The power outage ruined my big ending. The “Spirit on Tap” talk in a hotel lounge in Reading, PA, was extra fun due to the power failure – a talk by literal candlelight where I was hardly able to see the faces of the 75 folks who had braved the storm to come out for my lecture on religious trends discerned by looking at the publishing world. I quipped that I never had to worry about my notes catching on fire before, but the little votive candles on the podium made this a real likelihood. I wish I could say this was some spiritual metaphor – on fire! – but, uh, nope. My yellow legal table was singed by that tiny little flame.
Which is to say I couldn’t read the quotes I wanted to. Maybe being a bit more ex tempe was fine, and we did cover a lot of ground in that hour. Here’s the short version of what I had hoped would become a compelling closing pitch, perhaps an epiphany of sorts. Bear with me, as it sets the stage for my telling you about this great new book, a book which I intended to hold up and promote, but the darkened venue made that pointless.
One of the trends in our culture is the shift away from serious reading; Nicholas Carr is at least somewhat right in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains when he suggests that Google is making us stupid. Serious reading habits are being eroded in favor of faster, more shallow kinds of amusements, and the love of the printed page grows cooler each year. Many of us report feeling unsettled, twitchy. Our electronic devices and fast-paced lifestyles conspire to change not just our pace of life, but our character, our desires. In fact, Jamie Smith argues in Desiring the Kingdom – one of the most important books of the decade, and surely one of the most discussed in our circles — that our desires are shaped by the “secular liturgies” of rituals and habits in which we most passionately engage, day by day. Booting up and logging on, taking in high speed internet, rapid rewards, fast food — is there any debate that our world of hurry and velocity has kept us from reading well? It could be argued that it has kept us from living well.
And so, in that big ending, jettisoned at the last minute due to – how ironic is this? – a power outage, I was going to wax eloquent linking the slow but joyfully humane reading and writing habits of St. Patrick and the Irish (who “saved Western civilization” as the story goes) and the need for a new shift in the nature of our churches to counter the anti-reading (anti-human?) milieu which insists on defining goodness in terms of efficiency, quantity, speed, and numbers. I increasingly believe that our efforts for increased literacy and love of books (not to mention the call to nurture the Christian mind and to think well for the sake of God’s Kingdom) will falter if our main message is about our duty to learn, or even the joys of reading (as in the wonderful, wonderful book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs.) We must also get to the root of the problem and discern and resist the ideologies of the age which erode the plausibility of a life well lived, the ways of being that steal our time and energy and creativity, that turn us into consumers wanting more-more-more and then (since we are so burned out) needing to tune out, and veg-veg-veg. It is little wonder fewer people are reading these days, even if they know the duty and delight.
What is driving us to want this kind of hyper-life?
And how can our churches help us?
Can they become counter-cultural where it counts?
My big ending of that talk, after my plea for a renewed commitment to the life of the mind, reading well, taking up books and print and pages of prose and poetry, was going to be that we need congregations that help us slow down and value not only our interior lives, but our localities. To resist the high-tech glamorization of speed and hipster velocity, we need schooled in rhythms of grace, and what that looks like (literally) on the ground.
We need a sense of discipleship that appreciates the prophetic social critic of the 70s who cried, “small is beautiful.” We need courage to say no to “bigger is better” assumptions and the patience to see what better desires and habits will emerge among us.
We need to somehow learn to slow down and pay attention, caring for what is in front of our noses. I believe learning to care for our local setting, our permaculture, our neighborhoods, our own inner longings and needs — that is, slowing down and looking and listening and learning — are prerequisites for not only a sane way of living, but for regaining a love of reading and the ability to be readers. One can’t love or pray or serve others well if we’re too damn busy. We can’t read much, even if we want to, if our schedules are jam packed with shopping, blogging, managing our on-line accounts, and fretting about the functions of our devices, if we zoom to and fro between sports and work and home improvements and trips and fancy parties by the pool, and then home for a late night peek at facebook or worse.
If we are going to regain an unhurried life, a more sane sort of being attentive to what matters most (and recover the joys and benefits of the leisurely pace that good reading demands) we will need congregations that invite us to that way of life. We need churches that themselves have broken with the dominant vision of life in the Western world. Can we admit that sometimes the very structures and practices and attitudes of our churches actually encourage this same worldly culture of unreflective speed, dehumanizing efficiency and dis-integrating isolation?
