White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

“The Dangers of Christian Practice: On Wayward Gifts, Characteristic Damage, and Sin” by Lauren F. Winner

Published Tuesday, January 15, 2019 By Sarah White

Those who came of age reading the youthful Lauren Winner of Girl Meets God and Real Sex might be surprised to find Winner—now an Episcopal priest and professor of Christian spirituality at Duke Divinity School—writing for a decidedly academic audience in her newest work, The Dangers of Christian Practice: On Wayward Gifts, Characteristic Damage, and Sin. Perhaps her interest in the (de)formative potential of communal practices can be traced to her earlier, more popular-level writing—for example, in Real Sex, Winner commended chastity as a communal practice that narrates the story of God’s redeeming love, and argued that the modern church has often failed to articulate a gospel-saturated sexual ethic.  In any case, Dangers offers Winner’s more mature reflections on practice, this time for an audience more scholarly than popular, and primarily postliberal rather than evangelical.

In her dedication, Winner describes the book as “in part, a quarrel with Stanley Hauerwas.” Indeed, reading this book—for me, at least—felt something like walking into a conversation already in progress and never quite catching up.  Her aim is to “consider some of the ways beloved Christian practices [like the Eucharist, prayer, and baptism] are damaged and extend damage,” and she argues that when such practices go awry, they do so “not incidentally but rather in ways that have to do with the practice itself” (1).  Winner is not interested in the much-discussed topic of how practices foster holiness, but how those same practices can be exploited in harmful ways.  These “deformations” occur in ways that are proper to the things themselves, since apart from God, nothing is untainted by the Fall.

To understand what Winner is getting at, one must dig into her examples.  In “Eucharist,” she studies episodes of host desecration violence in medieval Europe. She reads these outbreaks as inseparable from the Eucharistic theological debates which were occurring at the time.  Throughout the same period, Christians were also preoccupied with concerns about Jews—for example, recurrent accusations that Jews tried to destroy consecrated hosts, leading to killings of Jews by Christians—and attended by the emergence of devotional rites surrounding the supposedly stolen hosts.  Moving to an interpretive mode, Winner suggests that these instances of anti-Jewish violence were not incidentally but intrinsically Eucharistic.  This, she argues, is because the Eucharist has to do with the kinds of claims Christians make about the particular, Jewish flesh of Jesus.  Moreover, it is connected to what she takes to be the majority Christian view of Judaism, i.e. a supersessive view that the church has replaced Israel in God’s plan.  It is fundamentally a problem, then, of Gentile anxieties over intimacy with Israel’s God. Winner suggests that her own tradition’s Prayer of Humble Access models acknowledgment of the deformative potential of the Eucharist, by forcing communicants to confess their unworthiness of Israel’s God, coming to him on the basis of his own gracious offer, rather than through the pretense that the Church can somehow occupy Israel’s place.

In “Prayer,” Winner examines the diaries of Keziah Brevard, a 57-year-old antebellum widow and plantation owner—particularly her use of prayer as “a mode of household management,” through which she regularly petitions God to make her a godlier master (!) and her slaves more obedient.  This deformation effectively “[commandeers] petitionary prayer as if it were a neutral technology, usable in the service of anything” (79).  Of course, the problem of asking for the wrong things has long been a concern in Christian reflection on prayer; there is the risk that the very act of petition “calcifies” our sinfully formed desires.  Thus, prayer can more firmly fix a petitioner—like Keziah Brevard—into an evil system, such as slavery (86).  As an antidote, Winner suggests that all prayer should be more consistently framed by confession—namely bewailing the fact that we’re unable to discern what is good for us, and that, often, what we think we want is actually the opposite of what God wants for us.

Baptism, Winner argues, has always been concerned with the extraction of the baptizand from the local (e.g., the familial), while also affirming the particularities of the local.  Baptism has readily been deformed by imbalances in either direction, with infant baptism in America often “[evacuating] the ecclesial into the familial” (97).  For example, Winner looks at fashionable Victorian-era christening parties—characterized by in-home celebrations, the use of heirloom baptismal bowls and gowns, and the rapid removal of the newly baptized to the nursery, these celebrations tended to allow “generation” to “[displace] regeneration as the ritual’s sign event” (120).  Winner argues that, in pushing back against this privileging of the family, recent postliberal scholarship has actually over-radicalized what Jesus has to say about the importance of the family.  Jesus doesn’t reject the bonds of family wholesale; his teaching, rather, “both erases and affirms family bonds” (107), meaning that the Church must look for ways, theologically and liturgically, to hold these values in tension.

This damaged reception of gifts can be said to be the essence of the Fall, something that will only be fully healed in the eschaton.

Since our receiving has only ever been flawed, what postures should we cultivate going forward? Winner suggests that ongoing confession-repentance (e.g., recognition of damage perpetuated, with efforts, where possible, to avoid such damages in the present) and lament (awareness of our own incapacity to fully escape or repair damage) are needful. While both attitudes are subject to their own characteristic deformations, both are critical.  Neglecting repentance allows us to ignore our complicity in the damage, and ignoring lament misleads us into thinking we are capable in ourselves of setting things right.

In its basic claims (based on what I could tell as an eavesdropper on the intra-familial “quarrel” with Hauerwas and others), this book is not as radical as the title makes it sound.  While aspects of the book could be useful dialogue-starters, I think that Winner’s use of the language of “practices” limits the utility of this book beyond her theological context, and actually blunts her critiques of damage perpetuated by the church.  After all, it’s one thing to receive a gift unfittingly; it’s another to profane a covenant seal.

Though Winner doesn’t deny that baptism, Eucharist, and prayer are (in some sense) given to us by God, she doesn’t give an account of their exceptional character within Christian tradition—as unique means of God’s grace—beyond saying that they are “practices with which we order our lives before God and with neighbor” (14).  While baptism and the Lord’s Supper aren’t less than practices—or even “gifts”—for traditional Protestants, they’re also more than that. So, any attempt to confront sinful legacies must start from a more adequate grounding in their status as “holy, visible signs and seals” through which God applies his benefits to us (see, e.g., Heidelberg Catechism Q. 66). Arguably, talking only about the work of the Holy Spirit through these means of grace ignores the destructiveness of human sin. But so could excessive introspection trap us in gazing at our own helplessness instead of at Christ—which would defeat the very purpose of practicing these things to begin with.

Sarah White (MA, St. Louis University) is a freelance writer living in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband and basset hound, Basil.

  • Sarah White