Wednesday, January 9, 2013

book review--New Monasticism:what it has to say to today's church

We are the New Borg

First, I'd like to propose an idea. I think that the church needs to ban itself from using the word "radical", except in it's most formal senses, such as the mathematical. For the church, it has become at best an empty cliche, and in less good circumstances it is used in self-praising, self-congratulatory ways.

When the author of this book says "And almost everywhere I go these days, people agree that something is wrong in American Christianity." (Kindle Location 19), I may well have some agreement with him. What I disagree with is that what he calls "New Monasticism" is any kind of a solution; if anything, it is at best simply a symptom and a further continuing of the problem.

In the 11 May 2012 episode of his "Fighting For the Faith" program, Chris Rosebrough gives the recording of a lecture he had given, called "Resistance is Futile: You Will Be Assimilated Into The Community". Although he focuses most on things in the seeker mega-churches, it strikes me that what he talks about seems more than a little similar to what this author says about The New Monasticism.

Rosebrough refers to Peter Drucker's project of creating a non-economic society, and gives some ways in which Drucker's ideas have influence some church leaders. He gives two ways in which this is showing up in churches, and I contend that much the same things show up in this book.

1. A Society That DOES NOT recognize the inherent rights of the Individual. Individuals do not exist in time only the Community exists - a global community at that.

Essentially, the individual is swallowed up into the community. The community becomes the main focus, the good of the community becomes the main thing. The community is the thing most valued. The community becomes god.

This kind of de-valuing of the individual, with the power of providing and even decision-making being given to the community, is openly proclaimed and even celebrated in this book. "Some communities practice what's called a strict common purse. They read Acts where it says, "No one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common" (4:32), and they decided to put all their money into one bank account (like couples do when they get married). Out of that account, most common purse communities pay for everyone's living expenses and then use the rest to bless others or support the work of God's people." (Kindle Locations 984-987). Never minding that the Bible does not command such a thing, or even that the church mentioned in Acts 4 did not command it, these communities impose it on their people. The author refers to another community giving their people a "raise", "A couple of years ago, they decided to increase each person's living allowance from ten to fifteen dollars a week." (Kindle Locations 994-995).

He writes this in regards to another such community, "In San Francisco (which is a pretty expensive city), they agreed to each live on $275 of discretionary money per month. Of course you don't have to spend that much. But the community has agreed that no one will spend more than that. Whatever money people make above their living expenses and discretionary allotment they put in an account to give away." (Kindle Locations 1001-1003).

Notice how much power these communities exercise over their people. The community decides what each person can spend. The community decides to give the people a basically meaningless raise in living allowance. The community provides the individuals with all they need, or at least all that they think they need. The community decides how much money each individual person can spend in a month. Ed Young Jr. wanted the people in his church to give his church their bank account and routing numbers, but even he wasn't this ambitious.

But this economic power is not the only power this author wants communities or churches to have over the person. "Churches will also have to call people into higher-commitment membership. We have to find ways to get people to stick around. Maybe the only way to do that is to ask people to pledge their allegiance to the church...But if pledging our allegiance is a way of saying who we are and where we're going, then Christians have to pledge ourselves to the people of God. If our home is in God's kingdom, we cannot pledge our ultimate allegiance to America. If God is our Father, the nuclear family cannot be our god. Instead, we've got to say that our primary commitment is to the church. But for those words to have any real meaning, churches will have to get serious about membership. We need to name our commitments to each other and develop a process to determine whether God is calling an individual to leave our community or whether the forces of the economy are simply tearing us apart." (Kindle Locations 745-752). Look at this language, "...we've got to say that our primary commitment is to the church". Country and even family are given at best secondary place. If "the nuclear family cannot be our god", then in saying "...our primary commitment is to the church", does not the church then become our god, or at least our primary mediator between God and the powerless individual?

And don't think that is an idle or rhetorical question. Early in the book, the author speaks favorably of a group that calls itself the Bruderhof. Perhaps they started out fine, more or less, but as time has gone by, they have become something else entirely. Look up the Keep In Touch (KIT) Newsletters, which provide many examples of the Bruderhof breaking up families and throwing people out of their community. There are news articles about the Bruderhof moving children out of the country to keep the courts from having their fathers, former Brudehof members exiled from the community, have any contact with the children.
Perhaps the author would not condone such actions by the Bruderhof, I'd give him that. But given how much power he wants the church or community to have over the person, then what keeps any other church or community from going so far, over even further?

2. Anti-rational (anti-doctrinal “pastoral” churches). Immanent not transcendent.

"Unity across dividing lines was what distinguished the early church-so much so that they required a new name. Christianity was a new identity, neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, slave nor free (Gal. 3:28). That's pretty incredible to think about, especially in a church fractured by schisms and creeds, denominational divides and ethnic identities." (Kindle Locations 34-36). Yet in speaking about this unity, he fails to note that the early church was also setting itself apart. One need only read Paul's epistles to see that he was not a big-tent type of person. This author refers to the epistle to the Galatians, but if one reads it, one can see that Paul is very firmly against people who were trying to make the Galatian believers return to trying to earn salvation and righteousness by keeping the Law, particularly in regards to circumcision.

So, look at some of those things that he contends are fracturing the church--schisms, creeds, denominations. Basically, things like beliefs and doctrines. And he throws in "ethnic identities", as if adhering to a creed is no better than being a racist.

"Often we can't even agree that we're all Christian." (Kindle Location 25). That's true, because if the name "Christian" has any particular meaning, then it may well be possible that some who call themselves Christian may not be. Even in the New Testament, we have examples of people who claimed to be in the Church, but whose beliefs and teachings were contrary to the Apostle's teachings. And in this day, when a John Shelby Spong can basically deny everything taught in the Bible and call himself a Christian, it is as important to be discerning.

At the end of chapter 2, he gives what these New Monastics have called "12 Marks of a New Monasticism" (Kindle Location 369). All of these 12 marks are immanent and about practice, none are doctrinal. Only one has any kind of scriptural reference, the 7th. None are about the proclaiming of the Gospel, none are about people needing to repent of sins and believe in Christ.

"Sometimes when I talk with evangelical friends about the grassroots ecumenism of new monastic communities, they tell me I'm not taking doctrine seriously enough. I worry about this myself (especially when I think someone I'm living with is wrong). I worry not so much because I want to be right; I worry because I don't want to see people I love destroyed by lies. (I'm a writer and a preacher-a wielder of words, you might say-because I'm convinced that what we think and believe is a life-and-death issue.)" (Kindle Locations 1397-1400). If that is so, then may we have an actual doctrinal statement for these New Monastics? May we know what it is that all of you actually believe? If you can formulate 12 Marks, then why not an actual statement of what you mean when you call yourselves Christians?

So, I'm less than impressed with these New Monastics, and would not recommend that anyone tie themselves to them. When doctrinal issues are downplayed, and one is basically told to give control of one's life to the community, well, my reply is, "No, thanks, I want none of it".

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