A few other comments based on a conversation I had with my brother the other day:
In the friendly/constructive criticism department, I would point out that in some ways Newman’s book stopped a little short. It was great in everything it covered, but if I had a suggestion, it would be to connect the dots a little more for the average layman. The final chapter dwells on these two church communities that have made decisions to make mercy ministry front and center in their church life. Members make commitments financially as well as with their time to put their energy and resources into serving the outcasts of their community. And that’s all great and wonderful, but a couple of thoughts occurred to me.
First, the thought crossed my mind that these two communities (I have no idea what their denominational affiliation is) seemed reminiscent of the monastic movement in some ways. These communities are made up of people who are dedicating everything to these ministries in an “extreme” way, above and beyond what most Christians normally do. And Newman recognizes this herself, asking what someone in her situation, in a little 25 member church in Virginia can possibly do that compares with those full-time ministry churches. Her conclusion is that she/we need to have faith that even our little efforts at hospitality and community and mercy in our contexts are just as significant and effective as these other communities. But this call to faith seems a little weak given how much time is spent dwelling on these other communities. She doesn’t really develop her thoughts for an average but faithful family in the local church. What about all of the “normal” Christians who are braving the current of of an increasingly post-Christian West?
Our context is in many ways parallel to the beginning of the monastic movement. While there were some rumblings earlier, the real birth of monasticism is at the beginning of the fourth century when Christianity is legalized and goes mainstream. When Constantine comes on the scene, the church struggles to know what to do with the lack of persecution. Catacombs and Roman arenas ask horrific yet simple questions. But out in the broad daylight the antithesis is not so easy. The monastic movement is in part one answer to the difficult questions facing Christians who are trying to sort out where the City of God begins and ends, especially when the City of Man seems to be all wound up with it. Extreme communities like the ones Newman cites are wonderful avenues of service and ministry, and I don’t mean to discredit the individuals involved in the slightest, but if we’re not careful, there can be a subtext that discredits other more ‘average’ attempts at mercy ministry.
As a side note: Our situation on the surface feels a bit like the inversion of 4th century Europe with the mores of Christian civilization crumbling around us. But on second thought, we may actually be in the very same situation as Augustine and Ambrose and Jerome. We struggle with the fact that our City of Man is quickly disengaging the City of God. Our Rome is blaming Christianity and evangelical fundamentalism (of various stripes) for their threat to the peace of the Empire, just as the Polytheistic Romans did as Rome began to crumble. And of course it is important to remember that Rome did not “fall” like a skyscraper collapsing, churning its way down into the ground. Rome’s “fall” was more like a drawn out Autumn, with leaves turning colorful somersaults in a cool breeze for a while until someone looked up and noticed that it was all over. Who knows if what we are seeing is actually something along those lines in our own day.
But the monastic comparison is still there nevertheless. While I’d be fine granting that some men and women may be called to something like monastic vows (the gift of celibacy would probably be included here as well), that’s just not the norm for most Christians. Most Christians are called to marry, raise a family, have a job, and live in the community God has placed them in. And that means that there are certain God-given limitations/opportunities in their lives.
And this leads to my second point (yes, all of that had a point) which is that it is dangerously easy to look at “extreme” mercy ministries as icons of faithfulness and sacrifice and at the same to overlook the strangers in our own midst. And these strangers are frequently members of our own family. Another way of putting this is that however mercy ministry is done, it must include the commitment to not increasing the problem. Caring for widows and orphans includes mercy ministry to our own wives and children so that we do not create new victims of neglect, abuse, and abandonment. It is not a victory for the Kingdom to serve homeless people in a soup kitchen while neglecting your 10 year old son at home, effectively creating a new homelessness in your own family. In other words, the call to hospitality must include serving our own family. Husbands and wive are called to minister mercy and friendship to one another, and they are called to minister grace and peace to their children. And of course it cannot stop with the family, but it can’t forget it either. And of course by “family” I don’t merely mean the biological unit either. Jesus came and redefined the family around himself, and while this doesn’t obliterate the biological family, it reorients how we view each other within the family. We are first of all brothers and sisters in Christ called to serve one another. And that’s “untamed hospitality” too.
And the last point is just that discussing hospitality is a little like preaching a sermon on sins of the tongue or prayer. It definitely needs to be done, but it can be very easy to give people guilt trips without actually helping them make progress in the work of repentance and sanctification. I don’t think Newman is doing that on purpose, it’s just with all the emphasis on these mercy-communities, she even seems to feel a bit inadequate herself and not exactly sure what that means for her in her context. And that’s why, if I were to ask for anything it would be another chapter or an appendix fleshing out how normal Christians practice hospitality when they eat dinner together every night, how ordinary believers practice hospitality when they befriend their neighbors, take them plates of cookies, and look for opportunities to serve others in their church and community.
Again, all that said, I really liked the book.