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CRAIG DYKSTRA AND DOROTHY C. BASS
Midway through Tender Mercies, a 1984 film featuring an Oscar-winning performance by Robert Duvall, something happens that is rarely the stuff of movies. In a modest service in an unremarkable church in a small Texas town, a boy and a man are baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Entering into Christian life that Sunday morning are Mac Sledge, a once-successful country singer whose recent marriage to Rosa Lee has reversed a tailspin brought about by alcohol and thwarted ambitions, and Sonny, Rosa Lee's ten-year-old. As the minister lowers first Sonny and then Mac back into the water, Rosa Lee watches from her seat in the choir. Riding home afterwards in their pickup truck, Sonny asks a question. "Do you feel different, Mac?" Mac looks unsure at first. "Not yet," he replies. But laughter wells up in him as he speaks, gentle laughter that soon embraces all three. Something has happened that is beyond mere feeling.
In the water, under the threefold name, Mac and Sonny have been given new life as children of God. And this new life is already finding expression in a family marked by self-giving love. Hardships and temptations will not simplydisappear; troubles remaining from Mac's former marriage will soon visit his new home, and it will be a while before Sonny can come to terms with his father's death. Even so, this is a story of gift upon gift. Though burdened by difficult emotions and the strain of eking out a living from the country gas station she owns, Rosa Lee consistently notices God's grace. "Every night, when I thank God for all his blessings and his tender mercies to me, you and Sonny are at the top of the list," she tells Mac when he is disheartened.
In Rosa Lee and Sonny, and like Rosa Lee and Sonny thanks to his presence in their lives, Mac has received a gift, a tender mercy. The grace that opened him to receive this gift was God's prior gift of a new, true self. Mac - a has-been who lay drunk on the floor in the movie's opening scene - would have found the account of salvation given in the letter to the Ephesians an apt description of his new condition: "It is God's gift, not a reward for work done. There is nothing for anyone to boast of. For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to devote ourselves to the good deeds for which God has designed us" (Eph. 2:9-10). With new life, Mac is learning, comes a new way of life: caring for Sonny, weeding Rosa Lee's garden, and casting his lot with a struggling young band in Texas rather than racing back to Nashville when given the chance. Mac's good deeds are humble ones, and his faith is humble, too: the last words he speaks in the film show that he is still far from serenity. In spite of his agonized questioning, however, it is evident as he plays catch with Sonny in the film's closing scene that he has been "made new in mind and spirit, [having] put on the new nature of God's creating" (Eph. 4:23-24). Mac has been and is still being restored - from bondage to freedom, from isolation to community, from despair to hope. He has even been restored to music, Saturday night country music, though in a different way than before. Coming to faith he enters a new way of life, one that is truly life-giving.
Romero is another, quite different movie about the Christian way of life. This film biography of the martyred bishop of El Salvador tells the story of how a new way of life characterized by freedom, community, and hope emerged among the poor in Latin America. At the film's beginning, the behavior of the church hierarchy is guided by a centuries-old habit of special favor for the rich and mighty of the land. In the barrios and countryside, however, priests, nuns, and other grassroots leaders have begun to share a theology of liberation with the oppressed and marginalized. As Bishop Romero's eyes are opened to injustice, he gradually joins their efforts and comes to understand and participate in Christ's solidarity with the poor and the suffering. One implication, he realizes, is that Catholics of all classes and ethnic groups, belonging as they do to "one Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Eph. 4:5), should bring their children, together, to a common font of water for the liturgy that incorporates them into the one Body of Christ, the church. This decision is presented as a key point of rupture between Romero and the social and economic elite, which is represented in the film by a wealthy young woman who is Romero's own goddaughter. She has planned a lavish private baptism for her baby, and she is appalled that anyone expects her to stand side by side with peasants and allow water that has touched their children to touch hers.
That elites were permitted to rely for centuries on privileged treatment at the baptismal font suggests that the baptismal rite itself does not automatically bestow either new life such as that experienced by Sonny and Mac or solidarity such as that which emerged in El Salvador as faithful people struggled against injustice during that country's long civil wars. Indeed, the best-known cinematic depiction of a baptism shows just how thoroughly this rite can be abused. In The Godfather, the scene in which the infant godson of Don Michael Corleone is baptized is intercut with scenes of several murders, which the Don has ordered for that same hour. Viewing this abuse of baptism makes Christians recoil, however, aware that this basic act of initiation into the Christian community means to give life, not death - indeed, abundant life, life that is joined to the life and love of Christ.
