Friday, December 30, 2005

Why It All Matters: Race and the Emergent Church

So, whiteness and white privilege; let’s review previous posts very quickly:

Labor historian David Roediger points out that many white people have never once thought that African Americans are expert observers of whiteness, and therefore know it and can identify it while many white people rarely think about why they think of themselves as white, let along investigate the ways in which they live life based on the assumption of white privilege.

Ralph Ellison’s 1970 article reminds readers that woven throughout America’s “heritage” are African and African American culture(s), and without them, America would not live up to its so-called “ideals” of freedom, etc.

Writing in the early 1990s, bell hooks, in her customarily engaging and critical way, comments on the ways in which white people never “see” black people in a white supremacist culture since a white “rhetoric…supplies a fantasy of whiteness.” She then references post-colonial theory that seeks to dismantle hegemonic discourses of oppression that perpetuate and encase societal expectations and “ideals” – in this case “white” customs and traditions.

James Baldwin insightfully enters a place that white people know, live in/with, yet rarely discuss but repeatedly enact – white guilt – and identifies dialogue as one way to begin a process of change.

Journalism scholar Robert Jensen offers his own definition of white privilege, as does feminist scholar Peggy McIntosh, musician Derek Webb, and finally, Robert Paul Wolff in his important Autobiography of an Ex-White Man (2005).

Finally, I narrate my own recent moment during which white privilege dominated the conversation, and importantly, resulted in a productive and positive exchange; it was a consciousness-raising moment.

I bring these threads of conversation up because I want to suggest that in Emergent conversations about diversity and multiculturalism, if they are to proceed forward with rigor and meaningful depth, a clear witness to whiteness and white privilege must be part of the discussion.

This is important, I believe, for at least five reasons:

1. Like it or not, the face of the Emergent church is largely white, and largely male. To be fair, this is partly a function of how the media present and discuss the movement/church, but it also reflects the reality of the movement’s leadership at this point in time.

2. Though global in orientation and global in scope, to more cogently and faithfully enact the gospel and participate in the Kingdom, the Emergent church in the U.S. must deal with the issue of race. This issue is part of the missional landscape of which the Emergent church is a part (more on this point below). As the Emergent church shares various interwoven threads of the larger evangelical quilt (to adopt a metaphor from Randall Balmer’s Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory [1989]), larger, structural realities of evangelicalism matter for the Emergent church.

3. Recent research provides data that attest to the importance of the issues I raise. Based on sound scientific research, in Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (2000), Michael Emerson and Christian Smith find that despite paying lip service (sometimes) to interethnic initiatives, the political, social, and economics structures of evangelicalism and U.S. society result in white evangelicals perpetuating and supporting racial division. This manifests itself very often, the authors demonstrate, with white evangelicals (when they admit it) claiming that racial tensions are the result of individual conflicts, and shy away from acknowledging larger structural parameters of racism.

Consider this quote from Divided By Faith: “Like their forbears during Jim Crow segregation, who prescribed kindness toward people of other races, but did not challenge the Jim Crow system, present-day white evangelicals attempt to solve the race problem without shaking the foundations on which racialization is built. As long as they do not see or acknowledge the structures of racialization, they inadvertently contribute to them. And, insofar as they continue to give solutions that do not challenge racialization, they allow racial inequality and division to continue unabated” (132).

4. In a provocative article titled “The Economics of the Emerging Church,” James K.A. Smith baldly asks, “What’s the median income of a ‘new kind of Christian’”? “How bourgeois is the emerging church?” “What can we do to prevent the emerging church from being simply another bourgeois institution?” [Smith refers to the “emerging” church in the U.S.] In essence Smith points out that to “be” postmodern and to ask the sorts of cultural questions raised by the Emergent church implies a sort of privilege. “But how will the postmodern church reach those who’ve been on the underside of modernity?,” Smith asks. Smith positively notes the missional nature of the Emergent church and suggests that it has the potential to address “socio-economic structures that systematically disempower” places and peoples. A concern for these things in the North American context, Smith suggests, is not enough; the Emergent church must powerfully speak to exploitative socio-economic structures globally as well.

I deeply, deeply appreciate and embrace (what appear to be) Smith’s socialist analysis of the Emergent church; his comments resonate in important ways, and provide an opportunity to suggest that discussions of class come with conversations about race. If theology is praxis, as Gustavo Gutierrez and James Cone show, then both race and class deserve equal attention. The North American context (to say nothing of the global situations) demands it.

