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The Tangible Kingdom: Creating Incarnational Community
by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay
Jossey-Bass, 224 pages, $23.95

Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices
by Brian McLaren
Thomas Nelson, 240 pages, $17.99

New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church
by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
Brazos, 160 pages, $14.99 paper

Over the past forty years the Christian evangelical movement in America has been branching and forking in interesting ways. Because that movement is rooted in the rise of fundamentalism a hundred years ago, it has tended to emphasize the necessity of sound doctrine, especially regarding the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and the absolute authority of Scripture.

But thanks in part to the work of such scholars as Robert Webber and Thomas Howard, and thanks in part to increasing evangelical fondness for Anglican and Catholic writers, about thirty years ago a subset of these evangelicals began to feel that doctrine was not enough. It was necessary, for evangelicals who wished to be not just doctrinally sound but also spiritually vibrant, to connect with ancient traditions of worship. Almost simultaneously, others were being drawn into the rather different but equally worship-centered traditions of the charismatics and Pentecostals.

Now, many evangelicals—most, I think it’s fair to say—did not feel the need to move in either of these directions. But the shifts were nonetheless significant, involving millions of Christians. So evangelicalism grew branches that, while not necessarily neglecting doctrine, place a great emphasis on the centrality of worship to the Christian life.

More recently, we have heard from a third generation of evangelicals for whom worship is not enough either. For them the watchword is practice—as in the practices of the Christian life, especially those promoted by venerable, pre-Reformation Christian traditions. This movement is related in significant ways to the cultivation of the spiritual disciplines that rose to prominence a couple of decades ago, courtesy of Dallas Willard and Richard Foster; but those who emphasize practices often believe that the disciplines, at least as taught by Willard and Foster, tend to be overly individualistic, focused on personal piety, and disconnected from communal living.

For these advocates of traditional Christian practices, we need visibly different ways of living in the world and with one another. Hugh Halter and Matt Smay call this “incarnational community”; Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove advocates the slightly more specialized practice that he calls “the new monasticism.” Whatever we call it, this movement claims to be both deeply historical and vibrantly contemporary. But it seems likely to me that only one of those claims can be sustained. Thinking historically is hard; acting historically well-nigh impossible”at least here, in America, today.

All you need to know about Halter and Smay’s book The Tangible Kingdom: Creating Incarnational Community may be this: Their chapter on the history of the Church since the fourth century is called “The 1,700-Year Wedgie.” That neatly captures the book’s tone and its level of intellectual seriousness. If we can call this an argument, it’s a familiar one. From Luther’s time to our own, every generation of Protestants produces people who rise up to proclaim that the Church lost its way within decades of Jesus’ death, leaving the true gospel forgotten and unproclaimed until . . . well, us.

The perfect image of this attitude may be seen in Philip Yancey’s 1995 book The Jesus I Never Knew, in which he claims that the Christian Church has consistently obscured the character of the true biblical Lord. Thus the book’s cover, on which a hand—presumably Yancey’s—wipes away centuries of grime from the pictured face of Jesus so that his countenance is revealed in all its glory. We are obviously meant to think of the restoration of artistic masterpieces, and, indeed, Yancey employs just this metaphor, claiming that at times in the writing of his book he “felt like an art restorer stretched out on the scaffolding of the Sistine Chapel, swabbing away the grime of history with a moistened Q-tip. If I scrub hard enough, will I find the original beneath all these layers?”

The difference between Yancey’s book and that of Halter and Smay would seem to be that Yancey sees history only as “grime,” while Halter and Smay want to reclaim (as the book’s cover has it) “the posture and practices of the ancient church now.” But you need a microscope to find references to “the ancient church” in The Tangible Kingdom. The book is almost wholly composed of anecdotes and the occasional chart or table. Halter and Smay have read the Acts of the Apostles, and they know that the first Christians cared for one another materially as well as spiritually, and that’s what they want us to do. Their constant implication is that “traditional churches” have almost completely neglected this apostolic ­example.

