Book Report 1, Part A

I will be taking a class in a few weeks entitled "Evangelizing Nominal Christians: What Churches Can Learn From Monks and Trekkies." It's taught by Ryan Bolger and TA'd by Wess Daniels, who is a friend from church. (Check out their sites, they're pretty great.) I have to post four book reports, which I will do here.

The first book, New Monasticism: What it Has to Say to Today's Church is one that I have already briefly discussed on my wealth and poverty blog. Because I have too much to say about this movement, my first report will come to you in three parts. This first posting refers to the first three chapters of the book.

I picked this book up with a certain amount of skepticism (actually quite a bit, if I’m really going to be honest). Why has this movement been so heavily marketed? Why are the vocal leaders seemingly just another group of white males? And as a close friend noted, what historical movement has named itself? Plus, is this idea of communal living and shared resources really all that “new?” At the risk of sounding pompous, in case I don’t yet, I was struck with mixed emotions upon the introduction to Wilson-Hartgrove’s work.

While my questions still stand, I was struck by his humility. Writing as if this new monastic way of life is only one more attempt to practice church-ing and a way to minister, yet also as if this movement offers the casual church go-er more than just feel-good spirituality, Wilson-Hartgrove provided me with a lens in which I could read his work as a learner and participant. While he is fairly overt in his claim that this is the future of the church if the church plans to survive, his overall presentation of the movement itself and his personal experiences with it are less dogmatic. When he writes, “So many Christians in America today feel paralyzed by the paradox of a church that promises so much yet seems so hard to find in reality,” in regards to the contemporary church, I found myself agreeing (19). On the other hand, I cannot adapt the dominant phrase of his initial chapter, “It’s hard to be a Christian in America” (18).

I am not sure I understand this phrase. When Wilson-Hartgrove speaks of war, racism, immigration, abortion, and billboards (in that they symbolize a quest for perfection and sexuality, or bad theology) as markers that highlight the difficulty of professing our Christianity in America, I agree that these issues are troublesome, but I do not believe that these realities make it any “harder” in America to follow Jesus than elsewhere. In fact, I would like to argue that compared to what it must be like to be a middle-eastern Christian is much more difficult than an American one. However, I am trying to understand his point that the current status of the American church, evangelical or catholic, charismatic or liturgical, is that it has failed in certain ways to serve the people of God by neglecting to fully offering life and hope. Let us simply not isolate that experience to us Americans, however.

Wilson-Hartgrove’s discussion of how his time with Shane Claiborne and the people at Simple Way taught him the importance of reading Scripture with the marginalized and oppressed people emphasized well how important it is to lay aside critical understandings of these holy writings (25). The uncritical reader, the readers who are not theologically trained, and those outside of the biblical academic milieu provide alternative hermeneutical approaches that are not only just as viable, but wholly authentic and necessary, especially for someone in seminary training to pastor like myself. The author also makes the point that New Monasticism, may not be all that “new” by describing several other American intentional communities. However, while he admits the temptation is there to view it as such, he hopes new monasticism is more than just another fad, a church meme that is the latest bandwagon of relevant activity. Even in his attempts to recognize it as another fad for church in American Christianity, he writes,

Maybe everyone who finds Christian community chooses it because it offers something new…But I have stuck with it because I believe it part of something eternal—part of God’s plan to redeem the world through a peculiar people (34).

I am thankful that Wilson-Hartgrove places this redemptive activity of New Monasticism appropriately into the context of the entire meta-narrative of Christianity and God’s redemptive plan when he states that “New Monasticism doesn’t mean a departure from God’s movement in the past (34). He does this even more explicitly in chapter 3, where he outlines the historicity of several monastic orders. As a current member in an Anabaptist church (Pasadena Mennonite), I value the way in which he attributes the desire for the radical-reformers to re-baptize as less of a theological principle, and more about allegiance within church-state, socio-political issues. Furthermore, his discussion about the slave churches (53-54) reminds me of my earlier point about the bounty that comes from approaching Scripture with ordinary people on the fringes of society. Scripture teaches, then, about liberation and healing—two realities white, middle-class people in America rarely need, at least politically. He ends the chapter with,

These saints who’ve called us back to our roots generation after generation reminds us that the roots of God’s kingdom…spread beneath the surface, effecting change from below (54).

This attitude of simplicity earmarks the entire movement as a positive one in my opinion. I want to emulate it in my own pastoral ministry, especially as I envision it unfolding in urban America.

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