6. The missional character of the Emergent (Emerging) church suggests an orientation that is conscious of the embedded character of the Christian gospel and the importance of the particularities and situatedness of issues related to life in North America. And the most important issue at hand, I suggest, is race. Because the Emergent church is missional, and because of this (by definition) attuned to the particularities of the North American context, then the Emergent church must grapple with the issue of race in profound and radical ways if it is to faithfully carry out its missional tasks.

So, if my assessments in this series are accurate and if my suggestions are worthy of reflection, then what is to be done? What kind of educational/pedagogical (or ecclesial) initiatives must we undertake to begin the task(s) I propose? Any ideas or suggestions?

Here’s one, and I’m sure there are more.

Missional Thinking About Darfur

Hannah Im (HT: Allthings2all) offers this Advent reflection on Darfur. It is relevant anytime of the (Christian) year.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Cybershuffle for 2006

My good friend Anthony Smith, who practices Pentecost and lives missionally as a Postmodern Negro, has a new blogspace here. You should read his blog often.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Bearing Witness to White Privilege: Further Reflections

In recent weeks I have had several conversations regarding race/race-ism/white privilege with a number of people, many of whom are white.

One of these conversations really stands out, as it exemplifies the assumption of white privilege, yet demonstrates the possibilities that (re)education about race and white privilege in America’s history might offer and what a willing heart/spirit/disposition (to learn) might bring.

Setting the scene: I am eating lunch with several people at a restaurant, and one of the people there is a white female in her 50’s, wealthy, politically conservative, patient, thoughtful, and also a Christian. This woman’s background includes family members who are racist, and who regularly use racial slurs towards non-whites. Not a regular witness to this aspect of such a familial orbit anymore, the woman about whom I write has a number of non-white friends, some very close, as well as a number of African American co-workers.

Through the course of our conversation over lunch, through the lens of race we discuss history, politics, the Christian church, and interpersonal dynamics – people’s personal or ethnic “space.” It was a lively conversation, and very interesting as well. As we finished our meals and as conversations were winding down, this woman remarked (paraphrasing): “I’m just at a point in my life now where race doesn’t matter to me; I mean, I don’t look at people as African American, etc., I just look at people as people. Though I grew up around racist people, I did not adopt their point of view, nor do I condone their slurs and inappropriate comments. A person’s race just doesn’t matter to me.”

Anyone who knows this woman and who heard this conversation knows that these comments are sincere: this woman truly does love people, and pours her heart out for people all the time.

Yet, with eyes to see, the subtlety of these comments is clear and visible: this woman, by virtue of her whiteness and by virtue of the fact that she takes comfort in not being personally racist, she can say that to her race doesn’t matter. As a white woman in her 50’s, as a white upper-middle-class woman, as a white female Christian, she has the privilege to say that race does not matter. Would her non-white friends who are in their 50’s (or any other age for that matter) say the same thing?

Here was my response (paraphrased): “But, that’s just it: from a privileged position of whiteness, white people can say race doesn’t matter because, most likely, being white has never cost you anything. In other words, in U.S. society, being white is a currency that is taken everywhere, it is a key that unlocks numerous doors, it is a welcome, open door to almost anything, anywhere – without undergoing questioning or interrogation, without assuming you harbor ill-will or malice, without suffering the inhumanity of suspicion because of one’s ethnicity. It is called white privilege. From this lofty position, it is always others who play the race card.”

I will never forget the look on this woman’s face; she realized after my response that, as a white woman [or person], she had the “privilege” to say that race doesn’t matter. For the first time in her life, I think, she realized not only what white privilege is, but what it means, and that it is something on which to reflect deeply and about which to think critically and educate robustly.

Do you have any stories to share?

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Witnesses to White Privilege: Race and the Emergent Church, Part 3

In a previous post I argued that despite the positive and important gestures the Emergent church has made with respect to creating a more diverse and multicultural composition, structural changes will not emerge without a profound, sustained, and rigorous recognition and interrogation of white privilege.

To push this part of the conversation further, in another post I offered, via David Roediger's keen observation, and through the words of Ralph Ellison, bell hooks, and James Baldwin, a definiton of whiteness.

Today, I would like to continue looking at whiteness, but now through the words of white observers.

