Friday, 4 April 2014

Review of Rowan Williams' new book: 'Being Christian'

Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer deserves to take over from Tokens of Trust as Rowan Williams’ most popular and accessible book. It has a similar origin, as edited transcripts of Holy Week talks at Canterbury Cathedral (the year is not given). It is more focused, concentrating on the most obvious things that ‘make you realise that you are part of a Christian community’: baptism, Bible, Eucharist and prayer. In each case a pithy but deeply insightful core understanding is identified and developed.

Baptism is ‘being led to where Jesus is’, which, in apparent contradiction, places you both ‘in the middle of human suffering and muddle’ (not marked out as a member of a superior group) and in the heart of God.

The Bible is like ‘God telling us a parable or a whole sequence of parables’. It is the word of God because it is what God wants us to hear, not because everything it contains, including a call to genocide, is his direct word. God is saying, ‘This is how people heard me, saw me, responded to me; this is the gift I gave them; this is the response they made… Where are you in this?’

The heart of the Eucharist is illustrated in the story of Zacchaeus, when Jesus says to him, ‘Aren’t you going to ask me to your home?’ In the Eucharist, Jesus not only exercises hospitality, he draws hospitality out from others, makes people open to God, open to each other, and able to see all things as ‘demanding reverent attention, even contemplation’.

Prayer is something to grow into, which is always about growing in Christian humanity. Essentially, to pray is to let Jesus pray in you. It’s not so much about chatting to Jesus, still less about trying to persuade God to listen. We make room, we say ‘Our Father’, and Jesus prays in us. All this is considered with help from Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and John Cassian.

New readers of Rowan Williams will be introduced to his thinking more gently than in most of his other works, though even here, because it is so distilled, it will need to be taken slowly, or re-read. Being so short, that is made easy - don’t measure value for money by the number of pages.

Those familiar with Rowan Williams will find the most novelty in chapter 2 on the Bible, especially the helpful analogy of parable. It is here where I also have a minor quibble. I fear it is possible to come away with the impression that only in the Old Testament do we sometimes find internal tension, historical inaccuracy, God portrayed as acting in a morally questionable way, or a risk of the text being used to justify ‘violence, enslavement, abuse and suppression of women, murderous prejudice against gay people’. Or, to put it crudely, we can be fundamentalist about the New Testament but not the Old. This is absolutely not what Rowan Williams believes or intends, but it would have helped to say so.

Bishop Richard Harries wrote in Art and the Beauty of God (p.11): ‘People sometimes ask for simple gospel truths. Too often, however, what they have in mind are the pious platitudes of a previous generation. True simplicity is indeed a highly prized virtue. But it does not come by opening a packet. After a lifetime of thinking, struggling, loving and praying we might, through the grace of God, have achieved true simplicity’. Being Christian is a model of such profound simplicity.