For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘Christian life

Stanley M. Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, The Truth about God: The Ten Commandments in Christian Life, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999, 144 pp.

This is the first in a series of four books about the Ten Commandments, which I purchased and read simultaneously, week by week, while I was preaching a sermon series on that topic. The sermons can be found here, June 22 through July 27. The rest of the book reviews will be posted sequentially here. 

Truth About GodI posted this on Facebook midway through this book:

I keep reading their (Hauerwas & Willimon’s) books, but I need to stop. For every compelling and enlightening sentence, there are two that make me want to throw it against the wall. There’s some good stuff in there, but it’s all so tangled up with garbage. The chapter on adultery was ridiculously bad and out of touch. Oh, the arrogance! The arrogance of these two!

This remains my assessment of the book as a whole.

First, some of the good stuff. Hauerwas and Willimon’s take on the Ten Commandments is that they are a central showcase for God’s saving work in the world. True to their Methodist roots, they see obedience to the commandments as a path toward sanctification, a response to God’s grace with a willingness to follow.

We live by the commandments as a way of worshiping the true God. When we thus worship the true God, we show forth to the world the sort of people God is able to produce. (17)

This makes the commandments not a generalized set of rules that apply to everyone, but a unique covenant initiated by God in relationship to the people.

God knows that Israel, left to its own devices in the wilderness, is prone to reestablish Pharoah’s rule in different forms. So the commandments are given as a basis for a radically alternative society that is counter to all that the empire demands. (27)

We don’t need God–we worship God. That is the first commandment, to stop attempting to get something out of God and instead to bend our lives toward God. (34)

Unfortunately, this interesting chapter quickly becomes a screed against scholars who question how this exclusionary God can hamper interfaith relationships, against a major denominational leader who questions Jesus’ divinity, and even (somehow) against parents who help their teenagers access birth control. As I said, for every good point, there are two that make me want to throw the book into a wall.

There were two main reasons I kept reading. First, Hauerwas and Willimon did detailed research that saved me a lot of work. Each chapter addresses one commandment, and they quote extensively from Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther and other historical theologians. It is helpful to read those commentaries without having to track them down separately. Second, there remained regular appearances of good and insightful observations, like these:

On “Thou Shall Not Kill”: They (the Religious Right) seize upon the Ten Commandments as a universal, general code of conduct for every thinking American and forget how exceptional the community is rendered by the Decalogue. That our society is so terribly violent is in great part the result of the church’s failure to be a community of nonviolence as a byproduct of our worship of the God of peace. (88-89)

On “Thou Shall Not Bear False Witness”: The church must be a testimony that the truth is known by people who have learned how to trust one another through sharing goods, committing one another to lifelong fidelity, the practice of nonviolence, who do these things because they know they are creatures of a gracious God who would have them worship him in truth. (123)

However, you must also put up with obnoxious, arrogant and clueless conclusions they draw. The chapter on adultery is especially heinous.

The only good Christian reason to get married is the conviction that you can live out your baptismal vocation better within marriage than without. Furthermore, we believe that love is the fruit of marriage, the result of our faithful commitment to one another rather than its cause. (98)

The term “planned parenthood” doesn’t quite fit how Christians ought to have children, for children are not our choice as much as they are God’s choice of us. (100)

You have never had good sex until you have had it with a Christian. (100)

However, it’s not limited to that one. They make gross generalizations about the misery of rich people and call out whole congregations for spoiling their children. Then you get this commentary on government, which somehow emerges from their commentary on lying.

There can be no freedom that does not acknowledge God. The Constitution attempted to construct a government without God… Democracy is an attempt to get around the necessity for a hierarchy of virtue by majority vote. (126-127)

So, there you go. Hauerwas and Willimon being their usual selves. They are full of scholarship and insight into the meaning of the commandments, in their richness and connection to God. They are also full of themselves and their own arrogant and outdated opinions, which they then try to argue emerge from the biblical text. My original Facebook assessment stands.

Advertisements

The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, translated by R.H. Fuller and Irmgard Booth, Simon & Schuster, Touchstone edition, 1959, 316 pp.

51G4bZO8VMLThis last Epiphany, the lectionary presented the first two chapters of the Sermon on the Mount. As I approached a multi-week sermon series on those famous words of Jesus leading into the season of Lent, it seemed an appropriate time to re-read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic. I have also been lately pondering the idea of discipleship, its importance in our current context and how, as a church, we direct our efforts toward growing disciples.

