Month: May 2010

The Naked Anabaptist

The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith / Stuart Murray (Herald Press, 2010) 143 p., RRP AUD25.

I’m excited by the publication of Stuart Murray’s The Naked Anabaptist.  It fills that big gap for Anabaptists to explain just why they call themselves that. It is a book which introduces what Anabaptism is about today, using as a framework the excellent ‘Anabaptist Core Convictions’ developed by the Anabaptist Network in Great Britain. The ‘naked’ refers to the idea of ‘bare essentials’

If someone asks what an Anabaptist is, the temptation is to begin with a history lesson about the sixteenth century Reformation. The problem is that you only have about thirty seconds of someone’s attention, and you’ve spent it all just trying to get some bare bones down, differentiating the original Anabaptists from the other Reformers. No time to draw the connections to what that means for today. Stuart Murray avoids this problem by saving the history lesson to the penultimate chapter, and it works.  He lays out what an Anabaptist is today and gives some minimal historical background, before finally unveiling the whole history at the end. A much better approach for your average listener/ reader.

Murray is a generous writer, starting with a number of quotes from people who have come to Anabaptism, including friend of this blog, Phil Wood. In his opening chapter, he also deals with a lot of ‘But aren’ts’ that I’ve certainly heard a number of time – ‘But aren’t Anabaptists just another denomination?’; ‘But aren’t Anabaptists hung up on the issue of baptism?” ‘But aren’t Anabaptists separatists?’; ‘But aren’t Anabaptists all pacifists?’ (Answers: No, No, Sometimes but No, and No but Yes.) This chapter also helpfully surveys the influence of Anabaptism beyond the Mennonite Church, in countries like Britain and Australia without a Mennonite presence – including, gratifyingly, a mention of On The Road, the journal I edit for the Australian and NZ Anabaptist Association.

From my perspective, Murray gets the essence of Anabaptism just right. He deals with the centrality of Jesus for ethics and reading Scripture. He explains the Anabaptist critique of the church-state alliance and the appropriateness of the Anabaptist model of doing things for our post-Christendom context. He explains an Anabaptist vision for the church, with accountablility and multi-voiced congregations two key elements. He then sums up the Anabaptist focus on justice and peace as central to the gospel rather than consequences of it, or added extras.

His brief history of the Anabaptist movement is well handled, giving an outline of the differences between the three different geographic origins of the movement in Europe and explaining the denominations which arose out of this. He finishes the book by exploring some of the weaknesses and criticisms of the movement and affirming its value for today.

It’s interesting that one of the weaknesses of the movement he names is ‘intellectualism/ anti-intellectualism’. The conservative, simple living communities which have guarded Anabaptism for centuries tend to be anti-intellectual – Amish, for example, certainly don’t have much time for intellectualism. In contrast, neo-Anabaptists tend to have a very intellectual approach to Anabaptism and may have come to the faith by reading (as I partly did).

A minor quibble I have with the book is the lack of an index. (In my copy I constructed one of my own,  penciling in an alphabetical list of some of the more interesting subjects covered. ) The book looks attractive, though, and has a foreword by popular pastor-theologian, Gregory Boyd, hopefully meaning it will sell well at Christian bookshops. I think everyone who has an interest in Anabaptism but doesn’t quite understand it (or can’t quite put the different threads together) should read it. For everyone identifying with the movement, it’s an excellent book to buy in order to lend out. It’s an especially important book for Australian Anabaptists, written as it is from the same context we find ourselves in – Anabaptists-by-choice, without a church.

I asked Koorong to list it; they have, but they’ve only ordered the one copy I asked for. If you order from them, it might even inspire them to stock it on their shelves. If you are buying online from Australia, the best price is at Book Depository; at today’s exchange rate, it’s only $15.96, including postage.

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Ethics in School

It was a fascinating episode of Insight on SBS last night, as audience members put their views on the pilot ethics program in NSW public primary schools. The ethics program runs as an alternative to the ‘scripture’ classes (or whatever religious classes are being offered at a particular school). I was impressed by the standard of the debate; a lot of incisive points were made, and the rather simple American fundamentalist only got to speak once.

I don’t think the Christians have a particularly strong case for objecting to the program. The problem is that children whose parents don’t want them taking religious instruction are left with nothing to do; the secular ethics class gives them an alternative.

The North Sydney Anglican bishop Glenn Davies wanted the framework behind the ethics class made transparent. Or perhaps his concern was that it wasn’t giving students a moral framework with which to make ethical decisions. (This is a question I have too.) He also wanted ethics discussed by all students, including Christian ones, so that those students with a religious worldview had a voice.

The situation is complex in post-Christendom.

What happened to the emerging church?

Are you hearing less about the emerging church in the last couple of years? Just as it came on the radar of mainstream evangelical churchgoers? That’s my impression, but then I stopped looking so much. Great post written over a year ago offering an explanation of what the movement is becoming – http://marksayers.wordpress.com/2009/03/25/the-emerging-missional-church-fractures-into-mini-movements/
I love Mark Sayers’ analysis and his willingness to categorize.

Progressive?

I am not a ‘progressive Christian’ if Fred Plumer and his mob get to define the term – http://www.abc.net.au/rn/spiritofthings/stories/2010/2896101.htm. I was listening to Spirit of Things last night and its profile of this movement. If you know me, you probably know my fondess for labels (it comes from being a librarian – I like to give everything subject headings and classify it correctly) and I think they’re ‘post-christians’, not ‘progressive christians’. They think it’s ‘progressive’ to leave behind doctrines like the incarnation and the resurrection. I don’t think there’s much of a future in that.

