A Review of
Widening the Circle:
Experiments in Christian Discipleship
Edited by Joanna Shenk
Paperback: Herald Press, 2012.
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Reviewed By Alex Dye
I feel fortunate to have been in college during the time when Shane Claiborne and The Simple Way began to rise to popularity. His writings, the movement, and a healthy dose of The Psalters (alternative Christian worship music and vagabond group) really expanded my understanding of the person of Christ, the call to discipleship, and the Christian vocation. The idea of intentional communities pooling their money together and seeking to bring justice to inner city neighborhoods was new and exciting. Of course, what I would come to realize soon enough that while these practices were exciting, they certainly weren’t new. From the interracial work done at Koinonia Farm at Americus, Georgia, to the Reba Place community near Chicago, and even the Hutterites, a branch of the Anabaptist movement formed in the 1600’s who lived together and pooled their resources, Christian discipleship and intentional living, since the church in Acts, has dotted the timeline of Church History.
In her book, Widening the Circle: Experiments in Christian Discipleship, editor Joanna Shenk collects the stories of 20th century discipleship communities and movements connected with Anabaptism, especially of the Mennonite Church, and crafts together a unique history of these various efforts. She organizes the various chapters into three bodies of time: the First Wave (1950s and 60s), the Second Wave (1970s and 80s), and the Third Wave (1990s to Present).
Though she orders the stories chronologically, this work is far from a formal history. Each section is dedicated to a specific person in a certain setting, for example, chapter four is about the experiences of Regina Shands Stoltzfus and the Lee Heights community church. And so, each story contains the unique voices of those involved, and not only that, the medium of communication varies between pieces. Some writers used poetry while others used illustration; some were interviews while others were well written essays on certain aspects of justice that interested the particular author.
The subjects range from histories of certain communities and organizations, such as Reba Place and Sojourners and Mennonite Voluntary Service, to the efforts made in promoting racial justice, equal treatment of women in the Church, and ecological integrity.
Shenk also brings to light the historical connectedness between the Mennonite Church and the Civil rights movement (see her interview in Chapter One with Vincent Harding and his interactions with Martin Luther King Jr.).
She also shows a tangible representation of Mennonite theology, while recognizing that the Mennonite Church is not perfect and still struggles with exclusivity (i.e., Andrea Ferich’s early experience in being an “outsider” to the Mennonite Church, see Chapter 14).
Beyond simple historical work or even over glamorizing these organizations, some authors were fairly transparent about the different struggles within intentional communities, such as Urban Village. I, for one, appreciate the honesty; for those unacquainted with this kind of living, the romantic notions of a peaceful commune often blind us to the reality of the struggles related to being in such intense relationships with other people.
Because the collection contains so many unique voices, unfortunately, the writing and subject matter is sometimes uneven, and at points strays too far into tangents. I appreciated Andrea Ferich’s openness about her own journey in the Mennonite Church and her experiences with and criticisms of New Monasticism, but I felt that it her diatribe on alternative fuel sources did not fit into the purpose of the chapter or book. It reminded me of Upton Sinclair’s treatise on socialism/communism and the working class at the end of The Jungle: interesting and informative, but ultimately out of place.
In the end, Widening the Circle is an important work and I am grateful to Joanna Shenk and Herald Press for undertaking it. It gives a voice and platform to these grassroots workers for peace and justice who were and are willing to pursue Christian discipleship in a very real way in order to embody the Kingdom of God rather than seeking to be the next poster-children for post-modern hipster Christianity. The church can benefit from hearing from and understanding the various discipleship movements presented in Widening the Circle; from knowing that they are happening, they do exist, and our American culture is direly in need of them.
Alex Dye is Associate Pastor at Oak grove Mennonite Church in West Liberty, Ohio and a regular contributor to the ERB.