Stuart Murray. The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2010.

We are all familiar with the emerging church, a movement that, when coupled with new monasticism, can be credited with an incredible amount of theological and ecclesiastical reform in recent decades. Beginning in the early nineties, pastors and thinkers began to envision a robust Christianity beyond what they perceived as the stale fundamentalism that dominated much of the religious landscape. From the pastoral insights of Tony Jones and Brian McLaren to the theological explorations of Peter Rollins and Kester Brewin, the emerging church embodies what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari call a rhizomatic approach. That is, the emerging church takes after the rhizome, a fungus root system that resembles a network of relations, rather than an arborescent system of roots that resemble a hierarchy.[1] The emerging church, particularly in the work of Rollins, seeks to take certain insights of postmodern philosophy to the church.[2] Many books and reviews have been written in reaction to a perceived moral relativism in the emerging church, as well as a concern for the liberal hermeneutics employed by the movement,[3] but this is not one of them. Instead, this review considers another movement of reform, a movement that we may not associate with the same values or vision as the emerging church, but a movement that can challenge us all the same, the Anabaptists.

In his book The Naked Anabaptist, Stuart Murray, a consultant for the Anabaptist Network in the United Kingdom and a specialist in church planting, the emerging church, and urban missions, provides an introduction to Anabaptist thought from a curious vantage point. Murray defends Anabaptism from being considered “a footnote in Church history” by making the claim that Anabaptism could be “the sixteenth-century equivalent” to the emerging church (34). And as if attempting to live up to the name of the series in which the book was published—the Third Way—he describes Anabaptism as a theological alternative “that was neither Catholic nor Protestant” arising from the events of the Reformation (27), and he does so by avoiding both an overly academic and an unduly popularized presentation of Anabaptist thought.

The Naked Anabaptist offers a view from outside the traditional perspectives of many contemporary Anabaptist authors, perhaps because Murray writes from the United Kingdom, a place where a historical Anabaptist presence is limited. The prospectus of the work is to present a “naked” view of Anabaptism apart from the traditions that so often define it (Mennonite, Hutterite, Brethren, etc.). Murray admits that, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a naked Anabaptist (43) and instead puts forth an outline that is naked in its attempt to speak transparently and with fresh insight to readers both inside and outside of established Anabaptist communities. And rather than emphasizing the separatism that is already a stalwart component of most Amish and Old Order Mennonite communities, Murray focuses on the “radical heritage” of the historical Anabaptists—Menno Simons, Huldrych Zwingli, Conrad Grebel, George Blaurock, Felix Manz—as a source of “renewal and inspiration” for Mennonites and other Anabaptists who these days often “seem more interested in purpose-driven churches and the Alpha course” (17).[4]

In the foreword, theologian Gregory A. Boyd sets the theological scene for The Naked Anabaptist by proclaiming the countercultural anti-empire of post-Christendom Christianity. Despite being given to certain apophatic descriptions, the view articulated by Boyd is an inspiring one: a vision of active discipleship that stands against the Constantinian notion of a state church by espousing renewed interest in a life beyond “individualism, consumerism, and materialism” (10). Boyd proposes that the church has entered the proverbial wilderness of post-Christendom Christianity as illustrated by its distance from the empire that we find ourselves under today. Boyd’s vision provides an imperative for the rest of the book, offering the possibility of an alternative to our present age of hypercapitalism and the political and religious justifications of war.

At the outset, Murray tackles issues of separatism, baptism, and pacifism, all of which are key features in Anabaptist thought. As the book continues, it becomes evident that the other major Anabaptist convictions include a commitment to focus on Christ, the Bible, culture, discipleship, community, meaningful service, and peace, all of which are antithetical to very prominent aspects of secularism or what some would call the host empire of western culture (45–46). Returning to the previous question of Anabaptism’s relationship to the emerging church and new monasticism, Murray cites several common features of both discourse communities, including a certain contextual sensitivity; a multiplicity of divergent viewpoints within a united whole; the use of emerging technologies, from the printing press to the Internet; and a commitment to social and political transformation (95–96).