Rachael Kohn gives way too much time to groups and movements like this, but at least she asked some incisive questions. She asked about what he made of the fact that Jim Wallis liked to call himself a ‘progessive christian’ too but meant something very different by it – an evangelicalism engaged with social justice. Then she asked another interviewee what she would say to the charge that the movement was old liberalism dressed up. The answer was a good one – it builds on the insights of liberalism with spirituality, instead of simply rationality.

The problem is that evangelicals tend to think any critically engaged scholarship is liberal. But my theology is very informed by critically engaged scholarship and I am definitely not Fred Plumer.

Leaving Home

Last week we said goodbye to our church of three years, Network Vineyard. It was a sad thing; I believe in church loyalty, and yet here I am leaving a church which isn’t bad and at which there are a lot of people I like.

Three years ago, at the disbanding of our Anabaptist fellowship, Nicole and I joined Network after going there to hear Ray Gingerich, a visiting Mennonite academic, speak. I thought that any church which invites a Mennonite academic to speak and is only a few kilometres from my house has to be good. What’s more, we had been hoping for a stronger experience of the Holy Spirit, and it was a charismatic church. We were also hoping to plant a new house church, and this was the sort of thing Network encouraged.

Planting a house church didn’t work out.  But we stuck around at Network, not happy, trying to make the most of it. It was my first go at a conventional church in quite a while. It’s in a wealthy area, and the profile of the church is busy professionals and busy parents with young children. This, of course, makes strong community very hard. I have little doubt it’s a problem facing most churches, especially amongst certain demographics. I don’t think you can have strong community if everyone’s busy. What can you do? You can try to critique the culture of busyness from the pulpit (which the pastor did) and in small groups; but it’s really hard to defy the spirit of busyness in our society, even if you want to, and most people don’t want to and wouldn’t see it as an aspect of discipleship. (I’m too busy myself, not in a career driven way, but with my jealously guarded time for writing, reading, thinking.)

I grew increasingly cynical toward charismatic-ness, at least to what I saw. I believe there is a strong witness in the New Testament to the outpouring of charismatic gifts on the body of Christ. But just because it’s meant to happen, doesn’t mean it IS happening, even when people stand up and say what they think God is saying to them. In 1 Corinthians 12-14 where Paul instructs the church at Corinth in orderly use of the charismatic gifts, he imagines a church where prophecies and tongues and all sorts of other things come to people. Network, to its credit, attempts to recreate this, with a space for anyone to stand up and say what God has been speaking to them through the worship. But for me, prophecy and the like finds its full meaning in a church which is a strong community. Prophecy means far more when you are involved in each other’s lives and are wrestling with things together. I think genuine prophecy is more likely to come in this situation too. Strong community should be foundational; then we should seek the showy gifts. As it was, I was asked what God was telling me through the worship (nothing – I didn’t connect to the worship in its style or substance) and I wasn’t asked what was going on in my discipleship during the whole week.

I have a theological belief in the diversity of the body, as I’ve written about on this blog, but I can’t live it when it comes to diversity of theology itself. Most evangelicals have such a different understanding of God, a different Jesus. I find it so hard when I feel I don’t have enough common ground to even have meaningful theological conversations. What is an Anabaptist to say to a YWAMer, a Zionist, a creationist? The last few years I’ve been too shaky in my faith to have robust conversation, and encountering so much diversity has only discouraged me. I think I’ve needed to be around similar-minded people to reinforce what I believe for a while. (And I’m saying this, if you can’t hear it, with a strong element of self-critique; I guess we all want reinforcement that we’re right. That’s why we have so many different types of churches. I wish there was one more, an Anabaptist one, in this city.)

There are a lot of people sincerely trying to follow Jesus at Network, and open to the Spirit. I hope they flourish; they’re doing things differently, and are willing to give things a go. I’ll miss them.

The Moment of Death

On Thursday I read a chapter out of a new Brazos book we’ve just bought at my library – Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction, by Terrence Nichols. The chapter was on Near Death Experiences. I think years ago I read a scathing dismissal of NDEs and filed them away as a combination of junk science, parapsychology and pop psychology. But Nichols is a believer in them as evidence for an afterlife. He claims there are common elements to NDEs across cultures and times in history, which is what one would have to show to counter the claim that NDEs are a psychological phenomenon depending on the dying person’s expectations of the afterlife. It sent shivers down my spine reading some of his descriptions. I want reassurance about an afterlife; I have this suspicion I shouldn’t be looking for it in NDEs but in the resurrection of Christ. (Nichols does this too; he spends chapters on more conventional Christian approaches to the afterlife, but I flicked straight to it.) He spoke of many people coming back from NDEs with a strong, lasting sense of peace and reassurance, and a desire to lead a more holy life. But I seem to remember Kerry Packer coming back the first time and saying there’s nothing.

I was reading another book about death, Death in the Victorian Family by Patricia Jalland, a fascinating cultural history, the sort of book I would quite like to write. Her opening chapter is on the way the strong evangelicalism of the 1860s shaped cultural expectations of death in Britain. A good death was testimony to the truth of the gospel, the believer radiating with joy and hope as they approached death and the glory of God. One prominent evangelical magazine featured in every issue the testimony of a believer’s good death. Jalland exposes the gap between these public accounts of death and the truth of the pain, agony and lack of transcendence revealed in personal letters and diaries from the same period. The embellished accounts made everyone else feel that death in their family should be like this too, leaving them privately devastated, but also needing to maintain the public face of a proper, good death. There was an obsession with the look on someone’s face as they died; they believed they could tell a person’s final destination by their countenance at the moment of death.