Is The Emerging Church Hopelessly Utopian? [3]

Utopia3Hopelessly Utopian [1]

Hopelessly Utopian [2]

Thanks for the comments on the above posts. In response to Cheryl and Becky, yes, of course every church movement has felt ‘no one else has ever felt this way before’. And it’s actually important to recognise that, as Gray does in Black Mass, suggesting that ‘the utopian instinct in modern politics, which has itself presented itself in secular and often explicitly anti-religious form, must be understood as a kind of sublimated religious impulse.‘ Gray, as I’ve written, goes on to say that we need to move beyond any grand visions, any utopian ideals, but the point I think he misses is within his own words: utopian dreams are part of what it is to be human. They are part of the divine ache within each of us.

So, if the Emerging Church is hopelessly utopian, that’s partly because it’s hopelessly human, and hopelessly divine. We couldn’t be any other way.

Trouble is, these grand visions often lead to states/power structures enforcing their own purity codes on others, and, in church parallels, people getting hurt and religious warfare/bigotry breaking out. Which is why Jay Winter argues for us to go after ‘minor utopias’, “a modest strand of visionary thought that sketch out a world very different from the one we live in, but from which not all social conflict or all oppression has been eliminated.

Because, as I’ve written in the book, I believe the Emerging Church needs to be a ‘dirty’ church, having a ‘minor utopian’ vision will hopefully allow us to avoid some of the pitfalls of sterile religion, and avoid becoming a fully denominated, bounded group.

So what might this look like?

I’m really glad Nic brought up the concept of TAZs in the comments on the first post. The article describes these Temporary Autonomous Zones as “like an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it.

In other words, as the article continues, TAZ is, in the ancient sense, ‘festive’: “it envisions an intensification of everyday life, or as the Surrealists might have said, life’s penetration by the Marvelous […] It lies at the intersection of many forces, like some pagan power-spot at the junction of mysterious ley-lines, visible to the adept in seemingly unrelated bits of terrain, landscape, flows of air, water, animals. […] The patterns of force which bring the TAZ into being have something in common with those chaotic “Strange Attractors” which exist, so to speak, between the dimensions.

I don’t think it’s too far to push the TAZ concept to say that Jesus was involved in TAZing. The incarnation event was ‘life’s penetration by the Marvelous’, which existed in festival for a while before the authorities radared it and tried to crush it. Jesus’ miracles can be seen in the same way: foretastes of another world, TAZs breaking through, complex, strange, without fixed dimensions.

I believe, as John L pushed towards in his comments, that the Emerging Church will not be hopelessly utopian if it follows Jesus’ TAZ vision. Never institutionalising, never forming solidly, always festive, always uprising, always liberating, always slipping away, Trickster-style before the authorities can crush it. But, as John rightly points out, this will take a totally different sort of leadership, and membership. One that resists trying to permanently inhabit the spaces that should only be TAZs. Permanent spaces have to be state-sanctioned; they are not penetrated by the Marvelous.

Of course, ‘utopia’ means ‘no place’. If we are dreaming of ‘winning’, and turning everyone on to our way of thinking, we are trying to create permanent, pure places that will divide and oppress. If, on the other hand, we are about more modest, local visions, about creating festive TAZs, then these temporal, radical ‘non places’ are, by that definition, utopian.

So, is the Emerging Church hopelessly utopian? In many senses, I hope so. The utopian instinct is part of our divine humanity for things to change – and thank God for hopelessly utopian figures like William Wilberforce – but we must temper this desire with our also very human instinct to grab power. If we can find that middle way then I, for one, am in.


