Portlandia in Christian Conversion

Before I get to Portland, I need to start in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

There is a theologian there by the name of Kä Mana, who tells the story of a traditional African priest meeting with the head of the Catholic mission. The traditional priest had seen not only the truth in this “gospel of Jesus Christ” but witnessed how it had grabbed a hold of  and brought a new energy onto his entire village. One day, after communion had been served at the mission, the traditional priest looked his Catholic counterpart in the eye and said, “I know that one day or the other, your ‘sacrifice’ will replace mine, the word of Jesus Christ will replace my ancestral and ancient word without destroying it. I am going to die a happy man because I know there will always be a sacrifice made in our village. That is very important. I hand over to you. Continue with what our ancestors started, and of which I was the high priest.”

This “gifting of culture” is what could be called a conversion story. I was at a seminar on contextual theologies last year, where Andrew Walls (a wise old guy with a British accent) gave the opening lecture. According to Walls, conversion is less about content (some would call dogma) and more about direction. Conversion is turning what is already there, in terms of culture and tradition, towards Christ, instead of starting from scratch.

“Thanks to Christ,” Kä Mana says, “we can look at ourselves as we are in the founding myths of our destiny, to discover that we are neither angels nor demons, but human beings in search of the meaning of our existence, building our society by promoting the positive values of life, and by fighting against the negative values of death that are permanently interwoven with them.”

This all has to do with Portland, at least in my perspective. I am wrapping up a summer of living in a hub of the Rose City’s network of intentional Christian communities, doing some Sunday morning church hopping, and coming back from runs with a free (and sweaty) copy of the Portland Tribune in hand only because the front page read “Black ministers lead push against city’s gang violence” or (more relevant to this piece) “Will churches survive in land of vegans, nature lovers?”. My hunch is that these same ideas about “conversion of culture” work just as well in the post-Christian Portland, Oregon context as they do in the pre-Christian African village.

Yes, a statue like this can be found in “post-Christian” Portland.

I do want to be careful however, as Portland is a quite heterogeneous city. Even if my Chicago friends assail Portland for its supposed lack of diversity, there are still many local subplots that represent real, alive and breathing, human beings. For the sake of simplicity (this is a blog post, nothing more), I am going to focus on one dominant strand of local narrative; the quirky, youthful, thoughtful vision of a deliberately different lifestyle that has been captured and defined by the TV series Portlandia.

From the state that brought the nation bottle recycling, I think it makes sense to talk about “redemption value” when speaking of what the American church has to gain by being present in Portlandia. This essentially post-Christian culture is a space to explore, not a vacuum to (re)fill. Kä Mana thinks the church in Africa can become the “theatre for the globalisation of love and humanness”, similarly, I think the Portlandian church has something positive to spread throughout the larger American church. The surface was scratched when Donald Miller wrote Blue Like Jazz, reflecting on his experiences at Reed College, but there is much more to go.

To be clear to my non-Christian friends happening to read this, I am not talking about proselytization or weird strategies on how to effectively save souls. This is a conversation addressed towards the church about how engagement with the Portlandia ethos can help the American church be a better church. I don’t know why you would be interested, but feel free to eavesdrop.

Let me get started with some eavesdropping of my own. Someone who (by outlook if not presently by geography) qualifies as Portlandian, stated “Life is absurd. God is love. We are free.” This simple statement struck me as a near-perfect statement of Portlandian spirituality. It is this mantra that I want to explore further (and if you happen to be the one who wrote this mantra, you are totally welcome to claim it. I would apologize for not asking, but I think you’re cool with it.)

Life is absurd.

For some, this is the existential statement par excellence, the motto of the stereotypical Portland State philosophy student with Camus in one hand and a cigarette (or not, but whatever it is it rhymes with not) in the the other.

The Christian apologist would contend that the observation of absurdity implies some sort of yardstick on which to measure such a statement. Can’t see shadows without sunshine, can’t see absurdity without order. Rightfully so, but the clever Portlandian (and she is clever) does not automatically assume God’s name is on this yardstick. Instead, she will point to the mountains as her measure, those glacial rocky spires mocking our downtown skyscrapers of Babel. Skyscrapers which, by the way, may be revealed as mere sandcastles when the big one hits.