University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen prefers the term “white supremacist” to write about white privilege. In The Heart of Whiteness he writes: “I mean a society whose founding is based in an ideology of the inherent superiority of white Europeans over non-whites, an ideology that was used to justify the crimes against indigenous people and Africans that created the nation. That ideology also has justified legal and extralegal exploitation of every non-white citizen immigrant group, and is used to this day to rationalize the racialized disparities in the distribution of wealth and well-being in this society. It is a society in which white people occupy most of the top positions in powerful institutions, with similar privilege available in limited ways to non-white people who fit themselves into white society” (pp. 3-4).

The website defines white privilege as a “social relation” and offers a 7-part definition (found here):

1. a. A right, advantage, or immunity granted to or enjoyed by white persons beyond the common advantage of all others; an exemption in many particular cases from certain burdens or liabilities.
b. A special advantage or benefit of white persons; with reference to divine dispensations, natural advantages, gifts of fortune, genetic endowments, social relations, etc.

2. A privileged position; the possession of an advantage white persons enjoy over non–white persons.

3. a. The special right or immunity attaching to white persons as a social relation; prerogative.
b. display of white privilege, a social expression of a white person or persons demanding to be treated as a member or members of the socially privileged class.

4. a. To invest white persons with a privilege or privileges; to grant to white persons a particular right or immunity; to benefit or favor specially white persons; to invest white persons with special honorable distinctions.
b. To avail oneself of a privilege owing to one as a white person.

5. To authorize or license of white person or persons what is forbidden or wrong for non–whites; to justify, excuse.

6. To give to white persons special freedom or immunity from some liability or burden to which non–white persons are subject; to exempt.

Here, academician Peggy McIntosh defines white privilege as “unpacking the invisible knapsack,” and observes: “I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was "meant" to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.”

She also has a list of 50 benefits (“daily effects”) that accrue from white privilege. A feminist scholar, McIntosh’s comments also refer to gender privilege, a crucial corollary the conversational direction I propose.

Musician Derek Webb sings about white privilege this way, from a song titled "I Repent":

i repent, i repent of my pursuit of america's dream
i repent, i repent of living like i deserve anything
of my house, my fence, my kids, my wife
in our suburb where we're safe and white
i am wrong and of these things i repent

i repent, i repent of parading my liberty
i repent. i repent of paying for what i get for free
and for the way i believe that i am living right
by trading sins for others that are easier to hide
i am wrong and of these things i repent

i repent judging by a law that even i can't keep
of wearing righteousness like a disguise
to see through the planks in my own eyes

i repent, i repent of trading truth for false unity
i repent, i repent of confusing peace and idolatry
by caring more of what they think than what i know of what we need
by domesticating you until you look just like me
i am wrong and of these things i repent
(from I See the Things Upside Down [INO Records])

And, in a bit of a different way, philosopher-turned-Afro-American-Studies-professor Robert Paul Wolff defines white privilege in a riveting memoir, Autobiography of an Ex-White Man (2005).

From the Preface: “Kierkegaard observes somewhere -- I think it is in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript – that just as it is harder to jump into the air and land exactly on the spot from which you took off, so it is more difficult to become a Christian when you have the misfortune to have been born a Christian [Wolff is a secular, seventy-year-old Jew]. I faced just such a problem with regard to the subject of race in America. Before I began my journey, I thought of myself as a sensitive, knowlegeable, politically committed advocate of racial justice. But as I took the first steps along the way, I began to realize that I understood little or nothing at all about that color line called by W.E.B. Du Bois the problem of the twentieth century. So, rather like the conventional Christian who seeks to become truly Christian, my task was to undergo a difficult process of reeducation and self-examination, in order to end up where I thought I was – as a committed advocate of racial justice. Perhaps I can take comfort from Socrates’ tecaching that the first step of the journey toward wisdom is the acknowledgment that one is ignorant” (xii).

Previous posts provide several angles from which we might discuss whiteness, white privilege, and race and forthcoming posts will explicate how I think all of this relates to the Emergent church.

Any thoughts?

The Color of White: Race and the Emergent Church, Part 2

While this post does not offer reflections on the Emergent church as such, it is the second of a series of posts in which I have and will address race (and the EC). Inching forward from the first post of this series, we now begin to define what I brought up in earlier comments: white privilege.

First, though, what is whiteness?

