Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s newest book, The Awakening of Hope: Why We Practice aCommon Faith, is both a small group curriculum and an instance itself of that awakening it attempts to chronicle. The book's publisher bills it as a “contemporary catechism,” presenting stories of lived faith that don’t make any sense unless the gospel is true. It is, Wilson-Hartgrove writes, a book about WHY: why we eat together, why we fast, why we make promises, why it matters where we live, why we live together, why we would rather die than kill, and why we share the good news.
Wilson-Hartgrove begins each chapter with stories of real people living out these Christian practices, together and in real time. Calling these narratives “pictures of hope,” he insists that theology starts here – with noticing and naming the “places where hope emerged,” (25). Brethren, Anabaptists and others from what James McClendon categorizes as “believer’s church” traditions will find this approach familiar. Starting with practices, pulling out the theories and theologies from the lived distinctives that set Christians apart from others has long been the assumption of what little “formal” theology exists among us radical reformers, though it may seem novel to those whose formation has been in other traditions.
There is much in the book that feels familiar to a reader whose denominational tagline reads “Continuing the Work of Jesus: Peacefully, Simply, Together,” so much so that the pictures of communities living out these traditional theological commitments may be a good bit more interesting than Wilson-Hartgrove’s theological reflections on each practice, even as short, clear and conversationally angled as they may be. Indeed, there are several places where attentive readers of theology may push back, especially when Wilson-Hartgrove’s evangelical formation brushes up against his more “Anabaptist-ish” articulations.
[For instance: his discussion of ecclesiology insists on the orthodox claim that “outside the church there is no salvation” because “the only story we know” is one about living together as God’s people. It’s unclear what exactly Wilson-Hartgrove assumes when he speaks of “the church,” and that question ought to be asked before, say, sending self-righteous links to Chimamanda Adichie’s Ted Talk about The Danger of a Single Story.]
Still: the book is not written as theological treatise but as curriculum, a conversation starter and an opportunity to share the stories of those places where the hope of God’s coming Kingdom is already breaking through our dead and dying realities. At this, it succeeds spectacularly. The companion DVD curriculum comes with a 15-minute video segment connected to each chapter, featuring individuals and communities telling the stories of how they are engaged in each practice, and why it is important to them. Similarly, the discussion guide prompts groups to discuss not only the WHYS of each practice, but also the HOW – how might we as a group in this particular place begin to try some of this out? Or, maybe, what is it that we already do that might be considered an awakening of hope?
But even with these advantages, the strongest aspect of the book may actually be the ways Wilson-Hartgrove is able to name – with both precision and poetry - those failing parts of our world. “A world in which sin can be named,” he says, “is a world that is being redeemed” (56). These observations come in every chapter, piercing holes in the fabric of a culture of death, separation and sin. For instance:
“The place we call home in a technological era is increasingly the bedroom community from which we connect by Internet or airplane with the people and issues that matter to us, wherever they happen to be.” (89)
“The restlessness of our modern soul is manifest in a fascination with all things communal (online communities, planned communities, community investments, community-supported agriculture…) coupled with a decreased capacity to commit to any particular group of people.” (114)
And the best:
“Our broken economy does not invite us to ask how we might be faithful to our people and place but rather how we might use them to satisfy our base desires. Infidelity is sold to us as a good.” (70)
In the introduction, Shane Claiborne explains that this book is for those people who “have a hunch” that the world is not entirely as it ought to be, that God is at work “stirring a new movement.” For those of us situated in traditions that have been teaching and living many of these things for centuries, one understandable reaction to this claim of “revival” might be a proprietary scorn: “those whippersnappers don’t know what depths they’ve waded into!” But in listening closer, we might just find that our own traditions, in need of fresh air and even long-awaited correction, have broken their bonds of institutionalism and sectarianism.
Yes, the theology is familiar. But the stories of God’s spirit at work in the world are fresh and the articulations of sin and brokenness are ripe and relevant. If theology in the “believer’s church” tradition is to be true to its form, beginning with practice and ethics, working out the why from the how and the what, then its practitioners would do well to pay attention to those places, like this book, where theology begins.