Undomesticated Dissent

Democracy and the Public Virtue of Religious Nonconformity

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Curtis W. Freeman
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , August
     2017.
     288 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781481306881.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Curtis Freeman has written a book as unexpected as it is timely. Off the beaten path of most works in theology, Undomesticated Dissent begins with surveying the scene of Bunhill Fields Cemetery for non-conformists, gazing upon the graves of John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe, and William Blake. What did these men do that warranted such a burial? This book tells their stories, gleaning rich insights from their lives, literary works, and influence, all to offer contemporary churches a resource for religious non-conformity. 

But the intentions behind the book are much more complex than that. Undomesticated Dissent continues Freeman’s project in several ways. It is a extension of his recent Contesting Catholicity (Baylor University Press, 2014)in that a church that is authentic to its calling (catholicity) will also be one that will resist domestication. It is a continuation of A Company of Women Preachers (Baylor University Press, 2011) and Baptist Roots (Judson Press, 1999, with James McClendon and C. Rosalee Velloso)where Freeman is concerned with unearthing forgotten voices relevant to resourcing the Baptist tradition. The book under review furthers the work of Freeman’s mentor, James McClendon, particularly his work in narrative theology. Each chapter is highly biographical, showing the embodiment of scriptural figures by radical Christians harkening back to McClendon’s “baptist vision” (small “b” for all free church radical traditions, not just denominational Baptists, and thus the inclusion of Defoe and Blake in this tradition). The book is literary also in that it attempts to offer baptists a literary canon for their free church sensibilities. Finally, it is part political theology, showing that dissent, expressed in these literary minds, is a generative force for democracy. The result is a remarkably refined multi-disciplinary study: part early modern history, part literary study, part Baptist/free church ecclesiology, part political theory, part apocalyptic and prophetic call to modern Christianity.

Undomesticated Dissent explores a tradition of dissent comprised of these three thinkers, representing three forms of dissent, each deeply needed today. Bunyan’s work, particularly Pilgrim’s Progress, offers a “slumbering dissent” that turned the millenarian preaching at the time inward towards the soul. While not eroding the apocalyptic vision, it created a resolute commitment to grace-filled life that had enormous generative power, which Freeman points out influenced later emancipation movements. In a time when Christians are tempted to recede into a non-confrontational and isolated piety, Bunyan’s forms an embryonic challenge: to embrace that personal Christian virtue inevitably results in political non-conformity. 

Defoe’s dissent, subtle but unmistakably on display in Robinson Crusoe—a tale of a castaway that is “imprisoned by nature, isolated from society, and subjected to the panoptic gaze of providence” (125)—shows a different kind of dissent, a “prosperous dissent” where those in the ship of dissent have crashed upon the shores of modernity and are forced to confront these new realities. Defoe’s thinking anticipated a more establishment commitment to social reform where dissent could be expressed politically without being partisan. In a time where some Baptists are characterized by a kind of excessive bad dissent—a quest for religious liberty that eschews public accountability, fashionable dissent that is actually deeply partisan—Freeman makes an old classic come alive: “Crusoe points a way for other castaways whose ecclesial ships have sunk as they seek to make a life on the desert island of modernity” (131). 

Finally, Blake offers an apocalyptic dissent. His poetry, particularly in Jerusalem, gives a vision that foresaw England renewed from its current corruption, rendering a powerful illustration of what Freeman calls the “apocalyptic vision.” This is more than the literalism that offered an otherworldly escape. Blake imagined an “apocatastasis of being” (171) that fueled a creativity to see the heavenly Jerusalem dwell on earth. While interpretations of Blake abound, Freeman sees this imaginative task being taken up in the work of Wendell Berry. Baptists again must take heed. The older, more naïve apocalyptic preaching of the early Baptists, while powerful in its own day, is too literalistic and irresponsible today. Contemporary attempts to chart prophecy chronologically and correlate it to contemporary politics by dispensationalists have led to destructive politics, particularly in the Middle East. Let the reader know this review was written just after sixty people were killed in Gaza while the US embassy was moved to Jerusalem, motivated in part by a literalist equation of the current Jerusalem with the biblical one, which as Blake might point out, falls disastrously short of pursuing the heavenly one. 

In the final chapter, “Post-Apocalyptic Dissent,” Freeman situates dissent in the American experience, whether looking at the first American Baptists like Roger Williams or turning to later Baptists like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Clarence Jordan. Freeman further explains the apocalyptic vision, which he sees best exemplified in Jordan’s notion that “the kingdom of God is always at hand but never fully in hand” (212), and then outlines the role of convictions, conscience, and community in forming the dissenter. 

This book is creative and constructive, instructive and inspiring. It is a book that cannot be merely read but lived. To refuse warrants warning: “Yet it is unlikely that even the most domesticated dissenter who has learned to reside comfortably in the shadow of American empire will remain comfortable for long” (233).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Spencer Boersma is Assistant Chaplain at Thornloe Univeristy, Laurentain.

Date of Review: 
June 5, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Curtis W. Freeman is research professor of theology and director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School. 

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