December 5, 2020

Christ’s Rabble, or Regular Folks?

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David Bentley Hart has written a challenging piece at Commonweal, called “Christ’s Rabble,” in which he asks “whether in our wildest imaginings we could ever desire to be the kind of persons that the New Testament describes as fitting the pattern of life in Christ.”

How does the New Testament describe such persons? Hart speaks of them generally in these terms:

…I mean that most of us would find Christians truly cast in the New Testament mold fairly obnoxious: civically reprobate, ideologically unsound, economically destructive, politically irresponsible, socially discreditable, and really just a bit indecent.

Hart wrote this piece in the context of two experiences: doing a new translation of the NT and being involved in a series of lectures in which he argued that genuine Christianity and capitalist culture are incompatible.

My basic argument was that a capitalist culture is, of necessity, a secularist culture, no matter how long the quaint customs and intuitions of folk piety may persist among some of its citizens; that secularism simply is capitalism in its full cultural manifestation; that late capitalist “consumerism”—with its attendant ethos of voluntarism, exuberant and interminable acquisitiveness, self-absorption, “lust of the eyes,” and moral relativism—is not an accidental accretion upon an essentially benign economic system, but the inevitable result of the most fundamental capitalist values.

Hart notes that theological teaching about wealth and poverty made a significant turn early in Christian history (he cites Clement of Alexandria as an example). Instead of taking the New Testament at face value, in all its “raw rhetoric,” Clement and those who followed him distinguished between poverty of spirit (the true and required impoverishment) and actual material poverty (which is not required).

Eventually, this theological movement reached another important moment in the Reformation, when religious anxiety became focused on “spiritual” pathologies such as “works-righteousness,” replacing concerns about actually seeking holiness in our actions and deeds. David Bentley Hart has no stomach for what he thinks amounts to the Reformation’s actual denial of NT teaching: “In a sense, the good news announced by Scripture was that Christ had come to save us from the burden of Christianity.”

The lusty embrace of the material and everyday as embodied in Luther is attractive to Hart — he calls it “the sanctification of the ordinary,” and suggests that it is “Protestantism’s single greatest imaginative contribution to Christian culture as a whole.”

Big problem, however. In Hart’s reading, it simply doesn’t fit the logic and imagination of those who wrote the New Testament. When he reads its pages, rather than seeing a kind of creational “common sense,” he finds only “relentless torrents of exorbitance and extremism” in its teachings. This extremism is not occasional or extraordinary but forms the “entire cultural and spiritual atmosphere” of the Gospels and epistles.

We saw this emphasis in our recent study in James, and Hart correctly observes that James’s radical teachings about poverty and wealth are given in an apocalyptic context, in the light of what Hart interprets to be imminent “final judgment.” Unfortunately, in my view he does not follow the narrative logic of that observation. Is it possible that NT readers are not to universalize all these sayings but rather recognize that we must take into account the crises Jesus and the apostles were facing (for example, the Fall of Jerusalem) when we read texts that tell us that “riches will not save” and that we must not put any trust in earthly security?

There are many places in the epistles where the setting seems to be peaceful enough and where apostolic exhortations don’t even bring up the subject of wealth and the kind of communistic sharing that Hart commends as more “Christian” than modern capitalism. In these more serene everyday contexts, Paul and the other apostles speak a lot more about relational concerns within the churches, keeping a good reputation among their neighbors, and cultivating the virtues of faith, hope, and love. I don’t see them calling business people to abandon their concerns or give all their profits to the poor. When he took his offering from Gentile congregations to help the poor in Jerusalem he urged them to give willingly and did not lay upon them radical obligations regarding their personal finances or possessions.

In my opinion David Bentley Hart overplays his hand when he writes these words as a universal description of the early Christians:

The first, perhaps most crucial thing to understand about the earliest generations of Christians is that they were a company of extremists, radical in their rejection of the values and priorities of society not only at its most degenerate, but often at its most reasonable and decent. They were rabble. They lightly cast off all their prior loyalties and attachments: religion, empire, nation, tribe, even family. In fact, far from teaching “family values,” Christ was remarkably dismissive of the family. And decent civic order, like social respectability, was apparently of no importance to him. Not only did he not promise his followers worldly success (even success in making things better for others); he told them to hope for a Kingdom not of this world, and promised them that in this world they would win only rejection, persecution, tribulation, and failure. Yet he instructed them also to take no thought for the morrow.

