Review: A Deeper Way of Living
Review: A Deeper Way of Living

Review: A Deeper Way of Living

Taking a closer look at the joys and sacrifices of community living.

February 11 th 2021
Appears in Winter 2021
Review: A Deeper Way of Living
Another Life Is Possible. Plough Books, 2020. 320 pp.


In 1920, the German pastor and anti-Nazi dissident Eberhard Arnold gave up his comfortable middle-class life in Berlin to launch an experiment in community living that has endured to this day. With his wife Emmy and their five children—as well as Emmy’s sister, Else—Arnold moved to the poor farming village of Sannerz, Germany, to found the first “Bruderhof,” a Christian community grounded in Anabaptist theology where members lead lives of radical discipleship to Christ.

The community grew during Arnold’s time to include a diverse cast of characters, from single mothers and orphans, to communists and homeless veterans of World War I—even Jews and anarchists found a home on the Bruderhof farm. And now, one hundred years later, it has grown still more. The counter-cultural movement has twenty-six communities around the world, in the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, Australia, South Korea, Paraguay, and the United States, where members come together to live like the earliest members of the Christian church, who gave up everything they had to follow Christ.

To mark the one-hundred-year anniversary of the Bruderhof, Plough, the community’s publishing house, has released a beautiful book that collects moving stories and luminous photographs of today’s Bruderhof members. Another Life Is Possible: Insights from 100 Years of Life Together is a snapshot of the Bruderhof community today—and the yearning for meaning that has led its nearly three thousand members to exchange the liberties and luxuries of modern life for a deeper way of living.

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The search for meaning lies at the heart of Arnold’s story, the first one readers encounter in this volume. From a young age, Arnold was a seeker. As a teenager, he volunteered for the Salvation Army and started a Bible study. As a young man, he enrolled in a doctoral program in theology. But when his rejection of infant baptism led him to be rebaptized as an adult, a radical move that disqualified him from attaining a theology degree, he switched his course to philosophy. After World War I broke out, he fervently supported the German cause, but the experience of counselling wounded soldiers led him to embrace pacifism as a truer expression of God’s love.

Despite leading a life steeped in service during those years, he found that his spiritual hunger could not be satisfied. In Weimar, Germany, he saw how greed, selfishness, and materialism corrupted the soul and made it nearly impossible to live in harmony with one’s fellow man. Christ said, “Do not gather riches for yourself.” But most Christians, Arnold wrote, “have risen up as defenders of money and capitalism.” Increasingly, Arnold felt that the only way to be a Christian—to live according to the demands of Christ—was to break from modern society. Healing the world, he believed, required everyone to give up their possessions, an act, he wrote, “that strikes at the very root of our selfishness, making it possible for us to live in harmony—to live a life of love and justice and community.” But his radical economic and pacifistic views put him at odds with the prevailing culture, including his own employer, the publishing house of the Student Christian Movement. After leaving that job, he and his family moved to Sannerz to found the Bruderhof.

The horrors of World War I and the decadence of Weimar Germany deeply troubled Arnold—but it was the rise of National Socialism that posed the gravest existential challenge to his vision of the kingdom of God on earth. During the 1930s, the Gestapo raided the Bruderhof farm several times, eventually arresting several members and ordering the rest to leave Germany in 1937. In an internal memo, one Gestapo official wrote that the Bruderhof “represents a worldview totally opposed to National Socialism.” Arnold, an anti-Nazi dissident, did not disagree: Several years earlier, he had written to Hitler urging him to renounce the ideology of Nazism and work instead to serve God.

Arnold died in Germany in 1935 from unexpected medical complications. After their expulsion from Germany, the other Bruderhof members found their way to Paraguay by 1941, the only country that would accept them during wartime. They eventually established three communities there, as well as a hospital that served the indigenous community.

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Today’s Bruderhof communities have remained true to Arnold’s original spirit. Then as now, all property is shared. Members contribute all of their income, possessions, and inheritances to the community in exchange for housing, food, and health care. They share meals together as a community several times a week and practice adult baptism, and individuals may only become members as adults. At the same time, men and especially women dress modestly, and obedience is a central part of their discipleship—“obedience (and outward marks of respect) from all of us to properly appointed magistrates,” writes the book’s creator, Clare Stober, “from children to parents, and (I am afraid this is going to be very unpopular) from wives to husbands.”

