Why is “New Monasticism” controversial?

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : February 19, 2008

I understand why “new monasticism” SHOULD be controversial. It should be controversial because it challenges consumer comfort, encourages a more radical engagement with the margins, and in its prophetic voice for peace in a world filled with conflict.

But I don’t understand why it is has drawn ire from some conservative evangelicals for being some sort of legalistic reversal of the Reformation. Sure, the word “monasticism” is there. But mostly that is a word used to open one’s imagination to new possibilities, not call people to return to the Middle Ages (though I would certainly argue that there is much to be learned from Catholic tradition).

In a recent article by Ken Silva (that notorious critic of all-things-emergent), new monasticism has once again come under fire. And this time, much of criticism is leveled at me, and Missio Dei. I guess I should feel honored.

I may learn to regret this later, but I want to take some time to patiently respond to some of the more cutting challenges of Silva’s article.

…maybe you didn’t know that this neo-monastic “Protestant” evangelical return to the religious bondage of apostate Roman Catholicism has also positioned itself as another offshoot of the emerging church. Using its patented smorgasbord spiritual blender approach to the Christian faith—picking and choosing whatever they like from any movement/tradition which even remotely claims it was/is Christian—they then puree its doctrine until it takes on the fluid consistency necessary to reimagine [read: twist] it with the relativism of postmodernism.

I think it is a mistake to write-off the value of Catholic tradition. We protestants didn’t shoot out of the loins of God, fully formed. We came out of an earlier tradition: Catholicism. That isn’t to say that the Reformation wasn’t a good thing (though just how good a thing it was is open to discussion). I have zero desire to become a Catholic. I am happy to be a Mennonite. Though I feel like there is a lot to learn from the larger Body of Christ–Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Anabaptist (which I put into a separate category from Protestant).

Does this mean that I, along with other neo-monastics, are “picking and choosing” whatever I like and then making a relativistic smoothie with it? No. I’d like to think I’m being pretty darn theological about how I appropriate doctrine and practice from the various Christian traditions. And, at the core, I am doing so as an Anabaptist. Not as an individual religious consumer who shops through some sort of Spiritual K-mart.

I have come to see all of this as yet one more “subversive” Emerging Church rebellion against the authority of God’s Word. In fact, it really is a kind of “Christian” Marxism as R.J. Stevens earlier pointed out concerning Rob Bell in his insightful piece Rob Bell Preaches from Marx Gospel.

I can’t speak for Rob Bell, but the emerging church/new monasticism aren’t simply retreads of Marxism. I’ll be utterly transparent here: I think that Marx was right to critique capitalism. I don’t agree with this critique, nor his utilization of class-warfare. But he was right to be concerned and upset.

I’m also not sure that I, or any of my new monastic or emerging church friends, are interested in rebelling against the authority of God’s word. Instead of going into a lengthy defense of emerging hermeneutics, let me just ask this: Is it better to affirm the authority of the Bible in word, or in deed? I’m asking this because I think that many fundamentalists are quick to assert inerrancy and infallibility, but, oddly enough, are slow to be pacifists. In some ways, I think I am more of a fundamentalist.

So now with the political scene of the 60’s in mind as background, and considering that professors in Bible colleges today would have been shaping their ideologies in college themselves at that time, look at the posters a third of the way down on the right hand side of The Missio Dei Breviary. This website itself is an offshoot of a neo-monastic “community” called Missio Dei. And the founding member and “pastor” of this collection of self-styled mystic monks just happens to be Mark Van Steenwyk.

I’m assuming Silva is upset with the images I use for “Jesus Manifesto” and “Christarchy.” I am of course trying to utilize images that contemporary people would associate with subversion and revolution. Sure. But I am appropriating those images to point to a much deeper, much realer revolution than anyone could scheme up in the 60s. Am I wrong in using these images? Nope. I don’t think so. Jesus and Paul both utilized counter-Empire rhetoric (often subtly, it is true) to point to the deeper reality that is the Kingdom of God. (For more on this, read the works of Ched Myers, Richard Horsley, or John Howard Yoder). And if you want a double-dose of anti-imperial rhetoric, read the book of Revelation.

