Required Reading: Hauerwas’ ‘Resident Aliens.’

Pick up any popular-level article on college-age church attendance or attend any church growth webinar, and you’ll almost assuredly find some hip, church growth expert bemoaning the “church’s” failure to retain its young adults. With latte in hand, we’ll be instructed to go more casual, to be more “authentic,” to dalliance with a favorited fermented brew in order capture the “unchurched.” The “church,” we’re told, is at best inconsequential and at worst, unnoticing, of young adults and their true needs—what is often little more than a reflexive affirmation of college age immaturity and indecisiveness.  I’ve read it, you’ve read it; let’s move on.

Like most anything, the problem of church attendance with young people is a battle of competing loyalties and competing narratives. For college-age freshmen, the air of fresh adventure combined with intellectual curiosity often spells doom. The lure to stay up late and attend Bedside Baptist is all too accommodating.

My diagnosis (with far less hipness in the mix): I believe we’ve failed to offer our young people a compelling reason to be “church”—not to go to church and fulfill obligatory duties (though this is both good and necessary), but to actually be the church, to cultivate an awareness and significance of the sole institution Christ left on earth after his ascension. To situate yourself primarily as a member of the church, and not primarily as a benefactor of America’s accoutrements, is quite difficult.

Through college, the writings of Stanley Hauerwas helped me to see how peculiar and how important the church is in shaping identity.

This is why Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon’s book Resident Aliens: Life in Christian Colony is so important and should be required reading for young Christians entering college. It’s the one book, at this point, that I’d slip into the backpack of my daughter as she trots off to college.

To embrace Hauerwas, it is easy to assume that the wholesale rejection of America and the warm embrace of separatism must follow. I think choosing Hauerwas or loving America is a false dichotomy. But that is another topic for another day.

As they write,

“In the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, all human history must be reviewed. The coming of Christ has cosmic implications. He has changed the course of things. So the theological (and I’d add, the ecclesial) task is not merely the interpretive matter of translating Jesus into modern categories but rather to translate the world to him. The theologian’s job (and I’d add, the pastor’s, too) is not to make the gospel credible to the modern world, but to make the world credible to the gospel.” (24)

“We are saying that the political task of Christians is to be the church rather than to transform the world. One reason why it is not enough to say that our first task is to make the world better is that we Christians have no other means of accurately understanding the world and rightly interpreting the world except by way of the church.” (38).

Hauerwas and Willimon insist that the church as polis is inscribed with its own set of virtues and can only be learned as one begins to see themselves as church, instead of going “to church.” Making the gospel credible to the world presupposes that one’s worldview is shaped more by the crucifixion and resurrection than by the nation-state. And for the gospel to be understood, it must be found where it is proclaimed and embodied: the church.

I’d conjecture that there would be less disillusionment with the church should youth understand Stanley Hauerwas’ proposals. His proposals aren’t easy. I fail at them. As much as I try, I must remind myself that it’s a church in Louisville, KY that retains more rights over myself than I am entitled to proclaim as my own—a concept at conflict with liberal democracy. But the beauty of the church is that it is the lifelong process of absorption within the church that one finally recognizes that they could be nothing other than the church. It’s church as osmosis. 

If children were taught from an early age that church is not so much a place to visit, but a thing to be, the idea of not being the church as one reaches a certain age would be impossible. The church, at that point, would be a learned trait, a habit of virtue. And habits are hard things to cast off…even when you reach college.

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One Book for College: A Thumping Good Novel

My reading suggestion follows Cate’s example in fleeing from a specific recommendation.  And she gives very good advice. The assigned books are one of the big reasons you’re there. And, let’s face it, the professors try to make them a practical necessity.

But the extra-curricular readings are also important. Some of them may also be serious idea books. These are valuable as supplements, and to give you direction.

But don’t underestimate the value of working through a thumping good novel over the course of a semester.

Why?

