Friday, December 07, 2012

Book Review: The Awakening of Hope by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

As a pastor, I read a lot of theology. I read it in preparation for my sermon each week. I read it while planning Bible study. I read it while preparing for my next spiritual direction class. I read it to stay caught up on new trends developing in response to society and culture. And occasionally, I read it for fun.

There come points, however, when I get sick of theology, especially in its abstract form. How many different ways can I read basically the same things about God's love, grace, forgiveness, presence, and on and on and on? It all blends together and, quite frankly, gets boring. There's only so much of it that I can take, especially if it doesn't seem very tied down to something tangible; some way it's being lived out in real time. I'll admit that reviewing the last book by Doug Reed was difficult for that reason: I'd hit one of those points where I was tired of bodiless ideas about God.

The irony of such bodiless ideas might be obvious to some: we claim to follow Jesus, whom we say was God Incarnate in some mysterious fashion. Jesus was an embodied idea about God, tied to a time and place, and in turn we who attempt ever so imperfectly to follow him are meant to practice an embodied faith.

The Awakening of Hope by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove arrived at around the same time as Reed's book, which was a little overwhelming. Reading and reviewing both so close together became even more overwhelming as I hit my theological saturation point during Reed's book: I could barely stand the thought of delving into another book about faith so quickly. But as it turned out, this book would help me cleanse my pallet instead of add to the burden.

Wilson-Hartgrove frames his book in terms of exploring a list of Christian practices and explaining why we do them, such as why we eat together, fast, live together, and so on. Each chapter's focus is grounded in a series of examples and experience culled from what have been called "new monastic" communities: intentional Christian communities that strive to embody discipleship wherever they are located. It isn't always clear whether the chapter titles, which always begin "Why We..." are speaking for these communities or making a case for Christian life in general. It seems that in various places he is lifting up these communities as visions for what the rest of us should be doing more of, which is a great challenge to wrestle with but which some may also find off-putting depending on specifics.

For the most part, I embraced Wilson-Hartgrove's intent to challenge. One of the threads running through the entire book is how difficult being in relationship with other people really is. Chapter 8, "Why We Live Together," provides the clearest examples of this as it details the experience of the Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, Illinois, a community that has been around for 50 years in various incarnations. While its longevity and witness may be celebrated, the story of this community also includes conflicts and disagreements among past and current members, some of whom are still healing from their experience. The point is that community can be messy and, as one of its members observes, "not possible without forgiveness."

There is a strong theology that undergirds each chapter as well. In the chapter "Why We Eat Together," that thread of being in community with others shows up again, but there is also much reflection on the story of Adam and Eve and their being formed from the dirt, as was the food that we share. In the sharing of a meal, it follows, we recognize our commonality both of origin and need. Community is indeed messy, but in the midst of those messier moments recognizing our common identity and dependence both theologically and in practice helps to make those moments gentle.

Several times during the course of the book comes the refrain, "another world is possible." Wilson-Hartgrove observes these new monastics as pockets of Christians across the country trying to imagine a different way of being in light of God's vision. None are perfect, as he admits, but they're at least striving for something different, and implicitly suggests that the rest of us could in our own way as well.

These are the types of books to which I'm gravitating more and more, and which the church in general should be reading more of as well. Why read another book of abstract concepts when we have the sort of thing that The Awakening of Hope presents: theology grounded in the real, the messy, the complicated? This book includes a discussion guide and a DVD, which I admit I didn't look at extensively, but it provides much to think and discuss. The church could use more books like this.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)