Last night I attended a fascinating conversation at Old First Dutch Reformed Church in Park Slope with novelists Rick Moody and Darcey Steinke and the church’s Rev. Daniel Meeter about progressive Christianity and other topics related to an open and humane interpretation of Biblical text. The event was moderated by Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, a member of the Old First congregation and the co-owner of Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene.
Here in the United States, Christianity is often associated with right-wing politics and fundamentalism. But increasing numbers of contemporary Christians are trying to change that.
Rick Moody and Darcey Steinke attended Sunday school as children but drifted away from religion as adolescents. As adults, they explored the teachings of the Bible in their own work and as co-editors of the anthology Joyful Noise: The New Testament Revisited.
The critically acclaimed author of the novel The Ice Storm and many other works, Rich Moody takes a decidedly non-fundamentalist view of the Bible. He urges people to read it with an open mind-set. “There’s a politics of reading. One holds that you have to control interpretation. That it’s dangerous…The other holds that you are free to engage with the text,” he said last night.
A minister’s daughter, Darcey Steinke is the author of five books, including Jesus Saves, and Easter Everywhere. She described the discomfort she often feels sharing the fact that she is a Christian with secular colleagues. “People would act like you were going to give them the flu,” she said.
Rev. Meeter, the author of Why Be A Christian (If No One Goes to Hell) from Shock Foil and pastor of Old First Church, talked about the way that he approaches the Bible: “How do I pretend that John is Shakespeare? It’s a matter of letting go.”
Indeed, his engagement with the Bible is passionately rigorous, even playful. “I am in the Bible a lot. I have a daily conversation with the hymns, the prayer book.”
Progressive values, same sex marriage and the mesh of religion and politics were also discussed. Meeter told the crowd that nowhere does the Bible reject homosexuality. He rankles at the idea that “the God that we worship is the God that blesses America. It’s a weird nationalistic religion.”
In answer to a question about how he balances his progressive politics and his role as leader of a Park Slope church Meeter said: “This church specializes in providing sanctuary, comfort and safety.” He admitted that he tends to be quiet about his opinions on specific political policy. “I don’t want to be a trumpet, I want to be a first violin.”
The event was part of a new series at the church called Fourth Mission, providing community outreach, predominately through hospitality to the arts
It was also a fundraiser for the restoration of Old First’s ceiling. In September 2011, plaster suddenly fell from the ceiling of the sanctuary. Upon review it was determined that the ceiling damage is not localized, but is a systemic failure in the attachment of the plaster ribs and crosspieces in the ceiling; after 120 years, the structure is failing. Restoring the ceiling will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars; assessments are still underway, as the Old First congregation is rallying to raise funds for repair. A grant from the New York Landmarks Conservancy has kick- started the restoration fund, but Old First is also reaching out to the surrounding community to invite them to help restore this irreplaceable community resource.