Yet we all have beliefs. With a worldview where nothing can be grasped for certain, the Portlandian cares less about being correct in some invisible moral realm and more about consequence in this one. “People here live what they believe, from the cars they drive to the food they eat.” What this has developed into is a spirituality of social justice, something that sociologist of religion Monica Miller points out as unique to the city. “If there is a growing religion in Portland, at the center of it is not God but social and political issues, and that’s new. I have never had a young person (elsewhere) tell me their world view is combating poverty or combating hunger or combating racism or homophobia.”

Micah 6:8, a sort of mantra for social justice Christians, demands that we act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly. While some Christians may be put off by the city’s general agnosticism, it needs to be admitted that there is a sort of humility in realizing that one can only be so certain in truth. That humility becomes fertile soil for just and merciful living. And if just and merciful living is “what the Lord requires,” I would dare say recognizing absurdity is the foundation of the Portlandia’s strengths, and the church better be taking note of why this is happening.

God is love.

Even if they are sometimes opposed to Christian religion, most Portlandians will recognize that their worldview has been shaped by centuries of Christian thought. It seems the most stubborn belief to have stuck is from the core of 1 John 4:16, “God is love.”

Because of their faith in love, the secular Portlandian can often seem to be abiding more in God than her “judgmental” church-going counterpart. As the passage continues “those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them;” even if she does not recognize that “we love because he first loved us.”

I have to nitpick this Portland Mercury illustration: Portlanders wouldn’t throwaway the cross, they would recycle it. And, even if they don’t know it, that seems to be exactly what they are doing.

What is important here is that the essence of God (or “supreme principle of the universe that helps me make sense of my life”) is the phenomenon we experience as love. I sometimes wish Portlandians would nuance their sometimes warm-fuzzy understanding of love a bit – love is not hyper-tolerant, love is not open-unminded, but rather love will recognize and call out evil. It is not easy to condemn in a caring way, of course, but that’s why it is a labor of love.

But for at least every time a Portlandian errs on the side of hyper-tolerance, I can count a time I felt like the church has erred on the side of overzealous damnation. We think of ourselves in space shuttles to heaven, built out of the sturdy materials called faith and belief, striving to separate ourselves from even the slightest impurity so that our religion does not inexplicably burn up while exiting the atmosphere.

Christ came for the meek, the poor, the sinners, the different. If the church cannot develop the Portlandian stomach to bring these people along for the ride, it could be a long time before the space shuttle is ready to launch.

We are free.

The word “freedom” has evolved into a bit of a rorschach test that could mean a thousand different things to a thousand different people. But I think we can safely point to a broad theme in the Portlandian sense of liberty: the intense suspicion of institutions.

It is part of the cultural DNA. The first spark of it was perhaps in the Protestant reformation, where Martin Luther broke off from the Catholic hierarchy. This instinct travelled with the pilgrims of the New World, where a Declaration of Independence told off the monarchy. But it would replicate itself in another westward moment, as the pioneers of the Oregon Trail went over uncivilized plains and mountains to reach their promised land. Those who survived this trek, by necessity, had to be rugged individualists.

This is in part why, like no other region of the country or perhaps even the world, Portlandia (and the entire Pacific Northwest) is characteristically “spiritual but not religious.” As time has gone on, a “post-modern individualized spirituality” has developed here. It could be argued that there are more churches per capita here than anywhere else, as many Portlandians have developed their own “church of one.”

I could go on a tirade here about a “cult of freedom,” where freedom has become such a false idol (maybe because it is the only thing everyone thinks they can agree on) that the quest for freedom from has smothered productive thinking about freedom for. But that is a rant that could stretch from coast to coast, and besides, I want to talk about how this emphasis on freedom has become one of Portlandia’s strengths.

Although hierarchy is unattractive in Portlandia, people still think community is neat. Coffee shops and social media have combined to create urban tribes. This means churches no longer have their 20th century monopoly of being the most accessible social club around. While this may make it harder to get congregants in the door, it also means it no longer carries the burden of being a comfortable place for people to hang out.

In other words – the church in Portlandia can shake the boat, it can shed its skin, it can update itself as a source of tradition for a traditionless people. From the earliest days, the church was a Middle Eastern invention that included Jews and Gentiles; by the end of its first century it included Africans, Indians and Europeans. In Portlandia, the church can relearn this habit of being a place where people have the freedom to be themselves, a freedom which exists for the glory of God.

From my perspective, it is Kä Mana who describes this freedom the best: “all this is, in fact, the courage to be human.” Let us pray that such courage can be found here.

Portlandia in Christian Conversion

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