Transformation: Our (Hard) Work or God's?

How is one formed to become the kind of person Arpin-Ricci and Seay describe? I contend it is not by hard work, commitment, or more faith. I do think it comes through the power of the Spirit. But I'm waiting for someone to actually tell me how this works.

October 3rd, 2012

The Cost of Community: Jesus, St. Francis and Life in the Kingdom by Jamie Arpin-Ricci. InterVarsity Press, 2011. 237pp.

A Place at the Table: 40 Days of Solidarity with the Poor by Chris Seay. Baker Books, 2012. 240pp.



In the last decade, the conversation about church has increasingly turned to issues of doctrine versus practice. Emergent thinkers and writers, who are often also practitioners, have been telling the church that orthopraxy must become the centre of our attention again or, even more strongly, that orthopraxy is all that matters. This push is a reaction against the intellectualization of Christianity in the twentieth century, a phenomenon which seemed to make doctrine and right belief (orthodoxy) primary and privileged.

In the academy there remains a debate about the priority of doctrine over practice or vice versa. Some still argue that doctrine has a priority. Others are trying to get us all to reject the dichotomy. Schmemann urged as much in recent decades. Outside the walls of academe, it seems such concerns are addressed in the life of everyday ministry. While some are meticulously working through the theological abstractions regarding the interrelatedness of doctrine and practice, others—many of whom are on the ground, in the trenches, local pastors and teachers—are taking seriously the call to reconsider church practices, if not necessarily to make them primary, but to give them the attention they have been lacking (at least, it is perceived, from the academy).

This review examines two books that might fit within this ongoing discussion about doctrine and practice and pursues a question about the theology that underpins the heavy concentration on practice. Like Schmemann, I try to hold the link between doctrine and practice by asking how God is involved in making the kinds of disciples described and (hopefully) evoked from these texts. In short, the question is this: How do we become the kind of people who do what the writers tell us we ought to do?

Jamie Arpin-Ricci's recent book The Cost of Community is the kind of book I would peg as one written by a reflective practitioner, living in the trenches with a church that is deeply invested in its local community, striving to live out the very things which the church believes. Arpin-Ricci is quite clear from the start about exactly what he and his church are trying to live out: the Sermon on the Mount. And he finds inspiration for such a radical life from one who abandoned a place of privilege to pursue the holiness called for in the Sermon: St. Francis of Assisi. It's no surprise the author would look to Francis for inspiration. He's a lay Franciscan.

Arpin-Ricci takes readers through his journey; one that he often confesses is a great struggle. Having led his church in the midst of (and toward) the slums and poor of Winnipeg for more than a decade, the book emerges as his reflection on how his church has worked to put into practice the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. Furthermore, he walks readers through the meaning of the Sermon, elaborating its radical kingdom ethic and continually calling readers to join him on the journey, difficult as it may be.

Arpin-Ricci's work should be commended—and I'm not referring strictly to the book—especially his on-the-ground service and embodiment of a life devoted to those whom Jesus would consider "the least of these."

Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, the "disciple of Jesus" is the centre of attention. To borrow from one of Jesus's other great discourses in Matthew, the Fourth (the Sermon on the Mount is the First), Jesus remarks that the one who is greatest in the kingdom is the one that would become like a child (Matthew 18:2-5). Those are the ones the Father relentlessly pursues (Matthew 18:12-14). The child is the neediest, the most desperate, the most helpless. And the child is the one whom God considers greatest in the kingdom. And Jesus says not only that his disciples should be like children, but also that the disciples should see everyone else in the world as children whom the Father desires to rescue. Following from the Sermon on the Mount, the kind of discipleship Arpin-Ricci is exhorting his readers to embody is just the kind which would reach the greatest in the kingdom, the least of these, the most needy, the children.

But this is where my criticism of Arpin-Ricci comes into play. And I think this is quite important, since Arpin-Ricci's work is just one example of a similar problem that seems to plague much writing on discipleship (and one might add sanctification, the Christian life, and even ecclesiology). As Arpin-Ricci admits over and over again, the kind of life Jesus calls for in the Sermon is difficult. So the question poses itself, how does one become the kind of person who lives this life? Arpin-Ricci gives the typical and obligatory answer I see in much writing of this sort: through following Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. In others words, "it's no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal. 2:20) engenders the sort of life Arpin-Ricci advocates. I would agree. But I don't think Arpin-Ricci really believes this. Or if he does, his writing seems to betray otherwise.

