A little over a week ago, I walked into the Gibson guitar factory in Memphis, and gathered with six others to begin our tour. The group was fairly evenly divided by gender, with three men and four women. We asked questions, walked around, and watched as seemingly normal pieces of wood were turned into $5,000 guitars. It was entertaining, instructive, and a good way to kill a bit of time before I had to be to a meeting.
In that tour, it didn’t strike me at all that the gender demographics were fairly balanced. That four to three ratio was close to general life.
Later, after my meeting, I walked into Rendezvous, a barbecue restaurant in downtown Memphis. This was the first official gathering, the kick-off, for the Emergence Christianity 2013 gathering. Immediately, I could tell I wasn’t in Baptist-land anymore. There were too many women for starters; there were gay couples together, there was a multitude of ages, there were copious tattoos, and there was even the occasional non-Caucasian. As I waded into one of the lines, I ran into two of my female Gibson-tour companions, both of whom I learned are Presbyterian ministers in the D.C. area. They seemed at home there, gathered with others who were here to seek God, unconcerned about the things that typically divide us as followers of Christ. I’m not sure that it would’ve been that way in many Baptist gatherings.
Admittedly, I’m no expert on religious gatherings. I’ve only been to a few over the course of my life. And even in Baptist life, some are different than others. The first large gathering I was at seemed to be only men, and all white at that. Others, particularly more moderate gatherings, have seen a larger contingent of women, but still are largely Caucasian.
I’m no Nate Silver. I haven’t run the numbers. I know that Emergence Christianity’s gathering was still largely whitewashed, but it felt different. For one thing, they openly and non-defensively talked about their own need to be increasingly inclusive across racial boundaries. There seemed to be an acceptance of everyone who was gathered there in a way that is rare for any religious gathering. Detractors of the Emergence movement will tell you that acceptance (even celebration) comes at the cost of doctrine and truth. I say that we are all detractors far too often, finding cynicism a much easier stance of the heart than actually believing in something.
During the course of the event, as Phyllis Tickle made the statement that sexual orientation was the last bastion of many who still sought some literal and inerrant reading of the bible (after race and gender had been rendered powerless as distinctions), I was reminded of one of my favorite Flannery O’Connor stories, “Revelation”.
In that story, the main character, Mrs. Turpin, spends the majority of the short story spouting bigotry under the guise of decency, kind of like discrimination under the guise of doctrine. In the last act of the story, her moral superiority is rattled loose by the violence of a young, educated woman, who says to Mrs. Turpin, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old warthog” (O’Connor, “Revelation”)
The indication that this seemingly righteous woman might actually belong in hell undoes Mrs. Turpin to the point that she cannot forget these words. They come back to her as she is feeding the pigs and is struck by the titular revelation.
A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were tumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They, alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away. (O’Connor, “Revelation”)
That image of heaven being large enough to contain those Mrs. Turpin hated and her own hateful self has helped to shape my imagination when it comes to the Kingdom, and I was reminded of it as I worshiped with such a wide range of people calling on the name of Christ. It was beautiful, imperfect, and striking. As my understanding of salvation has expanded to incorporate the eternal now in addition to eschatological realities, I think this is part of my soul that needs saving and a part of my Baptist identity that needs growth and reformation.
I want, no I need for my own soul, to be around those whom Jesus would be around, and that includes people like me and people remarkably different than me. And I think there is space in the Baptist tradition for that to happen, for the other to be embraced and for conversations about how to be more inclusive to occur in such a way that both scripture and the reality of our world can be discussed in love and not division. While there are other things we as Baptists probably need to learn from the Emergence movement, I think we could start here, with an intentional diversifying of our ranks. We’ve made movement in that direction, with New Covenants and conversations and even a woman as the next face of CBF leadership. But I want to go deeper than occasional moments and leadership positions. I want to ponder ways that we can more closely resemble the kingdom of God here, so that we might be more at home when we fully inhabit it.
When I figure out how to do it, I’ll let you know. If you figure it out first, will you tell me?