Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Radical Wesley: Introduction...

I am most definitely reading a book that should blow my mind. It has been in my sights for a long time and now I have a chance. It is "The Radical Wesley & Patterns for Church Renewal" by Dr. Howard Snyder.

Howard Snyder is a Free Methodist thinker who tends to be on the more radical side himself. He is deeply involved in the creation-care movement. He was involved in South American church life for years. He currently teaches Wesley Studies at Tyndale University College and Seminary in Canada. All in all, a prophet, who wrote way before his time.

Recently I had a chance to sit down with him. When I visited Asbury Theological Seminary in an attempt to decide if I would relocate there to finish the M.Div., I had a short list of three that I just had to meet. I was bold and emailed all three and all three were gracious enough to give me some time. I wanted to meet Donald Demaray (our signals got crossed and we didn't meet), Dr. Ben Witherington (my intellectual hero) and Howard Snyder (A Radical Free Methodist who modeled something close to what I desire). 

Snyder was gracious and confident. We sat in a small library (the size of an office) with a closed door. We had never met and I am 45 years his minor yet we talked for nearly an hour and half... well, mostly me asking him questions and trying to glean the wisdom being offered. I asked him about pastoral ministry, how to cope with living out a radical gospel in a world and denomination that despises radical, his diagnosis of the future or the church (denominationally and otherwise). Sincerely, without over-idealizing the situation, it was a fantastic opportunity and time together.

My dilemma was that I had only read articles from him, which can be found on his website here. He has had some acclaimed books out (on my list to read), "The Problem of Wineskins" and "The Radical Wesley & Patterns for Church Renewal." I should probably read Wineskins first, but I'm a radical :). Also, I have his biography on B. T. Roberts "Populist Saints: B. T. and Ellen Roberts and the First Free Methodists" but am too afraid of the massive leviathan that awaits :).

So here is my interaction with the introduction.

It starts off wonderfully with a story about John Wesley ("the small man") preaching. This moves quickly into Wesley's impact on history and personality. There is great content in this introduction. I am glad I didn't skip it like I do with most books.

We see, already, a brilliant separation of Wesley's organizing ability from his evangelizing. "Wesley, the master organizer, never built a great evangelistic organization" (p. 2). It is pointed out that the organizing was done for Christians and evangelism for non-believers. This is mind blowing. That Wesley, who was so A-type, probably to the point that none of us would actually like him for a friend, yet a personal hero of mine, was so organized but didn't let that get in the way of his evangelism. It wasn't a Billy Graham or Louis Palau type thing, where thousands of mailers were sent out, phone calls made, add a sick concert on the front and then preach a sermon with a massive altar call. This was one man, riding into town on horse back, starting to preach in the town square and thousands would literally be drawn to the Holy Spirit.

I thought Snyder made a great remark about the western brand of Christianity when he said, "Perhaps the church today can learn new things from John Wesley. People, even the born-again kind, are notoriously weak at holding together paradoxes which belong together - like the Spirit and the Word, the private and the social, or 'things old and new' (Mt. 13:52). Yet true renewal in the church always weds the new insights, ideas and methods with the best elements from history" (p. 3). This seems to get at the fundamental issue for me found in modern evangelicalism. The holding together of paradox. The least shall become greatest. Life is found in the sacrifice of life. Christ is victorious through the cross and death. It is paradox that we try to explain away and with it goes our faith. I believe is was Chesterton who attributed part of his conversion to paradoxes. That since there were paradoxes in the Christian faith, he found something beautiful and truthful in it. You can read about Chesterton's writings about "The Paradoxes of Christianity" in his book "Orthodoxy."

Next, Snyder defends Wesley, mostly from the devouring of his people, who "have sometimes been rather apologetic about Wesley's theological work..." (p. 4). He contends that Wesley was both a "practitioner" and "theologian" and that "both really were one" (ibid).

My only contention with the book/introduction so far is that Snyder seems to have widely different thesis statements for the book. He seems to suggest that the book is about varying topics, seemingly unrelated:
  • (As stated above) "This book looks at Wesley both as practitioner and as theologian."
  • "The key question is: What is the shape of our life together as the people of God? I believe that Wesley can help us precisely at these points. So this book examines John Wesley - not just Wesley the Anglican but also Wesley the radical. My aim is to understand Wesley better by viewing him from an angle too often ignored and to search for insights needed in the contemporary church."
  • Between the connection of Methodism and Anabaptism: "This book suggests that significant relationship does in fact exist, and that is hinges primarily on ecclesiological questions rather than on historical continuity. The purpose of this book is, in part, to explore the purpose of this relationship."
  • "In these pages I delve into Wesley's view of the church and Christian discipleship to see not only what Wesley believed, but also how his views may help earnest Christians today."
I may be wrong, and I hope I am, but it seems like 3 unique hypotheses, (1) that Wesley was more than a pracitioner, he was a great theologian, (2) that we will be exploring what life looks like in the church through radical Wesley and (3) we will also be exploring the connection between two sub-groups of protestantism without much historical connection. I don't think I could pull off a great book with these three as my aim, but maybe that is why he is the teacher and I am the student. Also, he doesn't assume this will be easy, especially in the connecting of the two traditions. He conveys it this way, "The relationship between early Methodism and Anabaptism remains largely unexplored. Since two hundred years and major cultural differences separate the two movements and there are almost no direct historical links..." (p. 6). The author seems to know that this is going to be a difficult task, I'll be watching to see how he does.

One final awesome quote:
"Part of Wesley's problem -- or rather, our problem with Wesley -- is that he doesn't fit the molds in which we place him. We are not used to a popular mass evangelist who is also a university scholar, speaks several languages, knows classical and Christian authors by heart, and publishes his own English dictionary. Nor are we any better prepared to handle an evangelist who is also a social reformer or a theologian who preaches several times daily, develops his own discipling and nurturing system, sends out teams of traveling preachers, and publishes a home medical handbook that goes through twenty-some editions!" (p. 7).

If I am going to make it through this book interaction, I really need to stop quoting large sections from every page :). Hope you enjoy...

Blessings!

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