For, throughout the majority of his book, his rhetoric seeks to engender from his readers a more substantial commitment to the life of which he speaks. We must be more sacrificial, more faithful, and work harder. And he sets up the example of St. Francis as one who gave it all for us to emulate. Jesus, of course, is the primary example, but he's the Son of God who can indeed fulfill the perfection which he demands, so we look to St. Francis as a fellow human being to imply that fulfilling the Sermon on the Mount is somehow possible. And Arpin-Ricci, perhaps unwittingly, seems to construe himself and his church's work in Winnipeg as examples too.

Yet all along the way, there is the regular admission that fulfilling the calling of the Sermon is difficult. Again, this seems obligatory, if only to avoid garnering too much attention to his own life or his church's and to again make central the calling of the Sermon. I return to the question: How does one actually live this life? How is it engendered? How is one formed to become the kind of person who fulfills the Sermon? I contend it is not by hard work, commitment, or more faith. I do think it comes through the power of the Spirit. But I'm waiting for someone to actually tell me how this works. And Arpin-Ricci, for all his commendable work, does not account adequately for how he became the kind of person who might actually be giving us a glimpse of the kind of person (and his church, the kind of community) that is fulfilling, even if in the form of "striving but failing," the call of the Sermon. Where is the ecclesiology that narrates the process of transformation that is anything other than the usual Aristotelian notion of habituation? Transformation of the sort Jesus calls for does not result from greater commitment, greater obedience, more humility, more submission, more practice. It does not result from hanging out with the church for long enough that you become like Jesus. God knows many churches are not like Jesus, thus hanging out with them might be futile.

Perhaps Jesus himself gives us a glimpse of how this happens. Rather than looking to the life of St. Francis, the biblical narrative itself tells the story. Immediately following the Sermon on the Mount—where Jesus calls us all to be perfect (Matthew 5:48), thus effectively backing us all into a corner, causing us to despair of any possibility of achieving the vision set forth in the Sermon and finally to throw ourselves at Jesus's feet begging for mercy—Jesus moves on to heal a man with leprosy (Matthew 8). Here is the sickest, the most desperate, the neediest. Here is the child whom God seeks. And Jesus heals that man. And then Jesus does something remarkable. Having just completed the Sermon wherein he took the Torah and made it even more impossibly difficult, he commands the newly healed man—the child, the one who was effectively dead whom Jesus raised to life again in the move of his healing touch—to go and fulfill the Torah. How can that be? Well, as Matthew seems to convey in Gospel, it is the person who encounters Jesus's transformative work, his putting to death and making alive again, who can fulfill the Law. And now such a life is possible, but it suddenly doesn't take practice or habituation; it happens naturally as the new man, the new creature, has emerged. It's like practicing love for our parents, our children, or our spouse—that is, it doesn't take practice. We just love them. Love happened to us, just like Jesus's transformative work does. Luther called it suffering God's work—the Christian life is thus a vita passiva. Nevertheless the struggle with sin—in the flesh, with the old Adam—is ongoing. And so God keeps working. (Here in this struggle with the Old Adam is where habituation and practice have a proper place.) Every time we encounter Jesus, which happens in the church, through his word and sacraments—the very place God chose that his transformative work would occur—is a moment where each of us walks away changed, transformed by the power of the Spirit, suffering God's work so that others might meet him in us and suffer his visitation and transformation too.

Arpin-Ricci's work, while encouraging the work of the Sermon, does not account for how one becomes a disciple—the kind of person who can really do it. He makes it sound like hard work, commitment, practice, sacrifice, obedience, submission. Of course he says Jesus is responsible for making disciples. But Jesus seems quickly shuffled off the scene, replaced by St. Francis, Aprin-Ricci himself, Little Flowers Church, and finally, you and me—we still (and always) have to respond rightly (that is, obediently) to God. Yet Jesus should remain central as the one who is responsible for the all the work, all the time. And the church should remain centre stage, as God's chosen location through which his Trinitarian transformative work is accomplished.

