Young people from Christian backgrounds are flocking to ancient monasticism (called “neomonasticism” , and certainly not related to NeoXenos), pushed along by Emergent Village luminaries like Brian McLaren and Tony Jones. These authors call for retreating into the “Retro Dark Ages” of Christianity when our freedom in Jesus Christ was suffocated by mindless rituals and endless rules. The same, spiritual black hole was sucking the life out of Paul’s early churches, so he wrote unambiguously: “It was for freedom that Christ set us free! Keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery!” (Galatians 5:1) One look at the Didache promoted by Mr. Jones, and “yoke of slavery” springs to mind.
How can the Dark Ages (a.k.a., “Middle Ages”) pull young Christians like Sean Claiborne into the so-called “simple way” of neomonasticism? Our culture is growing increasingly secular, so does it make any sense for Christians to embrace “High Church” liturgies, Celtic chants, and bizarre writings like the Didache? These new, Christian currents may amuse bored kids from tribal Christian homes, but the secular mind is boggled and even repelled by them.
It is entertaining and even educational to watch the CBS News 60 Minutes report on “the holy Mt. Athos” in Greece, an island where 100-plus monasteries are still thriving. Surprisingly, this large network of monasteries can handle only a fraction of the applicants who want to join the monks. (See also part 2 at the CBS Web site.)
The Great Scandal
Mt. Athos is an excellent study in monasticism because their practices remain largely unchanged from the 4th/5th C, when the monkish movements first evolved alongside so-called “Orthodox Christianity” (which was anything but “orthodox” in its respect for the Apostolic age). This was a truly bizarre and violent time in church history, as documented in the Jesus Wars, producing some real weirdos. Read my blog on the Stylites, for example, which was a famous monkish movement in that era – those poor dudes lived their entire lives on a tiny platform perched high in the air. The Stylites were like a 4th C circus act, with crowds gathered below their precarious perches, awed by their antics and tirades (and perhaps waiting for a Stylite to fall from his lofty perch).
The scandal of “Orthodox Christianity” is evident in the 60 Minutes report, although the report was not meant to be an expose. The astute Bible student should easily see the errors that seeped into Church History in this period, forming a Christian “tradition” that bears little resemblance to the Jesus Movement we read in the Bible.
For example, ““When you pray, don’t babble on and on as people of other religions do,” Jesus said. “They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again.” (Matthew 6:7) Yet the monks at St. Athos chant all day long, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me!” Is it possible “they think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again,” as Jesus said?
The “Jesus Way” (or just “The Way”, the Bible calls it) was a practical, powerful lifestyle that brought freedom to the victims of Roman oppression. It spread like wildfire across the Empire, despite ferocious persecution, because it was the “Good News” message of God’s love for humanity not found anywhere else on the planet (still today). Uneducated Roman slaves could understand it, and even became teachers of the Good News. Its freedom became an Outlaw Faith flourishing beneath the radar of the Evil Empire – and Rome was truly an Evil Empire. Its Emperors were so evil, they make Emperor Palpatine (of Star Wars fame) look like a Boy Scout. (Palpatine never lit his gardens with burning, writhing Jedis like Emperor Nero did with the Christians!)
The monkish movements replaced the “Good News” of freedom with an impractical and abstract religion. Watching the 60 Minutes report, the strange religion of the monks is truly mystifying. The bulk of their activity is inconsequential to the real world, despite their strenuous and highly disciplined efforts. For example:
- With only three hours of sleep each night, their days begin at 3 AM! (About the same time NeoXenos college students are going to bed!)
- Only two daily meals are allowed, lasting no more than 10 minutes, and always eaten in silence. (It could be a new way to diet.)
- Eight hours every day is spent in “worship”, which means reciting and singing old chants, intermixed with various Bible readings. This lengthy, liturgical worship is repeated seven days a week! (Perhaps the forerunner of the Modern Singing Worship Service?)
- All day long the monks must keep repeating the same prayer: “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me!” (Is Jesus hard of hearing?)
Their harsh lifestyle brings them closer to Jesus, they say. “There’s no place on earth closer to heaven,” one of the monks says. If so, look forward to an eternity of harsh deprivation in heaven. The repetitious chanting “is a dress rehearsal for a conversation with God,” they claim, which means a rather banal, eternal conversation awaits us all.
NOTE: I should add a qualifier here. There were noble feats and intentions in some of these monastic movements, like the Jesuits, Franciscans, and Benedictines. Most notably, they did not begin as withdrawn, anti-social movements. In each of these cases, sincere souls were fighting corruption in the church hierarchy, and they refocused church resources to help the poor. (Their penchant for developing fine wines should not be overlooked!) The same is true at Mt. Athos — not all their work is inconsequential, since they try to help the poor. Unfortunately, each movement still carried traditions marked by austere legalism which suffocated the love and grace of God through Jesus Christ.