Monday, February 04, 2008

Finding the emptiness of Protestantism

~from Boston Globe
S.G. PRESTON IS a Knight of Prayer. Each morning at his Vancouver, Wash., home, he wakes up and prays one of the 50-odd psalms he has committed to memory, sometimes donning a Kelly green monk's habit. In Durham, N.C., Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and fellow members of Rutba House gather for common meals as well as morning and evening prayer based on the Benedictine divine office. Zach Roberts, founder of the Dogwood Abbey in Winston-Salem, meets regularly with a Trappist monk to talk about how to contemplate God. Roman Catholic monastic traditions loom large in their daily routines - yet all three men are evangelical Protestants.

The image of the Catholic monk - devoted to a cloistered life of fasting and prayer, his tonsured scalp hidden by a woolen cowl - has long provoked the disdain of Protestants. Their theological forefathers denounced the monastic life: True Christians, the 16th-century Reformers said, lived wholly in the world, spent their time reading the Bible rather than chanting in Latin, and accepted that God saved them by his grace alone, not as reward for prayers, fasting, or good works. Martin Luther called monks and wandering friars "lice placed by the devil on God Almighty's fur coat." Of all Protestants, American evangelicals in particular - activist, family-oriented, and far more concerned with evangelism than solitary study or meditative prayer - have historically viewed monks as an alien species, and a vaguely demonic one at that.

Yet some evangelicals are starting to wonder if Luther's judgment was too hasty. There is now a growing movement to revive evangelicalism by reclaiming parts of Roman Catholic tradition - including monasticism. Some 100 groups that describe themselves as both evangelical and monastic have sprung up in North America, according to Rutba House's Wilson-Hartgrove. Many have appeared within the past five years. Increasing numbers of evangelical congregations have struck up friendships with Catholic monasteries, sending church members to join the monks for spiritual retreats. St. John's Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Minnesota, now makes a point of including interested evangelicals in its summer Monastic Institute.

"I grew up in a tradition that believes Catholics are pagans," said Roberts, who was raised Southern Baptist and serves as a pastor in a Baptist church. "I never really understood that. Now I'd argue against that wholeheartedly."

In an era in which televangelists and megachurches dominate the face of American evangelicalism, offering a version of Christianity inflected by populist aesthetics and the gospel of prosperity, the rise of the New Monastics suggests that mainstream worship is leaving some people cold. Already, they are transforming evangelical religious life in surprising ways. They are post-Protestants, breaking old liturgical and theological taboos by borrowing liberally from Catholic traditions of monastic prayer, looking to St. Francis instead of Jerry Falwell for their social values, and stocking their bookshelves with the writings of medieval mystics rather than the latest from televangelist Joel Osteen.

The New Monastics come from a variety of religious backgrounds, from Presbyterian to Pentecostal. All share a common frustration with what they see as the overcommercialized and socially apathetic culture of mainstream evangelicalism. They perceive a "spiritual flabbiness in the broader church and a tendency to assimilate into a corrupt, power-hungry world," writes New Monastic author Scott Bessenecker in his recent book "The New Friars."
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