Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer by Rowan Williams
(Eerdmans, 2014, 96 pages)
In reviewing Rowan Williams’ The Other Mountain, I mentioned that Williams’ scholarly writing can sometimes be close to indecipherable. This is very much not the case with this wonderful little book. Being Christian is a popular introduction to the basics of Christian practice. It was originally delivered as a set of Holy Week lectures at Canterbury Cathedral.
There are plenty of introductions to Christian faith; there are many short books that attempt to get at the core beliefs and ideas that animate Christianity. What makes Williams’ book unique in its approach is his focus on Christian practices more than Christian beliefs. This is not to say that Williams prioritizes practice over intellectual content, but rather, that he gets at what is unique about Christian belief by discussing what the Christian community does. It is joining the Church through baptism, listening for God’s voice in the diverse texts of the Bible, being welcomed into God’s company at the Eucharist, and growing to reflect the divine life through prayer that, according to Williams, “makes you realize that you are part of a Christian community” (vii). For Williams, Christianity is not simply about believing certain things, but about being identified by practices that initiate and direct a community in a particular kind of life – one characterized by love, reconciliation, careful listening, gratitude, commitment, and forgiveness.
Williams’ tone is pastoral and caring. These are the seasoned reflections of someone who has spent much time participating in, meditating on, and carefully expositing for others these basic yet inexhaustible Christian practices. The final chapter on prayer is particularly good. It is marked by Williams’ skill as a historical theologian and as a practical spiritual guide. He draws out common themes on prayer from the writings of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Cassian. Among other things, prayer is intimately connected with a concern for justice and reconciliation; so much so, in fact, that Williams makes the simple but rather stark claim that “If people prayed seriously they would be reconciled” (71). This, along with the rest of the wisdom of this book, is a testament to an academic and clerical career that has been consistently directed toward reconciliation and marked by the distinctive practices of the Christian faith.