Readers of this blog know that I am working on a book exploring a shift in evangelicalism toward what I am calling Permeable Evangelicalism. This group of evangelicals is committed to cultural engagement, places a high value on diversity, is very active on social media, and critiques the institutional weaknesses of the evangelical church in search of better discipleship of Jesus.
So when I learned last spring that Rachel Held Evans and Sarah Bessey were cohosting a gathering in Montreat, NC I knew I had to go and that it would be important for the book. So I cancelled plans to go to Las Vegas (for the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion conference) and bought tickets. I hadn’t anticipated (and neither had the hosts) that the Evolving Faith Conference would be attended by close to 1400 people with hundreds more watching the livestream.
The promotional materials for the conference described it as “a two-day gathering for the wanderers, wonderers, status quo upenders, and spiritual refugees to discover that you are not alone.” Attendees were encouraged that they would “engage your questions”, “reclaim your faith”, and “expand your worldview.”
With such a broad invitation, it was not surprising to find a crowd representing a variety of interests and positions. While most were younger, there were a surprising number of attendees in their 50s and older. I was told that there were more men than normally happens at conferences like this and many couples (straight and gay) were in attendance. While the speakers reflected more diversity than was true in the audience, that was addressed by the organizers and there were important messages from the platform that served to diversify the worldview of those in the audience.
The weather presented a challenge as a day-long persistent rain disrupted parking plans. The conference started nearly 90 minutes late and struggled to keep up with the logistics of travel, food, restrooms, and book signings for such a large crowd. Remarkably, the audience remained understanding (with some occasional social media complaining) — even when the food trucks ran out of coffee!
Speakers were organized into six sessions over the two days. Each speaker attempted to follow a 20 minute TED-talk format. The sessions ended with a general conversation among the participants. Each day ended with a general Q&A from the audience.
The first morning opened with Jonathan Martin offering a word from 2 Kings. This is the passage where Elisha allows his servant to see that they are surrounded by God’s armies and chariots of fire. This theme was picked up by Sarah and Rachel who both reminded attendees that they weren’t alone in their journey. Sarah observed that the temptation people face in the midst of change is either to pretend everything is fine or to “burn it all down.” She suggested that Love was a better way. Rachel talked of how cave fish evolve in response to their environment, losing their pigment and their eyes but develop other traits. This evolution, she said, was not about superiority but survivability. So an evolving faith is not a weak faith but one that endures in the face of new conditions.
The second session focused on how people navigate their journeys. Jeff Chu shared his story of transition including his coming out in a conservative Chinese Christian family. A writer and Princeton Theological Seminary student who works at “The Farmenary”, he shared insights on our need for a “robust theology of compost.” When things die, they actually present the ingredients for new life (as processed through the biology of earthworms). Jeff had all participants write a deep fear on a slip of paper. He had these collected and yesterday added them all to the Farmenary compost pile. Jen Hatmaker “used to be the darling of white evangelical culture.” Once she admitted two years ago that she had become LGBTQ affirming, that ended. She reflected on the exile from the gates and what life looks like on the outside. She took months trying to stay below the radar. When she began exploring the wilderness territory, she found many more people there than she expected. She said “our faith isn’t evolving because we’re contrarians but because we’re following Jesus.”
The third session focused on issues of faith and family. Oshetta Moore, Cindy Wang Brandt, and Kathy Escobar each reflected on how to navigate faith transitions with children present. Oshetta spoke of the need to put Shalom at the center of our engagement. She told a compelling story of how she had to confront an adult who had called her son a racial epithet. She spoke of the need to remember that adult as one of God’s beloved, to imagine the adult’s backstory and hold that. She still reported to authorities but was committed not to demonize the other. Cindy is the sponsor of the Raising Children Unfundamentalist Facebook group. She spoke of the need to narrate one’s faith journey in appropriate ways in front of one’s children and shared the challenge of Sunday School programs with White Jesus on the cover. Kathy challenged the audience to pursue “healthy, free, independent relationships.” A focus on identity development with grace toward those in more institutional systems is key.