It has been said that the Sermon on the Mount, which is Arpin-Ricci's focus, captures in summary form many of the fundamental ways of being in the world within the biblical narrative. In a similar kind of book—that is, one which encourages disciples to live out their faith even more strongly, especially in solidarity with people who are considered "the least of these"—Chris Seay takes readers into the larger biblical narrative. A Place at the Table: Forty Days of Solidarity with the Poor is, in brief, a forty day devotional book centring around a forty day fast. Seay, who undertook the very fast he is encouraging in his readers, wrote forty days' worth of devotions to go along with the fast, each exploring a portion of the biblical narrative and offering reflections and prayers on those passages as well as on a specific story about someone who might be considered poor (much poorer than most of us in North America) or who serves alongside the poor to provide for their needs. Of course, one of the primary lacks which constitutes the poorness Seay focuses on is a lack of food and water. Thus, his work concerning solidarity with the poor also focuses on our attitudes about food and water (or perhaps our lack thereof—taking such things for granted, consuming too much, and so on).

Seay's work, like Arpin-Ricci's, has many reasons for commendation. Not least because it raises to our often desensitized consciousness the existence of others who, very much unlike us, suffer an existence which struggles for the most basic of needs. Our suffering on the other hand, Seay notes, might actually result from the overabundance we experience at every turn. Seay's goal is that, through participating in a fast and praying through the devotional material, we might be re-sensitized to those in need, and simultaneously realize just how much we have that we do not need, perhaps toward the end of forming the kind of person who might give more out of abundance, not just of possessions or wealth, but also out of the love of God created in one's heart through the exposure to Scripture and stories found in the book.

Reading through the book, one finds many simple yet profound devotional thoughts, followed by prayers focused on the life change implied in the Scripture reading and reflection. There are also stories about people in need that Seay intends to be a focus for prayer.

My critical remarks about Seay's book are limited to his more fundamental presuppositions, captured in the earliest pages as he introduces the topic, themes, and purpose of the book. I find much positive focus in his text as a devotional piece (the devotions are difficult to criticize in themselves, as they vary in length, purpose, and other ways) that is also concerned with community (Seay encourages the forty day experience to be done with others). My concern is that, much like Arpin-Ricci, there seems to be a lack of God's involvement; however much the claim is made (or assumption held) that he is there. As a practice, fasting or prayerful devotion creates a space in us where God can come and do his work. Yet Seay construes his book as an opportunity for you or me to submit, become obedient, cast off our sinful consumerist and greedy ways, humble ourselves, and be transformed. But not necessarily transformed by God, rather by the forty day fast and the attendant devotions. Of course, the claim will be made, God is in the practices; he uses them. No disagreement there. But the language seems to betray some lack of a divine theology of how God is actually at work. The obligatory claim is there, but I'm not sure we know where God is. I believe he's there, but where, once again, is Jesus? Where is the church as the place where God has chosen to do his work? It seems set aside in this case for a prayer closet or a small group.

Perhaps I am expecting too much from Seay and Arpin-Ricci. Indeed, they never claim to be writing an ecclesiology or a theology of the very practices they are discussing. Nevertheless, they are still working from a particular ecclesiology or theology of church practices that comes through quite strongly in their work. And from my reading, it is not one which jives well with the biblical narrative that characterizes God as the one who works transformation through the power of the word—killing and making alive (think baptism, new creature)—transmitted through God's chosen location of his gathered and worshipping people, the church. Rather, the dominant sense of transformation that underlies their work seems to be one which only thinks of change, some kind of progressive improvement, and thus, is apt for borrowing the Aristotelean language of virtue development. But Christ didn't help his disciples get better. He simply made them new. Indeed, I think we can still find much of value in the work of Arpin-Ricci and Seay. I simply believe they need a better account for how the transformation they are imagining actually happens.

 

Chad Lakies is Assistant Professor of Theology at Concordia University, Portland, OR, and is one of the coordinators for The Other Journal's Church and Postmodern Culture blog. He previously served congregations in St. Louis, MO, focusing particularly on ministry to college students and young adults. He loves great coffee, great beer, reading, video games, and playing drums. He listens to obscure progressive rock and loves having great thinkers and musicians to emulate. Chad is married to Bethany and is particularly in love with his newborn daughter Anabel.

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