The Taser's Edge

Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir by Stanley Hauerwas

This book so makes me want to be a theologian.  It so makes me want to trust God, because at its heart, it is a book about how God faithfully forms us into saints and witnesses to the person and work of Christ.  Really admirable.

I came to Duke Divinity in 2006 having not read a word of Hauerwas, having barely heard his name.  While at Duke, I took a class with him, read one of his books and a handful of articles.  Other faculty also made clear their opinions on his work.  But reading Hannah’s Child reminded me once again how much Hauerwas has shaped Duke Divinity and every student who goes through it.

It’s certainly interesting to think of myself as part of his legacy even though I am by no means a disciple.  On his most famous stance for instance, Christian pacifism, I can only say I ‘lean toward’ pacifism and don’t feel capable of making a ‘decision.’  Furthermore, I don’t think it any accident that Hauerwas came of age as a theologian and came to embrace pacifism during the Vietnam War while Reinhold Niebuhr came of age as a theologian and came to reject pacifism during World War II.  Those are wholly different circumstances in which to understand what Christianity means for those who live in this world.

On another core piece of his work, a return to the virtue tradition, I love many of his ideas and find myself often repeating his emphases and language as I describe my own conception of how Christians become Christian, but I find that he lacks an overt pneumatology which I believe any account of the Christian life needs.

When I have been inside Hauerwas’ work for any length of time (2 books and 1 course), I have always had a vague sense that I can’t quite get on board wholeheartedly.  In the case of Hauerwas’ book with Charles Pinches on the virtues and Hauerwas’ class on the virtues, I came to the conclusion already mentioned: he leaves out the needed piece of a description of the work of the Holy Spirit.

In the case of Hannah’s Child, the part that leaves me unsettled is that I am a naturally introspective person reading a memoir by a man who at least claims to eschew introspection, and who provides an account of his life in which he says he is too busy for introspection even while doing it.  Furthermore, although the book is subtitled, A Theologian’s Memoir, it would just as aptly be named A Theological Memoir.  Duke graduates, whether they love or hate Hauerwas’ work, are ‘supposed to’ reflect on the world around them through a theological lens, and this is exactly what Hauerwas does here.  I personally wonder, however, whether one of the largest self-deceptions possible in self-reflection is exactly that assigning of theological meaning to our life experiences.  (Conversely, theological reflection can also be one of the best practices in our lives.)

My current mental review of the book compares it to Augustine’s Confessions.  Both it and Hannah’s Child could bear the subtitle, A Theological Memoir.  Both speak of the work of God as at times despite us and at times entirely indistinguishable from our own work in the world.  Both invite me to loosen my grip on trying to control the long-term or the day-to-day of my life, even toward the admirable goal of seeking God.

I would highly recommend this book, but with the caveat that if you know some contemporary theology you will get much more out of it (something which could also be said of knowing some theology when approaching Augustine’s own ‘theologian’s memoir’).


Update: Theophiliacs tells me this–“originally Hauerwas had wanted the subtitle to be ‘A Theological Memoir’ rather than ‘A Theologians Memoir’ but Eerdmans didn’t think it would sell well.”

Being Read by Ed Stetzer (Part I of a Series)

When I first ordered Ed Stetzer’s Planting Missional Churches from Amazon, I knew that I was going to need to work at keeping an open mind.  It’s not that Duke faculty have an anti-evangelical message (and here I am referring to the specifically United States religious and cultural phenomenon of evangelicalism with all the trappings that it connotes, not anything to do with the Gospel), but I think the student atmosphere breeds suspicion of all things evangelical and seemingly evangelical.

Fictitious hall chatter: “Lots of Christians bought that book?  Then you know it must be bad.  A bunch of people go to that church?  You know its pastor must be saying what they want to hear.  A bunch of Christians listen to that music?  Then they must have no taste, or else their theology is underdeveloped.”

(N.B.: I fear that this post makes it seem that I believe all Duke students are hateful, arrogant, and hypocritical.  They certainly aren’t.  They are kind, loving, passionate, talented, smart, and they care about living out Christ’s love in the world.  But sometimes our assumptions and our desires to be accepted, personally and intellectually, trip us up.  At least they trip me up.)

Then there are these facts: (1) I personally chose to distance myself from reading Christian books before I came to seminary because I didn’t like them, and (2) since entering seminary the Christian books which I have read have been in a decidedly academic vein.

I knew that I needed to prepare myself for reading this book, that I needed to cultivate open-mindedness and charity toward this book…and I failed miserably.  The first several chapters are littered (yes, just like trash beside the highway) with stupid, snarky (yes, I hate that word, too, but it’s accurate) comments in the margin.  Oh, Nick!, they say to myself, you’re so clever and you can pinpoint all the wrongs of this book.  Thank you for saving its words.  While you’re at it, would you mind saving the world?