After a clear and concise history lesson about the beginnings of Anabaptism in the Reformation, Murray takes a sober look at certain charges laid against Anabaptism, such as legalism, anti-intellectualism, divisiveness, separatism, quietism, and lack of inertia. And in a refreshing spirit of positive critique, he affirms Anabaptism, “warts and all” (161). This may be the most profound section of the book in that it examines Anabaptism without glossing over tense issues or sensitive topics. It is this type of communal introspection, one that prizes self-inquiry above some of the more dogmatic tendencies of traditional Anabaptism, that will lead Anabaptists into the coming decades, the decades which Murray describes as an age of post-Christendom.

Most mentions of post-Christendom in The Naked Anabaptist point to a historical understanding of Christianity as a movement that has allied itself with the state, included the nominal identification of all its citizens as Christian, and has supported the Constantinian hegemony of this so-called Christianity from the fourth century onward (71–73). The very idea of post-Christendom, then, rests upon what one means by post. Indeed, many have criticized postmodern discourse for defining itself by what it comes after and what it is not, rather than offering a new direction that can be defined positively. Presumably, to mitigate this criticism Murray explains the following:

Post-Christendom is one of many “post” terms commentators are using to describe the shifts taking place in western culture. There are numerous others: postmodern, postindustrial, postcolonial, postimperial, postsecular, and more. The post prefix means “after” and indicates that we are experiencing a time of transition. Familiar features of the social landscape are disappearing into the past, but it is not yet clear what is emerging out of the mist of the future. “Post” language is modest but honest. It tells us that we are no longer where we used to be, but does not pretend to know exactly where we are heading. (72)

This idea that Christianity has entered a time in the spiritual and communal wilderness is not a new one. In his 2004 book Signs of Emergence, Kester Brewin writes on the idea that the Christian church must enter a time of mourning and grieving for the absence of God. Through a reading of Walter Brueggemann and the book of Jeremiah, Brewin suggests that “only through grief can newness become a possibility” and that it is this newness that post-Christendom cries out for. This work of mourning resembles the state of Christian exile that Michael Frost describes in his book Exiles.[5] In all of this there remains a solid division between the church and “the world,” or between the church and the empire, ranging from Caesar to the present ruling body of corporate media and military industry. It is here where The Naked Anabaptist can help us to gain an understanding of how much of Western Christianity has allied itself with forces of individualism, consumerism, and materialism. The reformative consciousness, present in both the emerging church and the Anabaptist tradition, will have room to rise if this critique of certain aspects of secular culture and corporate government can be sustained. Rather than being taken in by individualism, consumerism, and materialism, Murray, with the historical Anabaptists behind him, would show us a different way. This way looks more like a “dissident movement” than a political party (71), and more like a fungus root than a tree.

This treatise on neo-Anabaptism comes at a time when the tension between revolution and reformation must be explored. From the British student riots in late 2010 to the Egyptian uprising in early 2011, it is evident that we must learn a third way between the passive attitudes that have dominated so much of popular Anabaptist thought and the violence that is too often condoned by our governments. The Naked Anabaptist would be an excellent candidate to augment the confession of faith for baptismal classes in Anabaptist congregations and excellent reading material for anyone (academic or otherwise) who wishes to see the discontents of modernity and the Enlightenment exposed by the growing Anabaptist tradition. Most of all, it seems that the Anabaptism Murray describes offers a much-needed third way apart from the tired dogma of traditional doctrines and the nondenominational escape from historical tradition.

[1] See Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (New York, NY: Continuum, 1992). The theological implications of the rhizome are explored in part in Charles Winquist, Epiphanies of Darkness: Deconstruction in Theology (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1986).

[2] See also, James K. A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006) and John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct? The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007).

[3] See D. A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005).

[4] I owe much thanks to Tim Miller-Dyck for leading a class on this particular book at Steinmann Mennonite Church during winter 2010.

[5] Brewin, Signs of Emergence: A Vision for Church That Is Always Organic/Networked/Decentralized/Bottom-Up/Communal/Flexible/Always Evolving (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004), 51; Frost, Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006). Widgets