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God’s Companions: Reimagining Christian Ethics

By Samuel Wells
Dean, Duke Chapel and Research Professor of Christian Ethics
Blackwell, 2006, Paper, 232 pages, $27.95

Reviewed by Craig Hovey

A companion is literally someone with whom you share bread. Christians encounter this as a mystery in worship. The very existence of the incarnate One is already an act of sharing with the world in which the church participates when it eats together. And sharing bread, tearing the body of Christ, is not only an act the church performs, but is the very formation of the church, itself simultaneously torn and constituted as the body of Christ. The church is both given the Eucharist as a gift to its common life and receives God’s gifts in its very creation as a eucharistic people.

God’s Companions

This mystery is the soul of God’s Companions in which Samuel Wells elegantly exposits the Christian life by primarily centering on worship as a set of irreducibly ethical practices.

Wells invites readers to reimagine Christian ethics, not as primarily an academic discipline, but as the locally-realized, often disarmingly ordinary, display of God’s manifold gifts for living the Christian life. The Christian life is characterized by lightness, giddiness and every good thing which God has supplied.

Paradoxically, only to the extent that Christian ethics is willing to risk being indicted for not taking pain and sin seriously enough will it be able to bring good news to the world. The Christian life is a dance of joy in the presence of God’s infinite goodness and this book audaciously asks us to dance even while the world hurts. After all, the world’s hurt is its refusal to dance. And while God does not promise lives free from suffering, he has nevertheless allowed that suffering no longer must function as the starting line.

This cannot help but alter the way ethics is done through reimagining, that is, operating outside the standard moral categories. Indeed, Wells has a beautiful imagination. The most creative and important aspect of the book is how traditional ethical issues are located within the unfolding sweep of God’s gifts to his people. At first, many of these seem quite surprising, but the surprise is an invitation to enlarge our imaginations, often liturgically

For example, euthanasia is located within baptism. Individual bodies are revalued by being incorporated into the body of Christ where many of the arguments simply fail to apply. Individual suffering is taken up into the suffering of Christ’s body, not in order to make sense of it (since suffering can never “make sense”), but so that those who suffer may receive the ability to endure for the building up of the church. The candidate for baptism thus receives life as a gift, having surrendered possession through the surging waters.

As baptism shows, we must be taught how to receive God’s gifts since we do not naturally welcome things not easily subjected to our control, even when they are very good. Still, believing God’s gifts are good is not yet the same as welcoming them, and so Wells is not content only to convince us of their goodness. Instead, he is relentless about making us better people, better able to welcome strangers as gifts and the unexpected with joy.

By feasting with God, God’s companions are caught up into a drama that is vastly larger than their individual stories. And yet the miracle is that our smaller feasts are the ways we participate in God’s drama, whose curtains are marked by creation to eschaton. Small acts of local worship, church meetings and service to neighbors are part of God’s story, one that resists being construed as being “all about us.”

God’s Companions resolutely exchanges polemic for excess. Wells intends to overpower the reader with examples of ordinary people in ordinary churches. This rhetorical strategy reflects Wells’ temperamental antipathy to dispute and the book’s central thesis that the ability to live the Christian life in the abundance of God’s gifts does not ultimately depend on the role tough realities would play in structuring any ensuing debate.

This book could not have been written without the lives of ordinary yet extraordinary saints. Such faithful lives are the resources of God’s kingdom for those who not only follow after them, but travel with them. The danger is that they too threaten to become yet another set of limited goods to be measured strategically. But God’s companions countenance no strategy, readily embracing the things of God with reckless abandon, trusting that there is always more bread to break and share.

Craig Hovey teaches religion at the University of Redlands in California. He is the author of Nietzsche and Theology (T&T Clark).