“A real prescription for what ails the world”
A Review of
The Cross-Shattered Church:
Reclaiming the Theological Heart of Preaching.
by Stanley Hauerwas.
Reviewed by Michael J. Bowling.
The Cross-Shattered Church:
Reclaiming the Theological Heart of Preaching.
Paperback: Brazos Press, 2009.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]
Language matters to Stanley Hauerwas, and he is not shy when it comes to saying so. As a theologian, he consistently demonstrates precision with his words; as an ethicist, he reduces the matter to a simple, “don’t lie.” So for those of us who have come to deeply appreciate both his words, his work and his advocacy for truthfulness in the Church, A CROSS-SHATTERED CHURCH should be read with high expectations. From the preface to the three-fold appendix, this new book by the noted Duke University professor offers far more than seventeen well-crafted sermons. Here we find a real prescription for what ails the world and that which ails the Church in the world…a distillation of reflection from a brother in Christ who loves the Church, honors the preached Word and has worked carefully as a theologian for many years. I have a sneaky suspicion those of us whose theological labors are shared with the Church from behind a pulpit will long savor his strong words in support of preaching and will be challenged by the economy of language without sacrificing real substance in the sermons. However, those who walk the halls of academia and primarily speak from behind lecterns will be quoting from this book for years to come because of the “Hauerwas explaining Hauerwas” revelations found in both the Introduction and the Appendix.
Hauerwas raises expectations concerning this book in the Preface. Referencing additional works as well…THE CROSS-SHATTERED CHRIST, DISRUPTING TIME and his recent commentary on the Gospel of Matthew… he writes, “But if you can only read a little Hauerwas, read one of these books. They are what I most care about.” After expressing his gratitude and dedicating the book to two bishops, one an old friend (Will Willimon) and the other a new friend (Archbishop Javier Martinez), he is off and running with the introduction, which is not so much a preview of the forthcoming seventeen sermons as it is a joint treatise on theological method and the important place of the sermon as “the context for theological reflection” that is “crucial if Christians are to negotiate the world in which we find ourselves.” Because Hauerwas believes that the exposition of Scripture is the primary work of theology, it would naturally follow that sermons are appropriate places for theological work to be done (assuming Scripture continues to be valued by those who preach). But it is at this point that a potential erroneous presumption is countered. Hauerwas lays the groundwork for denying that sermons or theology for that matter are the positions taken by “an individual thinker.” Instead, theologians (and I would add preachers) “are servants of a tradition in which the creative challenge is how to be faithful to what we have received.” As servants of a tradition, the work of expositing Scripture must not be reduced to explaining what the Scripture “means” or “reconstructing” the text; we do not explain the text; the text explains us. But for the texts of sermons to explain us, they must not be about us. Hauerwas writes, “But sermons, at least if they are faithful to Scripture, are not about us—they are about God.” Sermons authorized by Scripture or sermons submitted to the words of Scripture equip us for life in the world but as “a people capable of being an alternative to the world”. One of the ways sermons point to God is by relating all of history as God’s story. Hauerwas observes, “As Christians we seem to be living lives we do not understand…Sermons, therefore, should help us locate our lives, especially the incoherence of our lives, in God’s story.” The link between sermon, proclamation and story is deftly made, but circles back to his previous comments about the “meaning” of a text. “That is why our task is not to explain ‘the meaning’ of the text, but rather show how our lives are unintelligible if Jesus Christ is not the Lord.”
Ultimately, Hauerwas does give an introduction to the sermons themselves, but not before some brief but pointed remarks concerning the current state of affairs in the homiletics world. Here is a sampling:
“I suspect that the deepest enemy of truthful preaching in our time is not only the loss of confidence in the words we have been given, but also the lack of trust many who preach have that God will show up in the words we use.”
“The worst betrayal of the task of theology comes when the theologian or preacher fears that the words they use are not necessary because the church is no longer understood to be necessary for a relationship with God. The result too often is to confuse sermonizing with entertainment or bombast.”
