April 15, 2013 / Perspective
Reflections on why we ride.
November 9, 2017
Curtis W. Freeman, Undomesticated Dissent: Democracy and the Public Virtue of Nonconformity (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2017).
There is a disappointing trend afoot among what James McClendon calls lower-case b baptists.1 These baptists—that is, Baptists, Anabaptists, Pentecostals, and other members of the free-church tradition who historically refused the Constantinian settlement of church-as-state and state-as-church—have chosen to swim the rivers of establishment. The irony here is rich: those who now swim the Thames (Anglican), the Tiber (Roman Catholic), or the Bosporus (Eastern Orthodox), having converted to state-established denominations, are the descendants of those who were drowned in those very same rivers for their nonconformist faith. The forefathers of these imperializing Christians chose to go to their executions rather than compromise what they took to be gospel teaching, and yet their progeny are led back into the historically established churches without the slightest threat of sword or scaffold. How could this be?
My sense is that free-church Christians encounter the concept of tradition in their education and, when they realize that this repository of past wisdom is a vital guide for all orthodox theology, they walk away from their own churches. They assume this is what fidelity to tradition requires. And they are not far from the truth, for, as Kavin Rowe demonstrates in his underpraised work, One True Life, tradition is an existential commitment.2 We cannot simply resolve to cram more facts about Augustine or Aquinas into our skulls and call it a day. Tradition is living or it is dead—and it is living only when it is lived out in authentic community.
Stretching back to at least Irenaeus’s Against Heresies, Christians have insisted that orthodoxy requires a “rule of faith,” a core set of teachings handed down by the apostles across time. Otherwise, as the early Christians quickly discovered, it was possible to turn the beautiful tapestry of the gospel, through rearrangement of its threads, into something ugly and false. Irenaeus describes how the mosaic image of a noble king could be barbarized into something entirely different, like a repulsive mutt, simply by setting the very same pieces to a new pattern.3 For instance, the gnostics, who denied the goodness of the material creation and sought to escape its limitations, loved the Gospel of John and used it to support their worldview. To protect against such distortions, the rule of faith provided guiding norms for theology and the interpretation of Scripture (which should be one and the same).
If tradition is and requires an existential commitment to a particular community, how can Christians beyond the Anglican Communion, the Roman Catholic Church, or Eastern Orthodox Church lay claim to the rule of faith without being guilty of armchair theologizing? Lower-case b baptists have not often taken this question seriously. It is certainly not a question I encountered growing up in a conservative baptistic church or one that I would have well understood before graduate school. Nor, so far as I can tell, is it one that many in the Southern Baptist theological seminaries are grappling with. Hence it is no wonder that tiresome debates over long-since settled points of Trinitarian theology continue to recur among Baptists, nor is it surprising that so many who were raised in baptistic denominations have flocked to catholic communions when they encounter the question of tradition in its full force.
Yet there are other Baptists who have begun to wrestle with these questions. In his book Contesting Catholicity, Curtis W. Freeman says he wrote out of a struggle to “lead Baptists to find their place within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” The trouble, Freeman suggests, is “largely due to the fact that Baptists have not taken their own tradition seriously, let alone the ancient and ecumenical traditions of the historic church.” Although Freeman has previously edited several books collecting essential baptist texts, it is with Contesting Catholicity and his newest work, Undomesticated Dissent, that Freeman has synthesized Baptist distinctiveness with the ecumenical traditions of the historic church. Freeman does not say as much explicitly, but these two books can be read as the first two volumes in an answer to the questions of how small-b baptists can be small-c catholics and why the historically state-established communions needed—and continue to need—baptist brethren in order to be more faithful catholics themselves.4
Both books share a single thesis: dissent and contestation are necessary for the good of the community. The community in focus in Contesting Catholicity is the church catholic, and in Undomesticated Dissent, it is the political community (which too often has been confused with the church catholic!). Together, both books re-narrate a history and an ongoing place for Baptists in the life of the church and the life of the world.5
Undomesticated Dissent seeks to remedy two major problems. First, Baptists have fallen far from their dissenting heritage. Earlier I mentioned the irony of Baptists joining established churches, but there is a further, deeper irony: namely, that Baptists in the American South turned their very own tradition of dissent into something resembling an established church. For more than a century, these Baptists enjoyed and perhaps continue to enjoy something close to cultural and political hegemony. Those in disagreement need simply look to the career of Southern Baptist politician Roy Moore.
We have forgotten our radical beginnings, as is so painfully clear in the apologetics of all the Jack Grahams and Robert Jeffresses. Once upon a time, Baptists and other religious nonconformists were politically interesting; Russell Moore and his criticisms of Donald Trump would have appeared rather milquetoast alongside the political vision of nonconformists like Gerrard Winstanley’s Diggers, social revolutionaries of seventeenth-century England who advocated for reform of land ownership. Reaching back to that coming of age of baptists in England, Undomesticated Dissent attempts to recover an apocalyptic imagination, one capable of discerning, resisting, and confronting the worst impulses of the state.
