This book will disturb you.
It will also enlighten you.
Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon’s Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Abingdon Press, 1989) is one of the most engaging books I have read in recent years. Rarely do I come across a book that is so simultaneously upsetting and enjoyable.
There were moments in my reading when I disagreed vehemently. Other times, I could not help but nod my head at the brilliant insights into the nature of Christian faith.
Resident Aliens has the effect of an earthquake that shakes things up and then leaves you with a new landscape once the dust settles.
Christendom has fallen, say Hauerwas and Willimon, and the fall of Christendom is a good thing for true Christianity. In fact, the fall of Christendom has provided us with a unique opportunity to be the church by embodying a social alternative that “the world cannot on its own terms know” (18). Hauerwas and Willimon seek to dismantle the entire edifice of contemporary theology from the time of the Enlightenment. They believe that in large part, the church has been asking the wrong questions:
“The theological task is not merely the interpretative matter of translating Jesus into modern categories but rather to translate the world to him. The theologian’s job is not to make the gospel credible to the modern world, but to make the world credible to the gospel.” (24)
The authors take the reader through the Sermon on the Mount in order to transform our vision of the church’s role in the world. Over and over again, Resident Aliens insists that the church’s calling is not to make better the world as the world defines “betterment.”
“What we call ‘church’ is too often a gathering of strangers who see the church as yet another ‘helping institution’ to gratify further their individual desires” (138).
Instead, Christians should be offering the world an entirely different perspective on everything from politics to finances, from sexuality to religiosity, from service to power.
Much of Hauerwas and Willimon’s diagnosis of today’s church seems quike bleak. But the brutal honesty is refreshing, and their emphasis on the peculiarity of the church desperately needs to be heeded.
At times, the book’s vision of the Christian colony seems to overflow with fresh opportunities of discipleship. The bleakness of the current state of the church is coupled with a vibrant hope in the extension of the kingdom through small, unassuming disciples.
But often, the authors tend to put forth a rather Anabaptist, almost separatistic outlook. Their separatism is coupled with a strongly pacificistic orientation that may be troubling for some readers. The authors overstate their case at times, sometimes leading to false choices between “right living” versus “right thinking,” or “church authority” versus “biblical authority.”
But overall, Resident Aliens is one of the best books I’ve read this year. I highly recommend that you order it, ponder it, and discuss it with others. It is a thought-provoking book that has increased my passion for the local church and the extraordinary nature of living an “ordinary” Christian life.