Saturday, February 9, 2013

Blogaloguing Janzen, Part Two

My friend Jay Howard and I are participating in a blog dialogue—i.e. a "blogalogue"—discussing David Janzen's new book, The Intentional Christian Community Handbook. Jay has already posted on Parts One, Two, ThreeFour, and Five of the book. You can read my previous post on Part One here. If you're interested in joining the conversation with your own blog, send me an email with a link to your posts and I will assemble a list of everyone's responses.

Part Two of Janzen's book is subtitled, "Is Intentional Community Your Calling?" The driving idea behind the chapters in this section is the need for practical experience in living intentionally, and how a person called to community might go about meeting and experimenting with various established communities.

Reflections on "Chapter Four: Seeking the Community Where I Am Called"
Chapter Four presents the personal stories of several young people whose deep conviction and vocation led them to seek out community in different settings. Each story offers its own unique perspective as a sort of personal laboratory for "doing community," for what Gandhi called "experiments with truth." For Christians called to intentional community, faith is the catalyst of this experimentation. "The gift of faith," says Janzen, "is always a mysterious thing. It is like a hypothesis for life in which one experiment leads to another with more insight and cause for wonder as you go" (p.66).

Reflections on "Chapter Five: The Gospel Call to Discipleship in Community"
In this chapter, Janzen reflects on the historical and social motivations that led to the individualistic Christendom often promoted from American church pulpits today. On p.68, Janzen laments, "One way to observe how the Good News has been straitjacketed by the individualism of our culture is to pick up any collection of contemporary Christian music and count how many songs are about 'me' rather than about 'us' as the objects of God's love. 'Mine, mine, mine, Jesus is mine.'"

•   I enjoyed the fact that Janzen frequently points out throughout Chapter Five the New Testament inclination toward togetherness, especially in the social ethic teachings of Jesus. The Lord's Prayer does not say, "Give me my daily bread," but "Give us..." Furthermore, Janzen illustrates how communal and monastic living has, from its earliest Christian implementation, been a method for expressing distaste with Christendom: "During Anthony's [Anthony of Egypt, the founder of Christian monasticism] lifetime the emperor Constantine made Christianity the imperially favored and fashionable religion, and multitudes of citizens became nominal Christians. A minimal version of Christianity emerged, focused on personal salvation, assured by participation in the sacraments and belief in officially sanctioned doctrines. At the same time thousands of aspiring spiritual athletes flocked to the desert in imitation of Anthony to recapture a more disciplines way of following Jesus" (p.75).

•   In my opinion, the best part of this chapter was Janzen's treatment of a question I hear all the time: "Does every Christian have to live in community?" Rather than attempt to "answer" the question, Janzen instead suggests that it is an inadequate question from the start—it shares a lot in common with the juvenile attempt to bargain with one's parents: Do we have to? "Let's not despise the question," Janzen says, "but note, rather, that it represents a certain stage of life. The question begs a legalistic answer from an authority that one is already itching to resist and to leave behind. The question does not have a good answer at the level where it is asked. But let us step back and look at the question from a more adult or discipleship point of view. Let's move the question from fear of damnation to love of God…" (p.78). Janzen next offers the parabolic image of God the Source, the Son, and the Holy Spirit leading multitudes of people in a circle dance right in the center square of an ancient city. Those outside the city are welcome to join in, provided they are willing to die to their selves and pick up the self-sacrificial cross of Jesus. However, Janzen points out that legalistic questions like Do we all have to do it? are insufficient and miss the point of the dance to begin with: “We enter into the freedom of the circle-dancing God (perichoresis) by way of a discipleship community where our character is transformed into the likeness of God (theosis). This is the shape of our journey, our home, our hope for a world made new" (p.80).

Reflections on "Chapter Six: Searching for Your Community"
In Chapter Six, Janzen again turns the narrative over to the stories of several young people who began looking for community but were unsure of a good starting point. 

•   The purpose of the chapter is to attempt to answer the question, "How do young people go about testing [their] call to community, what are their experiences, and what counsel can we offer in their search?" (p.81). I found it interesting to consider that at this point, the intentional Christian community movement is so large and diverse that different people have the luxury of sharing different callings to different types of community. Vocations toward intentional community are now as diverse as the vocations to be found within the institutional church.

•   I appreciated Celina Varella's criticism of Shane Claiborne's Irresistible Revolution, a book that has inspired an entire generation of young people inclined toward communal living (including myself and some friends of mine currently living in community!). The book she says, "is very attractive and has inspiring stories. But it tends to leave out some of the difficult realities, so some young people come with grand hopes that living in community will be the quick solution to every social ill” (p.86). When I first read Claiborne's book back in 2006, I was indeed greatly inspired by his stories, and spent the next several years sorely frustrated by friends and communities that failed to live up to my expectations of what a community should be like, per Claiborne's descriptions. The Irresistible Revolution, unlike Janzen's book, did not speak to the gritty details and spiritual pain that comes with cultivating a mind and spirit tuned to living intentionally.

•   Janzen also provides a bit of commentary about our societal norm of delayed adulthood leading to a general unwillingness to commit to a specific community. He likens many people from my own generation to the spiritual wanderers (gyrovagues) mentioned in Chapter 1 of Benedict's Rule for Monasteries. These gyrovagues, which Benedict calls the most detestable kind of monks, are "always on the move, with no stability, indulg[ing] their own wills."

•   Finally, Janzen offers some good advice for people who want to explore their vocation within a community setting, including seeking out a mentor, visiting a wide range of different communities, “giving yourself fully” to each experience, and stepping out into unfamiliar territory to listen and share with unfamiliar people.

Reflections on "Chapter Seven: Novice Membership"
In this chapter, Janzen offers a series of questions that might be helpful in discerning one's place and purpose in community. These are basically "interview questions" that a community might ask a potential new member, and are therefore useful in examining one's own vocation before seeking out a community to join. Rather than reprinting the questions here, I would highly recommend reading Jay's succinct paraphrase of the chapter.

•   Janzen's critique of the self in this chapter is very insightful. He criticizes religious practices that find the self at their center (like many New Age meditations, etc.), and reveals just how counter-cultural communal living can appear in our current context: "Given the hypermobility of our society and the high virtue it places on 'keeping our options open,' making an open-ended commitment to join an intentional Christian community sets off alarm bells in friends, family, and one’s own individualized soul" (p.94).

•   Jay dislikes the phrase mutual submission, and prefers instead Janzen's language of "mutual love and care" (p.96). "It is just not in me to 'submit,'" says Jay, "even to authority figures (unless they have pepper spray) but I do have it in me to 'commit' to a person or group and do what I can to care for their needs." I appreciate Jay's thoughts here. The concept of mutual commitment is absolutely central to any intentional community. However, I am a fan of the term mutual submission. The word "submit" has a lot of ugly baggage these days, and has been used in the past to justify the subjugation of women, minorities, and pretty much anyone who is not a straight, white male. But the very definition of submission also carries with it an intrinsic connotation of self-sacrifice. Add the word mutual to that, and you have a deeply community-oriented phrase that seeks limitation of the individual and puts emphasis on concern for one's neighbor. The abdication of personal power in favor of the needs of one's sister or brother means not always "looking out for number one," and being willing to lay aside one's own concerns for the good of the whole community. When members of a community live in mutual submission, then, ultimately no one carries an authority above anyone else. It is the very premise behind Chapter 3 of Benedict's Rule for Monasteries.

•   Importantly, Janzen notes: "Neither the novice nor the community is a finished product" (p.96).

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