Greg Garrett: Ancient Future Disciples: A Q&A with Becky Garrison

By Greg Garrett, January 13, 2012

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Becky Garrison is a writer, speaker, and humorist who explores the intersections of religion, culture, and politics. The author of books including Jesus Died for This?, Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church, and, most recently, Ancient Future Disciples: Meeting Jesus in Mission-shaped Ministries, Garrison also writes for the Washington Post, the Guardian, Sojourners, Killing the Buddha, Religion Dispatches, and The Revealer.

In much of her writing, Garrison demonstrates that a serious Christian can also be seriously funny--I first encountered her through her work with the late, lamented Wittenberg Door--but more recently she is staking out a position as a serious student of where Christianity is going and how it ought to get there. It's not going to be an easy or uncomplicated movement, of course. As she recently told my friend Eileen Flynn in the Austin Statesman, "How many of us are really prepared to follow this way of this radical love maker, rule breaker who cut through every conceivable societal barrier to welcome all to come into the kingdom?"

But Becky's work gives us visions of what it might look like if we were prepared-or, maybe, when we are prepared.

Greg Garrett** : **Your new book, Ancient Future Disciples: Meeting Jesus in Mission-shaped Ministries, is part of your ongoing work exploring the contemporary church. Could you tell readers a little about the larger work and whereAncient Future Disciples fits into it? What has compelled you to spend the past few years exploring this topic?

Becky Garrison:  When I was researching Jesus Died for This?, I came across my late father's dissertation abstract (1965) for his Ph.D. in sociology from Duke University. I was struck by how his analysis of fringe communities such as the Jesus People USA and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) paralleled many of the current conversations around the formation of post-Christian communities. While eventually my parents' alcoholism and drug addictions overran their idealism, and they died when I was in my teens, there was this brief window when this radical hippie priest and professor and his earth-mother wife really seemed to be trying to put the radical teachings of the gospel into practice.

Ancient Future Disciples: Meeting Jesus in Mission-shaped Ministries

As a young adult, I rebelled for a bit from my radical past by coming out as a débutante, becoming a Young Republican, joining the Junior League, the Mayflower Society, the Yale Club and the like. But no matter how hard I tried, I was never "saved" enough to join those who were biblically blessed. But when I began writing for the now-defunct Wittenburg Door, I found a home where I could combine my growing desire to put pen to paper with my disgust for undivine religious dorks, and a religious satirist was born. In addition to slamming those who put self on the throne, I began interviewing a range of noteworthy individuals. Through these conversations, I began exploring a range of faith communities operating out of the mainstream of society.

Hence, I see in Ancient Future Disciples the continuation of a journey that I've been on now since the mid-nineties.

Garrett** : **Ancient Future Disciples is interested in looking under the hoods of what you have called "pioneer" Episcopal churches from across the country. What did you find that these communities have in common? What were the most obvious differences you noted, and where did they seem to emerge from?

Garrison:  While these communities are informed by their particular cultural context, some identifying markers they share in common begin to emerge:

  1. The vast majority of these ministries started with little or no money, and those with money had scant institutional backing.
  2. These ministries were more likely to succeed when a bishop either supported them or adopted a Gamaliel approach (Acts 5:34-39) to leave the endeavor alone as long as it did no harm.
  3. These ministries needed to be free from the pressure to produce results quickly, as it takes time and space to develop a viable community.
  4. Those starting the ministry have entrepreneurial mindsets, who are going to do this ministry whether or not they have denominational backing. These risk takers felt called to reach out beyond their comfort zone and venture toward where they felt the Holy Spirit was calling them.
  5. Following Jesus tends to trump particular political ideology. And so, you will often find diversity of political viewpoints among those who frequent these ministries. When they take a stand on a political issue such as immigration, sex trafficking, or equality legislation, it is because the cause resonates with their understanding of what it means to live out the teachings of Jesus.

These leaders place a high value on the people's engagement and empowerment, not only in worship but in the whole ministry. They help spiritual seekers to discern what kind of community they want to create together. Here the leader functions more like a DJ or curator who is working behind the scenes instead of being front and center.

The U.S.-based ministries are often led by women, a notable proportion of them women of color. Also, one finds LGBT people involved in all aspects of leadership. The communities also tend to be more racially inclusive, intergenerational and affirming than the traditional mainline congregation....

Garrett** : **What parts of what you witnessed in these mission-shaped ministries can be replicated by other communities and denominations?

Garrison:  While my focus in Ancient Future Disciples was exploring U.S. Episcopal communities, I observe many of these above mentioned markers present in other faith communities. What's telling is that these communities tend to be "off radar." Many of the communities I've profiled in my last three books don't register on lists of hipster-type churches. While the leaders often engage in creative endeavors (albeit writing books or crafting CDs), they see their primary role as practitioners involved in the daily lives of their communities instead of author/speakers trying to market their wares on the Christian conference circuit.

Garrett** :** Do you see the communities you write about in Ancient Future Disciples as the future of the Church?

Garrison:  They do represent an overall shifting I've been observing in recent years regarding what it means to be "the church" in an increasing pluralistic world. In particular, new developments in science, theology, psychology and other disciplines continue to inform the evolution of our thinking on topics like LGBT rights. In this video, Joseph Ward, Director of Believe Out Loud, and I explore the redefining of family values that we see transpiring in progressive faith communities.

Garrett** :** Evangelism means different things to different faith communities. What do you feel you understand about evangelism now that you didn't before you started this research?

Garrison:  Once I outed myself as an apophatic Anglican, I kept finding kindred spirits who were more interested in exploring the mysteries together than trying to convert the other to a prescribed belief system. In this regard, I learned I have more in common with spiritual atheists than progressive evangelicals. Along those lines, those communities that seemed to have the most transformative effect on the communities put St. Francis' teachings into practice by preaching the gospel at all times, and when necessary using words.

Garrett** :** You note in 2010's Jesus Died for This? that "Religious satirists tend to be viewed askance, as though we entered the sacred sanctuary eating a cheese, bean, and broccoli burrito. God forbid we might cause a stink." Some people see religion and humor as unequally yoked-like a burro and a dolphin, maybe. What about the combination of humor and religion has always drawn you to this intersection? What do you think we can say with humor that doesn't get communicated as well otherwise?

Garrison:  Well, as I noted in Washington Post's "On Faith" column, I thank God for those comedians who use humor and satire to point out the dangers of blindly following a fundamentalist form of Christianity. My involvement in communities like Asbo Jesus and Naked Pastor help keep me grounded by reminding me of the failings of institutional church (and my own personal foibles) through the use of their satirical cartoons. And while I'm not a parrothead by nature, there's much wisdom in these words of Jimmy Buffett: "If we didn't laugh, we would all go insane."


Greg Garrett

Greg Garrett is the author of works of fiction, criticism, and theology, including The Other Jesus from Westminster John Knox Press. He is Professor of English at Baylor University, and a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal Church.

Garrett's column, "Faithful Citizenship," is published every Thursday on the Progressive Christian portal. Subscribe via email or RSS.