Best of The Pietist Schoolman: The Potluck Church

While I catch up on grading some overdue midterms… Enjoy one of the reflections I wrote after reading Lauren Winner’s Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis this past summer.

Winner, StillAs you might guess from the title, Lauren Winner spends plenty of time alone with her thoughts in Still, but it doesn’t usually take more than a page or two before a relative or friend or pastor or Emily Dickinson or some total stranger interrupts her reveries. Not only does this keep her from the narcissism that seems an inevitable temptation of writing memoirs, but it underscores that this is a book about the Church as much as it’s about one member of that Body. It’s not an uncritical appreciation of church, but clearly, one thing sustaining our author through her “mid-faith crisis” is Christian community.

In that vein, one of my favorite stories from Still starts with Winner going to church one night for the pie social and video discussion that will kick off a new adult education program.

Having invited some of her students to have dinner with her before they head to church, Winner suddenly realizes that she’s lost her car keys, and her expectations for the evening start to fall apart: “…this role I had looked forward to—Lauren as the engaging professor who is involved in her students’ lives and encourages their participation in the local parish, etc., etc.—dissolves.” In the end, one student picks her up and the others save some supper for her when she arrives at church: “So there I am, being taken care of by these students, instead of enacting whatever role it was I wanted to enact.” Then the adult education doesn’t follow her script: the sound on the video is “iffy”; she grows upset that she wasn’t asked to take part in the video, unlike her friend Nora and the other acquaintances who are interviewed. When they finally get to the discussion she’s been asked to moderate, “no one at my table will talk about what we are supposed to talk about.” Instead, everyone wants to analyze the style of the video (one participant frets that the interviewees are too middle class, ‘all sporting expensive haircuts and dangly, craft-fair earrings’) rather than engage its content. Sighs Winner, “…we say maybe three minutes of things about Jesus, and seventeen minutes of things about the promotional materials.” Then there’s the pie, not all of which are to Winner’s taste.

“And yet,” she concludes:

Pie Social
Licensed by Creative Commons (See-ming Lee)

in the midst of the lost car key, the failed cool-professor moment, the video no one could hear, the endless conversation about posters and flyers and expensive earrings, and my own bloated ego prattling on about Nora the Talking Head, some part of me grasps that I am being well fed. Some part of me—the groggy, just barely waking-up part—sees that there is generosity here; sees that this is the kind of potluck where you take a little sliver of everyone’s pie, because these are the gifts of the people (well, mostly the women) of your church, and you eat too much rather than hurt anyone’s feelings, and you might even fib a little and say the cranberry cream pie is better than you think it is. (I think it’s gross.) There is abundance in these dozens of pies, and you eat beyond the point of necessity and hunger, because Annie Johnson made this and she may not be comfortable sitting around a circular table talking about Jesus, but this is her offering, and you will taste her pie and in that moment, God is not lost.

If my wife were ghost-writing this post, I would now confess that I, much like Lauren Winner, often have a clear plan for how most minutes, hours, and days will unfold, and am quite hard to be around when that plan unravels.

Fortunately, this is my blog, so I’ll instead take Winner’s parable in another direction, and reflect on how it helped me come to terms with being part of the Church.

The local church, which is what seems most directly to interest Winner here: how she and Annie Johnson of the cranberry cream pie and a bunch of other distinct individuals manage to worship, pray, study, serve, and even eat together week in and week out.

But more… How do I live in the larger Church, most of which drives me crazy on some level? And, how do they live with me?

As readers of my post on Episcopalian decline could probably guess, I’m often frustrated by my more theologically liberal sisters and brothers in the mainline churches. And they by theologically conservative evangelicals like me. I think we all believe what we confess in the Nicene Creed, that we’re part of “…one holy, catholic, apostolic church,” even if we dispute each of those adjectives. But that statement seems more and more aspirational (or eschatological) as we dig more and more ecclesial trenches on either side of a theological no man’s land. (Yes, I am reading a book about World War I. Why do you ask?) It’s one reason why I appreciate my wife’s father so much: an ELCA pastor, he frequently comes to his Bethel professor son-in-law with questions that start with some version of “Why do Evangelicals…” and end with some version of “I still don’t understand, but how can we do ministry together?”

