Discipline in Christian Basics

Review by Paul A. Nesta

In lectures originally given as a Holy Week series at Canterbury Cathedral, Rowan Williams imagines what a community “might hope to become” through baptism, the Bible, Eucharist, and prayer. Baptism is the event whereby people are formally brought into the Christian community. The effect of the baptismal event is a fundamental union with Christ in his death and resurrection. By means of this union with Christ, Williams explains, human beings lay claim once again to their identity as children of God. To be baptized, then, is “to recover the humanity God first intended.” By our sharing in the life and death of Jesus we become prophets who challenge the community to be what it is meant to be, priests who build bridges between God and humanity, and kings who engage in shaping our lives and our environment in the direction of God’s justice.

Being Christian
Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer
By Rowan Williams.
Eerdmans. Pp. 84. $10

The community of the baptized is most readily recognized in its reading of and listening to the Bible. “The Bible is not intended to be a mere chronicle of past events, but a living communication from God, telling us now what we need to know for our salvation.” The Scriptures invite people to find their place in God’s story and ask us if we are willing to be more obedient to God than our spiritual ancestors. In light of this invitation, Williams argues that the Bible can only be read in a Christocentric light, through which “we see what an unequivocal obedience and love looks like.”

For Christians, participation in the Eucharist is a constant reminder that the risen Christ wants our company. Even as we are brought into the company of the Apostles in Baptism, we share what Williams calls an “apostolic moment” when we eat and drink in Jesus’ presence. Being in Jesus’ presence through the Eucharist changes the way we see things as well as the people around us. Through this healing balm the Spirit’s work in us continues as we are transformed and go into the world as “a community of strangers who have become guests together and are listening together to the invitation of God.”

The fourth Christian essential is prayer, which is nothing more than allowing Jesus to pray in us. Through this experience “our selfish thoughts and ideals and hopes are gradually aligned with his eternal action.” Williams spends much of this chapter examining works of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Cassian on prayer. From these patristic sources he concludes three things. First, prayer is God’s work in us. Next, prayer is the life of Jesus coming alive in a person. Finally, prayer is about faithfulness or sticking with it: “Prayer is your promise and pledge to be there for the God who is there for you. And that, essentially, is where prayer for the Christian begins and ends.”

Being Christian stands as a deeply Benedictine model for catechesis. Williams does not provide an exposition of Anglican formularies, the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, or the Lord’s Prayer as may be expected in such a work. Instead, following broadly the principle lex orandi lex credendi, Williams reveals that being Christian means being connected to the worshiping community of the Church. Only within the context of participating in the sacraments, listening to God’s word, and living a life of prayer does one discover what it means to be Christian. So too the faith of the Church cannot be adequately known or believed apart from the context of the liturgical life of the community. Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon echo and summarize this truth in The Truth About God: The Ten Commandments in Christian Life (1999), which argues that the Christian faith is not self-interpreting. Rather, it depends “on the practices of a community formed by the worship, in the Spirit and in truth, of a trinitarian God” (p. 21).

Williams’s approach to the Bible may leave us wanting more. When approaching the Canaanite genocide, which frightens modern readers, Williams counsels that “if we understand [Israel’s] response as part of the story, we see that this is how people thought they were carrying out God’s will at this time.” But the slaughter is so hideously at odds with the larger biblical portrayal of God that, Williams concludes, Israel must have misidentified God’s will in this instance. Biblical scholar Christopher Wright suggests a better solution in The God I Don’t Understand (2008). Facing the same violent event, Wright advises that we stand back from “questions, criticisms, or complaint and receive the Bible’s own word on the matter” (p. 107). Assuming the divine character of Scripture and God’s ultimate unknowability (see Isa. 55:8-9), we will be chary to escape too quickly from the most difficult and foreign parts of the Bible, preferring to sit with them, even uncomfortably.

Being Christian stands as an excellent collection of meditations on the four most basic actions of the Christian community. Williams’s approach is both fresh and imaginative, giving readers a clear understanding of Christian life. Wherever one is on the spiritual journey, this is a book to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.

The Rev. Paul A. Nesta is curate at St. Luke’s Church in Denison, Texas.

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