Halter and Smay would insist that they are not so critical. Their book contains twenty or more statements such as this one: “The point of this discussion is not to judge this traditional Church structure, to call it bad or out of date.” But just a few sentences before that particular disclaimer, Halter tells a story about a time when he was preaching and got a biblical fact wrong”oddly, he calls this “an inaccurate theological statement”—only to be corrected by his worship leader, just an instant before he would have corrected himself. He then says, “In many churches, I’d have been fired before the next Sunday for incompetence. In my church, we all just laughed and made the correction as a community and moved on.”

Really? Many churches would fire a pastor for a single misstatement that he knew to be a misstatement and was on the verge of correcting? I wonder if there has been a single church in the history of the faith that has done such a thing—but this is the way Halter and Smay consistently present traditional churches: as focused so pedantically and pathologically on intellectual minutiae that they can’t recognize the deep “tangible” needs of their own people and of strangers in their midst.

It’s clear that Halter and Smay have a genuine zeal for the gospel, and my guess is that they have reached many people for Christ who would never darken the door of a “traditional church.” May God bless their work. But neither good hearts nor good works can make a good book out of a very bad one, and nothing here lends credence to their claim to have recovered the priorities of “the ancient church.” They don’t appear to know anything much about the ancient Church; they certainly aren’t aware that the social, economic, and political strategies of that Church varied greatly from one location and period to another; they’re simply not serious about their historical judgments. I am not even sure why they go to such pains to claim an attachment to our first Christian ancestors—though that is a question we will need to consider before we’re done.

This brings us to Brian McLaren. I should probably pause here to note that McLaren is the man most often named as the leader of the “emergent Church movement,” though by this point I am already sick of the “[insert adjective here] Church movement” formulation. The title of his new book, Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices, indicates that he too is engaged in a historical salvage operation, but in this case the indication has more justification.

In many respects McLaren’s book resembles The Tangible Kingdom. It has the same fondness for sweeping historical generalizations and for charts that are just cleaned-up PowerPoint slides. He tells a lot of stories, some of them about fishing. (All these books may set out prescriptions for changing the world, but one verity they never question is the absolute necessity of having at least one-third of their text taken up by folksy anecdotes.) He has a fondness for sage statements that don’t add up to anything discernible. For instance, “Jesus never makes ‘Christians’ or ‘converts,’ but he calls disciples and sends them out.” Okay—but does this mean that we’re not to use the term “Christian”? That we’re not supposed to speak of “converts” or “conversion” to “Christianity”? That we’re not supposed to use language Jesus didn’t use? And if not, then what is the point of this sentence? McLaren never explains.

Also, like Halter and Smay, McLaren tends to disparage mere doctrinal correctness. “We must rediscover our faith as a way of life,” he says, “not simply as a system of belief.” Now, it’s true that many evangelicals have a tendency to focus on right doctrine to the near-exclusion of other aspects of the Christian life, but it’s simply unhealthy to respond by minimizing the importance of such doctrine.

McLaren is probably using the word system disparagingly, but, if we take that word in a better sense and think of the various affirmations of the creeds as interlocking and mutually reinforcing statements, such that any given affirmation loses some of its force if it is not in proper relation to all the others”well, in that case, the achievement of a genuine system of belief is anything but simple. In lectures and speeches, as well as in his books, McLaren often pauses to say that he really does believe that doctrine is important. But he has to say this because he doesn’t otherwise show signs of being interested in it. As far as I can tell, McLaren thinks getting the doctrine right is easy”comparatively speaking, anyway. But the history of Christianity scarcely bears out that confidence.

Certainly orthodoxy is not truly right unless it produces the fruits of virtue, service, and prayer. And while this has always been understood within the Church—it was not Brian McLaren who coined the statement “Faith without works is dead”—we Christians have always been tempted to content ourselves with just part of the picture. McLaren rightly wishes to commend to us the personal and communal practices of a lively Christian faith.

Missional is the word he uses for those practices that connect the Church with the world, believers with nonbelievers: “Practicing neighborliness, including towards enemies,” “Speaking truth in love,” “Giving to the poor,” “Proclaiming the good news in word and deed.” Some may be inclined to ask, “Those are practices?” And indeed, by halfway through Finding Our Way Again you may well wonder what isn’t a practice. Fasting, feasting, contemplation, Bible reading, listening, interpreting, singing, being still, serving, confronting evil, speaking and working for justice, showing up on time for church—all these and many more turn up in McLaren’s lists, without a word to explain why we would call all these things practices, or how they are to be distinguished from other kinds of acts, or what is particularly ancient about them. (Many of the most ancient ones are ones that we’ve never stopped doing: Singing, for instance, is not a forgotten practice.)