The fourth session focused on the Bible with Peter Enns, Mike McHargue (Science Mike), Cheryl Bridges Johns, and Wil Gafney. Pete discussed the various ways in which the Bible itself evolves. The understandings of the scripture authors represent new approaches from those who had written earlier. The issue is not, “should we reimagine God” but “how do we reimagine God well.” Science Mike pointed out that science isn’t a worldview but a matter of observable fact. Those facts can tell us that climate change is real but not what to do about it. (I had to take a phone call that lasted through all of Mike’s address but this is what others have told me.) Cheryl said that the primary nature and ontology of the Bible is about New Creation. It is not simply spirit or word but SpiritWord, not subjective or objective but transjective. Wil called for an appreciation of a “womanist” approach to scripture — how scripture works from the perspective of marginalized women. She spent her time taking the phrase “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” examining the realities of all of the women involved in the stories of the patriarchs and the ways in which this shifts our understanding of God’s work with the people. She ended by saying that “the patriarchal fairy tale glosses over real work events.”
The second day opened with Kaitlin Curtice helping us acknowledging the reality of the land. We recognized the native tribes that had previously inhabited the lands we now inhabit. Nobody “owned” the land. The sun brings light, warmth, and good. (I was impressed that she avoided the Jesus-juke of switching sun to Son!).
Session Five featured Austin Channing Brown, Sandra Van Opstal, and Nish Wieseth and centered on the pursuit of justice. Austin presented a remarkable interpretation of the story of Rizpah from 2 Samuel 21. Her sons had been killed because they were Saul’s and their bodies left to fester as a statement. She pursued justice, even for the dead, by placing herself with the bodies and refusing to move. Her anger was not destructive but instructive. Religious notions of piety and decorum will not stop the pursuit of justice. “I’m getting on this mountain until the dignity of every black life is honored.” Sandra observed that too much of what we have known as evangelicalism in America is tied up in culture and individualism. She observed that the concern over “what will happen to the church” ignores the fact that American Christianity is but a small percentage of world-wide Christianity. That pentecostalism is seen as strange in the US but is dominant in the southern hemisphere. She offered a remarkable critique of the individualism of American culture, rewriting the praise chorus “The Heart of Worship” as “It’s all about me and how I feel when I sing about you, Jesus”. Nish talked about our obligations on the political front. We need to step into the gap on behalf of those without power. We have ignored their voices for too long. “if we are not submitting ourselves to the leadership, experience, authority, and wisdom of the margins, we CANNOT be truly formed into the image of Jesus. It is impossible.”
The last session explored faith and the arts and featured Propaganda, Audrey Assad, and A’Driane Nieves. Hip-hop artist Propaganda described how we are culture makers, drawing on the classic work of Peter Berger to explore how we are simultaneously shaped by culture while we are trying to change it (he referred to it as “terraforming”). He pointed out the differences between what is marketable (Michael Jackson) and what speaks truth (Prince). Audrey described the challenges of growing up in a fundamentalist church and experiencing abuse. It raised issues of religious OCD. She discussed internalizing the theology of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (“it should have been me”). Loving herself and her body is about the pursuit of justice because it connects her to other bodies. Her music is a way that this happens. A’Driane spoke of the need to truly see ourselves. She has a story of abuse and exclusion in a Christian college. As an abstract artist, she has moved from intellect to intuition, trying things that are different. She spoke of resilience and that the only thing that is fragile is your ego.
There was another group Q&A session and the conference closed with communion. I had decided to make it halfway back to Michigan Saturday night so I left before the Q&A but what I saw on social media told me that these were meaningful moments of closure.
So how was this received and what did it say about Permeable Evangelicalism? Based on conversations over meals and a review of Facebook and Twitter comments, people had varied expectations for the conference. Some wanted to know how this impacted their weekly church life. Others wondered why there was so much Christian talk and not more exploration of other aspects of faith and spirituality. Some were quick to call out a lack of empathy in some comments or music.
Friday morning I had a fruitful conversation with John Seel, the author of The New Copernicans. He was discussing the distinction between a Bounded Set and a Centered Set, preferring the latter to my notions of Permeable Evangelicalism. But reflecting on the two days, I’m drawn to Jen Hatmaker’s reflections on the journey into the wilderness that involves finding that there are others also there. It made me think that perhaps Permeable Evangelicalism is on its way toward a centered set but not yet there. Perhaps future conversations like this last weekend will allow us to see where that center lies without focusing on simply protecting new boundaries.
NOTE: During the conference I was trying to take good notes, tweet meaningful moments, and track Facebook and Twitter feeds about the conference (it was mentally exhausting). Given all that, it’s possible that I have misrepresented comments made by speakers. I encourage other attendees, and especially the speakers, to let me know where I need to correct my recollections.