New to me: Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia

How could I not blog about this article about the hybrid mixing of Evangelical Baptists and Georgian Orthodox? Not only does the article describe two traditions that are very familiar to me for very different reasons (I grew up in an evangelical, anabaptist tradition and now study Byzantine art which is deeply saturated with Orthodox theology), it was also written by a journalist named Yoder, my maiden name. Sheesh—I got the message and read the article!

The Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia, or EBCG, is a new church/denomination established by Baptists for Georgians. This is a contextual model of church that is based on rigorous interpretation of its context. Malkhaz Songulashvili, archbishop of the EBCG, claims his church integrates Protestant and Orthodox traditions; it is “Baptist in theology while both Georgian and Orthodox in culture.” And, just to confuse matters, they call their structure an Episcopal Baptist Church, with bishops heading the hierarchy.

It’s not surprising to me that Songulashvili recently completed a doctorate at England’s Oxford Centre for Mission Studies. This is the kind of missional work that leaders in the west, especially in the Anglican church, are trying to develop. It takes a lot of skill and intelligence to become this kind of leader. But it also takes a lot of humility, self-control, and hard work.

In 2010, an American pastor reported that on any given Sunday in Peace Cathedral, where Songulashvili serves, “the sanctuary [is] overflowing, with younger people crowding at the doorways to participate in the services.” A bearded, wine-drinking, highly educated Baptist hierarch in flowing robes and sandals is apparently more attractive to Georgian youth than a podium-pounding Eastern European preacher in an ill-fitting suit.

The Orthodox elements involve a sensually rich liturgical expression with icons (yea!) and incense, processions, pilgrimages, and a monastic order. The strong Georgian cultural perspective is strong, too, but they are not a national church in the way that the Georgian Orthodox church is.

The Protestant elements include the having a female bishop (Bishop Rusudan Gotsiridze) and liturgical dance, which is funny because I know a good many Anglicans who would rather not accept these as markers of protestantism. Gotsiridze is a new hero of mine!

This approach to Christianity is appealing in its simplicity: show love and friendliness to everyone, and let God do the rest. It is also admirable in its willingness to reach out and take risks, even in volatile places. And confounding in Songulashvili’s stance of radical forgiveness of nationalists who oppose his organization.

But it leaves me wondering about the complicated bits like, what is their sacramental theology? And how does this church fit with other denominations and traditions? Songulashvili’s fraught relationships with pro-Russian groups emphasize how messy the political side of church denominational divides can be. I’m pleased to see religious groups growing in Georgia mostly because these groups help people stay connected with their heritage and family. And, I’m fundamentally a protestant in the way I regard institutions and hierarchies with suspicion—what institution doesn’t need a little reformation? I’m not just talking about the way the EBCG rubs up against the Orthodox and Baptist groups in Georgia and Eastern Europe, but also about the way Baptists and other denominations in the west could use a wake-up call.

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Round-up: Why God is Missing from Downton Abbey?

I do like me some good TV drama! Throw in period clothing, architecture, props, and I’m golden! The recent phenomenon of Downton Abbey has revived the genre for a newer, younger audience.  It’s like the new-money version of Miss Marple: all the complexity and drama of the genre (minus the murder mystery) updated to reflect the perspectives of modern TV producers and viewers.

While I love the show and its romantic view of how traditions change, it does a poor job of being a piece of historical fiction. Other commentators have griped about the anachronistic phrases that locate the use of English to the 1980s, not the 1910s. From the very beginning, the show has included almost nothing of the institutional church or personal devotion that would have constituted a major part of the psychological and social lives of the upstairs and downstairs characters. They rarely attend church or church sponsored events, they do not explore theological explanations for life’s complexities, and only Lady Edith makes a visit to her local parish once to pray after learning another of her friends was killed in the war.

In the current Season 3 we only see the church as a kind of foil to the modern and independent ways of thinking. Although the show’s plot emphasizes these social changes, it is especially surprising that after the tragic death of an important character that there was no pastoral support or even presence. Old Lady Gratham’s words to her son, Lord Grantham, advise only to not blame oneself for the tragedy. No pondering about the hand of God in human affairs or about how or why God would let this death happen. No phone-call to the priest who lives on the estate and who depends on Lord Grantham for his livelihood. What does it mean to employ a vicar if not to have someone to call in emergencies?

