Laying a Viable Path Forward for Music in Austin

The Front Porch convened a high stakes conversation about the plight and possibilities of music in Austin on September 15th.  We were joined by a panel of key stakeholders and about 200 in attendance who care deeply about the direction of music in Austin, yet tire of the handwringing over whether the city can sustain its posture as “Live Music Capitol of the World.” We were feeling around for viable solutions. We were also doing our best to avoid beating a dead horse.

KUT, Views & Brews, Ted Gioia, Austin Music, Live Music Austin, Unplugged on the Front Porch, The Front Porch, dialogue

Click here to listen to the podcast of Ted’s Talk on KUT’s Views & Brews! Do it now!

The Front Porch added a few secret ingredients to this “Special Event” to help make it a true dialogue. First and foremost, we brought bestselling author and top-notch music historian, Ted Gioia, from Dallas to guide us in the first portion of our quest in a keynote speech. Second, we designed our panel discussion to allow fast input from key locals who spend their days deeply invested in Austin music. And, third, we invited EVERYONE back for an informal reception with pizza and drinks to finish it off and keep the gears moving. We hope that everyone who wanted to chat with Ted, Mayor Adler, and our other distinguished panel members got a chance to do so.

We want to give major credit where it is due: to local drummer, Philip Marshall, who dreamed up this event, launched us into action, and helped run the whole thing; to Heather Wagner Reed of Juice Consulting, who got the word out for us and got all of those key folks together, in one room; and, of course, we also want to thank our whole volunteer team from Unplugged on The Front Porch. If you haven’t joined us yet for one of our Unplugged concerts, we hope you’ll join us this Thursday (10/20) for an evening with Matt the Electrician! Full event details can be found here.

live music Austin, Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Jennifer Houlihan, AMP, Nicole Bogatz, Ted Gioia, NPR, John Burnett, Views & Brews, Unplugged on The Front Porch, The Front Porch, Will Bridges,

Click here to listen to the podcast of Part 2: The Panel Discussion from KUT’s Views & Brews! Ignore the fuzzy microphone at the start!

While using the word “crisis” in the event’s title set off alarms, Gioia’s message was actually incredibly thoughtful, positive, and forward thinking. In his keynote, Gioia addressed everything from the history of pop music and record labels to today’s youth, YouTube, and Kendrick Lamar. He talked about Fortune 500 companies and the poorest of blues musicians. But, in everything, Gioia’s primary focus was the future viability of music itself.  

Gioia began by surveying what other music cities are doing. The Chamber of Commerce in New Orleans, for example, touts their city as the “birthplace of jazz,” yet the value placed on nurturing their music ecosystem is found wanting, according to Gioia. He made the point that we should beware of symbolic gestures and said, “If you want to have a vibrant music scene, symbolic gestures will kill you in the long run. It feels good to put up the banner at the airport, but what you need to do is actually understand what is going on in the music ecosystem and support it and nurture it.”

Gioia, who has written 10 books about music, then explored the music ecosystem in economic, technological, and cultural or artistic terms. Discussing the economic crisis in music, Gioia claimed that most people will no longer pay for music and that musicians are under pressure to give their music away as content in order to gain exposure. He pointed out that this is not the case with HBO, video games, or the NFL. HBO, for example, hires the very best talent for top dollar, focuses programming towards adults, and gets top dollar for it. He asks, “What do these folks know that the music industry doesn’t know?” 

He then explored the impact of technology and the Internet on the music industry, making the case that Silicon Valley has taken over the music business. The iPhone has made Apple the largest music company in the world, though it was not designed to play music but to sell phones faster than the competition. Gioia believes this constitutes a dangerous shift in the music industry, as there are now people controlling the downstream distribution of music who don’t really care about the music itself. “The tech companies have taken control of music but they do not love it or understand it… They have degraded the music experience,” he says.

And yet, he notes, with different technology this effect could be reversed. If musicians and tech groups can get together on this and problem solve, perhaps both could partner their way forward. It must to happen in a great music city that is also a great tech city. Gioia asked to great laughter, “Do any of you know of a city that meets that description?”  He then made the claim that Austin is the only city that has the music base and the technology base that could create a different technological experience that would upgrade the experience.

The real crisis in music, of course, is that whole areas in arts culture have been co-opted by the profiteers of the digital world. Gioia made a compelling appeal for why. “You need to solve the artistic crisis if you want to solve the musical crisis. You cannot just view music as entertainment that brings in the dollars. You must nurture the artistry.” To preserve and nurture a sustainable music ecosystem, Gioia insists that we must discern the distinction between entertainment and art: “Entertainment gives us what we want, whereas art challenges us, pushes us, opens up new horizons. When you deal with a work of art, you must adjust to the artist. We have to expand our minds to grasp it; we have to get out of our comfort zones and learn to think and look in new ways.”

Gioia sums it all up by telling us what he thinks is going to happen over the next 10-15 years in music. He calls the wisp he glimpses of this new movement “the birth of artisan music… It’s a respect for craft. It’s a respect for the heritage and tradition, but it’s taking music into new places… It requires a community of real artists who can play. It requires a tech base that can work with the musicians. It requires a community that has a vibrant economic base and a community that loves music. Austin is positioned to make this happen. Let’s work to make this happen for the good of all in the city.” To listen to the whole talk on KUT, click here or on the photo at the top of the page.

When the event moderator, NPR’s John Burnett, asked for panelists’ responses to the address,  most had more questions and comments than we had time to take. Here are a few takeaways and quotes. 

Mayor Steve Adler said, “There are lots of conversations that we could have this evening about music and what I loved about what you [Ted Gioia] said is that it was almost entirely forward looking and that’s the conversation that we have to have in this city right now. We are where we are.”  So the question is begged: where do we go from here, and how do we get there? How can we support the music scene and make it stronger?

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from left to right: Will Bridges, Nicole Bogatz, Dr. John Mills, Jennifer Houlihan

Harold McMillan, founder and director of DiverseArts Culture Works, noted the irony that, while Austin is the “live music capitol in the world,” the big money music business could do better to celebrate the roots and vibe of the local Austin music scene. Eve Monsees, co-owner of Antone’s Record Shop, felt that the Austin music community has been stressed out and spread thin by its many challenges and that we need to pull together to support each other’s efforts to thrive.

Will Bridges, local entrepreneur and new owner of Arlyn Studios and Antone’s nightclub, accented the need to support our music ecosystem by providing more music education for kids. He also reminded us that Austin’s live music scene is often driven by the live music experience, and not by the record industry. Nicole Bogatz, the secretary/treasurer of the Austin Federation of Musicians, argued that the community could do a better job of giving musicians the livable wage they deserve.

Dr. John Mills, professor of jazz studies at UT’s Butler School of Music, recognized the pressure musicians feel to give away their music on YouTube and elsewhere, and that this makes it difficult to make a livable wage. Jennifer Houlihan, the director of Austin Music People, sees that the challenges to the Austin music community represent the challenges that folks all over Austin will be facing sooner than later. Jennifer hopes that as the music community addresses these problems—affordable housing, public transportation, health care, etc.— and asserts that it can lead the way to helping Austin solve some problems.

The festive reception following this conversation–courtesy of the Philip Marshall Trio, Salvation Pizza, BookPeople, and Black Star Co-Op’s beer–reminded of the power we all have when we all come together, across all our divides: to think, envision, and act as the caring, creative community we are.

The Front Porch is planning a follow-up event for this spring to consider solutions. As Ted Gioia suggested, these problems could very well be solved by  collaboration between new-wave techies and old soul musicians. Out of Austin’s 140 music-focused nonprofits, creative juices are churning right now, and the support for these folks isn’t going away. People are interested in finding solutions, but the key to solution finding must be through a common vision, openness to new perspectives, and partnering across our silos.  


Too many questions linger; we can’t possibly ask them all. But, what we can do is continue this dialogue, in attempts of finding those solutions more readily and being a viable part of this shift towards new horizons in how we look at music both locally and globally. We at the Front Porch readily admit that we are not the music experts ourselves; we are, rather, hosts to this important series of conversations about our city’s pride and joy, music. We hope you’ll all join us for our next music forum, which has yet to be titled. For now, mark your calendars for the evening of April 20th! And join us for our other happenings in the meantime!

OPEN LETTER TO ALL FRONT PORCH SUPPORTERS

FP PageDear Friends,

In the mid 1990’s I served one summer as the interim Vicar of a small parish church in the village of Great Horkesley in Essex County, UK. 10-15 people at most attended the church service on Sunday mornings.

Most of my time as a minister there was spent in the local village pub. The Anchor Inn was the public house—the gathering place to meet friends after work, to cheer the occasional victory of the local cricket team, to listen to area leaders address topics of interest. Families met there to celebrate birthdays and there was always lots of singing and music. I was invited to lead discussions and teach an “ethics class” two times per week. I became part of that public family.

I’ve thought a lot about this over the summer. It’s time for us on the porch to become more intentional about who we are and what we do. This fall, the Front Porch is thus becoming a do-it-yourself public house; in fact, we’re declaring ourselves to be Austin’s Pub Church that meets Sunday evenings at Scholz Garten.

So what we used to call PARABLE is now, simply, “The Front Porch’s Pub Church.” Each week we’ll be exploring Karen Armstrong’s very fine work on compassion–12 Steps to a Compassionate Life–as a curricula of sorts. We’ve invited different guests to help lead our more extended conversation. We will continue to host some of Austin’s great singer-songwriters and offer a very focused act of communion to pull us all together.

Join us some Sunday and bring a friend. I hope to see you soon in our public house!

Stephen

(Executive Director)

PASSOVER: Exodus to Freedom–Beyond the New Jim Crow

exodusThe Hebrew slaves who escaped Egypt gave us an image, a story, and a language for expressing freedom from oppression. It depicts the passing over from death to life.

The Front Porch explored the Exodus story at its recent public celebration of Easter at Scholz’ Garten that began with this invitation: “Dear friends of the anointed, and those from every tribe and tradition who share the hope of coming alive from out of dead things: On this most holy night, we celebrate the passing over from death to life, the triumph of love over hate, and the gathering of the beloved in vigil, prayer, and communion.”  

At that event, we asked Charles Dwain Stephens (aka Chucky Black) to slam the Exodus story from the Hebrew scriptures in a poem at that service.

Chucky’s slam was a sobering reminder that slavery persists in different guises under our very noses and that we need to renew passover continually. Indeed, On Being‘s Krista Tippett’s latest conversation with Michelle Alexander shows us that Jim Crow is alive and well, shows us where the chains are, and shows us how we might rouse ourselves to Let His People Go. 

Here is the text that Chucky slammed at the Easter Vigil:

chucky blackIn the wake of Black Lives Matter, We said, “Let our people go”

And our collective voices scared the sleeping giant right out of its passive slumber

The great american pharoah was left naked in the mud

Shivering without the world it built as cover Sam said

“What’s with all the commotion 
Y’all have been free since good ole lincoln Why make a fuss now”

Sam talked real slick
but we could see ships writhe in its shadow And vultures circle the insides of his mouth

at place between the teeth that boasts chewed thing Sam Spoke to us as if he weren’t still digesting the past 400 years

As if the white house wasn’t a pyramid we built too
 We knew the grit in his speech like we knew the black of our hands

Like this pain was genetics

Like our survival was a black helix spinning towards a tired gesture We said

Pharaoh oh pharoah
Does our plight not burden yours

Does the american dream not singe everytime a black body greets dusk

Are we but a howling image left behind in your shining legacy We said

America the free
Home of the brave

Are your dreams not built upon your sins too Is it not a shifting foundation

With every step threatening your once sure footing Each day becoming sinking sand beneath your very inheritance We left the respectability at home

Because our humanity shouldn’t have to teeter on it. We made sure the whole world heard our unruly chorus

Our good bones and skin and teeth 
Being ripped back from the very land that staked it’s illegitimate claim Our mouths boasting triumph

Even During the darkest hour
And the nights when the moon denied us audience

We howled a gospel that shook fruit from tree That undid the labored knot

coughed up the red sea in our uproar 
That had the great wilderness running away on pitched lumber

Trying to forget its treachery towards man Trying to undo the bodies it hid as game

And My god was it a beautiful day This was our ten plagues of only spite

Of simply living and breathing
And that being an act of resistance all its own

 

Preaching the Front Porch!

If you want to get a feeling for the inspiration behind the Front Porch, at least from a biblical perspective, here is Stephen Kinney’s take from a sermon he gave at All Saints’ Episcopal Church on April 24th, 2016 on Acts 10-11 and John 13.31.35. It includes material from Huck Finn and W.H. Auden.

 

Krista Tippett’s Answer to the Last Question

At our recent event, “The Front Porch, KUT, & BookPeople present Krista Tippett–Becoming Wise,” Krista gave a particularly poignant response to the last questioner. Here it is! Pass it on!Krista_Tippett-0166

Reflections about The Front Porch from Anya and Serena

Anya Opshinsky and Serena Adlerstein contacted the Front Porch out of the blue almost a year ago with the idea of helping us with our art and community development, social media, and communication strategies. They found us on line in their search for nonprofits and arts communities they might serve in their post-college trek across the country. They made the Front Porch so much better! They got our podcast channel on SoundCloud set up, revamped our website, managed our programs, interviewed and recorded friends of the Porch, advised and consulted on everything during December and January! Most of all, they became dear friends and special members of the Front Porch family. Here, they offer their perceptive reflections and unique perspectives on their time with us. 

 

IMG_4285We are Anya Opshinsky and Serena Adlerstein, two artist-travelers working with The Front Porch as a part of a venture entitled Community Routes. Community Routes is a research-based road trip that seeks to celebrate community-centered art making throughout the country. From October 2015 to April 2016 we are visiting and learning from some of the artists, organizers, and thinkers that most inspire us in order to explore the connection between the arts and strong communities. Anya is a recent graduate of Kalamazoo College and a socially-engaged theater artist. Serena attended NYU and is interested in arts administration and community organizing. Together we are volunteering for 30 hours a week with the Front Porch.

We arrived in Austin in mid December, just in time for one of the few breaks in regular Front Porch programming. While we were not able to experience the usual quantity of Front Porch events, the pause allowed us to assist the Front Porch in a period of self-examination; we helped fine-tune a communication plan, assessed the Front Porch brand, brainstormed new outreach and growth strategies, and were daily enriched by the Front Porch’s ethos.

While all the organizations with which we’ve worked differ greatly from one another, The Front Porch has provided a particularly unique experience. Prior to our arrival, we weren’t completely sure what to expect. We inferred from the Front Porch’s website that Steve was either a current or former Episcopal priest who used the church’s model of communion in a secular realm to create meaningful events where people of all walks of life gathered to share in life’s journey. We imagined such events happening on literal front porches, even. We were surprised to learn that The Front Porch’s office is in fact run out of a church, many of its constituents came to The Front Porch due to its connection with the church, and that we felt incredibly welcomed despite and because of this. Steve is aware that the Front Porch’s religious foundation can feel alienating to some, but also knows that it is one of the Porch’s greatest assets. At the end of every Parable, Steve invites all present to share in God’s bounty regardless of their religious affiliation. He uses the communion ceremony as a way to solidify the humanizing experience that Parable events create. The Front Porch depends on people bringing their most authentic and open selves and therefore embraces the religious traditions and values that was the initial motivation for creating the organization.

It was at times difficult to ascertain if religion is in fact The Front Porch’s main driving force or merely its jumping off point, however. At events such as Unplugged, and even Film Church, it could be easy to forget that Steve is an Episcopal priest. We were just listening to beautiful music in a sanctuary with incredible acoustics and engaging in a compelling discussion after a good movie. What matters at the end of the day is that whoever attends a Front Porch event leaves feeling as if they had an engaging time.

 

Learning, Changing, and Developing on the Porch

november picNovember taught us many things about life on the Front Porch. We learned all over again that, given the chance, people love connecting vulnerably with other people across their various divides. Our old adage, “The Front Porch is a safe place in which to be uncomfortable,” was proven more than once this past month!

