Twenty-one years ago at Christmas, at a darker time in my life, a good friend (who also happened to be my boss, which at that point was an act of sainthood on his part) gave me a book by J. Heinrich Arnold called Discipleship. (You can still buy the book, although it’s now had what I think was supposed to be a hip modern subtitle added: Living for Christ in the Daily Grind.) My friend wrote on the flyleaf, “This is an antidote to decadence. Merry Christmas.”
I read the book, underlined things, wrote in the margins, and pondered. It was, as Henri Nouwen’s introduction terms it, “a tough book.” It stayed with me. It was my first introduction to the spirituality of the Bruderhof, a broadly Anabaptist Christian communal society founded in the 20th century.
Ironically, just as I was preparing the next issue of Christian History, which is about Christians and creation and features an article on the Bruderhof, the opportunity arose to participate in the Patheos book club about a book called Called to Community. Life in 2016 being what it is, and Facebook notifications being what they are, I didn’t look too closely when the book was mentioned in the Patheos writers’ group beyond “Ooo! Dorothy Day! Thomas Merton! Send me one!” Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be from the Bruderhof, published by Plough (their press) and edited by the same author who’s writing the article for Christian History!
The book, Called to Community, features excerpts from a number of spiritual writers–a few older (George MacDonald, Benedict of Nursia, and Thomas à Kempis) but most 20th and 21st century (in fact, I got the book the day after I’d been at a luncheon with two of the featured authors, Christine Pohl, and Howard Snyder!) Many live or have lived in intentional Christian communities throughout the world. Quite a few, though by no means all, are Bruderhof authors.
The book has four parts: the Biblical call to community, forming community, life in community, and life beyond the community. What I found distinctive about the book was that most books on community that I’ve ever read only focus on the first of those four parts. “Jesus wants us to live together in community! Isn’t that cool! Let’s go do it!”Those of us with spouse, children, mortgage, and day job may admire the enthusiasm of these cheerful calls, but we nearly always run aground on the issues of actual daily life in community–even if we never give up all and go live in a monastery or an abandoned city block or (in the case of my husband’s direct ancestors) a former hotel. Living in community with your spouse and your kids and your day job is hard enough.
The great thing about this book is that the vast majority of it is about the running aground. How do you get along with people you don’t like? What if you are the people somebody else doesn’t like? What happens if someone in the community becomes authoritarian? Community may be great for enthusiastic young single folks, but how do you make marriage and children fit in? What is the place of career in community? Do good fences really make good neighbors?
It’s written for people who struggle with living together by people who have struggled with living together. And of such, working slowly through its chapters–even as I argued with some of them–has been of great benefit to me. Quite accidentally in our nuclear-family world, I have found myself living in a Christian community in my house that consists not only of spouse and two children but my inlaws and two refugees from the conflict in Ukraine (inside) and 26 goats, ten chickens, a quarter-acre garden, a dog, and a cat (outside).
I’m an introvert; I’m all about the good fences. And I’m not as sure as many of the writers in this book are that we all need to live in specific formal communities. (Nor, after a long exposure to the ideas of the faith and work movement, am I as sure as some of them that the work we do outside of the church/community walls matters as little as they say.) But I am sure that we all need to live in more community. Our churches need to be places of real honesty, vulnerability, and spiritual and practical assistance between brothers and sisters in Christ. Our families need to be connected to networks of support. Nuclear families are kind of like nuclear bombs: designed, in the long term, not for stability but for an explosion.
So I commend Called to Community to you. You might want to pick up Discipleship, too. In a world which seems bent on atomizing, polarizing, and commodifying us all, this is your antidote to decadence. May it change you as much as that long-ago Christmas gift changed me.