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The Dangers of Christian Practice: On Wayward Gifts, Characteristic Damage, and Sin

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Challenging the central place that “practices” have recently held in Christian theology, Lauren Winner explores the damages these practices have inflicted over the centuries Sometimes, beloved and treasured Christian practices go horrifyingly wrong, extending violence rather than promoting its healing. In this bracing book, Lauren Winner provocatively challenges the assump Challenging the central place that “practices” have recently held in Christian theology, Lauren Winner explores the damages these practices have inflicted over the centuries Sometimes, beloved and treasured Christian practices go horrifyingly wrong, extending violence rather than promoting its healing. In this bracing book, Lauren Winner provocatively challenges the assumption that the church possesses a set of immaculate practices that will definitionally train Christians in virtue and that can’t be answerable to their histories. Is there, for instance, an account of prayer that has anything useful to say about a slave‑owning woman’s praying for her slaves’ obedience? Is there a robustly theological account of the Eucharist that connects the Eucharist’s goods to the sacrament’s central role in medieval Christian murder of Jews?   Arguing that practices are deformed in ways that are characteristic of and intrinsic to the practices themselves, Winner proposes that the register in which Christians might best think about the Eucharist, prayer, and baptism is that of “damaged gift.” Christians go on with these practices because, though blighted by sin, they remain gifts from God.


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Challenging the central place that “practices” have recently held in Christian theology, Lauren Winner explores the damages these practices have inflicted over the centuries Sometimes, beloved and treasured Christian practices go horrifyingly wrong, extending violence rather than promoting its healing. In this bracing book, Lauren Winner provocatively challenges the assump Challenging the central place that “practices” have recently held in Christian theology, Lauren Winner explores the damages these practices have inflicted over the centuries Sometimes, beloved and treasured Christian practices go horrifyingly wrong, extending violence rather than promoting its healing. In this bracing book, Lauren Winner provocatively challenges the assumption that the church possesses a set of immaculate practices that will definitionally train Christians in virtue and that can’t be answerable to their histories. Is there, for instance, an account of prayer that has anything useful to say about a slave‑owning woman’s praying for her slaves’ obedience? Is there a robustly theological account of the Eucharist that connects the Eucharist’s goods to the sacrament’s central role in medieval Christian murder of Jews?   Arguing that practices are deformed in ways that are characteristic of and intrinsic to the practices themselves, Winner proposes that the register in which Christians might best think about the Eucharist, prayer, and baptism is that of “damaged gift.” Christians go on with these practices because, though blighted by sin, they remain gifts from God.

30 review for The Dangers of Christian Practice: On Wayward Gifts, Characteristic Damage, and Sin

  1. 5 out of 5

    Adam Shields

    Takeaway: Spiritual practices are not magic bullets. Over the past few years I have become a disciple of spiritual practices. I have a spiritual director. I regularly use the Book of Common Prayer. I really do think that the eucharist and baptism should be central to worship. This makes me the target audience of Lauren Winner’s new book, the Dangers of Christian Practice. The rough thesis is that spiritual practices, while good, have weaknesses that need to be paid attention to. Just like the chu Takeaway: Spiritual practices are not magic bullets. Over the past few years I have become a disciple of spiritual practices. I have a spiritual director. I regularly use the Book of Common Prayer. I really do think that the eucharist and baptism should be central to worship. This makes me the target audience of Lauren Winner’s new book, the Dangers of Christian Practice. The rough thesis is that spiritual practices, while good, have weaknesses that need to be paid attention to. Just like the church is made up of human beings that are sinful and make every church community less than perfect, good practices that are commanded by God and advocated throughout history also have some weaknesses. The easiest illustration and the best chapters is about prayer. Keziah Goodwin Hopkins Brevard is the main illustration. She is a 57 year old widowed owner of two plantations and over 200 slaves. She left extensive journals both of her thoughts and of her prayers as fodder for Winner’s discussion. As Winner recounts, Brevard prays for pliant slaves, she prays for the death of slaves that lie to her, she prays that Heaven will have a separate location for abolitionists and slaves away from her. (Note the political and rhetorical implications of a separate heaven.) She prays to be a good master and for a heart open to God. Winner notes that the subjects of our prayers have long been a concern for Christians. Aquinas and others cited have thought and written about praying for things that are sinful or out of distorted desires. But the very nature of prayer is part of the problem. It is not just intercessory prayer, but teaching prayer to others and how public prayer is often not solely directed at God. Prayer can easily become gossip, self justifying or deluded. But even out of bad prayer there can often be good aspects. Winner gives illustrations of the anthologies of prayer that line her shelves. None of them are anthologies of bad or self seeking prayers that could help us understand how our own prayers may be come bad or self seeking. Instead prayer is presented and taught as an almost universal good. The other two practices discussed in the Dangers of Christian Practice are the problems of the eucharist being held in too high of a value (the illustration is riots caused by accused desecration of the host) and the problems of antisemitism and supersessionism, and baptism and the problems of the privatization of baptism through private christening ceremonies that were held in the home in the 19th and early 20th century as well as the way that baptism can alienate the subject from their family or community as well as drawing them into the family of Christ. This is a very brief overview. There are lots of side tracks as well as a good introduction to the concept and a concluding chapter that challenges the ideas of spiritual practices especially as it has arisen out of post-liberal theology. The ideas behind Dangers of Christian Practice are very helpful. One that in someways could be an article or a much larger book and still be helpful. I was very skeptical about the concept of the book and probably would not have picked it up without reading James KA Smith’s very positive review at Christian Century. However, despite my skepticism, I this was well worth reading and a good reminder to not place too much weight or responsibility on any aspect of discipleship, moral formation, or model of church. All models of church and modes of discipleship have weaknesses. All can be corrupted and tainted. But as Winner rightly notes in the last chapter, they are what we have. Because they are not perfect does not mean that we should abandon them completely. Winner is not advocating that. Instead she is advocating more humility and understanding of the practices so that we can minimize the harm that misusing spiritual practices can bring. I listened to the Dangers of Christian Practice on audiobook. It was not my favorite narration, but it was acceptable. I kept checking my player because it felt like it was running slightly too fast. Like maybe the narrator read it too slow, and the editor sped the narration up slightly digitally by cutting some of the pauses and space between the words. But for me, it was far cheaper on audiobook than on kindle or hardcover. I edited and expanded this review slightly on my blog based on discussion in the comments below at http://bookwi.se/dangers-of-christian...

  2. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

    This is an important contribution to the discussion of Christian practices that deserves serious attention. Winner's careful historical work describing and analyzing the ways some beloved Christian practices (Eucharist, petitionary prayer, baptism) can be badly deformed is an important corrective to much theological and devotional work that treats Christian practices as unalloyed goods. The work draws richly on Winner's scholarly and pastoral sensitivities in fruitful ways. As with the best of co This is an important contribution to the discussion of Christian practices that deserves serious attention. Winner's careful historical work describing and analyzing the ways some beloved Christian practices (Eucharist, petitionary prayer, baptism) can be badly deformed is an important corrective to much theological and devotional work that treats Christian practices as unalloyed goods. The work draws richly on Winner's scholarly and pastoral sensitivities in fruitful ways. As with the best of constructive theology, this account is generative of further thought and exploration. I am still mulling Winner's core contention that the deformations she identifies are characteristic of the practices themselves, rather than results of external factors or simply the sinfulness of the practitioners. One line of questioning raised in my mind: what might be the characteristic deformation(s) of believer's baptism by immersion, and are those deformations somehow isomorphic to the deformations of domestic infant baptism? Might divergent traditions of specific Christian practices speak to each other in salutary ways about how to be alert to and perhaps ameliorate the deformations peculiar to the particular way a practice is carried out in a given time, place, and tradition? I hope that other participants in the Christian practices discussion will rise to the challenge of this book, by imitating Winner in providing robust, historically detailed investigations of the ways that particular Christian practices can go wrong; by formulating less facile descriptions of the significance and power of Christian practices in general; and by arguing back at her theological anthropology in illuminating ways. Re: audiobook -- my one complaint about Tavia Gibson's narration was that she was often speaking too fast, especially in sections of dense theological explication. Using an app that allowed me to adjust playback speed down to 0.75x the original made it much easier to track with the argument.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Helen

