March 21, 2009

talking with chris smith

I met Chris Smith several years ago through our common friends at The Landing Place in Columbus and Vineyard Central in Cincinnati. Last summer, we had the chance to visit Chris, his family and church family, Englewood Christian, in Indianapolis. Their church is doing some wonderful things! If you are anywhere in the region, I'd encourage you to visit them. Chris is also the author of Water, Faith and Wood: Stories of the Early Church's Witness for Today, the editor of The Englewood Review and runs Doulos Christou Books.

Recently, Chris and I got talking after this post. (He's also recently made a strong attempt at being my look-alike, unfortunately, I'm not as good-looking or as smart as he is) Anyways, I asked him if I could take some of his thoughts and shape them into an interview. He's a wise dude. I hope you take the time to read what follows.

In our conversation, you shared with the idea of the "rootlessness" of American culture. Can you explain this to me?

Yes, I think “rootless” is a good word to describe American culture in general today. It seems to me that our rootlessness has its origin in the individualism od Western culture. Descartes intentionally severs himself from the roots of his past and sets out to see what knowledge he can discover by himself, and before long many others were following suit. It’s crazy the extent to which America and Western culture have been formed by this one little philosophical thought experiment. Another force behind our rootlessness is the overarching American spirit of “Manifest Destiny” – the land and indeed the world is ours to conquer. Manifest Destiny drove westward expansion, American imperialism and even our explorations in space, but perhaps the most prevalent expression of Manifest Destiny today is that of one’s “career.” We have been formed in such a way as to value the pursuit of our career above all else. So, when the company tells us to pack our bags and move to the opposite coast (or, God forbid, somewhere in the heartland) or when an irresistible job opportunity in another place pops up, we move on with little or no thought. The globalization of the economy also feeds on these powers that drive us; the built landscape of the global economy begins to look the same wherever we go: Walmart, Starbucks, Home Depot, etc., they all start to look the same whether we are in Los Angeles, Little Rock or Long Island. This homogeneity of landscape eases any qualms we might have about our transience from place to place. We have practices of encouraging our kids to “go off to school” (I should know, I did this myself, going to a college over 500 miles from where I grew up), and furthermore we don’t really offer our kids any substantial community to return to and participate in after college. We have all these forces (economic, social, historical) driving us forward – “progress” we call it – and they keep us moving and never really desiring to settle and make a deep commitment to a people and a place. That, in a nutshell, is our restlessness.

In this kind of culture, what do you believe to be the calling of the church?

The Church is – or should be – the community of people formed by the divine gift of sabbath (REST), in which we can stop and name the insanity and idolatry of our restless patterns of self-glorification for what they are. Above all else, the calling of the Church is to be a community, he gathered people of God, the body of Christ that incarnates God’s person in a particular place. In community, we learn to submit our individual hopes and agendas to the agenda of the Kingdom. We need to make deep commitments to our church communities, commitments that run deeper than the varieties of opinions (theological, cultural and otherwise) that each of us have. Secondly, (and I do believe that this is a slightly lesser commitment) our church communities need to be rooted in a place. The monastics call this the virtue of stability and offer us much wisdom in this direction. With commitments to community and stability, our life together is starts to take a particular shape over time, or in other words, we become a culture, and specifically a local culture.

Speaking about the church in a particular place, what is a local church to do?

Because we as the church have a culture that is deeply-rooted in a local place (so rare in our rootless society), we have great potential to shape the larger culture of our place. It is important to note the priority here: church community first, and the culture of that cannot help but overflow into the neighborhood. We need to grow in our understanding of our place – watching, listening, etc. Most importantly, we should ask what the assets of the larger community are and how they can be nurtured to promote growth and human connection? Secondly, we should ask what are the needs and opportunities of the neighborhood? (If we start by looking for needs, we set ourselves up for some weird power dynamics, where the Church over time could take on a privileged role as a “fixer.” On the other hand, if we start by identifying assets, our work is done alongside our neighbors and not for them…)

In almost any place – with the possible exception of some rural places – food is a key economic way in which the church can nurture local culture: e.g., growing foods, connecting neighbors to local food producers, cooking in ways that make the best use of local foods, and educating others to do all of these things. What if the church was to become an incubator for locally-oriented businesses (home construction/renovation, credit unions, restaurants, bike or car sales/repair, the possibilities are endless and should flow out of the particular gifts and skills of those that God has provided us in the church community). John Howard Yoder’s little book Body Politics: Five Practices of the Church Before the Watching World has been really helpful for me in seeing how the basic worship practices of the church can form the socio-political ways that we engage our neighbors. As we nurture local culture inside and out of the church community, the Kingdom way of our life together will form the ways we take care of our neighbors, do business, etc. Finally, in any discussion of the church as a local culture, we must emphasize the place of the discernment of the body. There are no neat one-size-fits-all solutions; our community in urban Indy is going to look different from yours in San Diego. We discern the shape of how we are going to live together, how we are going to sustain our community and how we are going to engage our neighbors. This can be really messy and certainly is not an efficient way to “get things done” but as Yoder and others have argued it is the way of love and of shalom to which we are called.

Can you share with me some of your own experiments, or those of others?
I really like what you guys are doing with food issues and education (“Justice Kitchen”, etc.) Being in an urban “food desert,” our church community is experimenting a lot with food issues too: growing and preserving food, starting a food co-op, etc. “Experimenting” is a great word to use here, by the way, because we should recognize that as we nurture local culture, we’re bound to fail occasionally, and we shouldn’t be afraid of failure. As to other experiments, we have a Community Development corporation that is basically the economic face of our church, and allows us to be a sort of incubator for locally-oriented business coming out of the church. We do bookkeeping for other churches and non-profits, we fix up some of the vast numbers of vacant houses in our neighborhood and provide affordable housing, I sell and publish books, etc. All of these businesses and a few others have arisen out of the gifts and skills of our people and the opportunities in our neighborhood. Recently, I’ve really been interested in seeking out the wildlife assets of our urban neighborhood. These are an often-overlooked asset of any urban place, and are a reminder both of the larger ecological community of the place and of God’s reconciliation of all creation. I’ve been writing off and on about some of these explorations at http://urbannaturalism.com My friend and frequent collaborator, Brent Aldrich, is an artist who is experimenting with forms that are intimately tied to our neighborhood, where he has grown up. One of these is a tool shed in our community garden, on which he is in the process of painting a “field guide” that depicts plants that are growing in the garden and in the wider community. I’ve also learned a lot about nurturing local culture from our friends in Cincinnati, about stability, beauty, urban gardening, etc. All of the thing I’ve mentioned here are experiments, but I believe that with our commitments to people and place, God will work through our faithfulness to transform the culture into that of the Kingdom.

Thanks, Chris.

1 comment :

j said...

Thank you for this Jason! It made me desperately miss those long talks over coffee I had with Chris before either of us were married, had kids, or moved away :).

He is indeed a smart guy that has been given a passion by God that he is living out every day. It is good to hear his "voice" again and be blessed by his words.

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