This sounds jarring to the modern ear—and life in religious communities is certainly not for everyone—but members of the Bruderhof have intentionally chosen to relinquish one kind of freedom for another. Consider Stober’s story. A college dropout, Stober was running a successful advertising agency near Washington, DC, when she realized that her way of life, focused on maximizing wealth and success, was directly at odds with the life of faith she yearned to lead.

As a younger woman, she had had a “conversion” experience in a dark room, where she felt “overwhelmed with all the deceitful, selfish, evil things I had done in my short life,” she writes. Alienated from her parents and divorced from her husband, she had had an affair with a married man—and there in the dark room she saw “the faces of the people whose lives I had ruined in my drive to get ahead.” Realizing she didn’t want to reach her deathbed with a lifetime’s worth of broken relationships in her wake, she asked God for help and saw two alternatives: “Continue calling my own shots and deal with the messy consequences as best I could, or let go of everything and allow God to take control of my life.”

In time, she sold her townhouse in McLean, Virginia, her vacation home in Nantucket, and her expensive furniture—and found her way to a Bruderhof. “Life in community is different from living as a Christian who attends a church for a few hours a week,” writes Stober. “Every aspect of life has the potential to be an act of worship,” a sacred moment imbued with meaning. Unfettered by materialism, she was “amazed to realize how quickly the deepest yearnings of my heart were filled.”

For Stober, as for so many others described in the book, the Bruderhof delivers something that seems impossible to find in modern society, where human beings are often treated as machines of productivity and wealth generation—the Bruderhof gives them a sense of intrinsic value and worth. Norma Wardle, for example, grew up in a working-class Irish Catholic family in Pittsburgh in the tumultuous 1960s. From a young age, she learned that beauty brought popularity—and as an adult, she let money and clothes define her worth. But after a while, she got burned out living a life based on appearances. One day, she visited a Bruderhof community and something clicked. “Culturally, it was completely foreign to me,” she said, “but these people looked past my appearance. They wanted to know what I was thinking about, and they listened.” When they looked beneath the surface to her core, she was able to see herself in a new way.

The Bruderhof delivers something that seems impossible to find in modern society, where human beings are often treated as machines of productivity and wealth generation.

The importance of meaningful work is another theme that runs through the book. Though members sometimes work in jobs outside of the community, many serve as teachers, nurses, or laborers on the Bruderhof itself, and are expected to live and work wherever they are needed.

For example, one nurse, Dorothy Bush, has moved from Bruderhof to Bruderhof as needs arose. In her younger years, she approached each move with a sense of adventure—a “new beginning” and opportunity to serve. But as she grew older, constantly moving wore on her. One move in particular was difficult: Just as she was settling into life on a German Bruderhof, she learned that one in England needed a nurse, and she had to move again. Single and in her mid-fifties, she realized she didn’t “really have a place you think of as home.” She struggled in England, but eventually found some happiness in her work, “maybe because my vulnerability made me better able to hear the pain of others,” she said.

Another member, Jeremy Decker, works in one of the Bruderhof’s factories. Though he doesn’t feel called to that particular job, he still finds meaning in it, for he knows that it makes community life possible. “It doesn’t matter so much what I’m doing,” he said, “as what I’m doing it for.”

But in stories such as these, there are hints of the difficulties and pains of community life. There is a cost to discipleship—and though self-sacrificial suffering can be redeemed, it is suffering nonetheless.

The importance of service and the dignity of each human being are lessons that children learn from a young age in Bruderhof schools. Here, too, the Bruderhof pushes against the norms of modern culture. Rebecca Newton, a teacher in the Bruderhof’s high school in England, received her master’s degree in education in Germany, where she saw the education system perpetuating harmful and dehumanizing class distinctions. As early as the fourth grade, children are tracked for either a university path or blue-collar path—and she routinely saw how the children of migrants were treated worse than the children of lawyers and professors. “In our Bruderhof schools,” she said, “there’s no pressure to prepare a student for a certain career, or for life in a certain income bracket. Our main goal is not to turn out high achievers. We want to prepare our graduates to use the knowledge or skills they gain to serve humanity and to value themselves and others, not on the basis of their achievements, but simply for who they are.”

