Portland, OR :: This project was originally conceived three years ago under the title “The Way We Worship.” My plan was to write twelve essays on twelve churches. The essays would collectively document the diverse ways in which American Christians gather for prayer, praise, teaching, and fellowship. I wanted to explore everything from megachurches to house churches; churches that are dying to churches that are thriving; congregations that meet in white clapboard buildings on a country road, and churches that meet in brewpubs and coffee houses in the middle of the city; postmodern churches on the “cutting-edge” and churches that are profoundly, proudly modern.
While the simplicity of this idea still appeals to me, I’ve come to feel constrained by the original title and structure. There is an obligation to look for archetypal churches, which lacks spontaneity – and besides, I want to meet people, not archetypes. In addition, the title “The Way We Worship” implies an almost exclusive focus on Saturday night or Sunday morning services, which isn’t enough. Far from it (cf. the well-written but ill-conceived recent article by Jason Boyett on the Relevant website, “6 Denominations in 6 Weeks”, about which I will have more to say in a future post). Finally, the rigid framework – twelve essays on twelve churches – doesn’t leave much room to write about my family’s physical, spiritual, and relational journey.
Last week I was reading a collection of Wendell Berry’s poetry, and I came across a Sabbath poem that beautifully summarizes my present goals for this project – and for myself apart from this project. The “rarest wildflowers” are the people Kate and I will meet on our trip.
I dream of a quiet man
who explains nothing and defends
nothing, but only knows
where the rarest wildflowers
are blooming, and who goes,
and finds that he is smiling
not by his own will.
It was Dave who suggested the title “On the Narrow Road,” a play on Jack Kerouac’s 1957 classic novel “On the Road.” A quick internet search revealed something interesting: the only other use of the title I could find was a 1989 book by Lesley Downer called “On the Narrow Road: A Journey into Lost Japan.” Downer’s book retraces the steps of the 17th century Japanese haiku poet, Basho, who wrote about his own pilgrimage in a travelogue sometimes translated as “The Narrow Road to the Interior.” The word “interior” in Basho’s title refers not just to mountainous interior of northern Japan but to the poet’s own inner journey. I picked up a copy of Basho’s travel narratives at Powell’s and, reading late into the night, I realized I had found a kindred spirit. Basho did just what I wanted to do: he headed north, visited temples (churches), and talked with people along the way.
Basho, a Zen Buddhist, wrote with a level of detachment I admire. He doesn’t defend or criticize or even celebrate. His poetry and prose are not didactic. His writing just is. My sociologist friend Matt will probably say that detachment is all but impossible when dealing with a subject – my spiritual heritage, American evangelicalism – so intimate and charged with meaning. But I feel like the pursuit of detachment, if not it’s attainment, is critical to this project’s success.
There is plenty to celebrate in American evangelicalism; God knows there is plenty to criticize. But I am not a good enough writer to do those things well. I’ll stick with the basics: this is who I am, this is where I come from, this is where we are going.