Haunted by Plain Folk: Why Simplicity Should be a Christian Virtue

Last month an essay of mine was published in the Journal of Brethren Life and Thought. Since that journal is probably not one that will be showing up in your mailbox anytime soon, I thought I’d included a bit of it here. The piece is based on a presentation I gave some years back; I’m happy to see it in print.

Simplicity strikes many of us as a good, if occasionally naïve, thing. In his “A Salutation of the Virtues” the thirteenth century saint, Francis of Assisi, cast Simplicity as a courtly sister to Queen Wisdom, outranking Lady Poverty and Lady Charity. In the twenty-first century we may well be intrigued by Simplicity but we probably lack the saint’s solemn devotion. Consider the TV reality show “The Simple Life,” which cast socialite Paris Hilton in the role of a farm worker. The foibles of the out-of-place heiress generated spinoff shows around the world. thrill of the chasteThe irony of simplicity’s attraction in a complex and fragmented time is captured in Valerie Weaver-Zercher’s marvellously titled book Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels. There Weaver-Zercher explores the growing American fascination with “bonnet rippers.” She relates that in 2002 only two such books were published. In 2012 there were 85.[1] This growth betrays, she thinks, a desire on the part of readers to be transported from a hypermodern and hypersexualized present to a simpler way of life. Weaver-Zercher is not alone in her analysis. Sociologists Donald Kraybill and Carl Bowman offer a corroborating conclusion about our cultural fascination with plain living. In a book about Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren they write,

Despite all our comfort and convenience, the possibility that [members of these plain communities] are happier haunts, indeed, torments the postmodern soul.[2] Continue reading “Haunted by Plain Folk: Why Simplicity Should be a Christian Virtue”

“You have Heard, No Doubt, of My Earlier Life” (SD #102)

I presume it was relatively cold, the 15th of January in 1549. MM IllustrationThat was the day the authorities entered Elizabeth’s house and found a Latin Bible: “We have found the right person,” they said, “we now have the teacher.” The authorities believed this woman was an Anabaptist leader. Elizabeth was taken from her home and arraigned the following day (MM, 481).

The story is chronicled in the Martyrs Mirror, and that massive book, Elizabeth’s story included, has been an important devotional read for Mennonites for several hundred years. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say the Martyrs Mirror has been the most important book for Mennonites, next to the Bible. Continue reading ““You have Heard, No Doubt, of My Earlier Life” (SD #102)”

“I Was Beside Him Like a Master Worker” (SD #100)

Today, Trinity Sunday, I want to encourage us to reflect on the doctrine of the Trinity. This is one of the most enduring and central descriptions of God maintained by Christians around the world. In the coming year I intend to encourage our congregation to think and pray about the ways we care for each other. trinity iconThis is both a question of our individual disposition and a structural question. The reality for our congregation and for many others is that the ways we’ve cared for each other in the past are no longer as effective as they once were. Things have changed. Given that context, you can think of the reflections that follow as a bit of a rationale for why that’s an important question. Psalm 8 was a part of our liturgy this morning but Prov. 8:1-4, 22-31 and John 16:12-15 are our central readings. As we begin reflecting on the doctrine of the Trinity in the context of these passages, I wonder if I can admit something . . .  I don’t really like the book of Proverbs (gasp!). Can I admit that as a pastor? The book irritates me. Continue reading ““I Was Beside Him Like a Master Worker” (SD #100)”

On Being Dust

I looked across the group who had gathered at the front of the sanctuary. I had just marked them with the sign of the cross in ash. It was the ash of palm branches and the ash of our prayers. sign of the crossI had said to them, “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return.” These words are biblical words; they come directly from the third chapter of Genesis. These words are the words of God to creatures who thought themselves to be gods. And yet I looked at those marks, on the heads of my friends, and thought them undeserving of such heaviness. I felt as though we had done something unspeakable. In a way we had. We had spoken aloud our mortality. We had marked our bodies with it. We bore on our foreheads the prospect of our funerals. Continue reading “On Being Dust”

“‘Study Theology, Even if you don’t Believe'”

It seems that wherever I move a certain catalogue eventually finds me. There aren’t many of these anymore, but this one, selling ‘Christian books’, shows up without fail. From it one can buy shelves of Patristic theological works for some shockingly low price. One could, though I’m not sure that it’s available, buy all of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics for less than $200 US. The sections peddling biblical commentaries have more options than a seed catalogue. That’s the exciting stuff. But along with it comes page after page selling faddish, in-substantial books written by the oddest of creatures–the Christian celebrity. CBDThe trend now seems to be that some pastor writes a popular bit of whimsy and then, when that sells well, publishes a study guide to that whimsy, and if that also sells, releases a video series. I’m biased. I admit it. I wish much of this material didn’t exist. I wish the ‘masses’ were more theologically literate; I wish theology still had a place in North American universities; I wish pastors were more apt to see theological work as a part of their calling. I wish there were more grass-roots intellectuals comfortable speaking of God and the important things of life. Tara Isabella Burton explores the value of studying theology, whether one believes or not, in The Atlantic (Oct. 30, 2013). Describing her own experience pursuing such study against the wishes of her mother, Burton writes, Continue reading ““‘Study Theology, Even if you don’t Believe’””