29 September 2009

On crusty vanilla sludge, and varieties of snark

I was talking with a friend the other day, and my friend was trying to feel out the "shape", I guess, of the "emerging church" movement - and of our church, the Common Table, in specific. Some of his questions had to do with whether certain expressions of Christian tradition, including such practices as structured Bible study, free and unstructured prayer, and praise and worship music, would be welcome within it.

These practices, of course, are staples of much of the wider Church, and particularly the evangelical Protestant traditions which are, ironically, the early wellspring of the "emerging church" in North America. And while practices like these are the meat and potatoes of many "emerging" churches today, they've become fairly uncommon and non-central in our church. We're more likely to have a freewheeling discussion that brings in a wide range of scriptural allusions than we are to sit down and concentrate carefully on a particular Bible passage. We're more likely to pray using an Anglican liturgy or contemplative silence than we are to begin freely speaking our prayers for each other or the world. And we're more likely to use Taize chant, electronica, or secular pop music in a worship service than we are to sing praise and worship tunes.

And, honestly, we often have gatherings that don't explicitly include one or more of these elements (scripture, prayer, music). (Well, we almost always have Eucharist when we worship, and all three of those elements are pretty much always included in that, but I mean in addition to Communion.) It's up to the people planning the gathering - if including one of those elements would seem "tacked on", we don't do it. So it's easy to see why my friend had questions.

But there's more going on, I think. I've heard from more than a few friends in our church lately that they've been (this is my term) "self-censoring" - being careful not to speak up about things that they feel - even feel strongly about - because they're worried about how others in the church would receive it. Now, for a church consisting mostly of young, well-educated, fairly privileged white people, we're actually pretty diverse in some ways. We come from a wide variety of traditions within the Church, and - here's the key - our relationships with our church backgrounds vary widely as well. Some of us are on pretty good terms with our past in the Church - and others, not so much.

So what happens (I think) is that some people perceive themselves as "too orthodox" - thinking that if they're completely open about, say, their high view of scripture or of the efficacy of prayer, they'll offend other folks who are dealing with a painful past featuring abusive forms of those views. Other folks worry that they're "too heretical", and self-censor for reasons that are, fundamentally, similar - to avoid offending their more traditional friends, or making them uncomfortable.

Now, to some extent, of course, this is all entirely good and loving and appropriate. Of course it's a very good thing that everyone is concerned not to make their friends and fellow Commoners uncomfortable. But my sense is that there's a danger here: the danger of boiling ourselves down into a featureless lump of vanilla sludge. My worry is that people will self-censor so much that the church we're left with will not be a true reflection of who we are, in all our glorious, multi-faceted, dissonant diversity - but a beige-colored least-common-denominator ethos which reflects only that which everybody thought would be inoffensive enough to express. My image is like the old metaphor for the USA as a land of immigrants: the "Great American Melting Pot". In recent decades, people have said, "no, this country should be more like a salad - not boiled down to a molten homogeneity but tossed together in all of its colorful multiplicity". I agree - for the country and for our church.

Here's the thing: my sense is that a lot of what's being held back isn't mean or outside the bounds of love, respect, or civility - it's just authentic, deeply held longings or opinions that people worry won't be welcomed by others in our community. And further: because our community is such a collection of refugees - because so many of us have been burned by our church backgrounds and are pushing back against those backgrounds - our sludgy center tends to be shifted rather more toward the heretical side of the spectrum.

This has two effects:
  1. It's possible for us to be boiling ourselves down to vanilla sludge, yet still have an "edge" - i.e., still be pushing ourselves with edgy ideas and practices. And we are like that. But I worry that our "edge" may be nothing more than the crust on our vanilla sludge - a crusty, edgy, fairly heretical sludge, but still a sludge - still the result of permitting only those ideas that we think won't offend our friends.
  2. Because, at least in our church, the more heretical peeps tend to be a bit louder and more forceful than the more orthodox folk, the latter folk can feel a bit drowned out, and even more prone to self-censorship.
Hence, again, my friend's questions: are these practices welcome in our church? And my answer is this: Since these practices are deeply valued and longed for by a goodly portion of our church family, they had better be welcome. In my understanding, the whole point of an "emerging church" is that who we are (as a community) emerges - as freely, organically, and authentically as possible - from who we are (as the individual eikons of God who make up this community). If we're failing at that in significant ways, then we are, in significant ways, impoverished as a community. That's what I think.

So what to do? Honestly, I don't know. I don't think there's a simple answer. We're beginning to talk more openly about these issues, which I think is good. And I think we're making progress.

I do have one suggestion on this subject, and ironically, it involves advocating a different kind of self-censorship in order to help prevent the kind I've described above. It also involves a reflection on the several varieties of snark.

Now, first of all: in "emerging" church circles in general, and in our church in particular, snark is generally considered an acceptable form of discourse - not outside the cultural bounds of civility. There's humorous and ironic sarcasm, and then there's being mean. We're generally pretty good at keeping our snark out of "mean" territory, but we are a snide, snide bunch of puppies.

But here's what occurred to me recently: there's a common form of snark (or even of non-sarcastic discourse) which is usually not intended to be mean, but which can very easily have the effect of making some people feel marginalized and hurt. I call it the "Can I get an amen??" statement. It's the sort of statement that, usually implicitly, assumes that everyone else in the room (or online chat room) - needless to say! - agrees with you. An example: recently a participant in our church's online Unauthorized Theology Pub made some well-intentioned yet snarky comments about some Republican behavior, and they came through in that "Can I get an amen??" sort of manner. He had good reason to assume that he was in an environment consisting mostly of political progressives. But one of our other members, courteously and courageously, piped up, "You know, I'm a Republican." The original poster was quick to apologize and balance his statement, and all was well, I think.

My point, though, is this: I'm pretty sure that 95% of the time, in a situation like that, the lone dissenter (or the person who feels like a lone dissenter even though they might be one of many) will choose to simply keep quiet, though they may feel marginalized and hurt. I'm pretty sure that this kind of statement - the kind that implicitly assumes a particular ethos and that everyone present agrees with it - is one of the things that drives people to censor themselves, and drives us all toward vanilla sludge apocalypse.

So I'm proposing another kind of self-limiting speech. Perhaps we can police ourselves for "Can I get an amen??" statements in contexts where it's possible that there are folks present who would not be able, in good conscience, to grant us that amen - and who might instead remain quiet, excluded by our well-meaning yet less-universal-than-we-thought sentiments...and missing their chance to help us avert the coming of the sludge.

It's a fine point I'm making: I'm hoping we'll be more bold in coming out and sharing what's on our hearts, despite that this might make someone uncomfortable. Yet I'm also proposing that we be more careful in avoiding the assumption that our sentiments - particularly snarky sentiments - are shared by all. It takes sensitivity, but I think it's a sweet spot worth trying to achieve - and there's some symmetry to it, if you think about it. From one side, it looks like this: Even though you know not everyone will agree, please say it anyway. From the other side, it looks like: Please say it, but please don't presume everyone will agree.

Loving God, please help us to to know when to shut our mouths, and to know when to open our mouths. Please give us our words, Lord, and save us from sludge, though it be of our own making. Amen.

image by Christaface (rights)


Vinny said...


Craig Frogale said...

It appears to me that CT is a very thoughtful and curious bunch. I know I feel safe to express myself. I'm hoping that this group can be a place to explore without worrying about what labels or ideologies seem to be at the source. Can I get an amen??

Mike Croghan said...


...hey...wait a minute! ;-)