Theology and Peace is devoted to working out the insights of Rene Girard with the aim of producing more peaceable communities, locally and globally. So Chris and I talked a lot about Girard when we were together. But we also spent some time talking about Chris's recent conversion to Roman Catholicism.
Those were great and stimulating conversations, so I was really looking forward to Chris's book finally coming out, From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart.
The first part of the book is a spiritual memoir. While Chris was born into the Catholic faith he really fell in love with Jesus at Willow Creek during his high school years. During his time at Willow Chris became friends with Shane Claiborne. Chris eventually made his way to Eastern University where, with Shane and people like Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Chris became a part of the new monasticism movement. Two big themes emerge in these early chapters. The first is Chris's growing concern, after an exposure to Wendell Berry, with issues of sustainability. The second is Chris's activism in regards to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (and war generally).
Following the new monastic impulse, after college Chris and his wife moved to a drug-infested and violent neighborhood in Camden, NJ. And across the street from their house was Sacred Heart church.
One of the things I really like about the new monastic movement is how many of these communities don't start or plant new churches. Rather, they go to the churches already in the neighborhood. So Chris started attending Mass at Sacred Heart. And, over time, this eventually led to Chris coming back to the Catholic church.
The first part of the book traces out this journey. For comparative purposes, the first half of From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart is very similar to Shane's memoir An Irresistible Revolution.
But what makes Chris's book different is the second half of the book where he gives his reasons for converting to Catholicism. The second half of the book is more theological and mainly addresses a variety of questions and objections people raise about Catholicism and the Catholic Church. For example, Chapter 9 is entitled "On Being a Part of a Terrible Organization" and it deals with Chris's conversion to Catholicism in the midst of the child abuse scandal.
Let me point out two chapters in Part 2 that I really liked, as these were the subjects Chris and I discussed last summer.
First, Chapter 6--"Murder and the Mass"--is a wonderful meditation on the Catholic Mass from a Girardian perspective. It's also in this chapter where Chris talks about William Cavanaugh's book Torture and Eucharist. Chris gets the credit for finally getting me to read Torture and Eucharist, which I recently blogged about (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4). The main point of discussion between Chris and I last summer was about open (what I advocate) versus closed (what the Catholic church advocates) communion. But that's not the subject of Chapter 6. Again, Chapter 6 is about the theological and liturgical resources in the Catholic Mass that help make our violence and our victims more visible. Chris writes:
Instead of seeing the eucharist as my own private portion of sacredness, I came to see them as drawing me into Christ's profoundly different way of living in the world...When we eat together the Bread of Heaven, the Eucharist is a performance of uniting--both the people gathered locally and globally--and of making ourselves one with the Victim.A theological resource here, one that Protestants generally lack, is a focus on the tortured body of Jesus. In Protestant churches you see crosses. But in Catholic churches you see crucifixes, a cross with a tortured body upon it. To be sure, many Protestants find this image problematic. Too gruesome and bloody. This is understandable if you are working with a view of atonement like penal substitutionary atonement. But from Chris's perspective (a perspective I share), a perspective informed by Girardian thought, the divinization of the tortured victim, a historically distinctive aspect of Christianity, is the greatest, most profound, earth-shattering and life-altering insight of the Christian faith. Christians deify the Victim, worship the Victim. And from this perspective I agree with Chris that the liturgical resources of the Catholic faith are better positioned to bring these themes to the forefront. I can see why someone who has been influenced by Girard would be attracted to the Mass, where the body of the Divine Victim is more visible (and mystically present). In fact, for very similar reasons I've begun to incorporate some Catholic devotions that dwell on the body, blood, and wounds of Jesus into my own prayer life.
Let me also mention another really great chapter, Chapter 8 "The Search for No Accent (Or, The Impossibility of Nondenominationalism)." This chapter is worth the price of the book.
In Chapter 8 Chris takes on the Protestant conceit of "nondenominationalism." This subject is of interest to me as I come from a faith tradition that describes itself as nondenominational. The basic idea behind nondenominationalism is that we can skip the history, traditions, and institutions of the church and just get back to Jesus and the Bible. When I look at my students' Facebook profiles under religion affiliation I often see "I love Jesus!" or "Jesus follower." The idea here is that you can cut out all the bad stuff about organized and institutionalized religion and simply be a "follower of Jesus."
In Chris's case he was working through the "nondenominationalism" of Willow Creek. What Chris came to realize was that Willow did have a creed and a tradition, that there were regulating traditions and beliefs. I came to realize the same about my own tradition. We claimed that our only guide to faith and practice was "the bible." But the more you poked around and questioned things the more you realized that "the bible" was simply a cipher for "the way we interpret the bible." In short, there is no such thing as "nondenominationalism." Nondenominationalism is an impossibility. You always have a bias, a stance, a hermeneutic, a regulating tradition, a stated or unstated creed. There is no "view from nowhere."