The opening chapter on cheap grace versus costly grace always cuts to the quick, and it has made this book such a classic, even though it was written long before Bonhoeffer’s incredible story of resistance to the Nazis. However, in my reading this time around, I focused instead on the themes of discipleship, starting here:

Hitherto the Christian life had been the achievement of a few choice spirits under the exceptionally favorable conditions of monasticism; now it is a duty laid on every Christian living in the world. The commandment of Jesus must be accorded perfect obedience in one’s daily vocation of life. (48)

Reading with different eyes this time, I saw the way that Bonhoeffer’s description of cheap grace accorded with many descriptions of Christian life under Christendom. “The antithesis between Christian life and the life of bourgeois respectability is at an end. The Christian life comes to mean nothing more than living in the world and as the world, in being no different from the world.” (51) Bonhoeffer saw that the easy merger between Christianity and citizenship led to a cheap and shallow faith, because it required neither sacrifice nor dedication to practice it. Authors in our context today refer to this as American Christendom or civic religion–a system of basic weekly attendance, public rituals and shared beliefs that amount to little transformation, and barely resemble the Christianity of Christ. (See Robinson, Dean, and Reese, among others.)

Bonhoeffer then presents the distinct marker of true discipleship: obedience. “Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes… For faith is only real when there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.” (63-64) The next several chapters go on to describe the requirements of single-minded obedience to Christ–not to ideas or principles or communities, but to Christ alone. The foundation of discipleship for Bonhoeffer is simple obedience to Christ in all things. The remaining chapters of commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, and the subsequent section on issues of church doctrine (baptism, communion, saints, community) are all teasing out what it means to be absolutely obedient to Christ.

I was struck by the power of this idea of obedience in Bonhoeffer’s own context. The Cost of Discipleship was originally published in Germany in 1937, as Hitler and the Nazi regime were consolidating their power over the German people by demanding absolute obedience to the Fuhrer. Obedience to orders was a ubiquitous concept at the time–and Bonhoeffer simply substituted another figure whom we ought to obey. Replacing obedience to “law and order” or the Fuhrer with obedience to Christ and the law of sacrificial love turns everything upside down.

I also ponder how this works in our 21st century American culture, when obedience is loathed as a word and a concept. Especially in my progressive United Church of Christ context, obedience is connected with behavior that is uncritical, unfaithful, immature, and an affront not only to the individual but to God. We like to imagine that we have a more collegial relationship, even with the Almighty. We do not just follow orders (especially since we disagree about what those orders might be), but we see ourselves as evolving on a spiritual journey. We speak of becoming mindful servants, not mindlessly obedient–not even if our mind is replaced by the mind of Christ. It’s tough to imagine an invitation to absolute obedience to Christ generating a lot of interested new disciples.

And yet, I did not disagree with Bonhoeffer’s perspective about obedience (although I did take issue with some other things later in the book). What hope have we for nurturing new disciples if obedience remains a dirty word? How can we speak of the same thing in new ways? The ideas of fidelity, loyalty, dedication, belonging and identity might address the same concept in a way more appealing to 21st century American ears and hearts, yet I think something would be lost in translation. When it comes down to it, discipleship requires saying “yes” to Christ’s command to follow, which means a resounding “no” to much of the ways of the world.

There are, of course, many other things that can be said of this spiritual classic, but I will leave those to another future re-reading. If you’ve never read Bonhoeffer, or never read The Cost of Discipleship, I commend it to you highly. The first five chapters represent some of the most powerful insights on discipleship in all of Christian theology.

 

 

 

Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life by Henri J.M. Nouwen, Donald P. McNeill and Douglas A. Morrison, drawings by Joel Filartiga, Doubleday Books, 1982, 137 pp.

compassionThis book came recommended in connection with my Macedonian Ministries group’s ongoing work on compassion and Karen Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion. Several of my colleagues have used it as study material for small groups in their churches.

The best description of the book is that it is a deep meditation on compassion in the tradition of Christ. Nouwen, McNeill and Morris begin not with what it means to act compassionately, but with the compassion of God. What does it mean to say that God is compassionate? How is that compassion shown, given the obvious reality of evil and suffering in the world? They contrast compassion with competition. We humans are motivated by competition with one another, but God (and Jesus) are able to show compassion because they are not in competition with us. This realization about competition really struck me. Competition is not just about being better than others, it is also about being distinguished from others. It is when we strive for distinction (in contrast to humility, not sameness) that we move away from compassion. For example, they discuss being a servant:

Service is an expression of the search for God and not just the desire to bring about individual or social change. … As long as the help we offer to others is motivated primarily by the changes we may accomplish, our service cannot last long. (29)

That connects service to obedience to God, because “whenever we separate service from obedience, compassion becomes a form of spiritual stardom.” (36)

After the meditation on the compassion of God, the authors move through the characteristics of a life shaped by compassion.

  • Community—a compassionate life is not lived alone, but within a group of others “walking on the same path” (49)
  • Displacement—a voluntary response to being called out of our lives, recognizing we are sinners in need of grace
  • Togetherness—letting go of our desire to be special so that we can create healing space for others
  • Patience—patience provides discipline to the life of compassion, making us open to God’s time and others’ time
  • Prayer—opening our hearts to the needs of others, shaping our spirits
  • Action—may include confrontation, and emerges from deep joy and gratitude from God, not from a need to be noticed

There are many beautiful expressions and spiritual insights throughout the book, but the chapter on prayer captured one of the best theologies of prayer I have ever heard.

