It’s been a long time since I shared with you from my commonplace book (or “life thickener” (to borrow a phrase from Mark Edmundson’s book Why Teach?), so let’s correct that right now.

As I was chewing on Andrew Delbanco’s argument on The Real American Dream (you can read my reflections here), my mind kept returning to the book Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, by Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon.  (I’ll explain why shortly.)  Resident Aliens was one of the first books that I copied from into my commonplace book, and I think it still wins the prize for the most entries.

Resident Aliens

I first came across it while I was working on my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History, and the authors’ concept of Christians as “aliens” resonated strongly with the self-conscious sense of pilgrimage that I was getting to know in the writings of William Bradford.   I’m confident that I wouldn’t agree with Hauerwas and Willimon (both professors at Duke Divinity School) in all the finer points of theology and ethics, but I consider Resident Aliens wonderfully stimulating and challenging.

Below are just a few sample quotes to give you a taste of the work.  Andrew Delbanco argues in The Real American Dream that over the past half century the Self has replaced either God or Nation as the focal point of the American story.  Listen to Hauerwas and Willimon on American individualism:

* “The primary entity of democracy is the individual, the individual for whom society exists mainly to assist assertions of individuality.”

* Our society, in brief, is built on the presumption that the good society is that in which each person gets to be his or her own tyrant.”

* “Our society is a vast supermarket of desire in which each of us is encouraged to stand alone and go out and get what the world owes us.”

* “Most modern ethics begin from the Enlightenment presupposition of the isolated, heroic self, the allegedly rational individual who stands alone and decides and chooses. . . . Growing up, becoming a mature, functioning adult is thus defined as becoming someone who has no communal, traditionalist, familial impediments.”

What I found even more haunting in The Real American Dream was Delbanco’s lament that we Americans now tend to live our lives “locked in a soul-starving present.”  At its best, the church should offer a  striking contrast to such debilitating present-mindedness.  Hear Hauerwas and Willimon:

“When we are baptized, we (like the first disciples) jump on a moving train.  As disciples, we do not so much accept a creed or come to a clear sense of self-understanding by which we know this or that with utter certitude.  We become part of a journey that began long before we got here and shall continue long after we are gone. . . . Faith begins, not in discovery, but in remembrance.  The story began without us, as a story of the peculiar way God is redeeming the world . . .”


  1. Jack Be Nimble

    My wife and I enjoy reading Beverly Lewis’ novels set in the Amish community in Lancaster County. A good part of our interest is in seeing the contrast between the Amish lifestyle and mindset and that of the English (non-Amish). Of course, the contrast may be somewhat exaggerated due to poetic license but the Englisher lifestyle is depicted as very much locked into the “soul-starving present.” The Amish not only have the satisfaction of living in a true community with a strong support network of like-believing people (the People), but also share an historic faith that gives meaning to practically everything they think or do. The Englisher is living a life locked into the present as his own tyrant totally in charge but without outside resources to help him create meaning for his life or meet the challenges that may seem to overwhelm him. He does what he wants and may despise the Amish person who follows the traditions of the People, but he is alone and sinks or swims on his own (limited) wisdom. I can’t say that I have observed that same sense of history and community that the Amish have in the modern American evangelical church and I am not sure I should expect it. However, I suspect that the emphasis on individuality (self) has made serious inroads into the church, undermining that sense that we have jumped aboard a moving train and have a conscious remembrance of where we have been and where we are going.

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