Chris Haw, From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart: Rekindling My Love for Catholicism (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 2012). (Amazon.com)
I entered Christianity as a young man through a Pentecostal sect. When I departed from this group in my early twenties I began to self-identify with non-denominational evangelicalism. It seemed to me that the opposite of the sect from which I departed was the broad ecumenism of evangelicalism. Though I haven’t been sure of how to define “orthodoxy” over the years, I chose this route because I wanted to work toward orthodoxy. This is why my initial interest in the “emerging church” waned quickly. While I thought that the emerging church had the opportunity to be ecumenical in a new way, I wasn’t convinced that orthodoxy mattered as much as novelty, and I am not confident enough in my own wisdom to spearhead novelty. So non-denominational evangelicalism has been the path on which I have journeyed as a Christian, aiming to be united to the whole body of Christ while showing fidelity to those key confessions that give meaning to the word “Christian”.
You may think that I am about to announce that I have found this to be bankrupt, so I am converting to Roman Catholicism. You’re wrong if so. In fact, currently, I am part of a Mennonite congregation (though I don’t know that I would call myself a “Mennonite”), which is classified under the “radical Reformation”. I am not part of this assembly because it is radical, but I have found likemindedness with them as this local expression seeks to understand what it means to live in the way of Jesus in our world. I don’t deny that there are aspects of “low church” Christianity that trouble me (though our Mennonite assembly is somewhat liturgical and it follows the broader ecclesial calendar), but I find that I am able to live my Christianity in this context, at this stage of my life, more vibrantly than if I were to go elsewhere.
I do confess flirting with Roman Catholicism. I have friends who jokingly call me “catholic-lite”. I visit Mass around Advent every year now. I won’t deny that a Christmas Eve Mass is far more apt at expressing the sacredness of the hour than most evangelical traditions with which I am acquainted (I hate to say the word “Protestant”, because I think this binary is misleading, and this is the twenty-first century–apologies to Calvin, Luther, et al.), so the Advent season is one where I find myself drawn to the ancient rituals. On the other hand, to be fair, my Pentecostal upbringing has lead me to desire being around raucous celebration on Easter Sunday. I want a choir with a lot of noise celebrating the risen Christ. You may call me ecumenical, catholic, and confused.
Now that I have written the longest personal introduction to a book review let me tell you why I read Chris Haw’s From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart. First, my years in Portland, Oregon, caused great angst for me as relates to evangelicalism. I studied theologians like Athanasius of Alexanderia, Basil the Great, John of Damascus, and Maximus the Confessor in seminary. I realized these men were “catholic”, and that there thoughts had established “orthodoxy” as I have received it in many ways (there are exceptions, like, for example, John of Damascus’ defense of icons, which doesn’t work in the evangelical tradition). Also, it became evident to me that the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of the dual nature of Christ, and other central teachings of Christianity were decided by councils. What was I going to do with this? If councils (other than the one in Jerusalem mentioned in Acts 17) are a means through which God has revealed truth to the world, what do I do with councils like the one at Chalcedon?
Even my bibliology was challenged as I continued to read critical scholarship it became evident that the biblical canon didn’t fall from heaven intact, but into the early years some books like the Peterine Epistles and the Apocalypse were books that not all Christians accepted as valid. I had known this as some level, but now I was facing it straightforwardly, and I was forcing myself to ask what this means for my religious worldview. What was I going to do with what many evangelicals argue is the “inerrant Word of God” when I realized that it is true, in some sense, that the church chose the canon over the years, and that in different parts of the church the canon isn’t the same, as one can see when examining the Coptic canon over against the Roman Catholic canon, or the Roman Catholic canon over against the canon used by most evangelicals.
Finally, the Bible is a book that is open to many interpretations. I have been reading Irenaeus of Lyons Against Heresies and I realize that even the Valentinians could use Scripture. Evangelicals like to talk about how obvious orthodoxy is when you use the “right” hermeneutical approach, but this hasn’t proven true for me. I find that while I have interpretations of the Bible, I can see how Lutherans arrive at their views, and how Methodists arrive at their views, and how Pentecostals arrive at their views. In other words, while I think some people may be wrong here or wrong there I don’t think that their interpretation is impossible, at least not like the Valentinians!
Evangelical practice concerned me as much as that of Roman Catholics. Evangelicals take a very hard stand against the inclusion of the LGBTQ community because of a handful of passages while at the same time celebrating people who return from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in spite of far more biblical mandates in the New Testament against violence, hating an enemy, returning evil for evil, so forth and so on. I know a professor of biblical literature who finds no wiggle room for divorce, at all, yet he is the first person to solute a veteran. Similarly, these same interpreters will take a few passages from the Pauline Epistles to eliminate the possibility that there can be women who pastor, who serve as elders, or who preach even. If we are honest most of these evangelicals want some of Roman Catholic ecclesiology without the Pope.
Message of the Book
When I saw the title of Haw’s book I knew he would discuss his journey from evangelicalism to Roman Catholicism. Willow Creek is a mega church outside Chicago, IL. Sacred Heart is his parish in Camden, NJ. The author co-wrote a book with Shane Claiborne titled Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals several years ago. This sounds more like something that would be written by someone from the Mennonite tradition, like John Howard Yoder, not someone who would become part of the Roman Catholic Church lead by someone like the Pope who lives in a place like Vatican City. So I contacted Ave Maria Press to ask for a copy for review and I received one. I wanted to read about Haw’s “conversion”. I wanted a dialogue partner who saw the same problems I see with evangelicalism, yet who can respect evangelicalism enough to be courteous. This was a perfect book for that.