Prayer is not an effort to make contact with God, to bring God to our side. Prayer, as a discipline that strengthens and deepens discipleship, is the effort to remove everything that might prevent the Spirit of God, given to us by Jesus Christ, from speaking freely to us and in us. The discipline of prayer is the discipline by which we liberate the Spirit of God from entanglements in our impatient impulses. It is the way by which we allow God’s Spirit to move freely. (102-103)

I found this book to be rich and moving on a multitude of levels. It address the whole of the spiritual life, not just the “acts of justice and mercy” that are on our spiritual to-do list. I think it could work well in a group, for clergy or laity, for people in various places in their discipleship journey. I anticipate returning to it many times in the future.

Our church’s Women’s Fellowship is a small band of 10-15 women ranging in age from 75 to 90. They meet once a month for a business meeting, program and refreshments. The Women’s Fellowship is the descendant of a once-thriving and prominent Women’s Guild, which attracted hundreds of women who had no other opportunity for leadership or employment and wielded enormous financial and influential power in the life of the church. The evolving nature of gender relationships, the inclusion of women as officers and leaders in the church, and the reality that most women now work full-time outside the home has diminished the need and authority of these kinds of women’s groups over the years. The Women’s Fellowship no longer wields such power, but they are still a mighty cool bunch of ladies who contribute a great deal to the ministry of the church.

I have been leading a book discussion with them every month for their program, and this month the chapter focused on the story of the woman with the alabaster jar, particularly the Johannine account which identifies her as Mary of Bethany. We had already giggled and tittered about the sexual nature of this encounter, and talked about the intimacy of that moment. We wondered together at the woman’s motivations, at her feelings for Jesus. Then I asked, “Well, what about Jesus? Why do you think he accepted such an intimate gesture, such a show of affection? Why did he just sit there and let her wash his feet with her hair?”

“Because he’s a man. They just expect you to serve them,” blurted an 80-something former farm girl, tough as nails and as loyal to her church as anyone can be. And the whole room erupted in the honest, raucous laughter of recognition—for a moment, until we realized she had just made a man-joke about the ego of Jesus Christ. The laughter reverted to nervous giggles followed by awkward silence, as they looked to their pastor to see how she would react.

I have to admit I didn’t know where to start. I wanted to affirm the truth-telling nature of her comment. It opened a powerful connection and shared experience in women’s lives, a feminist consciousness-raising moment. I wanted to name and unpack the reality she described, that men have been trained to expect women to serve and to sacrifice, and they tend to overlook and underappreciate the real cost of women’s gifts and service.

I also felt the need and desire to defend Jesus from being a typical man. I want him to be my feminist hero. I think there is some justification for this in the Gospel. Jesus did talk to women without prejudice, engaged them fully in his ministry, bent gender roles, spoke up in defense of women and adopted a posture of service and sacrifice that is not so different from women’s traditional roles.

I did both of those things, and the conversation progressed. But the original comment still pricks at me, because it reminded me of the uncomfortable reality that Jesus was still a first-century man. He may have been a good man, a forward-thinking, radically inclusive, woman-affirming man—but he was still a man. He probably did not overcome all the prejudices of his day around the expectations of women’s servitude.

It renewed my yearning for a female Messiah, a woman of spiritual and moral consequence, who breaks through gender stereotypes to establish a model of the faithful life as a woman. Jesus sets the model for what a God-dedicated life looks like for a man—serving others, humbling yourself, giving up home and family for the sake of spiritual pursuit, standing up to power and working for peace and justice. What does it look like for a woman to live that kind of life? Jesus’ model life was made possible by the women supporting him, providing food and shelter and clothing to him. I refuse to believe that supporting male spiritual leaders is as good as it gets for women, so what does it look like for a woman to live a model faithful life?

When society already demands humility and servitude and trains us up to practice compassion and reconciliation, what does spiritual leadership in those areas demand? It requires extra courage and fortitude for women to stand up to power and speak out against injustice, so perhaps that is where our spiritual leadership comes forward. But what about giving up home and family? Who’s going to feed the children if women start following Jesus’ model of leaving those tasks to someone else?

This yearning for a female Messiah is not new to me. I believe many women share the aching desire for role models, spiritual and otherwise, that show how to overcome the gender stereotypes of service and humility while continuing to be serving and humble, how to stand up to power and speak for justice while still practicing justice and care in our family relationships, how to lead and give and serve across the multiple, challenging roles and stereotypes women face. Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene, the Syro-Phoenician woman, Dorcas, Lydia—these are important examples, but their stories have been so filtered through gender stereotypes that it is impossible to look on their lives without filters.

Jesus is still a feminist hero. But sometimes I still want more.


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.

Helpful Hint

If you only want to read regular posts, click the menu for Just Reflections. If you only want to read book reviews, click the menu for Just Book Reviews.

RevGalBlogPals

NetGalley

Member & Certified Reviewer

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,663 other followers

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: