Learning From New Monasticism: Abstention

New-MonasticismAbstention has always been a part of the Christian walk of obedience. Peter urges the believers to “abstain from the passions of the flesh,” which, he says, “wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). Paul tells Titus that the grace of God teaches us to san “no” to Ungodliness and worldly passions (Titus 2:12). As citizens of a different kingdom there are all sorts of ways we conduct ourselves as a distinct people, set apart by God for His glory and service. One such way involves not indulging in some of the patterns of life that the world around us does. This abstention is not simply about looking different, however. Abstention is about developing a more healthy spiritual life. If our cultural practices shape our desires then abstention from some may just be the difference between spiritual health and sin

James K.A. Smith has written insightfully about our “quantity of immersion” problem. American believers are immersed day in and day out in the sinful culture around us. It bombards us with messages that are contrary to the truths of Scripture. It encourages patterns of sinfulness in us, and most of the time we do not even recognize it. This is a problem that a once-a-week church service cannot fix. A two-hour service on Sundays cannot compensate for the six days of cultural indoctrination we experience through our participation in the world. To counter these sinful influences we need something more, we need something akin to what the monks of years gone by had: a community of distinct expressions of faith that form habits of godly responses.

A key feature of that community has been this element of abstention. In previous incarnations monasticism sought to separate itself from the world by living in walled communities that protected it from outside influences. Monks and nuns forsook wealth and possessions, families and citizenship. They abstained from the common cultural practices of their days in order to devote themselves wholly to the Lord. Such extremes are not necessarily what I am encouraging here, yet I am encouraging us to consider whether all the cultural practices we participate in are worthy of our participation. We ought to pay attention particularly to the ways in which our lifestyles might be forming sinful habits within us.

The cultural practices we participate in form a type of liturgy that is teaching us to love and embrace certain ideals. Smith explains what he means by cultural liturgy when he writes:

liturgies or worship practices are rituals of ultimate concern that are formative of our identity – they both reflect what matters to us and shape what matters to us. They also inculcate particular visions of the good life through affective, precognitive means, and trials that grab hold of our kardia and want nothing less than our love. (Desiring the Kingdom, 93)

Smith looks particularly at the shopping mall as an example of a cultural liturgy. The mall is not merely a place we go to buy things, the mall encourages a vision of the “good life” and our regular participation in it, if left unchecked, can cultivate a hear that embraces that vision. So, in a quick overview, Smith lists some pieces of the mall’s vision of the good life; the practice of shopping at the mall can then be viewed as shaping influences. As we shop we increasingly accept this vision of the good life. Smith lists several reasons people shop: (

1) I’m broken, therefore I shop – “implicit in those visual icons of success, happiness, pleasure, and fulfillment is a stabbing albeit unarticulated recognition that that’s not me” (96)

2) I shop with others – “despite being a site of congregation and even a venue for a certain kind of ‘friendship,’ its practices inculcate an understanding of human intersubjectivity that fosters not community but competition; it inscribes in us habits of objectification rather than other-regarding love” (98)

3) I shop (and shop and shop), therefore I am – “The mall holds out consumption as redemption in two senses: in one sense, the shopping itself is construed as a kind of therapy, a healing activity, a way of dealing with the sadness and frustration of our broken world…In another sense, the goal of shopping the acquisition of goods and the enjoyment of services that try to address the problem, that is, what’s wrong with us – our pear-shaped figure, our pimply face, or drab and outdated wardrobe, our rusting old car, and so forth. (99)

4) Don’t ask, don’t tell – “The rituals of the mall and the liturgies of consumption that both sacralize and profane things have another element of ethereality about them: they live off of a kind of invisibility. Just as the mall is a haven and sanctuary, insulated from the noise of traffic and even the movement of the sun, so the liturgies of consumption induce in us a learned ignorance. In particular, they don’t want us to ask, “Where does this stuff come from?” Instead, they encourage us to accept a certain magic, the myth that the garments and equipment that circulate the from the mall through our homes and into the landfill simply emerged in sips as if dropped by aliens” (101)

The point of all of this is not to say, “you should never shop at the mall.” The point is rather to cause us to see how the practices we participate in are shaping and influencing us. Abstention, then, becomes a serious consideration for the believer.

Think about the cultural practices you participate in. What are they teaching you to love. What might you need to abstain from in order to better devote yourself to the Lord. The answer will not be the same for all of us, for we are each different and prone to different temptations. Some of us will need to consider the amount of television we watch, others the amount of video games we play, others our sexual practices, our eating habits, our hobbies. We need to know that our practices can be drawing us closer to the Lord or leading us further away from Him. We need to know that abstention is a valid option for the believer who recognizes in himself or herself that our habits are cultivating an alternative affection in us. If what you love does not align with God’s Kingdom then it’s time to perform a “practice audit.”

Smith invites us to consider several questions that may help us evaluate our practices:

What are some of the significant habits and practices that shape your actions and attitudes, what you think and do?

What does your use of time look like? What practices are you regularly immersed in each week? How much time do you spend in different activities, and what does this say about you?

What do you think are some of the most potent common practices in our culture?

When you step back and reflect, are there habits and practices that you might have originally thought were neutral or thin, but upon further reflection, you see as thicker and more significant? (84)

How we answer these questions may help us determine what we need to abstain from. Whatever you decide know that abstention is a real option for Christians striving to walk in obedience. It is not legalism to say no to certain formative practices of the world. It may just be best thin you ever do. After all, if many of these things are seeking to “wage war against your soul,” then abstention is a way to fight back!

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