September 1st, 2012 – by Mark
This post is offering reflections on the book, The Naked Anabaptist by Stuart Murray. For a book published by Herald Press, a Mennonite publisher, it has been a fairly popular book, studied within many Mennonite churches in North America.
I love clever, evocative book titles. What Would Jesus Deconstruct? is one of my favorites. A well-chosen title concentrates the mind, it acts like intellectual Velcro—attracting pieces of the book that adhere to the images evoked by the title (while mostly leaving behind those that don’t). I think the word “Naked” linked with the word “Anabaptist” in this title functions this way for many North American Mennonites. Animated by the cool breezes flowing from the British Isles, The Naked Anabaptist suggests a breath of fresh air. No stuffy cape-dress, plain-coat traditionalism here. No unimaginative Bishops destroying people’s lives through repressive restrictions—all in the name of the Mennonite tradition. No, this is the good stuff: stripped-down Anabaptism, the essence, “the bare essentials of a radical faith,” as the subtitle has it. Isn’t that what we want? More importantly, isn’t that what we need for the 21st Century? Here we have Anabaptist values that are universalizable, exportable to other countries, like post-Christendom England, where Murray resides. This message can travel the globe.
Titles with deep resonance can be either a blessing or a curse. On the one hand they are memorable. If truly well-chosen—I think of The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism—they can, in a phrase, summarize the thesis and call to mind some of the detailed argument of the book. On the other hand, resonate titles can also distort, through a squelching of nuance that is intended by the author (and yet precisely because of the Velcro nature of the title is lost). I fear that, whatever Murray’s intentions, The Naked Anabaptist is distorting in just this way—and not what we need early in the 21st century, certainly not in the U.S. (or arguably, elsewhere).
I was hesitant to write about this book, not least because I have a lot of respect for Stuart Murray. He is a wonderful, very gifted Christian man and one of the co-founders of the Anabaptist Network in the United Kingdom. I worked with him most of our five and a half years in England. But I knew I had to speak when I saw that a friend of mine had taken as her own a suggestion from the book: “I think I will no longer call myself ‘a Christian,’” she said, but simply “a follower of Jesus.” What does that mean? What is it intended to signal? When one links this statement with other highlighted emphases in the book, it seems quite destructive in our present cultural contexts. In this brief essay I will begin to name what I mean.
Integrated with strong attacks on creeds, the book claims that Anabaptists “have been wary of fixed statements of faith.” In fact, according to the book, specific normative doctrinal beliefs and moral behaviors do not have that much importance to Anabaptists. The alternative to this, as the book moves along, seems to be a broad openness to a variety of convictions, along with an invitation to ongoing conversation. However, the breadth of openness has some parameters. For we know that we are to be suspicious and critical of long-established church traditions. Parameters seem much less clear when linking with “the marginalized” and “dissenters.”
To begin with, the first assertion is false. The Schleitheim Confession (1527)? The Dordrecht Confession (1632)? The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (1995)? Anabaptists and Mennonites have valued “fixed statements of faith” from their inception. The duration of the “fixedness” would vary from confession to confession. But they are all external points of reference beyond the moment, beyond the individual and beyond the congregation. Not to mention, that, as Arnold Snyder has said, most all 16th-century Anabaptists would have affirmed “The Apostle’s Creed.” Menno Simons and most other significant Anabaptist leaders were anything but neutral about doctrinal beliefs and moral practices. Additionally, the suspicion of long-standing Christian traditions tends specifically to distance us from orthodox, theologically rich, biblically rooted Christianity. None of this is intended to deny that Anabaptists will find ourselves linked to certain cultural dissenters and those who are on the margins of society; in fact we should be so linked. However, as we do so, like Jesus and Menno we ought to do so with a clear spiritual and theological identity. Thus when we proclaim that the Kingdom of God is near, we have some sense, with specifiable details, of what we have in mind with such a proclamation. We know that it includes repenting, receiving salvation and submitting ourselves to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ—which entails certain convictions and moral practices, often named in the Scriptures as trust, faith and faithfulness.
The book also perpetuates the classic divide between Jesus the example and teacher as given in the gospels versus the more “doctrinal” Christ of Paul—one who is vital for our salvation, our justification and worshipped as Lord. This is a false dichotomy that needs to be and—in the year 2012—can easily be challenged by utilizing some of the best writings on both the gospels and Paul. But of course the divide—if valid—would help underwrite the emphases named in my previous two paragraphs. (Parenthetically, it is also worth mentioning that Menno and other significant Anabaptist writers do not privilege the gospels nor treat Paul as less than vital for understanding the Christian faith.) Add to this the lack of emphasis on sin—except for the need to repent for the sins of Christendom—and the book seems to confirm the classic charge of “Pelagianism” leveled against our tradition (i.e. the belief that our salvation is really in our own hands, that we, in “following Jesus,” do not need the “doctrinal” Christ, the Savior).
