Reading Notes: Practicing the Way of Jesus – Life Together in the Kingdom of Love by Mark Scandrette

urlI first met Mark Scandrette in Glorietta, NM in the fall of 2005. I went to the Emergent Village national gathering, which was filled with bright-eyed wannabe postmodernists, most of whom hadn’t read a lick of Derrida, but were eager to lap up anything that was coming out of this exciting, revolutionary conversation. At this gathering which featured such emerging stars like Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, and Tony Jones, Mark was the person who made the biggest impression on me.

Mark was cool. He did spoken word, he lived in San Francisco, he drank scotch and smoked cigars at a Baptist conference center where this was strictly verboten. But he wasn’t posturing, he wasn’t trying to prove that he was cooler, smarter, more progressive, or post-evangelical than the rest of us. He was comfortable in his own skin and uncompromising in his message that Christians should move from talking about Jesus to actually living like him by engaging in experiments where we take specific actions to follow the teachings of Jesus in our lives. He likened this to a “Jesus dojo.” That this was a radical suggestion is an indictment upon the large swaths of the church that have settled for a vision of Christian faith that is more about information than spiritual formation.

I last saw Mark at the Emergent Forum that took place at Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis in June 2006. It was a pleasure to finally purchase his book, Practicing the Way of Jesus – Life Together in the Kingdom of Love and reconnect through reading it with someone I consider a friend and prophetic voice within the church.

This work has many resonances with another book I recently read, James KA Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom which is a completely different genre of work – systematic or philosophical theology – intended for a technical audience. Smith’s basic thesis is that Christian education – especially post-secondary – should understand itself as a chapel within the cathedral of Christian worship. Education is in service to the formation of disciples, part of the pedagogy of desiring the kingdom of God. For Smith, Christian worship is the place where we practice and perform the way of desiring the kingdom of God so that we are shaped into a people by these actions – prayer, sermon, scripture, sacraments – who live out this desire for the kingdom every day of their lives. Christian worship is an immersion experience into ritualized practices that shape us into the people God has called us to be.

All of this is true, but what does this say to the church on the ground, the Christians who don’t speak or think in terms of academic theology? How can this work be translated in such a way as to be of service to the church? Practicing the Way of Jesus offers a vision of what this might look like.

Scandrette’s thesis is that we need to shift in our image of Christian formation from that of the lecture hall to the karate studio. A lecture is about the transmission and mastery of information, a karate studio is about the transmission and mastery of practices. This may be too simple of a comparison, but it is useful nonetheless.

Scandrette seeks to “offer a practical approach to spiritual formation that is serious about Scripture, action-focused, communal, experiential, and connected to real-world challenges, and opportunities” (15).

He offers the example of an experiment that he lead called Have2Give1. In this experiment, about 30 people met over several weeks to take an inventory of their stuff and give half of it away to the poor in obedience to Jesus’ teaching in Luke 3:11. They donated the proceeds of their efforts to global poverty relief organizations and at the end of the experiment passed out cards at Union Square on Black Friday with nickels glued to a postcard with the scripturally inspired words: “A new way is possible/ See your possession and give to the poor / For where your treasure is there your heart will be also / Ask and you will receive / Seek and you will find / The secret of contentment.” I’ve been in the Gap at Union Square on Black Friday, it looked as if it has been ransacked by looters following some kind of riot. It is into such a situation that the Christian community steps with an alternative vision of the good life.

Scrandrette’s challenge for the church is to move from talk to action. As a Presbyterian this hits very close to home. One of my sarcastic answers to the question, “what does it mean to be a Presbyterian?” Is, “it means to talk about something so much that you think you’ve actually done it.” Scandrette’s challenge is simple:

What if instead of talking about prayer, we actually prayed; or what if in addition to studying about God’s heart for justice, we took action to care for needs? Or what if, instead of just telling each other about our struggles, we committed to a path for change? It seemed like the missing ingredient was a context what would encourage honesty, invite us into community, and move us from information into shared actions and practices (15).

The point isn’t to do away with learning, but to move from an emphasis on passive learning to active learning. The great fear of course is that somehow this will all turn into a Pelagian works-righteousness nightmare. This, I think, is just another cop out. Are people really in danger of trying to earn their salvation by following Jesus too closely? Scandrette makes clear that any thought we can do this on our own apart from God’s power is rubbish, “Anyone who tries to obey these instructions quickly discovers that putting the teachings of Jesus into practice is difficult, if not impossible, without a source of power and love greater than our own” (22).

Scandrette lifts up two different understandings of Jesus: Rabbi and Messiah. Those who emphasize Jesus as Messiah look less to his teachings than his work, especially his atoning death and resurrection. Believing that these set us free from our sins its what is important. Those who emphasize Jesus as Rabbi look to his life and teachings for inspiration. They want to live like Jesus because they believe that he offers a way of life that will allow us to experience a taste of the life of the kingdom here and now. Thankfully, Scandrette doesn’t pit these visions against each other, but instead sees Jesus as Rabbi grounded in Jesus as Messiah. Without the Messianic work of Christ to overcome evil and free the world from sin and rule on our behalf following him as Rabbi is foolishness. This isn’t some new Social Gospel movement or Jesus as Great Moral Teacher, it is instead simply an invitation to the life of discipleship.

The prospect of experiments in practicing the teachings of Jesus is reinvigorating for those of us who came to Christ in a radical moment of conversion, experiencing a paradigm shift in how we understood ourselves and the world, learned a whole lot about Jesus and the Bible, but are left saying, “now what?” Practicing the Way of Jesus offers a fresh step on the journey of discipleship.

A final note about the importance of active learning is its evangelistic value. How can Christians communicate the truth of the gospel in a world that is increasingly skeptical or could care less what Christians believe about sex, money, community, and power? Engaging in these practices offers the church a chance to join in a new and compelling form of witness that invites people to “taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8).

I love James KA Smith’s ideas about worship as a pedagogy of desire, and human beings as fundamentally liturgical animals, that is people whose practices are shaped and reinforced by what they desire most, but Scandrette challenges me to take these ideas and put them into practice. This is a much needed challenge for me today.

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