And he betrays the utter impossibility of his proposals when he suggests that Clement may have had good intentions about trying to accommodate the Gospel’s teaching to a more Christianized society, but it was the Desert Fathers who actually “took the Gospel at its word.”

Really? I don’t see Jesus or the apostles suggesting that all believers literally abandon the world and go to the wilderness. Paul’s counsel to the Thessalonians, for example, couldn’t be clearer or indeed, more bourgeois:

“Aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one.” (1Thess 4:11)

I happen to think that Luther’s teaching on vocation was and is a needed corrective to this view that genuine Christianity is only legitimate in its “radical” forms. Hart’s description, to me, is hagiography not reality. Those who are called to more radical vocations are no more holy than anyone else, and they are certainly no more genuine.

Whether it comes from Protestant evangelicals like Francis Chan or David Platt, or from Catholics or Orthodox leaders like David Bentley Hart, the pronouncement that all Christians must be “radical” (however that looks), is in my opinion a misreading of Scripture, an unfortunate denigration of two thousand years of Christians who lived ordinary yet faithful lives and a burden far too heavy to bear to place on God’s people today.

Comments

  1. I thought DB Hart was Orthodox.

    Hart has a point. The finest flowers of gospel living comes from Godstruck loons like Francis of Assisi or Xenia of St Petersburg, but it’s alright to be part of the tree that supports the bloom.

  2. Twenty-something years later, I still go back to the wise words of my young cousin: “It’s easier to talk radical than to live radical”. I haven’t talked radical ever since, but that doesn’t always protect me from guilt trips induced by the radical talk of others…

    Come unto me, all ye who are weary, and I will weigh you down with obligations and ‘oughts’ that will suck out any remaining hope and joy, and replace them with irremediable feelings of inadequacy.

    These latter-day ‘prophets’ are so preoccupied with chasing ‘comfortable Christianity’ from the temple that they forget the Comforter.

    • You almost get the sense that for some of those guys, it’s better that some of the good wheat be uprooted than the tares be let alone…

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Sixty years ago, all these Radical types would have been on-fire for Communism.

      Same attitude, different Cause, that’s all.

  3. Jon Bartlett says

    I appreciate the ordinary, but need the radical not to slip into comfortable consumer western Christianity. Is the real question how to be radical whilst being ordinary?

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > Is the real question how to be radical whilst being ordinary?

      I don’t think so. Don’t worry about being radical – guard against being embalmed while alive.

      Go out and do stuff, listen to different people, meet people.

      By doing so you’ll have more fun, be surprised more often, make new friends, and have better stories. It turns out doing the right thing is often doing the better thing. So why not?

      No need for “Radicals”.

      • No need for “Radicals”.

        Amen.

      • “Go out and do stuff, listen to different people, meet people.”
        I love this! I often look back to what I’ve missed, especially in my college years, because I was all involved with Campus Crusade (until they started pressuring me to lead Bible studies) and other Christian organizations. I was on fire for God, sort of. But here I was, on a campus of 30,000 people, with people from all over the world and instead of trying to get to know them, discover their stories, learn from them, and discover the diversity of viewpoints in life, I felt compelled to try to win some for the Jesus team. As a Christian, that’s what I was told I was compelled to do.

        It’s taken me until my late 50s to really begin to open up. There is a whole great, wide world out there with interesting people and interesting food and interesting art! Go embrace it!

        Radical? For me, it is!

        • Just received the new Jeff Beck album for my b-day and it contains this song (“Live in the Dark”)…

          I’m not afraid of the dark
          If we gotta live in the dark
          We will live in the dark
          Won’t see me dying in the light
          I will live in the dark
          I’m not afraid of the dark
          If we gotta live in the dark
          We will live in the dark
          Won’t see me dying in the light
          We will live in the dark

          [Chorus]
          We will dance in the dark
          We’ll bring candles down to the the dark
          We will love in the dark
          We’ll go home in the dark
          We’ll hold hands in the dark
          ‘Cause when you hold hands in the dark
          You don’t know whose hand you hold
          We’re just humans letting the love flow

          Maybe the metaphor, Suzanne, is that you were kinda “dying in the light” at your campus of 30,000.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > There is a whole great, wide world out there with interesting people ….Go embrace it!

          +1

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          …instead of trying to get to know them, discover their stories, learn from them, and discover the diversity of viewpoints in life, I felt compelled to try to win some for the Jesus team.