Those punchy descriptors are from C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison in their stunning new book, Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus (IVP/Praxis; $16.00) which is without a doubt one of the best books of the year. Indeed, I’d say it is one of the best books on the nature of the local church I’ve ever read. I have my top few of books about the local church — Community of the King by Howard Snyder comes to mind — and this is now surely one of them.
Slow Church took its title and working image from the growing worldwide movement known as “slow food” which emerged out of protests organized by local chefs, café owners and food lovers in France when a MacDonalds fast food joint was opening in Paris in the late 1980s. By 1989 there was a “Slow Food Manifesto” and it has spread, inspiring food-lovers around the world to draw on local sources, fresh food, better eating, and more patient attention to the relationships that develop around meals. It should not surprise us that followers of Jesus, who spent a lot of time eating and drinking, and whose most primary ritual (and vision of final hope) includes breaking bread and celebrating a feast, are interested in this new (old?) attentiveness to food. (See here for a BookNotes list of books about food and faith, here for a review I’m proud of on the exquisite The Spirit of Food.)
And so, inspired by the Slow Food movement – a counter to the stupidities of fast food, and the dangers of a culture that thrives on it – a Slow Church idea is slowly taking root. This Slow Church book, almost a manifesto, but not quite so pushy, will eventually, Lord willing, be seen as a seminal contribution. Like that resistance to the fast food culture lead by those feisty French protestors and the likes of Alice Waters, Robert Farrar Capon, or Dan Barber, Smith and Pattison are inviting us to rethink much of what we think we know about church.
A few details about the book.
First, it is wonderfully written. I mean this in at least two ways. The sentences are often beautiful. They’ve work hard (slowly, perhaps) to craft a good book full of good word choices, clever phrases, good lines, interesting paragraphs. For a book to become important, widely read, significantly valued, and somewhat enduring, it has to be well-done. Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus is more than just a critique of society’s harsh values or a jeremiad against churches that seem to have sold out to our suburban values, full of complaints and warnings and finger-waggings. No, this is both a cry of the heart – it has passion galore – and offers a finely-crafted, well-written, artful bit of writing. The very fine writer Christine Pohl writes that it is “beautifully crafted.” Even the cover is nice, and we can be glad that these guys are as smart and literate as they are. It is, like a good book on food or wine or cooking, a pleasure to read. Also, though, it isn’t just artful and interesting, it is arranged well. It flows from topic to topic, with a good balance of stories and teaching, cultural criticism and theology. They make their argument well, and the book moves along wonderfully.
(Both gentleman are book-lovers and read and write widely. Pattison is the only guy I know who has served on the prestigious critics circle for the National Book Award and Smith is editor of the Englewood Review of Books, a low-fi and very impressive journal of Christian book reviews. In many, many cases, if they are reviewing it, we have it. They do very, very good work.)
Not only is Slow Church a wonderful read, it is, as I’ve suggested, supremely important. That it engages the very heart of our culture, that it reflects on the spirit of the age, that it truly attempts to do contextualized theology in the 24/7 postmodern world of speed, makes it very, very significant. Others have done this, critiquing, say, materialism and consumerism, or workaholism and our lack of rest. Walter Brueggemann’s recent set of astute Biblical studies, sermons collected in Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, just for instance, gets at this powerfully, and it is no surprise that they draw on his valuable insights. Walt endorses the book, in fact, saying,
This thoughtful, discerning book advocates “slow” in faith and in life – recognition that faith is a practice of relational fidelity that cannot be reduced to contractual or commodity transaction. The authors ponder and reflect on this summons with both pastoral sensitivity and missional passion, Readers eager for an evangelically paced life will pay close attention to this advocacy.
Walt’s observation points to another important aspect of the book. It wonderfully reminds us that the problem with all this frenetic speed and bureaucracy isn’t just that we get tired, so we just have to slow down a bit. No, these authors realize that intertwined with our culture’s commitments to this aggressive way of life is a whole way of seeing the human person, a way of thinking about our life’s goals, a way of forming our social architecture. In other words, we have to consider not just how to slow down, but to re-envision our lives, our place in creation, our relationships. We have to learn to value something different then the franchise model. We need to live into a Kingdom and commonwealth where people know each other and – yep – slow down so they can actually learn to love one another.
