The Envision 08 conference — or “conversation,” as some Emergent-types prefer — just finished last night, and on the whole I think it was successful, though defining “success” in this context is always a tricky matter. In what follows I will try to offer brief summaries and evaluations of what occurred.
1. Some initial general observations
First things first, Envision 08 was blessed with a remarkably broad and extensive list of speakers and participants. The conference sought to be ecumenical by bringing together conservatives, moderates, and liberals (both politically and theologically) around a Common Cause: connecting Christian faith with social and political action. The benefit of this approach was that Envision featured a chorus of different voices, many of whom disagreed with each other. The conference was not simply one group speaking to itself. There were serious differences between various parties, but their overall commitment to the CC almost always counterbalanced the occasional cacophony in the presentations.
The cons of such a rich array of speakers were readily apparent, however. For starters, having so many speakers means that most are unable to speak for any serious length of time; only a few are given a platform to speak at length. Many of the best and brightest were confined to the learning tracks, about which I will say more in a moment. Moreover, because of time limitations due to so many speakers, the occasional cacophony resulting from some presentations was rarely, if ever, oriented in a more positive direction. It was left to individual conversations later to figure out how to reconcile opposing views or decide which view should be rejected. While I want to affirm the ability to openly and honestly disagree, I also want to see real dialogues take place that grapple with the hard issues, and most of the time such conversations were prevented by the moderators. I will discuss some examples of this later.
In addition to the issues surrounding the speakers, there are some general observations to be made about the conference as a whole. The most obvious one certainly dominated everyone’s conversations during the first day—viz. the utter lack of organization. I am not suggesting that the leaders of the conference are entirely to blame, but I will suggest that they failed to take care of many details which are necessary to have a smooth-running conference. The two co-moderators of the conference, Peter Heltzel and Lisa Sharon Harper, are, respectively, a charismatic seminary professor and an artist-activist. While they are both great people, I am not entirely convinced that they have what it takes to put together a conference of this magnitude. I never saw the conference administrator, Ryan Holladay, and when I emailed him a few weeks ago, I never received a response. Sure, he was probably too busy to respond to petty emails, but doesn’t that already indicate an understaffed conference? Sure, the conference was a grass-roots effort put together by volunteers, but shouldn’t that be all the more reason to find volunteers with the requisite organizational and administrative skills for this kind of event? The organizational mishaps are too numerous to discuss here, but they created a general sense of frustration at the start of Envision 08. Thankfully, the sessions themselves were (usually) good enough to help mitigate the frustration.
One final general observation concerns the abysmal use of PowerPoint. In the conference survey, I wrote that whoever was responsible for PowerPoint should be fired—and I meant it. Not only were the slides—apart from the Emerging Church forum—poorly designed, but the person running the program had no idea what he or she was doing. The person was also using a PC with only one monitor, which means that in order to go forwards or backwards, one has to scan through all the slides. (The Mac version has a feature that allows one to pick and choose which slide to show, a feature that is not available on Keynote, unfortunately.) In any case, it was very distracting and, quite frankly, an embarrassment to those in attendance who paid anywhere from $49 to $249 to attend and should expect such simple technological issues to be flawless.
2. Opening session: Rich Cizik, Jeanette Yep, and Shane Claiborne
The opening session on Sunday night was hit-and-miss, as was most of the conference. The evening began with some rather uninspiring worship—uninspiring, in part, because of the dismal PowerPoint, which completely ruined my attitude of worship. Rich Cizik, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, was the first to speak. He presented a message that was, for the most part, entirely incoherent and disorganized. He seemed comfortable in front of the crowd but very uncomfortable and hesitant about his message. It took him a good while before he finally started talking about the environment, which is the issue for which he is so widely known in the evangelical world. For the most part, he just stumbled from one loud assertion to another without any discernible (or at least intelligible) transitions. Afterwords, a guy said to me that he was surprised Cizik was actually a lobbyist in Washington, because on the basis of his performance that night, it would seem to indicate a total inability to communicate. I would say he only began to speak coherently in the last five or ten minutes of his half-hour talk.
