A Divorce from the Old: A Review of New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church

In Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s book New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church, he attempts to introduce the New Monastic movement to American Christianity.  He does this in nine easy-to-read chapters.  In the first chapter, he explains why he believes it is hard to be a Christian in America today.  In chapters 2-4, he points to why he believes God is raising up the new monastic movement.  He gives a brief biography of three monastic leaders; St. Antony of Egypt, St. Benedict, and St. Francis of Assisi.  Wilson-Hartgrove also gives a survey of the people of God in Scripture.  In chapters 5-9, he explores several areas where the new monastic movement is active in the world today.

Wilson-Hartgrove does do an excellent job in the second half of the book with stringing stories together.  This keeps the reader interested in finding out how several new monastic groups are impacting the world.  He is honest about what is going very well in the movement and which need improvement or where there can be differences of opinion between different groups.  The book is honest to its goal: to show American Christian churches what they can glean from the new monastic movement.  It is obvious from reading the book that Wilson-Hartgrove is very knowledgeable about new monastic communities and other radical Christian movements which have tried to change the social setting of America over the last 100 plus years.  He does not just rely on his own experiences, but incorporates the experiences of other people from inside and outside the new monastic movement.  Wilson-Hartgrove does admit because of space in the book he is not able to spend as much space in the first part of the book as it deserves.

The book is not without problems, and many of them liewith the author’s own experience and view of the church in America.  Some readers might find themselves unable to relate to some or many of the problems he identifies with American Christianity.  American Christianity covers a vast landscape and what might be a big problem in one area or denomination is a minor or non-existent problem in another area or denomination.  Probably the largest problem in the book is Wilson-Hartgrove’s either inability or unwillingness to meet the historical monastic leaders and Scriptures on their own ground.  It seems Wilson-Hartgrove falls into the common Evangelical Protestant trap of proof-texting.  However, he does use proof-texting not only with Scripture but also with the lives of St. Antony, St. Benedict, and St. Francis.  Instead of meeting the lives of the saints and the foundation of monastic orders in their historical context, he pulls bits and pieces from them; only illuminating the aspects that fit in with his idea of helping the poor, peace-making, and relocation to the abandoned places of the world.  He does the same with many passages of the Bible, pulling out parts of verses without putting it in the context of the book or passage it was taken from.  He also leaves some of the practical questions of the new monastic communities unanswered (which is acceptable since the School(s) of Conversion is probably the better place to answer some of these questions, but it might leave some readers reeling with several unanswered questions rolling around in his/her mind).

With this all said, probably the chief downfall of this book is that it does not address one of the fundamental vows that all monks and nuns have taken since the time of St. Antony: the vow of obedience.  One of the 12 Marks of New Monasticism is “Humble submission to Christ’s body, the church.”  However, this is not really obedience.  Wilson-Hartgrove spends most of his time writing about poverty and (although he never calls it this) conversion of life.  Granted, each community is an independent organization, which may or may not be associated with a church.  This illustrates the problem: to whom are new monastics or new monastic communities obedient?  From the book, it appears that they are not obedient to any church or even to a larger new monastic governing body.  While this is more of a critic of new monasticism in general; at least Wilson-Hartgrove could have pointed it out as a critic on the new monasticism itself.  He does point out some other problems within new monastic movement.  Prayer is another aspect of the monastic life which is given little attention in this book.  While Wilson-Hartgrove does point out that new monastic communities do have times where they pray together but, he does not describe how they pray or what their pray lives, either communal or private, look like.  Again one of the marks is “Commitment to a disciplined contemplative life.”  This can incorporate prayer, but it does not have to. One could just mediate or think about God without praying.  Monastic movement throughout history have been focused on prayer and supporting the church and more importantly the world with prayer.  For a book which is supposed to show the church how the new monastic movement is impacting the world, to neglect how their prayer affects the world is absurd.  Instead Wilson-Hartgrove spends most of the book describing the social justice aspects of new monasticism.  It is nice to see that a group of people are involved and committed to these practices, but it does not excuse the fact that he ignores the more traditional aspects of monasticism.

This book would be useful in conjunction with other books about the new monastic movement.  It is also an interesting looking to some aspects of the new monastic movement.  However, a different title would have better described what the book was about.  This book would most likely benefit churches looking to partner with a new monastic community and people who would like to know what the new monastic movement is doing in the world.  However, this is not the book to read if someone is looking for a guide to living as a new monastic.

About Jesse

I am a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary with a Masters of Arts in Theology focusing on Church History. I am a Third Order Benedictine monk, in the Company of Jesus. I am married to a wonderful woman, we just had a baby Michaela Rose. You can follow me and be alerted of new blog post by following me on Twitter @jtalexanderiv. Or following this blog.
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1 Response to A Divorce from the Old: A Review of New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church

  1. Jesse says:

    Sorry for the re-post from the other blog, but I needed to put it on here, so that it did not get forgotten on the inter-webs since I don’t use the other blog anymore.

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