          I’d use the term “turn them into notches on my Bible”.
          Because that’s what Wretched Urgency does to you.
          “And how many Souls have YOU Saved? Huh? Huh? Huh?’

  4. I agree with you all the way on this one, CM. Completely.

  5. I have no children, but I wonder: Can anyone be satisfied that poverty is God’s will for their own children, or that the only way for their family to lead a truly Christian life is for parents and children together to remain poverty-stricken? Not even the Amish/Mennonites can live in such a way, because it amounts to communal suicide, and the truncation of all hope for children to actually thrive. But childlessness is a prerequisite of such a conception and practice of Christianity, isn’t it? There is an imbalance in the NT which results from apocalyptic expectation; but as the Church survived, and as time passed, accommodation to non-apocalyptic ordinariness had to happen, and I think it actually happened much sooner than Hart suggests. And it had to happen because anything else amounts to fanaticism, and practical suicide, as indicated by an unhealthy obsession with the cult of the martyrs in early expressions of Christianity.

    • And it was this unbalanced tendency in some strands of early Christianity that made pagan Romans think that, in their seeking after martyrdom (which in some of the hagiography looks like a lust for death) , Christians hated life and this world. The Romans were partly right, though we don’t like to admit it, having fallen under the spell of cinematic and pietistic glamorization of the early martyrs. We can hate the persecutions, and at the same time recognize that the Romans were correctly observing something truly imbalanced and even pathological in Christian life and psychology when they said that Christians hated life and the world. Fortunately, alongside the martyr complex and hatred of this world that follows in the wake of extreme apocalyptic thinking and expectations, most Christians continued living in ways that accommodated time and the mundane, getting married and having children, keeping jobs and saving a little money, entering into contracts for goods and services, perhaps buying a some land, etc. Life goes on…

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > There is an imbalance in the NT which results from apocalyptic expectation

      +1,000. And saying that is some circles is nearly enough to get oneself stoned.

      > I think it actually happened much sooner than Hart suggests

      I also question how if all of Christianity was so Apocalyptic. If there were not, from day zero, people in the back of the room shrugging off that part. Jesus spoke to a lot of people – and he often pretty said “go home”, “go to the priests”, etc…. His advice was often hard to reconcile with full-scale apocolypticism.

      • I think the expectation of Jesus’ soon return and setting up of his kingdom colored a lot of the actions and words and exhortations of the NT writings.

        I wonder if things like the church calendar reflect an admission and/or resignation to the fact that, after decades and centuries of a “no show,” it appeared that life would probably continue going on as normal for a long, long time?

        • Either that, or we have misunderstood at least some of the NT teaching about coming judgment, interpreting it as “end of the world” stuff when in reality it spoke of historical crises, such as the Fall of Jerusalem.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            And Hal Lindsay and Left Behind Fever sure haven’t helped.

          • Exactly.

          • Maybe the destruction stuff was about Jerusalem, not the rest of the world, but Jesus’ return seemed to be expected by the NT writers in the near future. E.g.:

            1 Thess 4:15 For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that WE who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.?? 16 For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then WE WHO ARE ALIVE, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so WE will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

            The many “I am coming soon”s in Revelation.

            Etc.

            • Yes Eric, I’m still working through my understanding of those passages. As I’ve said before here, my main theodicy issue is the delay of the fulfillment of God’s promises when the NT seems to give little or no expectation of that.

          • Pete Enns recently did a 3-part blog on a new book that tries to address the delay of the Parousia. The authors interacted with the comments, but I’m not sure I found the answers or the synopsis of the book satisfying:

            http://www.peteenns.com/on-why-jesus-hasnt-come-back-yet-and-the-answer-may-shock-you/

        • EricW, I prefer to think that things like the church calendar are not the result of resignation in the face of the delay of the Parousia, but of the recognition that time and the world could be hallowed by the Church short of the apocalypse.

          • Or it could have been a result or function of adopting more and more Old Testament/Old Covenant forms and practices, like instituting an ordained priesthood whose function unfortunately became sacerdotal and intermediary.

    • Yes, I think extreme aestheticism can only go along with celibacy. There are things I might be willing to do, without children; or for a period of time, before or after having children. However, once a child is part of equation there are certain necessities that have to be provided — and that it is wrong to withhold, if you have the potential to procure them.

