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Life in the Christian ColonyThis book will disturb you.

It will also enlighten you. 

Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon’s Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Abingdon Press, 1989) is one of the most engaging books I have read in recent years. Rarely do I come across a book that is so simultaneously upsetting and enjoyable. 

There were moments in my reading when I disagreed vehemently. Other times, I could not help but nod my head at the brilliant insights into the nature of Christian faith. 

Resident Aliens has the effect of an earthquake that shakes things up and then leaves you with a new landscape once the dust settles.

Christendom has fallen, say Hauerwas and Willimon, and the fall of Christendom is a good thing for true Christianity. In fact, the fall of Christendom has provided us with a unique opportunity to be the church by embodying a social alternative that “the world cannot on its own terms know” (18). Hauerwas and Willimon seek to dismantle the entire edifice of contemporary theology from the time of the Enlightenment. They believe that in large part, the church has been asking the wrong questions:

“The theological task is not merely the interpretative matter of translating Jesus into modern categories but rather to translate the world to him. The theologian’s job is not to make the gospel credible to the modern world, but to make the world credible to the gospel.” (24)

The authors take the reader through the Sermon on the Mount in order to transform our vision of the church’s role in the world. Over and over again, Resident Aliens insists that the church’s calling is not to make better the world as the world defines “betterment.”

“What we call ‘church’ is too often a gathering of strangers who see the church as yet another ‘helping institution’ to gratify further their individual desires” (138).

Instead, Christians should be offering the world an entirely different perspective on everything from politics to finances, from sexuality to religiosity, from service to power.

Much of Hauerwas and Willimon’s diagnosis of today’s church seems quike bleak. But the brutal honesty is refreshing, and their emphasis on the peculiarity of the church desperately needs to be heeded.

At times, the book’s vision of the Christian colony seems to overflow with fresh opportunities of discipleship. The bleakness of the current state of the church is coupled with a vibrant hope in the extension of the kingdom through small, unassuming disciples.

But often, the authors tend to put forth a rather Anabaptist, almost separatistic outlook. Their separatism is coupled with a strongly pacificistic orientation that may be troubling for some readers. The authors overstate their case at times, sometimes leading to false choices between “right living” versus “right thinking,” or “church authority” versus “biblical authority.”

But overall, Resident Aliens is one of the best books I’ve read this year. I highly recommend that you order it, ponder it, and discuss it with others. It is a thought-provoking book that has increased my passion for the local church and the extraordinary nature of living an “ordinary” Christian life.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2008 Kingdom People blog

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7 thoughts on “Book Review: Resident Aliens”

  1. Nick says:

    Hey Trevin,

    I’m not sure if you can answer these questions or not but: Is Willimon a Universalist (i.e. it seems so according to Who Will Be Saved?) and does Stanley reject the idea of Penal Substitution?

  2. Trevin Wax says:

    Not sure on either count.

    I’d be surprised if Willimon were a Universalist. He’s been a guest on the White Horse Inn several times.

    I haven’t read enough of Hauerwas to know about his view of the atonement. Neither subject is treated in Resident Aliens.

  3. Trevin Wax says:

    Sounds to me like he’s an overly optimistic inclusivist.

  4. byrnesyliam says:

    I think if you can find an account of Hauerwas’ atonement theory you’d be donig well! I also very much enjoyed this book as I read as an undergraduate. The somewhat anabaptist and pacifist perspective were some I had never come across in my more traditional evangelical background, and I found the book refreshing, as you rightly said, the book walks the fine line of honest criticism with genuine optimism for the church’s mission.

    I would be interested to hear about what you found upsetting as I read this book as a somewhat undiscerning undergrad and have only a potted memory of its contents.

  5. Richard W. Wilson says:

    I don’t know by close examination what Hauerwas and Willimon’s ecclesiastical commitments are, but I am not inclined to think that they are Anabaptist in root or branch. My impression is that they have imbibed enough John H. Yoder to sound Anabaptist perhaps, but aren’t as wholly committed to scripture as they are to their understanding of the ethical trajectory of the New Testament, which allows departure therefrom when it seems appropriate to them. So, how does that make them different from the rest of us? Probably not much. Trevin notes that “often, the authors tend to put forth a rather Anabaptist, almost separatistic outlook.” My question would be: What’s wrong with that? Doesn’t scripture say “come out from them, lest you partake of their corruption?” “Be in the world, not of the world”? How are we to be different if not separate? He goes on to say “their separatism is coupled with a strongly pacificistic orientation that may be troubling for some readers.” Indeed, even to Trevin, most likely. My impression is that they don’t root their pacifist (pacificistic?) leanings closely enough with identification in Christ and his mission to be fully Anabaptist; it is rather as though the ethics of non-violence could be abstracted from our embodiment of the Cross. That “the authors overstate their case at times, sometimes leading to false choices between “right living” versus “right thinking,” may be something the authors do, but is more likely what they view the beliefs and practice of contemporary evangelicalism and the tradtion of ‘the church” to have done. In light of the evidence of history regarding the beliefs and practices of the ‘church’ I’d say there is good reason to see an appropriate dichotomy between “church authority” and “biblical authority.” Your (and my) views may differ primarily due to prior commitment to the traditions of the church which are instead assumed to be authoritative.
    All the best to all in Christ,

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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