Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture (Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2010), 164 pages.
Review by Pastor Nathan, January 2014
I once heard Mark Dever point out in passing that Americans descend from the ones who didn’t stay. It’s true: we are a relatively new nation, populated by immigrants. “Consider the interesting gene pool that’s created,” Dever remarked.
Whether it’s genetic or not, there is no doubt that staying put is well nigh un-American. Most American stories involve growing up and moving on. I’ve been reading the Little House on the Prairie series with my daughters and can’t help noticing this pioneer itch to go west, to escape the constraints of civilization.
Today we assume this narrative and take an almost migratory existence for granted. It’s the air we breathe. That is how a culture works. In The Wisdom of Stability Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove helps us see that our air is polluted. That is what a prophet does.
This book defines the odor I have been sniffing and wondering if anyone else was noticing. I am a product of that “culture where success means moving up and out” (46). But God’s providence has superintended my life and led me to pastor an urban church which I am seeking to lead to be a steady gospel presence in a particular place. This book’s theme is one that has become central to my heart and an unshakeable conviction.
I realize, however, that we’re up against mega-forces, what Wilson-Hartgrove describes as “the placelessness that drives ambitious young students to see this university town as a stop on their way to somewhere else” (46). He calls the alternative ‘stability’ and explains that “stability challenges us to question the assumptions of a hypermobile culture” (51). It means “unlearning the habits of a culture that tells us the answer to our problems is always somewhere else” (40). Not just our culture but our economy is stacked against stability. Being rooted in a place with other people is both countercultural and practically difficult. Nevertheless, Wilson-Hartgrove commends stability and makes a compelling case for it.
The Introduction begins with these words:
This is a book about staying put and paying attention. In a culture that is characterized by unprecedented mobility and speed, I am convinced that the most important thing most of us can do to grow spiritually is to stay in the place where we are (1).
Wilson-Hartgrove is upfront with his intentions in writing this book:
I hope to reprogram your default setting. As participants in a mobile culture, our default is to move. God embraces our broken world, and I have no doubt that God can use our movement for good. But I am convinced that we lose something essential to our existence as creatures if we do not recognize our fundamental need for stability. Trees can be transplanted, often with magnificent results. But their default is to stay (5).
I agree. Epic characters like Abraham get a lot of attention in the Bible, which can cause us to think we must uproot and go somewhere else as the quintessential display of piety. But we must keep in mind that God’s goal with Abraham was to establish a people in a place where generations would enjoy and obey God, each man under his own vine and fig tree in his ancestral allotment. Even in the New Testament where the Apostle Paul’s missionary expeditions are recounted, the purpose was to establish healthy, local, self-governing churches in each city that could continue the task of evangelizing their own locale. He writes to the new Christians in one of these churches – “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands” (1Thess. 4:11). This is not what we usually think of when we hear ‘ambition’. We mustn’t confuse God’s will with our wanderlust.
While there are many factors that militate against the church that I serve being this kind of stalwart kingdom outpost, I truly believe that the city can be well-suited to stability. I resonate with the sentiment expressed by a man named Brian on page 65 who was frustrated by “the constant commute from home to work to school to church to shopping centers to playgrounds to home again. ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do everything in one place?’” Yes! This is the genius of a walkable, mixed-use urban neighborhood, as opposed to a suburban one.
However, our urban neighborhoods are often revolving doors. People are community-starved, yet the ethos of transience prevents us from truly experiencing the fellowship we were created for. ‘Hugging the parade’, as some have called it, is often the best we can do, but it is an anemic version of the New Testament’s vision of love within the body. As Wilson-Hartgrove says, “Stability demands that we do the long, hard work of life with other people in the place where we are” (21). He tells the story of a man named Will who moved with his family to be part of a church that took community seriously. After a year “he wasn’t sure that he was experiencing the community he had expected. Frankly, Will had hoped for more. The pastor listened to his misgivings, then asked how long Will and his family had been there. ‘About a year,’ he replied. ‘Then I guess you’ve got about a year’s worth of community,’ his pastor said matter-of-factly. ‘Stay another year and you’ll have two years’ worth. Stay thirty and you might find some of what you’re looking for” (19). Who thinks that way?!
