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!