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On Being Christian

Williams, Rowan. Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

[An Installment of the “Read Me” Project.]

This is an amazing and wonderful book.

Cover of Being Christian

Being Christian is simple and direct, clear and lovely, and immediately recognizable as true – as something we will have already known for a long time, if we are Christians, and yet, something we are likely to encounter as a new and profound way of seeing these things we already know.

I bought Being Christian some time ago, hoping it might be a short, readable and affordable alternative to one of the books I’d been using for a class I teach from time to time on “Christian Tradition.”

As it turns out, however, the purpose it really fulfills is one of reminding Christians who they are, what they are about, and how these four central practices of the Christian life express and cultivate that.

Williams accomplishes all this, quite simply, by taking a slow, patient and thoughtful look at each of these practices: baptism, reading the Bible, the eucharist, and prayer. In that slow, patient, and thoughtful look, he shows his readers where each practice begins, what it means, and what it means for us. And what it means for us is profoundly much more than we may have thought.

Baptism, for instance, is not just a watery ceremony by which someone joins the church. Looking at it with Williams, in light of the story of Jesus’ baptism, and with an awareness of the experience of the early church’s reflection on “another story involving water and the Spirit,” namely the one in the first chapter of Genesis, opens up for the reader “why the early Christians began to associate the event of baptism with exactly that image which St. Paul uses for the Christian life – new creation” (3).

As Williams unfolds layer after layer of associations, we see not only that new creation, and not only the familiar image dying and rising with Christ, but also what it means to be “with Jesus ‘in the depths’: the depths of human need, including the depths of our own selves in their need – but also in the depths of God’s love; in the depths where the Spirit is re-creating and refreshing human life as God meant it to be” (5).

By the end of this meditation on the meaning and role of baptism in the Christian life we are amazed that we could have missed any of this, that we could have forgotten what a deep mystery and profound love we participate in as the community of the baptized, living day by day in the world, with this Christ-like “openness to human need, but also a corresponding openness to the Holy Spirit” (7).

The same thing happens with each of the other central practices of the day-to-day life of the ordinary Christian.

Williams’ chapter on reading the Bible probably ought to be required reading for Bible study teachers. He is adept at balancing the understanding that the entire Bible is where Christians listen for God, and that the Bible as a whole is something “God wants us to hear,” with the clear-eyed recognition that the Bible is vast, contains masses of different literature, with the observation that the Bible is mostly “not … a single sequence of instructions beginning ‘God says to you …’” and with a conviction that

Here, in the story of Jesus, is the story in which we see what an unequivocal obedience and love look like. Here is the story where we see a response to God to full of integrity, so whole, that it reflects perfectly the act of God that draws it out. Here is the story in which the speaking of God and the responding of human beings are bound together inseparably. And so if the whole Bible is about the speaking of God and the responding of human beings, then of course it is by looking at the story of Jesus, the luminous centre, that we discover how to read the rest of it. Jesus, living, dying, raised from the dead, breathing his Spirit on his Church – it is in his light that you read the rest of the Bible (35).

His chapter on the eucharist reminds the reader that “[i]n Holy Communion, Jesus Christ tells us that he wants our company” (41).

And his chapter on prayer alerts us to the difference between asking for things and letting the prayer of Christ take place in us.

All of this reflection comes to the reader in beautiful prose, that inspires in the way of a leisurely conversation with a beloved pastor. It has the tone of kindness and grace, the mark of the peace that passes understanding. It feels, in other words, honest and true.

All in all, this small book is much greater on the inside than it is on the outside – much like the Christian life that is its subject.

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