But then, near the end, McLaren’s book takes a curious turn. He asks his readers to imagine themselves cast back into the Middle Ages, as wanderers in a strange land, who then come upon a monastery. The monastery is run by an abbess”you’re not looking for historical plausibility here, I trust?”who knows, and is willing to teach to the pilgrims, the ascetic practices of both the Western and Eastern Church traditions. So, under her guidance, we are introduced to katharsis (or the via purgativa), fotosis (or the via illuminativa), and theosis (or the via unitiva). Again, let’s not pause to ask whether, say, theosis and via unitiva really are synonymous—as former President George H. W. Bush used to say, it wouldn’t be prudent. And anyway, there are more interesting things afoot here.

First, let’s note that this “threefold way” isn’t a practice, or set of practices, but rather an overarching scheme that gives us reasons for employing spiritual disciplines. We employ these disciplines so that we can be cleansed of unholy and unhealthy affections, turned toward God, and then united with Him in love. It would have been helpful if McLaren had presented this structure at the beginning of the book rather than at the end. That he did not may simply be a testament to his own informal, not to say disorganized, style, or it may be that the evident interiority of the threefold way is itself a problem”for it presumes a person who is devoted to the contemplative life and does not invoke (explicitly, anyway) either the “communal” or the “missional.” It would have been difficult for McLaren to shoehorn everything he writes about here into this simple structure.

Few of us are able to live the contemplative life; at most we pursue what in the Middle Ages was sometimes known as the “mixed life.” Which makes it interesting that, when McLaren introduces the threefold way, he does so by taking us out of our own time and our own forms of living. I think he does this because it is difficult to imagine how we can order our own twenty-first-century American lives according to this ­pattern.

McLaren, like Halter and Smay, wants to commend to us the wisdom of “the ancient church.” Apparently that phrase could refer to the Acts of the Apostles or to a period fourteen hundred years later, but, in any case, the idea is that these long-ago Christians did things that we ought to be doing, with habits of prayer and worship and service that we ought to have. But it is also true that those Christians had very different lives than we have. Even if we think in material terms only, the world of Acts is in almost every way alien to our own; all the monastic movements that arose later demand daily routines that bear little resemblance to ours. These facts do not seem to occur to Halter and Smay, while McLaren’s invocation of his fictional abbess suggests that he is aware of them but is unsure what their implications are.

Halter, Smay, and McLaren are all pragmatic people and (to borrow a fancy but useful word from the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss) bricoleurs. A bricoleur is someone who takes up whatever tools are at hand to get a job done. He doesn’t worry about consistency or perfect fit but about making progress toward a goal. So McLaren gathers some Anglican liturgy here, some Orthodox ascetic spirituality there, and adds to them a few tricks picked up from Western monastic traditions. Do they all fit together seamlessly? Probably not, but there’s something here for everyone, surely. McLaren’s model of spirituality seems to be predicated on that most American of phrases: “You’ve got to find what works for you.

There’s a certain urgency to the bricoleur. He doesn’t have time to step back and get a broad overview of his project; he’s got to get moving, to keep moving. But there is also, on another level, a curious kind of fixedness to him. If he is determined to work with “whatever tools are at hand,” that means that he’s rooted to the spot. He’s going to work here. And maybe that’s what he has to do.

But then, as we know, some people move. Some people come to believe that they can’t get the job done where they are, that, if they are going to pursue what’s really important to them, they have to find a different location, a different set of conditions. Some of the people who come to that realization we call monks and nuns, anchorites and hermits. That some of the things a Christian might want or need to do simply cannot be done where we are—or can be done here only by some—is a possibility that McLaren and Halter and Smay never seriously entertain. Their consistent assumption is that American Christians are going to live where and how they currently live, and that any spiritual practices they adopt are going to have to be fit into those pre-existing structures.