In what ways have churches (mainline denominational or evangelical, mega or wee) bought into ways of doing business (awkward pun intended) that are informed by visions and practices of the corporate world? These guys are not the first to expose the problems with the MacDonaldization of the church or the McChurch franchises. But this is the best by far, examining the roots of Western culture, the practices of our hectic society, and the values that connected to that kind of way of life. – and how these have infiltrated many churches, sometimes profoundly so. Yes, this is critical analysis of the big picture, but, gladly, it is very, very nicely written.
I love the very structure of this book. The three sections (drawing on slow food notions, and social critics such as Wendell Berry) are entitled “Ethics” “Ecology” and “Economy.” I hope this excites you as it does me, that you are drawn to theological visions of a sustainable, humane, Christ-honoring sort of ministry that values attention to the sorts of things these section titles imply.
The wonderful chapters in the first part include ruminations on terroir (an invitation to “taste and see”), stability, which, they explain, includes a commitment to real people in real neighborhoods and places and patience. Their stories of how patience enables us to enter into the pain and longings of others are wonderful, and this first portion offers a fabulously rich first course.
The second section (“Ecology”) is strong, too, and offers several chapters on the nature of God’s work in the world, helpful theological insights about reconciliation, and what it looks like to be a local body that sees and values and lives out such a vision. The missional church conversation has reminded us of God’s reconciliation of all things, of the reign of God breaking into human history. Church life is not about our own spiritual need and these three chapters have set the table well for great conversations about what a “slow” manifestation of missional ministry might entail. As Norman Wirzba writes, Smith and Pattison “lead us into habits and practices that are essential if churches are to savor, mobilize and celebrate the gifts of God’s goodness all around… Read it with friends and be prepared to discover the grit and the grace that make life together a foretaste of the Kingdom of God.”
The third course of this wonderful meal is called “Economy.” The three chapter titles evoke much, and the content is extraordinary. We can all learn much from pondering their reflections in the chapters called “Abundance” “Gratitude” and “Hospitality.” Doesn’t that sound rich, good, helpful? What church group wouldn’t benefit from a low and careful study of these themes, and a bit of self-inventory about ways to move towards a more human scale and slower pace?
And, oh, that final chapter, “Dinner Conversation as a Model of Being Church.” As they note, the extraordinary thing about Slow Church is how ordinary it is. This isn’t another zippy plan or a sophisticated program. I don’t even know if it is a “model” insofar as that in itself sounds like some blueprint, an industrial age metaphor with more weight then necessary. This is an invitation to a common meal, a way of being human-scale and sensible and convivial. It isn’t that hard. They write, “We aren’t asking people to be Super Christians, to move to a developing nation or to the inner city, or to give away all their money. What we’re advocating is that we live more deeply into the ordinary patterns of our lives, considering and talking with others in our church about how and why we do the things we do.”
Yes, they are feisty at times (inviting us to use the language of being subversive and transforming -“we are withdrawing our allegiance to a McDonaldized religion that wants to keep the life of faith segmented to Sunday morning services. In a world where God is at work reconciling all creation, everything matters: work, family, friends, place, rest, food, money, and above all, the body of Christ, because the church is the interpretive community through which we make sense of all other facets of life.”
But I bet you, like me, need that kind of encouragement, that kind of reminder that God is at work among us — a real presence, so to speak — and that this invites us to reorient our whole lives to Christ’s economy. This is, grace upon grace, very good news!
And so, I invite you to get this book from us. I want to say that you should do it now, quickly, even. Not because I’m in a hurry, really, but because the time feels right here in the early summer, to take up a good, slow read, and to savor the revolutionary ideas offered by Pattison and Smith. Our churches can be more sane, our lives can be healed, our ministries more authentic. We know fast food isn’t all that good. Let’s take that intuition and help it guide us to re-think the local church.
Slow Church is a godsend, a wonder, a must-read. Thank you to Chris Smith’s Near Eastside urban neighborhood in Indianapolis and his Englewood Christian Church there, and to John Pattison’s love of the rural spaces around Silverton, Oregon (and his Friends Church there in the Willamette River Valley.) We hear of both of these localities and congregations in the book and we realize this can be done! This book is the real deal. So come on, hurry up and buy this, and then slow down. Slow down together, in whatever place you inhabit, learning to cultivate community with trust and patience.
And who knows, maybe you’ll even find more time to read, too. You’ll be glad for that.
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