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Changed by Grace: a review of Glenn Chesnut’s latest on V.C. Kitchen, the Oxford Group, and AA. (By James R.)
May 22, 2008, 5:05 pm
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The single most important issue in Twelve Step history is that of early AA’s relationship to Evangelical Christianity by way of the Oxford Group. The best book on this subject to date has been published by Hindsfoot Foundation: Changed By Grace: V.C. Kitchen, the Oxford Group, and A.A. Author Glenn F. Chesnut has done a marvelous job of placing early AA in the context of the Evangelical movement as it has developed over the last three centuries.

Those unfamiliar with the origins of Evangelical Christianity will probably be surprised to learn that the movement began with convictions much removed from those of today’s American Religious Right. In the 1700’s theologians John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards worked out a response to the Enlightenment’s attack on traditional faith that emphasized the value of personal spiritual experiences. This new theology produced a renewal of Protestant Christianity. Edwards’s preaching led to a seminal event in American history, the Great Awakening. Methodist missionaries, the circut-riding promoters of Wesley’s theology, were wildly successful on the American frontier.

Chesnut makes a point of contrasting the theology of Edwards and Wesley with Legalism, that too-often dominant strain of the Christian faith that insists upon strict adherence to the letter of the Law. Whereas Legalism leaves it up to believers to earn their salvation through personal effort, the theology of Edwards and Wesley emphasized that humans were saved only by God’s free gift of grace.

Chesnut traces the evolution of this movement into the twentieth century, where he finds the original spirit of the movement has been supplanted by a soulless Legalism. In this context, Frank Buchman’s Oxford Group revitalizes Evangelical practice with its focus on one-on-one personal work. Chesnut does a fine job describing the history of Evangelical Christianity and bringing to light the aspects of that tradition inherited by AA and the recovery movement at large.

But Changed by Grace is not only a book of history; it is a work of theology as well. Chesnut uses the history of Evangelism and the practices of the Oxford Group to evaluate Twelve Step spirituality. In Chesnut’s estimation, the Twelve Steps represent good solid Evangelical theology.

Of particular value is the book’s final chapter (available online) in which Chesnut discusses how one might go about finding a higher power of one’s own understanding while still remaining true to the Evangelical heart of AA.

As he describes the Oxford Group’s influence on early AA, Chesnut also takes time to discuss one item that may have been a source of contention between Bill Wilson and the Oxford Group in New York: the Four Absolutes. Chesnut sees the Absolutes as an example of Christian Legalism that AA did well to leave behind. His point is that any insistence upon absolutely honesty, unselfishness, love and purity soon becomes hopelessly legalistic. AA learned early on that perfection was an unrealistic and even harmful goal. Telling alcoholics that they needed to be absolutely pure, rather than simply putting first things first was not only misguided, but in many cases would cause alcoholics to give up on sobriety.

Chesnut spends two chapters making this argument, bringing in great thinkers in the history of Christian theology for support. Chesnut’s work here in tracing the history of grace-centered theology is especially valuable to Twelve Steppers searching for the deeper roots of their spiritual experiences. If there is any shortcoming to this extended discussion of the Four Absolutes and their theological status, it is that it is not balanced by an equally extended historical look at the different ways the Absolutes were used by the Oxford Group.

While the Absolutes often led to Legalism, they also provided a powerful tool for self-assessment. Groupers used the Absolutes to examine their lives and find the places where they were not honest, unselfish, loving and pure. The idea was not to judge others or pretend to be perfect, but to find items that required confession and afforded the Grouper an opportunity to ask God for aid in specific areas. Rather than a legalistic set of rules, the Four Absolutes acted as a set of guiding principles.

Chesnut cites an early AA pamphlet that utilized the Absolutes in a similar way, distilling their wisdom into Four Questions that could be used to check one’s motivations before making a decision. It is my own belief that this kind of non-legalistic use of the Absolutes was fairly wide spread in the Oxford Group. It was certainly used in New York by Sam Shoemaker and his group, who introduced Bill Wilson to Oxford Group practices. In fact, it may be that this way of using the Four Absolutes led to the development of Big Book resentment inventory, which asks alcoholics to find their own dishonesty, selfishness, self-seeking and fear in relation to each of their resentments.

Chesnut’s evaluation of the Four Absolutes is primarily an argument against Legalism. While this may not take into account all the details of the historical picture, it certainly holds well with his theological examination of the life-changing power of grace. Changed by Grace is a work of history and theology that aims to make one point clear: AA and the Twelve Steps are the descendants of a deep theological tradition, which rejects Legalism and emphasizes the healing power of grace.

There has been no other book to date that so effectively and thoroughly places Alcoholics Anonymous and the recovery movement at large within the tradition of Evangelical Christianity. For anyone working a spiritual program in any of the Twelve Step fellowships, this is an indispensable read.

Changed By Grace can be ordered directly from the publisher, or at powells, amazon, or barnes and nobel.

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