Book Review: ‘The Dangers of Christian Practice: On Wayward Gifts, Characteristic Damage, and Sin’ by Lauren F. Winner

Review by Kyle David Bennett

Guns don’t kill people,” goes one popular slogan. “People kill people.” In other words, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a gun. It’s an object, just like a butter knife or brass knuckles. The object itself isn’t the problem, but rather the self-centered, broken, and vile sinners who find relief or satisfaction in putting it to wicked uses.

This saying carries commonsensical force, but it isn’t always true to experience. A gun can discharge accidentally, without its handler having evil intent or a fidgety trigger finger. Guns, after all, are designed to go off, not to thwart the will of their owners. And the bullets they fire are crafted to wound or damage their target. So while guns, on one level, are inanimate objects that aren’t inherently violent, they have certain properties and tendencies that make eruptions of violence more likely.

In her book, The Dangers of Christian Practice: On Wayward Gifts, Characteristic Damage, and Sin, Duke Divinity School’s Lauren Winner makes a similar point regarding treasured Christian practices like baptism, prayer, and the Eucharist. Like guns, there is nothing inherently wrong or “sinful” about them—in fact, they are designed to work against the sinful and broken patterns of the world. But as Winner argues, these practices can malfunction in characteristic and predictable ways, leaving trails of oppression and destruction in their wake.

Damaged Gifts

Winner uses historical examples to support her claim: In the Middle Ages, she notes, a high view of the Eucharist gave added potency to accusations of desecration by Jews, prompting waves of anti-Semitic violence. In the 19th century, slave owners corrupted the practice of intercessory prayer by praying for slavery to be preserved and for their own slaves to remain obedient. And at the turn of the 20th century, domestic christening parties in England took something inherently communal—baptism—and turned it into a privatized (and exclusionary) affair. In each case, Winner highlights in detail how the specific practices contributed to groups of people being mistreated. They went “wayward,” as she puts it. The good gifts that God has given, it turns out, carry the seeds of sin and brokenness.

How, Winner asks, is it even possible that Christian practices can be used to hurt others? Her answer is that they are “characteristically damaged.” In other words, they can go wayward because they are “deformed” by nature. They have a “propensity” to go off and wound others. She writes, “Things become deformed by sin in ways that are proper to the thing being deformed, and when those deformations have consequences, you cannot separate the consequences from the deformed thing itself, because it belongs to the thing potentially to have those very consequences.” On this understanding, the practices themselves are as much the problem as the sinful practitioners. They are, as Winner puts it, “damaged gifts.”

Winner offers a healthy reminder that Christian practices can be abused and misused. In my own writings, I have argued a similar point regarding spiritual disciplines. We can hijack and manipulate any Christian practice or belief to serve our own selfish ends. In our pursuit of getting in touch with God or doing what he’s asked, we end up doing the very thing that he calls us not to do: oppress, hate, or violate our neighbor.

And yet, I’m not entirely persuaded that baptism, prayer, and the Eucharist are destined, by their very nature, to yield the abuses that Winner attributes to them. If, in fact, these practices are fundamentally deformed, then what stops them going wayward every time they are observed? That Christians sometimes abuse Christian practices—taking what God intended for good and perverting it to sow hatred and violence—is beyond dispute. But we shouldn’t overreact to this tendency by making the exception the norm or treating possible abuses as probable abuses.

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Source: Christianity Today