To say that we live a “hyper-mobile” culture may be a bit of an understatement these days. Just today, I was eating lunch with my family at the local Japanese restaurant following our church’s worship service and there were three teenagers sitting together in a booth near us. As I walked by their table, I noticed that the three of them were sharing the same physical space (they were sitting together in the booth), but they were not interacting with one another at all. Instead, two of them had their cell phones under the table, “texting” someone, while the third had her cell phone up to her ear, talking to yet another person. With access to their whole network of “friends” at their fingertips, these three teenagers were essentially trading the friends sitting within touching distance for the virtual connection achieved via LCD screen.
In an ever-shrinking world, characterized by instant communication to almost anywhere on the globe, how are we actually doing at building community? With families constantly on the go, kids that aspire to grow up and move up the social ladder, and a constant barrage of information overloading our senses, are we reverting to a nomadic existence once again?
Likewise, how do we define stability in today’s context? Often, we refer to people who are “stable” as those with a good education, steady employment, financial abundance, and a traditional family. Could it be that, in this very definition, we are undermining the possibility of true community by placing such high value in those things which promote self-reliance and independence from those with whom God is calling us to share community and interdependence?
It is questions like these that Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove tackles in his latest book, The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture. Many young evangelicals today are finding life-giving wisdom in ancient traditions, passed down throughout centuries of Christian life and practice. Wilson-Hartgrove is one of these, culling the gifts of the Desert Mothers and Fathers for our contemporary time in this book. Wilson-Hartgrove is among a growing number of young Evangelicals, living in intentional communities that seek to embody this ancient way of life in new, urban contexts.
Drawing from the vow of stability described in the Rule of St. Benedict (which Wilson-Hartgrove’s own “new monastic” community follows in adapted form), this book challenges the commodification of community seen in 21st Century culture. “Social networking” has become a phenomenon through websites like MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, etc., all seeking to capitalize on the innate human desire to connect with other people. Cell phone companies capitalize on the desire to constantly be in “contact” with one’s network through phone calls, text messaging, and access to these online communities. As Wilson-Hartgrove notes,
“The great advantage of a Facebook friendship, of course, is that it is so easy. I get to choose who I want to “friend” and whose friendship requests I respond to. We gather around our common interests, share the stuff we want others to know, and log off when we feel like it. In many ways what we have is connection without obligation. But intimacy without commitment is what our society has traditionally called ‘infidelity’.”
Though Wilson-Hartgrove doesn’t use this term, the hyper-mobile nature of today’s society has led to an increasingly “pornographic” culture, where people are valued based on their usefulness to another person. Individuals are turned into objects that can be used as means to an end rather than the embodiment of the image of God. As humans, we are not free-floating spirits, despite the temptation to view life this way through the lens of cyber-relationships. This embodiment is the kind of stability that Wilson-Hartgrove is commending in this text. It is the embodiment of faith, within a community, over time. It is the slow development of relationships and communal trust as flawed humans rub shoulders with each others over the course of time, transforming and shaping one another “as iron sharpens iron.”
Additionally, Wilson-Hartgrove’s advocation of stability as a virtue further embodies the missional nature of the Church’s calling. As the body of Christ, the Church is called to incarnate the Gospel – to be the “good news.” The vow of stability makes this incarnational quality of the Church’s mission truly achievable because it calls to love not just in words, but “in action and in truth.”
I have read most of Wilson-Hartgrove’s works to date and can say that this one has been the most powerful and convicting read yet. His engagement with the Biblical material is always fresh and insightful, drawing me to a deeper appreciation of the text by looking at it from new perspectives. The overarching metaphor of life as a house, along with his personal stories, cause the reader to feel as though you are pulling up a rocking chair on the front porch and sharing a glass of sweet tea and conversation. This is a timely book, a needed book, a book that should be widely read and talked about among those who wish to fight the cultural tendency to “move up and move out.” This is a book about the difficulties and dangers of community life, as well as the unparalleled joys of plunging deep roots in a specific place, among a specific people, over time.
Stan Dotson said:
Hey Steven, thanks for the review. I still need to get the book and I look forward to getting to know this author. I was thinking about the age-old tension humans have had between the settled community and the nomadic life. Wendell Berry versus Salman Rushdie (have you read his book of essays, Imaginary Homelands, which celebrate the virtues of the unsettled life?). I certainly resonate with the settled side of life, but I also understand that it is not the only way to experience community. I’m learning the tools of social networking, in hopes that they can actually be useful in my quest for the settled life. Whenever I feel technophobe feelings rising, lamenting how the new networking is liable to have a deleterious effect on community, I remember that they said the same thing about the printing press (people would hole up with a book instead of visiting with each other). Anyhow, thanks again for the post.