I recently reviewed David Janzen’s The Intentional Christian Community Handbook: For Idealists, Hypocrites, and Wannabe Disciples of Jesus (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2013) for the Shalom Mission Communities Newsletter which comes out in March 2013. It’s a great book and a significant contribution to the intentional Christian communities movement in North America. I felt awkward when David invited me to review it there. I hate being a cheerleader and writing a review of this book for this network of intentional communities seemed like preaching to the choir. I decided I could do it if the review took a more critical approach than I might if I were introducing it to an audience that knew nothing about intentional community. But once I got started I wound up with a review three times longer than they could use: about one-third review and two-thirds critical reflection.
I’ve been a perpetual newcomer to intentional Christian community for twenty-three years at Reba Place Fellowship and have an abiding love-hate relationship with this place. I’ve seen it’s reality up close and been entranced by its ideals, disillusioned more than once by its frailty, and more than once saved by its integrity and resilience. But I long for an intentional community that has everything Reba Place has – plus a whole lot more. Such a desire is exactly what Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned against when he wrote that “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.” (Life Together, 1939).
But communities also require a sacred discontent and a holy restlessness otherwise they become static, lifeless, and bound by tradition. So although it is true that our dream of Christian community must not be loved more than real Christian community our dreams are also real and they must be attended to as potential messengers of both the subconscious and the Holy Spirit.
A major realization for me in reading David’s book and reflecting upon my years at Reba Place is our communal obsession with individualism. Almost every effort at some form of intentional community in twenty-century America has seen individualism as the primary obstacle to its success. Cultural historian Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism (1979) and sociologist Robert Bellah in Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1985) reinforced this communal fear.
I have grown suspicious of “individualism” as the nemesis that authentic community must oppose. I think what we are faced with in our world is not an atomization into isolated personalities but the pull of competing solidarities. In other words the danger is not that people will choose their own individual and distinctive lifestyle that will outweigh their call to community, but that they will remain captive to a competing group identity that even the gravitational force of authentic Christian community cannot shake.
One of the most insidious and demonic of our communal captivities has been whiteness. Many years ago John Miller, one of the founding generation at Reba Place Fellowship, defined the enemies of community as Mars, Mammon, and Me. That focus on militarism, materialism, and individualism has shaped Reba Place in very significant ways. However, in Martin Luther King’s famous 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech he pointed to racism, militarism, and materialism as America’s besetting sins. There is a fascinating similarity and difference between King’s statement and John Miller’s.
In Dr. King’s analysis racism was one of the three biggest obstacles to the Beloved Community. I have often wondered what the intentional Christian communities movement might have looked like if it had set up communal life in opposition to racism rather than individualism. By only structuring ourselves to resist individualism we reinforce our own cultural identities as a predominately, privileged (almost always white) majority. This might be part of the reason why intentional Christian communities continue to struggle with the issue of diversity and a tendency to always prioritize our involvement with each other over our (potential) involvement with any of the communities that our neighbors are part of.
The intentional Christian community movement in its suspicion of individualism has marginalized the need to affirm “individuality”. Individuality is too often confused with individualism. Individuality is not self-centered nor does it necessarily prioritize the needs of the self over those of the community. Individuality merely recognizes that each individual is a unique person with a unique cultural history, set of gifts, and a particular calling and vocation that the community is obligated to recognize, call forth, and ultimately be enriched by. We are not worker bees and we are not interchangeable with each other – even within intentional Christian community.
The community’s expressed opposition to individualism can often take on a racist or sexist character when it stifles the unique cultural or gender contributions that an individual brings to the community. Because of a fear of individualism Christian communities often interpret legitimate individuality as a threat that must be surrendered, put on the cross, or submitted to constant supervision – rather than recognizing, honoring, blessing, and guiding each one’s individuality.
