Christianity As Distinct Practices

A Complicated Relationship

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Jan-Olav Henriksen
Rethinking Theologies: Constructing Alternatives in History and Doctrine
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , January
     2019.
     216 pages.
     $114.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780567683274.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Christianity as Distinct Practices, Jan-Olav Hendricksen argues that Christianity is not merely beliefs but rather a cluster of practices. He does this by first looking at a theory of practice, how this involves aspects such as orientation, transformation, and legitimization (piggy-backing on his prior book Religion as Orientation and Transformation [Mohr Siebeck, 2017]), and how these in turn are grounded in the semiotics of the Jesus story. The second part of the book focuses on particular practices such as the reading of scripture, preaching, prayer, etc. He then looks at the applicability of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ to practices, and he concludes with exploring the question of how practices relate to God (essentially looking at the relationship between action, the virtues of faith, hope, and love, and divine providence), as well as how one understands God in practice and the broader category of religion.

The basic thesis of Hendricksen’s book is quite accurate: Christianity is better described as a cluster of practices, but this also means, as he points out, a complicated relationship between tradition, communities, and the individuals that appropriate these practices. One can only surmise that this argument for the centrality of practice is a strong antidote to some rather problematic approaches to religion. These problems may be the antinomian strand of soteriology in much popular Lutheran preaching, the dogmatic and overly scholastic versions of fundamentalism, or the overly intellectualized and propositionalized versions of analytic philosophy of religion. Meanwhile, Hendrickson points to the problems of secularism, where religion is cut off from the everyday, largely because religion as mere beliefs become something highly individualized and privatized. In this regard, the focus on practice is a welcome corrective.

One odd facet of this book is that it is entitled Christianity as Distinct Practices but often points out that practices do not make Christianity distinct. Rather how these common practices relate to the “Jesus story” is what makes Christianity distinct. This anticipates a third work comparing other religions to Christianity using this scheme, which as far as what Hendricksen has articulated here—that Christianity is rooted in the Jesus story, his cross and resurrection—should prove to be a productive endeavor.

However, what was treated in this book left this reader with a sense that the book’s title is a misnomer. Perhaps it should have been “Christianity as narrative and practice” or something of that sort. Without such a clarification the book gives the impression of a reduced description of Christianity. Is all of Christianity practice? Does practice make sense of everything in Christianity? Much of the beliefs of Christianity, of course, come from confessional statements based on scripture: “God is one,” “Christ is Lord,” “Christ has come in the flesh,” etc.

While what they mean is rendered in their usage (as Ludwig Wittgenstein and George Lindbeck have argued), usage cannot eclipse reference entirely. Hendricksen seems aware of this when he engages Lindbeck at the end of the book, but displays this reduction in several areas: the “Jesus story” is prioritized over the historical Jesus, the practice of reading of Scripture is prioritized over what scripture is saying, etc. Does the focus on practice downplay this priority on God’s speech preceding all human response and, therefore, all practice? While Hendrickson does nuance his position at points (notably in his chapter articulating providence), the book gives the overall impression that religion is more anthropological than theological. However, just as there is no visible Christianity without practice, this equation is also true: God minus all human practice still equals God. This is the appropriate subject of Christian theology. Without holding this priority in mind, the argument of this book at times seems similar to describing music in terms of the mechanics of the instruments rather than the content of notes played.

Thus, the book does not offer a “theology” of practice so much as a theory for understanding Christian religion as practice, which confines the book to more of a generalized sociology or phenomenology of religion approach at times. One must note the irony that he offers at times a quite complicated theory about how the essence of Christianity is in its everyday practiced dimension. While a “theory of practice” is not an oxymoron—it is a legitimate domain for reflection, which is shown well in the chapter analyzing ritual especially—there is a saying that “wars are too important to be left to the generals.” In other words, this book could have had a lot more engagement with actual practitioners and the categories and explanations they use. For instance, the chapters on prayer or preaching do not cite much or at times any secondary literature on these topics, and thus have little theological or exegetical engagement, often offering elementary explanations of how these practices fit into the larger thesis. The book engages a number of more philosophical thinkers but could have been enriched by engagement with a number of theologians and practitioners that have developed the categories of practice, such as Stanley Hauerwas, James K. A. Smith, Will Willimon, James McClendon, John Howard Yoder, or the recent work by Lauren Winner.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Spencer Miles Boersma is Assistant Professor of Theology at Acadia Divinity College.

Date of Review: 
March 4, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jan-Olav Henriksen is Professor of Philosophy of Religion in MF Norwegian School of Theology, Norway, and Professor of Contemporary Religion at Agder University, Norway.

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