On Diana Butler Bass [and being a fish out of water]

I’ve spent the last two days at a conference with Diana Butler Bass, which some colleagues of mine were organising. It was a last minute decision to go, and I’m so, so glad I did.

Diana is the author of A People’s History of Christianity, Christianity for the rest of us, and numerous other books on the practices of spiritual communities and congregations. Her expertise is in articulating contextual realities about culture, faith and church community, and making them accessible to a church which is largely confused by them… and seriously, i don’t think i’ve heard anyone express it better. She created a tinker toy model for explaining the continuums on which we ‘define’ different communities, and how all of that is changing in a postmodern landscape. In a nutshell, she talked about the continuum that we normally use to define church communities [liberal – conservative], added in another dimension [conventional – intentional], and then the third, new dimension of modernity and postmodernity. It offered such a useful framework for conversations, and understanding the emerging tensions and subtle differences between expressions of community that often look the same, but are somehow very different. It was lovely to hear someone talking about postmodern communities who has herself come from a liberal / progressive background. When so many books and blogs about emerging church are from people who are so passionate about disavowing any liberal inclinations [i always feel like the odd one out in emerging church circles], it was just brilliant – and a weird kind of relief, actually – to hear the possibilities of emerging communities from someone who values that part of her heritage, even if, in a postmodern world, it is no longer the defining paradigm.

North American speakers often don’t translate well into an Australian context. We’ve often wondered why that is – perhaps there’s too much of the readymade in what they present; perhaps it stems from a lack of awareness of how steeped in the American culture that their stuff actually is, or a lack of understanding of the diversities of cultures in australia. Diana got the subtleties of the audience really well, and seemed really interested in how her input made sense here, not just in telling us what was happening there. She was articulating our reality here, and it was quite astonishing to hear our truths being reflected so accurately back to us in an American accent. I feel unexpectedly grateful for the whole experience.

We decided last night that we will organise a gathering for people in the uniting church [or those not in the UCA, but who have come from similar ‘quadrants’], who are working with or part of communities that have developed within a postmodern framework and know no other way of being. It would not be an event for those who are working with hinge communities, or for leaders who want their church to be different and are trying to work through the transition. Diana talked about the necessity to experiment and try new things, but to learn from the things that do and don’t work – this gathering [which would hopefully birth a network or ongoing learning community] would be a place to reflect on experiments and learnings. There are, after all, plenty of opportunities for those who are trying to create or lead hinge communities, and not many for those who are at another point in the story. It’s part of an attempt to build a body of people who can start the conversation at a different point, rather than covering the ground of ‘why’ and ‘what’ yet again…

I realised when I walked into the venue on Tuesday that i haven’t been to a church conference or meeting for the last two years. It was surreal. For the first time I realised how far away I have moved from the church, and how different the air i breathe now is. In the first plenary, someone talked about the implications of new forms of community for ordination, and i realised that i haven’t been anywhere where the subject of ordination has been raised for a very long time, where that’s been a consideration or a category. I felt like a fish out of water for much of the two days, and in the group conversations I realised I no longer knew or understood the language which was being used. It’s not my world or reality any more. Which is not a bad thing, it’s just surreal. And I realised that while i deeply respect that group of people and that community [and I do], I really love where i am now.

So I went home last night feeling more courageous, i guess, about a few things; more confirmed in what we’re trying to do in this new unit, and this project, and oddly less lonely. It goes to show that you don’t always need the company of other people to make a journey. Sometimes you just need to know that your story holds its own with another’s.

And i feel like i’ve made a new friend in Diana, which is just lovely too.


  1. Claudine Chionh

    I didn’t know she was in Australia! Sounds like a great opportunity for you.

  2. I gatecrashed a meeting of the UCA presbytery and synod last Sat to hear DBB speak, and as a non-church attending person from the Catholic tradition (which is a very long winded way of saying ‘lapsed’!), I felt a real sense of hope and connection and encouragement listening to her speak and imagining what shape and form progressive church communities might take in an Australian context. I’ve just purchased her book and am looking forward to having a read!

  3. excellent… look forward to hearing what you imagine in response…

    Claudine – publicity went out to other churches, not so sure it got distributed that widely… i should have blogged it here, sorry.

  4. I’m glad you enjoyed DBB – I thoroughly enjoyed her “Christianity for the Rest of Us” and was thrilled to find someone from the more liberal mainline background talking about very similar things as in emerging circles. It made me very hopeful, even though I am from a more evangelical background.

    And as for feeling like a fish out of water when going back into more traditional church contexts…I’m with you on that too.

  5. Rowena

    It is so nice to hear someone else talking from a perspective of taking the postmodern context for granted. It took me a while to realise why I was being so befuddled and disconnected from the what and why conversations of so much of the emerging conversation. It just is for me! and I’m glad to read of others for whom that is the experience – even if journeying together afar!

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