Ian Stackhouse's new book Primitive Piety explores whether a passionate Christianity can be resdiscovered in middle-class suburbia. He argues that Christianity has, in many places, largely become too nice, it flattens out into a middle-class conformity that seems far removed from the early church, far removed from the reality of life. In what could be seen as the usual suspects, Stackhouse says we need to recover the centrality of the cross and the holiness of God, we need worship that has mystery and terror and we need more honest prayer - prayer that doesn't fall into politeness. Beyond this we need faith that has some emotion in the face of middle-class suburban piety (spirituality) that often feels to remove all emotion. So Stackhouse explores faith that gets angry, faith that embraces and befriends our desires, faith that is enjoyed and knows how to laugh. The final three chapters engage with the life of the church. A primitive, passionate Christianity must learn to love the church and the place and community where it is found, in all its messiness and idiosyncrasies and overcome the search for the ideal and perfect church. This primitive Christianity requires a leadership that goes beyond the tendency towards professionalism and manageralism, that goes beyond attending conferences and formulas, for a leadership that loves people, that puts pastoral care up front and centre. Thirdly this primitive Christianity must rediscover hospitality.
Stackhouse can write a good sentence and can also find a good sentence, the majority belonging in this book to P. T. Forsyth. You could see the book as an update on Forsyth's argument for gritty, passionate faith. Stackhouse is searching for the possiblity of being Christian, being church, in culture that makes 'niceness' a virtue. Reading the book, left me wondering whether living in suburbia, being middle-class is one of the biggest obstacles to following Jesus. Despite early good intentions, we get sucked into a life that leaves Jesus seperate from most of life. We're doing a series on Christian ethics at the moment in the church where I am minister, and the biggest challenge in our conversations is to remember Jesus, to remember to ask what difference does following Jesus make in thinking through, exploring responses to whatever issue is before us. It seems the same with how we engage with issues of food and eating, shopping and working, banking and travelling. 'Nice' Christianity is not interested in any of this, it seeks rather what one sociologist has coined a 'moralistic therapeutic deism' - a god who loves me and meets my needs and to whom I try and be good. The temptation or unconscious action is we leave Jesus behind, Jesus does not seem relevant to most of life.
Stackhouse's book has definitely prodded me again to not settle for a polite, moderate, safe, pleasant Christianity - it seems we must question whether this kind of Christianity is in fact Christianity - and pulled me to look for and embrace a Christianity that is more honest, messy, scary, mysterious and passionate.