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Lauren Winner on The Dangers of Christian Practice

In this episode, Dr. Lauren Winner, associate professor of Christian spirituality at Duke Divinity School talks about her recent publication "The Dangers of Christian Practice: On Wayward Gifts, Characteristic Damage, and Sin.

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Episode Transcript:

Host: Welcome to Public Worship and the Christian Life, a podcast by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. In this series of conversations, hosted by Calvin Institute of Christian Worship staff members, we invite you to explore connections between the public worship practices of congregations and the dynamics of Christian life and witness in a variety of cultural contexts, including places of work, education, community development, artistic and media engagement, and more . Our conversation partners represent many areas of expertise and a range of Christian traditions offering insights to challenge us as we discern the shape of faithful worship and witness in our own communities. We pray this podcast will nurture curiosity and provide indispensable countercultural wisdom for our life together in Christ.

Noel Snyder: I'd like to welcome our listeners. My name is Noel Snyder, and I'm a program manager here at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. I'm joined today by my colleague Satrina Reid, who is also a program manager here at CICW. Hi, Satrina.

Satrina Reid: Hi, Noel!

Noel Snyder: The reason for our conversation today is because we are also joined by Dr. Lauren Winner, who is an associate professor of Christian spirituality at Duke Divinity School and also the author of many well-known books, such as Girl Meets God, Mudhouse Sabbath, Real Sex, and Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis. But the reason for our conversation today is a more recent publication by Dr. Winner, which is a wonderful and provocative book entitled The Dangers of Christian Practice: On Wayward Gifts, Characteristic Damage, and Sin, and that is published through Yale University Press in 2018. Lauren, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Lauren Winner: Thanks for having me. I'm delighted to get to talk to you all.

Noel Snyder: We're very excited to have you. I'd like to just start by having you tell us a little bit of the story behind the book. What's it about and what were some of your reasons for writing it?

Lauren Winner: This is a book that considers the category of Christian practice, Christian worship and liturgical practice and other spiritual practices, and wants to hold that practice in some kind of intimate tension with a robust doctrine of sin, and to really ask: how do we give a theological account as Christians of not just the generic fact that our most beloved worship and prayer practices and spiritual practices sometimes go wrong, (and) sometimes go wrong with real toxic outcomes, but of some of the specific ways that our practices go wrong. So I look in the book at three historical instances where in my judgment---and I think most people would agree with the judgment---that we can say something has gone disastrously wrong in the performance of a particular worship practice or spiritual practice by a Christian community. I'm really interested in not simply saying, "Oh, well, of course, here in a fallen world, sometimes things always run off the rails." That's of course true, but I'm more pointedly interested in asking . . . All of our Christian practices have ways that they characteristically go right, so they have particular goods, and they also have ways that they can characteristically go wrong, so that sometimes something goes wrong in a way that at least seems to us to be kind of arbitrary. But sometimes things go wrong in ways that show us something about what the thing is. I'm really interested in the word "deformation," like the form of the thing gets twisted. And if you look at the twist, you can see something about what sort of good form God's vision for the form is. That was all pretty abstract. I look at these three historical examples. One is an instance where the Eucharist goes wrong, one is an instance of where baptism goes wrong, and one is an instance where intercessory prayer goes wrong. I think that this project has three points of origin in my own life. In a way this book was brewing for close to 20 years. The first point of origin is, I converted to Christianity when I was in my very early twenties from Judaism. And I didn't really know---I mean, I knew that there was anti-Judaism in the church and the ministry of the church, but I really didn't know much of the specifics of that or how that worked out, and I didn't really know the depth and violence of anti-Judaism in the church. So I'd been a Christian for about two years when I read a remarkable study by a video historian named Miri Rubin called Gentile Tales, which is a historical study, not a theological study, but a historical study of how the Eucharist was put to work in the Middle Ages to execute violence toward Jewish communities. And I was just sickened, heartbroken, despairing. It was this moment of, I knew they were anti-Judaism in the church, but here the Eucharist, which for me was then and still is the core Christian practice for me, here is an instance where the Eucharist is being used as a discursive rationale for murdering Jews and burning down their synagogues and destroying their communities. And it was a history I hadn't known, and it's a history that I think a lot of Christians today don't know. So I felt deeply the need to try to theologically think about that, theologically respond to that. So that was one beginning point of the book. A second beginning point came years later. I had written some books about Christian practice in particular. I had written a book---Mudhouse Sabbath---which looks at what Christianity can learn from Judaism about practices that we share, like fasting and Sabbath keeping. And the book was totally gung-ho about practices. It really partook of this sort of Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, . . . we've recovered practices, we've all read MacIntyre, we think practices are great, and there was no complexity. So in a way, this book is a critique of my own earlier work. I don't say that explicitly in the book, but it's a recognition that I had been perhaps naive in the way that I thought about practices. So these are at least two of the---I could go on for three hours about the origins, but that wouldn't be interesting to anyone but me---those are two of the starting points of the book.

