The church feels Anglican, appropriate for the circumstances. The pulpit rests beneath an arched dome inlaid with what looks like gilded embroidery. Circling the same space, organ pipes adorn the hollowed-out walls between cylindrical columns. The only instruments on site are an oak-stained grand piano and the organ, which I like to think of as the control station. It looks like one of those old-timey phone operator booths I’ve only ever seen in classic movies.
And as if in strict defiance of stage rules, the organ keys face out toward the congregation so that the organist must sit with his back to us as he plays. I wonder if this aids his focus; I suspect it might.
Beneath the organ pipes and hovering centrally behind the podium, above what I think must be a baptistry (I’ve been out of the formal church setting for too long, it seems), is engraved the affirmation: “One Lord — One Faith — One Baptism.”
Four multi-story arched stained glass windows line the wings. I find them vibrant yet soothing. I want to describe them as Romanesque or Renaissance to sound more educated, but if I’m being honest, I’m not sure what they are. They’re nice-lookin’ windows, and I bet they cost a lot of money.
Take away the pews, and the sanctuary would make for a not-too-shabby, more American replica of the Great Hall at Hogwarts, and I mean that as the sincerest compliment to its architect. It’s not every day in the U.S. you find yourself in a building that pays proper homage to the old ways. Since I’m here with over four-hundred-plus other people of varying ages and denominational backgrounds to hear the British theologian, professor, pastor, and former Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, better known as N.T. Wright, the Hogwarts analogy seems to carry even more weight—like Harry on his first day, I’ve stepped into a world within a world.
Before Professor Wright speaks, we start each session by singing two hymns. It’s a Southern Baptist church where hymns are still a thing. I’m guessing some Baptist churches out there avail themselves of more contemporary modes. I wouldn’t know.
All I know is this organist could play in the big leagues if the big leagues wanted organs. I never thought I’d be moved nearly to tears by church organ music. But I guess that’s one of the risks of keeping and nursing an open heart.
As I come from a more charismatic tradition with chorus sheets and mounted HD TVs, I’m not used to the traditional, encyclopedic hymnal with its precise, numbered selections. However, I do recall singing hymns on many Sundays (and despising them a little unfairly) as they held a nostalgic appeal to our senior minister then (or what I guessed at the time was nostalgic, though I suspect it might run a little deeper than that, now). But I’m over a decade out of that world, and this is all a bit surreal.
The first hymn we sing is Holy, Holy, Holy by Reginald Heber, who, like Tom Wright, was also an Anglican bishop. I don’t notice it yet, but I will the following day—Professor Wright, situated at the front left of the auditorium, is singing along with us, but he doesn’t use the book. Why this strikes me like an arrow through the heart, I don’t yet know.
He doesn’t need the book. Indeed, I suspect he has been singing these hymns most of his life. And while I admit this isn’t the kind of “revelation” that ought to strike a person, it strikes me nonetheless. Sitting at a hotel conference table as I write, I feel a hollow forming at the top of my lungs just thinking about it. (It’s also worth mentioning that this is the same Tom Wright who, if you listen to his podcast, you’ll sometimes get to hear singing Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen songs.)
If I had to venture a guess, I think the simplicity of his devotion is what wrecks me (to borrow the modern parlance). Here is a man who has spent his life studying, exegeting, and teaching the Bible in addition to serving as a pastor and an appointed bishop. He knows the hymns by heart because the Bible and the Church are his dual vocation. If I were prejudiced against institutions, I might be inclined to ignore such a man.
And thus, I’m also stricken for another reason. Below the surface of my immediate awareness lurks the unsettling suspicion that a younger version of me would’ve scoffed at the present proceedings and even at the man himself—the younger me who would’ve proudly proclaimed, “I am of Christ’s Kingdom and, therefore, immune to your religion.” Some of you won’t understand what I mean by this. That’s fair. Allow me to expound.
Shadows of the Past
Without digging in the dirt (to find the places we got hurt), allow me to describe briefly or, shall I say, hint at the world I come from. The world I was born into. The world I grew up in. The world that made me what I am. Am I starting to sound like a comic book antihero yet? I made you? You made me first. (100 points to anyone who gets that reference without Google or ChatGPT).
Jokes aside, like anyone raised in church, I grew up within a certain theological framework. You would think that would be a given, but to some people, it goes unnoticed. It went unnoticed in my church of origin where, ironically, it would never have openly identified itself as theological because “theology” was just shy of a curse word—but it was a theological framework, nonetheless.
