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Sunday, 12 February 2012

Can anything good come out of San Francisco - theologically speaking?

Encountering Jesus in 21st century San Francisco: a story of conversion and discipleship that has something in it to disturb and possibly upset almost everyone.

 Some comments  on:
 Take this Bread: A Radical Conversion by Sara Miles,  (Ballantine Books, 2008) 

Jesus freak: feeding, healing, raising the dead by Sara Miles (Jossey-Bass, 2010)

The story of a conversion, told in the first person, is a genre that has largely, though not exclusively, been owned by evangelicals. The focus in the structure of such conversion stories on an encounter with Jesus has also been typical of the genre. I know, I know, I can think of exceptions - Augustine's Confessions comes to mind. But I had in mind accounts from people who were not theologians, more at the level of popular church culture. Anyway ...

Sara Miles books might seem on first glance to comfortably fit into the evangelical frame, yes she experienced a striking conversion, and yes she is pretty hung up on Jesus and indeed uses the term ‘Jesus freak’ as the title of her second book.  At this point, however, the tracks start to diverge and a variety of theological sacred cows precious to evangelicals and Episcopalians, respectively seem to have been ignored by the Spirit along the way, if not directly slaughtered, in the account that she provides us.

The starting point of her conversion came through wandering in to an Episcopal church in San Francisco out of sheer curiosity and receiving communion simply because she happened to be there. It was not a matter of responding to the preaching of the word, the revivalist, altar call sermon, the typical pattern for evangelicals. It all happened through eating a piece of bread. Are we moving into Anglo-catholic territory here?

Well no as it happens. Indeed, the whole episode is highly irregular in therms of that tradition from start to finish. She should not have received communion, as someone who had not been baptised.  In a word, according to all the rules, what Miles experienced, a radical refocussing of her life shouldn’t have happened because she would not have received communion at all.

And then to raise the improbability level a couple of notches there is Miles herself, a lesbian, left wing journalist and war correspondent, living in a committed relationship with a female partner, and parenting her daughter from a failed marriage.

What Miles discovered as she engaged with the church community of St Gregory of Nyassa was a faith that centred on real food real hunger and real bodies. Her story, of how she experienced her conversion and what it led her to do in the opening up of a food pantry at the church, is written with honesty, vigour, humour and a reflective awareness of how her life was being changed.

As I said there is plenty here to disturb those of us who come from an evangelical tradition and understand the importance of conversion. The question Miles' story raises is whether what we expect from conversion has more to do with the process of conformity to certain a certain account of middle class conventional morality? 

For those of a liberal theological persuasion Miles' account seems to yield too much ground to a fundamentalist/ evangelical style at a time in the United States when that theological stance has become closely associated with the political right.  Miles' account of feeding people through the food pantry is traced out in strongly theological and ecclesiological terms rather than in a conventional framework of social justice and is subversive of the church's conformity to the institutional culture of bureaucratised helping agencies.

Secularists will be aghast that one of their own who knows what is wrong church and why intelligent people should be atheists should have strayed so far from the path of righteousness.

Miles's is passionate about the church but as event, while sitting lightly on its attempt to control the workings of the Spirit. Those committed to the church as institution will be aghast at her free wheeling, passionate commitment to discipleship and her open inclusive approach to sharing of the sacraments. She raises a number of critical theological and ecclesiological issues that are critical as we move beyond Christendom. The case Miles is arguing is that communion should be an open meal that witnesses to the catholicity and inclusiveness of Jesus’ life and ministry, that it is evangelical in character and that baptism should come at the point at which people take on the responsibility of committing themselves publicly to the path of discipleship.

And Miles is passionate about food and cooking. "Foodies" will find much in this story to enjoy, including her accounts of her early years working in restaurants. It is at this point of celebration of food and the bodies of the poor and broken who become part of the community that runs the food panty at St Gregory's, that I think Miles, without directly making the point in theological terms has put her finger on one of the deepest difficulties of the Christian community - that it has retained against the deepest logic of its own founding story, the reality of the incarnation, too much of a residual gnosticism that is uneasy with the body and the goodness of the created order. Miles testimony of conversion through food and through remembering the body of Christ represents even if indirectly a powerful challenge to that residual, unidentified gnosticism. For that at least I would want to unreservedly thank her.

For the rest of the disturbance of my residual evangelical sensibilities, I will have to accept that as part of my own ongoing conversion, and acknowledge it as a price well worth paying for the encouragement I have received from Miles' lively account of a very radical conversion.