Noel Snyder: Sure. And in some ways, I think you do mention in the book that you're pushing back a little bit on MacIntyre, Hauerwas, a less nuanced appreciation or apology for the value of practices.

Lauren Winner: Yeah. I've been teaching at the divinity school at Duke for 15 years, and there's still pretty deep in the DNA of Duke Divinity School a Hauerwasian appreciation for practice. Sam Wells came to Duke the same year I did, so Sam and Stanley were working on their liturgical ethics, the Blackwell Companion, that this is very explicit in the ways that it roots ethics in Christian liturgy. And so I was intensely formed by that, but also intensely irritated. The whole time . . . there would be these claims made about particularly the Eucharist that seemed not responsive at all to this actual history on the ground of moments where the Eucharist has been death dealing. My own academic training is in history and not in theology, so I think I just kept wanting to say, "Look, could we put these lovely, beautiful descriptions of the politics of peace of the Eucharist, the inherent hospitality of the Eucharist---could we put these kind of normative languages about the beautiful politics of the Eucharist in some conversation with actual things that have actually happened over the two thousand years of Eucharistic practice?" So the book is actually dedicated to Stanley as an offering in a friendly quarrel because, although I was thinking about this book before I came to Duke, Duke in a really generative way pressed these questions for me; I'm not sure that I would've written the book or could have written it. I certainly know that I wouldn't have written it in quite the same way if I hadn't been in this particular space. Someone once asked me if the dedication to Stanley was ironic. Totally not ironic! Stanley is my friend. I revere him. And I hope that I appreciate a lot of the good things in the sort of Hauerwas/Wells trajectory, the post-liberal worship discussion. But I do think that that discussion gets all the richer when you put it in conversation with historical examples on the ground.

Satrina Reid: Thanks for that background. As we're talking about . . . these various discussions that you've had, I wonder , what has been the response to the book, and how are you hoping that people will engage with the book?

Lauren Winner: It shouldn't have surprised me, but it kind of did, that any time anyone wants to ask me about this book, they essentially say, "It's so lovely that you wrote these historical examples. . . . Could we not talk about the present day? How would you apply your mode of analysis to our current landscape?" To which I typically like to say, "I've laid out this mode of analysis. I'd be so delighted to listen to your analysis of the current day. And I'll go back to studying the 18th century." I mean, I'm grateful that anyone reads the book and . . . however they want to apply it is delightful to me, but I haven't encountered a ton of people who say, "Yeah, let's roll up our sleeves and get into the weeds with you about how slave-owning women's prayers were deformed." Instead they want to say, "That's lovely. Let's talk about the 21st century." So I get that, and I look forward to someone writing that book or those 17 books so that I can read them.

Satrina Reid: As a historian, how would you want someone to engage with the book?

Lauren Winner: Well, I think this question about the current day is certainly a very legitimate question, and the book is sort of half historical work and half trying to lay out a pattern of theological reasoning. I do continue to find useful myself the phrase that appears in the book a couple of times---I actually wanted it to be the title of the book, but I was talked out of it; I was actually forbidden by Yale University Press to use this as the title---but in my mind, the book is called Characteristic Damage, which encapsulates for me what I'm on the lookout for when I'm doing this kind of analysis. So again, if we take as axiomatic as Christians that everything is damaged and touched by the fall, even sacraments---and I have had some arguments with Catholic colleagues about whether I can make the argument that I'm making about sacraments, but I would maintain that I can---that if they are damaged by the fall and that they inevitably therefore sometimes will go wrong, then I don't think we can ever prevent that completely, but I think we can be on the lookout for the characteristic ways that specific Christian practices tend to go wrong. And then if we're on the lookout, maybe sometimes we can prevent some of the wrong-going, or we can step in, we can notice earlier that it's happening and step in to try to redress the problem. So I will say, for me, it just continues to be a generative framework. If you look at a Christian practice, when this practice goes as well as it can, what is it characteristically wont to do? What are the characteristic goods? And then, by contrast, what are the ways that it can go wrong in ways that shouldn't surprise us? Because how does the specific good that it has get deformed? I think that's a helpful set of categories either for looking at the present day or for looking at other historical examples. What do you think?

