A Feature Review of
Rowan Williams and Greg Garrett
Reviewed by Cameron Merrill
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Going back as far as Cicero and his short piece de Amicitia, there is a wonderful tradition of using a dialogue between two friends as a means to connect and expand new ways of thinking, and to capture essential truths that cannot be gotten at in other ways. Anselm explores why God became human in dialogue with Boso. Aelred explores the nature of holy friendship through a conversation with Ivo. This tradition practices what Mikhail Bakhtin would later come to express succinctly: that life is not monological, in which only a single voice could be heard. Instead, social life is an open dialogue, a simultaneous fusion and differentiation of voices.
In this second book in the ongoing In Conversation series, Magdalene College master Rowan Williams and author Greg Garrett join this tradition as they explore shared interests in theology, literature, and contemporary culture. Over the course of seven conversations recorded in transcript-style fashion, Williams and Garrett delve into their shared commitments to the power of words, the intersections of faith and art, and explore how their various interests in writing and literature are not accidental to the work of the church but deeply essential to articulating the complexities of Christianity and the character of God.
In the wonderful way that conversations between friends can unfold, there is both a shape to their discussion and a spontaneity. Williams and Garrett begin by narrating the start to their friendship, which Garrett initiated by sending Williams the galley copy of Crossing Myself, his memoir recounting his experiences with depression and finding healing in the faith and tradition of The Episcopal Church. They began talking via letters, until Garrett had the occasion to be in Canterbury to work on another book and they were able to find time for tea.
A central, connective theme throughout these conversations is the ways that friendship itself is a necessary, sustaining, even generative gift, and Williams tells Garrett early on that their friendship in those days while Williams was archbishop was exceedingly important, helping him be “reminded what the world needed to know, then frankly the rest would just be insanity” (8). Williams remembers how having people like Garrett, people who worked with an at best oblique relationship to Williams’s ecclesial role, helped keep him grounded and strengthened for the struggles the church faced under his leadership. Their friendship quickly became about their shared work of writing and the ways that art, culture, and faith intersect and expand each other in that work—as Williams says, a much needed support and even distraction from the inanity he faced in his “day job.”
Spontaneity, and therefore the space for creative expansion in their thinking, appears in those wonderful ways that can only happen in a realistic conversation. One of them might say something in response to the dialogue, and then some time later the other will say, “You mentioned this, and I want to go back to what you said.” And out of that retracing, a whole new line of thought will develop, with new insights into one another’s perspectives and understanding of the subject at hand.
Their fourth conversation originates in this way. Garrett recounts,
Rowan, you were saying the other day that poetry is not simply a thing you do in your spare hours. And when we talked about the practice of writing for both of us, we talked about it as an essential part of who we are and what we do. I wanted to ask you about poetry. (57)
This recapitulation brings them into a dialogue about the ways that reading and writing poetry have given Williams a means for exploring the world he is in, the world of his faith, and the intersections that happen between them. Garrett also explores these connections with his own writing, noting how even the forms of writing can dictate a certain importance to the diction as he sees commonality in writing poetry and writing short stories.
Out of this expansion of a comment made some time before this actual conversation takes place, Williams articulates perhaps the idea at their conversation’s core: that we spend a great deal of time talking about creativity and self-expression, all the while missing out on the fact that language’s purpose is to remind us that we are not alone. Here, these two authors, out of their meandering discussions of language, word choice, poetic form, and the novel, argue that language’s use is how we grasp that we are not alone—and this truth can perhaps only be seen most fully and most effectively in the use of words to talk with a good friend.
Another key and interrelated element of this book is the way that their conversation expands each person’s thinking, through the interplay and exchange of ideas that build upon and sometimes challenge the others. Again, this dynamic might seem obvious given the ubiquity of conversation in our daily lives, but it is quite something to see it in action, albeit on a page, in a way that can be tracked.
In their penultimate conversation, they turn toward what faithfulness looks like for the Christian in political life. Williams and Garrett move back and forth as they think together about what it looks like for Christians to honestly explore the ethic they apply to their political lives. In a project he took on for Patheos.com, commenting on current events and politics, Garrett found that he actively tried to inspect the consistency of his political convictions alongside his Episcopal Christian commitments. He notes that he would find real tension there, particularly in thinking about the inconsistencies in his beliefs on abortion, capital punishment, and gun control.
Alongside him, Williams explains his own perspectives as a British citizen and church leader, arguing that the nature of the New Testament makes it difficult to have a universalizing ethic, but that we can and should work harder within the church to be clearer about the ultimates and uncompromisingly honest about our failures en route in a way that will always reject political messianism. When Garrett presses Williams for a way to read Scripture, noting that so much disagreement within the church hinges on that, in a way that might allow us to come to some agreement about what Scripture really does say, Williams says that at the heart is what Scripture says to us about being human, made in the image of God, before God. And therefore any ethical decision, individually or corporately, should enhance that fundamental place of human beings (97). Williams argues against absolutes, instead advocating for some contextualization and even greater honesty in our ethical maneuvering as Christians, in a way that expands Garrett’s imagination for faithful response to the current American political context.
If there is anything to fairly criticize about their conversation and conclusions reached throughout, it might only be that they are so similar in conviction that they rarely challenge one another in a striking or direct way. Realistically, one might come to expect this issue between close friends, but it might have strengthened the constructive edges of their dialogue to see them work out together a way to disagree, even deeply, on a topic.
What finally makes this small book so surprisingly beautiful is ultimately the glimpse we get into a real, honest-to-God friendship. The content of their conversations are important and rich, but it is their friendship, especially as it unfolds, expands, and deepens right in front of us, that inspires joy and maybe even a tinge of envy. Their ease and comfortability, the familiarity with one another’s lives that is so effortlessly scattered into the conversation all point to the rich depth of their friendship, and that this friendship is not secondary to anything they have to say on the topics at hand. Friendship is the beginning, middle, and end of it all.
Cameron Merrill is an elder in The United Methodist Church, serving a congregation in historic Hillsborough, NC. Along with his work in the local church, he is a doctoral student in systematic theology with the University of Aberdeen and the assistant editor for Will Willimon’s Pulpit Resource.