Even for those who have recognized the virtue of stability, staying put is hard. Stability is not just a romantic ideal. It calls for plodding (sometime slogging) through commitments with patience and endurance. Like a marathon runner who ‘hits the wall’, when we’re seeking to practice stability we will inevitably become tired, disillusioned, and tempted to believe that what we need is a change of scenery. This has been experienced before and there’s a name for it – acedia. It is what the desert monks referred to as “the ‘noonday devil’ who attacks after one commits to stay and begins to feel the heat of high noon” (108). It is helpful to be aware of this common interior obstacle we will meet along our journey to stay put.
Wilson-Hartgrove is careful to point out that we are staying put to get somewhere. Stability is part of our individual and communal sanctification, but it is also part of our mission. Even though “our mobile world mocks stability’s tactic of changing the world by rooting ourselves in the ground beneath our feet and in the God who walked among us” (134), this is what the world needs. James Davison Hunter calls it ‘faithful presence’. I think it’s also an effective evangelism strategy.
“This is not to say that the mission of God never calls people to go elsewhere,” Wilson-Hartgrove is quick to acknowledge. “For all of Jesus’ attention to the local scene in Galilee, it is clear from the Gospel accounts that he meant for his disciples to get out with the message about God’s kingdom, even to the ‘uttermost part of the earth’” (140). But as Gerald Schlabach wisely notes – “We should expect authentic stability to nurture the virtues that allow Christians to become mobile in the best of ways – ready to hear the Abrahamic call” (140).
Like any good thing, stability can just as easily become an idol. “If we embrace stability as a countercultural virtue and persevere in the practice of it for even a few years, we may hear vainglory whisper, ‘Don’t give up; people will notice soon’” (123). This is a needed warning. Yet as a general rule, Wilson-Hartgrove is right – “Maybe the single most important thing we can do if we want to grow spiritually is to stay in the place where we are” (39).
These are some of the reasons why I greatly appreciated this book. Now here is why The Wisdom of Stability is not exactly the book I’ve been looking for and why I cannot recommend it to everyone. Wilson-Hartgrove is one of the leading voices in a movement called ‘New Monasticism’ that offers many helpful critiques and laudable practices, but also contains many dangers. The monastic rule – “In whatever place you find yourself, do not easily leave it” – is a good one. But monastic spirituality is confused at best and in many ways detrimental.
At times Wilson-Hartgrove gets close to grounding the call for stability in the grace of the gospel, but it was not explicit or well developed. More often he spoke in ways that contradict the gospel, saying things like: “…if we want to ascend to life with God…” (42); “…if we want our very being to rise up into God’s being…” (51), or “…the commitment to climb Jacob’s ladder in a particular place…” (49). This metaphor of climbing Jacob’s ladder is used throughout. The problem, as Michael Horton has put it, is that “it is not a metaphor of our ascent, but of Christ’s descent; not of our coming to Christ, but of Christ’s coming to us.” That’s what John 1:51 says (compare with Genesis 28:12) – Jesus is the ladder, dropped down from heaven for us! This is a huge difference.
The monastic communities were generally based on this false understanding of man’s ascent to God through religious works, ascetic practices, and the like. This resulted in a retreat from the world to secure one’s own soul with God. Instead, the gospel is about what God has done to secure our souls so that now we can engage with the world. God does not need our good deeds, but our neighbor does. In the gospel we are free to love and serve others through our faithful presence and witness. This seems like such a better theology to undergird the call to stability. There are many applications. For example, because Jesus’ righteousness is our identity we don’t have to traverse the world trying to carve out our own. Or: because we have been irrevocably joined to Christ by grace, we can be content and stop trying to attach ourselves to the next new thing. Or: because God has shown mercy and steadfast love to us in Christ, we can forgive and patiently cultivate love with others, instead of leaving a trail of relationships behind us. This lack of a gospel foundation is the book’s main flaw, and a significant one.
I would also like to have seen more biblical exegesis and theology, although he does deal with one of the most important passages – Jeremiah 29 – in chapter 6. Mostly, this left me wishing that there was a popular level book that shared many of the great insights of this work while drawing from and expounding on the Reformed tradition instead of the Monastic one. I’m not aware of one, but it seems like there are great resources in Luther’s doctrine of vocation and Kuyper’s emphasis on common grace institutions for calling Christians to stop moving every couple years… for the glory of God and the good of Man.