Heresy, Etc.: Reflections on the Poets, Prophets & Preachers Conference
So, I attended the Poets Prophets and Preachers conference hosted by Rob Bell .
The aim of the conference, as stated by Rob himself, was to "reclaim the art of the sermon" for a whole new generation of preachers. In the first session, Rob declared that as our culture becomes increasingly suspicious of media, government, etc., that the sermon will become more and more necessary.
I filled twelve pages of notes with what followed.
Rob's talk was consistent with his understanding of a "meta-narrative" of the imminence of God, and God's kingdom--with a healthy dose of Resurrection power, I might add. He also generously followed up his introduction with several sessions on sermon craft, planning and general "sermonizing" theory. I particularly enjoyed when he described a sermon as an act of "creating a cathedral that people will walk into and say, 'Ahhhhhh!'." It was a great glimpse into Rob's creative process. A friend of mine who attended said that it helped to affirm his own "best practices" and to shine light on areas where he needed to improve. I couldn't have agreed more.
Rob referenced "The Story" a great deal throughout his talks--"The Story" that begins in Genesis 1 and begins again (rather than ending) in Revelations. I couldn't help recall a teaching that Rob did on one of his powerful Nooma videos, entitled "Trees." It's Rob's belief that mainstream Christianity actually begins it's story with Genesis 3 and the Fall of Humankind into Sin & Death. While he doesn't deny that The Fall is part of the story (as he has been accused of by some supposedly Christian critics), Rob does assert that if you begin The Story there, it affects everything that you say, everything that you teach, and--of course--everything that you preach.
And not in a good way.
Rob asserts that if your overarching premise is that The Story begins with sin and fallen-ness, it becomes very difficult to mine from your narrative the kind of grace and the redemption that are part of God's salvific work in the world. Rob said,
"A sermon then is the insistence that through the resurrection of Jesus, a whole new world is bursting forth right here in the midst of this one and everybody everywhere can be a part of it."
A guy by the name of Jake Bouma was liveblogging the event and offered some criticism of how Rob didn't talk about the Cross, and how that grieved him a bit. I wasn't sure what he was talking about, to be honest. His comments felt a lot to me like my Southern Baptist friends who criticize the fact that as a Presbyterian minister I don't do an invitation at the end of every service. I even had a guy tell me once that he wished I would preach a Gospel message more often. I didn't need to unpack that statement because as a former fundamentalist I knew that he meant I should be telling folk that they could possibly be going to Hell and that they might want to fix that before leaving the service.
The Gospel is so much more than asking someone if they died "right now" would they go to Heaven or Hell.
While Bouma was a fan of Rob and an excited attendee, his comments were taken out of contest by several anti-Bell folk and ended up on the Christian hate site, Reformata. The perpetrator of this site made it sound as if Rob denied the Cross as an integral part of Christian faith and doctrine. He doesn't by the way.
Rob's new book "Drops Like Stars" was also on sale a full month before it's release date. The book, which is the focus of his recent worldwide speaking tour, is more like a coffee table book, filled with fantastic art, photos and a discourse on suffering and creativity. It has a list price of $34.99. We were able to buy it for $30, which was fairly cool. I plan on reviewing it here, so stay tuned.
Rob was also joined by Peter Rollins, author, Christian philosopher and theologian and leader of the emerging group Ikon from Belfast, Ireland.
Peter's talks were frenetic, disjointed (at least on the surface) and absolutely brilliant. One of the most incredible things that he said was that the reason he was on the stage was because he wanted the praise and the adulation. He wanted to produce a whole bunch of little Peter Rollins'. I think he used the term "spiritual intercourse" to describe the process. He then told us that was the precise reason why we needed to disagree with him and push back against the things he said.
I loved his idea of God as a "trauma"--the idea that there is nothing clean, neat, orderly about God. God can't be described, and is so wonderful and terrible that there are no words no imaes that could possibly describe God. Rollins further asserts that the Scripture is Divine because of the tensions and the conflict. I'm still trying to figure out my notes from his talks. I think he might be, too.
Something he said really stuck with me... "God is not the patch of meaning on the wound...God is the wound we put our patch of meaning upon."
