“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.
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.
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