By Lauren F. Winner
Reviewed by Amy Peterson
Yale University Press, 2018, 240 pp.
When Lauren Winner’s second book, Mudhouse Sabbath, was published in 2003, she was twenty-six years old. A practicing Christian for “going on seven years,” she writes in the introduction to the book that she was “still in that blissed-out newlywed stage” of faith. But despite her infatuation with Jesus, she found that she missed the Jewish rituals she’d left behind when she converted to Christianity. She believed that Christian practices would be enriched, “thicker and more vibrant, if we took a few lessons from Judaism.”
Mudhouse Sabbath was widely successful. Upon its original publication, reviewer Byron Borger hailed it as arriving “on the cusp of the next wave of spirituality studies,” a wave which would move Christians away from “solitary inner-soul-shaping disciplines to concrete, communal and embodied practices.” He listed authors Dorothy Bass, Richard Foster, Gary Thomas, and Jan Johnson as evidence of this trend, and called Winner and Mudhouse Sabbath the most “evocative and delightful” of the bunch.
But perhaps in arguing that Christian practices “form us to respond to God, over and over always, in gratitude, in obedience, and in faith,” Winner had a bit too starry-eyed a view of spiritual practices, or of human nature, or of the way Christian growth happens, as if it follows a clear, ever-upward path — as if the disciplines we embrace are pure, and our motives and practice of them can be pure, too.
It’s possible to read Winner’s most recent book as a sort of self-correction, born perhaps of fifteen more years given to Christian practice and to the academic study of church history in America. Since publishing Mudhouse Sabbath, she has completed her Ph.D. at Columbia and an M.Div. at Duke; published numerous other books; and served as an Episcopal parish priest as well as a professor of Christian Spirituality. Surely fifteen years given to such endeavors will crack one’s idealism and nuance one’s understanding. In fact, it doesn’t take nearly that much: all one has to do is read today’s newspaper headlines in order to begin questioning whether “going to church” and “praying” are forming American Christians only in good ways. Winner’s newest book helps us understand how Christian practice has gone and can go deeply wrong.
In The Dangers of Christian Practice: On Wayward Gifts, Characteristic Damage, and Sin (Yale University Press, 2018), Winner argues that “good Christian practices may, and inevitably sometimes will, do the very opposite of what those practices were made, in their goodness (in God’s goodness, and in God’s good hopes for the church), to do.” While practices such as baptism and prayer are good gifts of God, they are, as gifts that exist in a fallen world, as gifts that are given to sinful creatures who cannot perfectly accept those gifts, damaged gifts. They are, furthermore, damaged in characteristic ways, ways that are “proper to the thing being deformed.”
If we can identify the characteristic damage of various Christian practices, Winner writes, then we can be “on the alert for deformations” — and we may be able to practice them better. The pastoral goal of this book, then, is not to cynically critique the Church, or to contend that we ought to give up practices like prayer or baptism because they have caused damage, but to help Christians be more thoughtful in their approach to Christian practices.
Winner looks at specific instances of practices gone wrong. In medieval Europe, celebrating the Eucharist became connected to the ritual murder of Jews: “Christians’ accusations that Jews had procured a consecrated host and tried to destroy it became the discursive basis — the excuse, and the energizing rationale — for Christians to kill their Jewish neighbors, burn down Jewish buildings, and replace those buildings with chapels devoted to Eucharistic miracles.” From the 1200s to the 1500s, such host desecration narratives flourished. In another example, slave-owning women prayed regularly for their slaves to be more obedient in the antebellum and Civil War-era South. And finally, the book explores how exclusive christening parties around the end of the nineteenth century served to reinforce class boundaries rather than to bring unity to the body of Christ.
In each case, Winner demonstrates that there was something intrinsic to the practice that led to its being deformed in just the way it was deformed. In a final chapter, she reflects on the nature of gifts, the ways in which they can be damaged, and how our imperfect practice of confession-repentance and lament may help us participate in repairing the damage.
The historical work here is thorough and nuanced. The theological work is both orthodox and unexpected. The writing is elegant and distinctive. This is not only history and theology; it is history and theology explored by a brilliant, curious narrator, one with whom the reader wants to continue seeing the world. (Full disclosure: Winner is a friend, so I’m hardly unbiased; yet I wouldn’t have agreed to review this book if I didn’t feel I could honestly praise it.)
What is perhaps most striking about these chapters is how absolutely current they feel. Winner’s work on Eucharist and Jewish-Christian relations speaks to what happened recently in Pittsburgh, and to the fact that Jews are the religious group most often targeted by hate crimes in America. (It is also another helpful way of expanding upon the work of Mudhouse Sabbath). Considering how our prayers may de-form us rather than re-form us may help us understand the infamous 81% statistic. And examining how our church rituals may cement unjust social structures rather than disturb them is something we must do if the church and society are to flourish.
In a brief Appendix titled “Depristinating Practices,” Winner situates her book within theological discussions of that “wave of spirituality studies” that Byron Borger had identified at the publication of Mudhouse Sabbath, though without reference to her own participation in it. The Dangers of Christian Practice, she writes, “can be read as an attempt to prise a fissure in recent (postliberal-high-theological and popular-Christian) accounts of practices, and to suggest that many current discussions of Christian practice are too rosy — are pristinated — and fail to acknowledge, let alone account for or respond to, the sin entailed by those practices.” Analysis of theological work by Stanley Hauerwas (to whom the book is dedicated), Eugene Rogers, and Sarah Coakley, among others, demonstrates the ways in which theologians have embraced the category of “practice” without considering that even “Christian practices carry with them their own deformations.”
Though this book contributes to a particular academic and theological conversation, its value goes far beyond its contributions to that conversation. Any Christian seeking to understand how and why Christian practice can cause harm rather than healing will benefit from this book. Any Christian who wonders how to disentangle Christianity from white supremacy and capitalism will find wisdom here. Any Christian who asks, “Why haven’t these practices driven the racism out of our church, or the greed or idolatry or infidelity or any of it?” and – more personally – any Christian wondering, “Why is my sanctification so slow and so uneven? Why didn’t these gifts (of marriage or celibacy, of prayer or baptism, of Scripture or Eucharist) transform me like I thought they would?” will find comfort here.
We carry on with these gifts, Winner says, because “they are the only things we have, and because they are gifts from the Lord;” and we hold onto faith that “despite the damage, they will return us to one another, and to the Lord.” With the kind of loving, clear-eyed analysis Winner gives us here, such restoration begins to feel possible.