The Table Video

James K.A. Smith

Evangelicals and Monastic Vocations

Professor of Philosophy / Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview, Calvin College
March 27, 2014

Is there space for monastic or contemplative vocations in evangelicalism? Philosopher James K.A. Smith (Calvin College) comments on how evangelicals and other Protestants can approach a monastic lifestyle.


So John Calvin, you know I’m reformed so he’s kind of my home boy. And, what was interesting is on the one hand the reformers were very critical of monasteries, on the other, two things, part of that was because they just didn’t want these disciplines sequestered in one place for just a select group pf people, they wanted the whole city of Geneva to experience these practices. The second reason was, or the second thing that’s interesting is Calvin himself entertained the possibility of what he called a lawful monasticism, that there could be vocations, yes we need butchers and bakers and candlestick makers and moms and dads, without question, but he could imagine a mode of vocational calling for the Church and for the sake of the world where people could give themselves to that. What he worried about was, we can’t turn that into two-tier Christianity, where these are like, the really serious Christians, and moms and dad aren’t, right? I think that’s a fascinating question, it’s not one I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, but I do feel like we are in a season of the Church where more and more people are asking questions like that, which is probably a really good start. [murmuring] Of course you know there is a part of the Church that does this, that’s called Roman Catholicism. [audience laughing]

But you wanna stay a Baptist and do that. That might be, yeah. [murmuring] You might not be able to get there from here. Can I, by the way, make a recommendation to folks, there’s a, this is to me such an interesting cultural artifact; HBO, HBO… This ain’t the 700 Club, HBO made a documentary called “God is the Bigger Elvis,” about a woman who was a starlet in the fifties, who left her Hollywood stardom to enter a convent, and is now Mother Prioress and has been there forever. What I find most fascinating about it is how much the directors are clearly awed that somebody would do this. Like, are clearly like, they’re not disdainful, it’s not cynical, it’s not mocking, it’s like, “Whoa.” And to me it’s one of the most powerful testimonies to the Gospel, and it’s produced by HBO! It’s so fantastic. “God is the Bigger Elvis.” “God is the Bigger Elvis.” That’s what somebody said to her, you know, “Why would you leave this?” She said, “Well God is the bigger Elvis.” It was very cool.

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