The Awakening of Hope, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s new book, is a breath of fresh air in a time when American Christians are in need of hope. We’ve been through a bitter election season. War continues to rage in the Middle East. The problems of our government seem intractable. Wilson-Hartgrove’s book offers what I would call an incarnational catechesis to tell us how to live as people of hope. Rather than talking about Christian doctrine in the abstract, he organizes his catechesis as the explanation of different spiritual disciplines, offering a “corrective to our belief-only Christianity,” as Shane Claiborne writes in the foreword.
Wilson-Hartgrove is a pioneer of the neo-monastic movement in which Christians married and single live in community usually in disadvantaged neighborhoods where they follow a daily rhythm of prayer and worship and engage in ministry with the poor. Each chapter combines practices from current neo-monastic communities with teachings from the Bible and stories of ancient Christian saints. After his opening chapter, Wilson-Hartgrove starts his catechesis with “Why We Eat Together,” which deals with the centrality of the Lord’s Supper to Christian community. He discusses the way that eating together is supposed to be our reminder “that we are creatures, inextricably connected in a membership called creation” (42). All eating is supposed to be eucharistic communion, an act of thanksgiving to God that brings people together. Wilson-Hartgrove points out how Paul’s criticism of the Corinthians’ table practices in 1 Corinthians 11 can be applied to the careless, anxious, and inequitable consumption that eating has become in American society (43-44). When eating and drinking is rooted in the regular sharing of the body and blood of Christ, it becomes theologically instructive. He writes that while “we cannot comprehend the Trinity in whose image we are made,” we learn experientially about the reality of God’s love when “we’ve received the bread of life and passed it to our neighbor” (45).
The way that Wilson-Hartgrove names the reality of sin is through the next chapter: “Why We Fast.” He takes the reader through a day of observing his community’s weekly fast in order to illustrate the way that fasting confirms “the truth that eating points to: you are a dependent creature” (51). In contrast, a life without fasting is a life in which “we forget our contingency…[,] despise our membership in creation and run from communion with our Creator” (51). This is precisely what Adam and Eve’s fall from Eden describes: the refusal to be dependent and allow creation around us to be God’s gift that is “true or good or beautiful not because we judge it to be so… but only because God has said, ‘It is good’” (52-53). It’s a very relevant counter-cultural message for American society: that self-reliance is the original sin of wanting to be our own gods. The discipline of fasting keeps our sinful frailty in front of us so that we cannot forget how much we need God.
The next chapter, “Why We Make Promises,” describes God’s covenantal relationship with the people of Israel in juxtaposition with an explanation of the covenants of neo-monastic community. “Why It Matters Where We Live” talks about Jesus’ incarnation and explains why our ministry with disadvantaged people must be personal and incarnational rather than just a check that we write or a box that we fill with stuff to ship somewhere else. The remaining chapters are “Why We Live Together,” through which we explore the original counter-cultural meaning of church; “Why We Would Rather Die than Kill,” which talks about how we live in the reality of Jesus’ cross and the resurrection; and finally “Why We Share Good News,” which makes a case for what the Christian story has to offer a post-Christendom world.
I would highly recommend The Awakening of Hope for Bible study small groups. It comes with an accompanying DVD in which members of neo-monastic communities describe their spiritual practices in conjunction with each chapter. This book covers the essentials of Christian doctrine in a gentle, loving way that appeals to the postmodern ethos without compromising Biblical truth. It quietly offers a stark challenge of what authentic Christian discipleship could look like if it were rescued from the suburban idols and presuppositions of many American Christians. In this sense, it could actually be quite dangerous for those who are open to following Jesus more radically.