The Holy Spirit is at work today – as perhaps it has been throughout much of our history – stirring up people at the margins of the Church. God is calling people to share life together on a daily basis in small communities like the Simple Way in Philadelphia or the Rutba House in Durham, NC. These communities are united by a shared vision that they have given the name “new monasticism.” This vision is well-rooted in the history of the church, particularly the monasticism of the Catholic tradition, and yet by the ecumenical diversity of its originators and its honor for chastity within marriage, as well as the celibacy of singles, it has broadened the call to life in Christian community. And now, in his newest book New Monasticism, What It Has To Say To Today’s Church, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove strikes up a conversation about the new monasticism with the broader Church. Indeed, of all the books to date on the new monasticism*, this one is aimed at the broadest audience within the Church.

Starting with his observation that across the spectrum of theological beliefs and practices, “people agree that something is wrong in American Christianity” (9), Hartgrove lays out a context in which the new monasticism can be understood. New monasticism, Wilson-Hartgrove believes, is a response this widespread sentiment about the brokenness of the Christian faith in our land; it is “a sign that God is still living and active, moving on the margins of the church to show us what faithfulness means in our time” (34).  In defining the context in which the new monasticism has emerged, Wilson-Hartgrove spends two chapters looking at history, first the more recent history that gave birth to the new monasticism – from the founding of the Bruderhof communities in Germany, to the Catholic Worker communities, to the Koinonia community founded by Clarence Jordan, to the Christian community development work of John Perkins – and then the rich soil of church history in which the roots of the new monasticism can be found. These chapters on history are particularly helpful for our age in which churches have followed in the way of modernism and have become disconnected from the rich heritage of Church history.

by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

Although the whole book is a valuable resource for the people of God, there are two chapters in particular that are essential reading. The first of these chapters is Wilson-Hartgrove’s interpretation of the concept of salvation, entitled “God’s plan to save the world through a people.” Although this chapter is largely a popular restatement of the work of theologians like Gerhard Lohfink, Wilson-Hartgrove’s interpretation is brilliant and this chapter will be one with which many honest readers will have to wrestle. From my experience, the individualistic ways in which Christians in the United States (and perhaps elsewhere in the western world?) have understood salvation has done immeasurable damage and this chapter is a much-needed plea for churches to rethink the nature of salvation.

Chapters five through seven summarize a number of the “twelve marks” that have cast the vision for the new monasticism. For readers that have worked through other books on the new monasticism, particularly Schools for Conversion, these chapters will be very familiar. On the other hand, for the broader church, these chapters do serve as a fine introduction to the key virtues that give form to the new monasticism. Chapter eight examines new monastic communities as bearing witness to a “culture of grace and truth” within the larger church. Grace and truth, of course, are two concepts that are universally accepted as important to the mission of the Church, so highlighting them within the context of the new monasticism is brilliant move on Wilson-Hartgrove’s part in his efforts to engage a broad Christian audience in dialogue.

The book’s final chapter, “Why New Monastics Need the Church,” is the other chapter of essential reading that I mentioned above. Although the book as a whole is directed at the church in general, this chapter needs to be distributed and discussed en masse throughout the new monastic communities. It is a beautiful corrective to the common new monastic tendency to reject, or at least minimize, the Christianity of traditional church congregations. Building on the foundation of grace the Wilson-Hartgrove addressed in the previous chapter, he pleads for dialogue and co-operation between new monastic communities and traditional congregations. Also in this chapter Wilson-Hartgrove firmly but briefly criticizes the common wisdom that churches are ineffective and that para-church organzations are where God’s work gets done. Although I wish that Wilson-Hartgrove would have more fully elaborated on his concerns here, even the questions that he does raise are valuable to get us to reexamine our reliance on para-church groups. In contrast, he notes that the new monasticism is a prochurch organization rather than a para-church one, saying “ ‘Outside of the church there is no salvation’ was not an assertion of power-hungry popes but a humble confession that, however odd it might seem, this was how God had decided to save the world” (147).

Because Jonathan’s book was intended for a wide audience within the Church, there has also been a study guide published that is intended to foster dialogue about the book. This study guide was written by Sam Ewell, a co-laborer with Jonathan in the new monasticism, and is titled Building up the Church. The first part of this study guide, which uses the image of “a school for conversion” to lay some background for a conversation about Wilson-Hartgrove’s book, is unfortunately somewhat convoluted. Ewell’s language seems to allude to a more specialized (pastoral?) audience rather than the broader Christian audience to whom the book is directed. The second part of the book is a more traditional study guide for a book, and it does a good job of exploring Jonathan’s work and opening up conversations about it. As a way of introducing this second part, Ewell offers a vocabulary exercise, in which participants are asked to reflect on their understanding of key terms like “Gospel,” “Grace” and “Church.” This exercise is wonderful because so many of our disagreements in the church have arisen from our diversity in interpreting key concepts of our faith, and if we can articulate our definitions up front, it will help to facilitate a conversation in which such terms are crucial.

With or without Ewell’s study guide, New Monasticism is a book that deserves to be widely read and distributed in our churches, and I pray that it will be read by both conservatives and liberals who have a sense that something is dreadfully wrong with the mainstream of American Christianity.

[Source:  The Englewood Review of Books – Thank you Chris!]

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