In 2012 I posted my top ten favorite things about the Festival of Faith and Writing.  Yesterday my sister texted me, saying "I hope you'll do that again," and, as I love to hear myself talk, I guess I can do that.

When I first attended the FFW in 2012, I felt like I had found my happy place.  The kind of conference where I got to listen to smart people talk about books in interesting ways?  The kind of place where if people found out that at the age of twelve I had both a "bookwoman" sweatshirt and one that read simply "So many books, so little time," there was a chance they might NOT smile weakly and start looking around for someone less crazy to talk to? 

This year the experience was equally wonderful, but different in one particular way: this year the experience was extremely social for me. I missed sessions to continue interesting conversations.  I even skipped THE NATIONAL to be with people.  THE NATIONAL, people.  What was I thinking?

The truth is, in this weird way I kind of hate to admit - because I want to be all about presence and embodied experiences and wendell berry - the connections I've made online over the last two years are real. I am a different person because of them.  I'm more inspired and confident creatively due to the relationships I have with many people I never or rarely see in person.  When I think about the Inklings in a pub in England or the Lost Generation in cafes in Paris, I think of my writing group on Voxer.  And while I'm no C.S. Lewis or Ernest Hemingway (I do like to think of myself as a Sylvia Beach, but now's not the time to discuss that), I believe that we are finding a similar kind of creative community through the internet.

And that's why, though the sessions at the festival were great this year (and I missed a lot that I want to revisit when the audio is put online), most of my highlights were about people.

10.  Seeing one of my favorite contemporary mystery novelists, Julia Spencer Fleming, and finding her to be smart, funny, self-deprecating, grounded, and knowledgeable about her craft.  That's a person I'd like to be like in thirty years.

9. I've appreciated Luci Shaw's poetry for many years now, so it was a pleasure to finally hear her read in person.  She's eighty-five, and so stately and gorgeous, so alive and attentive to life. That's a person I'd like to be like in fifty years.

8. Miroslav Volf spoke about education and human flourishing, about how "Decisions about the life worth living are increasingly shaped by decisions about consumer goods" and "We seek to satisfy our desires without exploring what is genuinely desirable." He's smart.

7. The Taylor University creative community made me proud: We had students with their names printed on the covers of journals, and everyone was asking me, "Do you know Dan Bowman?  What has he done to your creative writing program?"  The truth is that Dan is an agent of change, an advocate not just for students, but for friends as well, and he's having significant impact.  Of course it was just fun, too, to sit and talk with students and friends, and to run into alumni and see how smart and motivated they are.

6. On Friday night my writing group had dinner with Rachel Held Evans.  It was great to reconnect with her. Rachel is kind, honest, and, as DL said, always using her platform to highlight other people's voices.  She's generous.

5. Hermeneutics hosted a really fun reception on Thursday night, and it was great to re-connect both then and throughout the weekend with some of the writers I really admire - Karen, Rachel, Katelyn, Laura, Marlena, etc.

4. Several of the regular Christ and Pop Culture writers were there!  I only got to meet them for a few minutes at lunch one day, but it was good. They are thoughtful, smart people.

3. Would you believe that when I moved to Southeast Asia ten years ago, I met a kindred spirit right away?  I knew it when I walked into her house and saw her books.  I've only seen her a handful of times since leaving Asia, but every time I see her, I find that I still want to be just like her.  Sandy and I got to spend the better part of an afternoon together catching up.

2. I met with a couple of publishers about the book I'm currently working on, and would you believe they're interested? Now I'm just preparing myself to spend the summer with an open vein, losing blood into the keyboard until my heart is on the page the way I want it to be.

1. Most of all, it was beautiful to be with my writing group. What a gift from God it is to share life with these women. I would never have believed - and I still have trouble explaining - that you can make friends online, and that they could change your life for the better.  But here's the proof.

Ecumenism, a personal history {Part Two}

The Church of the Lord Jesus Christ Our Peace- Phnom Penh (credit)

In grad school at Wheaton, I met with a small group to complete a project one day.  We started discussing our church backgrounds, and one woman described herself as “ecumenical.”  I was 22, and had never heard the word before.

“It means,” she explained, “that you believe that all branches of the church, all denominations, hold some truth about God -- that we need all of them to have a complete picture.”

More exactly, ecumenism describes the historical movement for unity within the global body of Christ. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson explains at CT this month that the movement was born in 1910 at the Edinburgh Missionary Conference. Missionaries from different denominations had been competing rather than cooperating in the field, and it was destroying their witness. 

“The primary goal {of the ecumenical movement} was not fattening up an underdeveloped doctrine or even reducing intra-Christian hatred. It was about making a credible witness to those who did not yet believe in Christ. ‘By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,’ Jesus said (John 13:35, ESV).”

