My final day of Christianity 21 was actually the day after the event. It was one of those bonus days that appear when snowy weather stacks up delays at the airport, so you sit around and eat a few more pancakes, and then eventually realize that your flight will be so late that you’ll completely miss your connection, and since you love the Milwaukee airport dearly but don’t really want to sleep there, you check on your responsibilities and then change the plan to allow a departure the next day. So you’re left with a kind of extra day with a few refugees of the same weather. Most of whom are wearing at least one item of clothing that they wore sometime earlier in the weekend.
In the case of the bunch held over from C21, the question of ‘what to do?’ was resolved with one giant answer: The Mall of America. With our sense of irony turned up to 11, several groups of people converged into the belly of the beast and managed to meet up in one of the many spaces there. After which we wandered toward some food and then wandered back out again, because the following question of ‘what now?’ was answered with that great indulgence of time-fillers, the cheap movie. We piled into a mostly empty theater for Zombieland, a ridiculous comedy/horror about 4 people fighting for their lives in a post-apocalyptic landscape (and featuring what might be the best surprise celebrity cameo, ever).
Which was a great film, and full of serious laughs. But which has stuck with me over the weeks since for its metaphorical take on our real-life experience.
The people who gathered at C21 have, for many reasons, become a lighting rod for criticism. Though we try not to be overtly critical of other forms of church, many see what we’re talking about as a threat to more conventional kinds of Christianity (which most of us have experienced, and which most of us have not left in an angry manner, but simply departed because these more traditional forms work really well, just not for us). The naysayers seem to address two audiences: those of us pursuing some emergence practices (who apparently need a stern rebuke, since we’ve obviously not thought or prayed about what we’re doing), and those who might be enticed to follow our lead (who likewise have some inability to discern these matters for themselves). Indeed, at that very event, there were folks gathered outside in the cold to ‘preach the truth’ over against (what they understand as) the message of C21 (which they understand as a coherent, evil whole). And there were folks virtually gathered outside the Twitter feed, grabbing (what they saw as) incriminating evidence of heresy and poor morals and stupidity for mockery, ridicule, and censure. Besides all of the blog posts and podcasts and various libel and slander that came out before, during, and after the meeting. So part of what we were escaping when we ducked into our escapist movie was all of this stuff flying at us and our friends.
I know this metaphor is probably unkind, and not helpful to either side of this divide, but it at least speaks to the feelings of many. Because much as we try to avoid us vs. them dichotomies, and honestly work to understand and be shaped by the other, it is hard not to observe the wider scene and feel sorry for oneself. Because truly, those on the receiving end of the critique are plain people, but especially beleaguered, bereaved, and broken. Who seem to be pursued by unreasonable creatures who, in the end, only want to consume our flesh. I mean, how else are we to make sense of the fact that our friends are mocked in public spaces for their appearance?
Now I’m not saying that those of us trying to imagine and experiment with what new expressions of Christianity might look like should pile into a Hummer filled with firearms and garden implements and wreak havoc on those who are trying to take us down. I’m just saying that it often feels like we’re trying to listen to and reason with creatures whose humanity is lost behind an almost mindless quest for blood. And that one wonders if the world is therefore a safe place for questions and explorations.
There are signs of hope. Nadia stopped to speak with one of her more vicious critics, and had a wonderfully humbling and transformative conversation. Another friend got on the phone to address a particularly eggregious case of character assasination, and it seems to have softened the offender somewhat (or maybe when a notorious preacher of grace thunders against your bad behavior, you just know that you’ve completely screwed up…). And perhaps the biggest sign of hope was C21 itself, where people were encouraged and empowered to follow Jesus in bold and simple ways. Maybe doing our best to do right and act out of love and live with hope is the best strategy of all.