the center for history. The world has typically told its history focused on the victors.

It's very style is illustrative of its substance. One commentator said it "induces in the reader a secular oneiric attention, a sort of watchful dreaminess--even a sort of illuminating boredom" (Mark Kingwell).

Illuminating boredom. History from below. Creativity from the ash-heaps of history.


I've been pondering this while looking at highly creative projects I've seen emerging this summer from Lutheran friends. The first one was planted, quietly, on our church driveway, and has spread like a strange kind of food desert fire through neighborhoods and social media. Jessica McClard, our council president, together with friends, erected a Little Free Pantry on our property.

You can find all kinds of articles about The Little Free Pantry online, because it has blown up in social media. If you want to listen to an interview with Jessica, I recommend the one we recorded two weeks ago.

The Little Free Pantry is not a big thing. It holds less pantry items than one cupboard in a household kitchen. But it's had immense impact "from below," changing the lives of givers and receivers alike, perhaps even undermining the traditional patron-client narrative that dominates 21st century charitability.


Then there is Rev. Jason Chestnut (together with his ecumenical colleagues Rev. Jennifer DiFrancesco and Rev. Sara Shisler Goff) at The Slate Project. The Slate Project is a new kind of Christian community that gathers both on-line and face-to-face in Baltimore, Maryland. They are committed to following the way of Jesus together, into their local and digital neighborhoods and discerning in community how to be the church in the 21st century.

Jason gets "theology from below," and the Internet memes he posts illustrate such theology well.

Jason is leading our denomination in doing church 'from below' in the social media arena. It's a lot of work to minister in digitally-mediated contexts, and much of it gets buried in the rubble-heaps of inattention. Jason and his colleagues are working in the theater of struggle and ideas, in particular emphasizing the theology of the cross as it plays in a strangely mediated world.


Speaking of plays, I've also been paying attention to a project Daniel Maurer has been rolling out. Of course, Daniel is mostwell-known, and deservedly so, for his books and graphic novels, the most recent of which is a spectacular graphic novel about Martin Luther as a dad.

But he's also been at work developing a resource of downloadable progressive church plays and dramas, He calls the site Arches 'n Bells, and it is the first website—ever—to focus on producing thespianic awesomeness for progressive mainstream churches and faith communities.

Before I get into an analysis of drama and progressive Christianity, I should mention that many church members (and clergy) may not realize that there are resources online they can download and use. Or they don't know how to unzip a file, or navigate a web site. So a big barrier in publishing today sometimes is simply helping people be aware of what's out there, and how to navigate it.

I'm not making fun (okay, maybe a little... but then if you know how to install bathroom fixtures, go ahead and make fun of me, because I run away scared), but it's indicative of a general fear or lack of engagement we're seeing from some of our denominations' members online. 

Church-plays in and of themselves aren't really all that high tech. Daniel writes, "The problem I'm having is that the evangelicals seem to be kicking ass with online resources for church drama, and no one has yet capitalized on the need for theologically progressive congregations to take advantage of the resources that are already out there. (More importantly, resources and technology that is already making inroads on the secular side (like Pokéman, et al.))"

So, it's not the skits and plays themselves that is scary technology—just the medium on which I'm offering them.

Well, skits and dramas are their own kind of technology, and they take their own kind of steel nerves to do well. But Daniel's right when he observes that "kids, youth, and adults respond to theatrical productions and they hold people's attention." Some chancel dramas I saw as a child are still stuck in my memory banks, as are the crazy skits we made up at church camp. Drama has staying power.

It's just that, if you're a progressive Christian of some kind, a lot of dramas (like a lot of contemporary Christian music) falls outside the kind of faith you want to teach. Thus the need for a resource like Daniel's. Unless you plan to write your own. Which you can do, but it's a lot harder than you might think to do it well.

Which is where Arches 'n Bells comes in, because their team writes great plays. My favorite right now is one title "Peter Defends God's Acceptance of the Gentiles." It leans in on a significant moment in the story of full inclusion, and illustrates God's grace admirably. It's also funny.

Personally, I've been looking for something to integrate into our worship this fall that would add a new dimension and depth, and I'm spending time reading through the skits on his site right now, aiming to perform some of them beginning the Advent season. 


