Being Disciples (Rowan Williams) - Review

BEING DISCIPLES: Essentials of the Christian Life. By Rowan Williams. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2016. Viii + 88 pages.

           What does it mean to live a Christian life? That is, if you consider yourself to be a disciple of Jesus what does that mean in terms of how you live not just what you believe? What we believe is important (I’m trained as a theologian, so I have an interest in what we believe), but it’s not enough to believe. So, what are the essentials of Christian living? That is the question raised by Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury in Being Disciples, which is a companion to his earlier book Being Christian.

          The earlier book focuses on four essential practices of the Christian journey—Bible, Eucharist, Baptism, and Prayer—that serve to draw us into God’s presence. In Being Disciples invites us to take the next step so that we might connect being in the presence of God with being present in the world.  Because the first book examines Christian practices, this one moves us into expressions of that faith we build through practices. Being disciples involves at least two things, according to Williams. First we must continually ask "whether what we do, how we think and speak and act is open to Christ and Christ's Spirit." Secondly, it has to do with the way in which the church is a learning community, so that we might grow in our relationship with God and each other (pp. vii-viii).

               In the Being Christian Williams looks at two sacraments, a source of revelation, and finally a means of communication with God. As you can see these aren’t doctrines, they are ways we hear and express faith. Being Disciples looks at the way these practices affect daily life.

         What does it mean to be a disciple? In the book’s first chapter, Williams reveals that discipleship involves the way we live. While it does involve being a student, it is much more than simply showing up for class once a week. It more an apprenticeship that is very relational.  A disciple will listen attentively to every word shared by the master, and pay close attention to the master’s behavior.  He writes that "being with the Master is recognizing that who you are is finally going to be determined by your relationship with him" (p. 10). There are three "indispensable qualities" to the Christian life: faith, hope, and love. According to Williams, this involves a journey that begins with understanding, then to faith, which leads to hope, and then finally to love. These three qualities are followed by forgiveness. Regarding forgiveness, he turns to the metaphor of bread, speaking of the “bread of forgiveness” and the “bread of tomorrow.” When speaking of the former, he borrows from the Lords’ Prayer. He speaks of forgiveness being "one of the most radical ways in which we are able to nourish one another's humanity" (p. 40). In the same context, he speaks of the "bread of tomorrow, by which he means that forgiveness is a path toward the future. It is an expression of that bread of the Eucharist that we partake now in anticipation of the meal we will experience. 

                I think I found the chapter on holiness to be the most intriguing. Perhaps it is because as a pastor I so often hear the refrain from those outside the church that those inside the church are hypocrites. One response to the critique is to fall back on the retort that Christians "aren't perfect, just forgiven." When we think in such terms we offer an excuse for misbehavior or a “get out of jail free" card. But surely that's not the kind of holiness envisioned here! It's not. While we think of holiness as being set apart or separated from the world or others. Williams disagrees. The holy person is one who "enlarges your world, makes you feel more yourself, opens you up, affirms you." a holy person he suggests, makes you feel better about one's self than worse" (p. 50). That means letting go of trying to be holy. "If you want to be holy," he writes, "stop thinking about it. If you want to be holy, look at God" (pp. 54-55). The way to do this is to look at Jesus and "explore the world around you.”

             Williams helpfully reminds us that the Christian life is contextual. That is, when we envision following Jesus, we must envision what it means to follow Jesus in the modern world, not just the first century. Thus, we ask questions like how does one be a disciple in a democratic society? What about secularism? We ask this question knowing that the market doesn't lead to fairness. Secondly, there is the relativity of values. We're simply not all on the same page when it comes to what we value most. Some of this is cultural. Of course, it’s not completely relative, for the Bible affirms that humans all have equal value in the sight of God. That leads to the premise that we are dependent on each other. It means seeing each other from the perspective of an "eternal and unalterable love." That leads to the final chapter, which is about life in the Spirit. This life in the spirit involves self-knowledge, stillness, growth and joy. These four elements are the building blocks, according to Williams, of the life of discipleship. 

                Like its predecessor, this is a brief book. It will be a quick read, but it packs a punch. That it is because Williams reminds us that to be a Christian is more than simply “believing” doctrines. It involves the entirety of our lives—Sunday through Saturday. I may get a day off from work, but not from discipleship. Therefore, this book should help followers of Jesus dive deeper into Christian life.  It’s not just because it’s brief that the book can be commended to people. It happens to be not only accessible but a good read. It’s also the kind of book that can be read alone or in groups. For the latter, each chapter includes a set of discussion questions. I think it will prove to be a good study guide for congregations. So, take and read.  


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