    This is a really helpful and challenging addition to the conversation around Christian practices. It raises important questions about the reception and enactment of the gifts of Eucharist, prayer and Baptism which do not allow for easy or rose-tinted answers. Instead Winner calls us to grapple with the ways in which these practices have become deformed in our all too human hands not to cause us to despair but rather to call us to an honest participation in these divine gifts which God still uses This is a really helpful and challenging addition to the conversation around Christian practices. It raises important questions about the reception and enactment of the gifts of Eucharist, prayer and Baptism which do not allow for easy or rose-tinted answers. Instead Winner calls us to grapple with the ways in which these practices have become deformed in our all too human hands not to cause us to despair but rather to call us to an honest participation in these divine gifts which God still uses for good.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Jim

    A thoughtful academic book showing that Christian practices, such as prayer, communion, and baptism, are not always positive, and contain the ability or systemic forces to damage people and faith.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Spencer

    Winner's book argues against the notion that Christianity has a set of pristine practices that are immune to corruption. She argues this by looking at the history of certain practices: How the Eucharist caused antisemitism, prayer has been used by slave-owners to make their slaves more obedient (and make themselves feel better about beating them), baptism that is used to reinforce social loyalties and divisions, etc. While the immediate knee-jerk reaction to all these stories is that these were Winner's book argues against the notion that Christianity has a set of pristine practices that are immune to corruption. She argues this by looking at the history of certain practices: How the Eucharist caused antisemitism, prayer has been used by slave-owners to make their slaves more obedient (and make themselves feel better about beating them), baptism that is used to reinforce social loyalties and divisions, etc. While the immediate knee-jerk reaction to all these stories is that these were practices not done properly, the truth is not so simple. Each practice has inherent tensions within themselves that make these deformations possible and no practice given by God is received perfectly. The fact that, as Winner points out, Judas partook of the last supper shows damaged reception of divine gifts right at the point of their creation. The book is a difficult read at times because of the author's reflection that move from historical to theological and back, but the point she is making is really important. Christian practice cannot surmount fallibility. This does not mean the practices should not be done. It is quite the opposite. Our fallibility and characteristic damage does not stop them from being gifts. Winner offers in many ways a kind of counterbalance to theologies like Yoder or, for her, Hauerwas. These theologians argued that real righteous action is indeed possible, for Christ says without concession, "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." Similarly, the NT ethic rests on the actual possibility of the imitation of Christ: love has he loved us, forgive as Christ forgave you, walk as Jesus walked, etc. If left to itself, the book neglects this more realistic dimension of Christian practice, but I think the book is merely offering a counter-balance. The Biblical narrative has both the reality of God's kingdom breaking in, tearing the seams of fallenness as it did the temple's veil, but the notion that the church is not sinless as Christ is sinless is contradicted by narratives that clearly show it isn't: Peter still learning that God shows no partiality, Paul's thorn in his flesh, churches that just don't seem to have it all together, etc. Thus, Christian practice is always a kind of double-edged sword: There are warnings about slipping away that must be coupled with the promises that no matter where we wander, Christ will not let us go. Perseverance is coupled with peccability, soaring with falling. The two must be held together, not as some dualism that we are both simultaneously saint and sinner or that every action no matter what the action looks like is both righteous and fallen in equal measure. It is the recognition that the journey of discipleship is not a linear ascent upwards. It is crooked and curved, dipping and spiking, twisting and turning. And when it comes to Christian practices, as I often say, apart of Christian belief is not merely trying to be better, it is also recognizing how we so often are worse. Put another way, I often think Christianity is the true religion not because it gets everything right (althought I would not be one if I did not think there were much that it surely does), but because it has the potential, hopefully, of reveal how we can get things terrible wrong. It is the tension between holding that creation is still good, but also that deep longing in the midst of our comprehensive corruption for a new reality where "righteousness is finally at home." The book is a great challenge. It named a number of things I have been sensing about how Christians talk about practice. The book, I suspect, is not merely a critique of certain views of practice, but will function as a catalyst for better ones.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan Badgley