But the sense that some practices of Christian disciples are linked to certain forms of life and cannot be developed just anywhere underlies every form of monasticism and retreat from the saeculum. Many of the practices that McLaren recommends were formulated by people who had left everyday life precisely in order to devote themselves to those practices. Would a serious abbess think that the lifelong disciplines of her people could simply be transferred to the daily experience of a lawyer or a plumber?

It’s an awareness of this potential problem that has prompted a movement with which Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove associates himself: the “new monasticism.” At least, that was the impression I got from the book’s cover, so I turned to his account with some hopefulness. And some of that hope was fulfilled”especially in his emphasis on the value of “relocation””though the movement that Wilson-Hartgrove associates himself with is misnamed: There’s nothing new about it, nor is it a form of monasticism.

Wilson-Hartgrove and his family and friends live together in what is sometimes called an “intentional Christian community”: a group of people, some married, some unmarried, who all live in the same city neighborhood and agree to practice the Christian faith in the same way. Wilson-Hartgrove is happy to announce his debt to certain great predecessors in this kind of endeavor: the Catholic Worker movement led by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, Clarence Jordan’s Koinonia Farm in Georgia, and the Bruderhof community, which began in Germany and has now spread elsewhere.

But none of those efforts was new either: Nineteenth-century America was full of such communities, as was eighteenth-century Germany (especially among Pietists), and, a century earlier, England gave us the first Quakers and the Anglican Nicolas Ferrar’s beautiful experiment at Little Gidding . . . . It’s hard to know when to stop adding to such a list, since such efforts are about as old as Christianity itself. But none of these communities is properly called monastic. Set the bar for monasticism as low as Wilson-Hartgrove sets it and you might as well call a Christian college dormitory a monastic institution. Frugality, fidelity, and consistency are very good things, maybe even essential things, but they aren’t the same things as poverty, chastity, and obedience.

This is the point where I think we have to stop and ask what the heck is going on here. We have three books by very now-minded American Protestants who are noticeably eager to connect their projects to things ancient and, well, Catholic ”or, at the least, pre-Reformational. And these books are by no means unique: It’s worth noting that the same man who was so instrumental in calling evangelicals to a renewal of their worship lives, my late friend and colleague Bob Webber, spent the last years of his life promoting very similar ideas, which he gathered under the rubric of “the Ancient-Future Faith.”

The connection to the ancient in all this is tenuous at best, but the earnestness with which it is proposed remains consistent. It’s hard to say what’s more curious, the earnestness or the tenuousness. Clearly these books and the general movement they represent constitute an attempt to borrow or transfer charisma: Ancient and monastic traditions of piety embody a community-building power and a devotional richness that these folks want to appropriate”but not at the cost of embracing either the doctrine or the authority of the Catholic Church or any other church. (Both McLaren and Wilson-Hartgrove invoke the example of St. Francis, but you’d never guess from either of them how anxious Francis was to get papal approval for his new community”how determined he was to be a faithful and obedient son of the Church.) A key assumption of all these books is that the beliefs and practices of other traditions that we like are detachable and transferable: It’s a buffet, not a home-cooked meal. Bricoleurs love buffets.

New Monasticism strikes me as the most serious of these books because it confronts the possibility that you can’t embrace certain practices unless your daily life takes certain specific material forms. Wilson-Hartgrove is careful not to allow anyone to think that he’s telling them what they should or shouldn’t do”all of these authors are utterly terrified of being judgmental about anything except (in Wilson-Hartgrove’s case) the Bush administration”but, if living in modest and faithful community is just one option among many, the example loses a lot of its force. Whatever happened to comforting the oppressed and oppressing the comfortable? Wilson-Hartgrove should be as bold as Paul Farmer, the great doctor and advocate for the world’s poorest, who says this about white liberals, whom he calls WLs : “I love WLs, love ‘em to death. They’re on our side . . . . But WLs think all the world’s problems can be fixed without any cost to themselves. We don’t believe that. There’s a lot to be said for sacrifice, remorse, even pity. It’s what separates us from roaches.”

