Out of Atlanta: Final Thoughts from the Emergent Village

By Daniel Fan

I have a confession to make.  I went to the 2010 Emergent Village Theological Conversation (EVTC) fully prepared to dislike Emergents.  I’ve read “The Next Evangelicalism” and I was gravely concerned that I’d find a group of white people talking about how they were beyond colonialism or that there wasn’t going be any people of color at the table (other than those who were paid to be there) and thus the default dialogue would be how the colonizers, on their own, would solve the colonial situation for everyone else.

I expected to see a whole lot of pale folk and at least some big-name-white-guy-ass-kissing.  (Christians might not pray to idols, but they do worship heroes).  For Emergents, this might include people like Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones, and others.  Not one of them came.  If there was a famous, big-name author I didn’t see one.  I’m actually tempted to call this Emergent 2.0 because it seemed more like a church-in-a-bar gathering of modest graduate students of even more modest means, than a best-selling authors’ convention.

Yes, it was really white (more theory on that later).  But it wasn’t intentionally white and that makes a difference.  One of the first organizers I met was Melvin Bray, which brings us to another exclusive Daniel Fan confessional:  For some reason I got the impression that the venue was a black church—and based on that, I cast Melvin as a facilities liaison from the church (in my defense: I was directed to ask him about facilities issues).  It wasn’t until later that night when he came with us to dinner that I was able to confirm he was with EVTC and not the host church.

I’ve already reported on my conversation with Dwight and Melvin with regard to their reactions to “The Next Evangelicalism” and Soong Chan Rah’s subsequent Sojourners article.  Immediately following that line of response, Melvin told me that he specifically tried to recruit two Asian friends to be a part of the EVTC, but scheduling prevented their attendance.  It was here that he invited me to be part of the interview with Musa Dube.  I thought this demonstrated a remarkable step of faith on his part.  While our previous conversations included issues concerning indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities, we never discussed my feelings about Musa Dube or her book.  For all he knew I could have gone full-fundamental on the guest speaker and completely hijacked the entire conversation.

Melvin specifically stated that “it would be a travesty” if no Asian presence was represented and that’s something I can respect.  In fact, if I’m remembering correctly, there was not a single time, when more than two people were “on stage,” that there wasn’t at least one non-white moderator or speaker among them (Danielle Shroyer identifies as Lebanese).  The Emergent Village site lists both Dwight Friesen and Troy Bronsink as council members, and while both were present, neither directed the conversation or allowed himself to become seen as the conference point-man.  Visible leadership among Emergent Village 2.0 seems to be quite evenly shared between women, men, and their two people of color.   I simply cannot imagine that Emergent 2.0 would consciously attempt to exclude non-whites from the Emergent conversation (though there may be a lack of knowledge on how to engage a different voice).  I personally found the Emergent Village to be a safe place, welcoming of the concerns of this Chinese American and the issues and viewpoints of indigenous peoples.

As far as my interview with Musa Dube, I’m very glad I had the chance to be a part of that conversation.  I’m not sure how “professional” or smooth it went.  I do think that having an African theologian being interviewed by a African American teacher and a Asian American “practitioner” (their title for me) says something more than just the words that were spoken.  Emergent leadership could just have easily asked a white male to present the same questions, but they didn’t.

In terms of personal reaction to being a moderator?  I’ve decided that I’d much rather be asked the questions than ask them. Being a facilitator is hard!

I’d like to take this time to give some personal reaction to the speakers themselves.  I didn’t read “One Church, Many Tribes” for EVTC since I know that Richard Twiss is planning on revising the book and has changed his views on some of the issues presented in the book (I’m more interested his 2010  perceptions than those from 1995).  But I’ve heard him speak several times before EVTC so I had some context for his comments.  Richard is the Wolf.  There’s always a twinkle in his eye–that inner smile that tells you he has a story to share. You just don’t know who the joke will be on: Richard or you.  I felt like he came in with his touring persona on, but as the conference proceeded, he felt more free to express himself.  I can’t say that Richard ever “holds back,” but I will say that if you treat him like an honored uncle rather than a professional Indian, you’ll get more out of the experience.  I really felt like he shared more towards the end because attendees were ready, and asking, for a deeper, yet more painful truth along with the difficult applications for that truth.

To be completely honest, I got a bad impression of Musa Dube from reading “A Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible.”  Conversely, in person, I found her to be warm, generous and more than a little patient when explaining some of the difficult-to-grasp elements of her thesis.  Musa would say at the end that before she came to EVTC she did not know what the Emergent Village was, who would attend, or how she would be received.  I felt that she was not defensive, but cautious in the opening days, and opened up towards the end, even spontaneously leading us in song on the final day.

