Sinning Like a Christian, by William Willimon
Abingdon Press, 2005
A Peculiar Prophet (Willimon’s Blog)
I wish I had the courage to sin like William Willimon, but I know that if I did, people might look at me funny. After all, I’m not William Willimon. The problem with Willimon is not his theology. I think he is a fine theologian. His problem is not his preaching: he is thought provoking, at times his tongue is sharp, his wit is acerbic, and his sense of irony and sarcasm is astounding. I can take him in tempered doses which is why it takes me a month to read a 150 page book like Sinning Like a Christian. I read Willimon like I read Anne Lamott: slowly, cautiously, and with a small glass of sipping whiskey.
The problem with Willimon is that, for all his intelligence, he really doesn’t know when to quit, and when he keeps going he comes off as terribly judgmental, arrogant, and ungracious. So, Willimon, true to form, published a Postscript at the end of this book wherein he waxes eloquently about grace and love and happy-happy-joy-joy but manages to take swipes at former president George W. Bush and an unnamed ‘conservative, evangelical, Bible-thumping pastor.’ It’s at this point that Willimon tends to lose me: for as much as he talks about grace, he seems to reserve not the tiniest bit for those who are on the opposite side of the political aisle from him. I find this to be true of a lot of theological liberals.
Sinning Like a Christian is Willimon’s exploration of the so-called seven deadly sins. Overall, I think this book is worth the read if, and I say if, you can read with a light-heart and laughter. For example, take this quote, “Jesus was crucified for the very best of human good reasons such as peace, justice, doctrinal fidelity, national security, and on an on. We are rarely more murderous than when we are defending some noble ideal like freedom or democracy” (29). Frankly, it is this sort of statement that makes me want to vomit on the book. It is so painfully obvious what he is saying (and thank God and the warmongering conservatives he can say it!) It really gets old when one’s person political agenda manages to makes its way into a book that is not about politics. This is not the only time it happens in Willimon’s book, and it never, ever gets new.
It is difficult to continue reading Willimon after he makes such a blatant political statement. But, then, he will keep typing and come up with something like this:
The most moving moment in Sunday worship for me is when my people come forward at Holy Communion, streaming down the altar, and there they hold out empty hands like little children, like the famished folk they really are, empty, needing a gift in the worst sort of way…What’s strange, from the world’s point of view, is the empty-handed, needy, empty request for grace. (47)
That is beautiful. I wonder if Willimon is confident enough in God’s grace to serve communion to President George W. Bush? The true test of grace, it seems to me, is not how you treat your friends, but how you treat your enemies—especially your enemies who are your brothers in Christ. I’m not sure if Willimon is attempting to appeal to the more liberal folks among his readers or if he is just trying to irritate the more conservative folks among his readers. Anne Lamott is at least wise enough to realize that someday she will have to share a table with the former president (see her book Plan B, Further Thoughts on Faith). Sometimes I wonder if Willimon realizes that?
So what I’m trying to do here is write a short review that a) talks to the strengths and weaknesses of what is written on the pages of the book I am reviewing and b) gives you enough reason to actually want to read it. I’ve read enough Willimon books to know that he is, frankly, difficult to pin down theologically. Sometimes he is profoundly gracious and other times he is profoundly stupid. I say that lovingly, of course; he’s probably said the same thing about most of the people he reads. That’s why I say that Willimon is hard to read: sometimes you love him, other times not. I know, you need a reason to read him so I’ll go back to what I said at the start.
Don’t read him for his political views (I don’t happen to think that his theological or political liberalism is any better an option than another’s theological and political conservatism.) Don’t read this particular book because you hope to find something particularly insightful, or new, or interesting about sin. Don’t read this book because you hope to find something that cures what ails you because I don’t think the book is chock-full of the sort of answers you might be looking for. But if you want, and if you dare, read the book because no matter how much Willimon appears to withhold grace from his political enemies (i.e., those who are ‘conservative, evangelical, [and] Bible-thumping’), I believe Willimon actually understands grace all too well—and perhaps that is what frightens (motivates?) him to write in the first place.
“This is who we are, says Jesus, not big, self-sufficient adults, but rather little children, naked, frail, empty, and hungry, needing a gracious God in the worst sort of way. You can’t get into this Kingdom if you are all grown up and big and important. You can only come in through a very small door as an inept, bumbling, ignorant, and empty little child” (47)
And this is exactly the reason why I keep coming back to Willimon. No matter how distasteful he finds conservative politicians and haughty academics, he always comes back to grace. He cannot stay away from it. He circles it, swoops in, hints at its borders, dabbles here and there, and then in one final blow he unleashes a barrage of grace missiles (I couldn’t resist using a warfare metaphor to describe the tactics of a pacifist writing about grace; it’s my own bit of irony)—even he cannot stay away from it! It’s like he is writing along, happily minding his own business, and wham! out of nowhere—grace.
I’m a big fan of grace and my reason for reading Willimon is that he is too and he has found a way, amidst all the hoopla that is America, academics, politics, church and church-folk to articulate it in such a way that I actually find myself loving Jesus more and despising those who disagree with me less.
That, my friends, is the worth of a good writer.
“By the grace of God, a good-enough church, and lots of practice, it is possible even for ordinary folk like us to become saints” (146).