First of all, for rest. Class reading may be enlightening, maddening, exhausting, or life-changing. But seldom refreshing. A good novel is not mindless, but it is a different kind of mental activity. It is a side trip through a different world.

Secondly, for warming up to or cooling down from the assigned work. Whatever your major, plenty of books will be thrown at you. And a fun activity that involves the same basic exercise as work, while having a different quality, is quite handy.

Thirdly, to foster and/or maintain a love of reading. Academic work can wear down your love for books. This is gets truer as the level of study gets more advanced, and the many books bring much weariness. The heavier the class reading load, the more helpful it is to throw in something fun to balance it out.

Finally, it keeps up your ability to read “normal” books  for “normal” reasons. This is important for eggheads like me, for whom that is remedial work. It is doubly important when aiming for teaching or ministry, where you must keep an ability to communicate at all levels.

In short, a good novel adds some fun to the mix, and can even boost your ability to keep up with the class reading.

What kind of novel?  It may or may not be high literature, depending on your taste. This trick doesn’t work so well if you aim for bragging rights with your reading choices, or if your “novel on the side” is not actually enjoyable for you.

Here are some examples of books I read for refreshment in college. Some of them might show up in a lit class, but, hey, I’m a nerd. It’s right there on my contributor’s bio.

Lord of the Rings. Many times over.

Pride and Prejudice. It rewards repeat readings, as you see how Elizabeth’s pride colors the story.

Anthony Trollope, especially Barchester Towers. Warning: will make your writing witty, chatty, and verbose.

Harry Potter. How can you not?

Stephen Lawhead, especially the Pendragon series and Celtic Crusades. It’s bubblegum history, but enjoyable fiction.

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. A dose of wackiness, with surprisingly strong characters. For such cynical satire, there is an odd idealism to them. How did I not discover them before grad school?

One Book for College: Make your Parents Nervous

What one book would you have a college student read?

It’s not necessarily an easy question.

There are hundreds of guides for college students out there, some of which I’m told are very good, but who wants to look like they need an advice book when they show up on campus?

And when it comes to reading, most college students should, as Cate points out, simply start with the syllabus.  If you’re not getting that far, you’re not far enough.  Which, come to think of it, raises the question of why you’re reading Mere-O.  Let’s just move on.

What we need is a criteria, because those solve all our problems, right?  Here are four things that extracurricular reading should satisfy:

  1. It should be outside your major, so as to broaden your horizons and not appear on your syllabus.  Literature majors, you may want to read Shakespeare all the time.  Or Toni Morrison.  (No need to be a snob.)  But for this, you may have to branch out.
  2. It should make the colors of the world just a little more bright.  School can be an abstract environment, which has it’s own problems.  One way to counteract that is to spend our free time lingering over the beauty of creation.  And books can, believe it or not, help with that.
  3. It should be accessible enough that it doesn’t feel like labor, but thoughtful enough that you might come back to it.
  4. It should make your parents nervous.  Why?  Because you’re in college, and that’s what college students do.

Don’t like the criteria?  Propose your own in the comments.  That’s why God made ‘em.

What book could possibly survive such a stringent standard?  (Hint:  it’s not, alas, this one.  And yes, that’s a profligate reminder that you should read it anyway.)

Sheldon VanAuken’s A Severe Mercy

The odds that it will show up in your major are small, unless you’re majoring in tragically beautiful love stories that make your heart hurt.  Which, in an academic world as fragmented as the one we currently have, one or two of you might actually be doing.  What do I know?  I’m just a writer.

Why A Severe Mercy?  The prose….oh, the prose.  You’ll never look at new cars quite the same way.  And while you had better not be getting up to fetch a cup of water in the night for anyone but your roommate, VanAuken’s will help you see that relatively minor acts of courtesy contain within them the substance of heroic self-sacrifice.

But while VanAuken has a way with words, it matches the unremitting romanticism of his aristocratic life.  Read with caution:  at points you’ll want to drop out of school, buy a yacht, and start sailing around the world.  Which means it satisfies the “nervous parents” criterion rather well, doesn’t it?

