Will Willimon: Resident Alien

     Will Willimon. Very Important Person. Great Preacher. Voice of Christian Radicalism. High Liturgy Chaplain at Duke. Thorn in the Side of United Methodism. Well-respected Mainline Protestant. Enigma.

     Those who have heard Willimon know of his graceful storytelling, his often simple and thought-provoking retelling of the gospel drama. While not a flamboyant showman like Campolo nor a heavyweight apologist like Ravi Zacharias, his challenging perspective makes him an incredible ally for those of us seeking a godly engagement with culture. With Willimon around this year, Jubilee is going to be great!

     To understand Willimon’s most significant work (Resident Aliens and Where Resident Aliens Live), it might be helpful to recall the rather uninspiring way mainline Protestantism has tended to accommodate the gospel to the American way of life. While 1960s fundamentalists were busy trying to be holy (which meant, usually, refusing to go to movies or dances and resisting efforts towards racial integration), Methodists, Presbyterians, the United Church of Christ and Lutheran-types by and large tried to remain relevant by pursuing left-wing politics while routinely affirming the basic tenets of the secular culture. Granted, they wanted to change it a bit, but generally worked within the framework of American civil religion. Theological conservatives battled for the Bible (even if often not allowing it to shape the totality of life) while liberals watered down the truths of the Bible, downplaying Christ’s exclusive claims and the need for personal conversion and evangelical zeal.

     In those years a few decades ago, Willimon made a name for himself writing about liturgical renewal, the meaning of baptism, the pastoral implications of worship. Evangelicals who often paid little attention to theological reflections about ceremonies and rituals (and didn’t read books from liberal Protestant publishing houses, anyway) missed this rising Methodist star. Will was becoming famous as both a preacher and a scholar, and mainline clergy were paying attention.

     Sunday Dinner, one book from that era, illustrates the way Willimon argued for the whole-life significance of worship (and it should be noted that in these matters he was greatly influenced by Episcopalian educator John Westerhof). A marvelous book on communion, it shows that joining together to hear stories and share a common mealÑwhat believers do on Sunday!,is not unlike a family reunion. Sure it’s noisy and sometimes messy. The family members you don’t like are there and there are always rowdy kids running around. But it’s okay; this is who we are. We (re)hear the family stories and form our traditions. Before postmodernism popularized talk of narratives, Willimon was saying that this weekly meal (and all that it signifies) is our story. It tells us who we are. It makes us who who are.

     Interestingly, this sort of Eucharistic theology leads also to concern about other food, eating and table manners (Who sits where at this table? Who serves? Who tells the stories? Who gets to be included?). Biblical food narratives are stories of feeding: just think of the connection between manna and Eucharist. He then powerfully shows the implicit (and even explicit, like in 1 Corinthians 11) connections between communion and serving the hungry. In Sunday Dinner and others like it, Willimon powerfully makes the case that our stories, customs, symbols and ceremonies create in us a particular (peculiar) vision of life which consequently dictates our behavior in the world. Church members who attend to what we do and say in church emerge (sooner or later) as changed people. Liturgy and the like become the “hidden curriculum” which teaches us how to live. What we do “in the church” affects how we see life “outside the church.”

     Enter the 1989 powerhouse best-seller, Resident Aliens, which Willimon co-authored with the ever-provocative ethicist Stanley Hauerwas. There, they throw down the gauntlet challenging the assumption that the church (and I think they mean primarily the mainline Protestant and Catholic establishments, although it obviously applies to theologically conservative, evangelical congregations, too) can co-exist with the surrounding culture. As the book jacket puts it: “By renouncing the emphasis on personal and psychological categories, they offer a vision of the church as colony, a holy nation, a people, a family standing for sharply focused values in a devalued world.”

     Resident aliens (a phrased cribbed from Augustine, who was also writing amidst a pagan, crumbling culture) develop their theology from immersing themselves in the biblical story. We take our cues from Christ, not the surrounding world. Quite an idea, huh?

