This complicated reality—we might call it “the Godfather problem”—is the target of Lauren Winner’s incisive, complex book, The Dangers of Christian Practice. Her argument lands on both academic and pastoral trends. As she wryly notes, “in some scholarly communities, to designate a study as a study of ‘practices’ is to cast a rosy glow.” This has been particularly true in postliberal theology over the past couple generations, as the insights of Alasdair MacIntyre informed the influential work of Stanley Hauerwas, who, in turn, has made a huge dent on an entire generation of Christian theologians who have looked to the practices of the church as a resource for staving off our cultural capitulation to the forces of consumerism, nationalism, and militarism. (The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, a widely used textbook, gathers this school of thought between two covers.)
Winner also points to a veritable industry of “practices” literature directed at practitioners and parishioners, including the influential work of leaders like Dorothy Bass and Craig Dykstra. Indeed, I think Winner would include some of her own work here, and I too should add a mea culpa.
“What unites these projects,” Winner observes, “is that in each, practices have been embraced as a way of fixing something in or for the church; practices have been embraced as a strategy of recuperation, repair, or reform.” When Protestant theologians write about Christian practices, “they are almost always extolling the practices.” The question that never seems to get asked is: “Why carry on with habits or practices, given the likelihood of their (and our) going wrong?” What good did this renewal of practices do for Catholic children in Pittsburgh or women at Willow Creek Church?
Winner is facing up to these questions and invites the church to do the same. The heart of her analysis is the concept of what she calls “characteristic damage” (with debts to Paul Griffiths). The key point is that when Christian practices de-form us it’s not simply incidental or because they have been tainted by the world. That would be to imagine the source of deformation is always other than the church, leaving the supposed purity of the church’s practices compromised by something else.
Winner’s point is more trenchant: some deformation is uniquely generated by the Christian practices themselves….