The God of "and": living with layers on a flat earth

Last night my ministry partner, Benton Stokes, and I went to the opening night of a conference sponsored by Convergence Music Project. CMP is a new effort to create and share "progressive" Christian music--that is, songs for worship that don't limit God or the variety of humankind. 

I am old enough to remember when American folk music stylings became the soundtrack for the Vatican II church. Much later, at the time I went through seminary, there was a lot of social justice-focused folky music pouring through the liberal Protestant church as well. Some of it was very good: expressing both the majesty and the accessibility of God, with rich lyrics and singable tunes. Some of it was just awful: the attempt to be relevant, to use common words, to point to a vision of justice made for some ugly phrasings and trite musicality.

@@Greatness in any art is rare, and holy, and there have to be a whole lot of expressions of creativity for jewels to emerge.@@

Some of what we heard last night was good, some wasn't, but all of it was reaching beyond Christian tribalism toward the unity of humankind, and describing a God who isn't off in a corner somewhere, sulkily counting the days until He can burn the place down once and for all.

Though I've been an activist, both in politics and in the church, I have resisted the phrase "progressive Christian" because I come from a tradition in which that phrase tended to mean that one was, first and foremost, politically liberal, leaning intellectual. It tended to also mean middle-to-upper-middle class and white--and that one thought Jesus was, at best, an inspired teacher among many. There was very little depth: God became two-dimensional and neutered (not just ungendered), while the pronoun police patrolled every hymn and him.  It was the social justice version of fundamentalism: no variation, no but/and allowed.  In that version, one couldn't be gay and Evangelical, not because of the gay part, which was fine, but because "God the Father" was right out.

In the last decade and a half or so, as the children of Boomer Evangelicals grew into a postmodern awareness of their daddy's church, many struggled with how to put an accessible, trinitarian God back on an appropriate pedestal while making worship, community, art, and life feel less prepackaged, more authentic, indigenous to their own microculture yet inclusive of others. The word "progressive" now tends to point to those who have come from a modernist, "traditional" Christian faith into a layered understanding that cannot help but make them more sensitive to injustice, unkindness, and demagoguery. The faith dictates the politics, not the other way round.

The timing could not be better. We are in an age of ugliness, when brutality is understood as strength and fear is the most powerful currency around. We are back in the flat earth days, when tribal warlords determined what counted as fact, or right, or good.

@@On a flat earth, we must become Galileos and Julians: experimenters, observers, proclaimers of reality and deep, deep truths.@@

On a flat earth, when entire civilizations are being pushed off the edge, we must take stands against lies and injustice and on behalf of "the least of these." We must be discerning, and judgmental: firmly, kindly, condemning the words and activities that dehumanize others, destroy the planet, re-entrench ways of being we thought we'd gotten past. Cowardice disguised as equanimity will not do. We who long for wholeness, for the redemption of humankind, the restoration of all of creation, must speak.

In a flat earth world, speaking includes claiming our the fullness of our identities as followers of Jesus and lovers of God and lbgtqstraight and beigebrownpinkblack and privilegedmiddleclassworkingclasspoor and environmentalists and antideathpenalty and prolife and fathers and artists and scientists and Southern whatever all we are. We must claim all of it. All of it. It is our "ands" that make us strong and unique. It is our "ands" that show that, in fact, we are made in God's image, for God is the eternal and.

Mystics and sages have always known: The closer we get to union and communion with the Great I And, the more multilayered we become. More discerning, yet less fearful. This is what it must mean to be progressive: progressing toward the fullness of and, when we truly believe that God loved the whole world, every crazy confusing insufferable atom of it, enough to reclaim and restore it all, once and forever.

I support CMP, and Benton and I went last night, because when we create spaces for a worshiping people, we need music that neither limits God nor the variety of humankind.

May we all become the kind of people who can write music expressive of the God of and, and who much more importantly, cannot help but sing it.