Reinventing the Monastic Wheel  

Posted by Joe Rawls

The January 26 2008 edition of the Los Angeles Times has an interesting article by Stephanie Simon titled "What chores would Jesus do?" It describes a small commune of evangelical Christians in Billings, Montana, and their efforts to live the Gospel more fully.

The group started out with two married couples, a single man, and a total of five children. They shared a two-bedroom house in a very average suburban neighborhood (the single guy slept in the basement). The community still exists after a year, though with some changes in personnel.

This group is part of the so-called New Monasticism, itself an outgrowth of the Emergent evangelical movement. Useful references to the New Monasticism can be found here and here.

For well over thirty years now I've been interested in alternative communities and monasticism, and manage to practice a form of the latter within the limits of my married, householding lifestyle. What are my reactions to this article?

  • For starters, the community has no rule of life. A rule sounds restrictive at first blush, but it sets out what members owe to the community in terms of commitments of money, labor, and time. It also specifies what the members can expect from the community. Christian monasticism has a 1700-year track record in large part because it has rules (preeminently the Rule of Benedict in the West) and adheres to them consistently. Rural America is littered with the ruins of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of communes that tanked because everyone was too busy getting enlightened to take out the garbage.
  • Aside from group Bible studies, there is apparently no formal public worship and no emphasis on other spiritual practices (I'd think that lectio divina would be a natural for evangelicals. But have these folks even heard of lectio divina?
On a more mundane but very practical level, these people don't have enough living space. They're on top of each other most of the time when they're not asleep, and this naturally leads to stress and conflict. There was a '60's commune in Colorado (called Red Rock, I think) where several dozen people (and their kids) lived in a big geodesic dome--with no interior partitions. They were trying to create a new society from scratch. I wonder how many of them have MBA' s by now. There's a very good reason Benedictine monasteries transitioned from open dormitories to individual cells during the middle ages.

These folks could learn a few lessons from the Old Monasticism without compromising either their evangelicalism or their status as laypeople. If you insist on reinventing the wheel, you must be prepared for a wobbly ride.

This entry was posted on Thursday, January 31, 2008 at Thursday, January 31, 2008 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


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