In this essay, we set forth a way of thinking about how a way of life that is deeply responsive to God's grace takes actual shape among human beings. To be sure, many of us feel that we already know such a way when we see it: Salvadorans struggling for justice, yes; the Mafia, no. This essay proposes, however, that learning to think more systematically and theologically about the shape and character of such a way of life may be helpful as we seek to discern its contours in new situations, to enjoy and give thanks for it, and to share it with others.
In a sense, what we offer here is a specific way of engaging in a dynamic that exists within the Christian life itself. Because the circumstances in which human beings live are always concrete, conflicted, and in flux, those who seek to live faithfully must necessarily wonder where and how to discern the specific shape that a way of life abundant might take in a given time and place. What moves do people make as they encounter one another in the context of God's grace? What words do they say, what gestures do they perform, what relationships do they enter? These questions may be asked consciously, or they may be implicit in the day-to-day decisions of a community, but they are surely somewhere in play, for the contours of a life-giving way of life are usually not readily apparent. Moreover, these questions are theological. Addressing them is one of the most urgent tasks confronting theologians, whose vocation it is to reflect not only on God but also, in the light of God, on human life and all creation.
Reflection of this sort takes on special urgency in a time and place where far more attention is given to life-styles of abundance than to ways of life abundant. Thus we offer this essay because we hope to contribute to building up ways of life that are abundant not in things but in love, justice, and mercy. Today rapid social change and intense spiritual restlessness evoke fierce yearning in many people, in our own neighborhoods and around the world. Some observers see this yearning as a quest for meaning, others as a longing for spiritual consciousness or experience. Important as these quests are, we think that they arise from a deeper longing, a longing for a life that adds up to something that is in a deep sense good for oneself, for other people, and for all creation. As Christians, the two of us affirm that such a way of life - right down to the specific words, gestures, and situations of which it is woven - finds its fullest integrity, coherence, and fittingness insofar as it embodies a grateful human response to God's presence and promises.
Awareness of the possibility of a way of life shaped by a positive response to God pervades the Bible and Christian history - as do examples of the human tendency to fall short of God's invitation to such a life, from the Garden of Eden to the churches of ancient Asia Minor to the inequities that divide contemporary Christians. Without neglecting the sin that is part of Christian history, it is vital that those who seek to walk in such a way today learn to recognize the lived wisdom of Christian people over time and across cultures as a constructive resource. The earliest accounts of Christian origins depict groups of people doing things together in the light of and in response to God. Jesus gathered disciples, with whom he healed and taught, ate and sang, and prayed and died, while immersed in Jewish communal life and walking Roman roads. In later years, as these disciples and those who came after them gathered into communities to celebrate the presence of the risen Christ, their communities too were immersed in the ordinary stuff of specific times and places. The Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul give us glimpses of people breaking bread together in memory of Jesus, sharing their possessions with those in need, singing, healing, and testifying together - men and women, slaves and citizens, Jews and Greeks, makers of tents and dyers of cloth. Over the centuries, ways of living that shared this deepest source and purpose would take shape in the quite different daily experiences of the Egyptian desert, European cities, Salvadoran villages, American small towns, suburbs, and cities, and countless other places. In all these places, specific human beings have sought to live in ways that responded to the mercy and freedom of God as it is made known in Jesus Christ. They have done things that other people also do, simply because these things are part of being human - they have cared for the sick, buried the dead, brought up children, made decisions. But they have done them somehow differently because of their knowledge of God in Christ.
When we reflect on this heritage as theologians concerned about building up ways of life abundant in our own time, we must ask not only whether it provides resources that seem helpful, but also whether what we find there is true, as far as we can discern, to the purposes of God. In a sense, each community of Christians in every generation is already engaged, implicitly or explicitly, in just such discernment. Inheriting much but also drawn into relationship with God in Christ in the present moment, they care for the sick, bury the dead, bring up children, tell stories, and make decisions, sometimes pausing in midstream to ask whether the forms these activities take in their own time and place are faithful to God's purposes. Theologians take up these questions in a more deliberate and ordered manner. But to describe this entire way of life is a daunting task, particularly when done in a way that is responsive to the purposeful presence of the Triune God who has created and is bringing redemption to everything that is. The task is rightly and necessarily large, potentially attentive to the entire universe. Yet it would fail if it lost sight of the One who understood the value of a single lost coin to a housewife and of one lost sheep to a shepherd.
The effort to offer a theological description of a way of life abundant, then, is complicated by the problem of the too big and the too small. The problem of the too big is that the task is all-encompassing; reflecting at this level would be too grand to be of much direct use by itself, conceptually or strategically. The problem of the too small is the opposite. In theological reflection, and also in the actual work of living as Christians and trying to guide others in doing so as well, it often seems that we do a little of this and a little of that and a little of something else; too often it becomes difficult to keep in view the larger wholes to which these smaller pieces belong. The connections get lost, and when that happens we lose any sense of the overall significance and import of particular activities, ideas, doctrines, biblical texts and narratives, and beliefs.
