The Naked Anabaptist or Particular Anabaptists?

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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, resonant 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 (or set of affirmations) 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).

 

The opinions expressed by the the author of this blog and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Eastern Mennonite University or any employee thereof. Eastern Mennonite University is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied within this blog.

7 Responses to “The Naked Anabaptist or Particular Anabaptists?”

  1. David Cramer

    Well said, Mark. I’ve expressed similar concerns about Mennonite theology (and the title of this book specifically) in an article that I hope finds the light of day sometime soon.

  2. Steve Langton

    I think I’m pretty much in agreement with Mark as well. But I’m myself part of the British Anabaptist movement and Mark perhaps doesn’t realise that we are a varied bunch all attracted to different aspects of Anabaptism. In general we are not founding fresh churches in the Mennonite/Amish/Hutterite/other traditions but learning from Anabaptism while remaining in our own Churches – generally but not always Baptist or independent, and yes some of us are decidedly liberal. A trend that concerns me is that for many – but not all by a very long way – you feel that instead of deriving Anabaptist ideas from the Bible they have let some Anabaptist ideas acquire a life of their own and are letting those ideas determine how the Bible is seen. Personally I continue to push for biblical roots to everything we do. I got into Anabaptism as a result of observing the ‘Troubles’ in Ulster kicking off in the late 1960s, and realising the irony that all the mayhem arose not from the issues on which Ulster’s Catholic and Protestant tribes disagreed, but rather from the one thing they agreed on – having a ‘Christian country’ and therefore either a Catholic or Protestant country which discriminated badly against the other party. In Anabaptists I found a biblical tradition that stood for a better approach to Christian relationships to the surrounding world. This life or death issue keeps me perhaps a bit less woolly-thinking than others in the Anabaptist Network over here. But I think it quite important that we discuss and work things out rather than just accept an external tradition wholesale.

  3. Mark

    David and Steve, thanks for your comments.

    Steve, I do understand that those who are attracted to Anabaptism in Britain are a varied bunch. I was the director of the London Mennonite Centre for 5 1/2 years. For most of that time I met with folk who were coordinating the Anabaptist Network monthly. I went to virtually every significant organized “Anabaptist” meeting that happened while we were there. And thus I am aware that those drawn to Anabaptism in Britain have elected not to plant specifically Anabaptist churches, certainly not Mennonite Churches (other than the one in greater London).

    Since I have good friends in Northern Ireland I have some understanding of why you were attracted to Anabaptism in light of the troubles there.

    I, like John Howard Yoder, would certainly agree with the clear rootedness in the Scriptures. As Yoder would remind us, let us remember that the Anabaptists themselves would point us back to the Scriptures. Then, I continue to believe, that among Christian traditions, the Anabaptists have something to offer to the mix. And I believe Yoder (Hauerwas and others) have mediated that tradition to us in the 20th and now 21st century in a way that can be very helpful. (Which is not to say, that we in any way become cavalier about the authority of Scriptures because of that awareness.

  4. Alastair McKay

    Hi Mark

    Thanks for drawing my attention to your blog. Being a Christian disciple in England, my eyes were immediately drawn to your entry on Stuart Murray’s book. As someone who spent about 15 years as a member of the Wood Green Mennonite Church in London (including three years as one of the elders, and of which two years were part of Mennonite congregations in Harrisonburg, VA and Lombard, IL), who studied at EMU (in what is now CJP as well as EMS) and who was on the staff of the London Mennonite Centre for many years, I have been profoundly shaped by my time as part of the Mennonite community, and learning the pattern of the Mennonite tradition. My respect for Mennonite Christians is, unsurprisingly therefore, deep.

    Alongside this I have continued to have some concerns about the way that inspiration has been sought from the Mennonite-Anabaptist tradition in the UK, detached from grounding in a particular community, or particular tradition. Mark’s article above expresses some of these.

    One of the surprises for me in recent years as been to find myself on the journey back into the Church of England (from when I had come into the Mennos), and even more surprisingly to find myself discerning a call – tested in conversation with others who know me well, and through the demanding processes of the CofE – to ordained ministry within the CofE. You can understand that given my time in the Mennonite Church, this has been an internally conflicted and difficult road, and one which is far from fully resolved, even though I am now training part-time on a CofE ministerial training course within St Mellitus College.

    I give this background to say that I am not coming at some of the issues raised by Mark without long personal thought and wrestling.

