Monday, July 12, 2010

Hannah's Child -- A Review

HANNAH’S CHILD: A Theologian’s Memoir. By Stanley Hauerwas. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010. xii + 288 pages.


In 2001, just one day before the events of 9-11 transpired, Time Magazine announced its selection of Stanley Hauerwas as America’s most important theologian. Although there may be dissent as to whether Hauerwas deserves the honor, the fact that a general news magazine would deem the Duke Divinity School theologian and ethicist worthy of the honor suggests that he has impacted America’s religious and public life. But, who is Stanley Hauerwas? What has he done and said and written that has attracted the attention not just of the religious press but the secular press as well?

Memoirs offer persons of note the opportunity to define themselves, to lay out their own sense of who they are and how they became the person the public thinks they know. The author of this memoir seems to find it difficult to recognize himself in many of these portrayals, for in the very first sentence of the book he writes: “I did not intend to be ‘Stanley Hauerwas’” (p. ix). In making this statement he notes that there is a person out there who goes by this name, a person who is “allegedly famous,” but the question remains, who is Stanley Hauerwas? In this book, Hauerwas, the son of a West Texas bricklayer, tells how his parents married late and thus had a child late in life. The title of the book comes from the fact that his mother borrowed the prayer of Hannah, the mother of Samuel, and prayed that if she were blessed with a child, then she would dedicate this child to God’s ministry. It is the burden of this prayer that served as the guiding principle of his life, for not only did his mother pray this prayer, but she also shared this news with her son. The memoir is essentially Hauerwas’ reflection on how he moved from being Hannah’s child, the one dedicated to God’s service before his birth, to the person he is today, a person who with great difficulty and struggle, came to understand himself to be a Christian, so that his life is now “unintelligible if the God we Christians worship does not exist” (p. x).

As a reviewer, I came to this book having read here and there in Hauerwas’ writings. I know him more by reputation than by any close reading of his works. I have read the critiques of his work and know a number of his students, people who have been influenced not only by his writings but by his teaching and by their interactions with him. From these “encounters” with Hauerwas, all from a distance, I knew he had a reputation for being profane and for being a pacifist. I knew he embraced the call to community but found him – through my “at a distance” reading – to be too quick to abandon the public square. Not all of my preconceptions have been proven wrong, but I have come to have a greater appreciation for the man behind the headlines.

The story begins in Pleasant Grove, Texas, outside Dallas. As noted earlier, his father was a bricklayer, and his father and grandfather had been bricklayers. Early on in his life, Hauerwas took up his father’s trade, and probably would have been a brick layer himself, had his mother not dedicated him to God’s service. The calling came through his mother, but from his father he learned how to work hard. He also learned the words he would become famous for uttering in polite society. As for the prayer and the dedication of his life, Hauerwas wished that his mother had refrained from sharing the news, but he also believes that it was this prayer that made him the person he is today. Had he not known of this calling, which he confesses may have limited his autonomy, but ultimately, that may not have been a bad thing.

Autonomy, given my energy, probably would have meant going into business and making money. There is nothing wrong with making money, but it was just not in my family’s habits to know how to do that. All we knew how to do was work, and we usually liked the work we did. As it turns out, I certainly like the work Mother’s prayer gave me (p. 4).
Before this calling could be fulfilled, Hauerwas would have to be saved. Although baptized at Pleasant Mound Methodist Church, being saved was a long process, one that didn’t truly take until he became a theologian. Carrying the burden of service to God, he knew he had to go to college, something no one in his family had ever done. Encouraged by his teachers and by his ministers, he became an avid reader, so that even before he went to college he was reading history and philosophy. This need to study for ministry took him to Southwestern College, a place at which he discovered he didn’t really fit in. He was of working class stock and yet he has spent his life in academia. It was at Southwestern that he met the first of his mentors, a professor who would guide his studies and helped him navigate both life and faith. It was there that he discovered a love of philosophy, which would undergird his work as a theologian and ethicist. Despite the direction that his life was taking, he still wasn’t sure that he was a Christian. But during this time he discovered that “to be a Christian meant that you could never protect yourself from the truth” (p. 11). This discovery, combined with his working class Texas background helped contribute to another aspect of Hauerwas’s reputation – his straightforwardness and desire to get to the heart of the matter. It was a quality that would get him into trouble on many occasions during his academic career.

