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Elizabeth Newman, Untamed Hospitality: Welcoming God and Other Strangers.

Elizabeth Newman, Untamed Hospitality: Welcoming God and Other Strangers, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Brazos Press, 2007, 240pp, $22.99

When I received this book and the invitation to review it, I was immediately struck by the title: Untamed Hospitality: Welcoming God and Other Strangers. As I have been dealing with the issue of religious and cultural plurality in my context in Asia, I thought that this book might have something for readers like me.

However, as author Elizabeth Newman states in the book's introduction, "This book seeks to recover hospitality as a vital practice for Christian living" (13). Following that, hospitality is almost always qualified as Christian hospitality and set in the context and perspective of the Christian community. Declaring that "hospitality names our participation in the life of God, a participation that might as well be as terrifying as it is consoling", Newman argues that "worship itself is our participation in divine hospitality" (13).

Newman divides her book into three parts. Part I is entitled A Strange Apprehension of the Grace of God; Part II is on Hospitality as a Vigilant Practice, and Part III is on Hospitality as a Unifying Practice.

In Part I, Newman calls hospitality a practice, i.e. a tradition sustained by many people over a long stretch of time. She says that for Christians, the practice of hospitality has an internal good--i.e. communion with the triune God (20). However, Newman claims that hospitality has been distorted--when it is sentimentalized, privatized, and marketed, when it is taken as synonymous with inclusivity, and because of homelessness.

She says sentimental hospitality lacks substance and tends to focus on appearances, appropriate manners, and superficial niceness. Privatized hospitality is relegated to the private sphere and is synonymous with private entertainment and religion of civility. Marketed hospitality is harnessed in very public ways by the hospitality industry and consumerist culture and, with the use of the word lifestyle, conveys the sheer satisfaction of personal desire.

Newman criticizes the tendency to interchange hospitality with inclusivity which for her is the same as pluralism. She claims that welcoming diversity is a variation of market hospitality, one that it is more seductive. Asserting that Jesus did not call his disciples to "be inclusive" but simply to "follow me", she says that Jesus' inclusivity was not without expectations--e.g. "Go and sin no more ..." She therefore states that to practice a hospitality of pluralism and diversity is to become a better consumer of the global market, rather than a more faithful participant in receiving and giving the love and grace of God (33).

Newman talks of homeless hospitality as resulting from the loss of home, hospice, or place of Christian hospitality, where we need to dwell in order to participate faithfully in God's hospitality. But she also speaks of the emptiness and fragmentedness of self. An empty self is unable to conceive of the fact that one has something to give/offer; such a self is also unable truly to receive.

In Part II, Newman describes Hospitality as a Vigilant Practice. She says that hospitality is vigilant practice to help us keep watch lest our lives degenerate into unfaithfulness. As discipleship is a lifelong journey, vigilance is needed to resist the atrophy that comes with disuse as well as to resist powers that would reconfigure us differently (71). She claims that vigilance is needed since we live in a culture that daily assaults us with ideologies and powers that fracture and distort our ability to practice the hospitality of God.

She asserts that when hospitality is rightly understood and practised, it challenges the way we have come to think about and live in the domains of our home (oikos--root of economics), our way of life (ethos--root of ethics), and our community (polis--which gives us polities). Thus, hospitality is a practice that is at once liturgical, economic, ethical and political.

Newman states that vigilant practice does not come naturally or automatically. Using military vigilance as an illustration, she says that vigilant practice of Christian hospitality requires discipline and intensive training in steadfastness in the faith and willingness to suffer (74).

Reiterating that hospitality is nothing other than our learning to receive through the Spirit and the Son the generous overflow of God's own bountiful gifts, she cites some scientific and economic forces that would diminish this place of Christian hospitality (74-75). These include the drift towards scientism, evolution, and religious pluralism. She criticizes the McDonaldization of hospitality which is viewed in terms of what is more efficient, calculable, predictable and controllable (89), things that, she says, Christian hospitality is not concerned about. She says that Christian hospitality is not concerned about efficiency and calculability and it also gives up predictability and control because it acknowledges that God comes among as in surprising and strange ways that we can never fully predict or domesticate (92).

