The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith
Stuart Murray. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2010. 191 pages.
My first reaction to Stuart Murray’s The Naked Anabaptist was curiosity mixed with skepticism about what a quasi-Mennonite from the UK might have to say about Anabaptism. As it turns out, he has a fair bit to say, and does so from a refreshingly non-ethnocentric perspective that may challenge the preconceptions of some readers. What is more, Murray’s book is both brief and accessible enough to be inviting to the lay person as well as the scholar.
On first reading, Stuart Murray’s story resonated with me because like me, he came to embrace Anabaptism out of theological conviction as an adult, not because he grew up in the tradition. The freshness of the impact of distinctive Anabaptist characteristics has compelled not only Murray, but also many church leaders in the UK to rethink the way in which they live out their lives as church. From organization to meeting location to purpose statements, churches connected with the Anabaptist Network (a loosely organized connection of churches in the UK and Ireland interested in the Anabaptist tradition) represent a significant departure from conventional forms of church there. Many who have grown up in the Anabaptist tradition would benefit from reflecting on the insights Murray offers, and understand in new ways what they may perceive to be old and mundane ideas.
Murray’s synopsis of Anabaptism is both succinct and well attuned to the historical origins of the movement. On the whole, Murray’s treatment is well thought out without being ponderous, and his academic training in Anabaptist history is evident. He paves the way for helpful reflection by creating a solid informational foundation on which to build. Murray’s handling of the Anabaptist tradition bridges well the divide between the initial sixteenth-century agenda and the present day. His organization of material is based not only upon historical expressions, but also on the core convictions expressed by the Anabaptist Network as a way of articulating fidelity to the tradition.
The tone of the book is optimistic, but I am not sure it can live up to the promise of delivering “the bare essentials of a radical faith.” First of all, the degree to which the essence of Anabaptism can be distilled out and articulated systematically ought not be overestimated. I have no grave issues with the theological agenda Murray sets out, but it is clear that the insights coming from members of the Anabaptist Network in the UK are unique to that locale, and may or may not correspond to how Anabaptist theology might play out in Canada, or in the global south. While the title is catchy, I am not certain how helpful talk about “naked” Anabaptism is. More than simply an embodied tradition, Anabaptism is in large part a theology of intentional dissidence: Anabaptist theology arose historically out of reaction against, and conversation with, prevailing theologies and ideologies. Anabaptist theology is methodologically dynamic, which means that it is problematic to imply that there is a singularly representative set of theological principles that define it.
Closely related to this is the clear influence of American Mennonite thought on Murray’s theological agenda. The imprint of twentieth-century Mennonite theology is obvious, and while this is not troubling in and of itself, the degree to which Murray seems to assume its Anabaptist normativity is worrisome. While their contribution to Anabaptism is important, it is debatable whether American Mennonites should be considered the legitimate heirs of the sixteenth-century Anabaptists. Theologically, as well as culturally, this book would benefit from a broader cross-section of Anabaptist contributors than the American Mennonites upon whom Murray relies, especially because American Mennonite readings of the tradition have led to emphases that other Anabaptists may not find congenial. For example, Murray’s advocacy for interactive preaching (67) may not resound with many; similarly, his reflection on church discipline (105–6) may not coincide with the experience of many. At several points, it occurred to me that Murray’s book might be more appropriately titled “The Naked Mennonite.”
The other concern I have about Murray’s approach to Anabaptist theology is that he appears quite hopeful about the degree to which Christians may incorporate Anabaptist principles into their existing theological frameworks. I appreciate Murray’s gracious approach, but wonder how well it coheres with a movement that has historically formed around an intentional dissidence relative to cultural and ecclesiastical institutions. Murray states his case simply: “Our experience is that many pick and choose the elements they find most helpful from Anabaptism without embracing the entire tradition” (112). While I agree that Anabaptists must continually engage in the dynamic process of articulating and incarnating Anabaptist theology anew in a changing and increasingly pluralistic environment, the idea of picking and choosing does not sit well with me. I have understood Anabaptist theology to stand or fall as a whole, and do not consider the imbibing of Anabaptist influence to be the same as becoming Anabaptist. I believe that, perhaps inadvertently, Murray has highlighted the problem of contemporary hipster Anabaptism, a problem in which the advancement of supposedly Anabaptist principles by postmodern and emerging/emergent writers may blunt the impact of Anabaptism even as such writers raise its profile.
Such concerns notwithstanding, I commend Stuart Murray for a useful book and a thought-provoking contribution to the ongoing conversation about what it is to be Anabaptist in the contemporary world. The Naked Anabaptist has rightly proven popular, and ought to continue to be so.