Curtis Freeman’s Undomesticated Dissent is a timely read for Christians of all stripes, not just Baptists and their kin, who are its main audience. It raises fundamental questions about the role of opposition in how we conceive of Christianity, and that is exactly the reason you should read it and discuss it with your friends who care about the unity of the church.
Freeman’s fascinating retrospective brims with colourful detail about the lives of English Dissenters (Protestants outside the Church of England) in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: it recounts John Bunyan’s years in prison, all because he would not give up his calling to preach; Daniel Defoe’s life as believer and spy, which led him to write Robinson Crusoe, the first English novel, at the age of sixty; and William Blake’s apocalyptic vision, fuelled by the cataclysmic burning of Albion Mills in 1791, of London remade as Jerusalem. In narrating the religious and literary lives of these three Dissenters, Freeman tells important stories that deserve to be known: the legacy of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress in inspiring abolition efforts worldwide, for instance; how in the later eighteenth century, Dissenters split into two groups, evangelicals and radicals; and the inspiring story of Clarence Jordan’s starting the interracial Koinonia Farm in Georgia in 1942, later members of which would establish Habitat for Humanity, just to name a few. In his final pages, Freeman gets to his own visionary, resistant preaching, and that’s worth the price of admission. Dissent is “domesticated” when it is reduced to either pietism or social activism. “A third approach is needed,” Freeman argues, “one that does not desire the privilege of social influence or demand the security of fixed boundaries, but one that cultivates communities of resistance by building cathedrals of hope founded on the confession of faith in a God who is made visible through the windows of love.”
An Apocalyptic Imagination
Cathedrals, confessions, beautiful windows: one of the most astounding things Freeman does in this book is attempt to reconcile his own Dissenting community (he’s director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School) to the idea of having a tradition, and then to inspire them with it, to live out the gospel more truly. Freeman seems wise to the fact that there is no escaping tradition; the question, even in the New Testament, is what kind of tradition you will have. It is one of the well-known weaknesses of the original edition of the NIV, for instance, that without exception, when tradition (Greek, paradosis) is used negatively, it is translated “tradition,” but when tradition is meant positively, it is translated “teaching.” This is a grave mistake, and a disservice to the church. As Freeman is convinced, we have something to learn from our Christian forebears, and amnesia is no virtue. “The heirs of historic communities of dissent seeking to further the ongoing reception of their tradition . . . might begin by recovering a rich and textured account of what it has meant for dissenting Christians to confess Jesus as Lord.” The Dissenting tradition has political implications, Freeman is at pains to make us see, and ostensibly implications that don’t include throwing out every war refugee and immigrant that comes your way.
Amnesia is no virtue.
In the century after the Restoration of the monarchy and episcopacy, the Dissenting tradition was radical, Freeman tells us, because of its apocalyptic vision of God’s remaking the world in Christ, staying true to its conscience and speaking the truth to power, in spite of the cost of social, religious, and economic isolation. “The apocalyptic imagination that animated the centers and troubled the state and its established church could not be so easily suppressed by the politics of exclusion. . . . The apocalyptic imagination was handed on in a living tradition of dissent, transmitted in hymns, sermons, histories, and particularly in literary works like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and Blake’s Jerusalem.”
In the story Freeman tells, Bunyan, Defoe, and Blake form a kind of literary trinity, a dialectic of Dissent. Once the Puritans landed on the losing side of history in 1660, Bunyan “inverted the eschatological vision and turned it inside out by collapsing the outer world of history into the inner world of the self.” Defoe was born the year of the Restoration, and coming of age as Dissent grew more comfortable in its truce with the establishment, and wealthier too, he became the spokesman for the active, engaged-with-the-world antithesis to Bunyan’s inward-looking, evangelical thesis, a position that became problematic as it made compromises with gain and empire. What interests Freeman most, though, is Blake’s radical Dissenting synthesis: a Christianity that, expressed in however esoteric a private mythology, still knew that the only way to face down the great Apollyon of empire and its dark satanic mills is through a complete transformation of the inner self by Jesus and his gospel of freedom and love. “Retelling the story of dissent, then, is a reminder that followers of Christ must learn to live in a perpetual state of tension with the status quo, regardless of what it is. Stripped of privilege standing and majority status, Christians perhaps may again become the salt of the earth.”
The Medicine We Need?