    Lauren F. winner’s The Fangers of Christian Practice is a thoughtful review of the ways Christian practices, sacraments of Eucharist, Prayer and Baptism in particular, can and have been deformed in Church history. Winner argues that Christian practices bear within them intrinsically the modes of their deformation: * Eucharist is reflective of violence, and anti-Semitic violence has plagued church history, specifically leading from the metaphysics of Eucharist * Prayer is about our desires and inti Lauren F. winner’s The Fangers of Christian Practice is a thoughtful review of the ways Christian practices, sacraments of Eucharist, Prayer and Baptism in particular, can and have been deformed in Church history. Winner argues that Christian practices bear within them intrinsically the modes of their deformation: * Eucharist is reflective of violence, and anti-Semitic violence has plagued church history, specifically leading from the metaphysics of Eucharist * Prayer is about our desires and intimacy with God, but it can be deformed in that our desires are not pure. Our desires are in fact violation of God’s desires for us, and violation of God’s desires for others. Winner leads us painfully through the deep and consistent prayer lives of Antebellum slave holding wives whose prayers shockingly demonstrate not a desire for “thy kingdom come”, but of the power to maintain a kingdom of economic violence. * Finally, Baptism inherently balances extraction from the natural family and enjoining to the church family, which can be deformed to the extent that Baptism leans on one or the other. Winner muddles through some issues that might be better handled by a philosopher than by a theologian, but characteristic of a theologian she excels in drawing the themes together coherently into an evocatively pastoral crescendo. How can Christians deal with the ever-present danger of deforming the perfect gifts of the sacraments that God has perfectly given to us? By recognizing a greater gift still encompasses all of the others, repentance and it’s embedded practice of lament over sin. Winner beautifully draws together the Japanese practice of Kintsugi in which broken pottery is repaired using golden flakes so that the brokenness is highlighted and beautified, and draws insight from Henry James’ novel exploring similar themes. This conclusion is drawn together so well that I have no intention of exposing it in this review. I recommend this book for those who want to explore the Christian disciplines more deeply as they will gain Winner’s astute appreciation of the dangers _within_ the power of their practice.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

    My women’s ministry group just started Wendy Capp’s Me Over We--a study of loving and living as the church. Scripture tells us, "His bride has made herself ready" (Rev. 19:7) Lauren F. Winner’s The Dangers of Christian Practice provides a perfect companion to Capp’s study as Winner explores the ways that we can fulfill Revelation 19:7. She addresses the underbelly of Christian practices gone wrong, blighted by the sin of the sinners who practice them. Winner shines light on the insidious stains My women’s ministry group just started Wendy Capp’s Me Over We--a study of loving and living as the church. Scripture tells us, "His bride has made herself ready" (Rev. 19:7) Lauren F. Winner’s The Dangers of Christian Practice provides a perfect companion to Capp’s study as Winner explores the ways that we can fulfill Revelation 19:7. She addresses the underbelly of Christian practices gone wrong, blighted by the sin of the sinners who practice them. Winner shines light on the insidious stains of antisemitism in the Eucharist, racism in prayer, and classism in baptism--all perfect gifts from a perfect Giver broken by the broken people into whose hands they fall. According to Winner, “Christianity is the extension of relationship with the God of Israel to the Gentiles through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The deformation most deeply characteristic of Christianity is supersessionism by which I mean the belief that the church replaces Israel in God’s plan for friendship with humanity and salvation of creation...untenable on a straightforward reading of Romans 10 and 11.” If, as Winner asserts, sin is misdirected desire, then my prayers should be that God would align my desires to His, not for my but Thy will be done. For example, instead of begging for a husband, I should ask God to transform my discontentment into godly contentment in Him. But there is a balance. Powerful and effective prayer is a seesaw with God as its fulcrum. Generic prayers lead to a generic relationship; specific prayers may not lead to the end I intend but to a greater purpose of greater intimacy with Christ. To change one’s patterns of thinking is to adopt new choreographies of being. As we anticipate the return of our Bridegroom, Winner’s academic yet accessible research acts as a bridesmaid in the bathroom, Shout in one hand, iron in the other, affectionately assisting the Bride to present herself “as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:27).