I suppose what I’m saying to all these authors is that I wish they would treat their own messages with more reverence and excitement”to see the “ancient church” as the radical challenge that it truly is. Think again of Paul Farmer. He doesn’t say, “Here are some ways of helping the poor you might find helpful.” He doesn’t say, “I’ve chosen to live in a certain way, but I certainly wouldn’t presume to tell anyone else what to do.” Instead he says, with the poet Rilke, “You must change your life.”

Some of Paul Farmer’s political and religious beliefs strike me as misguided”he thinks Cuba an admirable regime, and he’s a big advocate of liberation theology”but for a quarter century he has lived and worked in Haiti among the most miserable people in the Western Hemisphere. He has been their advocate, their doctor, and their friend. So when he speaks, when he says “You must change your life,” I have to listen. Surely he has earned that much from me, that much at the least.

I am not saying that Halter and Smay and McLaren and Wilson-Hartgrove all need to be Paul Farmers before I will listen to them. There are hardly any Farmers in the world; he is an outlandish force of nature, as was Mother Teresa before him. Moral and spiritual heroism cannot be expected. But if “the ancient church,” whatever that is, knew things about the faithful Christian life that we have forgotten, then for God’s sake”and our own”let’s hear about it. Let’s hear it commended and celebrated, and let woe be proclaimed unto those who neglect it.

Must we change our lives? I fear we must. But how? There are, it seems to me, two general options. The first is that most radically Protestant of all models of sainthood, Kierkegaard’s “Knight of Faith.” There is nothing visible about this knight’s sainthood; his transformation is purely internal. Kierkegaard’s mouthpiece, Johannes de Silentio, scrutinizes the man: “I move a little closer to him, watch his slightest movement to see if it reveals a bit of heterogeneous optical telegraphy from the infinite, a glance, a facial expression, a gesture, a sadness, a smile that would betray the infinite in its heterogeneity with the finite. No! I examine his figure from top to toe to see if there may not be a crack through which the infinite would peek. No! He is solid all the way through.” Will the knight of faith practice the spiritual disciplines? Certainly he will, but one would miss the point by naming them or treating them as tools or instruments toward the end of knighthood. The man’s whole life is a discipline, the single one of devotion to his Lord. Purity of heart is to will one thing.

For some, the idea of imitating the knight of faith will seem too easy—after all, you can do it while living in a middle-class neighborhood in Copenhagen”but for the wiser it will seem too hard. Many monks and nuns say that they retreat to the monastic life because their faith is too weak to flourish in the saeculum. And if such a retreat, in any of its forms, is not as attractive to Christians as it once was, it may be because we have more protections than our ancestors did from an experience of utter exposure.

Some of our protections are material, some political, some psychological, but in any case the world has seen, over the past few centuries, a move from the “porous self” to the “buffered self.” These are terms coined by the philosopher Charles Taylor. “The porous self is vulnerable,” he writes, “to spirits, demons, cosmic forces”—and, I would add, to ­unpredictable natural forces and political authorities who know little or nothing of the rule of law. “And along with this go certain fears that can grip it in certain circumstances. The buffered self has been taken out of the world of this kind of fear.”

The practices of the ancient Church were forged in eras of the porous self and were responsive to its fears and vulnerabilities. Can they be nearly as meaningful to us, surrounded by our protective buffers, as they were to our ancestors? Does their evident power suggest to us that we have paid too high a price for our buffers, that we may need to be more exposed? The self that can pursue the via illuminativa ”that can be illuminated by God”may open itself to the demonic as well as the divine. The disciplines and practices of our Christian ancestors are not toys or tools; they are the hope of life to those who are perishing. This is what Alasdair ­MacIntyre had in mind when he said that, here among the ruins of our old civilization, what we may be waiting for is a new St. Benedict: someone who can articulate a whole way of life and call us to it.

The turn to the Christian past is indeed welcome, but it may demand more of us than we are prepared to give. In contemplating the witness and practices of our ancestors, we may discover that we’d rather remain within our buffers”if we can. But can we? Current electronic technologies”from blogs to texting to online banking to customer-specific Google ads”may be drawing us into a new age of porousness, with new exposures, new vulnerabilities. And in such a new age the hard-earned wisdom of our distant ancestors in the faith may be not just a set of interesting ideas and recommendations but an indispensable source of hope. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College.

Photo by Dianelos Georgoudis. License via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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