One of the traits that he mentions throughout the book is a lack of self awareness, or perhaps better, a lack of knowledge of the rules of etiquette, a trait that has led to misunderstandings. It was also a trait that seems to have led to a disastrous marriage to a woman he met in college. He seemed to fall into the marriage, quite unaware of what it involved, or Anne’s mental stability. The story of his relationship with his late wife, forms a significant part of the book, for he was by his own report left to do much of the child rearing and family duties. There was a fear of her hurting herself, and even him, whom she blamed for all her problems. The marriage lasted nearly a quarter century before she left, driven along by her own mental illness. Later he would meet a woman, one who would become his wife and his intellectual partner. There is a sense of healing that emerges out of this later story, even as he grieves what had come before. All of this helps humanize the well-known theologian. While there is this lack of social self awareness and the problems that developed as a result of his first marriage, we also see the devotion that he has to his son Adam, with whom he spent significant time, as he was functioning essentially as a single parent. Beyond this, we discover the importance of friendships to his life. Especially during the years at Notre Dame and Duke, more and more people came into his life – colleagues, students, church members. In the epilogue, he notes that his ability to write the book is a “testimony to friends,” for he confesses that without these friendships he would never have survived.

If friendships and family form a significant part of the story, so too does his developing theology and his commitment to the church as community. Going to Yale, he discovered Karl Barth whose discomfort with natural theology helped form Hauerwas’s commitment to a revelational theology, one that is Christocentric and rooted in community. Although Hauerwas is Methodist his understandings of church, society, and theology have been formed in conversation with Lutherans at Augustana College and Catholics at Notre Dame. He was influenced by James McClendon and John Howard Yoder, one a Baptist and the other a Mennonite. Yoder would become his colleague at Notre Dame. He seems to have thrived at Notre Dame, becoming more catholic in his perspectives. Later, as things began to change in his department at Notre Dame, he moved to Duke Divinity School, which put him back into the Methodist orbit. Although this was a good fit in many ways, bringing him into contact with new conversation partners, he did have troubles with his dean. One of the partnerships that proved fruitful was with William Willimon. What is interesting is that despite the fact that Hauerwas has a distinctively negative view of church growth perspectives – so much so that he eventually left the UMC church he had long been a member of after it turned in that direction and became an Episcopalian -- he makes no mention of Willimon’s increasingly vocal emphasis on numbers and growth since becoming a Methodist bishop.

What is clear about Hauerwas’ perspective is that he believes strongly that what one believes influences what one does. He believes strongly that God works through the church to bring transformation in the world – not by the church taking public political stands, but by living out the gospel. He’s all for interfaith dialogue and cooperation, but he urges Christians to own their own faith. He doesn’t put a lot of trust in public institutions, and while recognizing the frailty of the church, it is in the church that God is present. Ultimately, he believes that God is a necessary word, but “learning how to say ‘God is hard but good work.”

It is good work because the training necessary to say “God” forces us to be honest with ourselves about the way things. Are. Our lives are but a flicker. We are creatures destined to die. We fear ourselves and one another, sensing that we are more than willing to sacrifice the lives of others to sustain the fantasy that we will not have to die (p. 236).
What is important to understand about Hauerwas and his theology is that he is not easy to categorize. He speaks of himself as a conservative, and yet he is in many ways quite radical. He isn’t an evangelical, nor is he a classic liberal. He is influenced deeply by Barth, and yet isn’t a Barthian. His is a theology that is deeply philosophical, with Aristotle and Wittgenstein both being important influences on his thought. All of this may go a long way to explaining why he is so often misunderstood.

Whether one is a fan of Hauerwas or not, whether one agrees with his theology or not, this book is worth reading closely. It is honest and straightforward. In other words, it names names! It’s challenging in its content and yet graceful in its prose (and no there’s no profanity in the book). You will discover a man who is deeply flawed and yet committed to the God revealed in Jesus Christ. I’ve not jumped into the Hauerwas camp, but I do understand where he is coming from. I also appreciate the story of his faith journey, for it is a reminder that for many of us, salvation comes not in a moment in time, but often as we’re living in the midst of the community. Take and read, you will be enlightened, challenged, and maybe even blessed.

2 comments:

Allan R. Bevere said...

Bob, Your second to last paragraph is well stated.

Wesley Menke said...

Great review. I'm inspired to read. The last quotations really got me. So true!