Sufi musician Amir Vahab taught us that sacred Persian music can help folks communicate with each other across different cultural and religious languages. We learned from our panel discussion with Contemplative Life’s Tom Spencer, Rabbi Neil Blumofe, Dialogue Institute director Guner Arslan, and All Saints’ Mike Adams that individuals from different perspectives have uncanny capacity to share what many call mystical kinship.

Our Sunday evening gatherings at Scholz’ Garten confirmed our best intuition about our mission: hosting conversations with luminous people, hearing the musical voices of some of Austin’s finest troubadours, and welcoming everybody to share communion in the public square makes a better Austin on multiple levels. This gathering, called PARABLE, was featured in the quarterly magazine, the diocese of Texas’s Dialog, and you can read it here.

We listened to persons who are homeless through the eyes of photographer Michael O’Brien. Poet, Jungian analyst, and priest Pittman McGehee got us thinking about hypocrisy, pretending, and whole-heartedness.  The author of “The Art of God”, Jimi Calhoun, spoke tenderly of communion with others who may look different racially or physically.  NPR’s John Burnett led a conversation with City Councilwoman Ora Houston, who opened our eyes to the people in her newly constituted District One that remain invisible to many. Throughout these intimate evenings, we listened and learned from seasoned musicians Paul Finley, John Pointer, Sara and Matt Wiley, and Chris and Elizabeth Knudson.

November’s Unplugged on the Front Porch concert with Carrie Elkin and Danny Schmidt reminded us, with Dostoyevsky, that indeed, “beauty will save the world.” The music, the people, and the space conspired to transform that Thursday evening into something sublime.

One of our most powerful learnings came through our collaboration with All Saints’ Episcopal Church to produce the annual Bailey lectures. This year’s lecturer Micky ScottBey Jones–writer, community organizer, theologian, and activist–challenged us to go much, much deeper to better understand our country’s recent upheavals over race. Micky was joined by HipHopGrewUp founder, local teacher, and musician Bavu Blakes.  

Micky stressed that while major strides were taken by the Civil Rights activists of the 50’s and 60’s, the work toward a better world is never over for the true “extremist for love,” a phrase used by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his Letter From Birmingham Jail. We learned all over again and in new ways that we can’t afford to live in shame and fear of the other–we must instead, and more than ever, partner with our friends against deeply entrenched, even systemic racial and political divides to pursue a more worthwhile future for all.   

What We Do at Parable: pub church through Alisa’s eyes

We are so grateful to Alisa Carr for sharing below her experience of this past Sunday’s Parable, the Front Porch’s pub church that meets at Scholz’ Garten each Sunday evening. Alisa works as a spiritual director, licensed counselor, and Reiki practitioner in south Austin.  

alisa picI was really looking forward to participating in Parable this Sunday, and was relieved when timing allowed me to be present! I have learned to arrive a little early, so as to avoid a long line to order a beverage or a bite to eat, and to have a conversation or two before the “service” begins. We are here to worship and pray, yes, but not in the traditional sense…we are at Scholz’ beer garden in Austin, after all. We are gathering over bratwurst and beer. We are gathered at rectangular tables that invite us to look at each other and talk.   This is a space of gathering to dialogue and connect with others—with intention and with the purpose of listening to, holding, and honoring both our differences and our similarities.

Austin singer-songwriter Stephen Smith is sharing his music with us this evening. He has a beautiful voice and sings us a prayer with a hint of the blues. It is a heart song with beautiful energy in which to enter some silence and then pray together Steve Kinney’s translated version of the Lord’s Prayer – words and phrases that also grab the heart, such as “that we may see as you see,” “interrupt us with grace,” “release us from the burden,” and so on. These phrases open up my heart and mind to receive what is to come. I am moved. Since today our topic is Marriage, we get to sing together The Wedding Song by Peter, Paul and Mary. I don’t know about everyone else, but tears well up in my eyes!