I offer the observation of labor historian David Roediger to contextualize the contents of today's post:

“[F]ew Americans have ever considered the idea that African-Americans are extremely knowledgeable about whites and whiteness. In the mainstream of American culture, and certainly in intellectual circles, a rough and unproductive division of labor exists where claiming expert knowledge and commonsense wisdom on race are concerned. White writers have long been positioned as the leading and most dispassionate investigators of the lives, values, and abilities of people of color. White writing about whiteness is rarer, with discussions of what it means to be human standing in for considerations of how racial identity influences white lives. Writers of color, and most notably African-American writers, are cast as providing insight, often presumed to be highly subjective, of what it is like to be “a minority.” Lost in this destructive shuffle is the fact that from folktales onward African Americans have been among the nation’s keenest students of white consciousness and white behavior” (from Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to be White, p. 4).

So, taking Roediger’s comments seriously -- slowly, carefully, and thoughtfully consider the observations of:

1. Ralph Ellison, “What America Would Be Like Without Blacks” (1970)

“Materially, psychologically, and culturally, part of the nation’s heritage is Negro American, and whatever it becomes will be shaped in part by the Negro’s presence. Which is fortunate, for today it is the black American who puts pressure upon the nation to live up to its ideals. It is he who gives creative tension to our struggle for justice and for the elimination of those factors, social and psychological, which make for slums and shaky suburban communities. It is he who insists that we purify the American language by demanding that there be a close correlation between the meaning of words and reality, between ideal and conduct, our assertions and our actions. Without the black American, something irrepressibly hopeful and creative would go out of the American spirit, and the nation might well succumb to the moral slobbism that has ever threatened its existence from within” (from a selection in Black on White, p. 166).

2. bell hooks, Black Looks (1992)

“Although there has never been any official body of black people in the United States who have gathered as anthropologists and/or ethnographers to study whiteness, black folks have, from slavery on, shared in conversations with one another “special” knowledge of whiteness gleand from close scrutiny of white people....Even though legal racial apartheid no longer is a norm in the United States, the habits that uphold and maintain institutionalized white supremacy linger. Since most white people do not have to “see” black people (constatntly appearing on billboards, television, movies, in magazines, etc.) and they do not need to be ever on guard nor to observe black people to be safe, they can live as thought black people are invisible, and they can imagine that they are also invisible to blacks. Some white people may even imagine that there is no representation of whiteness in the black imagination, especially one that is based on concrete observation or mythic conjecture. They think they are seen by black folks only as they want to appear. Ideologically, the rhetoric of white supremacy supplies a fantasy of whitness.” (from a selection in Black on White, pp. 38, 42).

About Gayatri Spivak’s The Post-Colonial Critic, in which Spivak discusses hegemonic discourses and the process of dehegemonizing, hooks observes that “this process of repositioning has the power to deconstruct practices of racism and make possible the disassociation of whiteness with terror in the black imagination. As critical intervention it allows for the recognition that progressive white people who are anti-racist might be able to understand the way in which their cultural practice reinscribes white supremacy without promoting paralyzing guilt or denial” (Black on White, 53).

3. James Baldwin, “White Man’s Guilt” (1965)

“I have often wondered, and it is not a pleasant wonder, just what white Americans talk about with one another.

“I wonder this because they do not, after all, seem to find very much to say to me, and I concluded long ago that they found the color of my skin inhibiting....This is utterly futile, of course, since they do see what they see. And what they see is an appallingly oppressive and bloody history known all over the world. What they see is a disastrous, continuing, present condition which menaces them, and for which they bear an inescapable responsibility. But since in the main they seem to lack the energy to change this condition they would rather not be reminded of it. Does this mean that in their conversation with one another, they merely make reassuring sounds[?]. It scarcely seems possible, and yet, on the other hand, it seems all too likely. In any case, whatever they bring to one another, it is certainly not freedom from guilt. The guilt remains, more deeply rooted, more securely lodged, than the oldest of fears.

The record is there for all to read. It resounds all over the world. It might as well be written in the sky. One wishes that Americans – white Americans – would read, for their own sakes, this record and stop defending themselves against it. Only then will they be enabled to change their lives.

“The fact that they have not been able to do this – to face their history, to change their lives – hideously menaces this country. Indeed, it menaces the entire world.

“White [person], hear me! History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read....the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations. And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this.

“My point of view certainly is formed by my history, and it is probably that only a creature despised by history finds history a questionable matter. On the other hand, people who imagine that history flatters them (as it does, indeed, since they wrote it) are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world.

“This is the place in which it seems most white Americans find themselves. Impaled. They are dimly, or vividly, aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly a lie, but they do not know how to release themselves from it, and they suffer enormously from the resulting personal incoherence. This incoherence is heard nowhere more plainly than in those stammering, terrified dialogues....The nature of this stammering can be reduced to a plea. ["]Do not blame me. I was not there. I did not do it. My history has nothing to do with Europe or the slave trade. Anyway it was your chiefs who sold you to me. I was not present in the middle passage. I am not responsible for...the cotton fields of Mississippi....I also despise the governors of southern states and the sheriffs of southern counties, and I also want your child to have a decent education and rise as high as capabilities will permit. I have nothing against you, nothing! What have you got against me? What do you want?["] But on the same day, in another gathering and in the most private chamber of his heart always, the white American remains proud of that history for which he does not wish to pay, and from which, materially, he has profited so much.

“[T]he history of white people has led them to a fearful baffling place where they have begun to lose touch with reality – to lose touch, that is, with themselves – and where they certainly are not truly happy for they know they are not truly safe. They do not know how this came about. On the one hand they can scarcely dare to open a dialogue which must, if it is honest, become a personal confession, a cry for help and healing which is, really, I think, the basis of all dialogues and, on the other hand, the black man can scarcely dare to open a dialogue which must, if it is honest, become a personal confession which fatally contains an accusation. And yet if neither of us cannot do this each of us will perish in those traps in which we have been struggling for so long.

“The American curtain is color. Color. White men have used this word, this concept to justify unspeakable crimes and not only in the past, but in the present. One can measure very neatly the white American’s distance from his conscience – from himself – by observing the distance between white America and black America. One has only to ask oneself who established this distance, who is the distance designed to protect, and from what is this distance designed to protect?” (from a selection in Black on White, pp. 320-323).

How is whiteness defined, explained, theorized, dispayed, and perpetuated -- in subtle ways? Have you -- do you think about these things?

Monday, December 19, 2005

She's Here!

Madeline Grace
7 lb.
13 oz.


Dreaming of a "White" Christmas?: Race and the Emergent Church

Here at year’s end, I’m in a bit of a reflective mood.

It has been a year of changes and transitions and new experiences for me personally. I went to Africa (Morocco) for the first time in June, gave a boatload of conference papers about subjects I find really interesting and worthy of historical reflection, made some great friends both in blogosphere and in person, finished my Ph.D. coursework (in history), received attention for my writing, and my wife and I had our third child – a daughter! – in the wee hours of December 17. Both mother and daughter are home resting peacefully, and little Madeline's two big brothers love their sister!

Much of my recent research, reading, and writing on the wider world of twentieth/twenty-first century evangelicalism involves the Emerging/Emergent church. Not only does this topic interest me on an academic plane, but the movement resonates with me personally as well. Thus, here at year’s end, many of my reflections have to do with many things going on/in the Emerging/Emergent conversation and I comment both as an academic and as a practitioner.

One of the Emerging/Emergent streams of discussion in 2005, among many, many others, has been about race and ethnicity. Here I have in mind the series of posts by DJ Chaung on becoming a multiracial church, Scot McKnight's thoughts on (anti)racism and diversity, Anthony Smith's musings on the postmodern black church (and here and here), Jamie Arpin-Ricci's posts on diversity and gender, JazzTheologian's notes on spirituality and jazz, Rudy Carrasco's reflections on ethnicity, and the initiatives of Jay Voorhees and Aaron Flores. I'd also recommend reading Cracked Pots, Latina Liz, and Emergent Latino. And there are many others.

I applaud all of these contributions (have I left anyone out?) and have learned a great deal from all of these probing and cogent reflections.

I see real “promise” in the Emerging/Emergent movement for a willingness to think, act, pray, and live in spiritually holistic ways, for engagement with and adoption of aspects of all that encompasses Christian Traditions, and for an embrace of the global (Emerging) aspects of the movement; and for a real concern for and willingness to enact what James calls true religion. The Emergent-US statement of “Order,” as I read it, embraces all of these objectives.

Yet, there is more.