Rather than speak of a Christian way of life as a whole, therefore, we shall speak of the "Christian practices" that together constitute a way of life abundant. By "Christian practices" we mean things Christian people do together over time to address fundamental human needs in response to and in the light of God's active presence for the life of the world. Thinking of a way of life as made up of a constitutive set of practices breaks a way of life down into parts that are small enough to be amenable to analysis, both in relation to contemporary concerns and as historic, culture-spanning forms of Christian faith and life. At the same time, practices are not too small: each Christian practice is large enough to permit us to draw together the shards and pieces of particular understandings, beliefs, events, behaviors, actions, relationships, inquiries, and skills into sets that are capacious and cohesive enough to show how they might guide one into a way of life.
We advocate a concept of practices that allows us to draw together under a single rubric ideas and activities of many kinds, and the fact that this move gives us a concept of manageable size is only one reason for doing so. Even more important is the fact that such a concept enables us to recognize the practical and theological kinship of certain beliefs, virtues, and skills with certain behaviors, relationships, and symbols, because all of them contribute to building up a recognizable, and finally coherent, Christian practice.
In the book Practicing Our Faith, which the two of us wrote with eleven colleagues, we identified a list of twelve practices that meet this definition: honoring the body, hospitality, household economics, saying yes and saying no, keeping sabbath, discernment, testimony, shaping communities, forgiveness, healing, dying well, and singing our lives to God. We did not claim that these twelve practices are the only things Christians do together over time that could be identified as practices. We did, however, intentionally limit the list, wishing to focus concern for a way of life on a number that was small enough to be comprehensible but sufficient in scope to address fundamental human needs. We also excluded those shared activities whose primary use is in liturgy, arguing that each of the practices we treated has both liturgical expressions and expressions in other settings.
Take, for example, the practice of hospitality to strangers. As we understand this practice, the action that occurs when the staff members of a homeless shelter provide a homeless man with a bed is only one movement within it; it is not in itself a practice. The practice of hospitality, as we understand it, also encompasses, among other things, the biblical stories that have shaped the way in which the hosts perceive their guests; the specific habits, virtues, knowledge, and other capacities of mind and spirit that the hosts bring to the situation, many of which could have been developed only within the context of the practice itself; the liturgical words and gestures that make manifest in crystallized form the hospitality of God to humankind and our obligations to one another; and the domestic hosting that prepares family members to break bread with strangers in less familiar surroundings as well.
Over the centuries and still today, countless Christians have actually engaged in this practice. Often they have done so without a high degree of theological articulation - a lack that does nothing to exclude them from being numbered among practitioners. But the theological scholar who carefully researches the history of the Christian practice of hospitality, assesses the ethical tensions in which it involves practitioners, and analyzes the strengths and limitations of the current state of the practice has also done something that is an indispensable aspect of this Christian practice: she has provided hosts and guests with an opportunity to reflect critically and constructively on the practice itself and thus to understand more fully what it is they are actually doing. Within a social and intellectual context in which connections are often severed or obscured - connections between thinking and doing, domesticity and public life, liturgy and social justice - the capacity of this concept of practices to show how such apparently different things do indeed belong together seems to us to be of great value.
Excerpted from Practicing Theology Copyright © 2001 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company . Excerpted by permission.
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|Practicing Theology, Embracing a Way of Life|
|A Theological Understanding of Christian Practices||13|
|Attending to the Gaps between Beliefs and Practices||33|
|Practicing Theology, Engaging in Ministry|
|Graced Practices: Excellence and Freedom in the Christian Life||51|
|Deepening Practices: Perspectives from Ascetical and Mystical Theology||78|
|Is There a Doctor in the House? Reflections on the Practice of Healing in African American Churches||94|
|A Community's Practice of Hospitality: The Interdependence of Practices and of Communities||121|
|Liturgy, Ministry, and the Stranger: The Practice of Encountering the Other in Two Christian Communities||137|
|Little Moves Against Destructiveness: Theology and the Practice of Discernment||157|
|Practicing Theology, Becoming Theologians|
|Beliefs, Desires, Practices, and the Ends of Theological Education||185|
|Hospitality and Truth: The Disclosure of Practices in Worship and Doctrine||206|
|Theological Reflection and Christian Practices||228|
|Practicing Theology, Serving a Way of Life|
|Theology for a Way of Life||245|
|List of Contributors||264|