Reflections on Serene Jones’ Graced Practices: Excellence and Freedom in Christian Life

Jones, Serene. “Graced Practices: Excellence and Freedom in Christian Life.” in Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life. eds. Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 2002.

Serene Jones interprets Christian practice in terms of the Reformed understanding of justification and sanctification, identifying the latter with the aspiration to excellence through formational practices ad intra, and the former with the freedom to take risks in practices of witness and service ad extra. She draws on feminist analyses of identity performance and adornment as interpretations of practice, and the metaphors of imaginative space and drama for doctrine, to effectively show how doctrine and practice are interrelated.

I was struck by Jones’ use of identity performance in this paper, because I had previously turned to this familiar concept from feminist discourse to concisely convey the themes of agency, intention, creativity, and art in James Alison’s discussion of ecclesial practice in The Joy of Being Wrong.

Jones writes, “When one is sanctified, one performs and is performed by the script of divine love that comes to us in Jesus Christ, a script mediated to us ecclesially.” (60) The notion of performing and being performed by the script is a good description of the way in which we act to engage in practices, while the practices act in formation on us. The “central feature” of this “identity script” is “the claim that God’s love comes to us as a free gift.” (69) As a Reformed Protestant, Jones restates this as “you are justified;” as a Catholic, Alison more naturally states this as “you are loved” or even more simply, “God likes you.” Both authors emphasize the sense of relaxation that comes from this surety, and the corresponding freedom from the exhausting pursuit of perfection; both use the language of freedom for this sense. Alison uses the language of mimetic anthropology to state that we receive our identity from God, who is not over against anything at all; but the correspondence with the more traditional theological language is clear. Reflecting on practice from this perspective, Jones concludes that Christian practices “both matter very little and matter enormously.” (70) This sense of not mattering is resonant with Alison’s emphasis that Christians should “live as if death were not.”

Jones writes that our practices which emerge out of joy and thanksgiving, as a response to God’s love and a witness to the world, “matter enormously.” I believe this is consonant with the enormous significance with which Girard, Alison, and others invest the revelation of the innocent victim, and the way in which it is slowly undoing the violent scapegoat mechanism on which human culture has been built.

She further argues that the world “has a real evaluative claim” on the witnessing practices of the church. Because these practices are not intended to save the souls of our audience (because only God can do that, and nothing we or they can do can merit God’s love and salvation) but are rather expressions of “the celebratory witness that we [feel] compelled, in joy, to offer the world” (67), we should consider how effective that witness is in conveying that message of joy, freedom, and love. This is a bit like Dulles’ Herald model, but with a more attentive and engaged stance towards the world. According to Dulles’ Herald, the church comes into the world to announce the message it was given, but the world is free to take it or leave it; according to Jones, the world’s anticipated response affects how we do our witness, because we’re doing it for a purpose.

I’ll end this essay by reflecting on the anecdote with which Jones began her paper. She shares a story of her church’s Millennial Committee and its efforts to “design . . . a structure that would faithfully embody our vision of what a Christian community, in this context, should be and do.” (51) The committee gathered information, brainstormed ideas, and generated a lengthy list of specific projects. It was the sort of list that makes you exhausted just to look at it: and that’s just what the committee members began to experience. Naming this experience led to a period of what Bedford would describe as “discernment” during which the committee members re-oriented themselves to reflect on “what’s so good about the Good News.” This paper resulted from Jones’ theological analysis of the resulting discussions; the interpretation of practices as joyful witness empowered by justifying grace was accompanied by an emerging sense of enlivenment, vivification, and freedom. It’s a terrific story, and this is an excellent paper.

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