      I’ll go even further: there are certain luxuries that are worth the investment, because they go along with enabling the growth and flourishing of a person. To be able to give something away, you first need thing to give, which means at some point someone fed you and taught you skills. Perhaps it is worth remembering that even as the hermits locked themselves away, the monasteries — even with their vows — taught some literacy, music, and even engaged in trade.

      It may be that I’m merely side-stepping the uncomfortable call of the gospel on my life. Naturally I would want to do so, because doing so would be difficult. So perhaps I am making excuses. But still: after watching my child at play — making up little tunes and things — I don’t feel inclined to apologize for wanting to provide him with such extravagances as music lessons.

    • –> “Can anyone be satisfied that poverty is God’s will for their own children…”

      Oh, THIS!!! Yes. Sermons should be developed and preached around Jesus shooting this kinda thinking down!

      If it’s God’s will for his children to live in poverty, then why would He create a Heaven where all that will be gone?! I’m convinced that most of the stuff we experience on this Earth is “not as God intended”. And when a family in a van gets crushed by a collapsing overpass and I hear “It must’ve been God’s will” or “God must have a plan,” I want to run SCREAMING.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I have no children, but I wonder: Can anyone be satisfied that poverty is God’s will for their own children, or that the only way for their family to lead a truly Christian life is for parents and children together to remain poverty-stricken?

      Don’t forget “while being Persecuted by a murderous Antichrist gubmint.”

      Too many have the attitude that God is only glorified if His people live (and die — a lot) under North Korean conditions. This has always reminded me of Seventies-vintage Guns & Ammo or Eighties-vintage Soldier of Fortune editorials sneering at “spoiled rotten baby-fat Americans”.

  6. Adam Tauno Williams says

    > that secularism simply is capitalism in its full cultural manifestation

    All Scripture aside – Hart is not an economist; that is clear in that he demonstrates a failure to understand what Capitalism is. He makes the common layman error of equating Capitalism with Consumerism, “Free” Markets, etc.. Capitalism is something quite specific – it is the institutionalization of potential value in such a way that said value can be expressed in a market. Capitalism is the scheme by which potential value becomes fungible.

    ASIDE: Socialist here, defending the correct meaning of Capitalism. Because even Socialism and Capitalism are not exclusive to one another – every modern society embraces Capitalism; it is doubtful a modern society can be created without doing so. If you like very expensive things – such as pharmaceuticals, CAT scan machines, safe trains and airplanes, etc… All those things are far *far* too expensive to be created at scale without utilizing potential value [aka Capitalism].

    Rail against Consumerism or what not – don’t entangle that with economics. That is the path to very stupid decisions.

    The capital you have is the appraised value of the house you live in, that you can use as collateral for a loan, capital the rapidly depreciating value of your automobile, capital us the savings bond in your desk drawer. If you turn any of those into cash – that is a Capitalism – then spending that cash in a market is just that – spending cash in a market. The market does not care where the cash came from.

    There are significant moral questions on each side of that capital-and-market equation. But they are very different kinds of questions; muddling capital and markets together doesn’t help answer any of them.

    • NO government is compatible with true Christianity. Government is a creation of man and is interested in consolidating self perpetuating power to control others, even when their stated goal is the “betterment” of the governed.

      Hart’s condemnation of capitalism is misguided and just tips his hand as to his own political leanings.

      • What is ‘true Christianity’? And is Christianity a form of government?

      • Capitalism works better than socialism because it is founded on human nature as it is – greedy.

        Just because it works doesn’t make it more moral.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          It is arguable also if it “works better”.

          The largest Socialist project in all of human history – – – The United States Interstate Highway System. More dollars and more real-estate than any other project ever – and all public.

    • Ronald Avra says

      Am I wrong to think that in a purely capitalistic system only producers and consumers have value? If you can neither produce goods for consumption or consume goods that are produced, where is your place in that system?

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > Am I wrong to think that

        Yes, you are wrong to think that – you are conflating a myriad of things.

        I don’t know what a “purely capitalistic system”; your economic system either allows you to leverage capital, or it doesn’t. All developed nations have such a system – it appears to be necessary to get that “developed” status.

        What has “value” is a matter of culture and public policy.

    • Piggybacking on your comment: Hart isn’t being careful with his use of terms like “secularism” and “capitalism.” That makes it hard to interact with his argument.

      This imprecision allows him to use big (negative, to him) words to describe centuries of change and vastly different circumstances.

      Since large portions of my brain was trained by historians, that makes my head hurt.

