About two weeks ago, I got to hang out with a lot of friends at Big Tent Christianity in Phoenix. I convinced my wife to come along and join me, and we ended up spending a beautiful post-conference weekend in Sedona. I wasn’t sure what I expected from the Big Tent event, but I had heard great things about the first event in Raleigh and so I had high hopes.
First things first. I really like the folks who planned this event – and their desire to try new things, try new formats and be open to a new way of doing conferences. For the most part it worked really well; other times there were some miscommunications that ended up being a little awkward (like when Richard Rohr thought he had an hour to speak, but really had 10 minutes). But overall – it was well-organized and you could tell there was a lot of thought put into the planning of it – and I have to give them kudos.
It was also really great to see old friends (some speakers and some participants) – and let’s be honest – that’s why most of us go to these events – for the networking, the community and the relational connections. So for me, it was great to be able to connect with some friends and meet new folks as well. It was an honor to be able to meet Eliacín Rosario-Cruz, who actually has the honor of leaving the first ever comment on Pomomusings. In fact, it was something to the effect of, “Oh no…really? ANOTHER blog about Christianity and postmodernism? Good lord.” But we’re cool now, no worries.
In addition to the friendships and connecting, I got to hear from some really smart folk, and was incredibly moved by some specific presentations. This was my first time to get a chance to hear from Marcus Borg, which was a real treat. If you’ve never heard him speak before and want to get a sense for who he is and his personality, check out his comments on uneducated Christians, the Bible and a personal relationship with God. And I think that everyone would admit to being moved by the amazing sharing and story and prophetic witness of Carol Howard Merritt’s talk on wounds that religion has inflicted and Brian Ammons’s talk on Reframing Sexuality.
So the conference had a lot going for it – but in the end – I found myself really confused where the whole “big tent” element fit into the conference. I’ll fully admit that perhaps part of it was just my own fault and misunderstanding the purpose of the event. Some folks asked me what the whole “Big Tent Christianity” thing was all about before I went, and I told them it was a new movement of folks who were trying to get past specific differences, “liberals” and “conservatives” coming together under the same “big tent” to see how we could move forward from the polarization that exists in our 21st century American religious landscape.
And perhaps that was just a misreading of the event. Going back and looking at the event’s website, this seems to be the description of “big tent”:
Progressive and Emergent
Denominational and Non-denominational
Large and Small Faith Communities
Describable and Undescribable
And while I can see how that could be considered a “big tent” – it doesn’t seem very big. Gary Kinnaman noted something similar when he was on stage and introduced himself as the “token evangelical” (or was it “conservative”? I don’t remember). We all kind of awkwardly laughed, but I think many people realized that for all our talk of Big Tent Christianity, he was right. I’m sure there may have been a few other speakers and attendees who would identify with the “evangelical” label – but not many.
The makeup of the event seemed to me to break down to essentially two camps: young liberals (the “emergent” folk) and old liberals (the “progressives”). I even had the guy who runs The Center for Progressive Christianity come up to me and claim to the MOST liberal person in the room – was there going to be a prize for being the “most liberal”? Odd. So of course there were going to be some differences between these groups – some questions over methodology and praxis (and of course, “we don’t like your music style…” – manifesting itself in such a tiny showing for anything that Derek Webb did by himself), but are those groups really so different when it comes to theology? Was the generation gap between the two groups the greatest diversity component in the room?
Brian Ammons gave an amazing talk on reframing sexuality, and he and Richard Rohr offered some thoughts on the topic again during a breakout session, but it didn’t seem to me that there were really very many divergent opinions on the issue present in the audience (other than a couple questions from our older progressive friends who just really didn’t get it).
I realize I’m making broad generalizations here – but it just seemed to me that for trying to offer or create a “big tent” – we didn’t really do it. And as much as I loved all of our speakers and presenters, how many of our conservative friends are going to come to an event where Marcus Borg, Brian McLaren and Richard Rohr are billed as the “big name” speakers of the event…? Probably not many.
Are we trying to make ourselves feel more open and inclusive by getting the theologically like-minded emergents and progressives together, just because our methodologies might be different? Or is that really just taking the easy way out from the real big tent that’s out there, but might be harder work, and might be harder to plan and get our conservative brothers and sisters interested in? Would that type of conference take more concessions? More compromises on who speaks, who leads?
I don’t know – these are all just questions. I was glad to be there, glad for the renewed and new friendships, glad to see some great folks, but in the end, it just left me wanting something…something that wasn’t there, something that I thought I was going to get at the conference, but didn’t. Maybe it was just me…but I still thought I’d offer my reflections.