Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Resident Aliens -- Sightings (Martin E. Marty)

It has been 25 years since Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon published their provocative book Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Expanded 25th Anniversary Edition).  As is often true of anniversaries, there has been an effort to commemorate it.  Among those efforts is that of Christian Century.  Since my copy hasn't arrived in my mail box I've yet to read the responses.  The book itself has inspired much conversation about what it means to be Christian in America.  What kind of distance should we place between church and state.  Hauerwas especially has gained quite a following on this issue.  I'm reading Scot McKnight's Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Churchwhich is an expression of this vision of the church staying separate.  The question that seems to be raised by critics is whether this is possible, and whether it is a luxury that upper middle class whites can bask in.  I can't remember if I read the book back in the day.  If I did, I know longer have a copy.  So, I'll invite you to read Martin Marty's take and offer your own.

Resident Aliens
Monday | Sept 22 2014
Stanley Hauerwas (left) and William H. Willimon                     Image: Duke Divinity School brochure
“Resident Aliens” is a coinage that became the book title, Resident Aliens, by the never-dull duo Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon. In a rare tribute,The Christian Century revisited the book twenty-five years later—a virtual half-millennium in the fast-changing world of religious life and publishing today.

The "Source" listed below suggests some themes served up by respondents to the concept and the book. While there were more pro than con responses, almost none gave the duo a free ride in the magazine whose slogan is “Thinking Critically/Living Faithfully.”

While the target audience in this case consists of Protestants, a.k.a. “Mainline Protestants,” many other kinds of people “living faithfully” in religious communities could recognize themselves in the issues involved, if not in the “selfie” portraits of potential “aliens.”

The concept is not hard to grasp: the authors advocated that believers who were, or were presumed to be, or were charged to be, overly at home in American culture, would do well to gain distance on this culture without leaving America. Hence, “resident.” But not “at home,” hence “alien.”

Hauerwas and Willimon were critical of late-stage “Constantinian” religion, in this case, of course, Christianity. Its communities, institutions, leaders, and followers, the authors charged, aped and echoed the sights and sounds, the ways and means of nationalism, capitalism, and affluent societies. Where in all this, they asked, is there room for any judging or redemptive power, with faith weakly proclaimed, lived, and compromised?

Some dismissed the authors as being merely crabby; others dismissed them as being more captive to the culture than they recognized. At the same time, it should be noted that Hauerwas and Willimon did fulfill some of their intentions, score points, and prod or inspire readers. Their historic reference was to early Christianity, where, in the Roman Empire, believers had to think and act “apart” even though they lived in the midst of dynamic cultural shifts that could tempt them to betray the faith and lose its redemptive power in their world.

The critiques? The book was aimed, unwittingly or wittingly, at white, largely Protestant culture, which respondent Jennifer M. McBride thought its authors were embracing, and that criticism and the strategy of advocating resident alienhood was “disingenuous.” Others could not find any trace of what the authors pointed to or advocated: an “adventuresome” church. A radical critic, writing autobiographically, testified to what it really meant to be an alien, an unlikely experience for tenured professors.

Regular readers of Hauerwas and Willimon could well have anticipated the authors’ response to the responders: acknowledgement of their own faults and limits, and generally graceful agreement with many of the critical points.

But the two focused on a theme few critics addressed: Christology. Who is Jesus Christ for the believer in the cozy church-and-state combination which dulled Christians’ witness and led them to compromise? While the authors criticized liberal Christianity, they refused to accept the idea that they were somehow in the camp of neoconservatives. Not at all.

Resident Aliens is, of course, out of date in many respects, but Hauerwas and Willimon hope that debate about their theme will survive among the adventuresome in a second half century.


Christian Century. “State of the colony: Resident Aliens at 25.” Check here for links to the following Resident Aliens responses: “Better religion” by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, “Targeted Medicine” by Brian D. McLaren, “The wrong preferential option” by Miguel De La Torre, “Church against state?” by James K. A. Smith, “Accidental impact,” by Robin Lovin, “The wall of identity,” by Willie James Jennings, “White Protestants aren’t aliens,” by Jennifer M. McBride, “Unintended aid,” by Gary Dorrien, and “Locating loyalty,” by Debra Dean Murphy.” Accessed September 21, 2014.

Image Credit: Duke Divinity School

To read previous issues of Sightings, visit
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.
Forward to Friend
Sightings Home Page | Submission Guidelines | Reprint Policy
Divinity School
Email us
ALSO from The Martin Marty Center:
Copyright © 2014 UChicago Divinity School, All rights reserved.

No comments: