The Awakening of Hope by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
Among the niches of the contemporary church, the one I probably feel most drawn to is the form of New Monasticism of which Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is a leading spokesperson, and so it's no surprise that I am a fan of this book. Yet many parts of the book were a surprise to me.
The book is written as a type of catechism for the community-oriented life that characterizes the New Monastic movement. As such it explains seven central practices that define the life of the church: eating together, fasting, making promises, finding a place to live, living together, choosing peace (and possibly death) over killing, and sharing good news. Along with the explanations come many anecdotes that wisely are not drawn only from the author's own community but from a rich diversity of communities which he celebrates alongside his own. The introduction of these communities was a pleasant surprise.
I think it took me a while to really catch on what the purpose of the book is. I wanted it to be more of an apologetic, and not only that, but an apologetic for those on the outside of the church, or at least outside of the church that is familiar with the kinds of things he is describing. Unfortunately Wilson-Hartgrove leans too overtly and regularly on biblical foundations for it to speak all that well to people outside the church altogether. But for those in evangelical churches who are looking for something deeper and more life-giving than their megachurches and commercialized faith, this book may be just perfect.
But a catechism, of course, is for laying foundations within a movement. This is what it took me a while to understand. The book articulates, illustrates, and kicks off discussions for the kinds of small groups and communities that really want to sink their teeth into a better way of life together - at more intentionally knowing "why we practice a common faith."
As I read, I often found myself wishing that the common life of faith that were being described were actually the true common life of most Christians. Considering how deeply grounded it is in biblical and early church traditions, the church has good reason to look more like this vision. Sadly, for the most part, it does not. Yet, as the anecdotes make clear, this is not an idealistic vision. This is truly the way many communities are able to forge a new kind of common life, and I hope this book enables more individuals and communities to join them on that journey.
Speaking of Jesus by Carl Medearis
Intrigued by the description of a book focused on talking about Jesus in a way that frees the conversation from the entanglements and resistance that often faces discussions about the very mixed bag called Christianity, I accepted the offer of this book and gave it a quick read.
Now if, like me, you're a somewhat reserved person who generally hesitates about diving into conversations about faith with strangers, the first thing you'll realise is that you'll never be like Carl Medearis. But I'll immediately add that I really respect such extraverted people, knowing that there are many folks out there who are actually interested in having more meaningful conversations if we could get past those first barriers to discussing topics like, well, Jesus.
If, on the other hand, you are more extraverted and want to re-think how such conversations are possible and how they really could be freed of some of the burdens that a rather worldly system of Christianity has layered over Jesus, then this might well be very interesting reading for you.
However, while there are many other places, besides personality, where I realised that I differed from Medearis (while he may have shed the word, "Christianity" he is still, in my opinion, dragging along a lot of its baggage of questionable theology), the main aspect that caused me problems was this: the book strongly promotes two people - Jesus and the author. I suppose it goes along with his extraversion, but the book often felt like, "look at how brilliant I was in this conversation or this one." Seldom did he seem to recognize the limitations or describe how his views don't free him from all the entanglements.
For example, in one chapter he proudly describes how cool he is with speaking about Jesus with some gay acquaintances. He evades a question about whether or not homosexuality is sin by describing his own struggle with lust. But he acts as if that strategy worked perfectly - and, of course, maybe in that one instance it did. But in my experience, the likely response in most cases to that kind of evasion is, "So you are telling me that my monogamous relationship with a same sex partner is still sin?" Don't get me wrong - I think it's perfectly valid for him or whomever to honestly grapple with that question, but it seemed very naïve to portray that such a position leads to problem-free acceptance in the gay community.
So, probably interesting reading for some, but no strong recommendation from me on this one.
(Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of these books through the Speakeasy review network.)