Certain. Theological. Framework. Keep that ambiguous phrasing in mind as we continue; I promise it’s deliberate. I’ll paraphrase it (and unfairly reduce it) as follows: “The Holy Spirit can reveal to you in a moment what you’ll never get in decades of studying theology. Religion will keep you in bondage, but the Holy Ghost will free you.”
The irony of a statement like that is it tries to side-step theology and doctrine, only to end up being both resolutely theological and doctrinal. And as such, it demands both an intellectual and biblical defense (among other things). It is, as I said, a certain theological framework, one for relating to God, the Bible, and—though it may not be explicit—other people.
Other… people. Let’s keep that phrase in mind, as well.
But you know what else? It’s not wrong. Yet, embedded within it like a shive that has lain dormant and deemed forgotten is a false opposition. Can you detect it? The false opposition looks a bit like this: the Holy Spirit’s life-giving power opposite devotion, study, intellection, tradition, sacrament, liturgy, knowledge, deacon boards, etc. Come to think of it, I think I’ve written about this topic already to some small extent.
The Holy Spirit versus Religion with a capital R. And what is Religion? Any church or religious institution outside of whatever we are—our cohort, our tribe, our clan, our category.
The Elephant Graveyard
I grew up in a world that cut itself off from other churches that weren’t directly tied to our very specific network and strand of thinking (which, I admit, did have its subtle variances). Why? Because other churches were lumped into the elephant-graveyard category of Religion, that very real and corrupt self-serving entity that killed the prophets and crucified the Messiah. Yes, Religion, in that sense, is real. And it is a terrible force that, like Saul of Tarsus, persecutes both Messiah and Messianic people under a banner of Godly zeal.
But as real as that force is in the world today, it does not remotely characterize the diverse and dynamic group of believers I find myself surrounded by as we close our hymnals, take our seats, and abide in intense silence, listening to one professor and theologian expound the Book of Acts within its historical and biblical context with precision, logic, and clarity, unlike anything I’ve experienced while sitting in a church auditorium.
And the funny thing is, this is a lecture. That’s right. It’s not a fiery sermon. It’s not a passionate, prophetic utterance. It’s not a worship service at Bethel. It’s not even a Carman concert circa 1993.
It is a lecture entitled “Acts: New World, New People,” and it is being delivered in a place where the younger me wouldn’t have been caught dead: a Southern Baptist Church in the heart of Houston, Texas. The supposed elephant graveyard. Religion.
But Religion, in the prior context I’ve defined, is a word that does not characterize a group of people, some of them Baptist, some Anglican, some Methodist, some Charismatic/Pentecostal—hell, I think I overheard someone say there were a few Mennonites in the crowd—who have all come together under one roof to acknowledge by their unified chorus and resonant Amen: “One Lord — One Faith — One Baptism.”
On the contrary, I’m starting to wonder if I wasn’t the one who, for the first twenty-five years of my life, abided unknowingly under the shroud of unfounded religious prejudices rooted in a cynicism which, like the second velociraptor on the hunt, I didn’t even know was there. Although it masqueraded as holiness, it was little more than self-righteousness on its best day. Clever girl, indeed.
In moments like these, when I find myself in a new, unfamiliar place I never envisioned, yet ever conscious of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with me in their mind-boggling tri-unity, I am also aware of the need that confronts each of us to get out of our “father’s country” and gain a little perspective, a little glimpse of a reality beyond the pale of our preconceptions.
And to be clear, you may not need to go very far. For Peter, it was as simple as going up to the roof of a friend’s house: “Rise, kill, and eat.”
In these moments, I also remember Gildor Inglorion’s famous words to Frodo Baggins at the onset of his dangerous quest: “The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.”
The Challenge (Easier Said)
Other… people. Other believers. Other followers of Christ. One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism. The promises of God to Israel fulfilled in Jesus and bursting forth into the wider world of Samaritans and Ethiopian eunuchs whether we like it or not. Hate or love me when I say it: tribes—categories of people—are a decaying relic of the past, and only Religion will keep you in one.
Granted, families and communities who agree on specific emphases of scripture will persist, as they should. Denominations will persist. But if I can, insofar as it depends on me, I also want to abide in this truth: God’s world is diverse, and his soteriological opus in Jesus is bigger than a denomination or a non-denomination, vaster than our categories can contain for all their fruitless aspirations.
So, let’s make an effort to dispense with the old wineskins, shall we?
 Credit goes to Peter Gabriel for this one.
 See Acts 10:13.
 See The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien.
 See Galatians 3:28.
 See Luke 5:37.