You Might Already Be a Pietist: Chris Gehrz and Mark Pattie III’s “The Pietist Option”

You Might Already Be a Pietist: Chris Gehrz and Mark Pattie III’s “The Pietist Option”

prayingOne of my first weeks at InterVarsity Press, a curious manuscript crossed my desk. A book on Pietism. And not even a merely historical study, but one that purported to connect Pietist ideas to day-to-day life in the 21st century. Though I might have been initially dubious, as I read it, I got more and more excited about the winsomeness and practicality of the authors’ audacious suggestions for deepening engagement with God among contemporary Christians.

Still, I was conflicted. Pietism? Can I really buy into that? I was intrigued but had two negative associations that I needed to address. First, I associated Pietism with the word pious, and while from a moral formation standpoint piety is technically a virtue, is often used as an epithet in our radically sceptic age. Second, I’ve seen a wholesale rejection of the term and movement by theologians (Pannenberg, Barth) who blame it for the overemphasis on subjective feeling over doctrinal objectivity in faith (ahem, Schleiermacher).

So how did I resolve my Pietist dilemma?  I did what any self-respecting publishing professional would do: I roamed the halls at InterVarsity Press confronting my colleagues with “Are you a Pietist?”

The Pietist Option by Gehrz and PattieI received blank stares from a few, a vehement rejection from one particularly Reformed colleague, but the reply from a friend who had read some of The Pietist Option caught my attention. When asked, he cocked his head, thought about it for a minute, got a faraway look in his eye and said, “Hmm. Now that I think about it, I guess I am a Pietist.”

It is this sort of naming, this gradual realization that is at the heart of this book. Much like my friend, as well as Christopher Gerhz and Mark Pattie, I have come to slowly understand that I am a Pietist in both heritage and experience and that it is a very good thing. For the early Pietists discovered ways of deepening in the Christian life that have massively influenced Protestantism, even if we don’t attribute the innovations to their influence. Have you been in a small group Bible study? Pietists. Had a conversation about your walk with God with another believer? Pietists. How about decided that even though you were born in the church that you weren’t really a follower of Christ until you chose to follow Him? Pietists. Their innovations in the state Lutheranism of the 17th century have been so successful that we don’t even recognize their genealogy.

However just because they have been successful does not mean that we cannot learn from them. Contemporary society might not reward engagement with past ideas, but that doesn’t mean that owning and re-engaging with them does not produce fruit. One of the geniuses of the Catholic council of Vatican II in the 1960’s was the idea of resourssement: a reengaging with the sources of the Christian past in order to properly discern how to live as faithful followers today. It is just this same re-engagement that protestant Christians could learn from, especially in the light of the recent controversies about the word “Evangelical”.

Gerhz and Pattie give six postures in their work, roughly following Phillip Jacob Spener’s model in Pia Desideria, one of the foundational books for Pietism. What follows are my own musings on how three of these relate to the Christian life; you really should buy or check out the book and engage with all of them in order to determine if you, too might find it useful to call yourself a Pietist.

1. A More Extensive Listening to the Word of God

Full confession: I was a teenage bible quizzer. Don’t know what this is? Imagine the sheer nerd factor of quiz bowl and add fundamentalist Bible memorization fervor and you’ll begin to get the picture. Also, it was the 90’s and my team uniform may or may not have included tie-dyed MC Hammer pants. (The TBT pictures on Facebook will confirm or deny.) While my friends were on the soccer pitch or sweating through wind sprints, I was holed up in the basement reciting the Gospel of John or in a church van at 7:00am on a Saturday morning going over flashcards on the way to a drafty church. I wasn’t my church’s star quizzer, but I was a respectable number 2 on teams throughout high school. The experience wasn’t a total wash: I still can quote most of 1 Corinthians and John by heart and bits of Hebrews (Great clouds of witnesses; A priest on the order of Melchizedek) still float through my subconscious from time to time.

Yet, as I’ve grown, I’m particularly struck by how little we actually delved into the meaning and context of the passages that we were so furiously memorizing. Sure, we cast about for ways to immediately apply the text to our lives. I remember 1 Cor. 7 (instructions about marriage) and 13 (love) being of particular interest when I finally managed to persuade a quizzer of the opposite gender to begin to look my way. But listening to the text? Why listen when you have all of Colossians to shove between your ears in thirty minutes before pre-calculus homework and Act IV of Macbeth?

