Featured Reviews, VOLUME 4

Featured: WORKING WITH WORDS – Stanley Hauerwas [Vol. 4, #12]

“How then Shall we Speak?

A review of
Working with Words:
On Learning to Speak Christian

by Stanley Hauerwas.

Review by Chase Roden.

Working with Words:
On Learning to Speak Christian
Stanley Hauerwas.
Paperback: Wipf and Stock, 2011.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Christ as true king. The church as polis. Constantinianism as idolatry. Those familiar with Stanley Hauerwas already know his major themes and vocabulary. Although he has spent decades working with these ideas – many of which he inherited and adapted from John Howard Yoder – Hauerwas continues to explore them in new and interesting ways, applying his interpretation of the nonviolent gospel to different contexts. Because the core of Hauerwas’s work contains such radical ideas which run counter to the implicit thought of mainstream American Christianity, many Christians keep coming back to his writings year after year for a fresh perspective.

For these readers, there will not be many surprises in Working with Words: On Learning to Speak Christian, a new collection of Hauerwas’s writings. In it the Duke professor of theological ethics presents a “kitchen sink” bundle of writings admittedly not intended to form any particular argument. The writings are quite varied; of the 22 works presented (including the appendix), 13 are essays (five co-written), seven are sermons, and three are addresses – a commencement speech, a lecture, and one fascinating speech to a Christian youth conference at Duke Divinity School.

Hauerwas presents these writings, as he notes in the introduction, to show the continuity of his work from his academic efforts to his public speeches. To the extent that there is a unifying theme, the author identifies it as learning to “speak Christian” or how to “say God.” Using language as a metaphor, Hauerwas writes about the Christian life as a lifelong attempt at learning to speak. Although this theme is contiguous with the work on character and virtue he has been doing since the beginning of his career, in many ways Working with Words can be seen as a more direct continuation of the themes Hauerwas explored in his 2004 collection Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence. The theme of that collection is Christian life as performance – a beautiful idea that Hauerwas uses to unify theology, ethics, ecclesiology and aesthetics into a life of worship.

To say that Hauerwas’s major themes are predictably present is not to say that these writings are boring or irrelevant; some of them are quite compelling. One essay applying Augustine’s concept of evil to the Rwandan genocide is thought-provoking and reveals Hauerwas’s desire to truly understand his sources; instead of using Augustine as a means to a predetermined end as many writers do, Hauerwas interacts substantively with current scholarship on Augustine’s writings and life to truly test his use of the ancient theologian. In concert with Hauerwas’s familiar criticism of Constantinianism, Augustine’s idea of evil as privation – as a non-existent entity – becomes in part a powerful critique of the theology of the state, which would dehumanize its enemies by appropriation of the doctrine of sin to its own ends.

The Duke Divinity School youth conference address mentioned above is also provocative and illustrative. Hauerwas begins the speech memorably by noting that his audience of high-schoolers “lack[s] the resources to take God seriously,” by which he means “having noticed that before you know it you are going to be dead.” If this is intended to shock his audience, he does not relent, going into a brief rundown of the reasons he is not “clear … that the Christianity that has made [them] Christians is Christianity,” including membership in congregations that celebrate Thanksgiving and Mother’s Day. From there he attacks the brand of Christianity that would emphasize love without an understanding of Christ’s suffering and death, before moving on to a summary of the politics of Jesus and ending with a beautiful account of the resurrection.

This youth address is singled out because it illustrates the trouble some Christians have accepting Hauerwas wholeheartedly, and a particular problem with this collection. Hauerwas is all about virtue – about the necessity of living the Christian life. In “Disciplined Seeing,” an essay that uses C. Kavin Rowe’s World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age to critique the anthropological concept of “global Christianity,” Hauerwas and Brian Goldstone argue compellingly that Acts insists that Christianity and the kingdom of God simply do not exist without the virtuous, enacted lives of believers. Further, Hauerwas writes at length on speech and language as a means and metaphor for living out Christianity. However, as the speeches and sermons in this collection show, Hauerwas is not always particularly careful with his own words. After reading the youth speech, one can hardly imagine that the kids Hauerwas spoke to had the faintest idea what the first half of the address was about. Experienced readers will be able to identify (if not agree with) Hauerwas’s beef with churches celebrating secular holidays, but Hauerwas seems to use shock as a hook for his audience without actually enlightening them in any way. He tends not to use this rhetorical strategy as often in his academic works, but Hauerwas’s sermons and speeches are littered with examples of provocative overstatements that cannot possibly be expected to educate his hearers or readers. Where is the room for careful speech – for habituated truth telling – in such a strategy? Even when Hauerwas is not trying to shock his audience into listening, he often does not display great care toward the communication of truth; his arguments in sermons and addresses are sometimes exceedingly hard to follow on the written page, let alone when read aloud.