Satrina Reid: . . . I think that people have difficulty often, and this is my opinion, looking back and grappling with what has gone wrong in the past, because we want to have this happy present and future without looking back at all that was in the past. But no, we can very easily repeat those things. Like you said, if we don't know what we're looking for, if something is going wrong, there could very well be something in the past that could inform us as to why things that have been undealt with as to why it continues to go wrong. And I think that a lot of change can only happen if we're looking back. That's what I think.

Noel Snyder: I like that, Satrina. So I'm wondering then, Lauren, if you can talk a little bit about any changes in your own thinking that may have happened. You talked about arguing in this book a little bit, arguing with yourself, especially your approach to practice in earlier writings, and then also coming to Duke and having these questions surface more through that. I'm wondering if in the writing of the book, or since publishing the book, if there have been further changes in your own thinking.

Lauren Winner: That's an interesting question to me. One of the places my mind went to when I was finishing the book, but that I didn't pursue---it would have been another five years, and I thought, "I can choose to pursue that separately or not"---is the question of doctrine. This is very much, as we've been saying, how various practices, worship practices, or other Christian spiritual practices go wrong. I find myself curious. I haven't done any writing about this, and I don't know that I will---again, I'd sort of be delighted if someone else would do it and I could read it. I think a similar set of questions could be asked about Christian doctrine. So with any given, say, doctrinal locus---Trinity, incarnation, pneumatology, theological anthropology---what are the characteristic blossomings of that doctrine? But also, given that that doctrine is also damaged by sin, what are its characteristic wrong-goings? So I haven't really begun to work any of that out, but it seems like it might be an illuminating way to consider how we stitch together the story of Christian doctrine.

Host: You are listening to Public Worship and the Christian Life: Conversations for the Journey, a podcast produced by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Check out our website at worship.calvin . edu for resources related to this topic and many other aspects of public worship.

Noel Snyder: You have this idea not just that practices go wrong---which I think is an idea that people can get behind, even though noting, as you said, the provocative nature of that claim, especially with talking with Roman Catholic friends and colleagues---however, I'm just wondering if not just the idea that a practice can go wrong in general, but this really intriguing idea of the characteristic damage, if you've had any response or pushback to that.

Lauren Winner: I've not read every single review of the book, so it is entirely possible that there is a fabulous critique out there of that particular idea. I haven't encountered it yet. I think the critique I have encountered more is a critique around agency. Am I really saying the practices are damaged by sin? Or am I saying the human practitioner is damaged by sin? What's the account of agency? That's where I've had more criticism and pushback. I have not that I've seen---though if you're staring at a book review that makes a brilliant critique of the characteristic part, please send it on to me because I'd like to know---I think the characteristic piece is not always immediately available to people, and it wasn't immediately available to me when I started the project; I thought, "I'm just interested in when these practices get put to bad ends." And I had to sort of write my way toward, okay, there are generic bad ends, and then there are these specific deformities. And I think sometimes a non-liturgical example is helpful in thinking about those. One of the examples that I think I give in the preface of the book is the example of a dinner party. We can think of a dinner party going wrong. And there are things that could happen to damage a dinner party that at least to us do not seem to have anything to do with the dinner party-ness. If a hurricane sweeps through while you're having a dinner party, your dinner party will get damaged, but the hurricane, as far as we can tell, doesn't have anything to do with dinner parties per se. So it's like an accidental going wrong. Whereas there are ways that a dinner party can go wrong that are exactly about the thing a dinner party is about. If the person who's cooked the meal is excluded from participating in the meal, I would say that's a going-wrong that is exactly about what dinner parties do. They include and exclude, they stage hierarchy, et cetera. So I should say our own epistemologies are also damaged. So it may be that the hurricane actually isn't [unintelligible] intrinsically related to the dinner party, but we can't tell. I think the best we can say is that these things seem to us to be extrinsic, but of course our own capacity for making those assessments is also damaged and unreliable. So we do the best we can.

Noel Snyder: Mind blown.

Lauren Winner: Well, maybe your mind is blown or . . . maybe I didn't make any sense.

Satrina Reid: No, just a lot to think about. Lauren, your book addresses . . . worship practices of the Eucharist and baptism and prayer. And I was wondering, how might your book connect with other worship practices or spiritual practices? . . .

