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Belief Matters: The Chautauqua Movement

As I write this column, I'm sitting in Marblehead, Ohio, in a small clustered community called Lakeside (appropriate enough, as it sits immediately along Lake Erie).

It's a village like most any: tightly knit, long family histories and heritages here, and tiny quaint shops.

But unlike many villages, of the 200-some cottages here, only 100 are owned by year-round residents. The rest are either for summer stays or rentals, complemented by smatterings of bed and breakfasts and hotels.

And unlike most villages, this spot, Lakeside, is part of the Chautauqua Movement. Thanks to Ohio Methodists in the late 1800s, this singular square mile was purchased for the sole point of creating a place where four 'pillars' uphold those who come here: religion, education, cultural arts and recreation.

Just this week gives a sense of how the goal of the place plays out: I, a Lutheran, have been invited as a theologian to speak to this sea of mostly Methodists; two experts on Russia (how convenient is that) are presenting on Russian history and its present political context; Jefferson Starship played a concert, and Jinjoo Cho, an acclaimed violinist, played with her newly formed (and astonishing) youth string symphony; and, well, the lake.

The name "Chautauqua" has become synonymous with learning and culture; some readers might have heard of the Chautauqua setting in New York State, which, while the largest and most famous, sprung after this one began.

As a theologian, I think it's a brilliant thing: too often, religion is compartmentalized to be about church. Period. That's it. Church.

I'm all for church, obviously, but if religion has true meaning, it has meaning in and outside of church walls.

So here, in this lively place, crowds of people come, as a regular part of their day-to-day life, to listen to the weekly-evolving speakers from a variety of faith traditions; and then experts from the fields of politics/literature/music/energy/sports/medicine/history (depending on the theme-of-the-week); and then concerts; and then, speckled throughout the day, they fish or kayak or play shuffleboard or eat ice cream on a park bench.

It's all of an integrated piece. It's a bit of a buffet for the mind and spirit.

You may have noted above, thought, that they call this place the Chautauqua Movement. That's a good thing, because it means that you don't have to attend one to be part of the 'movement,' so to speak.

That's to say that while my son and I are experiencing religion/education/culture/recreation in sincerely concentrated form, here at Lakeside, the originators of Chautauqua believed it to be a way of life. In fact, it became a goal of theirs to spread the idea from town-to-town, and focused most of all in low-and-middle-class communities, helping people who didn't otherwise have access to higher education.

Speaking as a person of faith, I think it's particularly nifty that the movement was started by a couple of Methodists. Their goal was not indoctrination (or, as was the habit of the day, revivalist centers). Instead, their goal was integration; lifting up different areas of intellectual and spiritual interest, and inviting people to come and check the ideas out.

Religion, education, culture and recreation: Four pillars that make a solid foundation for a well-balanced, well-integrated, well-lived life.

Especially the bit about the ice cream.

Anna Madsen is a "freelance theologian," living with her two children in Two Harbors. Through OMG: Center for Theological Conversation, she offers a place for individuals and groups, laity and clergy, to come for questions, conversation, and study, and she also regularly presents, blogs, and writes.