“Questions that tap into our mortality, our pain, our selfishness, our basic needs, questions that arise from the immeasurable darkness, lightness or mystery of our lives, require more than mere Answerization,” writes the novelist David James Duncan. To “answerize” is to give the One Correct Answer, refusing to grapple with complexity when an “ism” or a buzzword—even a theological one—can provide a neat explanation.
At the intersections of life and faith explored by Duke Divinity School Dean Greg Jones, answerizing will not do. Instead, he summons us to give our attention to the darkness and lightness and mystery of our own lives and those of our neighbors near and far. The intersections to which Jones carries us in this book are in South Africa and North Carolina, in denominational meetings and hospital rooms, in the family car and on the evening news. In these and many other places, Jones shows, the risen Christ meets us, bringing “a judgment that does not condemn but instead offers new life.”
“Answerizing” is one of 44 essays collected in Everyday Matters. Each is three or four pages long—or one full two-column page in The Christian Century, the ecumenical magazine in which all appeared between 1997 and 2002. Though short, the essays are never small.
Rereading these essays months or years after I first read them, I encounter many old friends, essays that moved me then and that have stuck with me ever since. For example, Jones’s reflections on a parent’s casual remark—“I just want my child to be happy”—lodged deeply in my heart when published in 1999. His proposed counter-question—“What if we expected parents to say, ‘I just want my child to be faithful?’”—is one that might seem obvious, and I suppose it was and is.
But in “Our Children’s Happiness,” Jones links the question to the ordeal of a South African family whose children often heard death-threats meant for their anti-apartheid parents when they answered the phone. Does not a worse kind of suffering come to those who have never encountered anything worth living and dying for? Faithful children, Jones notes, “may indeed be happy as adults. But if so, that happiness is a reflection of a deeper and more satisfying flourishing than the more superficial hopes too many of us tend to have for our children.” This is a point that resonates half a world away from Johannesburg.
Having many essays together in one book leads to new discoveries as well. The fact that the essays are arranged not chronologically but thematically makes the coherence and depth of Jones’s perspective much more evident. Section headings point to several important themes: Christian formation and friendship, the virtues that are life giving, challenges, and hope. However, some themes run even deeper than these.
Taken as a whole, this is a book about “costly forgiveness,” a book in which the worship of the triune God is seen to be a font of wisdom for everyday living, and the church is recognized as a community for the re-membering of those who suffer, “by the audacious grace and forgiveness of God in Christ.”
Everyday Matters is a wonderful book for personal reading. But it may be even more powerful as a focus for conversation. A short set of discussion questions follows each essay, probing the reader’s own experience and inviting reflection on Scripture, worship, Christian community and daily life. I encourage groups of Christians to read this book together, allowing it to intersect with their own lives and faith as they practice resistance to Answerization. In this they can have no better companion and guide than Greg Jones.
Dorothy C. Bass is director of the Valparaiso Project on the Education and Formation of People in Faith, a Lilly Endowment project based at Valparaiso University. She is the editor of Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People (Jossey-Bass, 1997) and the author of Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time (Jossey-Bass, 2000).
Coming in May: David F. Ford, Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University, will review The Art of Reading Scripture, edited by professors Ellen Davis and Richard Hays.