      Hart wants a decline narrative so that he can contrast his philosophical ideals to Where We Are. But I’m more interested in how people have succeeded at living their lives as spiritual and material beings.

      • *Since large portions of my brain *were* trained by historians ….

        As always, I apologize for my very sloppy typing.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > That makes it hard to interact with his argument.

        +1

      • Danielle – Very much agreed. Sweeping generalizations and mischaracterizations of people and historical eras are just kinda migraine triggers, yes?

    • He’s pretty clearly talking about liberalism (little l) not capitalism. Although to quibble is say capitalism is a economic system in which the means of production is privately owned by a small class of people, and most people are dependent on wage Labour to survive.

  7. A key statement in Hart’s piece:

    “The body of believers, in love for one another, eradicated need in their community.”

    Motive (1 Cor 13:1-3 – the passage on doing all the really wild Christian stuff, but without love).

    Ideally, the reason someone might move their family to a ghetto or poor rural community, live frugally, and all the rest, is not out of compulsion or guilt, but out of love.

    The way we communicate or receive the ideal gets corrupted because that’s just how we are, but the example of Christ’s all-giving love sets the standard. David Bentley Hart, Chan, Platt; they’re okay. You’re loved and accepted in Christ; you’re okay.

  8. Christiane says

    twice a year, I am called into a time of living with less from the material world and spending more time in the spiritual realm ….. during the seasons of Advent and Lent there used to be much ‘fasting’ and self-denial as well as saving what we did not spend on ourselves and giving it as a contribution to those in need, and this kind of ‘training’ was a part of our Christian formation from childhood. Ashes to Easter and all that. 🙂

    We can drown in our wealth if we don’t take time out to comprehend that not all live with our abundance, so maybe letting go of self-indulgence for a season or two helps us keep perspective better. (?)

    The older I get, the more benefit I see in living simply, that ‘less is more’ and that being thankful makes room for far more awareness of a surrounding grace. Is living deliberately and simply a form of self-denial OR is it something more . . . . . like that verse ‘awake o sleeper’ ? Getting older and shedding possessions and symbols of wealth is freeing . . . . it lightens the step and lifts the spirit, like a premonition of shuffling off this mortal coil at journey’s end.

    • I have no problem with voluntarily taking up practices like these as part of our spiritual formation, but Hart’s suggestion that everyone is to live like this all the time because it is the pattern Christ taught us is neither true to history nor helpful to the vast majority of those who follow Jesus.

      • Christiane says

        I don’t think it can be something that is imposed on people permanently to ‘give up’ and to ‘sacrifice’, no. But it is good to have the OPTION at certain times to set aside ‘self’ for a time. In that regard, some ‘training’ in Christian formation helps to know what it means to enter into self-denial.

        The neo-Cal men who advocate a ‘forced’ lifestyle of self-denial from their congregants are operating from a position of authoritarian control (and possible abuse) . . . . they don’t understand that REAL giving of self to others comes from loving-kindness at times when one’s conscience is moved to help those that the Good Lord places in our path on the journey.

        So I agree with your concept that any ‘forced’ cult-like deprivation at the command of an authoritarian ‘leader’ is not something that looks like or resembles Christian living. I think I know the difference. And the difference is this: on those occasions when we are brought to compassion by the plight of those we encounter, putting that compassion into action is responsive Christian living;
        but having some ‘great leader’ of a cult-like mega-Church demand his tithe and more while quoting scripture and while shaming and ‘disciplining’ those who do not come up with the money …… that is not of our faith, no.

        Big difference. So it is right to pour the wine and drink L’ Chaim and celebrate the goodness of Creation with all joy, yes.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Hart’s suggestion that everyone is to live like this all the time because it is the pattern Christ taught us is neither true to history nor helpful to the vast majority of those who follow Jesus.

        Don’t forget “Acquire the Fire” or “Teen Mania” or similar Radical Christianity organizations On Fire For JESUS! (Unlike all those Lukewarms outside the movement…)

        Then “Can You Top This?” locks in and…

  9. Hmph. So, the narrow gate really is narrow, and the way really is hard, and only a few find it.
    How typical.

    • Not sure I’m getting the full intent of your comment, DM.

      • I find Hart’s thesis compelling, precisely because it is “neither true to history nor helpful to the vast majority of those who follow Jesus.” Modern, western Christianity has–in general–so misread the NT that it takes a tad bit of overstatement to shake us awake.