Lauren Winner: Well, I have . . . the historian's example to that, and then I am an Episcopal priest and I have to current-day-Episcopal-priest answer also. So I would say historically, pick up any Christian spiritual practice in any time and place and you can at least start asking the questions. I'm teaching an intro to Christian spirituality class for first-year div students at Duke, and a week or two ago we were looking at the practice of silence, which is a very important practice in my own spiritual life and I think in this pandemic time has become a complex practice for a lot of people. So we took most of our class to look at some of the [rituals?] of silence. And we were particularly looking at the Quaker tradition on silence and many of the beauties of that tradition. And then at the end of class, I took a few minutes to lay out or to begin to lay out the history of solitary confinement, which is inseparable in American history from a set of Quaker prison reformers in Philadelphia who exactly out of this very generous theological anthropology that they have that holds that any person can hear from God if only the person has enough quietness and stillness to actually hear, that that led these very well-meaning penal reformers to institute prison reforms that eventually---and this is an oversimplification---but that eventually over centuries developed into our modern-day solitary confinement. And so looking at . . . what's the relationship? What happened? This is a way that silence can go wrong, that a generous theological anthropology can go wrong. So I think you can look at that. I think there's a ton of historical fields to plow. And again, that was a slight overgeneralization, and I highly recommend the relatively new book Silence, by Jane Brox, which is just a phenomenal book if people are interested in that particular history. I think in the contemporary landscape, I have questions more than I have answers, but we're recording in October, so we've all been living October of 2020. We've all been living in the pandemic worship context. And as I mentioned, I'm an Episcopal priest, and I celebrated my first Eucharist with my congregation in person yesterday. We had not had an in-person worship service since early March. And I've really been beginning to think, to try to think through my own denomination's response, my own response as a priest: how do you balance a bunch of seemingly good imperatives---the imperative to corporate worship, the imperative to try people keep people physically safe? I think this question of how can we sometimes tip too far in one direction or the other, which is a kind of damage, an inability to perfectly hold a bunch of tensive goods together in . . . Damaged human beings living in the light of sin are almost never going to be able to hold tensive goods together in a perfect harmonious balance. So really asking, what constitutes the "going wrong" here? Is the "going wrong" (that) you worship together and put people at risk? Is the "going wrong" (that) you elevate keeping people physically safe so far above every other good that the goods of corporate worship get erased? I think future historians will want to think about our worship in the time of COVID responses, and as a priest and as a Christian who would like to not contract or spread a disease and would also like to receive the Eucharist, trying to think about all of that feels painful and complex. Of course we're all inevitably getting a lot of it wrong, and we're also getting some of it right.

Noel Snyder: Yes. Well, thank you so much. And this has already been just such a rich conversation. I just wonder if you have any parting thoughts for us, maybe even final thoughts on any further opportunities or challenges that you see this book in this framework presenting for worshiping communities who are thinking through these matters.

Lauren Winner: Thank you for that. I suppose my last thought---and it's in some ways the last thought of the book itself---is something to do with holding together lament and gift. It's important to me when I talk about this book to say that I am in some ways critical of some of these practices, or I'm critical of certain instances of these practices, and that I do not therefore think we should stop doing them. I maintain pretty sternly in the book that these practices will always, inevitably, sometimes go wrong, sometimes at great cost. And there are people who read that and say, "Great, well, so let's stop doing them then." And I don't think Christians have permission to say that. Not with [?], not with the Eucharist, not with baptism, not with intercessory prayer. I think I want to encourage people in the idea that critical inquiry is part of loving God with our minds, and that to pursue this kind of inquiry does not have to lead to "This practice is so horrible that we can't keep doing it anymore." It may lead instead to lament for the fact that sometimes these are going to go wrong. And that part, therefore, of what we have to do as we continue in the practices is to always have a robust practice of lament, which of course itself could go wrong. We could do a characteristic damage of lament, right, and lament when it goes wrong, can lead to quietism. So, anyway, you see that this is an endless loop. But it does feel important to me to say that I do think that critique in the frame of lament and knowing that these are gifts from God, the sacraments and worship , that that critique I understand to be part of loving God with our minds.

Noel Snyder: Thank you so much, Lauren, for speaking with us. Oh my goodness.

Satrina Reid: It was so rich and informative.

Lauren Winner: That's kind of you to say.

Noel Snyder: And I'm sure that there is some characteristic damage to this interview itself.

Lauren Winner: Exactly. Podcasting characteristic damage! Sadly, it is an endless kind of analysis; it never ends.

Satrina Reid: Well, it has one purpose, and it keeps us all hopefully walking in humility.

Lauren Winner: Amen.

Noel Snyder: And for me, at least for now, before the characteristic damage sets in, I have only experienced this as a gift. And I thank you very much for talking with us. Thank you.

Host: Thanks for listening. We invite you to visit our website at to learn more about the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, an interdisciplinary study and ministry center dedicated to the scholarly study of the theology, history, and practice of Christian worship and the renewal of worship in worshiping communities across North America and beyond.