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    Entries in Alan Jacobs (3)


    Being the Best [ ______ ] You Can Be

    It is a challenging time to be a Christian. Has it ever been otherwise?

    I am not sure. It is a question I ask often. I do know that my experience of Christianity during adulthood has been engulfed by anxiety about the future. The United States has undergone an undeniable shift in the religious landscape. The old norms no longer apply, and new ways are sought in the face of these changes. Various proposals have been made with regard to the best way forward. There has also been a great deal of lament, and no shortage of hand-wringing.

    There are many traditions within Christianity. How do they help us to respond? Most traditions have developed distinctives that can present themselves as strengths when properly regarded. Yet the majority of the resources Christianity offers for abundant and faithful living are shared across traditions. Taken together, the unique bits and the shared bits, the storehouse is quite full.

    Alan Jacobs did a little riffing yesterday on thoughts from Rod Dreher, who is writing a book about a "genuinely countercultural form of Christianity." Mr. Dreher's proposal has become known as the "Benedict Option." Mr. Dreher is approaching an old challenge in an old way, though in a new time. The call to reject the norms of the present age and wholeheartedly seek the life of the kingdom is an ancient one. The fresh difficulty is found in being faithful to that calling in light of present circumstances. Dreher recently asked whether each tradition had the resources necessary to live a countercultural form of Christianity. Jacobs picked up the ball and ran.

    Professor Jacobs spurred my thinking about my own tradition, or traditions. I am a Baptist. Molly, my wife, is a Methodist. We are now part of a Methodist congregation. As we have each served in our traditions, we have always sought to equip our congregations with the knowledge to live faithfully within those traditions. We believe the traditions possess a kind of strength, and that they are worthwhile. We have wanted our people to be found faithful as Methodists, or Baptists. We have desired that they know their traditions, appreciate their heritage, and can rely on the tradition to help them live faithfully to Jesus.

    However, based on my observation, that has not always been enough to inspire a countercultural, robust expression of Christian faith. Something has been missing.

    This is where I found Jacobs helpful. He argues that you must find a point where you can no longer be content with life as you know it as a Christian. The old word here, I would suggest, is zeal. He writes:

    You have to get to the end of your rope, you have to come to the point where you can’t live any longer as everyone around you is living. If you come to that point, then every serious Christian tradition, from Pentecostalism to Orthodoxy, has what it takes to nourish and support you. But none of those traditions can, in itself, bring you to that point. (I am not yet at that point myself: I am too caught up in the various rewards that this present age has to offer.)

    Depending on where you live, you might look around you and find charismatics who are faithfully seeking to make their own countercultural way, or Baptists, or Presbyterians, or Catholics — heck, even Anglicans. It depends on whether in a given place there is a critical mass of people whom the Holy Spirit has moved to say: Enough. Lord, now give us the living water.

    The traditions of Christianity are of great value. They help to preserve theological and moral knowledge and the wisdom captured in certain forms of praxis. But the tradition is not enough. The traditions are like containers, which we must pray that God not only fill but overflow by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit.

    It may be a helpful step to be the best Methodist or non-denominational Christian or whatever you can be. But becoming the best disciple of Jesus may be the only place where a countercultural Christianity can begin to take shape, one allowing for the prophetic challenge of one's own tradition, while also stretching outward to those of other traditions, binding and bringing the church together as one, just as Christ intended.


    ATTN Bibliophiles: Reading to Read, or Reading to Have Read?

    Alan Jacobs, in his new book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, writes:

    But, all things considered, I believe that most people read quickly because they want not to read but to have read.  Why do they want to have read?  Because, I think, they conceive of reading as a means of uploading information to their brains.

    -Alan Jacobs, 72


    The great majority of my free time is spent with books.  I love books.  Yet in my quest to read as many books as possible, I often find myself tempted by pride as exhibited in the deep-seated desire to be regarded as one who is well read, if this can still be considered admirable.  In my mind, it is.  I read classic and contemporary fiction.  I read classic and contemporary theology.  I read non-fiction, ranging broadly from memoir to biography to history to social science.  I do my best to stay on top of trends in Christian publishing, reading those works that draw a great deal of attention from commentators and church leaders, whether it be popular or practical theology, or academic or theoretical reporting on the present state of Christianity.

    Jacobs words struck me as convicting, for in my desire to read, I believe I fall prey to the temptation he describes.  Considering myself machine-like, I upload as much information as possible from the books that I read into my brain, hoping to access that data later in conversations or within the context of sermons or presentations, so as to sound educated or informed.  I read not for pleasure, at times, but read instead for utility.  I read to have read, rather than to simply read.

    I take such great pleasure in reading that my hope is that it would remain a life long joy.  I am thankful for Jacobs, who has lucidly identified a temptation for bibliophiles such as myself.  If reading is to remain a joy, it must be done for reasons other than the accumulation of information, or the desire for status.  It must be regarded for the miracle it is.


    Ancient Practices and the Porous Self

    In a 2008 article written for First Things, Alan Jacobs turns his attention toward Hugh Halter, Matt Smay, Brian McLaren, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, examining contemporary authors in Christianity that harken back within their published works to an "ancient faith."  In the three books linked above, each author turns the attention of the reader to the past, and in one way or another seeks to reclaim some old facet of the Christian Tradition they believe has been lost.  Having read McLaren and Wilson-Hartgrove, I was intrigued.  Like many reformers of old, I too have longed for a re-emergence of Christian faith as it has been expressed and lived in the past, a purer, even "mythic" faith that taps into that same energy discovered and exploding forth from the pages of the New Testament.

    I first encountered this article, entitled "Do-It-Yourself Tradition," in Jacobs' collection of essays, Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant.  This selection is an excellent critique of contemporary popular writing that attempts to point us back to the past.  Jacobs exposes critiques of the church that are too simplistic, outlandish, and historically ill-founded (and not exclusive to the authors cited above), while calling the reader to a deeper, more analytic and theologically well grounded attempt to forge a way forward for the contemporary church.  Jacobs calls his reader to be more daring, more brash in their attempts to re-enliven Christianity.  A tweak here, a tweak there, a practice now and again with a dash of spiritual razzmatazz won't do.

    You can read the article here.  As he reaches the end of his argument, Jacobs interjects a small amount of contemporary cultural and philosophical analysis that may be the greatest contribution given therein.  In his concluding remarks, Jacobs states:

    The practices of the ancient Church were forged in eras of the porous self and were responsive to its fears and vulnerabilities. Can they be nearly as meaningful to us, surrounded by our protective buffers, as they were to our ancestors? Does their evident power suggest to us that we have paid too high a price for our buffers, that we may need to be more exposed? The self that can pursue the via illuminativa—that can be illuminated by God—may open itself to the demonic as well as the divine. The disciplines and practices of our Christian ancestors are not toys or tools; they are the hope of life to those who are perishing. This is what Alasdair MacIntyre had in mind when he said that, here among the ruins of our old civilization, what we may be waiting for is a new St. Benedict: someone who can articulate a whole way of life and call us to it.

    The turn to the Christian past is indeed welcome, but it may demand more of us than we are prepared to give. In contemplating the witness and practices of our ancestors, we may discover that we'd rather remain within our buffers—if we can. But can we? Current electronic technologies—from blogs to texting to online banking to customer-specific Google ads—may be drawing us into a new age of porousness, with new exposures, new vulnerabilities. And in such a new age the hard-earned wisdom of our distant ancestors in the faith may be not just a set of interesting ideas and recommendations but an indispensable source of hope. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

    While I have spoken often of the spiritual disciplines as "tools," Jacobs posits that they are indeed much more.  I think he is right.  I also think he is right to point to the changing existential dynamic that may be taking place--the reinsertion of the porous self--within history.

    If Jacobs is right, and the current technological conditions are opening avenues for the reestablishment of mystery and deep spirituality alongside the minimization of those "buffers" we place around ourselves to insulate us from transformative spiritual fanaticism, a new day may be dawning before us.  Jacobs is then right to see ancient Christian practices as "an indispensible source of hope" and "the hope of life to those who are perishing."  He is right to invoke Alasdair MacIntyre's observation that we may need a new St. Benedict.

    The project of "new creation" is larger than we have imagined.

    As conversations continue regarding the future of the faith, between myself and colleagues and friends across denominations and non-denominations, we are in need of honest historical reflection concerning where we stand, as well as sound, well-informed philosophical and theological reflection that can set us on a truthful trajectory toward the fullness of the Kingdom coming.  Along the way, we'll also need practitioners--pastors and church leaders--for the outcome of our ruminations cannot remain in the abstract, if we are to truly see a renewed and more hopeful Christianity.