Post-Greenbelt thoughts on faith, theology and all that's really deep (ahem)

Thursday, 29 August 2013

This afternoon I read this post about Greenbelt, written by Jonty Langley, that really resonated with me. The enormous struggle that church has been for me since becoming a mother; a lot of the things I've been trying to thrash out, in my own head, with very little success - this past weekend helped me to start making sense of some of them. I was overwhelmed by the programme as well as the number of friends I wanted to catch up with, and only made it to a couple of sessions each day - but the experiences and conversations I had last weekend came at the right time and are of enormous value to me. From the thought-provoking and incredibly intelligent panel discussion "What women (in the church) want", to Jim Wallis speaking on working for the common good, to a conversation about intergenerational feminism and learning from each other without hostility, to another one about meaningful church community - and then there was communion: emotional, life-affirming, and celebratory.

Last week I wondered, on Twitter (obviously), whether I should write a blog post about faith, church, theological discussion, and "feelings". For at least a year now I've had this obsession that I need to engage with theology at a deeper level. If I wasn't a full-time parent with a full-time-job, this would probably be much easier. I'd buy lots of books, and I'd read them. Part of it's due to the fact that I don't like having vague ideas about things; I like to know a subject well. I don't want to accept one version of events without coming to conclusions about it by finding about about several other versions of said events as well.

Some years ago, I stumbled across numerous articles about a controversial debate on penal substitutionary atonement that was causing a stir in the British evangelical community. At the time I was not aware that there was a debate about penal substitutionary atonement. But I needed to know what was going on and why. It horrified me that in my years as a Christian, there was so much stuff that had never been made clear to me. I remember seeing people defend subordinationism in never-resolved comment threads then seeing many, many more people brush it off as heretical. In the years since, I've managed to become more knowledgeable about a lot of issues. But I see myself at the beginning of a long journey of coming to my own conclusions in that respect. One that I barely have the time and energy for at present.

But when I wondered, last week, whether or not I should blog about all this I felt conflicted - about whether a desire for more knowledge in that respect would only lead to me becoming the sort of person I was feeling incredibly fed up with on that day in particular. I'd just seen yet another ridiculous post using snippets of things a well-known writer has said to "prove" that they are not a real evangelical, not really, so we shouldn't listen to anything they say. I was so sick of seeing people engaging in theological one-upmanship, demanding that others "prove" why they believe something is true and throwing their proof-texts, their texts of terror like so many smug little darts while on at another end of the spectrum, others try to out-theologize one another by wielding flowery prose and "stories" like a weapon.

It took a few of these excellent conversations at Greenbelt last weekend to see things in a new light. Marika Rose saying "I don't feel the need to prove that I have a right to an opinion and a voice". A very wise woman talking to me about theology and expertise. Discussing the people we are online with another equally wise woman. I know that knowing about things, and having made peace with how you feel about things, doesn't have to mean all of the mess of proving this and proving that and telling everyone else that they're wrong and dictating who they should believe and who they should listen to. But at the same time I can't step back and decide it's best not to know and best to just focus on all the positives and the surface emotions because thinking too much will only make me unhappy and we know where that leads, because that's not how I work. If there's one thing the past year or so has shown me, it's that if we're going to talk in terms of Fowler's Stages of Faith, I'm firmly in Stage 4.

As with everything faith-related and crisis-themed, I hesitated about writing this. But my experiences at the weekend made me realise that I needed to get one with processing it and dealing with it in my own way. So before I came home, I went to the Books tent. And I realised that whatever conclusions I come to and whatever knowledge I gain, I don't have it in me to become a thrower of proof-texty darts or a wielder of flowery prose.

Finally, just so you know and for anyone who'd like to recall:

I was beyond excited to spend the weekend at the festival as part of the Threads collective, one of ten contributors speaking on the topic of "When I'm 40, I hope...".

My talk was entitled "When I'm 40, I hope I'm not a brand", and reflected the fact that at the time I pitched my idea to the festival organisers, discussions among my friends about blogging, having an online presence, integrity and sincerity were giving me a lot of food for thought, adding to feelings I'd been having ever since I gave birth and stepped back from blogging somewhat.

I wanted to highlight the values I hope I can maintain a commitment to in future: authenticity, passion, right motives, and not building profile and presence out of a sense of competitiveness.

Authenticity: A Christian buzzword that often feels a bit overdone and meaningless now. But one we can all aspire to because we know too well that when it's lacking, we're turned off writers and bloggers. Real voice over personal brand.

Passion: A real interest in what I'm writing about rather than a few half-baked ideas that I'm turning into a post because I feel I need to add my voice to a debate. Quality over quantity. Not writing for the sake of it.

Right motives: I've questioned my own a lot over the past year. At one point I wondered whether I should continue blogging at all. As Christians we're often made to feel that everything we do should be about God first and foremost - to the point that we brush off praise or pretend it doesn't make us feel happy. Having the right motives doesn't mean we can't feel pleased when we succeed in something we're gifted to do or that we should stop doing something we have a gift for because we're worried about the praise we're receiving as a result.

No more competitiveness: The digital world has, for me, been a place to find true community, real friends, become involved in grassroots activism and understand perspectives different to my own. Being collaborative is a joy. Encouraging community is too. There's no need to get involved in obsessing over rankings and who's got a book deal and who's writing in a certain style to 'make it' into the 'in-crowd'.

I also wanted to highlight the pitfalls of becoming a brand - not being able to or feeling able to adapt your voice when what's needed for a certain topic, is, for example, "serious" rather than "flippant". This has been a key feature of certain recent online arguments involving high profile writers. Then there's the prioritisation of controversy and hits over integrity and truth - I illustrated this point by talking about the downfall of Hugo Schwyzer and the criticism of mainstream websites that hosted his writing.

Finally, I spoke about the way in which the internet can mean we fail to look through a person's 'brand' and see the human being underneath, drawing on Rachel Held Evans's excellent post (linked below). None of us are immune to this, I admit I've done it on many occasions - but it's something we all need to pull ourselves up on from time to time.

Some posts I quoted, and posts/comment threads that inspired my talk:


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