Why do I care so much about the missing religion from Downton Abbey? About the absent God-talk? About the marginalized institutional church and about how personal religious faith is more embarrassing than anything else? Because it is bad history to not use the discursive contexts of the period that the show claims to represent. Sure, I know the show isn’t historical evidence about the 1910s and 20s, but many people will interpret it that way. The choice to avoid these aspects of life in this period dilutes our ability to understand history and social change. It lulls us into an easier history that doesn’t seem so alien to our contemporary context. It represents a crisis of Faith in which we re-tell our history ignoring some of the biggest aspects.

In the world of Downton Abbey, the Church of England is an irrelevant and forgotten blip on the horizon. It is only present in fleeting moments on the fringes of society. The invisible church mirrors how the producers and writers in the 21st century view it—as an institution that is quaint at best, but probably just a meaningless nuisance and a waste of time. Church-land was already old fashioned and out of date in the early 20th century; how much more so now. The scene in Season 1 in which Lady Edith visits local churches with a potential love interest reinforces how our society only knows how to access church buildings as part of architectural history, nothing more.

Matthew and Lady Edith (image: http://i.huffpost.com/gen/931186/thumbs/o-DOWNTON-ABBEY-570.jpg?6)
Matthew and Lady Edith (image: http://i.huffpost.com/gen/931186/thumbs/o-DOWNTON-ABBEY-570.jpg?6)

Granted, there are a few scenes in which characters pray. This nod to the English Anglicanism of the early 1920s is subtle. And even in these prayer scenes—Lady Mary’s bedside intercessions for Matthew when he is injured and the servants praying for him when he is lost at the front—it is shown as a last resort. She was embarrassed to be discovered praying when her sister Edith walked into her room. 

There are also few scenes in which the tension between Catholicism and Anglicanism in England surfaces. Most notably, the family is divided over baptizing baby Sibyl into the Catholic church. As if this conflict is enough to represent the chasm between England and Ireland.

The show avoids the fluent God-talk that would have constituted more of the social interaction of everyone in that part of the twentieth century. While the show may be about the crisis of faith that was erupting in every class of society, these characters should be portrayed as more familiar with the liturgical and devotional practices of their day. That is their past and present.

Here is how one commentator summarizes the religious landscape of Downton Abbey, “In many ways it’s a secular introduction to what the crisis of faith might look like. In other words, the crisis of faith is not explicitly grounded or framed in God-talk. There’s very little explicit reference to God in the television series. Grace does not take place at meals, even though there’s a lot of eating. They rarely go to church, except for a wedding, and even then you don’t see much of the wedding service. So faith is strangely non-explicit, and yet simultaneously faith is very present. And what I think the series is doing is inviting us to think of faith in a new and different way. Faith is interpreting how we relate to each other. Faith is coping with the complexity of our past. Faith is carrying the baggage that shapes us all into the present and doing so in ways that are ameliorated and less damaging. Faith is hope even when you are in a predicament of hopelessness. All these themes bubble through countlessly.” The commentator (Dean and President of Virginia Theological Seminary) sees the changing faith stories of these characters taking a “spiritual-but-not-religious” turn in which their humanist values are tested.

I’m not alone. There are plenty of viewers and fans of the show asking similar questions about the missing dimensions of religious life.

  1. This blogger (Episcopal rector) asks the same question about how almost every significant aspect of church life has been omitted from the series.
  2. Julian Fellowes is a practicing Catholic as discussed in this podcast from America magazine of The National Catholic Review. 
  3. This article from Christianity Today (Todd Dorman, 1/4/13) asks the same question.
  4. This essay from Thinking Faith analyzes the Catholicity of the show. 

Venting about Advent

I want to be on the winning side of the Advent Wars. Living in church-land means that the choices I make about observing religious seasons, like Advent, express more than my own personal understanding of how the world works. My choices define the boundaries for others. I just want to listen to Christmas music (including the cheerful, secular stuff), put up some decorations, and drink my tea from a “Christmas mug” with poinsettias on it. But these short incursions into Joy provoke the Advent police who are interested in maintaining a detached, watchful presence.

I’m not prepared to spend the next month in a holding pattern, withholding joy, avoiding music, and abstaining from sweets. In past years I’ve tried to embrace the purifying season of Advent with its austerity and focus on waiting, preparing, and vigilance. In the game of holier-than-thou, I’m fully prepared to let anyone else beat me. The theological justification for fasting and refraining from celebrations makes sense, but in the bigger scheme of things, I’m not convinced.  A friend recently suggested the title Confessions of a Redeemed Advent Grinch for a blog post on her changing attitudes about keeping a pure Advent.

