The Kingdom of God: Fantastic Voyage

Nicholas Lewis ’13 M.Div.

In 1980, the band Lakeside released an album titled Fantastic Voyage. The title song would eventually top the R&B chart, and it is now widely regarded as a classic in the canon of ’70s funk. With a driving 2-4 beat, the hybrid slap bass fortified with synthetic sub-tones, and sonorous vocal inflections interspersed with spoken lyric, the iconic refrain rung out as a call to action: “Come along and ride on a fantastic voyage!”

The resilient song continues to be a source of inspiration for creative revision and reuse. Rapper Coolio released a Grammy-nominated remix in 1993, and other artists have incorporated sound samples from it in the decades since.

Readers might wonder what bearing a funk masterpiece could have on the education of young ministers-in-training for the future of the church. But the song was a sign of the times, capturing a cultural moment of hope and exuberance. Its spirit confronts us with a question: In what ways does our own moment carry hope for human possibility?

New Civil Priorities

“Fantastic Voyage” remains a joyous emblem of the ethos of 1970s communal action and social progress. The decade was poised to see new-found freedoms in civil society, after the landmark legislations of the 1960s ended various forms of segregation and disenfranchisement. Thus came the first meaningful efforts of school desegregation and the formation of communities of diversity in the public sphere. They weren’t perfect, but they implied a new civic priority, the intent to embrace a more integrated existence.

Regrettably, the social will that once mobilized historic action has steadily declined. We are stubbornly divided not only racially but ideologically. The divides extend to socioeconomic class and gender identity even as we strive to expand the definition of community and parse out our places in it. Nowhere are these chasms more predictably apparent than in our churches on Sunday morning.

Such homogeneous congregations can be seen as the product of self-selection along lines of deeply held dogmas and political ideology. Given the troubled racial histories of virtually every mainline denomination, perhaps ecclesial self-segregation is simply a matter of existential self-preservation.

No matter where one finds oneself in this spiritual economy, a fundamental question is still begged: How do we envision the Kingdom of God?

Judging from church history, we might painfully conclude that the Kingdom of God will always be a mere reflection of the everyday values of congregational or social systems – the Body of Christ made in our own complacent image.

But surely we know such characterizations only attest to our limited vision, falling far short of the creativity of an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent God. Even in this era of rising religious nonaffiliation, examples abound of church communities experiencing profound growth. One conspicuous example in recent decades is the non-denominational megachurch.

For many in the mainline of denominationalism, the megachurch phenomena is a conversation nonstarter. What usually dominates mainline debate about megachurches are the stereotypical assumptions – worship as spectacle, the prevalence of a prosperity gospel, the charisma of pastors who are long on deliver and short on substance.

But we should exercise caution about such critiques, since they could easily apply to some of our own churches. We run the risk of obscuring or undervaluing insights that other traditions might offer about revitalizing our own congregations. Megachurches, for instance, often attract a remarkable diversity of people across socioeconomic, ethnic, and geographic lines. Such congregations appear to harness the creative capacities of their laypeople in a pluralistic setting.

I believe our faith communities must transcend the arbitrary definitions or distortions of others that leave us mired in congregational navel-gazing and self-aggrandizement. Churches should bear witness to the riches of difference that exist in societies. Churches could provide a regional point of confluence across divisions of city and neighborhood. Churches could become hubs organized around music, dance, and visual arts that reach beyond race or class or politics – and redouble efforts at cross-cultural programming, gathering dissimilar people for shared emotional experiences and building cornerstones for greater social equity.

Nourishing a more pluralistic community of faith, we might discover a great gift of grace – new interpretations of scripture that invite an ever-expanding ethic of inclusivity, seeking to do justice to the truly high call of bringing about the Kingdom of God on earth, rich with the full diversity of our human perspectives and identities that God has graciously created through love.

Confronting Global Culture

As followers of Christ, we must be willing to confront conflict and despair in our global culture – the real and perceived lines of difference regarding race, class, sex, gender, ability – and be peacemakers in search of greater equity in society. We should claim an indomitable faith, cultivate intellect, and hone practical skills that will serve us as we attempt to stand in the gap.

In its endearing way, a hit song from 1980 captured the spirit of exploration into uncharted areas of solidarity. Surely that spirit isn’t dead and gone. Like no other 21st-century institution, the church is in a position to promote ecosystems of human flourishing – social spaces in which the myriad threads of humanity can gather and reflect the breadth of God’s creation.

It’s up to us to reimagine our notions of Christian community and worship, opening our spirits to the ever-expanding possibility found in God. We can model what it means to live into an ethic of inclusivity founded upon a profound sense of social and restorative justice in our global culture.

And, God willing, one day we will live more fully into the kingdom, the faithful community which is to come. This is our mandate, a truly fantastic voyage to embark upon again and again.

Nicholas Lewis ’13 M.Div. was recently appointed Associate Dean of Student Affairs at Yale Divinity School after serving at Bard College as assistant dean of the college and community life chaplain. He has been a professional clarinetist with the Richmond (VA) Symphony Orchestra and taught at Howard University.