        My experience is that in the church the majority of those who [claim to] follow Jesus are not the least bit interested in living out the Beatitudes, the commandments to love, the community described in Acts 4, or James’ and Paul’s admonitions to share with the poor. Rather, they prefer the quiet, comfortable, polite society we think Paul is asking the Thessalonians to engage in–or in Hart’s words, “the magisterial Protestant fantasy.” The fact the western, capitalist economics fits right into this societal conception is just icing on the cake. One proof-text trumps (ahem, pun oh so totally intended) the rest of the kingdom talk in the NT.

        I am just as guilty of this as the next person. I have my privileged life: steady job, wife, kids, quiet suburban living, and a community of like minded people. Just doin’ the best I can to do right by God and by my neighbor. I’m not too excited about giving it up. Let someone else go to the wedding banquet, I have a lawn to mow, and parent-teacher conferences to attend.

        But that’s not what Christ, or Paul, or James, or Peter taught (as I read the NT). I find the claim that it somehow is very spurious, and an example of reading the NT through enlightenment-colored glasses. It most certainly is not how Jesus and his followers saw themselves or how to usher in the kingdom.

        I agree with Hart, “I think it reasonable to ask not whether we are Christians (by that standard, all fall short), but whether in our wildest imaginings we could ever desire to be the kind of persons that the New Testament describes as fitting the pattern of life in Christ.”

        His answer is also mine: “I think the fairly obvious answer is that we could not.” Thus, narrow is the way… and few who find it…

        The whole thesis offends my sensibilities, as well it should.

        • I do agree with Hart’s statement that people have always tended to read the NT as describing Christians like themselves rather than imagining that it might be challenging us to something more. Fair enough.

          However, his thesis is so overdrawn as to be, IMO, practically unusable for ordinary Christians. When one uses the Desert Fathers as the example of those who “got” the pattern of life Jesus commended, he is simply not reading the NT in a valid way.

          • Christians at the time certainly thought they were on to something.

          • Don’t get me wrong – I love the Desert Fathers. But they had a specific calling. It is not helpful to see them up as the example all Christians should follow.

          • Glad you said that Mike.

            With that said, shouldn’t we be more proactive about helping folks find their specific callings (if indeed they do have them?)

            That would eliminate the temptation to make these specific callings of some normative to all, while also helping those who want to go further/deeper/higher/whatever to find the resources and community to help them do so.

          • I am not sure that extreme asceticism is good for people in large, or even small, doses.

      • I’m not sure of DM’s intent, either, other than the statement might prove the point that the gate is as narrow as you want to make, and the way is as hard as you want to make it.

        “What must I *DO* to inherit eternal life?”

        “Ah, so you’re into *DOING*, eh? Okay, if that’s your approach to the Kingdom, here’s what you have to *DO*…” (paraphrase mine)

  10. Supreme consciousness, Big Seeing. Awakeness. That I think is what is necessary to enter the kingdom. I am not rich but live a comfortable suburban life. I must be cognizant of my need despite the relative comfort. I must see my need for redemption and growth. I must also see the need of those around me and respond to it. If comforts blind me to need, in and around me, I am not awake. My wife was giving a bunch of china and dishwear to a friend who works with refugees through Catholic Charities. She wanted them to have something fine and elegant to look at in their dire situation. That of course is in addition to meeting basic needs. I thought it was a great idea. It’s a psychological boost to bring a small touch of dignity to proud people who have lost everything. Anyway, that wasn’t my point. The point is that as she was telling me what she was doing in a plain and measured tone she suddenly broke up and began sobbing. She was seeing. Big Seeing. She felt their pain while sitting on the couch in our family room. It moved me to want to do more for them. Her seeing moved me. Good things happen when we are awake. Please Lord, open my eyes.

    • –> “..she suddenly broke up and began sobbing. She was seeing. Big Seeing. She felt their pain while sitting on the couch in our family room.”

      Wow. This is a testimony that preaches the Good News of the Gospel. It can help morph us into understanding the human condition at a different level.

      –> “Her seeing moved me. Good things happen when we are awake. Please Lord, open my eyes.”

      Yes, let us all have epiphanies like this! And Chris…in sharing this, it’s clear that the Lord DID open your eyes a little bit!

  11. Glad to see some pushback to Hart’s ideas in this forum. He is widely and uncritically lauded in many quarters. Never been a big fan. He frequently disguises sloppy thinking behind a dense prose style redolent of the ivory tower that nevertheless impresses many.

    What is “genuine Christianity” if not the full range of its expression in whatever form that takes? Of course Christianity as an organized body of thought and practice has mutated over time That’s what living organisms do. Only dead things never change. And attempts to go back to some previous stage in that development, perceived as more “authentic”, may be well intentioned but are always a mistake.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      That’s what living organisms do. Only dead things never change.

      +1

      > And attempts to go back to some previous stage in that development, perceived
      > as more “authentic”, may be well intentioned but are always a mistake.

      Ditto.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      And attempts to go back to some previous stage in that development, perceived as more “authentic”, may be well intentioned but are always a mistake.

      Like the types of Islam that get in the news today, going back to Year One of the Hegira/”As it was in the days of The Prophet…”

  12. This seems to me like just another example (albeit maybe subtler) of people’s desire to add something to the gospel and put the stamp of “biblical” on their particular addition. In this case it’s “be radical” (though what exactly that means or how it is to be lived out doesn’t seem to be explained in full). In other cases it’s been things like MacArthur’s lordship salvation (which he apparently still holds to), or various legalistic teachings, etc.

    The variety and number of these additions alone makes them suspect. Then if you buy into it, there is the practical matter of which one to choose, or whether to attempt to adhere to all of them. That could get exhausting real fast.

    I’m not saying the Good News doesn’t change people. It does. But when it starts to get turned into a doorway to a long hall of hoops to jump through, I start looking for the exits.

  13. I actually clicked through and read the article.

    I didn’t find Hart saying “Everyone calling themselves Christian should live like this!” He is pointing out something he discovered ***in the text of Scripture*** as he was translating it, and drawing comparisons and conclusions, as we all do. I don’t know if I agree completely, but I think he gives us much to consider, which is what I think we could do instead of simply writing him off because what we think he suggests seems so impractical.

    I think the biggest difference between the days of the NT and now is that we no longer live in an agrarian society/economy, where food and materials for shelter that could support a group of people who wanted to live communally could be had from a relatively small patch of land.

    One other thing to keep in mind was that the first Desert Fathers (and Mothers) did go away from cities, but then villages actually grew up around their little settlements. People wanted to be near these who were seeking wisdom and holiness. Also, the desert-dwelling monastics weren’t mendicants like the Franciscans; they did accept offerings from people, but they also tended small plots of land for food, and manufactured goods they could sell or trade. I guess one could say that they engaged in the economy of the day, but they very much actively shunned anything to do with amassing wealth.

    Dana

    • ‘I didn’t find Hart saying “Everyone calling themselves Christian should live like this!”’

      I think it’s pretty hard not to see that when his last paragraph says:

      This was the pattern of life the early Christians believed had been given them by Christ. As I say, I doubt we would think highly of their kind if we met them today. Fortunately for us, those who have tried to be like them have always been few. Clement of Alexandria may have been making an honest attempt to accommodate the gospel to the realities of a Christian empire, but it was those other Egyptians, the Desert Fathers, who took the Gospel at its word. But how many of us can live like that? Who can imitate that obstinacy and perversity? To live as the New Testament requires, we should have to become strangers and sojourners on the earth, to have here no enduring city, to belong to a Kingdom truly not of this world.

      • Well, Hart is an idealist in many ways.

        I resonate with what MattK writes below, and at the same time I don’t want to throw out any babies. Hart has seen something, and he is looking at it, examining it, offering to us his conclusions. Let’s factor it in as we consider how to live, along with recognizing the differences I noted above; I’m sure he is aware of them as well.

        From reading other things he has written, I don’t think he means to load any burdens on people, or denigrate the ordinary or the comfort therein, or collude with “disenchantment”.

        Dana

  14. I love DBH, so it pains me to say that I’m not on board with him on this one. Life’s hard enough, even for a privileged fellow like myself, so I can’t abide (nor shoulder) a form of Christianity that seeks to place an even heavier burden on people (rules, expectations, judgement) while simultaneously robbing them of any comfort they might find in ordinary existence. Also, the Protestant in me, and the Tolkien fan, is not thrilled with a Christianity that seems to disenchant ordinary life, rendering ordinary human experience (as it has been for 99% of people, for 99% of history) as meaningless in light of God’s kingdom and/or coming judgement. On a practical note, my faith and my sanity (equally shaky at times) depend on, and are nurtured by, being able to experience God in the ordinary things of life, not just in the radical, explicitly “kingdom-focused” things. And besides, if God’s kingdom involves forsaking so many good things, then what’s the point? What’s God’s kingdom “for”? I’m not the “soli deo gloria” type, so I have to imaging that God envisions some kind of human thriving as at least one of the goals of establishing His kingdom, or indeed of creating the universe in the first place. Can that heavenly thriving be so radically different than the earthly one, and still be considered “human”? I don’t think so. Hart makes that point himself when he argues in favor of universalism (See “God, Creation, and Evil”)

  15. Mike Jones says

    I have known those, may previous self included, who thought we were above normal life and must live a life of the extreme–for Jesus. There may be a place for a few chosen to live this way, but the rest, it results in a self-rewarding phonyism. The pursuit of godliness is often fueled by arrogance. I remember one such man (who was like a mirror to my own bad behavior at the time) who came to the mission field with great zeal. In his private world he treated his wife and children in a very abusive way. He didn’t want to learn the language but to immediately go to the center of Cairo, literally get on a soap box and preach the gospel so he would get arrested. He did . . . and they did arrest him. He came home soon after to write a book about being a martyr for Jesus and being became a conference speaker. I think if there was a great hall of saints, no one would know any of them because they are without fame. They would be the frail lady who fought to keep her children safe during a time of war. It would be those who went to work every day and just quietly loved people. I like the Message version of Proverbs 19:

    2 Ignorant zeal is worthless;
    haste makes waste.

    • Mike Jones says

      I need a tablet with a larger font that I can see. I mean “my previous self” not “may previous self”

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I have known those, my previous self included, who thought we were above normal life and must live a life of the extreme–for Jesus.

      And I remember (from your blog) it burned you out to the point of near-suicide.
      On Fire For The LOORD(TM) until all that was left was spent ashes.

  16. I might pay more attention to the important parts if I felt like Hart understood what capitalism is. No matter. I suppose I sound the same when I share my theological opinions.

  17. My problem with Protestantism is that it valorizes the ordinary too much. There is no room for an extraordinary vocation in the protestant imagination, and that means there is no place in protestant communities or protestant societies for the truly Godstruck loons that God frequently falls in love with, calls, and commands. Because protestantism can only imagine a standard, “God loves everyone equally and therefore loves everyone EXACTLY the same.” No fools and no holy poverty and no crazy people living in caves in the desert are allowed. Vocation is entirely about social use, and conformity, and not about the presence of God in the world.

    Not all are called to such lives, whether as Godstuck loons or quiet bourgeois pietists. Some are called to each, and in the kingdom of God, in the household of God, each needs the other. Neither is better than the other. Each holds up a mirror to the other and says, “you need me, this strange other, in order to full experience Christ in the world. In order to fully BE Christ in the world.”

    • Interesting point.

    • I respect this point, Charles. Which is why I’ve been accused on the blog plenty of times for glorifying monks and the cloistered life too!

    • I think you’re right, Charles. Unusual vocations have for the most part not been respected in Protestantism, with a few exceptions, such as within Anglicanism. There of course should be a place for people called into these vocations in the Church; the ordinary and not-so ordinary vocations are needed to make each other whole, as I think you’ve said.

      At the same time, it might behoove us to remember that when the Desert Fathers fled into the wilderness, most were seeking lives of holiness, simplicity, prayer and self-knowledge, not extraordinary experiences. They engaged in ordinary activities like basket-making; most did not sit atop pillars for extended periods of time, or perform extraordinary ascetic or supernatural feats. For the most part, they were seeking to be prayerfully faithful in ordinary activities, in humdrum lives without much excitement. That the stories of their movement center more on the exceptional rather than the ordinary actually distorts what the experience must have been like for most of the Desert Fathers, and those that followed them.

      When Luther said that, if he knew the world was going to end tomorrow, he would plant a tree today, he was expressing exactly this awareness of the apocalyptic dimension of the ordinary, how there is not dissonance between them at the deepest level. There is no utility in planting a tree in the face of imminent apocalypse; but there is a faithful expression and sign of the intimate relationship between the ordinary and the apocalyptic, the temporal and the eternal, the penultimate and the ultimate.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      There is no room for an extraordinary vocation in the protestant imagination, and that means there is no place in protestant communities or protestant societies for the truly Godstruck loons…

      Not even Pentecostals/Holy Rollers?
      (Though they have a very limited expression of how to do Godstruck loons…)