Living into Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain UsWritten by Christine D. Pohl Reviewed By Daniel J. Brendsel
The call to pursue “community” is not new. Exhortations from sociologists and religious pundits to strengthen the sense of community in any given context are frequent, and they match the deep desire of many people to quell their loneliness, find a place to belong, and love and be loved.
But according to Christine Pohl, “few writers discuss the challenges of actually forging alternative communities in contemporary society” (p. 8). In undertaking such a task, Pohl draws our attention to the crucial role of Christian practices in knitting together and sustaining community. For the Christian, practices may be understood “as responses to the grace we have already received in Christ, in light of the word and work of God, and for the sake of one another and the world” (p. 5). Practices draw theological reflections into the lived experience of the community.
Pohl focuses on four practices: expressing gratitude, making and keeping promises, living and speaking truthfully, and showing hospitality. These four arose as common motifs in her own study as to what seemed central for community life, rooted in Christian moral tradition and God's own character. Pohl emphasizes that the four practices are interconnected, and bear on other important practices (e.g., celebration, Sabbath-keeping, forgiveness, discernment).
The work is divided into four parts, each devoted to one practice. The first three parts on gratitude, fidelity, and truthfulness consist of three chapters each. Pohl first explores biblical and historical traditions on the practice and considers ways in which it is out of step with the contemporary cultural context. Second, Pohl addresses “complications” in the pursuit of each practice arising from conflicts in responsibilities, the complexity of relationships, varying circumstances, cultural influences, and the fallenness of our existence. Third, she addresses ways in which sin causes “deformations” in the practice, and also ways to strengthen the practice. The fourth part of the book consists of a single chapter on hospitality. Less time is spent here, in part because Pohl explored the practice in depth in her 1999 work Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, and in part because hospitality can be viewed as a space in which each of the practices may intersect and operate.
Pohl's work is dense with practical and earthy wisdom. She demonstrates deep discernment regarding the complexities of our lived experience, enabling her to probe difficult but practical questions concerning each practice. Of many strengths to the book, four in particular deserve mention.
First, Pohl emphasizes the embodied nature of our existence. Practices are necessarily things we do, habits of living, irreducible to thoughts or emotions. Pohl explores several implications arising from this, but an especially important one is that embodied life always takes on particular forms. By orienting the rhythms and patterns of life in certain ways, we can cultivate readiness and skill in the practices she commends.
Second, Pohl frequently offers the advice of opening up “space” for the practices to take place. We do well to devote a regular time and place for offering gratitude to others. Since promises are implicitly made or expectations raised in a variety of non-verbal ways, it is helpful to make room for expressly stating expectations and implicit promises. When disagreements arise, “Creating a place that is safe for each to hear the other” in honest, sensitive, and specific (not general) ways is of utmost importance (p. 153). We might think of the practice of hospitality as opening up “space” for other practices to occur.
Third, Pohl sheds light upon our embeddedness in culture and the impact that has on our pursuit of the practices, for good or ill. On the one hand, culture shapes the frames through which we conceive of and practice community. She observes, “we don't always notice how profoundly our expectations, desires, and practices are . . . shaped by our culture. We bring the values of self-actualization, individual success, consumption, and personal freedom-and the choices that result from them-to church life, just as we bring them into family and work. . . . This is not a promising recipe for strong or lasting communities” (p. 4). Additionally, Pohl reveals how several contemporary forms of living such tools and technologies, which in our cultural context seem normal and harmless, can undermine the cultivation of Christian virtue and practice, weakening our communities.
Fourth, Pohl presents the practices as a way of being, a “posture for life.” Thankfulness, fidelity, honesty, and hospitality are not means to some other end, but simply the life into which we are saved. The goal in pursuing the practices “is not to try harder to build community or to get the practices right. It is about living and loving well in response to Christ” (p. 175).
One brief but significant criticism may be noted. Pohl only occasionally and passingly mentions the cross and resurrection, and the role of the Spirit in Christian practice is virtually absent from her discussions. We might ask, “What makes the practices and community Pohl commends expressly Christian?” This is not to suggest that Pohl offers a book of generic moralizing. Far from it. But we would benefit not simply from the use of the Christian tradition on practices, but also from a clearer expression of their distinctly Christian and Trinitarian roots.
But this criticism hardly diminishes the great value of the book, nor the joy of allowing it to guide us in pursuing Christian practices. Pohl's work is well worth reading and pondering. She challenges us to be what we were created to be, and what Christ redeemed us to be, namely, a community of thankful, faithful, truthful, and welcoming worshipers, for God's glory and our good.
Daniel J. Brendsel
Daniel Brendsel is a PhD student in New Testament at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.