In about a month, a couple thousand United Methodist laity and clergy will gather on the beautiful campus of Grove City College for an important time that we call “Annual Conference.” We will sing and worship together. We will honor retiring pastors and ordain some new ones. We will study Scripture and hear presentations.
And, of course, we will discuss and debate legislation.
For some reason, my prayerful preparation for this year’s Annual Conference has taken my thoughts to Chuck Klosterman’s relentlessly entertaining novel “Downtown Owl” (published in 2008). The novel focuses on life in the mid-1980’s as it unfolds in the eccentric small town of Owl, North Dakota—a town where cable television is not available and where “disco is over but punk never happened.”
As the people of Owl proudly resist the narrative of popular culture, they invest their energies in those time-tested realities that seem to be woven into the DNA of the town’s lifeblood: high school football, hating the government, reckless sexual relationships, and the copious consumption of alcohol. In Owl, normalcy is impossible for outsiders to define, and even the lifelong residents have stopped trying.
Interestingly, church life is still important to a portion of Owl’s population. In fact, the local Roman Catholic church is very pleased with the arrival of its new priest, Father Steele, who is “a young, fat, affable, nebulously feminine individual who—in stark contrast to his predecessor—did not assume that all women were the intellectual equivalent of cows.”
In what I consider to be one of the most hilarious (and realistic) literary treatments of ecclesiastical decision-making that I have ever encountered, Klosterman takes the practice of Bible study (in a Roman Catholic context) and makes it the center point of a church-related controversy. The narrator in the story sets the stage in this fashion:
Traditionally, Roman Catholics are not big Bible scholars. Catholics focus on the Gospels; the rest of the Bible is what Protestants arbitrarily memorize for no obvious reason. Father Steele wanted to change this…[And so] five middle-aged women agreed to meet with Father Steele every Wednesday morning in the basement of the church rectory to debate the Word of God. That was September. By October, Vernetta Mauch hated Melba Hereford the way Nixon hated JFK. The feelings were mutual.
At the heart of this controversy is the question of what a Bible study should include. Vernetta Mauch believes that Bible study is best treated as an opportunity for individuals to relate the biblical stories to their personal experiences, and Vernetta has become quite adept at this practice. In fact, according to the narrator, “there was not a single anecdote from either Testament that Vernetta could not connect to specific dramatic events in her own personal history, or even to semi-dramatic events from the previous Friday.”
In short, Vernetta approaches Bible study as an opportunity to discuss the intersection of Scripture and her personal journey, much to the disdain of Melba Hereford. Melba, under the influence of a vastly different hermeneutical approach, resents what she perceives to be Vernetta’s efforts to use the Bible as a springboard for egocentric revelation: “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Melba interjected when Vernetta tried to use Christ’s damning of a fig tree as a means to criticize her husband’s insistence on buying a new lawn tractor. “Buying a lawn mower has nothing to do with the Son of God. You’re ruining the Bible for everyone.”
For Melba, Bible study is not to be a time of personal revelation and application. Rather, it is to be a context for intellectual discernment in which a safe and dignified distance can be maintained between Biblical truth and the people who are pondering it (preferably in silence). So passionate is Melba about this conviction (and her dislike for Vernetta) that she encapsulates her angst into an administrative point of order: “I want to make a new rule,” Melba says during a Bible study. “From now on, no one can talk about their own life during Bible study.”
Like all good church people, they put it to a vote. The final tally was 3-2 in favor. As a result, “Owl now had the only Bible-study group in America where it was forbidden to tell any story less than two thousand years old.”
Klosterman’s deft and creative literary exploration of this fictional (but wonderfully true to life) milieu brought me to simultaneous laughter and sadness. I laughed because I heard in Vernetta and Melba the voices of hundreds of my past parishioners, all of whom had passionate convictions about what should and should not be included in everything from Bible study to worship, everything from sacramental practice to church music. The laughter, however, was accompanied by a strange sense of sadness over my remembrance of the Vernetta’s and Melba’s I have encountered over the years who wound up hating one another because of their drastically divergent views of what the church’s ministry should and should not accommodate.
When I ponder the relationship between Melba and Vernetta, it is impossible for me not to think about two women in my very first appointment who were locked in a seven-year feud over whether the American flag was to be located stage-right or stage-left of the altar. (Interestingly, when I suggested to them that it may be best for the American flag not to be present on either side of the altar, since Trinitarian worship bears witness to a Kingdom that transcends nationalistic identity, both women found an unanticipated unity in their shared dislike for their pastor’s “newfangled ideas!”)
I suppose that my point (and, I think, Klosterman’s) is that church can be a tricky place. It is a place where great potential exists for mystical intersections between the eternal and the commonplace. And yet, given the eccentricities, passions, and personalities of the church’s people, it can also become a fragmented and compartmentalized environment in which people are either loved or hated depending upon which compartment they choose to occupy. In such an environment, it is often difficult to avoid jumping into a murky sea of distorted priorities—a sea in which the church’s people are far more interested in the school of red herrings swimming around them than they are in the One who walks on the water and invites his followers to join him there.
And yet, after all the literary dust had settled, my reading of “Downtown Owl” left me with a feeling of gratitude for the church and its ministry. Klosterman, perhaps unintentionally, helped me to remember that the Church, at its best, is the only environment in the world in which Vernetta’s and Melba’s can be confronted by biblical truth and challenged to live into the reality of making Christ-centered peace amidst divergent convictions. The risk of such an environment, of course, is that people might wind up hating one another if their desire to win the argument become more passionate than their desire for Christocentric koinonia.
But, every once in a while, I still find Melba and Vernetta sitting beside one another in the same pew (or in the same row at Annual Conference)—singing together, praying together, and allowing the cross of Christ to bridge the gap between their contrasting personal preferences. In those moments, I tend to be awestruck by the church’s holy potential that is occasionally and beautifully realized.
I look forward to seeing many of you at Annual Conference. Please pray for our time together at Grove City. Pray for our Bishop as he prepares to preside. Pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon that robust gathering of United Methodist Christ-followers. Finally, pray that all of our “Melba’s” and “Vernetta’s” will be drawn closer to one another and closer to the risen Christ, whose Lordship is always far more unifying than our differing viewpoints are divisive.