Lauren Winner, The Dangers of Christian Practice: On Wayward Gifts, Characteristic Damage, and Sin, New Haven, NJ, 2018. 180 pp. $20.00. ISBN 978-0-300-21582-3.
Lauren Winner’s new book is a powerful response to the recent turn toward practice in Christian reflection. The Dangers of Christian Practice is a slim, elegantly readable account of how Christian baptism, Eucharist, and prayer can carry with them harm along with healing. The author provides this account not to insist that Christian practice is intrinsically or uniquely harmful but as a way of chastening optimism that a more robust set of Christian practices will enable Christians to resist the evils of late capitalism more effectively.
Winner begins with sin and the damage it has wrought. Created things can be damaged, she writes, in “characteristic” or uncharacteristic ways. Characteristic damage tells us something about the kind of thing the damaged object is. It is characteristic of a book, for example, to become yellowed and for its binding to crack. A book might be thrown into a river, but this particular harm would not, in itself, tell us much about the kind of thing a book is. Or, the love of parents for their children is sometimes laced with the parents’ own desire to turn their children into what they wish they themselves had become. This damage is characteristic; it tells us something of what nurturing love is. So too, Winner continues, with novels and sentimentality, shared meals and exclusivity, and friendship and the tendency to consume and feed off one another.
So too, also, with Eucharist, baptism, and prayer. In each of these three cases, Winner highlights historical case studies that reveal the damage that is characteristic of the respective sacrament—and, along the way, she shows us what the sacrament is really about. The Eucharist, she suggests, chiefly accomplishes “Gentile intimacy with Israel’s God” (38). The good of the sacrament is to bring the Jewish flesh of Christ into association with the mostly Gentile church. Through a reading of Medieval host desecration narratives (in which accusations that Jews had stolen the sacrament were used to incite pogroms), Winner suggests that a characteristic damage of the Eucharist is a set of violent and destructive “attitudes toward and practices about living Jewish flesh,” and perhaps, by extension, the need to purify and eliminate elements not seen as fit for this intimacy (35).
To discern the characteristic damage of prayer, Winner presents the diaries of slave mistresses in the antebellum American South, exposing their prayerful desires for their slaves’ submission. Here the damage Winner identifies as characteristic is the tendency of prayer to ratify and reify the evil desires of the one who prays (83). This damage tells us something of the good of prayer, which is friendship with the God who wishes us to desire good for ourselves.
In her final case study, Winner examines nineteenth-century American christening parties. Baptism, she suggests, “rightly operates in the cleft between extracting the baptizand from her locality and affirming that very locality” (150). In putting on Christ, the one who is baptized is both blessed in who they have been and born again into someone new. Baptism goes wrong, Winner suggests, by eliminating this tension in either direction. For most contemporary American audiences, she posits, the reification of the local and familial is the more common kind of damage. In the baptismal parties she examines, “the celebrating family stood around looking not at the sign of regeneration but at itself” (125).
In the final chapter of the book, Winner reflects on the nature of gifts and damage. In an appendix, she situates her work in terms of contemporary Christian theology, noting that for postliberals like Stanley Hauerwas and George Lindbeck, as well as a range of other scholars, including feminist theologians, “practices have been embraced as a way of fixing something in and for the church” (180). Baptism, Eucharist, and prayer are indeed perfect, as gifts from God, “but any gift given by a Giver like that to a recipient like us will be damaged” in the receiving (154). And so, while recent scholars have tended toward a “repristination” of practice, Winner performs a “depristination.”
But Winner’s book depristinates for the purposes of—if not repair of—endurance and constancy. In closing, she recommends repentance, confession, and lament as necessary to any practice. They too have their own deformations, but they can sometimes help us to receive the gifts of baptism, Eucharist, and prayermore carefully. We pray, we baptize, we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, not because we can get them right, she states, but because we hope that in practicing them, “despite the damage, they will return us to one another, and to the Lord” (165).
When I set this book down, I began to think of the many damages proper to Anabaptist life and practice. My mind turned to the prose and poetry of Rudy Wiebe, Miriam Toews, and Julia Kasdorf—to the way that in each, the social regulation that comes with communal discipleship is exposed as suffocating, patriarchal, and authoritarian. My mind turned also to Gerald Schlabach’s argument that in an age of mass consumption adult baptism threatens to fetishize individual choice over collective formation; to Steve Dintaman’s charge that contemporary Anabaptism tends to reduce the Christian life into an ethical program; and to the way Anabaptist migration and evangelism has been woven from the threads of colonialism.
I thought of these things because it seemed important in this review to give some account of the damages Anabaptist practice has borne. But what Anabaptists ought to take from Winner’s book is not, I think, a clear explanation of which of our own practices go wrong in which ways—though such self-investigation is necessary—so much as the more fundamental recognition that our practices do, in fact, go wrong beyond all attempts to repair and purify, and yet they remain indispensable. In other words, what Anabaptists might learn from this book is not a guide for diagnosing and repairing our own particular practices but rather a certain humility about the limits of getting our ecclesiology or missiology “right” at all. We might recognize instead that sometimes all we can do is receive the Lord’s gifts with clumsy hands, knowing that we will break them.
Nathan Hershberger is a doctoral student in theology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and attends Chapel Hill (North Carolina) Mennonite Fellowship.