  8. 4 out of 5

    Potter McKinney

    Winner has written what is one of the most important theological works for our present moment that addresses, in such an elegantly, literary, yet immediately intelligible way, what Christians have to do with the nitty-gritty of our oft-blighted history. It is easy to think that the simple solution to the world’s problems is to pray more, grow the church, commune more people, encourage fasting, or any other sort of practice. One wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. But, Winner argues, these things ofte Winner has written what is one of the most important theological works for our present moment that addresses, in such an elegantly, literary, yet immediately intelligible way, what Christians have to do with the nitty-gritty of our oft-blighted history. It is easy to think that the simple solution to the world’s problems is to pray more, grow the church, commune more people, encourage fasting, or any other sort of practice. One wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. But, Winner argues, these things often cause more problems than what we started with; they become damaged gifts in the hands of folks unequipped to receive them, and in history they are used for even heinous purposes. Sometimes we have to live with the damage. I cannot recommend this book enough.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Joe

    While the premise of this book shows promise and the author probably has a strong argument in her own mind, she fails to back it up with much useful analysis. Most of the anecdotes are significantly lacking a broader cultural perspective and some of her conclusions seem to be a reach. I was particularly disappointed with the chapter that was based solely on newspaper clippings from the 19th century as justification for why people did things. The most redeeming quality of the book were the commen While the premise of this book shows promise and the author probably has a strong argument in her own mind, she fails to back it up with much useful analysis. Most of the anecdotes are significantly lacking a broader cultural perspective and some of her conclusions seem to be a reach. I was particularly disappointed with the chapter that was based solely on newspaper clippings from the 19th century as justification for why people did things. The most redeeming quality of the book were the comments and quotes from those that she claims to be arguing with (Hauerwas, among others) that are thought provoking and based on sound thinking, but she fails to back these up with any further discussion.

  10. 5 out of 5

    David

    I seem to always read Winner's books - from girl meets God, to Mudhouse Sabbath, to Still... others... and now this. This book was surprises you. When you think Winner will get overly progressive and ditch the practices she critiques and bring light to how they've been damaged in our use of them, she somehow has a beautiful way to making room for what they are - in their purpose - and be honest about what how've often damaged them - without tempting us to let go of them. Her prose and vocabulary ( I seem to always read Winner's books - from girl meets God, to Mudhouse Sabbath, to Still... others... and now this. This book was surprises you. When you think Winner will get overly progressive and ditch the practices she critiques and bring light to how they've been damaged in our use of them, she somehow has a beautiful way to making room for what they are - in their purpose - and be honest about what how've often damaged them - without tempting us to let go of them. Her prose and vocabulary (stretching) and story telling and broad references help bring this theme together so well. Not the easiest of her books, but well worth it.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Tim Cruickshank