Here are some other Peter Rollins nuggets:
"[The Church] is the aroma of the coming kingdom [of God]."
"[The Sermon] is not descriptive... it's perfomative. It should cause an action."
"The [Scripture] is like a wonderful piece of art, not because it lacks meaning, but because it has so much meaning."
"A Sermon is not getting water to people who are thirsty, it is giving salt to make them thirsty."
"Christianity promises substantive transformation and if we're lucky some of it will happen in the Church."
"Everything we believe is wrong, especially what I believe."
"Jesus isn't a painter, he's an optician."
Shane Hipps was the final speaker to round out the teaching team. Hipps is a Mennonite pastor and author of "Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith" which I reviewed in my Blog back in February. Hipps' is a disciple of Marshall McLuhan, a futurist in the 1960's who uncannily predicted the effects of technology on society and culture in our own day and age. Much of Hipps work is essentially an expansion and interpretation of McLuhan's theories and ideas as they play out in our own "flat earth" culture--a culture dominated by media.
Hipps' mantra is one that was coined by McLuhan, "The Medium is the Message." Essentially this is a postmodern interpretation of media--TV, Internet, Radio, Print, anything that conveys a message. These are not merely conduits of a message, but are a message unto themselves.
At this conference Shane helped us to take that premise forward into the heart of sermon-making. His next two talks focused on two aspects of sermonizing: the sermon & the preacher. Hipps let us into his own process for forming a sermon--a process grounded in the theory of surprise. Shane asserts that the preacher should allow both him/herself to be surprised by the text and to basically pass the surprise on to his/her congregation.
The last talk that Shane presented was entitled, "You Are The Medium." He built upon the concept of the medium being the message and offered a fairly detailed discourse on the preacher as the medium/message--unpacking his thoughts on our physical, energetic and essential bodies. Hipps asserts that the energetic aspect of our bodies is that which can be felt, like an emotion. We feel the energy of anger, love, shame, etc. The energy we feel has an outward effect. The essential part of us, Hipps, went on to say is less perceptible, but still able to be felt--albeit on a much wider scale. He cited an example of a mentor of his who was barely four feet tall in stature, but who "filled the room" with peace when he entered it.
It sounds heavier than it was.
In the final session of the week, Rob presented a talk that I had also seen at the National Pastors Convenetion. That one was entitled, "The Chocolate Covered Turd." The one at the PPP conference was entitled, "The One Thing That I Wish Someone Had Told Me." Rob presented the idea of the chocoloate covered turd, a phenonmenon that many of us pastors experience. It's that momene when one of our parishoners tells us, "I heard some people saying [this hurtful thing] about you, but I've got your back man."
Being a pastor, Rob told us, is often "death by paper cuts." Matthew Paul Turner called it, "being nibbled to death by ducks" in his fantastic book "Churched." Either way, it sucks. Most of our churches have at least one group that Rob calls, "The Official Center for Doctrinal Purity, Orthodoxy, Rhetoric & General Theological Correctness." I call them the "Itty Bitty Shitty Committee." Rob then went on to talk about what it means to forgive and to lead with boundaries and love.
It was in this talk (one that the folks at Reformata never bothered to comment on, the wankers) that Rob revealed his theology of the Cross. He said, "The Christ-pattern of forgiveness involves death into resurrection." Rob presented this as a struggle that those of us who would call ourselves pastors must undertake on an almost daily basis, knowing that in dying to ourselves we provide the space for resurrection and renewal. He told us that the question that we need to ask ourselves is, "If I can go all the way to the bottom of it and I'm still alive, then I will get through it."
I guess God decided I needed to hear that talk again. God was right.
We discovered at the end of it all that there was a guy who was fired from his church because he attended the conference. As we shared in the Eucharist together, we took up a collection for the young guy, who found out that day he no longer had a job. As astounding as this sounds, I am not surprised, and I am actually encouraged. When the institutional Church begins to lash out and punish those who begin to wake up, it's lost. And it doesn't even know it's lost. These are the desperate acts of desperate people who know that there is something incredible beyond the horizon, but don't want to leave what they have built to go and see it.
There is none so blind as those who will not see.
I was pleased to hear hints of "next year" as we were leaving. I know that I will definitely be back, bringing someone with me!