A Pia Desideria for the 21st Century?

Yesterday I was asked to sign a copy of our book on Pietism and higher education, an invitation that was at once

  1. A rare honor
  2. Mildly embarrassing — since I’m terrible at coming up with meaningful inscriptions and uncomfortable writing in cursive
  3. A reminder that it’s time to move on to a new project

As it happens, I’ve got a sabbatical coming up in the fall of 2016, and I’m already planning to invest those months in writing a book or two. I’ve got multiple ideas for such a project, one of which I want to float today:

Would you be interested in reading a 21st century equivalent of Philipp Spener’s Pia Desideria?

Spener’s 1675 book was originally an introduction to a set of sermons by the Lutheran mystic Johann Arndt, but it struck a chord with German Protestant readers and became a bestseller in its own right. Its publication is often pointed to as a/the starting point for German Pietism. (Here’s a recent guest post exploring Pia Desideria in more detail.)

Title page from a 1676 edition of Spener, Pia Desideria
Title page from a 1676 edition of Pia Desideria

While I’ve helped to edit two collections of essays on Pietism, those books have been rather academic in tone and (especially in the case of the higher ed book) best suited to rather narrow audiences. Is this the right moment — and am I the right author — to make the case to a broad audience that the Pietist ethos offers hope for Christianity in the early 21st century?

I do think that my colleagues Roger Olson and Christian Collins Winn have taken an important step in this direction with their Reclaiming Pietism, an accessible history of the Pietist ethos at it influenced Christianity in several places and times. But what I have in mind is not a history at all and would make recommendations that are aimed at more than the evangelical theologians to whom they address their conclusion.

I’d imagine loosely borrowing the structure of Spener’s short book, but updating its concerns, hopes, and “pious wishes” to our own time. As Christian likes to say, we’re engaged in rassourcement, not repristination.

If you think I’m on to something… I’d love to get some early feedback — what should a 21st century Pia Desideria discuss and recommend? Let me provide some prompts:

• Spener started by lamenting that, even if focused on the branch of Christianity that he knew and loved, “we cannot turn our eyes upon it without having quickly to cast them down again in shame and distress.” What about the sight of the church today most makes you want to look “down again in shame and distress”?

• Nevertheless, Spener insisted that “even if we shall never in this life achieve such a degree of perfection that nothing could or should be added, we are nevertheless under obligation to achieve some degree of perfection.” What gives you what Spener called “hope for better times” for the church — and the world?

• Finally, Spener famously offered six “pious wishes” — concrete, practical recommendations that would bring about renewal in the church:

  1. “…more extensive use of the Word of God among us”
  2. “…the establishment and diligent exercise of the spiritual priesthood [or, priesthood of all believers]”
  3. Emphasizing that “it is by no means enough to have knowledge of the Christian faith, for Christianity consists rather of practice”
  4. Taking care “how we conduct ourselves in religious controversies” — and avoiding “needless” ones and overly polemical “disputation”
  5. Reform of educational institutions such that they again become “nurseries of the church for all estates and… workshops of the Holy Spirit”
  6. “…that sermons be so prepared by all that their purpose (faith and its fruits) may be achieved in the hearers to the greatest possible degree”

Do this still seem like a good set of recommendations? If so, what would they mean in our time? (Why do they have the potential for bringing about renewal?) If not, what would you add or subtract?

Looking forward to hearing from you!


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