The morning plenary at the Ekklesia Project involves Debra Dean Murphy, Brenna Cussen, Fred Bahnson, and Grace Hackney; they’re talking about “Kingdom Practices.” By this, they refer to the deliberate inhabitation of particular places, in ways congruent with the specificity of the place and of their vocation as Christians. Fred and Grace live at Anathoth Community Garden in North Carolina, and Brenna at a Catholic Worker house in South Bend.
Brenna begins the presentation with a discussion of “making a home” as a way for Christians to live together. She cites Matthew 25:31-46 as a charter for Catholic Workers’ social activism. The works of mercy, according to the Catholic Worker movement, lie at the heart of the gospel, to be enacted in person. She points to visiting Al, a prisoner; caring for Anna, with a disabling illness; to feeding refugees in Darfur. She understands the significance of her work as the parabolic mustard seed: a small movement, which she trusts that God will ultimately bring to fruition. The House where she lives anticipates the culmination of their labor with the daily joyful dinner at 6:30, seven days a week.
Grace describes her experience in Cedar Grove United Methodist Church, where she has borne witness to a life consistently grounded in peace. Cedar Grove Church had burned down , and as part of the congregation’s recuperation from that trauma, and in the aftermath of a brutal murder in the rural community, Grace began a discussion of land and faith, about poverty and abundance. In the course of a Bible study on Jeremiah, Grace’s community found the opportunity to found a community garden, where those who commit to participate in the work of raising food share in the produce and donate from the abundance of their garden to feed their hungry neighbors.
The first workshop I’m attending is Debra Dean Murphy’s session on Christian Formation — the room is crowded, and everyone is introducing him- or herself, which will take up a considerable part of the morning’s time slot. Debra begins the formal part of the session with the Parable of the Mustard Seed. She characterizes the parable as a subversive narrative, which all too readily the church has flattened out into reinforcing (rather than deconstructing) the powers of domination and exploitation.
She wants to strengthen the integration of the project of Christian formation with the liturgical, ethical, social practice of discipleship. She rejects the terminology of “Christian [or, less acceptably still ‘religious’] education,” and insists on speaking about catechesis. Worship should be the matrix and milieu for other modes of catechesis, which in turn should reflect the ideal of doxological growth toward full, grounded, deep discipleship (over against nationalist idolatry, consumer ideology, or the acquisition of abstracted facts and propositions about God). On her account, teaching in this way defies the traditional model of content-transmission, and turns us toward transforming the disciples’ imaginations.
After lunch, Allyne Smith, Brian Volck, and old friend Trevor have a panel discussion on “the Kingdom in Pictures and Poems.” Brian starts the discussion with a paper on “The Catholic Imagination as an Antidote to Gnosticism.” The catholic imagination entails a strong element of bodily experience: scents, sounds, sights, gestures. He cites Bernini’s “Ecstasy of St. Teresa” as an example of the carnality of catholic spirituality; it’s not (shhhh) secretly a Freudian subtext, but vigorously, explicitly a demonstration of the bodily experience of spiritual ecstasy. Brian reads several poems, displays a series of paintings, and argues that his positive illustrations exemplify a sacramental co-inherence of matter and spirit.
Allyne Smith begins from his Platonic conviction that beauty, truth, and goodness converge, and regrets the Western theological tradition’s relative silence on theological aesthetics. He cites a description of the Divine Liturgy, to the effect that God dwells in the liturgy of the Hagia Sophia, so great is the beauty of the worship. He turns the lecture to the topic of icons, a fundamental element of Orthodox identity and worship. Supporters of icons understand icons to represent an integral aspect of sound incarnational theology — but from the Orthodox perspective, iconoclasm entails all the previous heresies rolled into one.
Trevor has very little time left — the first presentation went long — but he’s using his time to narrate a Mennonite transition from hostility to visual and auditory art, to accommodation of the beautiful in contemporary Anabaptist life. He argues that the key concepts of “patience” and “simplicity” explain the transition. “Simplicity” was a watchword of modernism (manifest in the architecture of Mies van der Rohe, for instance). He cites a description of congregational four-part harmony as “the Mennonite Eucharist”; he does not believe Christ to be physically present in the bread and wine, but he suspects that Mennonites feel the presence of God in their mouths, in song.
I skipped the second workshop — Margaret and I needed to get our blood flowing, so we went for a walk around the DePaul neighborhood. After the break, we joined the plenary presentation from Englewood Christian Church, a congregation from Indianapolis. They seem a fascinating bunch, with lovely admirable qualities.