“Back-Stories and St. Benedict“
A Review of
Sustaining Christian Community in An Unstable Age.
By Gerald W. Schlabach.
Gregory A. Clark.
Sustaining Christian Community in An Unstable Age.
Gerald W. Schlabach.
Paperback: Brazos Press, 2010.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]
The back-story is everything.
Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue laid down a broad and devastating critique of modernity, and his call for another, “very different” St. Benedict makes sense only against that critique. Gerald Schlabach’s Unlearning Protestantism follows MacIntyre’s narrative with two differences: first, the critique of modernity is tied to an analysis and critique of Protestantism, and second, the St. Benedict we need isn’t so different from the first.
The first two chapters of Unlearning Protestantism show that Protestantism has been one important force in the development of modernity. Protestantism came to be through narration of the context called for deep and thorough reform, and we properly consider as virtues the qualities of character that enabled the reformers to act as they did. But soon that drive for reform detached itself from the context and set itself up as a principle valid on its own merits. Schlabach articulates “the protestant principle” in the language of Paul Tillich: “because all human institutions fall short of God’s standard, they are always subject to ‘prophetic’ critique and reform” (24). Making the principle the basis for community life leads to “the Protestant dilemma”: all institutions, including Protestant churches, are always subject to critique, to being rejected, overthrown, or dismissed as superfluous. Protestantism is the principle of instability. The Enlightenment has seen itself as completing the Protestant Reformation ever since. Schlabach’s second chapter, “The Matter of Continuity,” shows how the drive for perpetual reform played itself out in Mennonite “tradition of dissent” in the 20th century.
St. Benedict appears, in various forms, in the next three chapters. Against Protestant modernity and mobility, we need the “countercultural resistance that Benedictines know as stability” (88). Here Schlabach is especially good at naming and irreverently unmasking those idols of our age which might otherwise hold us captive, especially our views of authority, liberty, and coercion. Here is a gem:
In their struggle against oppression, patriarchy, and abusive authority, some may imagine and promote radically egalitarian forms of community along liberationist, feminist, or putatively Anabaptist lines and assume that a premodern patriarch such as Benedict can offer little counsel. My response is simply this: write to me when you get halfway to your utopia and tell me whether you do not need some vow of stability more than ever to see you through” ( 100).
Schlabach argues that every community of every size, constitution, and location requires stability to continue to function as a community. We need it in our marriages, in our congregations, in neighborhoods, and in the Church. We see the practice of stability “writ large” in Vatican II and in the Sant’Egidio community. And we see modern masters of stability in dissenters such as Yves Congar, Dorothy Day, Dom Hélder Câmara, Oscar Romero, and Joan Chittister. We need stability for the sake of our own communities, for the sake of our rivals, and for our globalizing, modernizing, Protestant world. Therefore, we need stability.
My criticism of Unlearning Protestantism is specific and perhaps an in-house quibble. At the center of his account of the Mennonite “tradition of dissent” and “the Goshen School” in Chapter Two is a critique of the Concern group and John Howard Yoder. In Schlabach’s view, Yoder and Peachy and others hold to an inflexible ecclesiological bottom line of “principled dissent” (47). That is, they wanted dissent without the tradition and the institutions that make it possible. In fact, they despised tradition and so drew on it without articulating or acknowledging what they were doing.
Any reader of Yoder will be puzzled by this charge. Even Schlabach acknowledges counter-evidence to his reading: the Concern group always stood against schism; Yoder later made room for notions like “faithful tradition” and even “sacrament.” But for Schlabach, this is too little or too late (68, 70). It appears to me that Schlabach has chosen to narrate over and against Yoder, even though others have already written alternative, more charitable ways of narrating Yoder’s career.  In fact, I have always read Yoder or the Concern movement as an example of loyal dissent.
What really separates Yoder from Schlabach is not that Yoder argues from principle while Schlabach argues from stories, nor that Yoder exemplifies the Protestant principle while Schlabach rejects it. What divides the two is their back-stories. What so vexed the members of Concern was not just the hyper-mobility and bare-knuckled capitalism of modernity and globalization. Rather Yoder, Peachy, Miller and the others were witness to the devastation that WWII brought down on Europe while an acquiescing church looked on in silence or collaboration. Yoder’s theology – especially his condemnation of Constantianism and his charge that the church needs to witness to the world by being the church – responds to their assessment of post-WWII Europe. Until we recognize that Yoder and MacIntyre are responding to different (though perhaps complimentary) analyses of different (though not mutually exclusive) problems, our competing narratives are likely to miss each other. So, this concern is not trivial. It goes to the heart of how traditions understand themselves and competing traditions. The back-story is everything.
That said, Schlabach has nonetheless established his point decisively. He tells riveting stories, and he draws out specific and illuminating lessons from those stories. The encouragement to patience, stability, and loyal dissent form a part of the practices that the church needs if it hopes to function non-violently within and without. Schlabach’s argument is so strong that it applies not only to churches but to every form of human community. That is part of the good news that the church brings to this world. It is the good news of St. Benedict; it is the good news of Jesus Christ.
 See, for example, Mark Thiessen Nation’s “John H. Yoder, Ecumenical Neo-Anabaptist: A Biographical Sketch” pp. 1-23 in The Wisdom of the Cross: Essays in Honor of John Howard Yoder, eds. Stanley Hauerwas et. al. InterVarsity Press, 1999.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com