Overall, Cizik wasted a huge opportunity. He could, and should, have discussed the changing culture of American evangelicalism. As one who is friendly with both traditionalists and progressives, Cizik is in a unique position to talk about the recent developments within the evangelical ranks. He could also have presented a discussion of the issue of climate change and global warming. He mentioned it, but said nothing of substance about the issue, except to say that evangelicals now realize the importance of caring for the creation. Why not talk about how younger evangelicals might advance the conversation about creation? Why not discuss how environmentalism has been embraced by evangelicals who formerly viewed it as the sole possession of the political left? And why not suggest how this trend might be replicated in other situations? Cizik mentioned his collaboration with scientists. Why not suggest ways of understanding the relationship between scientists and evangelicals in the 21st century? These would all have made excellent topics for discussion, but his presentation was, instead, full of energy but empty of content. It almost seemed like he was charged with giving a pep talk to us. If so, then the organizers are to blame for his disappointing message.
After Cizik came Jeanette Yep. I’ll be honest here. I remember liking what she said, but I cannot for the life of me remember a single thing that she said. Maybe others can. All I know is that it was forgettable. But I have a bad memory. (Update: Thanks to Chris for reminding me of her talk.)
Finally, Shane Claiborne took the stage. I have deep respect for Shane and his work in inner-city Philadelphia (his new book, Jesus for President is amazing), and I have even more respect after hearing him speak over the past few days. Shane, like Rich Cizik, gave more of a pep talk than an actual presentation. But while Rich was convoluted, Shane was prophetic. He talked about how Jesus, when asked if he was the messiah, never answered the question but responded by simply asking, “What do you see?” Shane then said, if people asked us whether we are Christians, could we actually say with integrity, “What do you see?” It was a powerful message, and he almost single-handedly saved the evening. A key difference between Claiborne and Cizik is the relationship between Christians and political power. Cizik is a Washington lobbyist who directly appeals to government authority and power as the basis for effecting change. Shane, on the other hand, on the basis of his Anabaptist ecclesiology, sees the ecclesial community as the place where God’s kingdom is embodied. The church has no need for political power; instead, it witness to God’s reign through powerlessness, through servanthood, through the cross.
At the end of the day, Shane Claiborne understands that the gospel calls us to radical discipleship (he appealed to Bonhoeffer’s notion of “costly grace”). Rich Cizik, by contrast, seems to think that the gospel calls us to radical effectiveness by any means necessary. Cizik and Claiborne may support similar issues—they both advocate adjusting to a post-oil world—but they do so in fundamentally different ways. A major fault of the conference is that it never addressed this dissonance head on. Consequently, at the heart of the conference was a major contradiction—one that can be summarized in terms of whether one adopts an Anabaptist or Constantinian ecclesiology. If Envision 2010 has any hope of success, it must address this issue directly. We cannot cover up this issue through pleasant platitudes. The church must face this problem honestly and openly if it wishes to speak prophetically in the world today.
The opening session closed with a brief discussion by Rita Brock of the eucharist and its relation in the early church to the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 with the loaves and fishes. The entire conference was framed as one long eucharistic liturgy. This was an excellent idea, though a lot more could have been said about this. William Cavanaugh’s work comes to mind, for example.
Finally, after some more worship music, the evening closed with a “Christian” hip-hop/rap duo that was unnecessary and embarrassing. The act had no connection with anything else at the conference and it nearly ruined the otherwise positive vibe left by Brock’s explanation of the eucharist. Much of the evening felt like an attempt to fit as many different things into one evening as possible. Unfortunately, the PowerPoint problems, the worship band, the hip-hop act, Cizik’s message, and the consistently bad transitions throughout the evening left an overall sour taste in the mouth. We were left hoping for something better on Monday morning—but the worst (and best) was yet to come. More on that tomorrow.