Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #186. First published in the St. Cloud Times, online and in print Jan. 1, 2023

Many of my 2022 columns were about the Christian nationalism threat. The danger persists, even though in November many of its candidates went down to defeat.

I’m glad to ring in 2023 with something positive, a narrative of two events, 28 years apart, that demonstrates a meaning of “Christian” very different from the all-too-frequent story of head-on culture-clash conveyed by strident voices that the media notices.

“[You] taught me that it was possible to be funny, irreverent, and Christian all at the same time.”

“We recognize you today because you listen to the constant voice of God in our midst.”

Both sentences were spoken to Amy Grant. The first is a tribute by singer Sheryl Crow at the Kennedy Center Honors on Dec. 4, 2022, broadcast on Dec. 28. The second begins the citation for the Pax Christi Award, given by St. John’s Abbey and University on May 1, 1994.

In both instances there was murmuring.

While there was little static about Grant’s inclusion in this year’s Kennedy Honors list, nearly every story made the point that she is “the first contemporary Christian artist to receive such an award,” in the Kennedy Center’s case a history that goes back 45 years. The question was not how did someone like Grant sneak in, but why did it take so long?

At the Abbey in the 1990s I heard a few monks (and probably some university alumni) grumble that St. John’s was “lowering its standards.” Previous Pax Christi Awards had gone mainly to Most Reverends and Right Honorables and His Eminences and His Holinesses. Some wondered how a popular female singer could steal into that lineup.

The wisdom of the Pax Christi Award points to an answer. It “recognizes those who have devoted themselves to God by working in the tradition of Benedictine monasticism to serve others and to build a heritage of faith in the world.”

The “tradition of Benedictine monasticism” goes way beyond monasteries. It encompasses the virtues of listening, humility, honoring one another, respect for the environment and for the arts, care for the marginalized – and the welcoming of change: “If you can think of a better way to do something, then do it,” writes St. Benedict in the Rule. As Fr. Kilian McDonnell, OSB, who recently turned 101, says in one of his poems, “All our truths need bungee cords.”

The 1994 citation for Amy Grant continues: “You listen to and help answer the wishes of children whose illness may not allow the fullness of long life, … to the distress of persons afflicted by cancer or heart disease, to the plaintive call for help from the poor and homeless. These voices have become your zealous cause.”

Then the citation highlights her influence on young people. “We honor you today, acknowledging you as a beneficiary of Saint Benedict in spirit. May you persevere in that spirit, spreading the Christian heritage of faith, confidence and service, especially in your vital ministry to our nation’s fit, yet fragile, youth.”

The Kennedy Center Honors uses a different vocabulary but makes a similar point. You might think “You listen to the constant voice of God in our midst” and “[You] taught me that it was possible to be funny, irreverent, and Christian all at the same time” couldn’t possibly be said about the same person, but the statements are in complete accord. There is nothing lugubriously solemn or stickily pious about the Christian way of being in the world. Irreverence is faith’s rejoinder to sanctimony.

One measure of Amy Grant’s significance for Christian identity is the controversy she provokes. A Google search turns up plenty. My favorite: “Grant’s music is excellent from a secular point of view. Albeit she is without question a part of Satan's New World Order ... a team player, going along to get along with the sinful world.”

Grant’s latest action to attract lightning bolts is her hosting the same-sex wedding of her niece. Some Christians denounce this as Grant’s abandoning Christian teachings “to get along with the sinful world.” But there are many Christians, I among them, who agree with Grant, who said in 2021, “Who loves us more than the one who made us? … None of us are a surprise to God. Nothing about who we are or what we’ve done. That’s why, to me, it’s so important to set a welcome table. Because I was invited to a table where someone said, ‘Don’t be afraid, you’re loved.’ … Gay. Straight. It does not matter.”

The Pax Christi and the Kennedy Honors together make a profound and harmonious statement about Amy Grant’s engagement with a world that God really loves. Her pushing of boundaries – truths on bungee cords – is characteristically Benedictine and fundamentally Christian. May we see more of this in 2023!