Tony Jones, Prayer, and Being Evangelical @ The Goose

I’m an Evangelical. There. The cat’s out of the bag. Grant you, I feel the need to point out that I’m a “E”vangelical, not an “e”vangelical. I use the word to give one of those labels that make us more comfortable because it aligns us with a particular tribe, a common-unity and makes us at least a bit understandable. You are there and I am here. In this case, it defines my creed and statement of belief but not my culture so much, in case you hadn’t already figured that out. You’re a smart bunch.

This last weekend, I took my little Evangelical self to the Wild Goose Festival in Shakori Hills, North Carolina. Wild Goose… a festival to celebrate art, justice, music and spirituality. Talk about a diverse tribe. One of the most beautiful things about Wild Goose: the demographic spanned every possible life stage and age bracket without any crazy skew towards one group. The grounds were animated by just as many laughing, dirty-faced children and silver heads with wise-lined faces as there were inked up thirty-somethings or youngish hipsters with little square glasses and cowboy shirts. In my mind, that in and of itself is a statement. Hey, there’s something stirring, something afoot, something curious and mysterious at work in the Church.

Nonetheless, my tribe seemed to be in the minority at ye ol’ Wild Goose. This became most evident when I headed over to the geodesic dome for a conversation with my friend and one of my favorite writers-thinkers, Dr. Tony Jones. (I’m throwing the Dr. part in just in case Tony reads this. GOD knows, he earned it and I make fun of him enough to off-set it anyway.) The Geodesic Dome, aside from just being a pretty fantastic physical space, was a forum where a thinker or “expert” would come in and present a question to which they do not have an answer. And then we dialogue. Tony’s question: Why Pray?

My first reaction: Excitement. These topics weren’t overwhelming the line-up at Wild Goose. We were talking about something that had to do – very concretely – with spiritual formation. With Christian tradition and discipline. With something that, honestly, I was curious to know how the other Emergents (yes to Phyllis Tickle, no to Mark Driscoll) would handle it. I’ll let you in on a secret: I sometimes entertain this idea that maybe hip Emergents don’t pray, read the Bible, engage in The Hours or the disciplines because they’re so in tune with the GOD-at-Present that they believe these things to be trite, unenlightened, maybe even a bit superstitious. Here was a chance to hear a group of diverse but unified people converse on this topic.

Heading into the conversation, Tony took about ten minutes to set it up, to lay out his process and thoughts to this point. And then he threw the ball to the group: so if it’s not x or y or z, then we do we pray? The conversation turned existential very, very quickly. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a girl who’s always good for a good turn around the philosophical dance floor; but Tony’s question was an apologetic one, as he kept reminding the group. “What makes prayer a uniquely Christian practice?” Apparently, this was not a concern for the bulk of us gathered since some of the most common responses were “Why does it need to be?”

It was an odd place to be — standing between the enharmonic of why prayer doesn’t seem to matter and the importance of why it should. It’s not making the world a better place in any visibly monumental ways. It’s not theologically inclined to the notion that it forms us into the image of Christ. So, um…

But the other odd place here in this dome was the space created where the teacher was decidedly and purposefully standing in as the student. While Dr. Jones was still present, tossing out the grand process of his thought around this topic and even grander ideologies, every sentence ended with a vibe of “don’t you think?” or “could it be?”

There were a few comments Tony made that flew at me in 3-D given the audience and the context. The first was this: “There’s lots of things [Jesus] didn’t talk about that we have opinions on, but he did talk about prayer… and he did [pray].” Here we were – sitting in the middle of a phenomenal landscape with a radical group of spiritual people, really seeking out the Divine imagination around issues like creation care and sexuality and being ready to carry those flags in the name of Christ (and for that I say, thanks be to GOD) but in that one statement, I felt like Tony captured my fear and struggle with my own faith and with the context in which I must work that faith out.

I don’t fit in with my old tribe, the “e”vangelicals. And I sometimes fear that we progressives and creatives are just creating a new subculture of Christianity – just a little more hip, cynical, and edgy. We have our celebrities, our music, our group think. Wild Goose made me think about it – with her beautiful fluidity of engagement smattered with the occasional moment of spiritual consumerism. It was a vibe definitely not geared to those of a less wide-open persuasion. The dialogue that Tony facilitated intrigued me for that very reason but his summation moved me to a deep inner recognition that seemed to buzz through the whole dome, regardless of ones tradition or cultural persuasion:

I pray to be obedient because Jesus says to pray. This is my prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.

Yes. Exhale.

I’ll be honest with you – some days, that’s the reason I worship too. Because Jesus did it. Not because I get it or I’m more enlightened or in touch or spiritually eager. (Sorry, red wine just came out my nose on that one.) I don’t have all the answers and sometimes I feel like this is our own little geodesic dome right here with me throwing out a question and hoping the dialogue will give me something to move forward again. It’s not always popular and certainly not seemingly enlightened to show up at church Sunday after Sunday with the kids in tow and no great argument for why we need to be there, or at least not a good Christian apologetic.

Wild Goose was an extraordinary community experience that I hope you will consider attending next year. In the meantime, I lift you all up in my prayers – some of you by name, some of you by proxy – all of you in spirit.

Image © iStockphoto


About Jodi-Renee Adams

Jodi-Renee is a curious mesh of "heretical orthodoxy": evangelicalism, post-modern philosophy and liturgical practice. Oh, and she's a perpetual student of theology and in "I'm still learning how to be human." She is currently pastoring an urban church and working as a writer and musician in various settings from funk bands to liturgical guilds. Her reasons for getting out of bed in the morning include designing formal and informal spaces for people to reflect on Mystery, raising compassionate children, and eating green chili. She resides in Denver with her brilliant jazz-man husband Justin, her high-schooler Sara, middle-schooler Anna-Michelle, and Kinder Leo, along with Dogma the Boston Terrier.

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