Book Review: Being Christian by Rowan Williams

Much of 21st century Christianity is adrift.  We follow the winds of cultural change, we ceaselessly attempt to be relevant – which means we are constantly chasing the contemporary rather than teaching the timeless.  In the Mainline Christian tribes wherein I travel, the church’s priorities often seem utterly backwards to me.

Enter Rowan Williams’ brief but potent gift, Being Christian.  Williams refocuses our attention on the basic practices of Christian faith.  Christians in the Wesleyan family tree would recognize these as “means of grace:” Bible, Baptism, Eucharist, and prayer.  The former Archbishop of Canterbury offers a new, accessible introduction to these foundational practices of the Christian life that is well worth your time.  Why these particular means of grace as a focus? “There is a huge and bewildering variety in Christian thinking and practice about all kinds of things,” he notes, “but these four basic activities have remained constant and indispensable for the majority of those who call themselves Christians.” (vii)

Williams does a commendable job in connecting these practices to wider concerns.  Thus he notes that baptism creates “[a]n openness to human need” along with “a corresponding openness to the Holy Spirit.” (7)  These practices of personal and communal piety naturally link to charity and justice.

The author takes a similarly nuanced and interesting approach to the Bible. For a chapter of such short length, Williams does a remarkable job of addressing some of the vexing questions of hermeneutics: historical accuracy, metaphor, and literalism.  His solution is pastoral: “So, we can see that we need to tread carefully the path between an obsession with historical accuracy, in a way that fails to do justice to the kind of book the Bible is, and a cavalier attitude to history that just says, ‘Frankly, it doesn’t much matter what happened; all that matters is that it’s a good story.” (33)  He urges, instead, a focus on Jesus, the “luminous centre” of Scripture. (35)

I particularly appreciated the Archbishop’s approach to the Eucharist as an act of divine hospitality.  “In Holy Communion,” he notes, “Jesus Christ tells us that he wants our company.” (41)  It is also an eschatological gathering. The Eucharist offers “a glimpse of the transformation of all things,” a preview of what God will accomplish when the Kingdom is revealed in its fullness. (57)

The final chapter on prayer is organized, uniquely in this work, around three figures: Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Cassian.  The visions of prayer that emerge from these three different, yet all towering, figures are beautiful.  I particularly appreciated Williams picking up on the apophatic tendencies of Nyssa, who narrates prayer as “a constant movement into an endless mystery.” (73)

Each chapter concludes with discussion or reflection questions, which makes it ideal for a group study of some kind. There are also suggestions for further study if a particular topic catches your interest.  To sum up: I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  Being Christian does what few books can do, and does it in less than 90 pages: it offers a compelling introduction to the practices constituative of Christian living, and does so in a way that is both accessible to the new disciple or the interested outsider, while providing plenty of meat on the bone for seasoned Christians, pastors, and theologians.

Read this, and read it soon.

Note: Don’t forget this is part one of a two-part work! Make sure to read Evan’s review of Being Disciples here.

 

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