On a personal note, I really enjoyed the conversation I had with her on day three (one which she initiated) concerning overturning racism and patriarchy together as part of necessary postcolonial action.

The place that Musa occupies, theologically speaking, is like balancing on a precarious ridge between two deep valleys whose walls get very slippery, very fast.  On one side are those who don’t question either text or their own interpretation of it.  On the other side are those who want to abandon the text altogether.  It’s in this difficult place where her thesis grows out of and, unfortunately, encounters the imperial zeitgeist of academia.  The “something bad” I tasted in  “A Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible” was colonialism.  And I didn’t figure this out until after the conference was over.

Musa’s book was written as an adaptation of a doctoral thesis.  And how do you do one of those?  You travel out, “discover,” and lay claim to a piece of intellectual space as your own.  Now, this space that you’re going raise your flag over has to be unoccupied space.  There’s two ways to prove it’s unoccupied.  First: no one has ever heard of what you are talking about (not likely).  Second: everyone else who’s been here before was wrong, and didn’t know how to use or didn’t properly understand this space.  And now you’re going to use piercing argumentation to prove they don’t have the right to occupy this space, but you do (terra nullius anyone?).  The whole idea of individual conquest and ownership of an idea (in addition to the language of “doctoral defense”) plays very well into a militant colonialism.  Not only does the West seek individual possession of the land, the water beneath, and the air above, but also the ideas within.  In order to obtain her doctorate, Musa had to play the western game, by western rules, using a western language and western techniques.  It’s another example of the obligate hybridity that characterizes this postcolonial world.

Colin Greene was actually the first conference attendee I met (recognized him from his photo…thought he’d be taller).  We encountered each other wandering around the outside of First Presbyterian and neither of us had a clue as to how to get in.  Colin was the speaker I got the least out of, but I think that has more to do with me than him.  First off, I didn’t read “Metavista” so I didn’t really know where he was coming from (and unlike Richard Twiss, I didn’t know him beforehand).  Second, Colin is a philosopher/theologian and tends to talk in very “high” terms and subjects (too highbrow for me!).  I think his theorizing on why a postcolonial age requires a postcolonial hermeneutic opened up a lot of mental pathways for whites who attended the EVTC.  It’s less useful for people like me who are not just acquainted with the minority and indigenous issues on an intellectual level, but live them everyday.  We require significantly less “head knowledge” to believe that current neo-colonial western-centric structures, philosophies, schemas, and assumptions don’t work in a postcolonial world.

I don’t want to reduce Colin’s contribution to that simple point, but I will say that I probably don’t represent the demographic that he was wanted to reach or the demographic that he expected to be at EVTC.  I have, of course, given some reaction to some other things Colin has said in previous blog posts and I’d encourage you to read them in chronological order of posting to grasp the best flow of those insights.  If he ever reads this: Brother Colin, I very much encourage you to write the Irish brogue version of the twenty-first chapter of the Gospel of John.  I think peoples all around the world would greatly benefit from hearing Irish Jesus’ words of  admonition, redemption, and invitation to reconcile despairing soul and risen savior over a pint o’ Guinness.

As far as the overall EVTC format, I appreciated the intentional interactiveness that was designed into the proceedings.  Attendance was never artificially controlled, but the max number conference planners were shooting for was ~70.  I don’t think we broke more than 50 though.  Small group and one-on-one conversations with the speakers weren’t unusual and speakers ate their meals with us—which was actually a great time to ask them non-conference questions and get uninhibited answers.

I don’t really like summing up “what I’ve learned” into a single concluding paragraph. I’ve been learning and experiencing the whole time, which hopefully, has been reflected in my update and recap posts.  If I had to pick one take-away it would be the phrase of the conference: “liminal space.”  I’m going to out myself here and say that when I first heard it, I had to Google it.  My first guess was “liminal space: a place where lemmings see the light.”  I actually wasn’t that far off.  Richard Twiss was the first of the conference to use this phrase, describing one’s experience in a Native American sweat lodge.  I would describe my own sweat lodge experience in smaller words (like “hot” and not in the Paris Hilton way).  But one word I would NOT use to describe my own sweat lodge encounter was the runner-up word-of-the-conference: “sexy.”  You don’t know what “sexy” means until you’ve heard Richard Twiss, Musa Dube, and Colin Greene use the word.  And each one did.

There are a couple things I would have done differently or perhaps can be suggestions for the next Emergent Village Theological Conference.   Specifically, I would have appreciated an explicit blessing from the host church/venue.  This is particularly poignant in light of Richard Twiss admonition that Christians often encroach on native lands without first asking permission to spread their message.  It’s not as though Emergent Village was squatting, but it would have meant a lot to me to know that we were more than renters and that the Village’s mission and discussion was welcomed by First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta.