And then interestingly enough at the end of this month both Van Steenwyk and Shane Claiborne will be at The New Conspirators Conference along with emerging Abbess Karen Ward. You may also find it of interest that, while these emerging church people have trouble with “certitude” concerning what God’s Word says, apparently they are sure that it is the Lord Who is bringing neo-monastics together with these other Emergent Church revolutionaries and fellow resisters in “God’s conspiracy”…

Amen. And for the record, I believe in submission to scripture. That is a lot tougher and more important than “certitude” in relation to scripture.

Finally, at the end of this short clip of revisionist history about monasticism you’ll hear Van Steenwyk say that these new monastics “kind of embody the Gospel in a new way.” But in truth, a more fitting reimagining of Van Steenwyk’s last sentence would be that these neo-monastic Roman Catholic-embracing “Protestant” postevangelical monks actually embody a different gospel in a very old way.

The clip he refers to is still up on YouTube. I’m amazed at how people have used it to support conspiracies about Willow Creek being linked to a return to Catholicism. I’ve never met Bill Hybels. It wasn’t his decision to invite me to the Group Life Conference. I don’t like Willow Creek. It was awkward being there. And only a dozen people (or less) came to my session. And none of them seemed to fit with the whole vibe of the conference either.

Silva seems particular upset about the insinuation that we can learn anything from Catholics. God forbid that we embrace Roman Catholics. I mean, who do they think they ARE anyways–Christians or something? The monastic tradition is worth learning from. I’m not interested in returning to it. That would be a mistake. Just like it is a mistake for some evangelicals to want to return to 17th century reformation theology. The hope for our world is Jesus Christ–embodied in a people who live out the good news of redemption and reconciliation in a broken world. That is the conspiracy that God is calling us into. And to join that conspiracy is to engage in revolution against the principalities and powers that seek to keep us enslaved.

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16 Responses to “Why is “New Monasticism” controversial?”

  1. Andrew Tatum on February 19th, 2008 7:01 am

    I don’t want to state the obvious but I think it’s controversial for the same reason that your recent satire piece is actually pretty scary. To challenge the status quo of evangelical Christianity in North America is almost sinful. It’s similar (oddly enough) to the “if you criticize the government, you must be a terrorist” mentality that some Americans tend to have. And, of course, Catholics - for many evangelicals - are heretics so anything remotely resembling “Catholic” must be scorned. That’s my stab at it.

  2. Jordan Peacock on February 19th, 2008 7:55 am

    In a conversation with Greg Boyd, he mentioned something to me that really stuck. I was discussing some of the questions and concerns I had with the faith, and he was the first person here in the states who would wait and listen through my rationalizations as to why I had certain questions, certain concerns, etc.

    Everyone I had talked to before either:
    a) tried to browbeat me with their perspective - they were well meaning, and I love them, but that doesn’t get us anywhere.
    b) freaked out and sought to ‘restore the heretic to the flock’ or some such. One person close to me was concerned about my not arriving in heaven because I wasn’t a ‘pre-trib’ believer of the Left Behind order.
    c) got concerned for their own faith as my questions brought light to areas previously unexamined.

    Boyd mentioned that unfortunately, you have to exercise caution when discussing some things that are challenging, uncomfortable or controversial because many people simply will not get. This doesn’t mean avoidance, but it means delicacy.

    Now in your situation Mark, you’re kind of stuck; you’re a public figure, like it or not. As such you will get people who have merely heard your name and a quote out of context beating down your door to restore the ‘inerrancy of ________ tradition’. I think your response is well met, but don’t feel obligated to respond to each and every criticism coming from outside. If they’re not willing to at least engage in dialogue rather than foisting stones over the fence, they’re probably not going to come around due to a well-thought response.

    Here’s hoping though.

  3. Jordan Peacock on February 19th, 2008 7:57 am

    Ha ha, PS - Andrew

    When I first met the woman who is now my wife, she was kind of freaked because her housemate was Malaysia, who’s government did not support the invasion of Iraq (this was in 2004) and I was actively against the hypocrisy and senselessness of the whole ordeal, plus I had grown up in Kuwait.

    So we were both terrorists until we assuaged her otherwise. Her housemate still took a while to be convinced that I wasn’t.

