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The Orthodoxy of Orthopraxy: The Family, Take 2

April 2, 2009

(As a corporate discipline for Lent, CT has decided to give up church for Lent. That is, we have ceased our usual meetings in favor of joining up with an amazing group that meets not far from us. In so doing, we’ve made some great friendships, learned a lot, and felt the discomforts that come when embracing your theological ‘other’. Some of our thoughts on this journey are posted at our Lenten blog, which this entry is cross-posted from.)

A while back I was reading a well-written and really long book, The Family. It’s a work of political and religious intrigue, documenting the birth and growth of a uniquely American group known variously as ‘The Fellowship’, ‘The Family’, and ‘The Fellowship Foundation’. This is a somewhat secretive cabal of Christians who are working hard to help the world as best they can. Indeed, the unstructured organization that they’ve formed in the margins and quiet back rooms of Washington DC is akin to the first-century church, unconcerned as it is with recognition and notoriety. Yet there is (at least) one aspect of the early church that seems to be missing: a deep concern for, and genuine connection with, the poor and powerless. Which makes the book all the more engaging, as the reader follows the narrative and notes this organizational blind spot that never seems to be addressed or repaired, becoming increasingly aggravated as the pages add up.

But in a stroke of genius, the sheer length of the book provides its real power for change. As I was reading it, my smugness was swelling, and I was muttering to myself as I forged on. “It’s about orthopraxy (right actions), not orthodoxy (right belief)!,” I said, again and again. “These rich white guys are so sure of themselves, thinking that as long as they have all of their beliefs in order, it doesn’t matter one bit how terribly they treat their neighbors, employees, or constituents.” Yet after 300 pages, fatigued by my own indignance, I couldn’t help but turn inward and wonder about my own actions. What good was my clear understanding of the importance of actions, when I myself am very white and quite far from the poverty line and doing very little to serve others (apart from reading books)? In my reaction against orthodoxy as a panacea for the ills of humanity, have I perhaps made too much of orthopraxy?

My fear is that– for me and my friends– orthopraxy has become the new orthodoxy. That in our strong (and correct!) affirmation of the importance of doing stuff, we have become like the anti-fundamentalist fundamentalists that we smirk at so frequently. The dangerous thing about my elevation of orthopraxy is that the very act of doing so exempts me from needing to do anything about my orthopraxy. It is enough to affirm the theoretical value of orthopraxy, and to then find a comfortable spot in my cozy home where I can be right. Orthopraxy, then, is the new orthodoxy, which requires little from me other than my stalwart intellectual ascent toward the tennets of orthopraxy. Handy, huh?

Meanwhile, my friends at New Hope Fellowship keep welcoming me to their small and mighty project of redemption for those who live in the cars and woods and homeless shelters of Northern Virginia, giving me eyes to see the people who have been there all along. Folks in this church could care less about The Family, or about my existential gnashings, or about my reading list (and God bless them for that!). They talk about orthodoxy, but they give orthopraxy.

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2 Responses to “The Orthodoxy of Orthopraxy: The Family, Take 2”

  1. maria says:

    I remember Pat from Asbury. I’m sure she doesn’t remember me, but please tell her I said hello.

    I want to make a thoughtful comment on this post, but will have to do so later, after a short nap.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Someone told me about this group when I moved to DC and I never could figure it out. Fascinating, if strange. Can I borrow the book when you are done? Miriam

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