    Mixed feelings. Good, a really important conversation to have with respect to spiritual practices and hopefully it can inspire the examination of current spirituality, but felt like she used many, many words to say just a little. Really digs into some historical insurances of gifts (baptism, Eucharist, prayer) being used poorly to demonstrate how Christian practice can "fail to acknowledge, let alone account for or respond to, the sun entailed by those practices." Also felt like the examples, ba Mixed feelings. Good, a really important conversation to have with respect to spiritual practices and hopefully it can inspire the examination of current spirituality, but felt like she used many, many words to say just a little. Really digs into some historical insurances of gifts (baptism, Eucharist, prayer) being used poorly to demonstrate how Christian practice can "fail to acknowledge, let alone account for or respond to, the sun entailed by those practices." Also felt like the examples, based on historical accounts 100-900 years prior, made it tough to identify with the deformations of gifts that she was identifying. Read the first chapter and you've probably gotten enough.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Rob O'Lynn

    I read it, and I appreciate the conversations that Winner is attempting to have. However, it is not a "novel," as proposed. It is a collection of obscure case-studies, which is in itself problematic. Her conclusions are more prompted by anecdotal doctrinal debate than biblical exegesis. If she had spent as much time reading Paul rather than missals, she may have landed on some more solid -- if not still controversial -- conclusions that would have allowed for conversation and debate, rather than I read it, and I appreciate the conversations that Winner is attempting to have. However, it is not a "novel," as proposed. It is a collection of obscure case-studies, which is in itself problematic. Her conclusions are more prompted by anecdotal doctrinal debate than biblical exegesis. If she had spent as much time reading Paul rather than missals, she may have landed on some more solid -- if not still controversial -- conclusions that would have allowed for conversation and debate, rather than coming across as arrogant and judgmental.

  13. 5 out of 5

    David Bjorlin

    I'm still mulling over whether I completely agree with Winner's claims, but I believe this is an important and necessary challenge to those theologians, ethicists, and liturgists that have treated worship and Christian practices as goods that work ex opere operato to form people in the Christian virtues. I'm still mulling over whether I completely agree with Winner's claims, but I believe this is an important and necessary challenge to those theologians, ethicists, and liturgists that have treated worship and Christian practices as goods that work ex opere operato to form people in the Christian virtues.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Amanda Patchin

    I really appreciated Winner's corrective perspective. I would have appreciated more philosophical reflection and insight into changing our approach to the rhetoric of practices in the church. I think that Winner's challenge will be helpful to Christian educators thinking about the "characteristic damage" of even the best teaching practices - I know that I will be reflecting on this for some time. I really appreciated Winner's corrective perspective. I would have appreciated more philosophical reflection and insight into changing our approach to the rhetoric of practices in the church. I think that Winner's challenge will be helpful to Christian educators thinking about the "characteristic damage" of even the best teaching practices - I know that I will be reflecting on this for some time.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Blok

    I don't read that much theology, so this one was a stretch for me at times. A powerful look at some of the ways Christian practices (Eucharist, prayer and baptism) can lead to harm (or at least anti-Christian beliefs). I don't read that much theology, so this one was a stretch for me at times. A powerful look at some of the ways Christian practices (Eucharist, prayer and baptism) can lead to harm (or at least anti-Christian beliefs).

  16. 5 out of 5

    Nathan Anderson

    3/5

  17. 4 out of 5

    Andrea James

    DNF. The combination of academic language with religion was too much for me. Either is fine but together my brain kept protesting, especially as I was listening to the book rather than reading it.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Jon Coutts

    For me this has to be in the conversation for theological book of the decade -- the result of which might depend on which decade Jennings' 2010 The Christian Imagination belongs in. For me this has to be in the conversation for theological book of the decade -- the result of which might depend on which decade Jennings' 2010 The Christian Imagination belongs in.

  19. 4 out of 5

    CJ Surbaugh

  20. 5 out of 5

    Jake Owens

  21. 5 out of 5

    Breanna Randall

  22. 4 out of 5

    Cameron West

  23. 4 out of 5

    Timothy Hall

  24. 5 out of 5

    Ellen Vosburg

  25. 4 out of 5

    Tim Hoiland

  26. 4 out of 5

    Melody Owen

  27. 4 out of 5

    Robert

  28. 4 out of 5

    Matt Rossi

  29. 4 out of 5

    Fm Shipp

  30. 5 out of 5

    Sean

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