This afternoon I went to Hog Heaven, a local BBQ place–the one on Guess Rd. if you know Durham–with some friends.  Everyone in the group has some connection to Duke–undergrad, Divinity School, a couple Ph.D. candidates in the Religion Department.  And we often seem to talk about evangelical (and here remember my specific definition is still in play) culture.  One of the guys is an American Christianity Ph.D. candidate, so that’s his research interest.  It’s also all of our personal interest from our personal lived experience, past and present.

The quote of the week was something to this effect: “Evangelicalism is defined by its aversion to nuance.”  I think that’s a modified version of somebody else’s quote, but I can’t remember whose.  Pretty dang pretentious out of context, at least.  Or perhaps just damned pretentious, in the original sense of the italicized word.  Not that it was really meant in any harsh way, because most of us around the table would self-identify as evangelicals.  Also, as I pointed out and as they agreed, evangelicalism is a popular movement, and all popular movements (along with everything else in this world including this statement) have an aversion to nuance.

I get caught up in the way things could and should be in the Church and in theology, the way things work so nicely on the page.  And it’s not that easy of a mindset to escape.  But sometimes there’s outside help.  You get smacked in the face by the fact that in Oneness Pentecostal churches (which hold heterodox views of the Trinity), people do have their lives transformed by the love of Jesus Christ.  And you get smacked in the face by the fact that Ed Stetzer, who is Southern Baptist (a denomination in which Duke students only hesitatingly admit their membership, and which Stetzer’s own dustjacket blurb seems purposely to omit) knows what he is talking about when it comes to planting new churches.  What can I say when disciples of Jesus Christ are being formed?  Yes, certainly there is room for critique of methods and of theology, as you will see in the next post.

But if it is in any way Christian critique, then it must be with love and, perhaps even moreso in this particular case, with humility.

Tasty, Tasty Stanley-flavored Kool-Aid

When I filled out the application for Duke Divinity and got to the question asking if there was an particular faculty member I was looking forward to studying with, like every other potential student, I wrote in “Stanley Hauerwas.”  Sure, there are some Richard Hays fans out there, some J. Kameron Carter fans, and a handful of others (speaking personally now as a devoted fan of Tammy Williams and J. Warren Smith), but Hauerwas is Duke in a lot of ways for a lot of people.  Of course, when I wrote his name in, I had only recently heard of him and had not read a word of his, other than some obnoxious, albeit true, comment (I characterize it as such because my initial read of him is that he likes to be provocative and, yes, obnoxious, not because I don’t respect him) he made to Time when they named him America’s Best Theologian in 2001: “Best is not a theological category.”

At Duke, it is impossible to escape from his ideas.  They are in the water (or Kool-Aid, I suppose, depending on your perspective).  And the rough-hewn and not quite accurate version is that the Enlightenment caused everything wrong with the church and the world.

Unlike many Duke students, I was not one who had to have Hauerwas before leaving.  But then his class (Happiness, Virtue and the Life of Friendship) looked great and fit into my schedule well, so I signed up.  Two-hundred sixty one pages to read for the first class period, but it’s not so bad now.

All this to say that postliberalism is a thing that Duke does and perhaps is, but what is it?  Postliberalism is an amorphous term which seems to mean whatever people need it to mean in the moment, sometimes used almost as a synonym for postmodernism, but very definitely a reaction and critique to Christian (and particularly Protestant) theological liberalism.  And I say liberalism in a technical sense, referring to the Enlightenment version of Christianity whose archetypal figure is (inasmuch as such things can be said to start with one man) Friedrich Schleiermacher.

Returning to the rough-hewn and inaccurate version of these ideas that seems to flow out of Duke’s air ducts, Germany (where Schleiermacher is from) seems to be the sources of all the problems of the modern age, both in 19th century German biblical scholars’ total reduction of Biblical criticism to a “science” (historical-critical methods) and a reduction of Christianity to something reasonable (thank you, Immanuel Kant).  Please note that I truly mean “rough-hewn and inaccurate” before getting upset about this history, and realize that it is a caricature (although only slightly, to be honest).

I still have some questions about this whole thing, but I feel like I’m getting a better grasp of what “this whole thing” actually is this semester, and in more helpful ways than before.  Namely, I’m taking a class with Hauerwas, reading some of his stuff, reading Alasdair MacIntyre, reading Samuel Wells, reading John Howard Yoder (several important folks).

This post started as something else and became this because I realized I couldn’t write the post I wanted without some basic introduction.  That explanation will hopefully make sense when the next post is finished.