Second, baptists sorely lack a literary canon. The Roman Catholics have The Divine Comedy, spiritualist mystics, Don Quixote, Les Misérables, and an ocean of modern classics (e.g., any of the works by J. R. R. Tolkien, Flannery O’Connor, or Walker Percy). But ask a baptist what literature we dissenters have produced beyond John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and look for a vacant expression. And because we lack a canon, we lack a compelling tradition.
Undomesticated Dissent addresses both of these problems at once by examining the lives and major works of three English Dissenters: John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe, and William Blake, each of whom is buried in Bunhill Fields, a plot for nonconformists who were excluded from burial on Anglican ground. Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and Blake’s Jerusalem have been domesticated and stripped of their subversive political significance. As these books were separated from the nonconformist communities that produced them, they gained wider acknowledgement but were forgotten as narratives of dissent. Pilgrim’s Progress and Robinson Crusoe are read today as if they were entirely innocuous. Yet Freeman’s Undomesticated Dissent restores these works as part of a living tradition of dissent that passes an apocalyptic imagination from generation to generation (37).
One image that Freeman returns to throughout the book is that of Robinson Crusoe salvaging items from the wreck that stranded him on his island. Here, Freeman draws on G. K. Chesterton’s observation that the best thing in the whole of Defoe’s novel “is simply the list of things saved from the wreck. . . . Every kitchen tool becomes ideal because Crusoe might have dropped it in the sea.”6 That is precisely what Freeman is doing in his book: baptists have experienced something of a shipwreck, or maybe even a series of shipwrecks, and as a result, we have forgotten much of our heritage, both our distinctives as dissenting baptists and our common ecumenical heritage.
To survive on the island we find ourselves on, we must go down to the shore and search it for supplies. We must inventory what has been saved and try to determine how it can be used to make a life for ourselves. We must pick up the pieces of our baptist and catholic past and use them to make a present that will last us through the future. We must search for a canon that can sustain baptists in these trying times. So how do these three books offer sustenance and earn their place in a baptist canon? What supplies might we salvage in their barnacled and storm-blown hulls?
Freeman calls Pilgrim’s Progress an “apocalyptic vision of revolutionary politics thinly disguised as a spiritual allegory” (70). Although Bunyan has much to teach contemporary Christians about the nature of conversion as the ongoing process of a lifetime rather than the singular moment of a decision and formulaic prayer, it is the political import of Pilgrim’s Progress that goes most often misunderstood.
At the center of Bunyan’s book is the trial and martyrdom of Faithful at Vanity Fair. The town, ruled by Beelzebub, is agitated by Faithful’s refusal to buy any of the merchants’ wares. Dissenters are presented as “dangerous to the social and economic order” (47). Faithful and his companion, Christian, are thrown into a cage and then marched out before a jury. There, accused of slandering the town’s “noble” ruler, Beelzebub, Faithful answers that the town’s god is the devil. For this, the jury pronounces Faithful a heretic, and then a mob scourges, stabs, and burns him. Bunyan captures both the way in which even a functioning market can be the pawn and possession of demonic rule and the way in which questioning such a status quo is tantamount to slandering (false) gods. Resistance to a diabolical order, he shows us, is a form of idol-smashing. Against all the naysayers, Bunyan reminds us that faithfulness has market and civic implications. It should come as no surprise, then, that the earliest baptists were tinkerers and poor, often mocked for their dress and lack of education (an unjust charge considering that they were forbidden university education).
Daniel Defoe, however, lived in a new era in which Dissenters were capable of prosperity and respect. Rather than what Freeman calls the “slumbering dissent” of Bunyan, Defoe’s dissent was politically active, lobbying and struggling to remodel society (39). Although the political significance of the book was largely defanged by its reception into a much larger context, “[Robinson Crusoe] imagines what a world might look like if dissenters were in a position of influence and power” (116). This interpretation of Defoe was not lost on earlier readers. Freeman quotes one such reader, Walter Wilson, quipping that “anyone who is not a ‘friend to civil and religious liberty’ would find little sympathy for Defoe’s writings” and that reading Defoe would help “awaken Dissenters to the study of their own principles” (127). Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is in many ways similar to a Rawlsian original-position or a Lockean state-of-nature argument, yet distinctly baptist in the way that it “anticipated the emergence of modern religious freedom” (115). For unlike the established church in his English homeland that only begrudgingly tolerated nonconformity, Crusoe reports that he “allow’d Liberty of Conscience throughout [his] Dominion,” the island where three religions—Protestant, Catholic, and Pagan—coexisted (114). In the New World, it was baptists like Roger Williams and John Leland who argued and advocated for noncoercive religious freedom. Today, when many baptists have lost sight of this originating vision, gnashing their teeth when Muslims want to build a mosque next door, rereading Defoe is more necessary than ever.
