The Rev. Christopher Momany is chaplain of United Methodist-related Adrian College in Adrian, Mich., and an ordained United Methodist minister who served as pastor of several churches in New Jersey and western Michigan. His book, Doing Good: A Grace-Filled Approach to Holiness (Abingdon Press, 2011) explores the Wesleyan ethic of holy love. He answered questions from staff writer Mary Jacobs via email; here are excerpts.
From a practical standpoint, why do we need to understand the meaning of “holiness”?
True holiness is a matter of being related to God and then given a unique purpose. When we look at holiness this way, we see that it goes to the heart of faith. Unfortunately, we might mistake holiness as a commodity owned by powerful religious people, or some fantastic goodness that belongs to spiritual superstars. Not so. It belongs to God and is offered to all.
Is this book a result of discussions you’ve had with students over the years as chaplain?
Absolutely! The church is exercised over how to reach young people these days. But if we are interested in young people because our numbers are falling, we will alienate them.
This is a very savvy generation. My students often use the term “legit” to talk about something that’s real. Something real has its own value. When something is not “legit,” it usually involves manipulation—that is, people getting used to satisfy another’s agenda.
So the idea of love being “unconditional” is particularly important to young adults. They live in a world where there are always strings attached. They get judged by all kinds of cultural expectations: notions of beauty, ideas of success, their “usefulness” to others. I’m not sure it’s all that different from the world of older adults, but they have fresh instincts and know when they are being played. And they don’t like it.
Our ministry draws on the words of Asa Mahan, the first president of Adrian College—a 19th-century holiness leader who said that all people have “intrinsic worth.” This means we are called to love people regardless of difference and regardless of what they can or can’t do for us—no matter what. For young people, that’s “legit.” During a college chapel service, a large crowd of students stood up and surprised me with a gift—a custom coffee mug bearing the words “Intrinsic Worth.” It blew me away.
Who should read this book?
I would say that those wanting to understand love might find the book helpful. There are some underlying theological and even philosophical principles explored through the text, but that shouldn’t scare anyone off.
The church has come to dwell on the latest “leadership” terminology and business strategies, but we often shut down when it comes time to consider “theology.” The church needs good theology! By that I mean considered reflection on God’s love, the cross, the resurrection. What they tell us about God. What they call us to live. These are critical things.
Is there one misconception about holiness that you’d like to dispel?
Yes, the idea “holiness” equals “conservative.” There are Christians who gladly embrace the term “conservative,” just as there are those who embrace the term “liberal.” But holiness is about neither one of these ideologies. It’s about love. Some might say that I am speaking for the tradition of “social holiness,” and to a great extent I am. Yet social holiness is not “impersonal.” And it does not mean one has to tout every modern idea regarding “social” concern. It does mean being directed outward. Holiness is personal, but if holiness is love, it is also focused on the world outside.
When some people hear the word “holiness” they tend to have associations with rule-based, pious thinking, as in, “holier than thou.” Where did these associations originate?
A lot of books (many of them good) have been written about this. My book is in keeping with those who suggest that we often wrongly think of Christian practice as either rule-keeping or release from structure. There is a “third way.” The “holiness” movement of Wesleyan folk built on John Wesley’s care for a sanctified or wholly dedicated life. This holiness movement also took the lead in the fight against slavery and for women’s rights. Somehow, over the years, it collapsed in upon itself and became associated with petty rules for personal behavior. We can re-direct the focus outward without neglecting our hearts. The two belong together.
I suppose one can do a certain amount of good without being holy, but one can’t be holy without doing good. That might sound like an incorrect emphasis on works—the idea that we can perform deeds to earn God’s favor. That is not what I am suggesting. Rather, once we glimpse a bit of God’s love for us and others, we are empowered to serve as ambassadors of that love. Knowing God will drive us to know and love others.
Your book talks about how Jesus exhorts believers to be “perfect.” Some might read “perfection” as impossible. Your response?
I’ve concluded that our initial fear of this text comes from our desire to define perfection in advance. If we have some idea of perfection in mind—drawn from our culture or from personal pain—then this strikes us as an exceedingly brutal expectation. But if we allow God to both define and then work “perfection” within our lives, it becomes something else. It can be a blessing instead of a burden.
If there’s one key idea you’d like readers to take away from this book, what would it be?
If holiness is about love, then it is about the paradox of being set apart to participate. In other words, holiness is certainly about being unique, but the greatest uniqueness is that which lives with, suffers with, stays with others.