Saturday, January 21, 2012

Tough Questions, Humble Men at Emerging Christianity Meetup

From left: Brian McLaren, Tim Kennedy, and Alex Bowen
share space on the stage at Busboys & Poets
with the overflow crowd of  150 Emerging Christianity Meetup fans
as portraits of the Dali Lama, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King look on.

Brian McLaren
Brian McLaren's call to a faith that is dynamically open to mystery kicked off a sizzling evening sponsored by Emerging Christianity Meetup at Busboys and Poets last night in DC. Brian is a hero of mine for boundary busting books like "A Generous Orthodoxy," and "A New Kind of Christianity." But tonight he was appearing along with two young documentary filmmakers on the topic of staying civil while asking tough questions.

The film makers, Alex Bowen and Tim Kennedy, are producing "Anything Less Would be Uncivilized" which tells peoples' stories of how asking questions shaped their faith. What impressed me most about these two earnest and sweet young men was the humility with which they approach their project. Besides starting off by acknowledging their wives with, "Behind every great man...stands a woman shaking her head," they both spoke of the need to stay humble by remembering that God loves the person you are debating with. I completely got from them that they are masters of walking that talk.

Get this man a PR agent. Alex Bowen
is much cuter than this photo.
Can you tell why bald Mclaren said he wants
some of Tim Kennedy's "hair karma"?

Questions from all over the map
Questions afterwards showed the range of people drawn to this event. One woman simply asked for an example of how it looks to ask a question in a constructive way. Tim replied with a sweet story about the first time he told his mother he wasn't going to church on Easter because he no longer believed everything the church taught. "It was hard because I wanted to say no in a way that showed respect for her." Alex broke in with his own story of needing to apologize after roughly grilling one interviewee in the film.


Our tablemate, the son of a pastor whose fresh-faced enthusiasm and openness caused me to flash on the Jesus character in the movie Godspell, asked how we can tell which kind of questions are good for the church. His quieter friend asked if listening to someone meant you had to agree with them: for example agree with a homosexual that homosexuality is not a sin. Another questioner set the record for most mixed wavelengths in one question: "I'm going to come right out and admit that I'm a born again Christian, so go ahead and throw rocks at me if you want. But clearly we all know anyone who believes homosexuals are sinners is following a degraded form of Christianity, just like those people who follow the Word-of-Faith movement. Is the reason we need to ask questions so that we can counter all those false Christianity movements?"

McLaren's answer to this question was a tour de force in more ways than I have room to recount--as was Alex's answer when asked about the line between encouraging questions and becoming a universalist (one who believes all are saved.) "You have to be willing to go wherever your questions lead and be willing to be called a heretic, if necessary, just as Jesus was," he said.

Practices to Support Each Other
Because of my interest in practice groups, I asked, "What practices can we support each other with to help maintain the humility it takes to be a good listener?"  McLaren got a laugh by suggesting that apologizing when we've been a jerk is so painful that doing so often may help stop bad listening--and also that our spouses are in the best position to tell us when we need to do so. I'm exploring the possibility of building a practice group around McLaren's "Naked Spirituality: A Life With God in 12 Simple Words."

Turn that camera around!
My sense of the documentary clip Tim and Alex showed is that they've got it backwards. The experts and average people they interview have great ideas and stories to tell. But the film makers themselves seemed the best living role models for the thoughtful, good-humored, and respectful inquiry the film promotes. Their goal is very similar to that of my own book, The Bishop and the Seeker.which tells the story of my heart and mind-opening encounter with a Biblical literalist bishop. Join me in helping support the guys' project at Kickstart.

Follow ups
50 people were turned away from this event, so watch for followups at An Emerging Christianity Conversation in DC. This Meetup is run by Glen Zuber, an ex-pastor and professor of religion and founder of Iona Conversations. (Wilber fans: If you check it out, notice how its goals align with the pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness.) I'm looking forward to more!

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