So the problem, Chris argues, is that "nondenominationalism" isn't being honest. Nondenominationalism pretends to not have a creed or tradition when these things are very much in play. Chris's argument is that the better move--the move Catholics make--is to have the tradition explicit and out on the table at the start of the conversation. That's the more honest place to start. What is less helpful, and perhaps even dangerous, is coming into the conversation pretending that you don't have a tradition or creed--pretending that your are unbiased, that you are "nondenominational." We see this mistake all over the place, particularly in evangelicalism where everyone is claiming that they are speaking for the bible while ignoring the fact that we are all engaged in the act of interpretation. Rachel Held Evans, in light of her new book A Year of Biblical Womanhood, recently made this very point:
The fact that the Bible lends itself to competing interpretations should be cause for celebration rather than dismay, for these competing interpretations among people of faith who love and value Scripture help bring us into relationship with one another and with God. They bring us into conversation. They remind us that faith isn't simply about believing something in isolation, but about being part of a community.Many Protestants have made this same observation. But Chris goes further as Catholics have a bit more to say about all this. Chris would argue that the divisiveness Rachel is speaking to--all these "competing interpretations"--is the fly in the ointment of the Protestant program, the crack in the foundation. Protestantism is unable, due to its structural flaws, to create the unified community of celebration Rachel envisions.
What is perhaps most frustrating about engaging in such conversations within the evangelical community in particular, however, is that differences regarding things like Calvinism and Arminianism, baptism, heaven and hell, gender roles, homosexuality, and atonement theories often disintegrate into harsh accusations in which we question one another’s commitment to Scripture. In some cases, folks are so committed to their particular views on these issues they seem incapable of making a distinction between the Bible itself and their interpretation of it, and so any critique of that interpretation is seen as a critique of Scripture itself!
The problem is this. Protestantism worships at the altar of individualism. In this Protestantism is the great handmaiden of the Enlightenment. The highest authority in Protestantism isn't God or the Bible. The highest authority is the individual conscience. If you don't like the particular teachings of a church you just walk away. Or start your own church. Thus the history of fracturing, spiting, and ramifying we've seen throughout Protestant history. There is one Catholic church. How many Protestant churches? Exactly. That's the point. And the problem. With the individual conscience as the final arbiter there is nothing that holds Protestantism together.
But Chris's argument goes even deeper. These divisions within Protestantism are often motivated by the conceit that you can get beyond or behind the tradition to the "real Jesus." But as Chris points out, there is no Jesus outside of the tradition. There is no pure Jesus, a Jesus uncontaminated by the tradition. In fact, the tradition is what gives us Jesus. Thus, to love Jesus is to love the tradition that brings you Jesus. The two are of a piece. To love Jesus is to love the church tradition that brings you Jesus.
Now, this is not a new argument. It is the standard Catholic line of attack against the Protestant project. And yet, I expect that most Protestants are unaware of this criticism. Nor have they wrestled with how they might respond. (BTW, Catholics know how we should respond: We should give up these nondenominational, back-to-the-Bible, "I just love Jesus" delusions and reconcile ourselves to the Tradition.)
This, I think, is where From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart is poised to very influential. The book is one of the most accessible presentations of the Catholic criticism of Protestantism and nondenominationalism that I've ever read.
And even if you ultimately disagree with Chris and Rome, exposing yourself to Catholic ecclesiology will help you puzzle through your own church issues and problems. For example, I've become much more sympathetic to the Catholic criticism of Protestantism as I've been shaken by recent events in my own local congregation. In the face of these crises, the question I keep asking myself is this: How is my church any different from Facebook? What binds us together past our "liking" this particular congregation? Because when the hard work comes--the work of accountability, discipline, discipleship, mission and sacrifice--mere "liking" isn't going to be strong enough to hold us together. In fact, I know--painfully so--that it's not enough. Because the minute we start to "dislike" our church we can just pack up and go somewhere else. It's spiritual consumerism at its best.
To conclude, I should perhaps end with the million dollar question.
In the end, did Chris convince me to become a Catholic?
Not quite. But I'll tell you what From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart did do for me and why you should read it. The book has made me a more reflective, restless and humble Protestant. (The book also rekindled my love for G.K. Chesterton.) The book has helped me internalize a Catholic perspective and sensibility that will forever shape how I view my faith and church. Chris's book will haunt me.
And for that, I'm deeply grateful.