The purpose of this book is to give local congregations a series of questions to think about as they evaluate the quality of their worship and practice. The author himself has difficulty defining the genre; his reflections touch on catechesis, pastoral ministry, liturgy, ethics, modern culture and communications. "Possibly the genre of this book is 'reflection on theology as actionable or practical.' It is an exercise in practical theology and an attempt to highlight its importance today. It is written in response to a catechetical issue: the life of the local church as the great communicator of the gospel. My 'nervous' hope is that it will be helpful" (6). The author recommends "a participatory liberationist catechesis" in order to elicit "full participation in a community of judgment" and "a systemic loosening of tongues" (97). To this end, the first five chapters of the book conclude with questions for discussion and reflection. Warren, a pastoral theologian who teaches in a Roman Catholic university, intends the book to be interdenominational, "speaking across denominational lines about the problems all denominations currently face" (3). He wishes to "describe rather than prescribe, propose rather than impose" strategies that may help the local assembly.
Three chapters of the book pose questions about the practices of the local church (chapters 1, 3, and 5); the second chapter focuses on the "image culture" in which we live and the fourth chapter deals with the patterns of speech in our churches (5). Warren repeatedly asks, "Does our say square with our way?" (55). If the behavior of the congregation is not consistent with the commitments made in worship, then "the Eucharist could be a ritual lie" (9). Our imaginations are saturated by the iconography of consumerism, "a religion promising salvation through the wisdom of the right purchase and with goods as its sacramental signs" (18). Because the narcissism of consumer culture is so deeply entrenched, "What we live we dare not name, and what we name we dare not live" (22). Because the dominant consumer culture presents itself and is regarded as normal life, "The author claims pastoral workers are ... marginally aware of the images people see in their everyday lives" (part of a review question on p. 49). He aims to "increase awareness of the dilemmas of religious people 'in the time of the sign'" (27) so that they can see the problem and its religious implications (43).
In proposing that local communities conduct an examination of conscience, Warren demands that the focus be kept on practice: "I for one have had my fill of theology that overlooks the existence and power of the social" (105). For him, the community which wishes to worship with a clear conscience must be conscious of "the existence and power of the social" (110), must scrutinize "the material conditions of living" (118), and make "lived-out commitments to the poor and victims" (23). He adopts two standards to use in reforming the church: "the practice of the New Testament communities and the need for deeper structures of participation in contemporary life. In taking this tack, I am choosing to leap over many centuries when forms of imposed silence seemed not to obstruct a living faith" (84). The new liturgy of the reformed church would be based on an assembly aware of "the political implications of speech as an exercise of power" and ready to engage in the "back-and-forth of discourse about the use of power" (86); such a community might use participation in small groups as the foundation for proclamation of the word instead of the traditional homily (88). "Until this practice of nondiscourse is disrupted, no change is possible" (117).
This book will probably find its most appreciative audience among feminists, liberation theologians, base communities, and non-denominational congregations. For myself, I consider my commitment to the Roman Catholic tradition to set a number of boundaries on the directions that my local communities may take. I participate in many local assemblies of the Catholic church: my Jesuit community, academic life in a Catholic college, pastoral work in a local parish, prayer with charismatic and pro-life groups, and occasional contact with the Madonna House apostolate and the Catholic Worker movement, among others. From my earliest days in the charismatic renewal, beginning in the spring of 1971, I have witnessed both the beauty and the chaos of unstructured enthusiasm. I am not inclined to follow Warren in suggesting that our worship services should be organized into political assemblies based on small groups. The heroes of Christian practice whom I hold in highest esteem--people like Ignatius, Xavier, Mother Teresa, Jean Vanier, Dorothy Day, Catherine Doherty--did not wait for inspiration to emerge from small groups, but forged new ways of living the Christian life by letting the love of Christ impel them.
As I read the book, I also found myself resolutely set against the codependent interpretation of Vatican II's mandate that "pastors of souls ... [must] ensure that the faithful take part knowingly, actively, and fruitfully" (12). Ad impossibile nemo tenetur. One of the great lessons of one of the greatest non-denominational movements of our time is that we are powerless over other people and that our own lives are unmanageable. This is the principle of the first of the Twelve Steps. Pastors of souls may instruct, admonish, and invite the faithful to fulfill their obligations in worship, but they may not command or control the response of God's children, who have the solemn obligation and complete freedom to choose for themselves how they will surrender to God's Holy Spirit living within them. This means that no community may suppose itself to have become sinless and that, therefore, to the surprise and dismay of the perfectionists among us, Jesus will still be found to sup with sinners.