Thursday, September 17, 2015

Book Write-Up: The Story of Monasticism, by Greg Peters

Greg Peters. The Story of Monasticism: Retrieving an Ancient Tradition for Contemporary Spirituality. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015. See here to purchase the book.

Greg Peters is a Benedictine oblate, an Anglican pastor, and an academic who teaches medieval and spiritual theology. His book, The Story of Monasticism, is about the history of Christian monasticism, and reactions to it, from the first century C.E. to the present time. Peters also explores possible implications of monasticism for today’s Christianity, including evangelicalism.

Peters seems to argue against Protestant misconceptions of monasticism, particularly the misconception that monastics were cloistered spiritual elitists who did little to help the outside world. Not only did many monastics set up institutions that helped the vulnerable, Peters contends, but they also aimed to instruct laypeople on how to live a spiritual life, through words, publications, and example. Although Peters is arguing against misconceptions that can probably be identified as Protestant, Peters also holds that historic Protestantism was not thoroughly opposed to monasticism. Prominent Protestant founders maintained that monasticism was acceptable, as long as it expressed gratitude to God for salvation as opposed to trying to attain salvation, and expressed repentance.

I was particularly interested in reading this book to learn more about the origins of Christian monasticism. Peters’ discussion on this topic did not disappoint, although there were occasions when his arguments were a bit of a stretch. Peters was arguing that certain ideas of monasticism are present in the Bible: the Nazirite vow and other vows in the Torah, contemplation of God in the Hebrew Bible, leaving one place to go to another (i.e., the desert) for a religious purpose, and Paul’s reference to people who abstained from sex for spiritual purposes in I Corinthians 7.

Peters is probably correct that some of these concepts set the stage for monasticism, but I would not consider Moses talking with God on the mountain to be an example of contemplation, or Abraham leaving Ur or Haran to go to the Promised Land to be like monastics leaving society to set up religious communities. Maybe there is somewhat of a similarity between monasticism and these biblical ideas, but there are also differences (i.e., Moses was not engaging in a discipline of contemplation, and Abraham was not setting up a monastic community). Peters also speculates that a belief in the imminent end of the world may have encouraged Christians to seek salvation and purity through monasticism, and that is plausible. Moreover, Peters mentions possible predecessors to Christian monasticism (i.e., the Essenes), and he notes in a footnote the existence of monasticism outside of Judaism and Christianity (in Buddhism, for example).

Although Peters’ focus in the book was on Christian monasticism, he would have done well, in my opinion, to have offered brief rationales for Jewish and non-Jewish or non-Christian forms of monasticism, in order to explain the rise of Christian monasticism within the context of monasticism in general. Peters did refer to the scholarly view that Christian monasticism was different from Hellenistic ascetic associations, and that “there is no evidence of cenobitic monasticism until the rise of Christian cenobitism in the fourth century” (page 24), but I was unclear about what the difference was (though Peters does cite an article, which I can read).

There were questions that I had in reading the book: What was the significance of publishing spiritual books for laypeople, when many people in medieval times could not read? Was there an expectation that the social elites would teach others? If people went to monasteries to be saved, what does that say about people outside of the monasteries? According to Peters, monastics went to monasteries to escape temptation and to focus on discipleship, but they still believed that people outside monasteries could be saved. I wondered how they envisioned that taking place.

The book is still an informative resource in detailing the history of Christian monasticism and Christian monastic movements (i.e., the Benedictines, the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Jesuits, etc.). Moreover, Peters did well to offer a taste of monastic spirituality, particularly the obedience, the discipline, the humility, the fellowship, and the solitary contemplation of God that monastics sought to achieve.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from Baker Academic in exchange for an honest review.

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