Book Review: Come, Let Us Eat Together

Come, Let Us Eat Together
Ed. George Kalantzis and Marc Cortez
InterVarsity Press, 2018. 252pp.

Essay collections can be a tricky matter to balance well. At times, even the b

est of collections (see, for instance, my review of The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, ed. Hauerwas and Wells) can drag if one reads them cover to cover, simply because one covers the same materials in different formats from different voices. The same can easily be said of essay collections that are, in essence, the collected works of symposia, as the Wheaton Theology Conference and its correlated IVP book series are.

But Come, Let Us Eat Together drew me in. Maybe it was the incredible diversity of the writers (= speakers), or the panoramic insight of the varied angles, or, even, (and this surprised me the most) the sense that even at a conference with pre-prepared talks and papers, the interlocutors were engaging with the speaker or writer before them.

come let us eat together

And that is how it should be! When one covers the topic of “Sacraments and Christian Unity,” navigating the tricky lines between sacramental theology / ecclesiology on the one end and eschatology / ecumenism on the other, one would hope that each essay and each author would be “speaking” with one another. That, after all, is a crucial essence to the modern ecumenical movement.

Talking Together, Eating Together?

Of course, talking together, an essay collection from a conference with Catholic and Orthodox, Reformed and Anglican, Lutheran and (Ana-)baptist, is, as the essays assert, not enough. The chief question is: Can we share the table with one another?

Here the essays portray a vast array of views. Cherith Fee Nordling’s essay on the ascension of Christ, on the one end, gives a positive, eschatological assertion on the essential nature of the Church as unified; so too Paul L. Gavrilyuk’s (surprisingly) optimistic essay on the same theme from an Eastern Orthodox perspective. But Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy’s address of the topic from the Roman Catholic end of the conversation is less optimistic, observing some of the crucial fault-lines between the “orthodox episcopal” churches (i.e. the RCC and EO) and the Protestant churches; and Marc Cortez’s incredibly helpful discussion on the history of Baptist views on sacrament concludes with similar difficulties.

It might be easy, especially for someone like myself who has emerged from Pentecostal free-church traditions, to say that doctrine ought not separate us at the table. What is perhaps most surprising throughout Come, Let Us Eat Together is how relatively small the problem of doctrine is in comparison to other, largely ecclesiological, problems. With only a few exceptions, the conversation on transubstantiation versus Sacramental Union (the Lutheran view) versus real presence is glossed over very lightly. Far deeper is the historical realities and ecclesial distances between the various wings of the Church.

 

Wheaton Theology Conference (Bradley Nassif)And, as a result, the argument against open communion is, to my surprise! (being a lifelong open communionist), robust and reasonable and, at the end of the day, uninterested in doctrinaire authoritarianism. The historic relationship between baptism and Eucharist, for instance, cuts to the core of most sacramental debates (Cortez touches on this from the Baptist end, and so does Kalantzis from an early Christian historical lens). The question of the episcopacy and whether it descends from the apostolate also emerges as a central theme (one that Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen tackles valiantly in his essay). It turns out, and this has been an interesting surprise to me, that open communion is not as gracious or mindful or, even!, ecumenical as its proponents might say. The whole topic is far more complex; extending the right hand of grace and mercy to the disparate parts of the Christian Church might actually look more like learning the various wings’ views and traditions and honoring them. (InterVarsity actually does this actively at their Urbana conference, where Catholics and Lutherans are invited to join in the time of prayer at communion, knowing that many would bow out from full participation.)

 

Overall, Come, Let Us Eat Together is a fantastic volume on a particularly tricky subject. The wisdom of this particular set of authors, their diversity both externally (i.e. from different traditions) and internally (i.e. within a given tradition) provides the unique ecumenical balance necessary for accomplishing a book like this. And Kalantzis and Cortez, as editors, have done an excellent job of preserving the “conference” feel in the essays, even in the transition to print; the essay-writers “speak” with one another. Even the less intriguing essays contribute to the overall polyphony of the Church, and one can sense underneath this polyphony there is a powerful, supernatural work of God’s Spirit that will, before the end, bring all His people together again as one flock under one shepherd.

May it be so.

I would like to thank InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.

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Book Review: The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics

The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics
Ed. Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells
Wiley-Blackwell, 2006 (1st edition). 528pp.

