For The Someday Book

Book Review: Resident Aliens

Posted on: August 25, 2011

Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony: A provocative Christian assessment of culture and ministry for people who know that something is wrong, by Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Abingdon Press, 1989, 175 pp.

After borrowing its title for the opening sermon in my latest sermon series (entitled “Living in Tents”), I finally sat down to read this now-classic work of theology and ethics. It was difficult to read it without all the baggage of accumulated years of references to it, the associations with missional theology, the contentions over Christian superiority and more. However, it was rewarding to finally read this influential work for myself.

In this book Hauerwas and Willimon make the case (now familiar to many) that Christendom is dead. They argue that we should rightfully conceive of the church as a colony in alien territory. A colony has a mission—to build and grow its unique culture in the midst of foreign land, and to expand its influence over the people and environment around it. The authors argue that the church in the world is just such an entity—cultivating a countercultural set of values, trying to raise our young people into that culture, and trying to expand our influence over the people around us.

There is much in this book that is interesting and merits attention, and much attention has been paid in the two decades since its publication. The recognition of the church’s diminished influence, the call to see ourselves as countercultural, the attention to passing on unique values are worth repeating. However, the overarching metaphor of colonization remains troubling. In the wake of centuries of violence in the name of colonization, in a world where “colony” most often refers to the displacement and devaluation of local custom and destruction of all who disagree, I most certainly do not want to think of myself as a colonizer. It is also the case that extreme conservative and fundamentalist branches of Christianity have already adopted this self-identity as colonies, withdrawing from collective social institutions and isolating themselves and their children from wider American culture. I do not think this has been very good for democracy, nor good for Christianity.

One of the things that surprised me the most in this book was the strident tone it took throughout. Hauerwas and Willimon rail against both Niebuhr brothers, common mainline Protestant wisdom and general practices of congregations. It is that stridency that is both appealing and disconcerting. I want to passionately agree with many of their insights, but I am distrustful of their disregard and blatant dismissal of so many who came before them.

In the end, I’m glad I finally read it, but it did not make any difference in my preaching, even though I kept the title. (You can find the sermon here.)

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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