Yes, the topic for the evening is Marriage. We are led in that discussion by the teachings of Jungian analyst and Episcopal priest, J. Pittman McGehee. We talk about becoming whole, about becoming who we are created to be, and about relationship as the “crucible” for this inner journey. The hard work of embracing the shadow – within ourselves and in those whom we love – is the Way. This is the content that itself becomes a vessel for vulnerable and heartfelt sharing of personal struggle. How do I love and accept myself? How do I move beyond shame and guilt to allow myself the freedom to be and express who I am in my core? How do I accept the messiness that is within me? Where we wind up in this discussion is where we started in the opening of silent prayer…an invitation to compassion, the freedom to be, radical acceptance, and love. I experience compassion drawing us together – the openness of a few taking the whole group, or at least those of us willing to go, to greater depths.

I like to come to Parable as often as I can, and I am grateful that it is now a weekly gathering. The more I come, the more I witness and participate in the community that is emerging. It seems that every week there are people willing to express deeply felt experiences, opinions, feelings, challenges, and hopes. In an atmosphere that is, on the surface, more conducive to cheering for a favorite sports team, we are increasingly exposing ourselves with courage and vulnerability. I have found myself wanting to reach out in support, encouragement, and gratitude.

With that level of heart opening, we move into Parable’s unique celebration of Communion – what has drawn me here in the first place. Every week, Steve leads us in the most earthy, intimate, and descriptive telling of the Eucharistic story that I have ever heard. Amidst the clamor of the kitchen, the music of the guitar, bass or other instruments, conversations erupting, and between bites of bratwurst or burgers and sips of beer, wine or tea, we approach the “common table.” Surrounded by all the sounds and would-be distractions, we receive those familiar words of blessing, “The Body of Christ, The Bread of Life…The Blood of Christ, The Cup of Salvation…” as we share table fellowship for all. For this life-long, liturgical, contemplative Episcopalian this is both profane and sacred! It turns out that the line between those two realities is quite murky, if present at all. Being among others who are willing to hold that tension is what keeps me coming back to Parable on The Front Porch!

Church, Religion, and the Infinite Jest

pyramidThe Front Porch hosts Parable every Sunday evening (starting September 13th) at Scholz’ beer garden! What does this mean? Does it mean we are now a church, since we’re going to meet weekly, instead of monthly? Kind of…maybe not. It depends on what we mean by church. The fact is, we are a mission of All Saints’ Episcopal church, and we love the idea of calling people into self-forgetful compassion through music, art, conversation, and communion.

That last phrase sounded kind of churchy, no? Let’s try this: we want to be known for modeling an alternative way to get together in the public square that is inclusive, authentic, artful, and genuine. Are we a liberal group trying to be hip and relevant in postmodern, pluralistic culture? Well…no! We really push back against reductionist labels like liberal, progressive, traditional, or conservative as misleading, overly generalized concepts. We’d like to think that truth transcends such abstractions. More importantly, our uniqueness as a community of particular human beings is far greater than the sum of our parts.

We’d rather be experienced as a safe place in which to be slightly uncomfortable–i.e., an ordinary, real place where folks of all stripes and beliefs have a chance to be vulnerable in a way that allows their comfort zones to be challenged. We want to experiment with the idea of belonging and learning from the bottom-up, not from the top-down. I guess that’s what we mean when we say we are about communion, not religion. Along this open-ended, partnering path, we discover that it’s less about our quest for God, than about God’s quest for us!

infinite jest imageAre we Christian? In what way and how does Parable convey the gospel? What are we trying to do? Are we just church-lite for folks bored with convention or who want the chance to sleep in on Sunday morning? Or are we a more disruptive force for rethinking conventional assumptions? Is there a theological or theoretical framework for what we do? Is it biblical?

Yikes! Things are suddenly getting dicey. Let’s regroup. Basically, we’re inviting people of all beliefs and perspectives to see how beautiful they and others are. We have a very relational approach to truth. It’s dialogical, not ideological. We think we offer an innovative, valid interpretation of the gospel before it gets turned into the kind of religion that divides people into insiders vs. outsiders, or righteous ones vs. unrighteous ones.

