Occasionally, I listen to a podcast called “Homebrewed Christianity” hosted by a handful of PhDs in Theology and Religion who also happen to be involved in local church ministries of various sorts. (They also happen not to be teetotalers, as you may have guessed.) Episodes feature interviews with a huge variety of authors, thinkers, artists, and scholars who contribute in some fashion to Christian thought and practice. The tagline usually contains some variant of “…bringing you the best nerdy audiological ingredients so you can brew your own faith.”
Adult beverage metaphor aside, I’d like to explore this notion of brewing one’s own faith, or what we’ll outmodedly term “artisanal spirituality.”
The other day, I found myself half-way through a bag of Kettle brand potato chips—you know, the bags that say “great taste . . . naturally” and whose font has a sort of hand-crafted, woodcarving-y look—when the thought struck me that I would feel way more self-loathing if it had been a bag of Lays or Doritos instead of this higher-priced Kettle brand. Yet, in reality the nutritional value of what I was eating was hardly different (I checked). Sure, maybe a couple higher quality ingredients near the end of the list, but it was still a bag full of deep-fried starch.
Or, just think about what’s happened to coffee. It was not too long ago that holding a Starbucks cup was perfectly acceptable, if not a way to project an air of cultured importance. But now, at least in the office where I work, I find myself transferring the contents of a Starbucks cup into a generic container, lest the office coffee snobs ridicule me for not having patronized a local roaster. And not just any local roaster, but the preferred local roaster. Even better would be to use one of several gadgets we have around the office to hand-grind the locally roasted beans and hand-pour our own cup of craft coffee.1
One could find plenty of people equally “passionate” about their kimchi, harissa, salsa, pickles, mustard, ketchup, kombucha, and artisan bread. Corporate, global, and mass-produced are out. Homebrewed, hand-crafted, micro, nano, heirloom, and artisanal are in.
And while these words may have become cliché and meaningless (and great fodder for satire), the deeper something they tap into still works. High quality, unique, close-to-the-source, local, sustainable, fair trade, healthy. All these create a compelling aesthetic.
That deeper thing, I think, is a spiritual hunger for what is good, what is true, what is beautiful, and it is driven by a spiritual intuition that such Creator-crafted things are present throughout the world and not confined to religious spheres. I suspect this deep hunger must be somehow related to spiritual-but-not-religious preferences expressed by so many. If Religion is a corporate, institutional, pre-packaged set of beliefs that you “buy into,” no wonder it is falling on hard times.
It is not uncommon to take a critical view of these trends toward the hand-crafted or individualized forms of spirituality and faith, diagnosing them as symptoms of radical individualism, cafeteria religion, navel-gazing spirituality, Oprah church,2 or just, you know, those entitled Millennials.
But I agree with Diana Butler Bass, who thinks that too often these critiques “smack of intellectual superiority and moral defensiveness, carrying a whiff of judgment if not outright insult.”3 I confess the times I have invoked similar critiques, as I have not only come to a sympathetic appreciation of this hunger but also come to recognize it in myself.
I hunger for encounters with the Creator in whatever is “true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best and the beautiful” (Philippians 4:8, The Message)—wherever they happen to be found. And while I happen to love stained glass, pipe organs, hymns, liturgies, sacraments, stellar exegesis, and thoughtful small group discussions, these Pauline Spirit-virtues are at least as likely to be found by looking out into the world as inside a church.
Yet, as a self-professed proponent of religion-at-its-best, I am eager that we find ways to respond to this hunger in religious contexts. One option, I suppose, is for churches to slap on an “Artisanal” label, get some wood paneling and hip branding, and see if they can convince people to come sign up for a while.
I am not certain that is a good option, though. Instead, what if the role of religion shifted to become something more along the lines of creating a space where participants receive the tools, the inspiration, the resources, and even the encouragement to brew or craft their own faith? What would this look like?
It might look like ice cream and ketchup. My mom loves to recount a near-mythic family story of how she would frequently find me, as an early grade-schooler, awake pre-dawn in the kitchen, mixing all sorts of things together—the most memorable concoction being ice cream and ketchup. My mother, bless her, refrained from scolding me, and even, as far as I can gather, from “correcting” my choice of paired ingredients. Instead, she encouraged me to continue this playful and curious experimentation, which (she insists, and I agree) led eventually to my propensity for and enjoyment of cooking good food.
This parent-gifted freedom, it is worth noting, did not damn me to pursue a life of consuming and disseminating ketchup and ice cream. The learning process works, and my mom trusted the process. Fear and misgivings about my unorthodox experimentation would only have short-circuited the whole thing.
In running some of these ideas past my unmistakably millennial youth pastor colleague, I said that I thought religion should “make room” for this sort of artisanal spirituality, in which people are free to craft their faith from experiencing God in the world. He responded, “I don’t think religion should just ‘make room’ for that, or tolerate it; that should be the thing religion is about.”
Touché. I more and more agree.
Perhaps, on this weekend in which Christian churches around the world turn their focus toward Pentecost (Acts 2) and the emergence of the church through the pouring out of the Spirit, it is appropriate to suggest that we religious, churchy types need to trust Spirit more than we do.
“God’s Spirit-Wind-Breath blows wherever it wishes,” Jesus told Nicodemus, “and it’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8, CEB).
What if Religion’s branding sounded something more like, “We trust the Spirit, and we trust you”? What if Religion took seriously its claim that people are hand-crafted in the image of the Creator?
I hope we can keep exploring what it mean to make our message sound something like, “Here’s some space in the world and some tools from the best of our time-tested traditions; now go into the world, look for the Spirit, and craft your own faith, and then come back and share the best of it with us and with the world.”
Notes: 1. Should my coworkers read this: Yes, I am familiar with the idiom about pots and kettles calling each other out. 2. Diana Butler Bass, Grounded (New York: HarperOne, 2015): 22. 3. Bass, 22.
Vaughn Nelson is Pastor for Discipleship and Nurture at the La Sierra University Church in Riverside, California.
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