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12 responses to “Is The Emerging Church Hopelessly Utopian? [3]”

  1. thanks kester, really like the three posts – very provocative – will have to get you up at westcott to chat to people, am sure you’d be in for a whale of a time.
    Just really narked that at the moment I just don’t seem to have the time to devote to reading and ploughing through all the stuff you are flagging up. Love the TAZ concept – thanks nic for putting that up.
    I think shifting the conversation in the emerging church beyond idealism & utopianism is a very important point, particularly for those of us who have come out of charismatic traditions where this form of ideology was the mainstream – grand claims that you would be the next leader of the ‘david’ generation, or that God would pour out revival and we would see the nation repent within a few years all smack of fairly adolescent forms of utopianism and idealism.
    I love the very loose sense of the TAZ ‘happenings’ – disruptive, viral happenings that provoke and shatter imagined realities and then disappear into the void seem a lot like Jesus’ parables – although obviously not sure about the non-institutional nature of them given that I am wed to mine 😉
    I think we see the type of character who can live with the utopian nature of faith and the reality of our reality is that of Christ in Johns gospel – here Johns christology is the highest of all the gospels right from 1.1 – and in many ways Jesus’ speech and action if very idealistic and utopian in its thrust – yet in many of his interactions with his disciples and particularly in his prayer in the garden of gethsemene his words are full of recognition that when he is gone life may be hard and the road less clear (huh – like it was when he was around?!). His words are full of divine longing for humanity but with the full knowledge that this vision, this dream is not the easy path, and will be one that will be littered with brokeness.
    I think it is this Christ who appeals to me most – one who is forceful and passionate about exactly what it means to pursue the fullness of life but who is equally realistic about what that result may entail for us who are less than divine.

  2. Kester – this is too weird for words. I am editing the Wilberforce bits in my book when your posting came up on my Google Reader. Yes, Wilberforce was utopian but he was also firmly grounded with John Newton as his mentor. In fact, it was Newton who encouraged Wilberforce to stay in politics instead of following his natural desire to become a missionary. Where are the John Newtons who can help guide the idealistic Wilberforces of today? (BTW-check out Wilberforce’s “Real Christianity” if you haven’t already (Regal Books just came out with a newly edited version).
    Along those lines, one of the major objections I’ve heard to US Emergent Church (TM) is the lack of communal accountability. I haven’t studied utopian communities but I would love to hear from others about how the successful communities dealt with shared leadership, as well as how they handled the myriad of pastoral problems that arise whenever a group of people try to come together and form a religious community. (It almost brings me to tears when The Wittenburg Door covers the carnage caused when a sincere and honest movement that had such potential goes horribly awry – and the culprit is usually greed or lust run amok.)

  3. This reminds me a little bit of Douglas Rushkoff’s “open-source Judaism”:
    “The texts and practices making up Judaism were designed to avert just such a scenario. The tradition stresses transparency, open-ended inquiry, assimilation of the foreign, and a commitment to conscious living. Judaism invites inquiry and change. It is an “open source” tradition — one born out of revolution, committed to evolution, and willing to undergo renaissance at a moment’s notice. But, ironically, some of the very institutions created to protect a religion and its people are now suffocating them.” (From the blurb for “Nothing Sacred”).

  4. If the concept described by TAZ’s is so agreeable and seemingly organic, why does it smack of exclusivity?
    I’m getting the idea that all this talk of utopia and modest stains of visionary thought is anything but evolutionary.
    S. Pearl Andrews’ paper is damn hard to understand.
    Maybe some of the challenges to the church is it’s endless intellectualizing.
    and here I am trying to engage…
    or maybe I’m just trying to boil it down to easy answers.
    Thank God the utopia we helplessly hope for must be made of those who humbly struggle along and of those who grapple with the minutia, both of whom have a wisdom that’s invaluable.

