It’s not a swamp monster…

I just got back from Chicago last night, and the experience was pretty amazing. It was a lot different from what I expected, but a lot better. I gathered with twenty other people, who were all scholars in faith formation. I’m pretty sure I was the only one who didn’t have a Ph.D. There were a lot of people I’ve admired for a long time, read their work, and used their ideas, so it was good to meet them in person. I also met a lot of fascinating people, and became newly intrigued with their scholarship. So, I spent most of my time picking brains.

We want to create a learning exchange, for two reasons: (1) so that we can begin to learn spiritual practices from each other across religious traditions, and (2) because there’s a disconnect between the academy and the congregations. 

The opportunity for dialogue between traditions is ripe right now. We’ve been working in our own corners of the faith for five hundred to two thousand years or so, but at this moment in history, we can begin an exchange across religions of our best practices. There is, for instance, a lot of work being done in the area of synagogue renewal that we could learn from as Protestants. Or, in the Roman Catholic church, there are a lot of women who are running congregations, but they don’t have the support systems that women do in our mainline denominational churches.

Also, we want to do something about the logjam between the schools and the congregations. Academics often write for academic journals, they present papers to other academics, their concern is for their own audience, and then the research and information rarely gets to the congregations. Likewise, the needs and realities of what’s happening in churches don’t always get communicated to those who conduct research. The exchange would be so that we could learn from one another more effectively.

I’m already learning a great deal. For one, just the methodology of how to begin an organization. Watching John Roberto synthesize the creative energy of twenty people into a workable plan was incredibly insightful. And I think it will be a useful method as we walk farther along the Presbymergent road.

Here is one “best practice” that I learned (Although “best” was up for a lot of debate. How do you quantify a spiritual practice? How do you measure the effectiveness?). I’ll write about another one tomorrow.

There’s this concept that I’ve always wanted to articulate, and yesterday I found out that the Jews have been articulating it for a long time. Hayim Herring taught me the practice of hedorah, and I’m guessing on the spelling. I thought I could google it, but evidently google’s more interested in the swamp monster…. My Hebrew dictionary’s at work…. Anyone know the spelling?

Anyways, the idea is a practice of bringing the best of aesthetic beauty to faith. As spiritual leaders, we are to be constantly engaging our congregations in the life of beauty. He was careful to delineate that he wasn’t talking about the most expensive, but the best that a congregation can offer.

I think this is why I often reject the thrown-together contemporary worship service that some mainline congregations attempt in order to reach out to young adults. If contemporary worship is an authentic expression of who the congregation is, then it’s great. But, if the church decides to half-heartedly toss together a praise band (complete with drum machine) in order to reach a younger audience, and they don’t put any thought into the quality of musicians or music, and they think that the only key to it is singing a chorus a hundred times, well then that might not work out. In the business, we call it the “slappy happy” service, and we know it can have some awkward results….

So, I guess what I’m saying is that it’s not the style that gets under my skin, it’s when we’re not bringing the best of beauty to our faith. Hedorah. It is the sense that our worship together should include the creative endeavor to deepen our theological imaginations. That we aspire to bring the finest artistic expressions of poetry, music, and visual art into our spiritual communities. That the spiritual practice of writing a sermon is not only an intellectual exercise, but also an artistic expression.

the photo’s by geozilla


12 thoughts on “It’s not a swamp monster…

  1. Carol,
    I love me some David White. I hope to one day write and speak as he does. He is very foundational to what I have been doing here in seminary and what I hope to do in ministry.

    “bringing the best of aesthetic beauty to faith. As spiritual leaders, we are to be constantly engaging our congregations in the life of beauty.”

    Has the Creator create beautiful thing I am certain that we are called to create beauty and as we do we worship God. How can we look out in to a sunset, the starry night sky, a child’s eyes, your beloveds eyes, or God and not shiver with delight in the beauty of it all.

    Beauty is the invading of the divine into the profane…this is not exclusive to physical beauty rather it is the ascetics of faith. A faith that relishes silence in the face of the mystery of God.

    When you organize this learning exchange may I be a part of it? It sounds like something Presbymergent could connect through their site.

  2. Ryan~

    Does this beauty extend to Iron Maiden? Hee Hee.

    I often weep at the crappy things that we pass as art in the church. We so often think that God is glorified by our B game. Bring back beauty!

  3. 2 points.

    1) The beauty. I have served three suburban congregations, and have done the dance of traditional vs. contemporary vs. alternative vs. emergent vs. Iron Maiden. What I have tried to encourage in each place is that we just have worship and not describe it in any way or add catchy names.

    I have done this because it has been my experience that people respond to creativity outside their tastes when it is done really well. I’m not talking about teenagers in matching t-shirts, singing “Shine, Jesus, Shine.” (That said, our congregation does have a youth music ministry with the best name ever: Eggs Benediction.)

    I am talking about something that captures the spirit of the message for the day, a piece of music, a dramatic presentation, a painting, etc. Something that wasn’t created to entertain the people, but something that was created to proclaim the Word.

    2. The dialog. We are starting something exciting this fall at the college across the street. Through the Interfaith Center, various religious groups will all lead a weekly study on the same topic. Example: the role of women in religion. Monday, the Muslim student Association will lead a discussion, Tuesday, the Jewish student Association will lead, Wednesday I will lead one from the Christian perspective, and so on. Who knows if we’ll have students attend a discussion outside their own tradition? However, I am excited about the steps we’re taking and the openness to at least talk about the same things.

  4. Minor technical correction: Having watched Godzilla Vs. Hedorah a year or two ago with my lads (they must know the classics!), I can say with certainty that Hedorah was a smog monster…a great living mass of pollution.

    I’m not sure what the connection there is to contemporary christian music…but I’m sure one could be found without too much difficulty.

  5. David,

    I am so relieved that someone is out there to sort out the gentle nuances between swamp monster and smog monster. We may not know what the Jewish practice is, but at least we’ve got that straight!


    Let me know how the dialogue goes. We keep talking about doing similar things here with the students, but we haven’t pulled it off yet.


    David’s great. I’ve been told that I need to meet him, and I’m glad I had the chance.

    Yes! You can be a part of it. It’ll be an open thing. And Presbymergent will certainly be an ideal partner in all of this.

  6. Carol,
    It was great to be at the meeting with you in Chicago–liberating with me the Catholic to be around such energy and vision! Enjoyed your reflections.
    PS – I don’t have a PHd and either does John!!

  7. Whenever I do paintings where I think I know what the people want I’m always wrong. The ones I think no one will like get the most compliments. It’s true. When you do art (or worship, I assume) to please rather than to reach it probably doesn’t work as well. Faith isn’t a style!!

    BTW, I got your book! I can’t wait to read it, Thanks!

  8. Mariette,

    It was great to meet you too! I’m looking forward to more conversation.

    I was going to write about mystagogy tomorrow, so you’ll have to correct me if I get it wrong….

    So I wasn’t the only one without a PhD? That’s good to know! I just assumed from the collection of brain cells gathered…

    Thanks for stopping by the blog!


    Oh my gosh. I just saw what you look like on your blog. It just seems surreal that we’ve been in the same presbytery for three years and we’ve never met. But now I’ll be looking for you.

  9. Dannah,

    I’ve never thought about that dynamic and how it pertains to worship. Very interesting. It’s so true with painting. What medium do work with?

    It’s actually the same way with preaching. So many times when you think your sermon sucks, you get all this positive feedback… Perhaps it has to do with the risk that’s inherent in creating something. And the even greater risk in offering it up before a congregation. It’s scary, but then something happens in the translation.

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