A Carnival for Christ: The "New Monastics" Look for Ways to Be in the World but Not of It

By Andersen, Josh | Sojourners Magazine, January 2007 | Go to article overview

A Carnival for Christ: The "New Monastics" Look for Ways to Be in the World but Not of It


Andersen, Josh, Sojourners Magazine


EAST TENNESSEE SWELTERS IN THE SUMMER. Everywhere there are mosquitoes and sunburns and the constant clamor of air conditioning. But in a particular valley last June, a new sound joined the cacophony.

At a farm just south of Knoxville, radical sermons mingled with the sounds of avant-garde music, a "bartering barn" overflowed with the trading of folks interested in creating an alternative (cash-free) economy, and the sound of celebration--of a raucous family reunion--filled the fields.

The reunion was called PAPA Festival (People Against Poverty and Apathy), and the family consisted largely of "New Monastics," a movement of young people gravitating toward intentional, communal living in America's inner cities.

It is an extended family of people such as Leah Eads, of Evansville, Ind., a soft-spoken young woman who finds herself frustrated with the disconnect between the things Jesus preached and the way mainstream churches in Evansville choose to follow.

"Big, rich, white, suburban," she says of many churches in her hometown. "[They have] the best intentions, don't want to be greedy, but somehow [are] pretty isolated from the poor and real needs. It's easier to give a check in the offering plate, which ultimately goes to pay the electricity and the air conditioning for the building and the huge staff, and doesn't do a lot for the poor in your own community, much less the rest of the world."

Leah shades her face from the pounding sun and smiles at the concept of New Monasticism being, in fact, new. "I think there's always a pocket of this," she says, referring to the New Monastic emphasis on unplugging from societal structures while simultaneously trying to change them. "My parents brought me up this way so I'm thrilled to see so many other people. At the same time it still feels like a very small group."

BUT "'SMALL" IS always a relative term. Leah was one of 500 attendees at the PAPA Festival, most of whom share a concern both for people who are poor and for the direction of mainstream churches.

"I really feel like Jesus had a message of radical lifestyle that a lot of Christians aren't living out," says 18-year-old Jeremiah Barker, of Derby, Vt. "And I feel that the communities that are represented here actually do."

Barker is referring to communities such as the Simple Way in Philadelphia and the Rutba House in Durham, N.C., places where people have renounced the materialism, violence, and individuality of mainstream culture by committing themselves to simple, intentional living based on a set of 12 "marks of a new monasticism" (see page 35) adopted at a 2003 gathering in Durham. The word "movement" has been attached to the communities and created enough buzz to grab the attention of mainstream media and church leaders around the globe.

The festival gathered Monasties and similarly minded friends from as far away as Seattle, Oakland, Calif., and Belize. Sermons, learning sessions, and music threaded through the weekend and covered such diverse territory as "The Social Ethics of Hospitality," "Earth Care in the Language of Economics," and "Introduction to Straw Bale Building." Shane Claiborne, one of the founders of the Simple Way and a self-proclaimed "theological prankster," taught attendees how to juggle, and Aaron Weiss, lead singer of the band Me Without You, walked a group of eager listeners through the process of converting a diesel vehicle to run on recyeled kitchen grease.

The festival married the color and energy of a carnival with the fervor of a revival service. Replacing the particular asceticism of "old" monasticism were dreadlocks, rock music, and lots of tattoos.

Many festival attendees lamented over what they perceive to be a significant disconnect between the mainstream church (an institution from which many of them came) and the ideals they see represented in the gospel. Some wandered into the world of secular activism but were equally discontent. …

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