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The Dangers of Christian Practice, by Lauren F. Winner

by
19 July 2019

Bernice Martin reviews a study of the distortion of spiritual gifts by sin

LAUREN WINNER has written a stimulating and salutary book about how sin deforms even the divine spiritual gifts of Christian sacrament and prayer. The Dangers of Christian Practice deserves a wide general readership as well as the serious attention of theologians.

Winner dedicates the book to her colleague at Duke University Divinity School, Stanley Hauerwas, describing it as “a quarrel” with him in friendship and thanks. Winner’s position has more of the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr than Hauerwas’s celebrated rejection of it. Her critique of Hauerwas’s post-liberal theology is central to the appendix on “Depristinising Practices”, in which she argues that what we accept as “Christian practice” needs to be deconstructed.

Winner’s instances of deformation in Christian practice concern the eucharist, prayer, and baptism. The concluding section explores the idea of damaged gift. The discussion of the eucharist focuses on “host desecration narratives” that emerged in 13th-century Europe, where Christian communities depended on their Jewish neighbours to perform tasks forbidden to Christians. These mythic narratives were the pretext for attacks on Jews as retaliation for their supposed blasphemous abuse of the eucharistic host. They feed anti-Semitic moral panics that incite the murder of Jews.

Winner uses historical accounts to expose the problematic relationship between Jewish and Christian/Gentile bodies in the light of Christian doctrines of the incarnation and the host as “the body of Christ”. She sees unexamined assumptions about Christianity’s supersession of Judaism as implicated in chronic Christian tendencies to anti-Semitism. The Gospel accounts of the Last Supper reveal the fracture of the eucharist as built in from the first when Judas received from the master he went out to betray. The eucharist’s inevitable corruption by flawed human reception dates from the very moment of the dominical gift.

The diaries of women slave-owners in the American south show them using prayer for self-justification and to manage and subdue their slaves, especially the household slaves on whom they intimately depended. Yet human desires, the subjects of our own petitionary prayers just as much as those of angry slave-owners, can be “unreliable, flawed, misapprehended” and demand confession and discernment of God’s will.

Winner constructs her argument about baptism around the lavish christening parties among affluent American families in the early 20th century. Baptism combines affirmation of family and lineage with extraction into the Christian “family” of the baptised. This dualism is clear in Jesus’s baptism, in his kinship with John, and in God’s declaring him the beloved Son. On the other hand, Jesus elevated the community of his followers above the claims of blood family, and the Gospels insist on Mary as virgin mother at the same time as affirming the descent of Jesus from David through the house of Joseph.

The characteristic deformations are the exclusive emphasis on one or other side of the duality. The exclusive emphasis on family is shameless in the American christening parties, conducted in private homes with only family or close friends present, and dominated by symbolism of family continuity and status at the expense of the solidarity of the church community.

Winner’s persuasive and wide-ranging discussion of the deformations in both giving and receiving gifts is enlivened by everyday instances and literary illustrations. The book is a rhetorical and scholarly tour de force. The author comments that Christian practices are the work of embodied social beings in the material world and do not exist in a realm of disembodied, pure thought. This makes fracture, deformation, Original Sin, their inescapable potential.
 

Bernice Martin is Emeritus Reader in Sociology at Royal Holloway, the University of London.

 

The Dangers of Christian Practice: On wayward gifts, characteristic damage, and sin
Lauren F. Winner
Yale University Press £20
(978-0-300-21582-3)
Church Times Bookshop £18

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