Stuart Murray's The Naked Anabaptist:
The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith (2010)
Review by Ron Dart
The main title is catchy, the subtitle alluring and inviting. What are naked Anabaptists and who does not want a radical faith? The invitation is there. Will the call of the Neo-Anabaptists be heeded? Surely, the time has come to leave, mostly, a 2000 year (except the Anabaptists and a few other dissidents) view of Christendom and imperial Christianity and enter the challenges of the Post-Christendom era and ethos. But, wait---is it that simple?
The Naked Anabaptist works a variety of levels. It is a challenge to Mennonite communities to peel off layer upon layer of historic traditions and clothing that have brought security and warmth, but also obscured the simple, plain and naked core of the tradition. This is, of course, the first problem with the missive. Who defines the naked and bare essentials of the Anabaptist way? Murray’s chapter (7), ‘The Original Anabaptists’, makes it abundantly clear that there were serious differences between Swiss, South German/Austrian and North German/Netherland Anabaptism. The 1st generation of Anabaptists from Sattler-Denck-Marpeck-Hubmaier-Grebel-Hoffman-Simons (let us exclude the Munster debacle) did have their differences and none would fully or uncritically genuflect before the ‘7 Core Convictions’ that Murray lists and ponders as bare essentials. So, who speaks for an authentic Anabaptism or is such a question, itself, a question? Murray is certainly putting forth a suggestive and normative lead that is still in the process of being reworked. Which Anabaptists will accept the ‘7 Core Convictions’ and which will not and why? But, my doubts go much deeper than this minor in house quibble.
There are more profound problems, though, with this troubling tract for the times. Murray tends to indulge in historic clichés when interpreting Christian history. The comic book version and caricature of Christian history that Murray is an evangelist of unfurls and unfolds in this simplistic manner. Once upon a time, there was a pure form of Christianity in which most followed in the footsteps of Jesus (first three centuries) and his heroic and commendable life style. Then came that nasty Constantine and the Church bowed to imperial power and did so, for the most part, for more than 1000 years. But, up from the grave the Anabaptists arose in the 16th century, and in their prophetic clarity and witness, lived lives that embodied and reflected the life of Jesus (imperfectly yet significantly) in opposition to those compromised protestant reformers and the equally compromised Roman Catholic Church. The Orthodox view of the church does not appear in this read of history. The mainstream Church, for the most part, continued to worship at the shrine of Caesar. The Constantinian Fall thesis is so silly that only the naïve and those with a serious case of amnesia would accept such a Sunday School read of history. Does Murray truly expect those who are grounded in the mother church traditions of the Patristic Era to accept the notion that Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, Benedict, Chrysostom, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus (best known Fathers of the West and East) genuflected to imperial power and turned the church into a lapdog of the state? But, the Constantinan Fall thesis (although not much more than a relic of shallow history) does play into this simplistic read of history. Surely, in our day, when a broader ecumenism is at work, this sort of approach is more divisive than about making peace between traditions. It is simply not just or peaceful to demean or distort the much larger Christian Tradition.
Murray has the rather odd notion, also, that there is a direct link between a sort of anarchist New Testament notion of the early church (hardly accepted by most church historians), 16th century Anabaptist ecclesiology and many of the multiple and fragmented postmodern emerging congregations.
This emerging church model tends to yet further fragment the church at a formal and material level rather than uniting the body of Christ. Surely, if peace and love are about nothing else, they are about overcoming division and divisiveness for the higher ground of unity.
Murray holds high the importance of justice and peace (as if the more historic church traditions had not thought long and hard about these issues and lived such concerns in complex times) but never really defines or unpacks in a meaningful manner how these ancient and time tried notions are to be thought through and lived forth beyond the usual platitudes.
Murray also seems to think the Anabaptists just sort of appeared in their prophetic uniqueness in the 16th century as radicals who turned to the real vision of Jesus. The fact was, though, many of the early Anabaptists were students of the Peace Abba of the 16th century (Erasmus). It was the Roman Catholic Erasmus (and many of the RC Humanists) who mediated many of the ideas of 1st generation Anabaptists, and many contemporary Mennonites like Abraham Freisen (Erasmus, the Anabaptists, and the Great Commission: 1998) realize this all so clearly. I wonder why Murray does not note these obvious connections and many more like them. Certainly Erasmus and friends did not walk the extra mile to serve the powerful. But, such obvious historic realities don’t seem to fit Murray’s interpretive agenda—better to ignore, I suppose, the facts when theory and facts collide. The momentum of the reigning idea must run over any of the facts that get in the way.