Freeman’s goal in telling this story is to recuperate an anti-commodity, anti-capitalist history for those who are the Dissenters’ religious heirs. This is a tall order, and a worthy one. But the burning question this admirable book leaves me with, five hundred years and twenty thousand denominations into the Reformation, is whether “dissent” is the best way to frame the spirit of this awakening.
There is no way of getting around the fact that in spite of its aims, Protestantism has been a secularizing and fissiparous force, as Brad Gregory has shown us in The Unintended Reformation, and Freeman corroborates this in fact, even when he doesn’t examine its full ramifications. He points out, almost in passing, for instance, that apocalyptic Puritans like Arthur Dent began by identifying the Church of Rome with the Antichrist and the Beast of the book of Revelation—but then it wasn’t long until they begin to see the Protestant Church of England as the Antichrist too. (Like the Dissenting heirs I grew up among, Freeman can occasionally repeat Dissenting equations of the Roman Catholic Church with the “Whore of Babylon” without so much as scare quotes.) Freeman also points out how dear John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was to Bunyan and other Dissenters, because it made them feel “part of a long story stretching back to the first Christian martyrs.” And that is true. But the perhaps more lasting work Foxe’s Book of Martyrs accomplished in the minds of Dissenters who devoured it year after year was to divorce Anglican Christians and especially Roman Catholics from that early Christian history, when of course it is theirs too. Foxe’s book further splits the church on earth, and sadly, legitimates Dissenters in seeing the bulk of other European Christians as no Christians at all, as Antichrist. Circling ceaselessly beneath the surface of Dissent, though perhaps not biting every swimmer, is the dangerous emotional thrill that comes with denouncing other people. It can make us feel better about ourselves, simply by comparison with the other, a dangerous spiritual situation, and not a very good position from which to pray, or to help the poor, or to love your neighbour, who is howsoever different from you.
The burning question this admirable book leaves me with, five hundred years and twenty thousand denominations into the Reformation, is whether “dissent” is the best way to frame the spirit of this awakening.
The pressing question here in the twenty-first-century, by my lights, is whether we can live out a Christian orthodoxy that loves and proclaims passionately the truth of the incarnate Jesus Christ and the triune God and yet is not violent toward the other, even the heretic. In an age when the functioning theology in most American churches can be termed “moralistic therapeutic deism,” and yet on the basis of such a shaky theology many a Bible-church member is still willing to condemn Catholics or homosexuals to hell, and even though there’s much worth dissenting from in our culture, I’m not sure lionizing dissent is the medicine the American church needs. Reflecting on this Reformation anniversary, some Catholic clergy have been heard to say, quite humbly, that the Reformation “saved the church from itself.” In a similar self-reflexive manoeuvre, American evangelicals and Dissenting heirs might do better to watch something like Bishop Robert Barron’s ten-part documentary Catholicism, or the recent Eastern Orthodox documentary Becoming Truly Human, and wonder how their own Christian faith might be enriched—actually made much more profoundly Christian—by the people they’ve spent the last half millennium calling the Antichrist.
The Cost of Dissent
And if we’re going to recuperate eighteenth-century English Protestants, why not some of the Christian evangelicals who both felt strongly about staying within the Church of England and effected some of the most radical social progress of their time? Two herculean figures come to mind.
In Freeman’s story, John Wesley gets made into something of an establishment pansy, when the truth is that from his college days onward he took flack for his piety from the worldly-wise and was out in the fields preaching to (literally) tens of thousands of truly poor, English working people who were not being reached, either by the Church of England or the Dissenting churches. (To be inspired on this score, see Misty Anderson’s wonderful Imagining Methodism in Eighteenth-Century Britain).
And then there’s the heroic, winsome William Wilberforce, who is absent from this story almost certainly because he ruins the sacred truths of Dissent three times over: As a rich, Anglican bachelor, he had a heartfelt conversion experience, and through prayer he found his great life mission, to use his time and wealth and eventual career in parliament to work for the abolition of the slave trade and emancipation throughout the empire. And he was actually successful at it, not least because he refused to separate from the Church of England or even—in radical love rather than radical dissent—to judge his slaveholding fellow Christians. He worked peacefully toward freedom by ceaselessly cultivating in everyone he met a real, human, Christian love for enslaved Africans. (The movement’s great symbol was a medallion its adherents wore, with a picture of a shackled slave that read, “Am I not a man and a brother?”) And he finally convinced his fellow countrymen to remunerate slaveholders for the loss of their economic investments when the slaves were freed, which is a good deal of the reason they eventually and peacefully agreed to it, thereby avoiding anything like the cataclysmic US Civil War and the rancorous legacy of white-black racism in the United States, which continues to this day. (On this count, see Eric Metaxas’s inspiring biography Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, though how the author can move in less than a decade from appreciating the irenic strategies of Wilberforce to supporting the bullying politics of Trump truly baffles.)