Not to change the subject or to let us off the hook, but I’ve been reading this massive novel called Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. This guy has got my neurons bouncing around. His writing and worldview is challenging, but what he says about our culture being so “sad” rings true for me, and it seems to apply. In an interview on his novel, he says,

Some of the sadness that infuses the culture right now has to do with a loss of purpose or organizing principles–something you’re willing to give yourself away to, basically. And the addictive impulse that is very much in the cultural air right now is interesting and powerful only because it’s an obvious distortion of a kind of religious impulse, or an impulse to be part of something bigger.

Wallace names something here we ourselves are trying to “name” in Parable. It feels that the post-Christian, consumer culture in western society has tended towards a kind of nihilism–a void of disconnectedness that incites fear of the other. Question: how in God’s name can we cultivate a culture that really connects with others for God’s sake?! What will it take to turn down the xenophobic chatter in God’s name in order to hear again the beauty of hospitable voices that welcome the other?

Wallace continues:

It seems to me that one of the scary things about the sort of nihilism in contemporary culture is that we’re really setting ourselves up for fascism. Because as we empty more and more of the kind of values and motivating principles, (spiritual principles almost), out of the culture, we’re creating a hunger that is going to drive us to the state where we may actually welcome fascism as the lesser of evils. Because the nice thing about fascists is that they will tell you what to do, what to think, what’s important, and we as a culture aren’t doing that for ourselves yet.

How scary indeed to live in snarky monocultures that can’t hear or trust the voices of different others! Frankly, on the Porch, we’d rather have creative, even messy diversity that struggles for understanding between others, than unity based on like-mindedness or compliance.

I may have lost you with the Wallace quotes, but this is what we’re trying to get at with Parable: How fine would it be to gather each week in the public square to celebrate our unique particularities and personal differences and to start engaging one another in the context of a shared communion? Let’s co-create this in the spirit of Jesus himself, the one who models so well what it means to engage the outside other, to welcome the stranger, to love the enemy. And let’s do it with real food and drink, great music, interesting people and ideas, and lots of joy and humor. Come and see! Join us if you can!

 

 

Race, Fear of the Other, and the Quest for Communion

IMG_3093As I noted in a recent post, the dialogical approach to building community involves listening to the voices of different others–differences that enrich rather than divide. Yet, recent events in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, and elsewhere suggest that our fear of differences, our fear of the other, make the project to build community with different others very challenging, maybe even quixotic.

In “Looking White in the Face”, George Yancy observes that the question of racial identity and the task of engaging race has been taken up almost exclusively by nonwhite philosophers (NYT, July 2, 2015).  He reasons, “My sense is that this is partly because whiteness is a site of privilege that makes it invisible to many white philosophers. I also think that some white philosophers would rather avoid thinking about how their own whiteness raises deeper philosophical questions about identity, power and hegemony, as this raises the question of personal responsibility.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent for The Atlantic, talks about this blindness to color and the sadness it stirs in his recent, “Letter to My Son” (The Atlantic, July 4, 2015). “I realized then why I was sad. When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option, because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world, I was sad for the host, I was sad for all those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you.”

The inability to see color or white privilege weakens our best efforts to listen to the voices of racially different others. The profound fear of the other that many experience in our divisive climate turns community into collectives of like-mindedness that scapegoat difference and justify sameness in the name of law and order. This makes communion impossible. We need fresh ways for seeing how otherness is constitutive of unity, how otherness is absolute, how otherness is enriching, and how, therefore, communion does not threaten otherness—it generates and affirms it! 

Krista Tippett’s recent interview with john a. powell, director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, thickens the soup by opening the question of race to the question of belonging (On Being, June 25, 2015). Race is relational, Powell reminds us: “Being human is about being in the right kind of relationships. I think being human is a process. It’s not something that we just are born with. We actually learn to celebrate our connection, learn to celebrate our love. If you suffer, it does not imply love. But if you love, it does imply suffering. To suffer with, though, compassion, not to suffer against. And if we can hold that space big enough, we also have joy and fun even as we suffer. And suffering will no longer divide us. And to me, that’s sort of the human journey.”

In fact, the Front Porch eschews the binary oppositions that sort others into easy categories and, instead, participates in the often-messy interactions and relationships that accept others on their own terms and lets others be who they uniquely are. See you on the Porch in all your unique otherness and glory!