Reaching for new metaphors: An interview with Diana Butler Bass

By May 11, 2017Goose News

Perhaps no one looks through the past to the future more clearly than Diana Butler Bass.

Diana Butler Bass, who is returning to the Wild Goose this summer, is an author, speaker, and independent scholar specializing in American religion and culture. She holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Duke University and has written nine books, including the influential Christianity after Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (2012) and the award-winning Grounded: Finding God in the World—A Spiritual Revolution (2015). She also writes at both The Huffington Post and The Washington Post, and comments on religion, politics, and culture in the media including USA TODAY, Time, Newsweek, CBS, CNN, FOX, PBS, and NPR. We were happy she could take some time out of her busy speaking and writing schedule to chat with us.

WG: One of the things we love about your books is that you bring so much knowledge to the table, but also new language…so much beauty and metaphor and lyricism.

DBB: Thank you, I struggle and slave over that part of it but it matters to me. And to me, probably the biggest problem in the church right now is that the metaphors have failed. The metaphors have come to wound people.  The metaphors make no sense, in relationship to science and the way we live in the world today. In order for a metaphor to function, it has to be able to connect to our hearts and to our minds. So, reaching for new language is a serious part of leadership in faith communities today. It’s a big deal.

WG: That seems to be at the heart of what you’re doing in your newest book, Grounded.

DBB: Yes, Grounded is about an attempt to find a different kind of metaphor… the driving question of Grounded is, “Where is God?” For centuries in Christianity we’ve had an answer to that question and it’s a metaphorical one.  It’s an answer that shaped theology and worship and it shaped the way we did church and that answer is, “God’s up in heaven.” I think that’s one of the central failed metaphors of our own time. People don’t get that. People don’t believe that. People don’t even think of it as a metaphor any more. People just think of it as being some sort of…I don’t know… pious lie.  And so in Grounded what I tried to do is say, “Okay. Where is God?” And then I went the other direction and I said, “Well God is with us here.” And that’s a very legitimate personal, theological, and biblical answer to that question because it draws off of the doctrine of the incarnation.

WG: So instead of the metaphor of God in heaven you offer up some different metaphors…

DBB: Yes, Grounded was looking at God in nature and God in and through our neighbor. I think it’s such a better way of trying to address our spiritual lives and God, than the idea that God lives in the clouds far away in the highest heavens.

WG: Though it is the image most of us grew up with…it’s got some history.

DBB: There are historians who argue that the first 1000 years of Christianity was actually marked much more with the idea of the earth being the primary location of divine presence. They built their churches as domes. And the whole architectural vision was that the dome of heaven rested right here on earth. Western architecture didn’t go that way. We went with the steeple. And the steeple is like an elevator shaft up to sky…God’s way up there and we’re way down here. And we’ve got to figure out how to ride that elevator right up into heaven.

WG: It’s like we’re spending all our time looking for the up button…

DBB: Yes, and so something else needs to emerge. And I think that’s what we’re struggling with right now. With the shape of faith. What’s the deeper spiritual structure of faith going to be as we move forward?

WG: So do you feel hopeful? Do you think it’s going to be possible for something new to emerge?

DBB: I actually kind of vacillate on my hopefulness. I am hopeful for what I believe the church ultimately is… the living, breathing, organic body of Christ, animated by the power of the Holy Spirit, and moving towards the original intent of God for all of creation, which is compassion. Jesus embodied compassion in a unique and beautiful way and if we, as human beings follow and imitate the body of Jesus in that regard, that becomes the church. And the church becomes a community not an institution. And right now, although I know there are clergy and amazing churches and remarkable congregations, I think that overall the institutions are further from that sacred intention than they should be. And whether or not they can bring themselves back in line with that, I really don’t know.

WG: Many of your books, including Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, have talked about the demise of institutionalized Christianity. What do you think is causing so many people to leave the church these days?

DBB: I think we’re living in a time of the most intense spiritual longing that American society has been in for at least half a century and maybe the whole century. But there’s this huge gap between institutions that are worried about having enough money to keep the roof on the building and making sure the coffers are full, and then, on the other hand, people who are trying to connect with meaning and purpose and gratitude.  But they don’t find those things in the institutions we have.

WG: So do you think it’s possible for this to change?

DBB: I think fear is probably the largest inhibitor of this kind of change. It’s hard to move forward when churches, pastors, and committees are terrified that if they change something their biggest givers will leave the church. Jesus is calling the church into change, and the church says, “We have to check the budget first.” And I get it. But really church people need to be braver.

WG: We hear you’ve been at Wild Goose before…

DBB: Yes, I was at the first one…

WG: …and in fact you were even in on some early conversations about the festival, and what it could be, before it was ever born…

DBB: Yes, actually…about 12 years ago, I was with some people at Washington National Cathedral and somebody asked me a question about how to open up creativity in the church… and I said “What if we took the Cathedral Plaza in front of the Washington National Cathedral, and turned the whole thing, for maybe three days, into a sort of gigantic medieval festival village, and do it in a very interesting contemporary way where you would have stages, and medieval mystery plays, and you would have preaching, and you’d have art booths, and you’d have all this stuff happening. It’d be sort of like Greenbelt meets medieval cathedral meets city, urban space.” Three of us ended up going to Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York, and presented them with this idea, and Trinity then gave a first grant that eventually went to Sojourners to plan something along the lines of Greenbelt.

WG: And that ended up becoming the start for Wild Goose…

DBB: Yes. I was dreaming of a whole different way of storytelling and embodiment…. So I’m really happy that Wild Goose has sort of become that.

WG: We’re so happy you’ll be back with us this year to see how Wild Goose has grown and developed since its beginning.

DBB: I’ve truly been dreaming about this kind of thing for a long time, about new forms of performance of faith in public. I actually wrote about that in Christianity After Religion, how that would be the way into what I call the Fourth Great Awakening. And I think of Wild Goose as one of those places, one of those kinds of stages, one that could address spiritual longing and also bring us along a path to new metaphors and a deeply lived theology.

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