     The book generated remarkable controversy (again, largely within mainline Protestant circles). Folk who the authors assumed would like it often didn’t and they got surprisingly good reviews from quarters where they thought they would be dismissed. So curious was this whole affair that they wrote a sequel, which I recommend highly, Where Resident Aliens Live: Exercises for Christian Practice. Neither a clear list of beliefs (which at times may be frustrating if, like me, you are left asking, “Just what do these guys believe?”) nor a simplistic guide to practical application, this book tells the inspiring stories of fairly ordinary (at times too ordinary) people who are learning to be new citizens in a new home. With them, we begin, slowly, to “see” things in a new way and act accordingly. Of course its culture will think we’re dangerous, subverting, as we are, their dominant values. This, of course, is nothing new for those of us who have been nurtured by Walsh & Middleton and who have read Subversive Christianity, Taking Discipleship Seriously, or any number of Campolo’s books. Still, their call, rooted in their own frustration with the accommodation of their own denomination and tradition, sounds fresh and exciting and a bit scary. And that can’t be bad.

     I actually think that this is great stuff. Some of Willimons more recent work “The Abandoned Generation (on higher ed) and Lord, Teach Us to Pray” resonate with the same sort of radical Christian worldview which fuels Aliens. (Although two of his other recent books on searching for meaning do not.) His best books contain “fightin” words’ and are full of feisty challenges and serious rebukes. My fear, however, is that many of our students are unfamiliar with the deadness of liberal churches and may therefore not quite get what the fuss is all about. I even think that many so-called “liberal” churches, that is, those who do not affirm the full authority of Scripture and the need for personal conversion through Christ alone, are, in fact, not as theologically liberal as they once were. The God-is-Dead nonsense is long gone and, thankfully, ordinary Methodists or PCUSA folk are as likely to be reading Henri Nouwen as Rudolf Bultmann. (Of course, for some, the Jesus Seminar weirdness is a ll the rage, so we do still need to keep our orthodox apologetic sharpened.) Regardless of what renewal is or isn’t happening within mainline denominations, students from charismatic or evangelical backgrounds may not understand the context from which Willimon’s work has emerged. They just might not appreciate just how amazing this all is.

     Clear-thinking, reformationally minded folk could take exception to some of the Resident Alien thesis (where is Al Wolters when you need him?), particularly regarding their rejection of a Christ transforming culture paradigm (it’s complicated, but they hate Niebuhr’s categories!). Still, Willimon & Hauerwas’ critique of a facile and domesticated Christ and culture approach needs to be heard and it is my sense that most Kuyperians deeply appreciate their basic intent; after all, our talk about infiltrating every area of life for Christ often leads us to a de facto accommodation, doesn’t it? We mean well, but still live like everyone else and justify our sell-out to corporate ideologies because we have a “transforming vision.” (Our students end up “in the world and of it” and feel good about it!) Further, their critique of the philosophic assumption of autonomous Reason which emerged from the Enlightenment and formed the basis for modernity is a significant part of our reformational worldview, and they, too, are adamant about rejecting any universal claims of “reason.” Willimon gets at this wonderfully in his little book Shaped By the Bible, which helpfully shows that liberal higher critics and literal-minded fundamentalists both tend to share an Enlightenment view of truth, which causes them to miss the narrative nature of the Scriptures and the shaping power of the Story. Not wanting to be stained by the rationalistic “spirit of the age,” they invite us away from the idols of civil religion and to authentic, adventurous biblical fidelity. A few reformational purists (if there are any left!) will quibble, but I’m confident that Willimon will be very, very important for us to hear.

     Like I said, with Willimon around, this is going to be a good Jubilee. Let us pray that he is anointed with a special grace and ability to communicate to our particular students and that they (regardless of their backgrounds) are able to really hear his call to radical Kingdom living.