  4. Ken Silva on February 19th, 2008 8:52 am

    I’m a “notorious critic”? 8^)

  5. Ben on February 19th, 2008 9:11 am

    Excellent response, Mark. I think Jordan’s expectation that a well reasoned response to your critics will not sway them is a good one. I know you are wise enough to not think otherwise, but it is worth repeating.

    For the record, though, these responses are very valuable to people like me, who have been skeptical of the new monastic ideals. Every reasoned response woos me more. We should have a meal sometime and talk.


  6. Mark Van Steenwyk on February 19th, 2008 9:20 am

    I would like that Ben. The next couple weeks are jam-packed for me. After I get back from the New Conspirator’s conference, we should definitely hang out.

  7. Michael Cline on February 19th, 2008 10:44 am

    I think this is a good response. The broad strokes these “researchers” paint is sad and ultimately, not productive for the Kingdom whatsoever other than to spread fear and misunderstanding. This can be seen in recent events at Cedarville University with Shane Claiborne (ironically, Silva and his “ministry” was in the picture there as well).

    However, no response will be enough. They will keep coming. You know that. Cedarville is already catching flack for their next speaker. The difference is, you have chosen to defend yourself mildly and go about your business you feel God has led you to. Cedarville did not do this and will forever be playing the game with this critics,

  8. Jonathan Brink on February 19th, 2008 11:08 am

    Mark, I hope this is not a regular occurrence. If you spent all of your time responding, then you’ll get sidetracked from better things. There will always be critics who are not your really your judge.

  9. Mark Van Steenwyk on February 19th, 2008 11:49 am

    Yeah, I think you’re right. I’m not accustomed to public criticism, so I want to respond the way I would respond to any other normal criticism. From now on, I’ll only respond publically to well reasoned criticism from people open to dialog. And if I ever pull this sort of thing again in an article, I give everyone permission to spam me!

  10. Mark Dixon on February 19th, 2008 2:27 pm

    When I read the first pull quote from Ken Silva ranting on how new monastics pick and choose from any movement that’s even remotely Christian, I went back to the top of the article to make sure it wasn’t another of Mark’s satires. I’m disappointed, frankly, that Ken would make such broad-brush indictments, he knows better.

    I have watched Mark’s video clip from the conference twice, and shared it with a close friend who is an Orthodox priest and archimandrite. Neither of us detected any “revisionist history” in Mark’s description of old-school monasticism, or any conspiracy to bring back medieval Catholicism. That’s nonsense.

  11. jurisnaturalist on February 19th, 2008 3:45 pm

    Bravo Mark!
    I think you’re wrong about Max, but that’s another story…
    I t was great to see the Youtube Video, now I can attach a face to all these words.
    Nathanael Snow

  12. Mark Van Steenwyk on February 19th, 2008 3:53 pm


    I agree with the sentiment that the problems with capitalism have more to do with government involvement than with free trade. But the free market is myth…it will always be exploited by those with power (and more capital) to exploit. I’m not at interested in using the government to restrain capitalism. We the church should simply restrain ourselves.

  13. Jordan Peacock on February 19th, 2008 4:51 pm

    I forgot where I read this, but regarding the left/right economic axis…. Capitalism succeeded where the church had failed, by appealing to desires we as humans already had instead of appealing to the higher nature we are called to. Therefore it ‘works’ far better. Nevertheless, it is far from ideal when your end purpose is love.

  14. Brandon Rhodes on February 20th, 2008 12:26 am

    Thank you so much for writing this response, particularly your articulation of how important it is to proclaim scripture’s authority in deed as well as word. A convicting and piercing response to much of the em/submergent church’s critics!

  15. C. Wess Daniels on March 8th, 2008 12:00 am

    I enjoyed this one a lot — appropriate away, Silva et al, don’t hold the keys to the kingdom any more than the rest of us do.

  16. Marc Alton-Cooper on June 13th, 2008 7:43 am

    Oh no…not Ken Silva again.

    I have had a tongue lashing from him in the past…he man who seems to revel in misery and telling people where they are going wrong all the time…

    There is great deal we can leanr from our Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican brothers and they from us.

    I have found the two way street very accomodating. I was up at Douai Abbey recently talking to one of the Fathers there, he was very interested in what we are doing with emergent UK and the emerging church.

    Perosnally…I really dont know what the problems is:)

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