The list of seven “core Anabaptist convictions,” provided in the chapter on “the essence of Anabaptism” also underscores what I’ve already been naming. The first two “convictions” are about Jesus. But, it seems with deliberation, there is decidedly not a theologically holistic account of what it means for Jesus to be “our example, teacher, friend, redeemer, and Lord.” In light of the unfolding of the claims in later chapters, it seems that the first affirmation is primarily a strong way of naming Jesus as “the central reference point” for “our faith and lifestyle.” As reference point Jesus shapes our “engagement with society,” knowing we are to be linked to dissidents and the marginalized. The second “conviction” affirms a “Jesus-centered approach to the Bible.” Properly understood, this is certainly correct. However, as explicated throughout the book, this claim seems mostly to justify muffling or muting much of the rest of the New Testament (outside the gospels), along with the Old Testament. In the final point we are told that “peace is at the heart of the gospel.” Integrated into what has already been named what this seems to equal is that peace and social justice will and ought to define who we are and what we become. But it also suggests we need not—perhaps even should not—allow the rich theological heritage of the church or the full range of the biblical witness to define this gospel of peace. Rather, what is primary is our connectedness to peace and social justice progressivism as well as the marginalized and the cultural dissenters (with all their varied convictions, of course).
So, is there an alternative to this? Yes. But before naming that, let me mention one reason why this approach is not what is needed early in this new century in the U.S. Christian Smith, a sociologist of religion, has conducted the most thorough, careful surveys of the religious beliefs and practices of first teenagers and then “emerging adults” that have ever been done in the U.S. In Soul Searching, Smith and co-author, Melinda Lundquist Denton, summarized surveys conducted with American teenagers. They condensed their findings into a brief “creed,” which included a practical deism joined to a commitment to be “good, nice and fair,” nestled in the belief that “the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.” They dubbed this set of beliefs “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” A few years later, Smith conducted a follow-up survey with the same individuals as “emerging adults,” the results of which he summarized along with Patricia Snell in the 2009 book, Souls in Transition. In that volume they announce “the cultural triumph of liberal Protestantism.” Their findings suggest that “the basic cultural values and sometimes speech modes of liberal Protestantism” were simply assumed by most of their respondents. What are these cultural values? They are “individual autonomy, unbounded tolerance, freedom from authorities, the affirmation of pluralism, the centrality of human self-consciousness, the practical value of moral religion, epistemological skepticism, and an instinctive aversion to anything ‘dogmatic’ or committed to particulars.” What they are suggesting in both books is that these “beliefs” have supplanted the traditional, textured beliefs of particular convictional communities (which for most of those surveyed would be Christian communities).
I would suggest that many of the points summarized by Smith and his co-authors are much more akin to what Murray has affirmed than to anything Menno Simons or most Anabaptists or Mennonites over the last five hundred years would affirm.
And what is an alternative? It is to acknowledge that there is no such thing as “the naked Anabaptist.” Anabaptists (plural) always find themselves located in particular Christian communities, with a particular heritage, residing in a particular culture, and living with a particular set of doctrinal and moral convictions. Undoubtedly Ethiopian Anabaptists look different from British Anabaptists, who look different from North American Mennonites (who have differences among themselves). Murray not only knows this, he states it explicitly at least in one place. But I still think the Velcro title has overwhelmed the nuance. The overriding message is an “essence” or “bare essentials” approach to Anabaptism. But that approach, though perhaps well-intentioned, is wrong-headed. Especially when the “essence” approach is joined to a dissing of external Christian authorities beyond the individual “naked anabaptist” (or what is effectively the same, a small “discerning” community which by definition embraces a broad range of convictions).
You see, many Mennonites are replacing substantive, textured Christian convictions with “Anabaptist values” (or distinctives). And those values—the essence of Anabaptism—then become a substitute for a holistically understood gospel of Jesus Christ. And then we are no longer evangelists—promoters—of the gospel of Jesus Christ, but rather evangelists for a set of values. Which is something very different. And don’t get me wrong: nothing that I’ve said is intended to detract from a pronounced commitment to peace (and even pacifism), to social justice (defined biblically, emphatically including caring for the neediest among us) and being appropriately hospitable to strangers, to those who are outside of the household of God. But it is very different to do these things as an expression, an outworking of the gospel of Jesus Christ embraced in its fullness, acknowledging a reign of God that is external to us and to which we submit in obedience.
If we imagine that we can be “naked Anabaptists” with no need for “fixed statements of faith” external to the self, with little use for normatively named moral and doctrinal convictions, then we can be sure of one thing. We will in fact live our lives in light of a set of convictions. The question is: which secular sub-culture will define it (since we are so sure that we don’t need a “fixed statement of faith” drawn from Christian teachings)? Will “naked” Anabaptists be formed by a culture that is post-Christian (as in England)? Or superficially “Christian” (as in the U.S.)? Or one wedded to peace and social justice progressive segments of the secular subculture? Any one of which adds up to the thin faux Christian identity Smith has named. How that is Anabaptist, naked or otherwise, I have no idea.
I should add that I intend over the next year to post a number of essays that will deal with questions implied by my reading of this book. I intend to deal both constructively and critically with a variety of challenges presently facing the Church (Mennonite and otherwise).