Summary of the Contents
The book has a forward from the aforementioned Shane Claiborne. Interestingly, for a book written by a Roman Catholic talking about how he left evangelicalism, this book receives high marks from people like Brian McLaren (who has a generous orthodoxy to most Christians, save Roman Catholics and Pentecostals!), Phyllis Tickle, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. This book is respected by Roman Catholics and those associated with the emerging church. That is quite a feat!
This book is divided into two parts: Part One: Action (with Some Contemplation) and Part Two: Contemplation (with Some Action). In Chapter One: From Mass to Megachurch Haw discusses his family’s association with Roman Catholicism and how during his adolescence the programs at Willow Creek were far more attractive that the dead ritual of his former church. He talks about how youth workers at Willow Creek were there for him during a very difficult time. The worship at Willow Creek wasn’t as “religious”, per se, as what he has experienced. Anyone who has been a youth among evangelicals or groups like evangelicals (e.g., some Pentecostals) will enjoy reading about Haw’s experiences.
In Chapter Two: From Class to Streets is an account of how Haw’s passion for social justice and radical Christianity came alive as a student at Eastern University. It was here that he began to work with the poor and marginalized. He began to be attracted to new monasticism and communal living. He finds himself in opposition to America’s warmongering post-9/11. Haw’s Christianity is shifting from being a consumer at Willow Creek to an actor at Eastern University.
In Chapter Three: From Streets to the Jungle Haw documents his time in Belize where he was introduced to the impact of humans on the environment. He interacts with the writings of Wendell Berry and other eco-theologians. In this chapter he reveals how he came to see Creation as a good thing and how he realized that Christian discipleship demands that we care for Creation.
In Chapter Four: From Jungle to War documents Haws involvement with the anti-war movement. He discusses his disillusion with how blood-thirsty American Christians became after 9/11 and how this madness causes him to continue to question what it means to be a disciple, this time as it relates to violence.
In Chapter Five: From War to Concrete Jungle discusses Haw’s transition from being a student to living in impoverished and violent Camden, NJ. This is where he began to organize his own new monastic community. In doing this he began to visit a couple of places of worship, one being Sacred Heart, a local Roman Catholic perish.
Part Two begins Haw’s “theological” section. When I say theological I say this not to say Haw desires to write something like a systematic theology, but rather for those familiar with the theologizing of G.K. Chesterton, this is what you should expect. In some sense, I read Haw as Chesterton redivivus. He has the ability to present Catholic theology in such a way that it makes me stop and think deeply. As I alluded above it should be obvious that Haw didn’t convert me (this isn’t his aim anyways), but I do have a greater appreciation for the Roman Catholic tradition and it has forced me to rethink my own Christianity.
Chapter Six: Murder and the Mass is a challenging reflection on the Mass (obviously). Haw has some very good things to say about how Mass reminds us of how we are violent. He talks about Mass not as satisfying the angry deity God the Father, but rather we are the angry deity. We needed to kill God. Haw addresses the evangelical criticism of the celebrating a crucified God who has risen from the dead by showing how reminding ourselves that we are violent people is a great act of subversiveness.
Chapter Seven: Pagan Christianity flows naturally from the last chapter. Haw addresses criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church as concerns the similarities between Catholic liturgy, practice, and structure to dead (or dying) pagan religions and whether this syncretism is something evil or if it shows how Christianity knows how to adopt the best practices of people as those people adopt the Gospel.
Chapter Eight: The Search for No Accent is a devastating critique of the mythology of some denominations, or new denominations, that schism will result in a purer, more “apostolic” church leaving behind the baggage that has attached to Christianity over the years. This was one of the wittiest, most straightforward chapters, and as I will state below, I go a different direction that Haw, but I do agree with his criticisms of denominationalism.
Chapter Nine: On Being Part of a Terrible Organization is a very honest exploration as to what it means to be Catholic in light of the wealth of the Roman Catholic Church, the sexual abuse scandals, the refusal to ordain women as priests, and other aspects of Catholicism that concern outsiders. I feel like Haw does a fine job of expressing why he has chosen to remain part while knowing the whole is far from perfect. This chapter asks us to find an institution that is perfect. Of course, we know no such organization exists.
Chapter Ten: Art and Apocalypse addresses the grandeur of the Vatican, cathedrals, and the ceremonies of Catholicism as this relates to whether all of this should be sold and given to the poor. Haw answers this negatively, explaining the value of the church’s willingness to love and hate the world, to beautify the world while trying to care for the poor (noting that the Roman Catholic Church is the most charitable organization in the world), and how apocalyptic imagery reminds us of our need to beauty, art, architecture while at the same respecting its temporality.
I wish I could write more and more about this book. Let me say, no, I am not a Roman Catholic after reading it, but, reading it during Advent tempted me toward conversion a few times! While Haw has come to embrace the imperfections of what it means to be a Roman Catholic, this book has allowed me to embrace the imperfections of evangelicalism. I continue to think through how my evangelicalism jives with creeds and councils, but at this juncture I am not convinced that the past completely defines the present or future of Christianity as regards these matters. Haw sees the divisions within Protestantism as reason to embrace the unity provided by Rome. I see the divisions much like I see the “states” of the United States: sure, there are differences and boarders, but we function under one King, and that King is the one through whom we find our ultimate unity in the Holy Spirit. For those of us who are not Catholics we must remember that prior to lambasting Catholicism we must take the time to know what Catholics believe and why. Authors like Chesterton and Haw have given me great respect for the Catholic tradition. I would say even that there are aspects of Catholic theology that make better sense of the world and better sense of Christianity that the views espoused by my fellow evangelicals, but this isn’t enough for me to abandon evangelicalism. Rather, I revisit my evangelicalism and ask myself if there are better ways to think as an evangelical. For that I thank Haw because he has written an immensely valuable book.