THIS WEEK, we’re welcoming Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a chief architect in a nationwide renewal movement focused on neighborhood congregations.
PART 1: Find out about Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s different approach to building healthy congregations and healthy neighborhoods.
PART 2: Today, read the beginning of our interview with Jonathan, focusing on his new edition of the Christian classic, The Rule of St. Benedict.
PART 3: The portion of our interview on The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture.
PART 4: Conclusion of our interview focusing on The Awakening of Hope.
DAVID: Let’s start by telling readers how to find you online.
DAVID: I want to call our readers’ attention to one small section within that New Monasticism website. It’s the section about visiting with one of the small communities within your network. As we publish this interview, more than 30 openings are listed on the Weekend Visits page either in the Durham or in the Philadelphia areas.
JONATHAN: That’s right. Nearly a dozen communities participate in the visiting program, but—at any given time—there are just a few upcoming dates listed. Throughout an entire year, we plan for about eight or ten different communities across the country to host visitors and participate in the community for a few days. We get about 150 folks visiting with us each year.
DAVID: You, your colleagues and many of your networked communities regularly communicate through Internet sites and email newsletters. I’m curious about the Wikipedia page for New Monasticism, however. People who aren’t already in connection with you may wind up going to Wikipedia to find out information about your movement. How accurate is that page?
JONATHAN: I don’t have anything to do with editlng that Wikipedia page, but I think it seems to sketch out pretty well some of the conversation that has unfolded about the new monasticism. The list they have in the Wikipedia article about our 12 Marks of New Monasticism was a statement we signed some years ago, when we invited people from about 30 communities to come and talk with us about what is happening.
DAVID: How do you describe yourself religiously today? Your name is well known to readers of books by Paraclete Press, a publishing house that specializes in Catholic-themed books. Your newest book is published by Zondervan, a major evangelical publishing house.
JONATHAN: I do laugh over some of the ways I am introduced these days. I was going to talk to a group of Lutherans last year and the woman who was going to introduce me asked: “Should I describe you as a liberal Baptist?” I scratched my head at that and said, “Uhhhh, maybe call me a Martin Luther King Baptist.”
The truth is that religous labels don’t tell us much anymore. In answer to your question, I am a Baptist and have been all my life. I’m a lay person, even though I do serve in my local congregation in pastoral ways. But I am not ordained and I am intentionally a lay person. I’ve learned a lot from Benedictines and other Catholics and I have great respect for folks in many places from many different religious traditions.
DAVID: And the name of your own home community?
JONATHAN: The name of the community where I live is Rutba House. We are 14 people who are living in the household as members of the community and then we have an extended family around us of people who eat with us, pray with us, work on neighborhood activities with us and that’s about 100 folks in all. Right now, we are living in two houses and doing work and ministry out of four houses in our neighborhood. We’re in the Walltown neighborhood of Durham, North Carolina, which I always say was a historically segregated Southern town. Historically, it was a black neighborhood; today, it’s got a significant Latino population. When we organized Rutba House, we didn’t want to start a new church. We want to support existing local churches. So, I’m active at St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church—for 100 years, it’s been an anchor in the Walltown neighborhood.
WHY ST. BENEDICT IS RELEVANT TO CONGREGATIONS TODAY
DAVID: The first of three books that we will talk about in this interview is your easier-to-read paraphrase of The Rule of Benedict, a book that has helped organize religious communities for 1,500 years. There are several reasons that this book is a radical departure from contemporary culture. One major reason is: St. Benedict believed that faith isn’t complete if we live our lives in isolation. The full expression of Christianity requires other people. That may sound like a simple idea—but it runs 180 degrees opposite from our current obsession with go-it-alone spirituality. Harvard’s Robert Putnam and others call it The Church of One. That idea was rejected by Benedict, right?
JONATHAN: I feel Benedict truly is a prophet for our time. He lived in a period when the Roman Empire was fading and no one knew what was coming next. That era was very much like this global transition we’re a part of now. Benedict’s wisdom was a great gift in that time and I think he still is today. His message is incredibly hopeful. He points to scripture and shows us that there is a way of life that we can begin living now—and that will prepare us for the world to come. Benedict saw both the desert tradition of early Christianity and he saw the monastic communities that were emerging. Practical living today—adapted from the ideas Benedict showed us—can help our communities to become a kind of school for what we will need in the world to come.
DAVID: In your introduction to the book, you make it clear: This is not a self-help book. This is a book about coming together as Christians to form communities. At one point, you write that this book “cannot be read honestly as a guide for my ‘personal spiritual journey.’ To listen to it at all is to consider how it is telling me to pray and eat with other people.” That’s radical stuff in our Me-obsessed culture, right?
JONATHAN: What we’re experiencing today in our culture is the ultimate expression of American individualism and the Protestant impulse to divide over theological disagreement. For so long, we’ve taught ourselves that we’re supposed to go it alone. Don’t like something? Well, we should all go establish a church for ourselves. Ultimately, following this line of thinking does leave us alone in our own spiritual journey. Benedict was teaching that we can’t establish a church alone.
Now that we are coming to terms with global climate change and the new global economy that’s emerging, we need to realize that we’re at the end of this dream that our lives can be fulfilled by simply trying to become all you want on your own. We’re at a point in history when we need to conceptualize a common good. That’s why Benedict’s wisdom is so relevant. He allows us to do the very personal work of dying and being born again, which is essential to become a real member of a local community—and more broadly a member of the larger community.
That’s precisely why his message is so important: He says that we do need the larger religious community. Yes, community often is troubling and annoying and we face all kinds of challenges and problems in community—yet community is the heart of the experience of faith.
Benedict points us to a 1,500-year tradition of stability and community.
DAVID: That’s a great place in this interview to switch over and talk about a second recent book you’ve published.
READ more of our interview with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, next focusing on his book The Wisdom of Stability.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.