Faith in Suburbia and the need for a Primitive Piety

41SYt6-0OiL._SL500_AA300_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.

'Mundane Holiness'

Profile2_123 Luke Bretherton in chapter 10 of Remembering Our Future argues for a 'mundane holiness: the theology and spirituality of everyday life.' He claims that too much Christian spirituality is divorced from Christian theology and that Christian spirituality is offered as a consumer option or technique to be learned and also one that is about transcending the everyday (pp.228-229). The main sections of the chapter discuss how 'spirituality is true materiality', so Bretherton says "Paul's advocacy of the spiritual life points to neither an ethereal, otherworldly life nor an interior realm of consciousness, but to a whole pattern of life which is truly material, truly itself, human life as part of creation healed and fulfilled' (p.234). He points to the church year and says there are times of fasting and lament, as well as times of feasting and joy, but the clearest indicator of how a mundane holiness is true description of Christian spirituality is the existence of ordinary time: 'it is ordinary time that is the focus of a mundane holiness and it is ordinary time that is, perhaps, the major key or predominant mode of the Christian life ... to refuse to live faithfully  in ordinary time and constantly seek times of ecstasy or insist that all life is a fast is to refuse ... a definitive part of Christian discipleship' (pp.236-237).

Bretherton concludes with five marks that should be present in Christian spirituality: 1) it should be about relationship with the Father, through Christ, in the Spirit and not about focusing on exercises, experiences or techniques (p.245); 2) it should have a community dimension and focus because 'a Christian spirituality can be either individualistic or simply therapeutic' (p.245); 3) it should not see time and place as enemies to be overcome (p.246); 4) it must show concern for ecological, political, economic and social justice, without these it 'can hardly be said to be Christian' (p.246); and 5) it should be eschatological, that has a right understanding of the 'now and not yet' (pp.246-247).

I welcome this description of Christian spirituality, that seeks to recognise the Spirit in the everyday Christian life and not only in visits to Spring Harvest, Soul Survivor or the such like. I think finding appropriate habits and practices (is that different from exercises and techniques?) are necessary in order to encourage a Christian spirituality of mundane holiness.