Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer
Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014
There are a set of Christian writers, poets, theologians who I trust because they are a combination of depth, clarity, and an even-handedness that produces insight. Rowan Williams is among them. And yet one need only look at this man’s majestic eyebrows to know that he is going to bring some extraordinary wisdom. You don’t get eyebrows like that without wisdom.
This book, however, is not intended to be ground-breaking, it is intended as some humble reflections on four of the core aspects of Christian belief and practice: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, and Prayer. As one reviewer put it: “It takes a theologian of depth to write a simple book about complex concerns.” Such is the case with this recent publication by Williams.
This book expounds on the meaning or basic idea of the above-mentioned themes. That is to say, it does not go into how or by what means these things happen, nor does Williams give us many practical suggestions (though these come up now and again). Rather in discussing baptism, the Bible, Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper), and prayer, Williams provides the reader with the meaning of these activities.
Yet this is not just a book for the new Christian or seeker (though it certainly would benefit them). The way which Williams treats each of these subjects reveals a depth to these basic practices that many might miss, or perhaps fail to remember as often as we should.
There is a gentleness about Rowan Williams’ writing that is hard to miss. Its weird to say that a person’s writing is gentle, but that is exactly what it is. Any reader of Williams can expect to be invited into a conversation that is more like a dance, as we move about in this direction and that without any jerking or forcefulness. Even when Williams is criticizing or rejecting some idea, it is more like a feint or movement away from these things rather than a hostile takeover. Every once in a while its satisfying to see someone just rip apart an opposing idea (David Bentley Hart is the king of this tactic). But more often than not it seems to be the mark of the sage not to need to annihilate a thought in order to relieve it of its power.
Although this book assumes to be an exposition on simple subjects, it is not hard to notice that Williams is giving his own gloss that goes beyond basic introduction. I found his writing on the Eucharist to be the most insightful, but his writing on the Bible to be the most interesting. Williams points us toward the bigger picture of Bible-reading, that we should be concerned in every reading or hearing to engage with the Scriptures, not just to exegete them (both are important). So when we read passages that are controversial or seemingly obscure it is important that our starting and ending point should be wondering how these words help us to see God and ourselves in new light. Williams does not shy away from suggesting that the most important way we read the Bible is as a parable: a story we are invited into in order to rediscover ourselves and God.
So the beginning of Christian life is a new beginning of God’s creative work. And just as Jesus came up out of the water, receiving the Spirit and hearing the voice of the Father, so for the newly baptized Christian the voice of God says, ‘You are my son/daughter’, as that individual begins his or her new life in association with Jesus. (3)
To be baptized is to recover the humanity that God first intended. (3)
If all this is correct, baptism does not confer on us a status that marks us off from everybody else. To be able to say, ‘I’m baptized’ is not to claim an extra dignity, let alone a sort of privilege that keeps you separate from and superior to the rest of the human race, but to claim a new level of solidarity with other people. (5-6)
If [The Bible] is all poetry then you do not need to take it any more seriously than you take any other kinds of poetry (given that so many people think poetry is just fanciful and decorative, God forgive them). (25)
We need rather to approach the Bible as if it were a parable of Jesus. The whole thing is a gift, a challenge and an invitation into a new world, seeing yourself afresh and more truthfully. (28-29)
Does God really want us to know, in exact detail, ancient Babylonian history? I suspect not. But I am confident that God does want us to know how people in circumstances of acute displacement, living with the fear and the anxiety of a persecuted minority, responded to a hostile state and a pagan power. (31)
Yes, history matters, but that does not mean that you should lose your faith because the chronology of King Belshazzar’s reign in the book of Daniel does not square with what people dig up in the Middle East on archaeological expeditions. . . . The Bible is not intended to be a mere chronicle of past events, but a living communication from God, telling us now what we need to know for our salvation. (32-33)
. . . . How can we decide what a good or bad interpretation of a story might be like? What criteria do we have for discerning truth from falsehood? The Christian answer is, unsurprisingly, in terms of Jesus Christ. . . . It is not as if you can produce once and for all a Christ-centered reading of the Bible that tells you exactly how to relate all the different bits tote h enter. On the contrary, you keep going round and round, in a kind of virtuous circle. And as you keep circling around that central reality, each time round you may see something fresh. (35)
For Christians, to share in the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, means to live as people who know that they are always guests—that they have been welcomed and that hey are wanted. (41)
And when Jesus give thanks at that moment before the breaking and spilling, before the wounds and the blood, it is as if he is connecting the darkest places of human experience with God the Giver; as if he is saying that even in these dark places God continues to give, and therefore we must continue to give thanks. And that is why the Greek word eucharistia, ‘thanksgiving’, took root and became the earliest and most widespread name for what Christians do when they meet for Holy Communion: they meet to give thanks, even in the heart of the darkest experience. (49)
Reverence for the bread and the wine of the Eucharist is the beginning of reverence for the whole world in which the giving of God’s glory is pulsating beneath the surface of every moment. (50)
We take Holy Communion not because we are doing well, but because we are doing badly. Not because we have arrived, but because we are traveling. Not because we are right, but because we are confused and wrong. Not because we are divine, but because we are human. Not because we are full, but because we are hungry. (53-54)
So, for the Christian, to pray—before all else—is to let Jesus’ prayer happen in you. And the prayer that Jesus himself taught his disciples expresses this very clearly; ‘Our Father’. We begin by expressing the confidence that we stand where Jesus stands and we can say what Jesus says. . . . That, in a nutshell, is prayer—letting Jesus pray in you, and beginning that lengthy and often very tough process by which our selfish thoughts and ideals and hopes are gradually aligned with his eternal action. (62-63)
Prayer is in significant part about resolving conflict and rivalry. If people prayed seriously they would be reconciled. (70-71)
It would be wonderful if this book were used in courses for teenagers or new Christians. Better yet, though, many of us who have had faith for a long time would do well to return to the basics to get a fresh look and a stronger grounding in the essentials. This is a short book written by a brilliant theologian, which is just about as good a start as any book is ever going to get.