One of the glaring omissions in the conversation (though Anthony broaches the topic and I relate a personal story) is the reality that for all of the laudable discourse about inclusion and diversity, and for all of the crucial multicultural initiatives taking place, there must be a sustained, rigorous, honest, and open discussion about and interrogation of white privilege. Put another way, the road forward for the Emergent church and the diversity/multicultural conversation must begin with a discussion of white privilege.

Perhaps this is implicit in the words and thoughts of those who’ve reflected on race/ethnicity and the Emergent church, but I suggest that owning up to white privilege and discussing it slowly, thoroughly, and thoughtfully is one of the most important dimensions of this part of the Emerging/Emergent conversation. I write of an initiative that will take time, care, and much grace.

Further posts: what is white privilege and why does it matter for the Emergent church?

Friday, December 09, 2005

Back to Africa: Darfur/Sudan

Here's an interesting article on Darfur that appeared originally in First Things.

Speaking of Darfur, a fellow graduate student colleague from Rice University and I are in the process of putting together a public information forum on Sudan and Darfur. It will take place the week of February 13, 2006 on the campus of Rice University. So far speakers include Jerry Fowler and Mark Bixler. I'll post more information as it becomes available.

Please try to make it if you're in the area.

Scot McKnight and BaldBlogger on the Emerging/Emergent Church

Over at Jesus Creed, Scot McKnight offers keen advice to frame discourse in Emerging/Emergent disscussions. He suggests a kind of scholarly precision when referring to "Emerging" or "Emergent" and really asks those who choose to publicly comment on these matters to do their homework and read up on the movement. The literature is expansive and growing, and tracking the conversation/movement in the blogosphere is a must.

I would also suggest that one consider attending a church/community that embraces the "label" Emergent/Emerging in order to enhance one's participation in the discussion and get a sense of how these communities enact the Christian faith. Aaron Flores's fine M.A. thesis on the Emerging church has a long list of these communities.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

BaldBlogging on the Emerging Church, Part 9 (Lent 2005)

As stated in previous posts, these observations come from my journey through Lent 2005 with the faithful of Ecclesia Houston. I should note that the church no longer meets in the physical church space I describe (West End Baptist Church), but in Taft Street Coffee House. I also want to publicly thank Pastor Chris Seay for permission to “observe” and write about Ecclesia.

Several things strike observers of Ecclesia. To the right of the three-door entrance to the sanctuary there is a large banner tied to a locked black iron gate that reads, “ECCLESIA.” This red banner contrasts nicely with the black iron, red brick, and white doors, yet I do not recall many churches with a banner draped around the entrance.

In the foyer of the church there is a small book table with an assortment of books – copies of The Tao of Enron as well as hardcover copies of The Message. I peruse the books for a few moments and then notice that to the left of the book table sits an icon of Christ Pantocrator, an icon displayed in most Eastern Orthodox churches. This striking icon – with the eyes of Christ fixing a piercing gaze – sits on top of a box draped with tan wool and surrounded by ten candles. Hanging on the wall (nearly above the icon) is an old painting of a decidedly Anglo Jesus. This painting has obviously been a fixture here for some time. Here, at the entrance of Ecclesia, is a meeting of the ancient and the modern, in essence an aesthetic tension between the ancient past and postmodern present, a tension this Emergent church is willing to feel, to embody, and to investigate. I proceed forward.

As I enter the sanctuary on this pre-Lenten Sunday evening, I notice the stage flanked by two large paintings – to my left is a large mural of a what appears to be an African-American boy with a white dove resting on his shoulder; he displays a look of quiet determination and his head, like many Byzantine icons I have seen, is encircled with a golden ring. The painting to my right is harder to make out; the image seems intentionally fuzzy – an Anglo man whose features are distorted but whose head rests in front of the sun. Perhaps, I think, this is some kind of metaphorical painting to demonstrate the way Light can bring healing. I then notice that five large stained glass portraits frame either side of the sanctuary; the portraits feature scenes from gospel stories. In the far right corner of the sanctuary there sits a wooden triptych, though I cannot see what scriptural moments are carved and whittled into its three parts. Sitting in a wooden pew, I take in the entire setting: a “traditional” church stage with candles burning, a short, whitish statue of Jesus with arms open facing the congregation, the stage framed by murals painted by local artists and stained glass that features gospel moments. Like the foyer, I notice a kind of aesthetic tension between ancient past and postmodern present. Developing a feel for the place, I then begin to observe the people who surround me.

