Book Notice: Rowan Williams on Being Christian

Rowan Williams
Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer
Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014.
Available at Amazon.com

I read this book over the weekend. Its rather short at only 84 pages and written in a very easy going style. Williams, now Master of Magdalene College, covers the topics of Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, and Prayer, and in each one he had something interesting to say.

For Williams, baptism is about going into “the depths” with Jesus, who himself went into the depths of humanity and into the depths of human need and divine love. Williams says that you don’t go into the waters of the Jordan without stirring up a great deal of mud!  He also writes:

One of the great privileges of time as Archbishop of Canterbury was being allowed to go and see some of those places at close quarters where people live in dangerous proximity to Jesus; whether their witness means they are at risk in various ways. And when you see people in places like Zimbabwe, Sudan, Syria or Pakistan living both in the neighbourhood of Jesus and in the neighbourhood of great danger, you understand something of what commitment to the Christian life means, the commitment of which baptism is the sign (p. 9).

On the Bible, Williams notes first of all the great diversity in the Bible: “The diversity of the Bible is as great as if you had within the same two covers, for example, Shakespeare’s sonnets, the law reports of 1910, the introduction to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reasons, the letters of ST. Anselm and a fragment of The Canterbury Tales. All within the same two covers” (pp. 24-25). Some things were a bit eyebrow raising. For instance, if God did command genocide of the Canaanites and Jebusites “that would be so hideously at odds with what the biblical story as a whole seems to say about God. But if we understand that response as simply part of the story, we see that this is how people thought they were carrying out God’s will at the time.” (p. 28). I find the OT exterminate passages unsettling, not sure if I’d handle it that way. The main thing for Williams is that the Bible should be approaches as if it were a parable of Jesus: a gift, a challenge, and an invitation into a new world! Williams also has an Origenesque approach to scripture’s veracity, less concerned with the historical than the spiritual. He uses the book of Daniel as an example, saying:

Rather than get hung up on historical details, we need to keep coming back to the question, “What does God want to tell us?” If we hang our faith on the absolute historical accuracy of Scripture in every detail, we risk making Scripture a sort of “magic” book that turns up the right answers to all sorts of irrelevant questions, instead of being a book that gives us, in the wonderful words of the Coronation service, “the live oracles of God.” The Bible is intended to be a mere chronicle of past events, but a living communication from God, tell us now what we need to know for our salvation” (pp. 32-33).

Williams insists on the historical ground of the NT as crucial importance, but seems less interested in OT history.

Probably the best chapter was on the Eucharist. I like what he says: “Holy Communion makes no sense at all if you do not believe in the resurrection. Without the resurrection, the Eucharist becomes simply a memorial meal, recalling a rather sad and overpowering occasion in the upper room” (pp. 45-46). It touches on themes of hospitality, thanksgiving, repentance, and new creation. He comments:

Sometimes, after receiving Holy Communion, as I look around a congregation, large or small, I have a sensation I can only sum up as this is it – this is the moment when people see one another and the world properly: when they are filled with the Holy Spirit and when they are equipped to go and do God’s work. It may last only a few seconds, there it it is. It has happened and it happens again and again. And what is the appropriate response? I have already said: thanksgiving. (p.58).

On prayer, for Williams this is “letting Jesus pray in you” and seeing our own selfish thoughts and ideals and hopes gradually aligned with his eternal action. He takes lessons from Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Cassian on prayer.

All in all, an interesting read, certainly not your standard evangelical type of devotional, worth reading.

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