Will Willimon’s Accidental Preacher: A Memoir

41-B3hy3b8LMan, I just don’t know. Back in the day I considered Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon’s book Resident Aliens to be truly revolutionary. It had a counter-cultural ecclesiology that eschewed both Constantinianism and liberal enculturation. I have read more of Hauerwas than Willimon since then, but, based on this autobiography, Willimon has become as frustrating as Hauerwas has become in some regards.

Don’t get me wrong. The book is engaging and often laugh-out-loud funny. It is also often very insightful. Willimon’s take on the modern ministerial emphasis on self-care, for instance, was intriguing and most-welcome as was his righteous exasperation with, say, Robert Schuller. His recounting of his conversation with Schuller, by the way, was utterly fascinating.

A good friend recommended this book and, truly, I am glad he did. He thought that Willimon’s many references to South Carolina would interest me. They certainly did! Willimon grew up in the upstate whereas I grew up in the mid-state of South Carolina. We are of different generations, to be sure, but I truly did find his frequent allusions to South Carolina—the state, her history, her characteristics, and her foibles—familiar.

And I’ll say this: Willimon really is quite humorous and is a wit. There were some great turns of phrase and memorable lines, many of which are highlighted in my Kindle version of the book and will soon be catalogued in my database of quotes and quips and illustrations.

Also, I appreciated how Willimon was able to see the virtues of those with whom he would not normally be associated. Specifically, I thought that his handling of Billy Graham and his speaking at Duke Chapel was gracious and even appreciative.

So what’s my problem? My problem is that Willimon sometimes seems a bit too cute for his own good. Some of the provocating seemed a bit forced. Also, he takes some well-deserved swipes at ministerial ego while, sometimes quick on the heels of these swipes, demonstrating quite a robust ego himself. To be fair, he seems more than aware of his own struggles in this area and admits as much. And, to be even fairer, I myself struggle with this without the added benefit of having Willimon’s mind and accomplishments! Ha! So I should perhaps be careful. Even so, there are, at points, underlying currents of self-focus that were a bit jarring to me, perhaps because I understand these. So maybe these were cautionary for me as well.

But I suppose my main problem is the way in which Willimon (and Hauerwas) are so willing to betray their own brilliance and willingness to go against the liberal status quo when it comes to questions like homosexuality and gay marriage. Like Hauerwas, Willimon offers no attempt at a substantive biblical rationale for, say, allowing gay weddings at Duke Chapel or his disregard for conservative Methodism’s desire to remain orthodox on these questions and issues. His comments on these important issues (again, like Hauerwas’) seem so trite to me, so ill-formed, so very capitulatory.

Want an example? Here you go:

Same-sex marriage? Being in the fidelity-promoting, promise-keeping, forgiveness-receiving business, the church, you’d think, would be eager to find one more occasion to make people make promises, welcoming anyone who dared to put his or her life at the mercy of the future with another human being. Go figure. (Kindle Locations 2393-2396).

Yeah, go figure, Will. Surely those who agree with Willimon’s position here must admit that this kind of reasoning—with its utter lack of engagement with scripture, its avoidance of the fundamental issues involved with the question, and it’s quaint, shrug-of-the-shoulders dismissiveness of those who hold to the church’s view on this question (i.e., to what genders constitute a marriage biblically defined) as held for the greater majority of two millennia—is not the way forward. I anticipate the objection, “It’s a memoir, not an academic paper.” Yeah, I know, but this kind of thing is what I hear increasingly from guys like Willimon and Hauerwas who are hailed as fearless thinkers. It is because I appreciate their earlier work so much that I find this so very frustrating. Here’s another example:

Methodist political junkies predicted there was no way in God’s name the six hundred members of the 2004 Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference would elect me as bishop. No campus minister had been elected bishop.

I had been absent from my home conference, South Carolina, for twenty years.

I had allowed Duke Chapel to be used for same-sex unions.

I had never led a prestigious Methodist church.

My negative paper trail was miles long.

Some were still sore about my Christian Century article “My Dog the Methodist,” a spoof of UMC evangelism fiascoes.

I had ridiculed the alleged evangelicals of the Confessing Movement as having nothing to confess but “I believe in straight sex.”

Few bishops forgave me for calling the Council of Bishops “the bland leading the bland.” (Kindle Locations 2779-2788)

Will Willimon sounds in this memoir like somebody who is titillated with his own naughtiness, with his own acerbic wit. Same-sex unions at Duke Chapel?The Methodist Confessing Movement has nothing to confess but “I believe in straight sex”? Oh Will! You’re such a rascal.

[Sigh. Pause.]

I think, if I try to get behind my own irritation, that I regret that I cannot take Willimon seriously. His mocking reference to the Confessing Movement has helped me understand why, and the reason why is this: Tom Oden. Tom Oden, the Methodist theologian who broke with the theological and leftist faddishness of his youth and rediscovered the classical orthodox consensus of Christianity via the church fathers, has had a major impact on me. And to hear issues that Oden considered very serious shrugged off with such patently absurd tripe really disappoints me. And it disappoints me because this is coming from the author of Resident Aliens, a book that is so very very brilliant and biblical and insightful.

I am a Baptist, but were I a Methodist, I must say I would be an Oden Methodist and not a Willimon Methodist on these issues. (And, yes, I know that Oden listed Willimon appreciatively in Requiem. There is much to be appreciative about when it comes to Willimon. But note too how, in Willimon’s 1995 review of Oden’s Requiem, his major beef is that Oden is making too much of homosexuality as a problem.)

I grieve to see Willimon and Hauerwas fold with accommodationist compromise on issues of biblical sexual ethics. And to see them do so with such seeming ease and disregard for the real issues at stake saddens me.

95% of this book was fantastic. 5% of it saddened me. 95% is pretty good, right? However, that 5% is pretty important stuff.

Apparently even the rebels we love can be domesticated by the dominant culture. It is lamentable.

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