Monday, November 22, 2010

More on the neo-Anabaptist take-over and Brethren ramblings

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Back in early October I made a quick post directing people to the blog of John Fea, professor of American history at Messiah College, who was responding to an argument from Mark Tooley that neo-Anabaptists were trying to take over America. Fea's was a fun conversation in which I made a few comments. Well, apparently, Tooley's argument is still a bur in the saddle of a few Mennonites because in the past few weeks, two more posts showed up:
Both men make some good points and I'll not restate them here. What's happened for me since early October is having worked through 2/3 of James Davison Hunter's new-ish book, To Change the World. A professor of religion, culture, and social theory at the University of Virginia, and a confessing Christian, Hunter's is a fascinating book that's written (in some sense) within and for the church, particularly in America. It's a wonderful mix of sociology and theology, insightful cultural description and a constructive argument for faithfulness in the world, which he terms "faithful presence."

In sequential chapters of section 2 of the book, Hunter goes after the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and neo-Anabaptists, essentially saying their respective pet concerns are valid ones based on real societal conundrums, but their animating political ideologies lead them into all manner of "adventures in missing the point" (which may turn McLaren's and Campolo's clever book title around on them). I join others in not being completely convinced of Hunter's critique of neo-Anabaptists, but also find much to be humbled by.

What strikes me from this conversation about neo-Anabaptists, both in Hunter and the response to Tooley's (flawed) argument, is that, within the Church of the Brethren, there really doesn't seem to be much Anabaptism (neo or otherwise) left. At the denominational level and at the Brethren seminary, the animating ideology seems to be the Christian Left, while at the congregational level prevailing attitudes seem to be driven by the Christian Right. Hunter even aludes to this phenomenon in his footnotes, citing the work of Brethren sociologist (and his peer at UVA), Carl Bowman.

So while Mennonites are seeing these Left/Right ideological dichotomies emerge more and more in their North American institutions, the Brethren lead them in this regard by a few decades. It's almost as if Anabaptism isn't even an option anymore for Brethren, at least not at the institutional level where the power is most concentrated (and most contested). All this considered, taken with my recent historical studies of Brethren beliefs and practices, seems to paint a picture for me that looks like this: In their rush to respectability in the late 19th and through the 20th centuries, the Brethren drank too deeply from the cultural wells of a rapidly changing American society. Now all we're left with is the political culture setting the terms of conversation.

I've heard this painful analogy used with respect to the above: The Brethren are the "canary in the coal mine" for Mennonites. Obviously all analogies have their limits and this is no exception, but it does have some weight in my assessment. It hasn't been enough to scare me away from the Brethren (far from it!), but I've found that it puts me in a relatively fringe position, not quite feeling at home in many if any active Brethren circles. Heck, I'm at a Mennonite seminary and that in itself is telling.

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