Despite the flaws of Hauerwas’s public speeches, the backstory evident in some of the essays in Working with Words (and in his recent memoir Hannah’s Child) describes a man who works hard to “speak Christian,” in the sense of living a life of humility and grace. Hauerwas is constantly praising his collaborators and colleagues – in fact the book is dedicated to the pastoral search committee of the church Hauerwas belongs to in Durham – and responding to his critics with grace. Hauerwas talks up his wide-ranging sources so much that it has an effect like grocery shopping while hungry; almost everything he cites sounds fascinating and the reader may find him- or herself making a reading list while working through the essays. Unfortunately for readers who are not as well read as Hauerwas, the connections he makes between his arguments and his sources are not always readily apparent here. Working with Words is, therefore, an uneven collection; there are many sections of brilliance and clarity, but the work overall does not highlight the best or most accessible of Stanley Hauerwas’s efforts. Readers who are already quite familiar with Hauerwas will undoubtedly find some of the essays to be compelling applications of his dominant themes; anyone else would probably do better starting with another collection, such as The Hauerwas Reader or Performing the Faith.


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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


  1. I was a part of the high school group that Hauerwas addressed with the lecture u00a0mentioned above in the summer of 2006. I have to say that I am still sorting through the implications of what he said, but that is what I have grown to love about him. I think it is important for readers to know that the kids who take part in Duke Youth Academy are a member of something more strenuous than a “conference”. Students live on campus for two weeks and experience a deeply meaningful Christian community that involves plenary lectures, community service, patterned worship, expressive arts, and reflection time with mentor groups. u00a0Because of the rigorous nature of the program, the application process is necessarily demanding. The program is designed specifically to engage students who are experiencing a calling to ministry, but haven’t been able to identify it as such quite yet. Thus the students Hauerwas addressed with this lecture are not your typical high school students, and most of them, though shocked, are capable of beginning to wrestle with his thoughts.nnThis summer marks my second summer on staff at DYA, and Hauerwas continues to be a favorite among plenary speakers. Though it is quite probable that much of what Hauerwas says is lost on students, the provocation with which he presents his work is incredible, and generates fantastic discussion. I can say with complete honesty that Hauerwas was one of the core reasons that I retained my belief in Christ as a young adult experiencing a crisis of faith. I suppose I sound a bit defensive after reading this review (I have yet to read this book), but that is only because Hauerwas meant to much to me as one of those high schoolers.

    • I’m really glad you took the time to comment. I’m also glad to hear that Dr. Hauerwas and that speech in particular had the effect on you that they have. I was admittedly speculating about how the audience might respond to this speech, but I did show a copy of it to a few of my colleagues before I wrote the review to see if they had the same reaction that I did. It sounds like you’ve read a fair bit of Hauerwas, so you may recognize some truth in the statement that he likes to be provocative. One friend said that it was no worse than Paul’s own rhetorical style, which is a point well taken. nnHowever, I still have trouble reconciling Dr. Hauerwas’s emphasis on truthful speech with his tendency toward overstatement and a general lack of nuance in his public speeches. For some readers, the deep truth underlying his rhetoric draws us in; I just wonder how many others are left cold by his style and never get a chance to find out what he’s all about. In the context of a community and relationship — as it sounds like Duke Youth Academy is — I can see the dialectical style being effective and ultimately edifying. Outside of such a setting, it seems risky. But then again, so is the radical faith Hauerwas calls his readers to.

  2. Interesting that the name of Jesus is absent from the review. Isn’t He what it is all about?

    • Uh… The book review is about Hauerwas smart guy.

    • And… Upon further in-depth hard hitting analysis, the review mentions this other dude named ‘Christ’ several times. This ‘Christ’ fellow has become such an idol erected to obscure the name and mission of Jesus. Wait… What? They’re the same person/diety just on different sides of the resurrection? GET OUT.