Newman makes a sobering note that the faithful practice of Christian hospitality, of living in and through God's gracious abundance, does not shield Christians from suffering or persecution. Since Christian hospitality names a way of seeking to be Christ to another and to receive the other as Christ, it is not a hedge against pain and suffering (103).

Finally in Part III, Newman writes about hospitality as a necessary practice for the unity of the body of Christ. She returns to her conviction that worship is hospitality: when people gather to worship, they participate most fully in the triune hospitality of God (147). However she recognizes that right at the Lord's table the church is divided, a sign of the church's failure to participate as fully in the holy giving and receiving that constitute the life of God.

After expounding on hospitality as liturgical, countercultural and eucharistic, Newman describes two Christian communities that she sees to have embodied faithful hospitality through what she calls their strange ways of Christian hospitality. These are the L'Arche communities, where those with mental handicaps live in communion with those without such handicaps and the Church of the Saviour communities, which are focused on ministry in the inner city of Washington. She suggests that the success of these communities is not primarily about their founders but about God's desire to be visibly and tangibly present in the world: healing our brokenness, reconciling as to each other, and drawing us into God's own triune life (176).

For Newman, these communities manifest the strange ways of Christian hospitality, thereby testifying that God does strange things.

Gleaning from the witness of these communities, Newman emphasizes that hospitality that is faithfully practised challenges our assumptions about what it means to be normal or expected. One of the common assumptions is that hospitality is primarily about doing something and getting certain results--but these communities show the primacy of simply being with rather than doing for some of the most vulnerable members of society who then teach us of our own vulnerability. What is striking about these communities is their being ordinary--not taking the hero approach--and focusing on humble service (washing the feet). In addition, the Church of the Saviour communities also practise accountable hospitality.

Newman emphasizes that just as the gospel speaks of people being called to be faithful in the small things, hospitality is a practice of small gestures--a practice of the little way (175). She asserts that through small and often ordinary acts of faith, hope and love, God makes the church visible in the world.

While reading this book, I kept reminding myself that it was written by an American Christian professor from and for her context in the USA. I believe that Elizabeth Newman has achieved the purpose of writing this book: to recover hospitality as a vital practice for Christian living.

Her effort to critically connect, compare and contrast the practice of hospitality with economic, ethical, political and educational practices is quite laudable. In the early pages of the book she points out, Christian hospitality is not a private effort separate from politics and economics. It is rather a practice at once ecclesial and public, embodying a politics, economics and ethics at odds with dominant cultural assumptions (14).

Apart from this however, the book is openly focused on Christ-centred hospitality and how the Christian practice of that is rooted in the faithful worship of God--worship is itself hospitality (17). Coming from Asia with its many facets of plurality and where we recognize that worship and hospitality do come in various forms, I find the very challenging title of the book being contradicted by this overly Christian focus.

Although the Bible uses the household of God in a very limited way (e.g. the house church, the temple, and the church, etc.), many Asian Christians understand this to refer to the whole created universe. In this household of God, Christians are among the many members. Other believers from other faith communities and also non-believers are members of this very household of God.

I find the easy association of inclusivity with diversity and pluralism too simplistic. It would be helpful for readers of this book to familiarize themselves with what another Christian professor from the US (Diana L. Eck) has written in her book, Encountering God (1993), where she clearly explains and differentiates exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism.

In Asia where we Christians seek to work together with Asians of other faiths on many life and death issues that are affecting all of us, recognizing or appreciating our diversity is not the end-goal but just a step towards the bigger goal of claiming the fullness of life that God intended for everyone. Jesus may not have been recorded as saying, "be inclusive" but in order to really follow him and his way of life, Asian Christians have come to realize that we not only have to be inclusive but even more to be pluralistic. The hospitality that transcends not only denominational but also religious borders and barriers in order to welcome God in the Other really demands an untamed hospitality.

Hope Antone is a staff member of the Christian Conference of Asia.
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Author:Antone, Hope S.
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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