If I am to look for a definition of New Monasticism in the first chapter of the book by the same name, I am to walk away disappointed. It offers no such thing. Instead it begins by presenting a problem.
“…the church in America isn’t living up to what it’s supposed to be. Somehow we’ve lost our way.”
I, like the many people the author mentions coming in contact with, agree with this statement. Somehow we have lost our way. The church in America is missing something while the world seems to be falling apart around us. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s reference to the “the signs of the times” in the chapter title is an apt choice to depict our crumbling society, and our mutual recognition that there’s trouble might be the pivotal point of the first paragraph. It creates a single point on an otherwise blank page. It says, “We all agree!”, but the next paragraph fills the page with chaos as the dot degenerates into a mass of squiggles and scribbles because even though we agree on the problem, we cannot find a consensus as to its cause or its solution. So we find ourselves at odds, and, as the author points out, looking quite unlike God’s testimony of unity in love.
Along these lines the author begins making a case for a “new humanity”. Referencing Ephesians 2:13-16 he points to God’s great act of reconciliation. “Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ… He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God.” I might add here that the power of the resurrection in the Christian life is the pivotal point of this chapter. It is the power of the resurrection that provides the only viable answer to the great why of this broken world, but let me return to the page of squiggles and scribbles, a church divided. It’s a strong contrast to the early church he presents when he says, “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.” They were all one family in spite of their culture, their ethnicity, and their socioeconomic status. To borrow a phrase from Pastor Bryan Loritts, I think they were far better at “navigating their differences”.
From here, the book took an unexpected turn. The author turns to our present age and basically says it’s hard to be a Christian and that is what most unites us. Here my skepticism kicked in and I read on to see just what kind of point he would make. What followed was a more detailed picture of our broken world and the dilution of the name Christian. As he says, “But we can see more clearly than ever before, perhaps, just how hard it is for any of us to pledge our ultimate allegiance to Jesus. Christian has become an adjective that we tack onto some more fundamental identity. We don’t use the word like they did at Antioch, to describe a peculiar people. We don’t use it that way because we can feel how hard it really is to be a Christian in America.” He follows with his own testimony of “stumbling to follow Jesus”. For him, the difficulty of living as a true Christian in our world came through the pursuit of politics. A word from the Chaplain to the US Senate at the time opened his eyes to the difficulty of being a Christian in America, and as I listened I had to agree. Even if I don’t necessarily feel it the same way, it’s hard to be a Christian in American today. Compromise is easy when faced with issues of war, abortion, immigration, racism and the constant bombardment of marketing and advertisement.
What followed was one of the most interesting points of the first chapter for me. He takes us to the story of Jonah and Christ’s declaration that the only sign they would receive was the sign of Jonah. I’ve heard this story many times and heard many sermons so I knew what I expected to hear, and I did hear it eventually. Remember, the pivotal point of this chapter is the power of the resurrection life, but he took a little time to get there and that alternate route blessed me. I had never known that the word for “overturned” in Jonah 3:4, the message preached to Nineveh, had a double meaning. It can also mean to be turned around. It wasn’t only a message of judgment, but also one of hope. I stopped there for a while to enjoy the grace of God. I had never known the choice to repent was in fact inherent to the language and the message. Behold, the heart of God!
So we find ourselves, like Nineveh, the recipients of grace and thus marked by the resurrection of Christ. Here, he references the words of Thomas Merton who wrote, “(the life of) every Christian is signed with the sign of Jonah, because we all live by the power of Christ’s resurrection.” He then goes on to say, “The sign that marks the life of the church in the world is God’s victory over death through death – the ultimate winning by losing.” So why does this matter in the face of a world of trouble where it’s hard to be a Christian? He tells us its because the resurrection and the sign of Jonah show us we have reason to hope no matter how dark it seems to be. God conquered death to bring life, and we live in light of that power and by that power. It is this that reminds me we shouldn’t live by fear. Of course, that doesn’t make it easy to do so.
He closes by reminding us that when we look at the trouble of our world and accept the difficulty of being a Christian in America, it should be easier for us to remember that we can’t change this broken world on our own. As he puts it, “we need each other, and we need God.” He reminds us that God’s power is greater than our fragmented church. It is greater than our disunity. And I agree, we need that power to unite us. It is here that we come to the picture of a new monasticism. Within it, by the power of the resurrection, people are experiencing the same things as the early church. They are a peculiar people, marked by unity in spite of their differences.
The words he shared resonate with me, and in a world where our churches are so divided by non essential issues, I believe we must get back to the core of our faith, the power of God and the reality of the resurrection. We are no longer who we were because of the blood of Christ. We live in the context of a new identity, and we must get past our differences. Because he has already given us a new humanity, an identity that makes us one.