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Evolving Faith Conference and the Montreat Moment

It is historically appropriate that Rachel Held Evans is hosting the Evolving Faith conference next week in Montreat, North Carolina. As someone who grew up in Dayton, Tennessee, she is aware that it is 1925 all over again.

With the public relations nightmare of the 1925 Scope’s Trial behind them, neo-evangelicals broke with the fundamentalists and liberals to forge a new way forward. Graham, Ockenga, Carnell, Ramm, and Henry joined a coalition of thinking scholar activists to revive a culturally faltering faith tradition.

This week a new generation of bloggers, writers, counselors, and spiritually wounded and frustrated activists are meeting in Billy Graham’s hometown to forge a new coalition of post-evangelicals in the Evolving Faith conference. For those who are attending, there is a sense that this is potentially a significant event. All ecclesiastical revolutions eventually run out of steam. New concerns emerge, and different leaders come to the fore. A new group of “organic intellectuals” are emerging and their voices are now on the front lines of a religious transformation that is gripping the church. Many sense that this conference is being held in the brief pause between the lightening and the thunder.

“Organic intellectuals” is a term coined by Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. He contrasted it with “traditional intellectuals.” Organic intellectuals are partisans engaged in counter-hegemonic war of position against the prevailing status quo. The power of leadership is the power to define reality, to set the terms of the debate, to establish its conceptual frame. This is the burden of the Evolving Faith conference. We don’t know how this conference is going to be covered by the mainstream press, or the institutional evangelical press (read Christianity Today). It should not be ignored. Sociologist James Davison Hunter cautions, “The power of culture is not measured by the size of a cultural organization or the quantity of its output, but the extent to which a definition of reality is realized in the social world and acted upon by actions in the social world.” Put simply, the power of culture is the power to reframe reality through an engagement with the imagination—storytelling, music, art, and the like. What is needed is not the conclusion to a well-reasoned argument, but a new “ah-ha” insight from a fresh picture of reality, religion, and relationships.

Organic intellectuals are partisan activists. They have a definite point of view and are pragmatically oriented to daily life instead of abstractions, and are frequently common workers not academics. Moreover, there is an intersectionality of diverse interests and motivations that is being attracted to this sold-out conference. Many of the speakers at the Evolving Faith conference have a history of blogging. These bloggers are not a well-defined group, but they are adept at agitation and networking, key elements in the emerging revolution. These post-evangelical bolsheviks are intelligent, articulate, aggressive, and a force to be reckoned with. We can be grateful to the convening leadership of the Chaffee Management Group. Something exciting is being launched here. This is more than healing our past wounds by a church that insists on seeing things in black and white categories. This is moving through the messy grey of our lives into a new kind of faith that is more real, more authentic, and more human.

Jesus when he first confronted his prospective disciples did not give them a list of five minimal propositions to be believed. No, he simply gave them an open-ended invitation to follow him. For many of us this Montreat moment is a significant marker in our own spiritual pilgrimage. It is with mystery and anticipation that we take the first step to follow where it leads.

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