Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Book Review: Why We Live In Community

I read a small, fascinating e-book by Eberhard Arnold titled Why We Live In Community last night. Arnold was a German who lived in the later 19th to early 20th century and was the founder of the Bruderhof commuities. His small book, one of his many writings, dealt with the question of why he and others lived in what we might call intentional communities and you can read it for free on an e-reader or .pdf file.

Arnold’s vision is far more radical than anything you see in most of the church. It seems odd and more than a little threatening. It almost seems….alien when compared to our prevailing church culture.

Arnold’s vision combines the familial nature of the church with an emptying of self that pivots around the community of goods. He bases this not only in Scripture (Acts 2 and 4 specifically) but also in human nature and experience. For example, Arnold retells the story of two monks who live without possessions. The story is not terribly interesting but his point is:

Most important – the real theological content of the story – is that what really starts fighting is possessions. And people get into fights by preferring things to people.

Think about that for a minute. Preferring things to people. How many unnecessary things do each of us have laying around the house that we couldn’t live without while other Christians go hungry or can’t pay their heating bills or can’t afford medical care. This is not crackpot leftist dogma. This is really happening all around us but suggestions that we as God’s people give up some of our creature comforts to benefit a brother, even very modest suggestions like those in David Platt’s book “Radical”, are met with a firestorm of outrage.

Eberhard Arnold realized that living in the sort of community that the Bruderhof communities do is not necessarily the calling of all Christians nor do I agree with all of his points (although the ones I do have issues with are more pragmatic than Scriptural) but it does raise for me some troubling questions. Most importantly, why don’t we live in community? Could it be that we love our autonomy, our freedom, our wealth and possessions more than each other? Is the idea of that sort of closeness and openness in this life scary to people who affirm in theory that sort of relationship in eternity? Perhaps most troubling, could it be that we fear living community in whatever shape it takes because we don’t really believe what we read in the Bible, just as we don’t seem to believe so much of what Jesus taught or how He lived or what He commanded? Is it just easier to live lives of religious observance and to find ways to nitpick and divide from one another so that we can justify our disunity? These are troubling questions but they are hammering me.

I have a lot more to say about this but it will have to wait to tomorrow when perhaps I will be less fired up.


Arlan said...

I have turned the question of communal living over in my head a few times because I don't agree with the knee-jerk reaction that the New Testament community was a cultural and historical peculiarity. Quite seriously, then: should we be living in community?

The downside to Christians living in community is that there's no salt in the pot; the light is in an empty room. I know this isn't totally true - everyone has SOME interaction with the rest of the world - but, painting with broad strokes, I see the assembling of the church as the retreat of the redeemed into community, while ordinarily they are living as sojourners.

Christian communal living then takes place when Christians are expelled from regular society. Having no other community, they become a community unto themselves. This can certainly apply to former Jews in Jerusalem, and I think it is seen readily enough throughout the history of the persecuted church.

I don't take lightly the contention that Christian community should be closer. It should. But the foundation of intentional community seems to me, in the last analysis, to ignore the intentions of God in placing us in the world. We dislike the world as he has left it to us and we prefer the world to come, so we stage a walk-out.

If you are truly not conformed to the image of this world, the sacrifice is living in it anyway.

Arthur Sido said...


That is the real challenge. How do we have real, intentional community without retreating from the very world we are called to witness to?

We looked into the Hutterite and Bruderhof communities a few years ago and have some friends that are Hutterites. They do as much outreach as any other church group we have met but the community still takes precedence over the "world". They can also stray into legalism where community of goods is concerned. On the other hand they seem very close knit, caring for one another and caring for the children in the community and the elderly alike.

So there must be a way to have both intentional community and Gospel outreach. Some communities in urban areas seem to be doing this. I half think that what we need to have happen in this country to see this become a reality is to have Christianity, genuine Christianity, torn from its comfortable cultural identity, becoming once again a people on the margins and outcasts.

I must admit this drives me crazy. I am so desirous of this sort of community but also very leery of withdrawal from the world. We live amid a large Amish population and that means lots of Amish who have left the Amish way and they seem to all have a tough time being witnesses to the world. So I don't know what needs to happen, just that I know that something needs to change...

Arlan said...

Certainly a challenge. I am quite sure I am letting down my responsibility to be a light. Picture me as one of those "solar powered" outdoor lights that is barely visible an hour after sunset.

I am not sure the Hutterite/Bruderhof/Amish approach is always wrong. It seems to be as legalistic as any other form of religion, if easier on the eyes, but then I don't think all of THOSE legalists are reprobate either.

I am only convinced that if I sought such a community, from where I am now, it would be to satisfy MY image of Christian living. We don't like redemption, we want victory; then and now.

In communal living, especially with gentle women and careful handiwork and plentiful children, you have my golden calf. And so I wait in the barren wilderness for Moses to come down from the mountain.

Josh L said...

I'm a fan of Arnold's. I've never read this particular book but have wanted to for some time. Thanks for your review. You raise some good questions for all of us to consider.

Josh said...

I'm a fan of Arnold's. I've never read this particular book but have wanted to for some time. Thanks for your review. You raise some good questions for all of us to consider.