“A Life Lived In the Light of the Gospel“
A Review of
A Theologian’s Memoir.
by Stanley Hauerwas.
Reviewed by Margaret Smith Roark.
A Theologian’s Memoir.
by Stanley Hauerwas.
Hardback: Eerdmans, 2010.
Buy Now: [ ChristianBook.com ]
Stanley Hauerwas believes his life was shaped by a story his mother told him. Like Hannah in the Bible, she prayed for a child and promised to dedicate him to the Lord. (He was only named Stanley instead of Samuel because his parents saw the film “Stanley and Livingstone” just before he was born.) As a child, Hauerwas heard this story many times, and he believes that it set him on the path of faith. He first began studying theology because he wanted to talk about what matters. But over the years, this disinterested point-of-view became something far more powerful: a Christianity of devotion and conviction, a transforming lens through which to see the world.
Be warned. A theologian’s memoir, at least this one, entails lots of lists: lists of other theologians—their books, their arguments, their influence, occasionally and tiresomely, their college appointments. Foremost a love song to friendship and the life of the mind., the book charts Hauerwas’s trajectory through different academic venues, primarily, Yale Divinity School where he began to explore and define the Christian virtues; Notre Dame where, through challenging and devout colleagues, he grew to love (and almost converted to) Roman Catholicism; and Duke Divinity School where he now teaches and challenges those who would divorce ethics from theology.
John Howard Yoder stands out among the many thinkers whose friendship and ideas have influenced Hauerwas’s work. Hauerwas deftly gets to the heart of Yoder’s ideas without over-explaining or over-simplifying them. Here is an (over-simplifying) taste of Hauerwas on Yoder’s argument that “the eternal is not atemporal”:
Yoder argues that if cross and resurrection are real events, then the fulfillment and culmination of God’s purposes must be really historic. The God of the Bible is therefore not timeless. . . . but a God who is more temporal than we are, ‘who is ahead of us and behind us, before us, above us in several directions, and who has more the character of timeliness and meaningfulness in movement rather than less.’
The church’s task is to make sense of life through stories that reflect God’s presence in time: “Creation is not ‘back there,’ . . . Rather, creation names God’s continuing action, God’s unrelenting desire for us to want to be loved by that love manifest in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection” (158).
Yoder’s thoughts on the necessity of Christian pacifism also powerfully affected Hauerwas: pacifism as such is not a position or a strategy for peace, only an acknowledgment that “nonviolence and Christianity are inseparable” (60). In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Hauerwas put forward an alternative theological response to the typical American call for retaliation. Here is an excerpt from a prayer he wrote at that time:
It is hard to remember that Jesus did not come to make us safe, but rather he came to make us disciples, citizens of your new age, a kingdom of surprise. That we live in the end times is surely the basis for our conviction that you have given us all the time we need to respond to September 11 with ‘small acts of beauty and tenderness,’ which Jean Vanier tells us, if done with humility and confidence, ‘will bring unity to the world and break the chain of violence’ (267).
A memoir can be a powerful work of art—see Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings or the very different but no less brilliant Liar’s Club by Mary Kerr. Hauerwas makes no claim to have created any such—in fact, he makes many disclaimers—and his humility is disarming. His account (a better word for this book than “memoir”) works best when he explores ideas rather than relationships. His telling of his first wife’s gradual and terrible mental decline falls short. His writing is not up to the task of sympathetic imagination. We never get outside his head into hers and the effect is a kind of circularity.
Nevertheless, you can’t help but like Hauerwas; his exuberant personality as a “pugnacious pacifist,” and his interest in everything (which he acknowledges as both a strength and weakness). His gratefulness for his life, his abiding love of truth wherever he can find it (Yoder, George Eliot, small church communities) inspire. Still, I prefer his collection of sermons—A Cross-Shattered Church: Reclaiming the Heart of Theological Preaching (Ed.’s Note: Read our review here). His thoughts and writing (he would say the two cannot be separated) are better suited to the vehicle of the sermon: straightforward, well-considered and intricately laid out commentary on Scripture, short essays that reframe life “in the light of the gospel.”: He writes that the phrase “‘In the light of the gospel’ names for me the discovery that my life depends on learning to worship God. . . . Through worship, the world learns the truth that is required for our being truthful about ourselves and one another” (159).
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
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