This is why I find Gerhz and Pattie very instructive. While I was taught to ingest the word of God, it was not something that I spent time listening to, at least not intentionally. For us, the scriptures were instrumental, not transformational. Pietists characterized them as “an altar where one meets the living God.” I’ve found this to be more and more true as I’ve reengaged with many of my quizzing texts twenty years later. This has been especially true for the reading that I’ve done in small groups. The early Pietists were mad for reading in community, something that has begun to be reemphasized by groups doing lectio diving in the past few years. My own small group (another Pietist thing) was drawn together to remarkable mutual caring and sharing by a practice of communal listening to the word drawn lightly from lectio.

2. The Common Priesthood for the Common Good

Common seems to be somewhat of an epithet in contemporary society. We prefer our homes, lives, and schedules to be personalized, customized, and unique to our tastes. Fitting in, doing something “common” smacks of a loss of liberty, or something that someone who has mildly refined sensibilities wouldn’t dream of doing.

The genius of what Pattie and Gerhz do in Pietist Option is connecting two very important Commons: the Common Priesthood and the Common Good. For a priest is not a priest for self-aggrandizement, but for the blessing and transformation of others.

Pattie and Gehrz rightly point out that when it comes to the priesthood of all believers, our churches have de-emphasized this life-giving element of the Christian life to the point of irrelevancy. At least in the North American context, this stems partly from the professionalization of nearly every other aspect of our lives: dog walkers, residential window washers, and hired Instagram feed curators (look it up) that have taken over the tasks that used to be done by everyone as amateurs. No wonder that we look to clergy to be the primary providers of many of the services (prayer, spiritual direction, Sunday School teaching, Christian nurture, etc) that used to be done by amateurs in the pew. Yet, the Reformation and the subsequent Pietist leavening of the church were founded precisely on the lives of amateur priests, average Christians who engaged in spiritual disciplines in community on the way to lives of transformation and holiness.

This posture also has the potential to transform how we engage with each other and with our communities. For if all followers of Christ were to take their role as priests seriously we would be freed to not only “approach the throne of grace with confidence” but to confidently enter into relationships with fellow believers that allowed for mutual confession and building up. In some ways, spiritual formation and spiritual direction as they are currently practiced by some Christians do this sort of deep work already. However, how much greater could the transformation of lives be if we were able to unleash this sort of priestly maturity to more and more folks in the pews.

3. Listening as Proclamation

One of the most transformative postures that Gerhz and Pattie advance is the idea of listening as a ministry of proclamation. I did a lot of listening one week last summer. My family trekked to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where my wife served as a camp pastor. Every day she preached to a camp of 3rd through 6th graders and every night she preached to me, her sermonic guinea pig, as she tailored her messages in response to the feedback she has been getting from the children. This sort of active, listening, especially with 4th-grade ears, can be a little tricky. But it’s a profound help to someone who’s daily up against one of the toughest audiences in Christendom.

Listening implies care, implies relationship, implies entering into the story of those with whom you are seeking to enable to uncover God in their lives. To be a person on a journey with Jesus Christ, to be in the process of spiritual maturity and gospel transformation who reaches out from your story into another’s story and engages can be a powerful witness to the gospel.

While Pattie and Gehrz do include this sort of listening in the 6th and final chapter of their book, I believe that they also consistently practice it. When I had the privilege of meeting with them at a Caribou Coffee near their suburban St. Paul base, I was particularly struck by how the first thing that they wanted to do was to hear my story, not to plot the takeover of the publishing world with The Pietist Option. So I was able to unburden my heart to two (relative) strangers, being blessed by their kind listening and later prayer, not only for the words in their book but also for my work with the press.

And it is this deeper way of being, this recognition of the holy ordinary of God’s work in our daily lives that is the most important kind of proclamation. For a tidal wave may occasionally sweep over a landscape, but daily wave action will more surely bring about transformation. It’s this considered, faithful, hopeful way of life that is the essence of what The Pietist Option and even more importantly, the gift of the Pietist tradition can give to our bewildered country and church.