Is there, or should there be, editor David Weaver-Zercher asks in the preface to this volume, something distinctive about the scholarship produced by Anabaptist Christians? The essays in this remarkable book provide a ringing affirmation of Yes! to both questions.
One of the most distinctive dimensions of Anabaptist scholarship is the way Anabaptist scholars remind one anotheras the title of this book suggeststo mind the church. Mind the church? Most scholars, even in church-related institutions of higher learning, would find this language jarring. Mind the church? Scholars are taught to cultivate the life of the mind and to do so for the sake of the discipline, perhaps for the academy, and more rarely still for the larger community. But mind the church? What could this language possibly mean?
It means, quite simply, that scholars in the Anabaptist tradition do their work on behalf of the church, even as the mission of the church inspires the direction their work will take. The church in this context is not a community of happenstance, but a story-formed community, one shaped by the collective memory of persecution and martyrdom, on the one hand, and by the shared commitment to an upside-down kingdom, on the other. As Shirley Showalter points out in the books final essay, Scholarship that is committed to an upside-down kingdom will be rigorously defiant, asking questions about ideas and systems that the comfortable and powerful may not think of (or conveniently ignore). Such is the nature of scholarship that minds the church.
Because the Anabaptist community is story-formed, it is fitting that the essays in this book conform to the genre of personal narrative. In keeping with that genre, perhaps it is also fitting for me to share my story of how I discovered the Anabaptist tradition and have learned from it what it might mean to mind the church amid academic work.
In spring 1965, while a student at the Harding Graduate School of Religion in Memphis, Tennessee, I determined to become a college professor in the field of church history. At the time I had no sense whatsoever that the Anabaptist tradition would shape my sense of vocation in profound and far-reaching ways. Indeed in 1965 I dont think I knew what an Anabaptist was.
Then, in fall 1966, I enrolled in a masters program in church history at Abilene Christian University. During my first semester at ACU, one of my professors, Dr. Everett Ferguson, suggested I read Franklin H. Littells The Origins of Sectarian Protestantism. Dr. Ferguson could not have known at the time how pivotal this book would become for my own spiritual and academic development.
As I read this text, I was fascinated, even dumbfounded. For I learned there about a church that sounded remarkably like my own. That may not seem like such a significant discovery, but it was significant for one important reason: We in the Churches of Christ believed the Christian church had, shortly after the days of the apostles, experienced a disastrous fall from its original purity. We believed that fall had infected all of Christian history and that the church in virtually all its manifestations was still badly corrupted. We, however, were part of a movement dedicated to recovering the purity of the Golden Age of the Christian faith. By definition, then, we stood separate and apart from other Christian traditions, and I was fairly confident that we stood alone in all of Christian history. Now, I found myself stunned and amazed to learn from Littell that the dominant theme in the thinking of the main-line Anabaptists was the recovery of the life and virtue of the early church.
What struck me about these Anabaptists was not only their commitment to the task of restoration. I was also impressed that they invested the restoration vision with a depth of meaning and commitment I had not encountered in my own tradition. For example, we in the Churches of Christ had almost always defined the restoration vision in terms of forms, patterns, and polity concerns. We asked questions like, How was the ancient church organized? How was it governed? How did it worship? What was the proper form of baptism? What was the proper form and frequency for the Lords Supper? While we didnt ignore the question of meaning undergirding all these issues, we seldom placed that question front and center.
On the other hand, the Anabaptists defined the restoration vision in terms of personal and corporate discipleship. These were their key questions: What did it mean to be a disciple of Jesus in the earliest days of the church? According to the New Testament documents, what demands should discipleship make today? What would the community of the faithful look like in terms of lifestyle commitments? In terms of their relationship to the larger culture? In terms of their relationship to the state? Despite my restorationist background, these were questions I had never been taught to ask.
The Anabaptist tradition had captured my imagination with a whole new way of understanding the Christian faith. Yet this new way was grounded in the old way with which I was completely familiar: the goal of restoring the ancient Christian faith.
I was so taken by the Anabaptist vision that I decided to focus my M.A. thesis on a comparison of the Anabaptist movement with my own tradition, with particular reference to the ideal of restoration. That thesis, in turn, eventually became the basis for my first published article, A Comparison of the Restitution Motifs of the Campbells (1809-1830) and the Anabaptists (1524-1560), which appeared in Mennonite Quarterly Review in October 1971.
More important, the Anabaptist vision slowly began to work its way into the deepest recesses of my heart, especially as I realized the extent to which this vision squared with Jesus own teachings. Gradually, as I matured, I discovered that I had become an Anabaptist in a very real sense, though I have never abandoned my commitment to the Churches of Christ.
Once I completed my graduate studies and undertook my chosen career, I was forced to ask, What difference do my Anabaptist commitments make for teaching, scholarship, and the life of the mind? The answer seemed fairly obvious. If Anabaptism calls one to countercultural living, it calls the scholar to countercultural teaching and countercultural scholarship. That meant dedicating my life to inspiring my students to similar countercultural commitments. This I have sought to do in various ways over the course of more than thirty years of teaching.
Such teaching, though, can be terribly risky, especially in institutions where the majority of students hold an understanding of Jesus far removed from the Anabaptist vision. Several years ago, while teaching in Pepperdines London program, I chose to use Donald Kraybills The Upside-Down Kingdom as a text in an introductory course on the New Testament. One day a student angrily denounced both Kraybills book and me. If this is what Jesus is all about, he said, then forget it.
It struck me then with enormous forcethough I had known this all alongthat many of our students are not terribly interested in lessons on countercultural living. Most, perhaps, see their baccalaureate degree as a ticket to the good life, not as a point of entry into the world of upside-down service and radical discipleship.
After that class, I took the elevator up to the faculty flat in Pepperdines London facility. The students comment had depressed me no end, and I shared my despondency with my wife, Jan. She responded, Just consider yourself a missionary. I found her words enormously meaningful, and I quickly realized that I had always been a missionary of sortsthat I had always done my teaching and my scholarship while minding the gospel and minding the church. I realize todayespecially after reading the essays in this bookthat my commitment in this regard owes much to the Anabaptist vision I encountered at Abilene Christian University over thirty years ago.
I only wish I had read this book at that time, for here, between these pages, readers will be able to listen to a variety of Anabaptist scholars, representing a variety of academic disciplines, reflect on what it might look like to do ones teaching and scholarship while minding the church, what it might mean to engage in countercultural teaching and thinking, and what, after all, is truly distinctive about scholarship done from the heart of the Anabaptist tradition. For all these reasons, this book stands as a sterling contribution to the growing body of literature that explores the meaning of higher education in the Christian genre.
Minding the Church orders:
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