And then there is this post about negotiating the boundaries between the secular and Christian dimensions of the season: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithforward/2012/11/top-10-reasons-christians-should-stop-whining-about-secular-xmas/

Erin Wathen points out that much of the reasoning behind her defence against the fight by Christians to keep Christmas “pure” has to do with generosity: it takes a generous spirit to recognize that many other religious groups celebrate significant holidays in December. Fighting to “keep the Christ in Christmas” is just a way of saying we are trying to keep something to ourselves and for ourselves. It also takes a generous spirit to recognize that many people, including those with little or no religious convictions, are moved to give gifts to one another and even to seek a taste of something holy. I love her suggestions to focus on spending more time serving the poor, going to worship, getting out into nature, spending time with people we love, healing, and showing compassion.

And there’s also this post on Sojo.net about the so-called War on Christmas: http://sojo.net/blogs/2012/11/30/war-christmas-sign-minister 

Sandlin also draws our attention to the social injustices of our world made especially visible during this season. He rallies behind a war against the consumerist Christmas arguing, “I refuse to let the story of my faith be co-opted by corporations who only wish to convince us that we are privileged and we do deserve what we have more than others and we should revel in our abundance even as we celebrate the birth of the child who laid in a feeding trough.” Take heed Advent police: the case against a consumerist-Christmas is the one that matters.

And then there’s this from a friend’s Facebook wall: “I see Advent as a gradual crescendo, but all in the same key, pretty much, or in the related minor to Christmas’ major. Whereas Lent is a decrescendo, in a totally unrelated key, fading into total silence on Holy Saturday before you get to the DEAFENING BLARE OF TRUMPETS IN ANOTHER KEY ENTIRELY at the Vigil.” Small joys in Advent are part of the bigger narrative line that leads to the celebrations of Christmas.

And this: “Advent… tells the truth by reminding us that we are incomplete, that this life is not all there is, that nothing we can do/achieve (work, money, love) can actually give us security/control, that only God can free us from fear and from our own inadequacy. I think that the secular Christmas is not of God insofar as it encourages us to idolize gifts, money, consumption, material comfort, and a false image of perfection.”

Finally, there is this observation: I’ve not sure how to compare keeping Advent pure against how my religious convictions influence other lifestyle choices I make. There could be just a tinge of hypocrisy going on here. The Advent police want to turn off the cheery music and pull down the colourful decorations, yet the same grinches would think nothing of spending hours watching movies that degrade other humans or live in other ways that bring harm to the body.

Review: The Church in Emerging Culture, ed. Leonard Sweet

Sweet, Leonard, ed. The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives. Grand Raids, MI: Zondervan 2003.

Occasionally I’ll take the time to browse library shelves for recent publications on themes related to my interests in the contemporary church and visual culture. Today I encountered a book on the so-called emerging church, which offers an analysis of where church fits into our western society.

Five contributors take part in a discussion on the church: Andy Crouch, Michael Horton, Frederica Mathewes-Green, Brian McLaren, and Erwin Raphael McManus. Each of these writers has earned a special place within a readership anxious about the future of our churches amid dire statistical evidence. Sweet begins the discussion with a critique of Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture published in 1951. Much of the rest of the book deals with the significance of living in a postmodern society and finding a place for the key issues in systematic theology within this new framework: Who is Christ? What is the place of culture? What is the significance of the sacraments? What is postmodernism? What is modernity? What can we say about the Mall of America?

The book was published almost ten years ago, which gives us an opportunity to examine the degree to which their assessments of church-live have borne out. I’m not a part of the inner-circle of theologians and church leaders who are re-thinking and re-imagining our churches.  But, as far as I can tell, most congregations lag far behind the trends outlined here.

Together, these authors argue we are in a changing cultural landscape in which we are much more spiritual, engaged by personal experiences, and attuned to images. Our forms of spirituality are much less informed by religions, less directed by authority, and less attuned to words.

That line on the back cover of the book—that we now live in a society more aware of images than words—caught my attention.  Actually, the striking part for me was the authors’ inability to engage how of visual culture and popular media relate to the mission of the church.  Churches are only incrementally better equipped to engage visual culture than ten years ago and reluctant to participate in popular media.  More problematic for me: the authors are trying to understand how churches relate to everything outside and around them without really changing the way we do liturgy and worship.

Next:

Frederica Mathewes-Green, The Open Door: Enter the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer.