Thursday, February 03, 2011

Dangerbooks! The Wisdom of Stability

Once upon a time I was looking to change jobs, so I sought career advice from a fellow who'd achieved senior status in our industry. I told him my deal: I have roots where I live, but the other places I'd be interested in working are elsewhere. His advice: Be willing to go where God might want you.

He was probably right, but I find it interesting that you rarely hear career advice to the tune of "Be willing to stay where God has you" or "In whatever place you live, do not easily leave it." That has something to do with the culture we find ourselves in, where companies and even communities make few if any promises to a person, and the only power that remains for people is to make few if any promises to the places they find themselves. Companies ship whole divisions overseas. States threaten bankruptcy to escape pension obligations. The only way to protect ourselves, it seems, is by steadfastly keeping our options open, by committing ourselves to keeping our distance.

No wonder we find ourselves so easily distracted. No wonder we can so easily check out of conversations across a table, while logging increasing amounts of time on social media, where we interact with (or simply read about) people we rarely see and in some cases have never met. In his recent book The Wisdom of Stability, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove calls this trending topic like he sees it:

The great advantage of a Facebook friendship, of course, is that it is so easy. I get to choose who I want to "friend" and whose friendship requests I respond to. We gather around our common interests, share the stuff we want others to know, and log off when we feel like it. In many ways what we have is connection without obligation. But intimacy without commitment is what our society has traditionally called "infidelity."

I wrote "Boom!" in the margin. Of course, Facebook's potential for eroding friendship is not an insight unique to Jonathan (Lynne Baab has a great book on Friending in the digital era coming out this spring), but that's not ultimately what this book is about. Jonathan's book is, instead, about fidelity, obedience and stability--three precepts of the monastic movement.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is one of the chief voices of the "new monasticism," a network of voluntary (mostly Protestant) intentional communities modeled after the values of the monastic tradition. These communities tend to form in the "cracks in the empire," places that have suffered the neglect of a supereconomy and the governments that support it. But that's not what The Wisdom of Stability is about. It's rather about how we are grown, and how we fulfill our commitments to God well, when we are rooted to a place and its people. "In a culture that is characterized by unprecedented mobility and speed," he writes in his introduction, "I am convinced that the most important thing most of us can do to grow spiritually is to stay in the place where we are."

This is a topic Jonathan knows well and believes wholeheartedly; the book reads not as one for the moment (as so many books are these days) but one for the ages. His writing is slow-paced, sober and compelling--personal, but not personality-driven. He is concerned for his readers, and he's concerned for the life of faith that is eroded as handily as friendship is eroded when we untether it. A rootless disciple is an oxymoron; Jesus tells us that much in John 17 when he calls us the branches to his vine. Rootless disciples struggle to be obedient to the claim of God on their lives; in times of testing they find themselves "double-minded and unstable in all they do" (James 1:8); a rootless disciple can start to look suspiciously like an infidel.

Jonathan leans heavily into the image of a tree as a model for our discipleship, drawing our attention to the "drip line"--a new term for me that represents the outer perimeter of a trees branches, which then drip nourishment down to the root system underneath. Like a tree's branches and its roots, a disciple's commitment to stability and his or her faith-life are interdependent; they can't nourish themselves, but they nourish one another. As Peter the Venerable put it, "If they keep the first . . . they are held by the content of the second. If they keep the second, they are bound by the constraints of the first." Jonathan goes regularly to the desert fathers and mothers to make his case, but I'm reminded at this point of a passage from G. K. Chesterton's critique of Rudyard Kipling and his ilk in the great Heretics:

The moment we are rooted in a place, the place vanishes. We live like a tree with the whole strength of the universe. . . . In the heated idleness of youth we were all rather inclined to quarrel with the implication of that proverb which says that a rolling stone gathers no moss. We were inclined to ask, “Who wants to gather moss, except silly old ladies?" But for all that we begin to perceive that the proverb is right. The rolling stone rolls echoing from rock to rock; but the rolling stone is dead. The moss is silent because the moss is alive.

"But what about the Great Commission?" some pious critic might ask. After all, the early church set out to spread good news, not simmer in it, and we hear Jesus himself tell his followers to go "to the ends of the earth." Jonathan is hip to that, and no one could accuse him (or most in the new monasticism) of being stubbornly parochial to the neglect of the needs of the whole world. In fact, Jonathan argues that by stability our wanderlust is pruned and refined: he quotes Benedictine theologian Gerald Schlabach as observing that "we should expect authentic stability to nurture the virtues that allow Christians to become mobile in the best of ways--ready to hear the Abrahamic call, to live among the poor by both giving and receiving hospitality, and thus to nurture the newly deepened commitments by which God's people make Christ present in new communities and cultures." Those who have learned to love a place and its people, Jonathan contends, make for the best missionaries.

(I'm reminded here of my Peter Rollins-inspired reflection on Abraham's call away from his home; check it out here.)

Jonathan's book was featured on many "best of 2010" lists, for good reason. It's an incredibly well-written book on a salient topic by someone who has earned the right to represent all of us in this wrestling match. I like to think he had me in mind when he makes the sympathetic comment that "many of us who choose stability will have to struggle . . . with the midday demon of ambition." Of course, someone who struggles with ambition would imagine himself being written about in such a way, wouldn't he? But The Wisdom of Stability isn't just a self-help book, a slow-down guide for those who flit about. It's a manifesto of sorts, a call to everyone to tend to our drip lines, with the happy side effect of a well-tended world full of well-tended neighborhoods. "Maybe every attempt to keep faith with people wherever we are," he writes, "is a subversion of the spirit of the age." It's also an act of faith, and it's also a channel of God's peace.

***

I received The Wisdom of Stability free from the Englewood Review of Books on the condition that I would review it here. If I had hated the book, I would have been free to say so, and I would have said so; you'll just have to take my word for that. I received it as an e-book, which in this case is a fancy way of saying they sent me a print-ready PDF of the book, something publishers do all the time in their effort to secure book reviews. "Dangerbooks" are books that have crossed my desk and strike me as particularly compelling, countercultural, provocative and soul-stirring.
See my other "Dangerbook" reviews here.

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