A Review of “New Monasticism” by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

newmonasticism“It’s hard to be a Christian in America,” says Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. So much American culture infiltrates our faith, shaping and altering it often to look more like the baptized American Dream than the Christianity of the Scriptures. For many the difficulty has led them to adopt new expressions of their faith, one such new form is that of new monasticism. In his introduction to the movement Wilson-Hartgrove explores both what new monasticism is, and what it can teach the modern church. New Monasticism offers readers fresh insight on what it might look like to follow Jesus in 21st century America.

In many ways there’s nothing particularly new about new monasticism. Monasticism itself has a long history in the west. To speak of new monasticism, then, is really to speak of recovering a vision of our faith “so old it looks new” (41). New monasticism, at least as Wilson-Hartgrove conceives it, is a vision to return to the simplicity and community of the early church. It focuses on being the church together, doing life in intimate personal relationship with other Christians. “Once we realize that it’s hard to be a Christian in America, it’s easier to remember that none of us can do it on our own” (21). This new life plays out across the “3 Rs”: relocation to abandoned places, redistribution of resources, and reconciliation of people. Wilson-Hartgrove’s book follows this similar outline, first developed by John Perkins in the 1970s.

Chapters 1-3 set a context for the movement as a whole. Here the author sets readers up to see the need for new expressions of the faith and places this “new” expression within a historical context. As it turns out, new monasticism, even among protestants, is rather old concept. His walk through history is insightful, if sometimes clearly biased. There is a tendency on Wilson-Hartgrove’s part to reinterpret some significant events within a monastic framework, this reinterpretation is often not accurate. For example, he speaks of Luther’s role in the reformation flowing directly from his life in the Augustinian monastery; a suggestion that would have shocked Luther himself. He does the same thing with some Scripture passages, reinterpreting them slightly within a monastic framework to better fit his point. The conclusions aren’t necessarily wrong they just seem to, on occasion, miss the point of the actual passages in context. Nonetheless, Wilson-Hartgrove does a good job of setting up the context for the new monastic movement.

If readers are honest they can readily agree with the author that it is tough to be a Christian in America. We can admit to the vague feelings of discontentment with the contemporary church. We can admit to that something more radical than the American church tends to be in view in the Scriptural depiction of the early church. If we’re not always sure exactly what it is we can at least sense something is wrong with American Christianity. Wilson-Hartgrove doesn’t necessarily propose that new monasticism is the solution to everything, that it is perfect, or that it is for everyone. He proposes, rather, that new monasticism has some important things to teach the contemporary church. I think he’s on to something.

Chapters 4-8 begin to flesh out the particulars of this movement. Chapter four stresses the importance of community, reminding us that God does not call us to be individuals in the faith, but to be part of a community. “The Bible isn’t addressed to a person but to a people” (58), Wilson-Hartgrove reminds us. In many ways the rest of the book is a depiction of what it might look like to live the gospel out within community. So, we learn about communities that have relocated to the abandoned parts of the city to bring life and renewal to those areas. We learn about what it looks like to live according to God’s economy and not the standards of worldly economic systems (either Marxism or Capitalism). We learn about what it means to be a people of peace, grace, and truth. We learn about bridging racial lines, about making friends out of enemies. We learn what it means to live in community with our words, finances, resources, and homes. In many ways the book speaks to issues that contemporary Christianity has been uncomfortable to address: finances, race, and community. We may talk about such things, but the new monastic vision puts real flesh onto the conversation. Wilson-Hartgrove illustrates his points with beautiful stories of people who are doing life this way. He communicates many profound points through anecdote and draws us into this world. He shows some of its complexity, but more pointedly he shows how counter-cultural it really is.

There’s much in this book to love. If I didn’t always agree with the author’s interpretations and commentary, there is something incredibly compelling about his vision. It does offer a real pushback to the sinful trends of American Christianity. I have myself often been attracted to the idea of new monasticism, and while I don’t think I am prepared to pick up my family and join one such community I think there is much that the church can learn from these communities. They offer us fresh perspective on Biblical truth, they expose the weaknesses in our lives and habits, and they remind us of the radical call of following Christ. New Monasticism is a great book to work through, even if it doesn’t lead us to complete adoption of the new monastic vision.

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