Norman Wirzba’s Way of Love (2016): A Book Review

Wirzba, Norman. Way of Love: Recovering the Heart of Christianity New York: HarperOne, 2016. (238 pages + notes & index)

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As the subtitle suggests, Duke University Professor Norman Wirzba seeks to remind his readers that love is the heart of Christianity. I do not say at the heart but is the heart because Christian community is rooted in love as revealed in Jesus Christ. And this incarnate love—this incarnate lover— ought to be the driving force behind Christian witness and practice. As the body of Christ, the Church, exists in a world mired in and, indeed, enamoured by sin, followers must regularly be called back to the way of love and Wirzba’s book is one of those calls.

Way of Love is first a letter to the churches. Like the letters of the Apostles that make up the bulk of the New Testament, this letter contains admonishment, encouragement, and a call to keep Christ and therefore love as the heart and goal of what we as followers say and do. In this sense, Wirzba is not telling us something new but telling us the “old, old, story” again in a new and refreshing way.

While it is first a letter to the churches, the subject of love and the way of love are of universal interest and so may appeal to anyone. For those who do not belong to a church or do not consider themselves Christian, The Way of Love may serve as introduction to the Christian concept of love and may help them to imagine what a truly loving community might look like.

Of course, Wirzba acknowledges that Christian communities often fall short of the ideal but he insists,

when functioning . . . Christian community is the merciful and indispensable classroom in which people face their confusion about love, repent of their unloving ways, and switch from strategies of self protection and self-enhancement to projects that seek the well-being of others. (22)

Still, he notes,

It is easy for churches to fail in this work, because the love of God calls people to practice and promote is sacrificial at its core. (22)

That churches fail in this work or become complacent in work of love is the reason why books such as Way of Love are always welcome. In accord with a rich Church tradition, Wirzba presents the role of the church as both a hospital for the wounded and a school of life and love for the would be follower of Christ. He calls us back to these life-giving roles.

Wirzba organizes this work according to what might be called the Divine Drama or the Story of God’s Good Creation. Way of Love is divided into four main parts: Creation, Fall, Redemption, & Hope. By following the divine drama, one takes a journey from Creation to New Creation and on the way one is confronted with the problems of evil and the problem of sin, both systemic and individual. Along the way, the reader visits Kentucky coalmining communities and Algerian monasteries. Yet, the trajectory is always geared toward the hope of heaven which Wirzba correctly describes in close relation to resurrection. That is, heaven is not a place that we go to escape the troubles of the world but is an invasion and transformation of the world. An invasion that is brought about through relationships defined by self-sacrificial living and co-creating with the Creator God.
Wirzba’s regular use of stories which are drawn from the Christian Scriptures, Church history, contemporary lives and his own personal journey do more than illustrate what he has said in his more didactic moments. For me, they engaged my imagination, helping me to see the world anew, and to see the possibilities for change. As in the story of Marguerite “Maggy” Barankitse, a woman who witnessed horrendous slaughter in Burundi, who says of her life in Burundi and of her organization Maison Shalom, “Love has made me an inventor.”(183)

I was particularly struck by the story of Justine. In the midst of Maggy’s story, a young woman, Justine, seeks out her neighbour, the man who burned down her home and killed her family, she wants to forgive him and then asks him to be her father. He accepts this responsibility. In this new relationship, this man is redeemed and remade. As Wirzba reports,

Shortly before his death, he said to Maggy, “Thank you, Maggy. Because now I am dying like a human person, not like a killer. Your forgiveness gave me back hope, love, life.” (189)

I am eager to follow up on some of the people like Maggy of Burundi, Brother Luc of Algeria and others whose stories Wirzba tells.

Wirzba does not have a new program or a new method for missions and evangelism. Rather he calls Christian communities to do what the Church has always been called to do. In this way, instead narrowing our focus to a single new strategy, Wirzba opens individuals up to see and explore possibilities for creative, radical, and redeeming work in the world in which we live. Wirzba reminds his reader that this world is none other than God’s good Creation.

The Creator God creates out of love. Love is the reason there is something rather than nothing, he insists. And love is learned in community, in the midst of relationships. For Christians, the heart of Christian worship is a meal, the Eucharist,  in which we remember Christ’s self-sacrificial love. “At the Eucharist,” Wirzba reminds us,

we see that the kitchen or dining table takes the place of the classroom desk where we do our exercises in the learning of love. (182)

I began this review by describing this book as a letter to the churches. I had in mind also John’s letters to the churches in Revelation. Like John letters, I believe this book has something of value to say to each of the churches and individuals. This book may move the complacent and comfort the wounded.

As a Sunday School teacher and Discipleship teacher in my own congregation, I could see this book being used as the basis of a study or even in vision planning for a in a church. I found it personally challenging. Yet, more significantly, I found my imagination racing with various life-giving possibilities. Yet, as a key theme in this books reminds us, ideas will not come to life without the involvement and support of a loving community.

In my opinion, if Christians were regularly reading books of this type, books that remind us of who we are called to be, books that open our eyes to the world around us, books that give us a Throne Room perspective, our imaginations would be nurtured in the life-giving love that Norman Wirzba reminds us is the heart of Christianity.

Wirzba, Norman. Way of Love: Recovering the Heart of Christianity New York: HarperOne, 2016. (238 pages + notes & index)

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