What is the cost of dissent? That question is sobering, and more complicated than it seems. If you are part of the great, historical institutional church, this question means, What is the cost of resorting to violence, authoritarianism, or coercion to suppress dissent and defend the gospel, thereby sowing the seeds of the destruction of the thing you love? And if you are on the dissent against the very idea of the institutional church, the question is, What is the cost of championing your right to call everyone else an Antichrist—the cost for the unity of the church, the cost for the witness to the living Christ worldwide? Instead of calling a slave owner the Antichrist, would you be willing to love him, to try to convince him to see the humanity of his slaves, and to set them free? Would you be willing to be his brother, calling him to right action without setting yourself up as in any way above him? How would the whole history of the church be different, from the first ecumenical council to the last US election, if Wilberforce’s approach carried the day?
If we want to stop replaying and multiplying the splits of the past, perhaps what we most need is to rid ourselves of a fundamentally oppositional self-conception, especially when it comes to our relationship with other Christians. My spiritual father, the Romanian Orthodox priest-monk Roman Braga, suffered torture in Communist prisons for the faith, for thirteen years, because he would not leave off teaching Sunday school. I heard him say many times in dialogues with Protestant inquirers, slowly, with seriousness and great compassion, “Luther was right about indulgences; but he was still wrong to fracture the Church.”
How helpful that Freeman turns to Chesterton here, because his is not dissent as dissent, but dissent from dissent; in the shipwreck of isolating modernity, Chesterton abandoned one-man protest for the great treasure trove, the glorious mess of the church.
Dissent may sometimes be necessary. But reading Freeman’s insightful book makes me think we do better to long for undomesticated faith than for undomesticated dissent. At the core of faithfulness we should put the great affirmation that is at the heart of the gospel, that in Jesus light has come into the world, and that this means, from the preaching of John the Baptist, to the preaching of Jesus, to the preaching of the apostles, one thing for each of us: repentance, metanoia, an ongoing lifelong process of the change of heart and mind, constantly reorienting itself with new revelations with new consciousness to the mind of God, who is none other than love. Resisting the perennial temptation to hypervigilance about the errors of our Christian brothers and sisters, we should keep our eyes on the faith that predates opposition, a positive faith in the eternal God, who is working salvation in the midst of the earth, who will restore all things and in whom will be all in all.
Dissent from Dissent?
Freeman ends his chapter on Defoe by reflecting, “As G. K. Chesterton once noted, the greatest part of the story may be Crusoe’s simple inventory of things saved from the wreckage of his ship. For it suggests that the future for Christians living in the wilderness of the modern world depends not on inventing the faith anew but on retrieving the faith from the church and its earlier traditions to adapt to the new situation.” How helpful that Freeman turns to Chesterton here, because his is not dissent as dissent, but dissent from dissent; in the shipwreck of isolating modernity, Chesterton abandoned one-man protest for the great treasure trove, the glorious mess of the church, the ark, full of sinners, sailing through the ages.
In a beautiful paragraph near the end of the final chapter, Freeman, whom I found myself alternately agreeing and arguing with for most of his book, declares that the twenty-first-century Dissenters he is trying to awaken or call into existence
do not withdraw into sectarian enclaves of homogeneity or accommodate to institutional structures of secularity but seek a life together that participates in the new creation and exemplifies what God in Christ intends for all humanity. . . . They do not simply mirror the secular politics of left or right but seek to practice the politics of Jesus through forgiveness and friendship. They refuse to regard distinctions of race, class, gender, or sexuality as determinative of standing in society but see only one new humanity in Christ. They seek the peace of the earthly city, telling the truth about what they see and advocating for the healing of its brokenness, but they recognize that their citizenship is in heaven. They see themselves as pilgrims in the secular age, answerable to the law of another city toward which they journey by faith on the wings of the love of God and neighbor.
To my ears that sounds not so much like dissent from something as assent to something, to Someone. And that makes all the difference.