    One of my own convictions while being part of the Mennonite Church is that the Anabaptist tradition only becomes truly meaningful when grounded in a particular community and church that is seeking to work out what that tradition means in today’s world. And that it is dangerous to think that the Anabaptists show the one truth path of Christian discipleship, and that other Christian traditions are all less faithful and more compromised. Rather, it is likely that the Anabaptists have emphasised certain aspects of faithful Christian discipleship and have potentially lost sight of other aspects which are valuable and important, especially to Christian discipleship in the 21st century.

    During this first term (semester) of study at St Mellitus one of things we have looked at, in the context of church history, has been the early creeds agreed at Nicea and Chalcedon. I think I was encouraged to dismiss these creeds by some Mennonite and-or Anabaptist teachers as being essentially inadequate and potentially unfaithful to the Gospel, as they say nothing about Jesus’ life and how he lived. My Anglican teachers at St Mellitus (chiefly so far Jane Williams and Graham Tomlin) have challenged us students to understand and hold together the traditonal three pilars of Anglican theology – of Scripture, tradition and reason (which historically includes what is now often given as a fourth pillar, of experience). Within this, the creeds are seen as a key expression of the Church’s tradition, intended to complement Scripture not to supplant it. And the challenge for me in relation to the creeds has been seeing these as an expression of the early church’s discernment and testing of what we understand about how we understand God experienced in the three persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. What I have found particularly interesting is the understanding that these creeds are not something that we can pass by today, because they are the fruit of key historical councils of the Church which brought together very diverse and respected Christian leaders of the day, to reach some common understandings about disputed undersandings about Jesus and the Spirit.

    The value of this is something which I have learnt within the Mennonite Church, and within the field of conflict transformation as mediated through Mennonite trainers and teachers. It is when we draw together the diverse and conflictual people of God, with genuine openness to listen to how God might speak through us all (as witnessed in Acts 15, and elsewhere in church history), that we can best discern together what God might be saying to the Church. Given this, we cannot now pass over or ignore the early creeds, but have to live with them as core discernments of the Church in the first few centuries after the apostolic era.

    I know that I will continue to learn from and be challenged by the Mennonite-Anabaptist tradition, as I continue my journey of exploration of Christian discipleship within the context of the Church of England. My first essay is going to be on the relationship between church and state, and the state-establishment of the CofE, which remains a block that I continue to stumble against. As part of this I intend to create a diaologue between Yoder and Hauerwas on the one hand, and Anglican perspectives on the other. I will be interested to see what emerges.

    I’m not sure if this is of value to the debate, as it’s more a personal testimony than an argument. The wider issue is one of how we can be faithfully Christian. And we can only answer that, I believe, in a particular context among a particular group of people, grounded in a particular tradition. The only naked Christian is Christ Jesus himself. I seek to continue to follow him as best I can, within the colourful and diverse context of the Church of England, drawing challenge and inspiration where appropriate from the Mennonite and Anabaptist witnesses, both living and dead.

  5. Gregory

    Mark

    Thank you for your thoughts! From this article I came away with the New Testament idea that it’s about expressing Christ’s divine life in us. That’s the attraction. Not rallying around distinctives or labels, ie….set of values as a code of ethic which becomes institutional organization or a religious business….vs…..the divine organism of JESUS. The Body, Bride, House or Family. A habitiation for HIS Holy Spirit.

    grace and peace

  6. Donald J. Ibbitson, PhD

    I am a Christian counselor and the “I am a Christian” vs “I am a follower of Christ” distinction comes up periodically. For some, the term “Christian” takes on a religious tone that they are trying to get away from. Thank you for this post.

  7. Phil Wood

    Hello Mark,

    As someone who has been involved in UK Anabaptism since the early 1980′s I have been both intrigued and surprised by the impact of ‘The Naked Anabaptist’ among North American Mennonites. I also have strong reservations about the book, though perhaps not for the same reasons. As a current member of Wood Green Mennonite Church I appreciate my Anabaptists clothed as well as naked. So much of value flows from the second,third or subsequent generations as well from our polygenetic Anabaptist origins. The ecological value of the slow perceptions inherent in the Amish uptake of technology, for example, could never be a product of ‘naked Anabaptism’.

    I broadly agree with Stuart on statements of faith. To be fair, it isn’t only Stuart Murray who thinks like this. I’ve been reflecting on J. Denny Weaver’s position recently: http://radref.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/creeds-and-confessions-usage-and-abusage.html

    A final aside: I suspect both yourself and Stuart (p157) would agree in stating that Mennonites decided not to plant churches in Britain. After more than a year of delving into this ‘agreement’ I have to ask you for chapter and verse. When was this agreed and by whom? I am convinced it is a frequently repeated myth. The effect on British Mennonites is limiting to say the least. I support Mennonite church planting in the UK.