Two decades after Defoe’s death, William Blake was born into a world on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution. Though today he is best remembered for his short poetry (“Tyger Tyger, burning bright”), Blake considered the several longer books he wrote to be his crowning glories, with Jerusalem chief among them.7 Blake’s Jerusalem is an epic poem decrying the atomizing and dehumanizing forces that loom in the world. England (called Albion) is quite literally torn asunder by its sin, fractured into pieces and loosed into the world until some final eschatological reunification occurs. The once-good earth is haunted by “dark Satanic Mills,” which refer not only to the steam-powered mills of the Industrial Revolution but also to London’s towering Anglican churches (135). Whereas for Bunyan, demonic forces rear their ugly head in snatches and in moments, for Blake, the whole world groans under the rule of Urizen (Your Reason), Blake’s personification of human rationality in its deepest wickedness (166). Whereas for Bunyan and Defoe the apocalyptic was only one mode of engagement with the world, for Blake the life of faith can never cease to apocalyptically expose the disordered and dismembered world until the world is made whole again.
Freeman considers Jerusalem to be the culmination of the ongoing debate over dissent: According to Freeman, Blake corrects the shortsightedness of both Bunyan and Defoe: “the inward turn of Bunyan and the outward reach of Defoe are reunited in the apocalyptic redemption of soul and society” (174). Blake gives his reader a vision of Christianity after Christendom, for he calls even religious institutions into question, remarking that “every blackening church appalls” (142). If the Benedict Option is a project bent on restoring civilization after it collapses upon itself, Blake’s poetry is a project bent on an “apocalypse of the imagination,” envisioning community after it has been purged from civilization’s corruption (165). This is not apocalyptic in the sense that it “chart[s] out the future” but in the way it pushes us “to live in the light of a revelation that illumines the world in an entirely new way” (174).8
Freeman briefly acknowledges that Blake’s was a “dissenting theology without a community of dissent to sustain it,” but he does not spend much time on this, and indeed he conjures excuses for it: “There was not a strong enough dissenting community for him to turn to” (141). If only Freeman had spent more time exploring Blake’s wounds, for they fester so much like our own as moderns and baptists. Like Blake, we all too often fail to appreciate the good of institutions, instead labeling them all as “dark Satanic Mills,” as if they were always repressing the individual before God.
In his final chapter, “Postapocalyptic Dissent,” Freeman sketches out more of the history of dissent, highlighting figures whose “apocalyptically illumined consciousness became the source of [their] prophetically awakened conscience[s]” (209). Here, he also turns to the matter of how such formation occurs: “Dissenters learned to see their lives in continuity with the lives of the apostles and martyrs.” As Freeman observes in a footnote, “In the tradition of English dissent, it was Foxe’s Book of Martyrs . . . [that] conveyed this narrative” (215). There are certain books, certain stories about faithfulness under unjust government, that can cultivate apocalyptic consciousness and prophetic conscience.
Freeman rightfully indicates that there can be no definitive formula for putting dissent into practice: “Those looking for a book of procedures . . . will be disappointed, for no one can determine what faithful dissent might look like in any given context” (218–19). Yet there is one practice that would be a good start, one he neglects to mention even as the argument, indeed, the structure, of the entire book implies it. Communities of resistance can be cultivated by reading a canon of dissent together: from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs to Pilgrim’s Progress, Robinson Crusoe, and Jerusalem. Even a canon of dissent can become domesticated, but to merely put baptists back into communion with some of their founding texts would be a mighty act indeed.
And yet it is not enough to read more broadly, as if faithfulness were about expanding one’s library or a road that could be walked alone. We are called not primarily to Blakean individualism or Crusoean isolation. We are called to walk the road with companions, as Bunyan’s Christian does and as Crusoe eventually does as well, even on his island. As baptists, we must resist a totalizing anti-institutionalism that panders to and reinforces our individualism rather than calling it into question. In order to do this, we must become churches that own and celebrate these texts, reading them in community as repositories of wisdom for these trying times. We must read to remember what it looks like for our lives to stand in continuity with the apostles and martyrs, walking with Bunyan’s Christian, rebuilding a life for ourselves with Crusoe, and yearning for the final restoration of all things with Blake.
If Freeman’s book is at times choppy, it is because he is scavenging a shipwreck. There are defects and pitfalls among our supplies. Bunyan was something of a political quietist; Defoe was caught up in the lure of the secularizing Protestant work ethic; and Blake was so radical that he was a member of no church. But these are the pieces we have to work with, and so work with them we must.
The good news is that baptists have been making do with imperfect materials for some time. We have never had pretty arguments for our catholicity like Roman Catholics or the Anglican Communion, but what we have had, from time to time, is a catholicity of faithfulness. We have continued to preach the gospel even when our Christian brothers threw us in jail or denied us burial in the city. We know we have catholicity because we have seen the Holy Spirit at work in our midst, even when we sometimes lack theological sophistication. We are frequently uncultured but, every once in a while, we are also faithfully undomesticated. With Freeman’s help, we might once more recall and revive that faithful tradition of dissent.
John Schweiker Shelton
John Schweiker Shelton is a graduate of Duke Divinity School. He works in Congress, which, as a Baptist, causes him to obsess over philosophical accounts of complicity during his daily three-hour commute. When not busy shoring up the imperium, he likes to hammock, read fantasy lit, and assist with musical worship at his church.