Highlights of the Kingdom Economy Conference

I am really glad I got the chance to attend The Evolving Church: Kingdom Economy conference on Saturday at People’s Church.  This is the first time I’ve been able to attend an event put on by Epiphaneia, and it definitely lived up to my expectations.    The strength of the event was definitely the outstanding speakers.   I was drawn in by the chance to hear William Cavanaugh, but went away wanting to hear more from pretty much every one of them.

Maybe the most significant thing about the Evolving Church conferences is the way they bring significant thinkers from the academic world into dialogue with the local church.  This doesn’t happen nearly enough.   I posted some thoughts on this problem in relation to theological education a few weeks ago.    With Karl Barth, I see theology as an activity of the Church.  It could be described as the activity by which “the Church, in accoardance with the state of its knowledge at different times, takes account of the content of its proclamation critically, that is, by the standard of Holy Scripture and under the guidance of its confessions.” [Dogmatics in Outline, p. 1]  If this is true, the mutual isolation that currently exists between the life of the church and theological research is deeply problematic, both for professional theologians and for the Church as a whole.   It would also seem, on the basis of this definition, that events like Kingdom Economy could be considered more theological than many academic conferences, where the topics and papers presented are often very far removed from the life of the Church.

I couldn’t begin to summarize all the things that were said on Saturday, but I thought I’d offer a few quotes that have stuck with me.

“Shakespeare is country music.” David Dark. I could have listened to David Dark all day.  He made me wish I was more familiar with English literature.  But the point of this quote was that “literature” doesn’t mean really intimidating stuff that makes you feel inadequate – it is “the poety of the people,” and “that which expands the talk-aboutable.”  He wanted to focus primarily on “the classics,” works which are called classics precisely because of their enduring popularity, not because of their obscurity.  He painted a picture of our engagement with literature is part of a process of redemptive questioning, testing, and re-appropriating a stock of images and words from our culture.   There are times when an “explanation” could be a form of false witness, an inadequate testimony to God’s truth, which might be better expressed in poetry or narrative – something which, rather than giving a definitive, propositional answer, induces further questioning and searching (we might note here that the form of scripture itself testifies to this need for poetic and narratival witness to divine revelation).  I’m sure I haven’t adequately expressed his perspective, but I was quite moved by what he had to say, and I”m hoping at some point I’ll get a chance to read some of his work.

“Consumerism is not about having more, it is about having something else.” William Cavanaugh.  I read Being Consumed last year and was thoroughly impressed with the way that Cavanaugh used traditional theological voices such as Augustine and Aquinas to critique consumerist culture and economic practices.  His presentation and workshop were based on the book, so I was glad to be reminded of some of the more significant points he made there.  In his workshop he was talking about how we assume that consumerism produces an inordinate attachment to “things,” when really it pushes us to detachment from the material world.  We are detached from products because we are detached from the process of production (we don’t make our own stuff anymore) and from the producers (who are often working under deplorable conditions in far off places).  The result is that we’re not at all attached to the things we buy.  Once we have one thing, we just want other things – consumerism is about shopping not about actually valuing and holding on to the things we buy.   Much more could be said about this book…maybe later.

“To be a Christian is to be drawn into a story you did not want to be a part of…drawn into wanting to be bound to that which you despise.” J. Kameron Carter.   Somehow I came away appreciating Carter’s contrast of Avatar and District 9, even though I’m one of about five people on earth who haven’t seen either of these movies.   His point here had to do with the aesthetics of the two films.  Both make you want to become the “other,” but in Avatar, you are drawn into wanting to be one of the Na’vi because you see them as beautiful.  By contrast, in District 9, you are drawn into wanting to be bound to the “prawns”, which are hideous and revolting.  Carter spun this out as a kind of incarnational aesthetic – redemption coming through being bound to that which you despise.  I wonder where Gran Torino fits on this spectrum?

“Instead of following Jesus Christ you end up buying into certain brands…but they all started out as genuine movements of the Holy Spirit.” Becky Garrison. I found Garrison’s talk really funny, and I thought it shed light on a really problematic aspect of Christian culture.  Garrison is a satirist, and the idea of “Christian satire” certainly raises some interesting questions.  My friend Ian had a discussion with Garrison about this over on his blog.  He raises some really good questions about whether or satire, as a genre, is a helpful way for Christians to speak to one another.   He may be right, but I thought Becky’s talk showed that she is aware of the potential dangers of what she does.  That’s why I included the two quotes above.   I’m not sure how much time passed between her saying those two things, but she did say both.  The problem is not with big-name authors, but with the way that authors are themselves promoted and branded and marketed to the hilt. It’s a question about the system.  Granted, it is hard to separate the system from the people involved.  That’s why, towards the end of her talk, Garrison said,  “Beware of crossing the line from satirizing the subject to slamming the soul…beware of moving from smashing an idol to destroying the Church.”   That’s a difficult line to walk, for sure.

“It’s hard to tell the guy who got a free BMW for Easter that he is called to die.” Chris Seay.  Seay’s talk was mostly about righteousness.  While we tend to think of righteousness as being about upright personal behaviour, he offered the alternative way of thinking about it in terms of “shalom.”  There aren’t good and bad people, he said, there is “shalom” and there is “broken shalom.”  We need to understand righteousness as God bringing his shalom into the world – that will push the Church to rush into the broken places of the world.  It sounds like his church in Houston embodies this idea.  The quote I’ve chosen isn’t so much about that, but I thought it was hilarious.  In critiquing the typical “bait-and-switch” technique of trying to get people to come to church, Seay noted that a church in Houston had offered over $2M in prizes this Easter in order to get people to show up.  The prizes included luxury items like BMWs.  That’s where the above quote came from – we’re not inviting people to follow Christ in bringing God’s shalom into the world if we entice them to come by offering great benefits.   Another gem:  “The evangelion has become an infomercial.”

I’m really thankful to the guys at Epiphaneia for holding these events – and I’m encouraged that so many people show up!

I would definitely be attending the Eighth Letter conference this October, but I’m going to be out of town.   If you are able to go, I’d highly recommend it.