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

Over the years I’ve come to love reading Christian biographies and memoirs more and more.  When I saw that Stanley Hauerwas, a Methodist theologian and professor at Duke Divinity School, had published his memoir I knew that I would eventually have to get it.  Having just finished it, I wanted to share some thoughts about the work here.

Bottom line:  what we have here is a fascinating but ultimately frustrating and disappointing book.

I came to know Hauerwas (probably like many evangelicals) through his frankly amazing book, Resident Aliens.  I was assigned that book as a seminary student at Southwestern Seminary and I have never forgotten the impact it had/has on my life.  In it, Hauerwas and Will Willimon issue a clarion call for the church’s liberation from Constantinianism and conformity.  They call on the church to be a polis within thepolis and to offer a radical, counter-cultural community in the midst of the fallen world.

I soaked up their message like a sponge, believing it then, and now, to be a faithful articulation of New Testament ecclesiology.  This shot of Anbaptist ecclesiology mediated through a Methodist absolutely rocked my world and I feel that, in many ways, it helped me understand the New Testament concept of the church in ways I previously had not.  I am, and will remain, forever grateful for Hauerwas’ work here.

Since I was first introduced to Hauerwas, I’ve known him to be an eclectic, unique, and, at times, infuriating writer.  For instance, Hauerwas is a pacifist and I am not…but I don’t think I can ever think about war in quite the same way as I did before reading him.  Oddly enough, I even used Hauerwas’ work in my little book on church discipline, Walking Together (that I found helpful material in Hauerwas on this issue is yet another indication of his appreciation for Mennonite John Howard Yoder’s work and ecclesiology).

The additional works of his that I have digested have never failed to stimulate my mind and heart and I do try to read Hauerwas whenever given the chance.

This memoir has certainly explained Stanley Hauerwas.  A few themes occur again and again:  Hauerwas’ humble and hard-working roots, his sense of being an outsider, his growing awareness of God and Christian truth, and, above them all, his utterly disastrous relationship with his mentally-ill wife (now deceased), Anne.

I was particularly struck and inspired by Hauerwas’ work ethic:

“I am often asked how I get done all I get  done. The answer is simple – I work. I get up at five every morning  and I work till six every evening. I do not waste time. If I have fifteen  minutes, I can read this or that. It is the same principle as never going  to the keg without carrying back some block [a reference to the bricklaying of Hauerwas’ youth]. To be so determined can  be oppressive for others, as well as for me, at times. Thanks to Paula I  have learned to rest – a little. But I work because I love the work I have  been given to do.”

Hauerwas is a natural born storyteller, and he does not disappoint in painting a picture of his life.  If you are interested in the inner workings of academia and the running of academic departments, you will find Hauerwas’ often dramatic retellings of the ins and outs of institutional life at places like Notre Dame and Duke absolutely enthralling.

And yet, I was disappointed with this memoir in certain very important ways, primarily in how it reveals Hauerwas as holding a vision of himself as anti-establishment while simultaneously revealing the same old tired liberal cliches.  I found one of his anecdotes to be particularly ironic:

For several years we lived next  door to Stanley Fish and Jane Tompkins. We liked them both. Stanley  is one of the most competitive and kind people I know. I loved to run with Stanley. Once, as we ran the neighborhood, I told him I knew his  secret. In spite of his criticism of liberals, he cannot help but be one. He  stopped, looked at me, and said, “Don’t you tell anyone.”

This is ironic because as I read the book I came slowly to believe this very thing about Hauerwas:  “In spite of his criticism of liberals, he cannot help but be one.”  Hauerwas would chafe at such an idea.  He is, after all, quick (and repetitive) in painting himself as a maverick:

The  challenge I have mounted against the accommodation of the church to  the ethos of modernity is my attempt to help us recover our ability to  pray to God, and to imagine what it might mean to be Christian in a  world we do not control.

And, of course, his writing in many ways bears this out.  Even so, he does so sound like one of the ever-shrinking number of mainline liberals (shrinking because their churches are shrinking) when he tells us, for instance, that he “does not like Southern Baptists” or that publishing with IVP really was a bold thing for an academic to do.  He plays his cards most clearly when he discusses the question of gay unions:

Paula often has to help me “get” what a friend is trying to tell me.  David Jenkins tried to tell me he was gay. He told me he had been invited   to live with a young man who often came to church with him. I  told him I thought that would be a good idea, because I worried that  he might be lonely. He told me he was going to march in a parade supporting   the mayor of Durham, who had signed a law against sexual  discrimination in city hiring practices. Since I thought that such a law  would be just, I commended his involvement. Paula finally had to tell  me David was gay.
I remain unsure if we can call the relationship between gay people  “marriage,” but I know that David’s friendship enriches Paula’s and  my marriage. I hope and pray for the day when Christians can be so  confident in their understanding of marriage that we can welcome gay  relationships for their promise of building up the body of Christ. That  I have such a hope and that I pray such a prayer has everything to do  with my and Paula’s friendship with David. I think, moreover, that this  is the way it should work.

Ah, yes!  How very prophetically counter-cultural of you, Stanley.  My how you’ve freed yourself from accommodationist liberalism.  One cannot help but be struck at this point in the memoir how a man who has seemingly read everything, who understands complex theological, philosophical, and ethical arguments, who wields nuance and qualification like a surgeon’s scalpel could sound so very much like the American leftist establishment in weighing in on the issue of gay marriage.  “David’s friendship enriches Paula’s and my marriage”?  There you go!  Case closed.

Let me propose a truly radical and brave position for an academic to take:  to demonstrate, like Robert Gagnon at Pittsburgh Seminary has, that the biblical witness clearly speaks against homosexual activity as sinful.

At the end of the day, I will likely continue to find Hauerwas’ ecclesiology to be radically refreshing and truly prophetic…but I have indeed lost some respect for him as a biblical thinker (something he would likely claim not to be anyway).

Finally this:  by Hauerwas’ own admission, his grasp of theological and ethical texts is much stronger than his grasp of scripture.  I do so wonder whether or not Hauerwas might not benefit from at least some expressions of the (gasp!) evangelical biblical scholarship from which he would no doubt want to distance himself.

It pains me to write this.  I’ve considered myself a fan, but, at the end of the day, it just so happens that the entity known as (in the words of Hauerwas’ late friend Richard John Neuhaus) “the rheumatoid left” is more of Hauerwas’ home than I previously wanted to believe.

What a shame.

As an aside, I find that I agree very strongly with Craig Carter’s review of the book here.  Having written my review, I note that my take on it mirrors his own in many ways.  All I can say is I apparently had very much the same journey as Carter did in reading the book, though he says what he says in a much more articulate way than I do here.  Check it out.


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