A hundred years later, the same kind of infighting erodes our witness. But Jesus’ prayer recorded in John 17 asked for us to be marked by unity. Have we given up striving for that goal?


Three questions:

1) Does unity require conformity?

To some extent, it does, of course.  Lutheran theologian Rupertus Meldenius was on to something when he wrote "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity."  

Unity requires agreement upon {or conformity in} the essentials.

2) The next question, of course, is which things are the essentials. Will our attempts at unity let heresy slip in? And who gets to be the gatekeeper?

Perhaps when we cannot agree on what is essential and what is non-essential, we ought to remember what Meldenius suggested is needed in all things: charity.  

Love.  Grace.  Space for growth.

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson suggests that heretics are more like the lost sheep to be sought than the devil to be turned out: “The truth is, no heretic will recover from his heresy as long as the orthodox permanently reject him. And there's always the possibility that buried beneath the heresy is a neglected shard of truth,” she says.

3) Why is unity worth pursuing?

Over at Her.meneutics this week, Karen Swallow Prior wrote about Hannah More, a British reformer and abolitionist in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. One of the keys to More’s influence was her “strong commitment to building bridges with others vastly different from herself.” Prior continues:
    Soon she was part of an intimate circle of activists and reformers known as the Clapham Sect, named for the area of London that served as their base. Its members (which included Wilberforce) were politicians, parliamentarians, ministers, and wealthy philanthropists. All, like More, were Anglicans of the Evangelical party. More was the sole woman in the circle of leadership.
    The great reforms the group helped accomplish—abolishing the slave trade, enacting animal welfare laws, establishing Sunday Schools, enacting prison reforms, increasing literacy among the poor, and promoting observance of the Sabbath (the only day of rest for the laboring classes)—were achieved by the group's willingness to work with co-belligerents of divergent political and religious affiliation, including Quakers, liberals, freethinkers, and unbelievers.
    Hannah More humorously referred to their powwows as akin to "Noah's Ark, full of beasts clean and unclean." Secular historians have noted the group's remarkable crossing of the rigid barriers of class, party, and creeds of their day, a model for Christians today, living in an even more pluralistic society. More and her friends poured their energies, not into in-fighting, but into world changing.

What if we were known for our counter-cultural willingness to partner with those unlike us? What if we poured our energies into something other than bitter doctrinal debate, scorn, and outrage?  

I’m not suggesting we give up theological study and discussion, or that we act as if truth is somehow subordinate to relationship. (Though truth is best discovered within relationship: Jesus said that he himself is the Truth - perhaps truth is better understood as a subject than an object.)

But could we change our tone?  Our posture?  Could we slow down with the outrage?  Could we do these things in the context of personal relationships rather than on platforms aiming at strangers?

What if we treated each other as members of the same team, playing different positions?
(Look, I used a sports analogy for probably the first time ever!)

I've seen this happen. For example, in the writing group I'm a part of online.

There are thirty of us, from all different backgrounds: we were raised in and are currently invested in Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, non-denominational, Mennonite, Episcopalian, Anglican, Pentecostal, Catholic, Lutheran, CMA and Calvary Chapel churches.  We regularly dialogue about faith and culture, and we regularly disagree.  We disagree - about everything from gender roles and gay rights to eschatology, pneumatology, and which tv shows are worth watching --  but I still feel safe and respected.  We work toward common goals, trust and support each other. 

Ultimately, unity is worth pursuing because it’s what Jesus prayed for in the garden of Gethsemane before his death.  “The quest for church unity is a wild, wondrous, and strange act of penitence for Christians' often callous disregard of that little word one in John 17 and the Nicene Creed,” Hinlicky Wilson says.  

The gospel is a story of reconciliation, between God and humans, and within the church. “The church is the epicenter of enemy reconciliation in the world, starting with the severest estrangement possible—between God and human beings—and working out from there to repair all forms of human estrangement.”

That's the church I want to be a part of.

Little addendum: I've seen calls for unity used to mask oppression.  "Pay no attention to that scandal behind the curtain, just support us, we need us a show of church unity...".  Obviously that kind of manipulation is always insupportable. There is a kind of peace and unity that just keeps the voices under oppression silent. - that's not the peace of Jesus.

on her.meneutics

In case you missed it, last week I had two pieces on the Christianity Today women's blog, Her.meneutics.

(You probably didn't miss it since I tweeted incessantly about it.)

I wrote about Lena Dunham's new show on HBO, "Girls," and its painfully honest depiction of privileged twentysomethings trying to navigate adulthood.

I also interviewed Amy Spiegel about her new book Letting Go of Perfect. She is funny and sincere, and I've thought of her book several times since talking with her, as I am continually figuring out how this "Taylor bubble" community works.