  5. sorry.
    I can’t even figure out who wrote this paper you refer to.
    I think I’ll take my ball and go home now… 😉

  6. I’m surprised Vaux wasn’t studying TAZs a long time ago! I was introduced to Bey’s work by Steve Collins many years ago and have been studying it off and on ever since. There is a three part video on YouTube of a “TAZ” in California in the early nineties. Bey speaks in part 1 and it is fairly brilliant.
    There is talk of utopias in the Lacanian work I’ve been reading lately, too. “Ceausescu’s relation to Romania seemed to follow the logic: ‘I love my country, but since I love in my country something more than it, I mutilate it.’ This notion ‘in my country more than the country itself’ was the nationalist communist ideal, the true object of Ceausescu’s passionate attachment; and to bring reality closer to this ideal, he made enormous cuts in the ‘flesh’ of the country.” Renata Salecl, “(Per)versions of Love and Hate,” pg 79
    And as far as being a trickster within the context of the EC, my experience so far has been less than pleasant. I’ve been functionally excommunicated from three “EC” communities so far for being contrary. They fucking love me at first because I know you and Steve and have been “doing” this stuff for 7 years or whatever, and then when I start questioning anywhere between some and all of what they are doing, they make a stinky face and find some reason to eventually ostracize me. And I’m not even being nasty about it, just asking the questions, mostly with a “I could be totally wrong” attitude or outright disclaimer.

  7. Don’t do that Suzanna… Or we’ll all have to stop playing! Not sure I fully get what he’s on about, but I do love the spirit of the piece.
    I’m not sure it’s that exclusive either. Sure, it’s written to appear that way, but I think we need to read beyond that, and realise that TAZ, by its very nature, must be open to all. I think Matt’s parallel with the Open Source concept is useful. It is open source – but that perhaps doesn’t mean it’s approachable. I know I could offer something to Firefox, but I would need some other skills before I usefully did.
    Becky… You’re right about the accountability issue. But I think these problems are exacerbated precisely because of the sort of communities that are formed. With the more liquid approach, and with that understood, then the ‘heavy’ situations are not got into. May be. (You can find some further stuff I’ve done on self-organizing leadership in this area here.
    And you’re spot on Daniel… Vaux should have been there ages ago. But we were just crap really 😉

  8. The best game of ball I ever played was in a Ukrainian field with people I couldn’t even understand. We just stood in a circle and helped each other keep the ball in the air.
    A useful metaphor for me 😉
    bless you

  9. Thanks for the insights. I’m still wondering how to incorporate the wise souls, who can offer counsel and practical guidance into a liquid structure. I’m thinking here of the relationship betweeen a grandparent and child. I know I’ve benefitted greatly from whe wise, non-judgemental and loving counsel I’ve received over the years from a few wise souls.
    Maybe this is just a US thing but I’ve had a few US emergent church leaders tell me point blank that they have no use for the institutional church in any form. How do we avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater?

  10. Maybe this is just a US thing but I’ve had a few US emergent church leaders tell me point blank that they have no use for the institutional church in any form.
    I think that’s very foolish of them. We are the body. Period. I think the institutional church does have things to offer; what we mustn’t waste tonnes of energy doing though is trying to change it. It’d be pearls before swine to think that we can change the direction of that ship. Leave it be; support it where we can; be blessed by it wherever we can. But don’t be sucked into its vortices.
    Play ball, as Sooz would have it, but not by their rules 😉

  11. Bingo – agreed. The problem here in the States is that some emergent types took the ball and wouldn’t give it back. So rather than sit and whine, I decided the best bet is to find other games that let me play.;-)
    I’m reading my advance copy of Brian McLaren’s book “Everything Must Change” now. Also, I read an early draft of a radical book coming out by Phyllis Tickle that offers a really new take on the sayings of Jesus – both books give me hope but I also know they’re going to really shake up a lot of folks both within and outside the institutional church structures. Wow.

  12. Kes, speak for your self !-)
    The writings of Mr lambourn Wilson were definitely floating around, he was on a panel at ‘Backspace’ in ’97.
    It’s not ‘crapness’— Vaux wasn’t so heavily theorised then.
    The mythology machine hadn’t kicked in and the process of post-rationalisation got started.
    I’m not sure if we’d have been that self-conscious about TAZ. Also, at the time, there was a whole lot of stuff surrounding PEPSI and their appropriation of TAZ. That’s one way to destroy a good idea, get a whole lot of Christians jumping on the bandwagon! Best to step back and absorb it by osmosis, rather than wear it like a badge on your sleeve.