Finally, sometimes the church has to be saved from itself, and the movement in our own denomination aiming to do just that is #DecolonizeLutheranism.

Their inaugural conference is coming up this October, and registrations are already open. My friend Francisco Herrera, together with a whole host of folks, are planning to decolonize Lutheranism, but his way of doing it may not be what you expect.

It of course includes the post-colonial critique, trying to separate the cultural accretions many assume to be Lutheran (lutefisk, organ music, jello) from the core message of the Lutheran faith. But Francisco tends to focus attention on the positives, the foundations, that can unite us rather than divide us.

Two of the firmest foundations for Lutheran life and identity are the liturgy and the Confessions - especially the Augsburg Confession. Francisco writes, "When we come together in October, the main question we will be asking each other is "What does it mean to be Lutheran?" Sometimes it will be tied to things like tradition and family, other times the ways that we talk about God and Jesus and that ever-sneaky Holy Spirit, still other times the writings of Luther and company and all who have worn the mantle of "Lutheran" over the centuries, in whatever the land or language. Hence, the liturgy and the Augsburg Confession are two prime places to begin all serious conversation on Lutheran identity - fertile earth from which something new and exciting and inspiring always springs."

Sometimes you don't know who you really are until you build a pantry. Sometimes you learn your own faith by designing a meme. If you want a theological challenge, try writing a play that illustrates your theological convictions in a story well-told and well-acted. If you want to find your center, ask those outside your center what real center you both share together (and maybe sit down for a meal of lefse AND injera). 


  1. There is one simple thing that I believe is of utmost importance as a necessary change in our understanding of the Lutheran Confessions: Our mission statement as Lutherans is that "We are saved by grace, through faith, apart from good works."

    By beginning with the statement that "We are saved by grace" we have the best beginning there could ever possibly be. God is grace, and Grace is God. And God used that Divine, Universal, Infinite, Complete, and Omnipotent Grace to be our Creator and Divine Source of All there was, is, or ever will be. And if God created everything, God can create more and to the absolute max -- mathematically or otherwise. God is never the penultimate, thus the Creator God and Divine Source can also recreate, and recreate, and recreate . . .

    I protest the notion that it is OUR faith that saves us. Just as it is God's grace that saves us; it is also God's faith in us that saves us. God has faith in us! Faith in us, means the Almighty One loves us. Faith in us means everything empowered by the Spirit is a sign of God's love that is bountifully shared with us that all may know that the Eternal One will always be with us and never let us fall or fail. God has so much faith in us that the most supreme of all Supreme Beings was willing to be the Word made Flesh to show us how the Just and Holy One will always be there for us showing us what it means to be perfectly and unconditionally loved. God has faith in us no matter what "faith" we claim, or if we claim not to have the least little bit of faith, salvation will always be there for us Babies are baptized before they know a living thing, thus salvation as also always been there for us!

    "Apart from good works." Well, maybe we hit the Nail on the Head on that one. We will never be able to do enough good to turn what is wrong into what is right. No matter what we do in Jesus' Name, we will never get it quite right. and will always get something wrong, and therefore no matter how much we want to do the right thing, and to be righteous, only God has all the correct answers and does the totally, absolutely right, and very best thing from beginning to end. No matter how hard we may try to succeed, it doesn't matter how poorly we do our job, or how often we are late, or don't finish an assignment, or simply don't understand what we were supposed to do in the first place; we will make more mistakes than we can ever count and will always fall short. Thank you Lord, that we can always trust the sacred work of the Perfect One, because without God's Good Works there wouldn't be any work -- and there wouldn't be anything any one of us or all of us could do about anything at all.


    Yes, "We are saved, by grace through faith, apart from good works." We don't have to do anything because God has already done it all! For as St. Augustine said: God loves all of us as if there was only one of us God loves each of us the same." And all there is is love.

  2. Great entry, Clint. Will I see you at the decolonizelutheranism event?

  3. Excellent, excellent, excellent. Nicely written and well put. Also, thanks for the shout out for Arches 'n Bells! I've heard from others just this week who got one of the plays that Jonathan (Bing) had written and they plan to use it for Advent. It's neat to see all the work that R Don Wright and Elise Seyfried (and many others) have done on the site as well!