July 3, 2008

Mini-review: "New Monasticism," by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

(CCLaP publishes mini-reviews of both books and movies on a regular basis, none lasting more than a few hundred words. A full list of CCLaP's book-based mini-reviews can be found on its main book page, and movies on the main movie page.)

New Monasticism, by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today's Church (book; 2008)
By Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
BrazosPress / ISBN: 978-1-58473-224-8

It's no secret to CCLaP's regulars that I have recently started reading and reviewing more nonfiction here regarding religious topics; ironic, I know, given that I myself am an atheist and have no plans on changing my beliefs anytime soon*. It's a fact, though, that the subject deeply informs and influences almost every other aspect of American life, with overwhelming data on the subject that simply can't be denied: for example, that a whopping 92 percent of all Americans believe in some form of "higher power," according to a recent major study by Pew. And this is an especially fascinating time to explore the subject of faith and spirituality in America, I think, because it's such a transitional time that is erasing so many assumptions we've had for a hundred years now, ever since the initial birth and then rise of evangelism/fundamentalism in the early 20th century: the assumption that you must be politically conservative to be religiously pious, the assumption that you must be afraid of modernity and change, even basic assumptions over what defines a "one true faith," or indeed if even organized churches are needed anymore in these Web 2.0, New Age, "pick-and-choose your faith" times. And these are all interesting subjects, no matter what your own personal religious beliefs are, and understanding these subjects help all of us understand the US in a better way than before.

For example, one of the big ethical issues being debated among the faithful in America these days is that of consumerism and commercialism, and how the conservative evangelical groups that have wielded so much power throughout the '00s are to blame for a huge part of why things have become such a mess: how their cozying up to the Bush administration, who in turn cozied up to the corporate world, eventually formed an entire dark culture of runaway consumerism that has gotten completely out of control. These fundamentalist churches have profoundly failed the very Christians they purport to represent, the argument goes, precisely by not standing up to this conservative corporate collusion; that as long as the Bushists in charge were willing to support such cherrypicked fundamentalist issues as abortion-banning and public censorship, these evangelical church leaders were unwilling to tell their congregations to reign in their spending, to concentrate once again on their families and personal relationships, to stop worshipping the false idols of teenage slut-pop and reality television. (My God, the most popular show on television is even called "American Idol;" does it get any more sacrilegious than that?) There are a growing amount of religious Americans who here at the end of the Bush years have finally had their fill of it all; they are tired of overspending, tired of being part of the runaway consumerist culture that has mostly defined the US over the last ten years, tired of the meaningless worship of pop-culture that has led to a trillion-dollar Hollywood industry, and are re-examining the very foundations of the institutions they belong to in order to find an alternative to it all.

And see, when I first noticed and picked up Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove's slim book New Monasticism: What Is Has to Say to Today's Church, I thought that this was what it was going to be all about -- a practical guide on how to be more monk-like in one's everyday life, even while living in the middle of an out-of-control consumerist culture, even while married and with a white-collar job and owning a house and all the other things that come with most middle-class people's lives. However, it turns out that this is not what the term "New Monasticism" means within the Christian community, although it was difficult to figure out what exactly it does mean, or at least just from reading this book; because the way Wilson-Hartgrove describes it, frankly, makes New Monasticism sound like just another term for "liberal activism," albeit a form where people specifically live in a big community house with their fellow Christians, deliberately in a crappy urban neighborhood as a way of helping to clean up that neighborhood. And there's nothing wrong with this, of course, and in fact a lot of things to be admired in liberal activism; but it's disappointing to see Wilson-Hartgrove use a term for his book that doesn't quite apply, simply because he doesn't like the term "liberal activist."

As a result, then, the majority of this book is a rather ho-hum guide to the world of soup kitchens, civil disobedience, and begging middle-class people for money -- which, again, is not a terrible subject unto itself, but is not the book I wanted to read, and not the book I thought I was getting when picking one up called "New Monasticism." It's a decent book, I want to make that clear, competently written although extremely preachy at points (duh); it's just that I was expecting a more practical guide to literally being a "21st-century monk," advice on how to better achieve inner peace through intense academic study, a shunning of the material world, and long periods of silent and contemplative self-examination. This book is definitely not that, and potential readers are wise to keep it in mind before picking it up.

Out of 10: 7.6

*And since everyone is always interested when I bring this up, let me explain it once again: that I have been an atheist for roughly 25 years now, but also have fond memories of my upbringing as a Southern Baptist in rural Missouri (on the northern edge of the so-called "American Bible Belt"). I am not, however, one of those Christopher-Hitchens angry and bitter atheists, and in fact consider myself a member of the Progressive "interfaith" movement, in which intellectuals attempt to discover the shared aspects of the world's major religions, instead of highlighting their differences.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:31 AM, July 3, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |