Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The New Friars - book review

The New Friars by Scott Bessenecker

My old mate Sean “back of the net!” Gladding gave this fantastic book a few weeks ago. Let me see if I can do it justice with a review. The author is Scott Bessenecker, director of global projects with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. The book is an IVP publication in their Likewise line aimed at exploring an “active, compassionate faith.” After reading this one I’m looking forward to more of its kind from IVP through this line.

The review…


Great book. Buy it and read it…then pass it on to someone who needs to know about what is doing outside church buildings. (and if you won’t/can’t buy it…you can have my copy as long as you pass it on after reading it.)


The book is a survey of both the history and current expressions of missional-monastic individuals and communities who have prioritized service and solidarity with the poor and oppressed. The first chapter is a whirlwind tour of scripture and Christian history which Scott uses to locate today’s “friars.” Scott then takes the next two chapters to unpack the various causes and effects of poverty. I felt this was a helpful start to the book – he “heads off at the pass” many questions about where the blame for poverty should lie and how that matters for us as Jesus-followers. Chapter four rounds out the poverty discussion by proposing that the incarnation is God’s ultimate and ongoing expression of solidarity with the poor.

(There's more)

The middle of the book is where Scott hits his stride. He suggests that certain historical monastic orders (Celtic, Augustinian, Benedictine, Nestorian, Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits, Moravians, Anabaptists) share key attitudes with the new friars - InnerCHANGE, Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor (Servants), Urban Neighbours of Hope (UNOH), and Word Made Flesh (WMF) - and that these “ingredients” set them apart vocationally from the wider body. Each of the middle five chapters deal with these attributes; Incarnational, Devotional, Communal, Missional, and Marginal. I will not go into each of these in detail – suffice it to say I found this a very helpful set of categories for framing Christian living, perhaps even more useful than specific “practices” or “marks.” Although Scott uses (stories from) his own life to illustrate various points the writing is never self-indulgent. Once I realized the author was doing more than just presenting me with the facts (fair and balancedJ) and was instead ‘walking’ with me through the stories, the narrative flowed very naturally. In fact, on the several occasions the book had me in tears it was Scott’s personal reflections that moved me so. Each of the five middle chapters draws historical characters into conversation with current ‘friars’ to make a case for the validity of these ingredients as thoroughly Christian and deserving of our attention – especially at this time in human history.

…and that’s where he takes us in the last chapter and the conclusion, confronting the reader with the ‘cold hard facts’ of our world today. In short, he suggests that this is the “dark before the dawn”, that human history has never (!) been so steeped in poverty, suffering, and evil. Bad news….but surely, Scott writes and hopes out loud, the sun is coming up. Even if you don’t buy his doomsday reckoning of current day conditions (and he humbly offers the reader that option) one is pushed to consider the scale of despair in the developing world. A sobering read for anyone in love with Jesus and the Kingdom he announced.

This is a wonderfully humble book written without any of the edginess and self-righteousness that would have dripped all over the pages had I been given this project. It is written in a way where scripture, history, and personal stories converge to paint an accurate (as far as I can tell) picture of a still-forming movement. And it is this ‘still-forming’ aspect that I might highlight as a reader and humbled participate in this kind of ‘new monasticism.’ The greater test for them/us will come with the years that bear out their/our faithfulness to this radical and exhausting call. Can they/we keep it? Can we raise our families and nourish future generations? Can we draw in our brothers and sisters in the wider body of Christ who might otherwise see them/us as an anomaly – at best, something to watch from the sidelines, at worst, a dismissible freak show? This drawing in of those not directly connected to such ‘friars’, I think (and hope), might be the best fruit from Scott’s writing. Hopefully this book will validate such vocational choices as more than a spasm of youthful hubris. Scott stated unequivocally that not all Christians are called to serve the poor in this particular way but he does make clear that “the broader community of believers” should “release and support this movement of saints.” A timely book, particularly for the western church, as we awaken to a globalizing world and seek more mission-shaped modes of engagement.


Anonymous said...

sounds really good geoff - thanks for the review... have added it to my wish list.

geoff and sherry said...

no worries gareth.
i would love to hear about your trip stateside...i'm sure there's lots to process re. your time in N.O.
peace to you.