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A Review of
Whole: A Call to Unity in Our Fragmented World
Paperback:Chalice Press, 2014.
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Review by David Lemley.
Sharon Watkins’ Whole is, on one hand, a stirring vision for the life, worship and witness of the local church at the intersection of historic Christian faith and contemporary cultural contexts. On the other, this is a charge delivered by the head of an American-born denomination in decline, developed from a sermon at the National Cathedral and an exposition of recent ecclesial vision statements. The book offers a glimpse into how a radical nineteenth century vision echoes in a twenty-first century context.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is often identified by its primary visual symbol, the chalice, standing for communion with God around an open table. It is (with self-aware irony) a denomination surviving since the early 1800s, founded on the principle of ending denominational distinctions for the sake of Christian unity. The American Restoration Movement forged various denominational streams along a spectrum of purity and unity, with the Disciples holding fast to the latter. Like many American mainline denominations, to whom contemporary Disciples bear liturgical and demographic resemblance, they perhaps experience decline not so much as a result of sectarianism, but appearing missionally indistinct from other progressive political and social impulses.
In an increasingly post-denominational context, what use does an open table have for an ecclesially-designated presider, much less a burgeoning institutional structure? Watkins, the current General Minister and President of the Disciples, suggests it is time to release the denomination from a familiar (but not historically normative) institutional form, and reframe this “fleet” of affiliated congregations as a movement, much like the impulse of its founders. In this form, the movement is defined around a shared idea of community and missional orientation, rather than a shared commitment to denominational governance. This identity could be adopted by a Christian community of faith with any, or no, institutional orientation.
The themes of the book focus on the kind of life flowing around and from the Disciples’ central encounter at God’s open table. Chapter 1, “Table,” uses this central act of worship as symbol of God’s intention to gather all people in God’s love. “Welcome” (Chapter 2) depicts the community that forms at this table putting God’s love into action, expanding the table into their relationships and neighborhoods. “Wholeness” (Chapter 3) describes this table expansion as an expression of the reign of God. This chapter also offers a shift from the Disciples’ traditional emphasis on “unity,” which could imply certain ecclesial boundaries, to a focus on “wholeness,” establishing a global and ecumenical vision of God’s shalom. “Movement” (Chapter 4) describes the church as a training place for participating in God’s loving action in a variety of contemporary contexts. Watkins encourages a discerning process of what needs to be preserved from a particular Christian heritage, and calls for individual investment in God’s mission in any place.
“Disciples of Christ” (Chapter 5), referencing, but not exclusively referring to, Watkins’ denomination, provides a description of communities of disciples as signs of God’s reign, following Jesus’ life, ministry, and resurrection. Here, Watkins brings together the book’s themes:
The church as part of a twenty-first-century movement for wholeness has the commission to be both evidence and training ground for God’s shalom. Providing a witness to God’s in-breaking reign is the church’s quintessential mission. (82)
The final chapter is the first to call her particular flock, “Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).” Given this holistic vision of what a local and global church could be in the twenty first century, what of the capital-d-Disciples? Watkins guides the fold inside three covenant characteristics: the church as a voluntary society (a “want to” people); the value of each and all the church’s members (unity in diversity); and the embrace of “habits of wholeness,” the investment of each member in Christian maturity, for the church’s mission beyond its walls.
Whole is nearly a primer in missional ecclesiology, while also a plea for institutional vitality. There is something stirring and encouraging in Watkins’ vision for the local church. She manages to let the witness of individual communities stand for any constructive apologetic for her particular tradition, which allows for broad application.
Given my history with the purity-oriented stream of the American Restorationist movement, I often consider how our founders’ best impulses reflect many current post-denominational strategies. Come out from the denominations, they said, and see what is possible if we rely not on human creeds and structures, but on Word, and Spirit, and the fellowship of shared, simple practices. It is a beautiful vision that made for a complex inheritance.
Watkins offers, I think, a non-defensive witness to what those impulses might mean for an institution now enduring the kinds of critiques its own founders levied against a flailing Christendom on a frontier of diverse and individualistic faiths. And, in attempting to initiate movement rather than secure boundaries, she offers something familiar to me as the voice of our better angels. It is a view of my complicated denominational community as a (table) centered set, rather than bounded set. Still, I wonder if this voice is for any church, or simply a good one for those already in the pen. There are some stronger starting points for those without our baggage.
Our siblings in the heritage don’t always come back, and, rather than seek to keep the fragile family at home, maybe a recommitment to adding a leaf in the table for the neighbors is a great way to redefine the measure of success for this household. At some point, we may have to ask whether it is worth the cost of mission to keep up the house: at worst, when our family’s new needs are not served by the vast, odd structure’s functions; or, at best, our family’s new mission will outgrow the odd structure’s limited dining room space.
It’s a helpful read for those of us still in the house, and perhaps, an encouraging read for those wondering if anybody’s home.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior
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