We are told that naked Anabaptism in its postmodern appearance will be committed to the narrative and life of Jesus in the areas of simplicity, community, justice, peace and a certain suspicion of war and statism. Murray is, obviously, suggesting that an authentic faith is more than just an intellectual assent to creeds and confessions or an academic study of the Bible---it’s much more about living the life of Jesus---who would disagree? But, Jesus’ final priestly prayer (John 14-17) was about unity not postmodern fragmentation. I’m always somewhat amused when keeners for the Bible, Jesus or the Holy Spirit talk incessantly about faithfulness to the Bible, Jesus and the Holy Spirit yet do little to unite the church that Jesus and the Holy Spirit held so high as did St. Paul. ‘We believe in ONE, holy, catholic and apostolic church’---so goes the Creed that reflects an essential read of the New Testament. My experiences of those who talk the most about following Jesus and openness to the Holy Spirit are often those who further divide up the body of Christ. Why are those who keep pushing the button of a radical faith not radical enough to work on uniting the body of Christ? Radical talk is often a code word for further disunity and divisiveness.
Murray, to his credit, does not simply idealize and romanticize Anabaptism either of the 16th century or 21st century variety. The final chapter (8) ‘Anabaptism Today’ is a thoughtful and reflective few pages on both the limitations and worrisome aspects of Anabaptism-Mennonites but a commitment to find the gold in the tradition and mine it for all it is worth. Some of the trendy emerging church types such as McLaren, Sine and Boyd are brought in to bolster such a position.
The Naked Anabaptist is a product of the Neo-Anabaptist movement in England-Ireland that is connected to the London Mennonite Centre. The Anabaptist Network is, in some senses, an extension of the London Mennonite Centre. It is intriguing that Murray, being in England (heartland of the historic Anglican way) mentions three times (p. 26, 120 & 153-154) that article 38 of the 39 Articles of the Church of England (1563) raises serious questions about Anabaptism, but article 38 must be seen within the historic context of the Schleitheim Confession, Munster, some forms of Anabaptist communalism (selective reads of the New Testament) and other more extreme and unbalanced Anabaptist tendencies. It is this sort of buck shot approach to reading and interpreting other Christian traditions that worries me. Surely, Christian unity and peacemaking will not be accomplished by caricaturing other classical forms of Christianity.
The Naked Anabaptist is brought to a close with an analogy of various instruments in an orchestra. Murray suggests that the Anabaptist musicians-instruments have not been heard as well as they should have been with the larger symphony of the Christian faith. There is some truth to this, and the best insights of the Anabaptist way do need to be heard. But, such an instrument will not be heard if those who play it are constantly dismissing and caricaturing the other ecclesial instruments in the symphony---this is a serious flaw in this book and by many who are unquestioning disciples of postmodern emerging church spirituality and ecclesiology. A symphony is about a gathering at a formal and material level of different musicians-instruments for the purpose of producing a most compelling sound that evokes within the soul a longing for the highest and truest, but when musicians turn on one another, fragmentation occurs—sadly so, this is the sordid tale of much of Christianity. We are in a desperate need for ecclesial visionaries that will overcome the tribalism of the past for a higher unity and concord.
It seems to me The Naked Anabaptist goes in the opposite direction by pandering to the emerging church tradition of further divisiveness and dismissal of the ancient faith.
The Naked Anabaptist is divided into 8 chapters with an ‘Introduction’, ‘Appendix’ and ‘Study Guide’ to wind down the book. I must admit I found the book paper thin, dated in its read of Christian history, out of touch with the turn to the Great Tradition, simplistic in excess in its notion of the church, lacking any real understanding of the complex nature of political philosophy and pandering to the naïve but historically ungrounded. If this is what the bare essentials of a radical faith are, there is not much radical
about it nor does it faithfully reflect the best of the Anabaptist-Mennonite way. The way forward in faith is not going to occur by negating, distorting or simplifying the fullness and breadth of the Christian Tradition. It will only occur by embracing the sheer comprehensiveness of the wisdom of the centuries. We do not need more petty and reactionary advocates of reductionistic Christian traditions. We are much more in need of large minded men and women who can articulate and live forth the fullness of the ancient way in the church and world rather than retreating to a limited tradition and calling this a radical faith.
Yes, for sure, read The Naked Anabaptist, but realize in the reading, the trendy formulas will neither convince nor compel those that call the Great Tradition their historic hearth and home.