liturgical worship

Symbols in the Texas hills

KERRVILLE, Texas -- The bracelet is both simple and a bit strange, since it consists of six or seven fishing lures connected end to end. Some people look at this piece of silver or gold jewelry in the James Avery line and they see fishing lures -- period.

But other shoppers see the same item and they think of these words of Jesus: "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." This is especially true if they have completed a United Methodist Walk to Emmaus weekend, or some other renewal program inspired by the Catholic Cursillo movement.

"Most of our customers purchase and wear that for the religious symbolism," said Paul Avery, executive vice president of the company that his father started in a garage. "But there is a group that has no clue what it means. ... They just happen to like it. They like to fish or whatever."

So one man's ring of fishing lures is another man's symbol of faith.

The key is that there is an element of mystery to symbols of this kind, said another veteran of this family-driven firm based in Kerrville, an arts-friendly community in the Texas Hill Country.

"It's interesting that you would never find this in traditional church history, this symbol, but you would find the scriptural reference to being fishers of men," said Howell Ridout, the company's vice president of marketing and development.

This particular bracelet started out as a "grassroots thing that just happened," he explained. Emmaus Walk veterans "actually started using fishing tackle from the hardware store" to remind themselves of the importance of this biblical passage. Now, this modern bracelet is one of the company's most popular items.

Then again, the current catalogue also contains the very first cross that founder James Avery designed in 1954, a variation on a classic Latin design. Some of the Christian and Jewish symbolism used in this jewelry is truly ancient, while other pieces offer modern variations on biblical themes -- such as a bare cross made of nails.

In recent years, Ridout explained, religious items have made up 25 percent of the company's line and about 25 percent of its sales. However, nearly 80 percent of all James Avery customers at one time or another purchase at least one item of religious jewelry. Clearly, these items are central to the company's identity, he said.

For centuries, religious symbolism has been at the heart of some forms of faith. What is unusual about the James Avery story is that almost all of the company's stores -- there will be 59 by the year's end -- are in the Bible Belt and 49 are in Texas.

While its customer base includes a wide range of believers, the chain could not succeed in the region in which it is succeeding without appealing to Baptists and other conservative Protestants who for generations have viewed religious symbolism as too "high church," if not too Catholic.

Then again, the Hill Country location is crucial. Its culture blends art elements from the American Midwest, from Germans settlers, from rustic ranches across the Southwestern and, of course, from Spanish influences. The result is a unique aesthetic expressed in stone, leather, wood and pounded silver.

"Texas is, geographically, a very unique area," said Paul Avery. "You have the deep Hispanic culture that is so rooted in that Catholic base. Then you have more of the Protestant side of that, the non-Catholic. And there's a blend of those two cultures that probably allows a lot of ... natural evolution."

These hills also are full of church youth camps, a network that exposed James Avery's work to young seekers as the 1960s veered into the "Jesus Movement" of the 1970s, which led into an era of charismatic renewal in mainline churches and waves of changes in how many Americans worship.

These days, art and even elements of liturgy can be found in a wide variety of Protestant sanctuaries, Ridout said. Churches of all kinds are moving in a more visual, experiential direction.

It has become common to see Texans wearing crosses -- or perhaps symbolic fishing lures -- as they go to work, to school, to the grocery store or to church.

"I think there are some clues there, both as to what is acceptable and to what's sought after and comfortable," Ridout said. These changes symbolize "what's meaningful to people, what truly motivates them."

Hitting the 500-year wall

Every half a millennium or so, waves of change rock Christianity until they cause the kind of earthquake that forces historians to start using capital letters.

"What happened before the Great Reformation, we all know," said Phyllis Tickle, author of "God Talk in America" and two dozen books on faith and culture. "We know, for instance, that some sucker sailed west and west and west and didn't fall off the dad gum thing. That was a serious blow."

So Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 and then a flat, neatly stacked universe flipped upside down. Soon, people were talking about nation states, the decline of landed gentry, the rise of a middle class and the invention of a printing press with movable type. Toss in a monk named Martin Luther and you're talking Reformation -- with a big "R" -- followed by a Counter-Reformation.

Back up 500 years to 1054 and you have the Great Schism that separated Rome and from Eastern Orthodoxy. Back up another 500 years or so and you find the Fall of the Roman Empire. The transformative events of the first century A.D. speak for themselves.

Church leaders who can do the math should be looking over their shoulders about now, argued Tickle, speaking to clergy, educators and lay leaders at the recent National Youth Workers Convention in Atlanta.

After all, seismic changes have been rolling through Western culture for a century or more -- from Charles Darwin to the World Wide Web and all points in between. The result is a whirlwind of spiritual trends and blends, with churches splintering into a dizzying variety of networks and affinity groups to create what scholars call the post-denominational age.

Tickle is ready to call this the "Great Emergence," with a tip of her hat to the edgy flocks in the postmodern "emerging church movement."

"Emerging or emergent Christianity is the new form of Christianity that will serve the whole of the Great Emergence in the same way that Protestantism served the Great Reformation," she said, in a speech that mixed doses of academic content with the wit of a proud Episcopalian from the deeply Southern culture of Western Tennessee.

However, anyone who studies history knows that the birth of something new doesn't mean the death of older forms of faith. The Vatican didn't disappear after the Protestant Reformation.

This kind of revolution, said Tickle, doesn't mean "any one of those forms of earlier Christianity ever ceases to be. It simply means that every time we have one of these great upheavals ... whatever was the dominant form of Christianity loses its pride of place and gives way to something new. What's giving way, right now, is Protestantism as you and I have always known it."

It helps to think of dividing American Christianity, she said, into four basic streams -- liturgical, Evangelical, Pentecostal-charismatic and old, mainline Protestant. The problem, of course, is that there are now charismatic Episcopalians and Catholics, as well as plenty of Evangelicals who are interested in liturgical worship and social justice. Conservative megachurches are being forced to compromise because of sobering changes in marriage and family life, while many progressive flocks are being blasted apart by conflicts over the same issues.

In other words, the lines are blurring between once distinct approaches to faith. Tickle is convinced that 60 percent of American Christians are worshipping in pews that have, to one degree or another, been touched by what is happening in all four camps. At the same time, each of the quadrants includes churches -- perhaps 40 percent of this picture -- that are determined to defend their unique traditions no matter what.

The truly "emerging churches" are the ones that are opening their doors at the heart of this changing matrix, she said. Their leaders are determined not to be sucked into what they call "inherited church" life and the institutional ties that bind. They are willing to shed dogma and rethink doctrine, in an attempt to tell the Christian story in a new way.

"These emergent folks are enthusiastically steering toward the middle and embracing the whole post-denominational world," said Tickle. "We could end up with something like a new form of Pan-Protestantism. ... It's all kind of exciting and scary at the same time, but we can take some comfort in knowing that Christianity has been through this before."