By this time the service has started, and the band begins to play. The members of this band, known as the Robbie Seay band, are professionals with several CDs to their credit. They are polished yet worshipful; authentic without musical cults of personality. Songs like “Glorious” and “Hallelujah God is Near” beat from the drums, scream from the guitars, and float from the microphones. I cast my gaze across the congregation and try to notice the various ways in which individuals worship: as those in attendance follow the words displayed on a large screen behind the stage, some clap to the rhythm, others jump up and down as if at a concert, others have hands raised in what is an obvious moment of authentic worship, and another sits to write and reflect in a journal. The moment possesses something of a concert feel and the songs authentically sung are the hymns of a new generation.

The music then gives way to a few moments of tithe collection; plates are passed around the sanctuary and I follow several up and down the rows in front of me. Corporate prayers and confession follow the tithing. The corporate prayers and confession came from the pen (or keyboard) of one of Ecclesia’s members; there is no Apostles’ or Nicene Creed tonight. I listen intently as I hear, among other things, the congregation corporately asking God for strength, ability, and wisdom to serve and love the homeless of Houston and to visit with mercy those suffering brutal inhumanity in Darfur, Sudan. This corporate prayer is displayed on the screen behind the stage, with thematic pictures accompanying the stanzas of prayer. Again, the ancient past – the corporate “chant” of the prayer – mixes with the image- and text-saturated postmodern present as the congregation confesses sin and prays for strength to pursue holiness in strikingly intentional and thoughtfully relational ways. Prayer for local matters meets with supplication for global concerns. It is time for the sermon.

Tonight, the week before Lent begins, Christian author Donald Miller guest preaches and delivers a sermon on John 21 where several disciples dine with Christ on the beach. The theme of fish is everywhere present, Miller points out, and poses the question Christ asked of Peter – “Do you love me more than these?” – to those in attendance. Miller argues that Christ’s question is not about the fish which figure prominently in this passage, but about the things Christians “own” today: reputations, jobs, possessions, etc. The upshot of Miller’s message, he says, is about passion; are followers of Christ today passionate about service and serious about holiness, he asks, or is Christian living merely about meeting a behavioral code? Miller then suggests that Peter’s request for upside down crucifixion did not come about because Peter wanted to “do the right thing,” but because he was passionately “in love” with Christ. Miller ends with an admonition to be “revolutionaries” for Christ in the North American context.

I stay for the communion service. The mood is somber, as this is the last holy meal before the long fast through the Lenten season. As the music plays members and attendees make their way in two rows up to the front of the sanctuary for the Communion elements. I make my way to the front and encounter three individuals – one hold’s the bread, another holds a chalice with wine, and another a chalice with grape juice. I take a small piece of bread and a woman says, “The body of Christ, broken for you.” Like those before me, I dip my bread in the chalice of wine and a man says, “The blood of Christ, shed for you, brother.” Both before and during the communion service, the Robbie Seay band plays; the words of one song describe the moment: “I’m tasting forgiveness/Drinking the mercy/Feasting on redemption/tasting forgiveness.”

As is the custom for many of Ecclesia’s members and attendees, I travel after the service to Taft Street Coffee House, home to an art gallery and bookstore (and now Ecclesia’s worship space). The mood is festive and the fellowship, it appears, flourishes. The walls of the book store radiate with an assortment of colors, displays a large assortment of pictures and paintings and the furniture uniquely defines the communicative spaces of the large coffee-serving room; couches and tables invite those present to sit, read, and pursue conversation. The books rest on an assortment of bookshelves, divided into sections on art, poetry, theology, history, biography, philosophy, and spiritual formation, among other subjects. I even notice a display of books for a number of member-led reading groups (the books and topics rotate every several months). I settle into a comfortable couch with a cup of coffee and I have a number of conversations with people I recognize and also meet several other members of Ecclesia for the first time.

As I sit back and begin to reflect on my initial experience at Taft Street Coffee House, several things are emblematic of the Emerging/Emergent church: an intentional, (often) artistic, non-threatening place for face-to-face and electronic dialogue and conversation (the coffee house is wifi). The wide array of subjects and books serve as a metaphor for the ranges of conversation and diversity of topics welcomed in the Emerging/Emergent movement and the space to display art and host concerts and speakers demonstrates the movement’s commitment to field a variety of artistic mediums and expressions.

Next post: Ash Wednesday.