Indeed, as I read Still, I found myself wondering more about fellow evangelicals, and whether we are capable of being the Church together.

Jesus Saves Sign
This is actually from a barbecue restaurant in Texas, but you get the idea – Creative Commons (Robert Nunnally)

See I read Winner’s book during a week-long vacation with my parents, who moved to southwestern Virginia the same year that I started college on the other side of the Commonwealth. Mostly, I Kindled my way through Still while sitting in a cabin 3000 feet above the Virginia-North Carolina border, about 130 miles northwest of the university town where most of Still is set and 200 miles southwest of the university town where Winner comes from. It’s a part of the country where gas station signs exhort you to buy a carton of Luckies and to let Jesus come into your heart. There are Southern Baptist, Pentecostal, Independent Baptist, Holiness, Primitive Baptist, Pentecostal Holiness, and miscellaneous other Baptist churches around every bend. Including the Baptist church my parents attend, where I sat — dutifully but self-righteously — as a college student on spring and summer breaks, pointedly failing to conceal my disdain.

No doubt, there are elements of the not-quite-post-fundamentalist evangelicalism I associate so closely with the South that will never fail to rub me wrong: the diminution of the Gospel to altar calls and Sinner’s prayers; the impulse that pits The Bible against Science; the constant schisms that dress up ego-driven conflicts in theology; the way women are mostly excluded from leadership and teaching roles; and the fusion of party politics and American exceptionalism with worship of a Savior who served no Caesar.

But as I realized again during our visit to my parents’ church, these are also evangelicals who witness to the ends of the earth and make disciples of all nations, who sing hymns about the blood of Jesus as earnestly and exuberantly as I sing along to Wilco, who welcomed our twins to children’s church with apple slices, Cheezits, and a lesson about the necessity of caring for those that society marginalizes.

Moreover, spending a week in Appalachia added to my growing awareness that, as an Ivy League-educated professor at a liberal arts college located in a blue state, I’m very much tempted to denigrate strains of evangelicalism that unashamedly urge repentance and seek conversion, name Jesus Christ as the only way to the Father, and trust that some hard passages of scripture are meant to be taken literally.

So I was struck again by Jay Green’s forceful critique (in the May/June 2012 issue of Books and Culture) of Karl Giberson and Randall Stephen’s dissection of evangelical anti-intellectualism, The Anointed. Having not yet read that book, I’m not sure that it’s fair to accuse its authors of “[displaying] a breathtaking condescension toward evangelicals (and populists generally) throughout this book”; it certainly seems uncharitable to accuse of them of being evangelicals who are “housebroken; their hard edges, smoothed; their ideas, safely NPR-proofed.” But, if I can turn the critique away from Giberson and Stephens and towards me, I have to agree with Green’s closing paragraph:

As much as we may rightly lament the impoverished state of the evangelical mind, there’s no way around the fact that Christian orthodoxy situates “reason within the bounds of religion,” in Nicholas Wolterstorff’s phrase. And, let’s be honest: our religion contains a great many things that will forever seem weird and even offensive at places like Berkeley and the Upper West Side of Manhattan. If we begin to believe that we’ve evolved beyond, or have nothing to learn from the “uneducated” men and women who form the pillars of most evangelical churches and small towns in America, then we will have become party to a scandal far greater than anything related to intellectual life.

Church Potluck Supper
Licensed by Creative Commons (Joe and Jeanette Archie)

Back, then, to Lauren Winner’s parable of the pie social — though, as an Evangelical Covenanter for whom the Midwestern Lutheranism caricatured by Garrison Keillor is a cousin tradition, I’m going to think of it as a potluck supper instead…

I pray that “there is generosity here” in the fracturing world of evangelicalism — and between evangelicals and non-evangelicals, Protestants and Catholics, and so forth. That we learn to “take a little sliver of everyone’s pie [hot dish], because these are the gifts of the people” and “eat too much rather than hurt anyone’s feelings…” Not because the cranberry cream pie or green Jello salad with banana slices actually “is better than you think it is,” but because it’s what a fellow Christian has to offer. She might not be able to agree with you about how to read Genesis 1, or even want to talk with you about Barack Obama, but as you gather in potluck fellowship “God is not lost.”

One thought on “Best of The Pietist Schoolman: The Potluck Church

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.