There is no such thing as “Christian ethics.” Such is a quick summation of the opening essays of a theological collection that espouses, audaciously, to then pursue that precise field of research. Yet Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells, themselves Christian ethicists, are unconvinced. Having gathered over thirty of the Christian academic world’s most profound voices for orthodox, biblical, liturgical ethics, they are unconvinced.

It makes for a masterful work of theology.

Ethics and Worship

The centering conviction of The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics is that the “ethics” of the Christian faith is far less about pat answers to “ethical quandaries” (that is, far less about answers to “the trolley problem”) and more about Christian formation: what kind of people are formed, discipled, and trained by the faith. From this perspective, “ethics” is kind of an unnecessary afterthought, an all-too-modern reflection upon that which earlier, better formed, Christians understood naturally. Truly “Christian” ethics is unreflective, unpremeditated, organically developed, and found in the lived actions of Christian people, something that Hauerwas and Wells make explicit in their introductory essay, “Why Christian Ethics Was Invented”:

Christian identity is not primarily to be found in statements or debates or arguments, but in particular practices, commitments, and habits. (Hauerwas and Wells, BCCE, 37)

From this perspective, then, it is the Christian practice of ecclesiological, sacramental, liturgically-organized communal worship that best provides a suitable on-ramp for conversations about ethics, rather than, as Kantian Rationalists would prefer, a more “natural” morality or “relevant,” consensus-driven liberal democratic mode. A good summation of Hauerwas and Wells’ framework is found in their essay of biblical philadelphia “The Gift of the Church”:

Ethics names the ways in which disciples discern and embody Christ’s life in the world, and the chief way they learn how to do this is through worship. (Ibid., 26)

If this theme sounds familiar to my readers, it is because this is not a new topic for my blog-writing: Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World, which I mentioned in my yearly books-in-review, prefigures some of the foundational liturgical-sacramental claims that Hauerwas and Wells use to organize this collection of essays. Likewise, since its publication, BCCE has been influential for a myriad of theologians writing today, especially James K.A. Smith, whose Cultural Liturgies I reviewed for Theologian’s Library. This continuity of theologians asserting that Christian ethics is emergent from Christian worship forms both the bibliographic backdrop for the BCCE and the scholastic reasoning for its continued reception. However radical a departure Hauerwas and Wells have made from Kant-inspired ethics, it is my sense that it is a necessary and foundationally Christian departure.

A Quick Sampling of What To Expect

Rather than give some exhaustive run-down of all that one might find in the BCCE, my review will now, instead, give some smattered highlights. While the collection is overall masterful, it is noteworthy to observe that some essays over-repeat previous themes, or gloss the same introductions overmuch. If read sequentially (as I did) one does begin to skim the front matter knowing that it will be a banal regurgitation of Hauerwas and Wells’ stuff. Some essays are worse about this than others. Nevertheless, the vast majority of essays are so superb that I find it well beyond my reasonable limits as a reviewer to treat each with their due diligence.

Here are some quick highlights:

+ Emmanuel Katongole, a Ugandan Catholic priest, discusses the problem with the concept of “racial reconciliation” and asserts, instead, the time of greeting as the formation of the People of God

+ Charles Pinches discusses the reading of Scripture as a form of naming and describing, creating the fundamental vocabularies of faith

+ David Matzko McCarthy, following the vein of his Sex and Love in the Home (which I also recommend), discusses a radical (and traditional?!) vision of hospitality in the home that reorients sexual relationships

+ R.R. Reno presents a positive vision (even provocative) towards a Christian work-ethic untainted by either global capitalism or socialist authoritarianism

+ Joseph Mangina corrects our scientific reductionisms regarding bearing children and brings the family into its proper context as a community of hope

And so on! For being a volume that “doesn’t do ethics,” Hauerwas and Wells’ collection pretty much addresses all the questions. Other notable highlights include Joel James Shuman’s address on homosexuality, Stephen Fowl’s thorough exegesis of Ephesians 4:25-5:2 in order to discuss theft, and the essays from William T. Cavanaugh and Kevin J. Vanhoozer. The whole work is worthy and replete with wisdom, liturgical practices, and theo-ethical challenges to the Church catholic.

My recommendation is simply to buy the book. With an updated edition out, the first edition’s cost is quite reasonable, so reasonable that I can’t see why any and every pastor and theologian shouldn’t have it on their shelf. It is perhaps the most comprehensive and helpful work of modern (postliberal / New Traditionalist) theology available today. It is a must-have.