The second suggestion I have is more administrative, but I would have appreciated a roster of conference registrants, along with voluntary submission of emails or other contact information.  This could easily be built into next year’s registration on-line registration process.  Just have a check box in the process that allows you to opt-in for being on the roster/directory.  It’s pretty hard to get everyone’s contact information and sometimes you’d like to continue a conversation or start a new one.  I still have the conference planner’s emails, but they don’t have explicit permission to share others’ emails with me and I understand that.  It represents a minor lost opportunity.

I would have liked to see more non-whites.  As far as I know of there were no Latinos present at all (Eliacín Rosario-Cruz didn’t make it).  But I’m not willing to say that this is the fault of either Emergent leadership or membership in general.  I spoke a little with the only other Asian present and he posited that emergent-style conversations were occurring among Asian-only theological circles, but for some reason they didn’t come to Emergent Village.  It makes sense to me, in the same reason that first generation Asian-immigrant churches exist for a reason.  Asian theologians aren’t a common breed and likely feel the same need to congregate together in circles of mutual understanding and protection.  The Emergent 1.0 white-male-author-superstar image probably didn’t help much in that regard.  Not sure what the solution to this is other than Emergents need some to get some.  That having been said, there is no requisite quota of internalized diversity that must be achieved for before members of Emergent Village can take a stand against colonialism.

I’ve heard criticism that EVTC provided theory, but lacked application. I’m not sure application can be crammed into what essentially was 2 days of introduction to postcolonial 101.  The tricky part to the ailment of colonialism is that there are no prescriptions. Musa Dube’s Rahab’s Prism is a useful tool not only to apply to texts, church agendas, and political propositions, but doesn’t provide an X-step rehabilitation plan. What you struggle with and against will depend on what you identify as colonial in your own life. I think the conference gave attendees the tools to perform that identification, but what attendees choose to do, undo, and leave undone, will depend on their own situations and communities.

I didn’t consider myself an Emergent when I came into this conversation.  And I still don’t.  But I’d like to consider them fellow travelers in the Jesus Way and ones that will understand the need for postcolonial action, not just theory.  The challenge for the majority of the Emergent Tribe will be sticking with it.  Sad stories of colonization and generous theologies will not provide both the carrot and stick necessary for the sustained effort of overturning colonialism.  The carrot, Richard Twiss’s aspirations for friendship between Emergents and colonized peoples is the way forward.  Christianity is fundamentally relational and the way we went full-colonial was through neglecting a mutually-liberating interdependent relationship with the other.  Though there are steps between, I believe relation is the first and final, the most basic and most complex element, in reversing empire.  It has to be undertaken first, and if we are successful, it will still be there after we’ve closed the book on Colonialism. I encourage the Emergent tribe to partner with indigenous, colonized peoples wherever they might be found.  The most valuable thing I left EVTC with wasn’t a fact, but a feeling: I am hopeful that the Emergent tribe will be there with us when we, the indigenous, the colonized, move through this liminal space, into what lies beyond colonialism.

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3 Responses to Out of Atlanta: Final Thoughts from the Emergent Village

  1. Dan Lowe says:

    Daniel,

    Thank you for your thoughts and reflections on the conference. It was extremely insightful and maybe a little hopeful. I have a couple of questions, though. Questions I’d like to pose to you and anyone else (you too, Randy…LOL…) who would like to respond. My assumptions are that the “Emergent conversation” originates in a Western context.

    1) When the “Emergent conversation” is had within other cultures, is this because other cultures have brought it into their own contexts or has it been brought in by others? If so, how is it shaping, or being shaped by, that cultural context?
    2) Is the “Emergent conversation” itself becoming a colonizing thought, in that it is spreading around the world, specifically Brazil and parts of Africa? I think this relates to the first question a bit.
    3) How are others “seeing” the “Emergent conversation?” Is it on a level playing field with the contributions that others (specifically the marginalized) are making, or is it seen as somehow superior? Does it sit “around the table” or does it take its place in the middle of the table?

    • Bo Sanders says:

      Dan, I was waiting to see if anyone would respond before I piped in ! I started to craft some thoughts and it quickly become a page 🙂 which is far too long for this little “comment” boxes.
      So I decided to make it it’s own post. It should be up within the half hour.

      -Bo Sanders

  2. Daniel Fan says:

    Daniel,

    I typed up a response (which somehow never made it to the blog), but Bo’s is much more thorough and better informed.

    I’m no scholar on the topic of Emergents, just a witness 😉

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