The sermons are grouped under four headings: Seeing, Saying, Living and Events. Although the author gives permission to the reader to declare these categories artificially-chosen, assurance is offered that such is not the case. A simple but compelling case is made for both their coherence in their respective categories as well as their interrelatedness as a collection. The “Seeing” sermons are related to the “Saying” sermons with this comment: “These sermons exemplify a theme that has been at the heart of the way I have tried to do theology, that is, with the acknowledgement that we can only act in the world we can see—but we can only see by learning to say.” The “Saying” sermons demonstrate the influence of Barthian dogmatics on Hauerwas. The “Living” sermons are typical of why it is so difficult to pigeon-hole Hauerwas; they address everyday issues experienced in the Church using “conservative” and “orthodox” language employed with a new and exciting slant. The “Events” sermons were occasioned by two baptisms, a wedding and an ordination; they represent what every pastor must love about this eminent theologian…theological depth and purpose expressed in the context of normal church life.
It would be difficult single out any one sermon for special consideration. Every reader brings the various contexts of their own community to the interaction with these sermons. What I found particularly provocative and challenging other readers might view as “old hat”. However, regardless of one’s context or one’s interest in a particular theme explored, every reader will want to take special note of two faithful acts of submission by Hauerwas. He submits himself first to the text itself, allowing the text to speak with only an expected level of interference from the preacher. Secondly, he submits himself to the lectionary selections for the week regardless of the occasion. Attention to these two submissions has produced some imaginative perspectives which I think are indications of God showing up in the words when they were spoken to the community gathered in Christ’s name.
There are three offerings found in the Appendix: “Matthew”, “Preaching Repentance in a Time of War” and “Connecting Some of the Dots, or An Attempt to Understand Myself”. “Matthew” besides being a shameless plug for his commentary published recently by Brazos Press (who coincidently is the publisher of this present book), provides insight into the ways the familiar can be an entry point for a whole new and strange world. I have not yet read the commentary, but now I will…sometimes shameless plugs work!
“Preaching Repentance in a Time of War” reflects the sympathy Hauerwas has for those who preach in churches that are more American than Christian. But this piece is not just about the challenges of political sermons that are in some sense nonpartisan, it is about the possibility of practicing corporate penitence. The practice of an Episcopal Penitential Rite before Holy Eucharist is given as an example of one way to address the challenges, but Hauerwas expresses a wise caution to anyone suddenly inspired to practice “prophetic preaching” in a time of war, “But this also means that preaching repentance in a time of war is possible only if the preaching prior to the time of war has been determined by the ‘politics of God’”. I will resist the temptation of simply quoting the last three paragraphs of this essay, but I think these are the clearest statements I have read on moving the Church toward being a peaceful alternative to a violent world.
The final essay in the Appendix could have easily been included in the Introduction. I am confident it will circulate widely once the whole book has been out for awhile. Think about it…Stanley Hauerwas trying to understand himself…out loud. First he critiques the current drift away from theology toward philosophy, especially in pursuit of more “determinative accounts of the truth”. Then, in typical Hauerwasian style he writes, “Thus my observation: if you think you need a theory of truth to underwrite the conviction that Jesus was raised from the dead, then worship the theory—not Jesus.” The next few paragraphs are committed to resisting some narrow characterizations of his work. He is a non-foundationalist, but not happy about it. He is not a “systematic theologian” or an ethicist or a “moral theologian”; he is just simply a theologian. After these self-reflections, Hauerwas affirms the interpretive analysis of his work done by friend and colleague Samuel Wells in his book Transforming Fate into Destiny. Insights abound in this essay; those who have influenced his work are mentioned; his lack of a definitive ecclesial tradition is acknowledged. There is even a confession concerning the shortcomings of his earliest work. The essay ends with an extended quote from Wells which suggests two theses which lie at the heart of Hauerwas’s work. His final three sentences reflect his humility as well as his hope, “That is pretty much it. That is what I think or at least tried to think. I hope it is what the church thinks.”
Please allow me to finish this review of a very important book with a challenge. Hauerwas writes, “I ask much of anyone who would read and understand what I have been about.” Sometimes he asks too much of his readers. For many in the Church, his arguments are simply beyond their present capacity; this would include many who serve as pastors. The challenge I am making is for those who have had the privilege of formal theological training and/or the time to read and think deeply to help make the important ideas found in this book and other writings by Hauerwas more accessible to the mainstream of the Church. Today’s churches continue to suffer from a Constantinian hangover; ancient theological convictions and distinctive virtues have been lost amidst the love affair with marketing, programming and technique. Hauerwas is an important voice from within the Church, but he speaks in an unknown tongue. Surely, God has provided some with the gift of interpretation for the edification of a broader expression of the Church.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com