Communities that recognize this danger sometimes attempt to address it through an emphasis upon “spiritual gifts”. But even with this emphasis the breadth of the intentional community’s own structures and mission may not be enough to contain the scope of every individual’s legitimate need to live out their calling and vocation. Intentional communities need boundaries that can continually flex in order to encompass, contain, and benefit from the sacred individuality of each of its members.
The crucial theological belief must be that becoming like Christ only makes us more like Christ – it does not make us more like each other! If anything our maturity in Christ will bring each one of us into our own individual and unique fullness – a fullness that is unlike that of anyone else in our family of origin, our local community, or in the wider body. It is a wondrous mystery that we can all be both unique and united.
A related example from this book (Chapter 15): many intentional communities that structure themselves in defense against individualism often emphasize that our vocation and calling are solely to the kingdom of God and never to a particular type of work and definitely not a “career”. Careers are suspect forms of individualism. This suspicion of career has a valid point in that the type of dedication that a career can demand (and reward) in our economy often poses a major threat to the priorities that an intentional community is seeking to embody. The besetting sin of this disparagement however is that communities often offer feeble support to those who may be called to a particular vocation that is outside of nor can be contained within the limits of the intentional community itself. Ironically outside work is often only evaluated according to it monetary value to the community and not according to its connection with the individual’s sacred identity and calling.
Chapter 15 refers to the “seduction of career”. The use of the word “seduction” in relationship to a career is revealing. There is a sexual undertone to this discussion. Intentional community members are called to a chaste commitment to vows comparable to those of classic monasticism. That career is a seduction implies that it has an adulterous quality that betrays one’s true call to communal fidelity.
The confusion about individualism and individuality can be most oppressive to gifted, educated women who sometimes struggle to find communal affirmation for ambitions outside the circle of community. The central priority in their choices must be a commitment to Christian community. Individualism must be defended against by disparaging their individuality in a way that casts suspicion upon a legitimate careers. When the fear of individualism joins hands with patriarchal blind spots the situation becomes frighteningly similar to the demand that a woman’s ambition must be sacrificed to the nuclear family – or the needs of husband. The woman is expected to make this sacrifice easily. She must find her fulfillment in either the family or the community – there is no other arena for expression. [As a sidenote artists in community often suffer in similar ways because the time and dedication that the artistic path requires (and the poor monetary compensation) are often seen as too individualistic. When an artist is also a woman it is doubly difficult.]
I wonder if non-Christian intentional communities have these same challenges. Is it intentional community that poses these difficulties? Or is the particular expression of Christianity in intentional community at fault?
I could certainly make an argument against the potentially enslaving aspects of career and a society that rewards careerist individualism; taking one away from spouse, family, friends, community, and the dream of God. Careers are not always fulfilling, do not always address godly purposes, nor do they always express the unique soul of the individual. But an argument against careers per se must be made in a way that does not disparage individuality as such; nor omit the need for each one of us to find what psychologist Bill Plotkin calls our “sacred dance” as well as our “survival dance”.
Brandon Rhodes in a wonderful chapter in this book (Chapter 2) on the postmodern context of community discusses the perichoretic dance of the triune God that we are invited to participate in. However I believe that this perichoretic dance has several circles. The dance of community is only one. It is crucial that communities honor, mentor, and bless each one’s sacred individuality. Intentional communities must join in the dance of God which also includes the dance with each other and each one’s unique soul.
Just so there’s no confusion let me clearly state that David Janzen’s Intentional Christian Community Handbook is indispensable for those involved in or interested in intentional Christian community. If anything the concerns I’m stating here surfaced because of the stimulating nature of this volume. My lingering questions are not meant to detract from your need to read this book. I believe in the importance of intentional community and intentional Christian community. This book is the perfect introduction to that project and it will be hard to surpass its breadth and depth. It is a book meant to unearth questions both of the mind and heart. It is a book meant to unearth the weeds that choke out the gospel before it has time to take root and grow. It is a book meant to unearth the life of God buried deep within each one of us, but only achieving maturity as we grow towards maturity in Christ – together as individuals.