Of course, you won’t have any money (you’re in college, remember?) and probably don’t know how to sail, so the disaster will be averted.  But the longing will be there and you’ll go off and do better things for it.

As for substance, the book isn’t exactly Thomas Aquinas, but it is a step above your standard airport fiction.  You might be turned off by the fact that it’s a tragic tale of love and loss, but its elegance ensures that it is never boring and I have yet to meet a man with a soul who did not like it.

The book has some cultural significance as well.  Our boys Chesterton and Lewis laid the groundwork for what we might call “romantic Christianity,” or the contemporary appropriation of the Dantean vision of the world. Courtly love and troubadours meet Jesus, and all that. VanAuken stands firmly in that tradition, and even if he doesn’t resolve the relationship between erotic desire and our Christian faith quite as well as either of them, his poetic prose, dare I say, is the apex of the movement.

Which is about as high of praise as I could possibly give it.

But that makes me wonder:  what book would you recommend, if not this one? 

 

Harry Potter and the Age Old Story

Tonight is the opening night of the final installment of the Harry Potter movies. I have lots of feelings about this.

A little over a year ago I was still refusing to read those little children’s books about a boy named Harry Potter. I was overworked in graduate school, am not exactly an early adopter, and am an unashamed book snob, so despite my friend’s absolute insistence that I would LOVE the Harry Potter books, I had managed to resolutely ignore the whole franchise. And then one day I borrowed the first book.

I finished book seven (for the first time) a few months ago. I had started listening to the books on CD (performed by the incredibly talented Jim Dale) since book three. It had become a matter of habit for me to listen on my long drives to visit my family on weekends, or in the evening when I was engaged in a project that required the use of just my hands, such as washing dishes or working on this blanket I still haven’t finished.

I loved the books. I loved each story, and I loved the over-arching narrative. I loved the way the kids were growing up, I loved their teachers, and I loved the magical, fantastical world they inhabited, that still managed to be so much like our own. But as book seven wound to a close, I became engaged on a whole new level. I sat perched on the edge of my couch with my hands over my mouth, waiting to hear what happened next. As the war waged on at Hogwarts and Harry made the decision to do whatever he needed to do to save the lives of his friends, I heard the old familiar story that our faith is built on come sneaking out of the wand-waving and spell-casting.

J.K. Rowling’s novels retell the epic story of good verses evil, of true-love verses self-love, of sacrifice verses grasping for power, of death verses life. I don’t think it’s over stating it too much to say she tells the story of Christ by renaming him Harry. I don’t know anything about her or her faith, but I don’t really need to. Her books are truly good, not the least because she has engaged a whole generation of children in a story about the importance of goodness, love, friendship, trust, and self-sacrifice. She has shown them, without a word of religious jargon, that it is indeed true that “greater love has no man than this, than he who lays down his life for a friend.”

In a world where a third (fourth?I’ve lost track) movie about trucks that turn into giant robots (or aliens? robot aliens? I should pay more attention) is the highest grossing movie of the year, a story as meaningful as Harry Potter’s deserves every bit of the excitement it is getting. If you haven’t read the books yet, read them. Read them out loud to your children and enjoy. The movies are good too, but the books make the movies better.

Bear with me here, as I’m sure some of you will disagree, but I find myself profoundly grateful that this story was not only written and published in this “day and age” (for I, personally, think it carries an equal measure of the loveliness and glory of the Narnia series), but that it has been embraced so whole heartedly by the oh-so-secular Western world.

I know a woman who’s atheistic heart began to open to the possibility of the love of Christ from reading stories that reflected the way God’s loving universe works. Harry Potter’s story is one of those stories in which real love, God’s love–even when it isn’t named as such–shines through. Maybe we should be praying tonight that the thousands upon thousands who will be waiting in line at midnight to watch an epic tale of love and self-sacrifice will find their hearts softening too. And maybe, just maybe, we should thank God for J.K. Rowling and her Harry Potter.