To an increasing number of people of faith, the only answer to this despair and fragmentation is to seek refuge within intentional communities that exist in the shadow of modern society—places that are part of the world, but not of it. 

There are many moments of grace woven throughout the book, and some of the most touching ones lie in the photographs that illustrate the volume. Taken by Danny Burrows, a British photographer who first encountered the Bruderhof when documenting the refugee crisis in Europe, the images glimmer with what Bruderhof members might call the living presence of God. Though not part of the Bruderhof himself, Burrows grew to admire the people he encountered there—and these photographs, many of them of children, were clearly taken in a spirit of love. They relay the sweetness and innocence of life on the Bruderhof.

There are images of kids running through beautiful fields and meadows, pictures of newborn babies and elderly couples, and shots of people sitting around a fire like at camp. One of my favourite pictures is of a mustachioed middle-school student, Karl, bursting offstage during a production of Much Ado About Nothing. Another shows a little girl with braids in her hair standing on a half-timber fence watching a baseball game. She is wearing a red-and-white dress and the bottoms of her feet are stained with dirt, presumably from playing outside. In another, Bruderhof college students are hanging out in Manhattan. One young student on the campus of New York’s City College wears traditional garb—hair covering and full-length skirt—and shields herself from the rain with a pink umbrella. If many of the stories in Another Life Is Possible carry the heavy themes of suffering and redemption, the images convey the joy, love, and warmth of community life.

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The publication of another Life Is Possible comes at a critical time in our culture. For decades, a rising tide of despair has been sweeping across society. The accelerating rates of depression, loneliness, and anxiety caused by the pandemic are a culmination of trends that have been ongoing for decades, and that can arguably be traced back to the hyper-individualistic, materialistic values of modernity. To an increasing number of people of faith, the only answer to this despair and fragmentation is to seek refuge within intentional communities that exist in the shadow of modern society—places that are part of the world, but not of it.

This is what the author Rod Dreher has urged all Christians to do in his influential book The Benedict Option. And this is the path followed by Eberhart Arnold and his spiritual descendants on the Bruderhof. Another Life Is Possible makes a compelling case for such a retreat. It presents the Bruderhof as an idyll and antidote to modern life. Against the currents of our ever-shifting world, it serves as an anchor for its members, a place of refuge where love can hold and heal.

Our duty isn’t to retreat from the messy, complicated realities of modern life, one might argue, but to embrace what goodness it contains while addressing its problems from within.

Undoubtedly, its diagnosis of modern life might seem too bleak to some. When Arnold wrote that “only one antipathy was bound up in our love—a rejection of the systems of civilization; a hatred of the falsities of social stratification; an antagonism to the spirit of impurity; an opposition to the moral coercion of the clergy”—his words sound awfully pessimistic, seemingly describing a world beyond redemption. To others, retreating from society may feel too escapist, too radical. The very values and systems that have given rise to alienation and anomie—urbanization, capitalism, individualism, and the like—are also responsible for the alleviation of many other forms of suffering, like disease, poverty, and barbaric violence. Our duty isn’t to retreat from the messy, complicated realities of modern life, one might argue, but to embrace what goodness it contains while addressing its problems from within.

However one negotiates the tension between the values of the spirit and the values of the world, one thing remains clear: The Bruderhof points to an alternative way of life that has brought its members deep peace. As Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, points out in his foreword to the book, the “Bruderhof gently holds up a mirror to the Christian world and asks, ‘Why not this’?”

Image above from Another Life Is Possible. Photo © 2020 by Danny Burrows Photography. Used with permission.
Emily Esfahani Smith
 
Emily Esfahani Smith

Emily Esfahani Smith is the author of The Power of Meaning and a doctoral student in clinical psychology at Catholic University.

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