In the last month or so, I've read three different books with a common theme: if you want to explore an idea, don't just research it or think about it. Instead, do an experiment.
I started with Practicing the Way of Jesus: Life Together in the Kingdom of Love by Mark Scandrette. The basic idea is that being a disciple means literally to be a learner and that the best way we learn is by practicing new ways of being and then reflecting on them in a group of other people who are practicing in similar ways.
When I heard Mark speak last year at a conference, he told the story of one group who took the teaching of John the Baptist that if you have two coats, you should give one away and decided to support each other in the process of giving away half their belongings. Other groups have built experiments around practicing Sabbath or going without television or praying the daily office or giving to the poor.
Of course, most of us believe that we should practice the Sabbath or give more to charity or watch less TV or pray more. The challenge here is to 1) find our challenge in the teachings of Jesus, 2) create a specific, time-limited experiment to practice that challenge, and 3) to share the experiment with a group of people who all commit to the same thing, practicing both accountability and a sharing of the learning.
The second book I read was 7 by Jen Hatmaker, which I've already reviewed twice on this blog. In an effort to explore the effect of consumerism on her life, Jen gathers a group of people to support her as she takes on a series of one-month experiments. Although she clearly did a lot of research about consumerism and its stranglehold on our culture, she made it personal by going without most foods, by giving away 7 items every day for 30 days, by going without media of all kinds (including her 3 kids in that one), by avoiding products associated with injustice and oppression (including coffee and chocolate) and so on. She reflects on what she learned by doing in a painfully and hilariously authentic conversation with the reader.
The third book was the one I read on the plane going and coming from MI this week: A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans. Rachel wanted to explore both the supposed biblical and cultural expectations placed on women, especially religious women, and also wanted to challenge the biblical literalism of modern evangelical faith.
At different times during the year, she mothered a pretend baby, slept in a tent and carried around a stadium seat during her period, submitted to her husband's every whim and called him "master," kept a spotless house, reached out to the oppressed and needy, and refrained from talking in church. The book is gimmicky, yes, but also creative, whimsical and subversive and it does a terrific job of exploring how we interpret the Bible when it comes to certain issues and how we interpret it differently when it comes to others. People who lack a sense of irony or satire will not get this book, which means most of the people who need to read it won't really be able to. The rest of us will really enjoy it, though, and it's a fun read.
What I loved about all three of these books was the sadly surprising idea of actually learning by doing when it comes to matters of faith and learning in public and learning with a group of people. The different approaches to this reminded me of the Wesleys and the Methodists, the founders of AA, and yes, Jesus and the disciples. I've already formed three new experiments of my own and I'm looking forward to learning what I learn.