Sneak Peeks of Our Pietism Book: What’s Wrong with Christianity?

Of the all chapters that I’m primarily writing for our book on Pietism and the future of Christianity, none has been harder to write than the one that will lead things off. Here’s how it currently starts:

Vernet, Jeremiah on the Ruins of Jerusalem
Horace Vernet, “Jeremiah on the Ruins of Jerusalem” (1844) – Wikimedia

We’re going to have a lot to say about “hope for better times” in this book, just as Pietist pioneer Philipp Spener did in his Pia Desideria. But the book that helped launch the German Pietist movement in 1675 begins on a darker note, by quoting a grief-stricken prophet: “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!” (Jer 9:1) Hopeful as he was, Spener even borrowed the words of the 2nd century martyr Polycarp (“Good God, for what times hast thou preserved me!”) to underscore the seriousness of 17th century problems: “In our day we have much more reason to repeat such words, or rather to sigh them, for the greater the distress the more one is at a loss for words.”

whether or not we echo Spener on specific concerns, we wouldn’t be writing this book if we didn’t think that there’s still need for reform, renewal, and revival. So we’ll join Spener in starting with a sampling of what’s wrong, in the hope that “the complaints of godly people… should encourage one another and promote the work of the Lord ever more earnestly than before.”

So while Mark gets to write the chapter on hope, I had to assess what Spener would call the “corrupt conditions” of the church in the 21st century — all in about 3,500 words.

This is a minefield of a writing assignment, as I admit (complain?) in the draft:

In my experience, the worst part of any Christian book is the one that explains what’s wrong with the church. First, even ten chapters like this couldn’t cover every problem that deserves attention. Second, the only thing easier than criticizing Christianity is promoting your own book as offering all the solutions to the religion’s problems…

We do think that the Pietist ethos offers resources for renewal. But in this chapter I don’t want to make it sound like the only really important issues are the ones that Pietism happens to address most clearly. Sometimes those dots will connect, but we also want to be honest about the pitfalls of Pietism — and to acknowledge when its history has nothing to offer us today but silence. And if we do need to stand in judgment on Christianity today, we still want to evoke the irenic spirit and humble posture of the Pietists who have inspired us, and not the pharisaism that is also part of that history.

So I decided to follow Mark’s approach to preaching, asking God, “What’s your word for me? And then what’s your word through me? What can I share with others that may be helpful, by the grace of your Spirit?”

Here’s some of the first word that came to, and perhaps through, me:

Pietists like to contrast “living faith” with “dead orthodoxy.” And what orthodoxy could be deader than to know — in heart, in mind, in soul — that God exists, yet too often act as if he is absent? If “[f]ools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God’” (Ps 14:1), I’d hate to hear what the psalmist would say of me, who proclaims his belief in God but too rarely pauses to read his word, pray to him, or simply to adore him in silent contemplation. Rather than coming back to a life-giving relationship with God, I act like Adam and Eve, who “hid themselves from the presence of the Lord” (Gen 3:8).

Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath
I won’t include it all here, but the ellipsis replaces some allusions to Lauren Winner’s discussion of sabbath — which quotes the 18th century Pietist Johann Friedrich Stark

I can’t count all the times I’ve promised to break this pattern and recommit to the kinds of devotional habits that have been so important to so many Pietists. Yet again and again, I stop and realize that I’ve been spending my time frenetically, trying to cram as much work as possible into my waking hours. That I even use the phrase “spending my time” suggests how completely I’ve accommodated to the rhythms and priorities of a human economy, rather than participating in a divine one. Too often, I act as if efficiency and productivity, not fruitfulness and rest, were biblical values and not corporate buzzwords….

Why do I find it so hard to break this pattern? Perhaps because working as hard as I can (and praying as little as I do) leaves me feeling like I’m in control: not a subject of God’s kingdom, but a ruler of my own. And that points to another kind of lifeless belief, what the Quaker educator Parker Palmer calls “functional atheism”:

…the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us…. the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen—a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God.

For all that I want us to say in this book about the virtue of hope, it’s shocking to realize how often I act as if the only future open is the one that I can bring about by my efforts in accordance with my vision. And how easily I fall into sleepless fretting when that future doesn’t materialize quickly enough.

<<Read the first post in this series of previews                                                     Read the next post>>


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