A Feature Review of
In Conversation: Samuel Wells and Stanley Hauerwas
Maureen Knudsen Langdoc, Ed.
Reviewed by Alessandro Rovati
The title of this book tells you everything you need to know about it. Maureen Knudsen Langdoc has done an outstanding work moderating and prompting a conversation between two long-time friends, Samuel Wells and Stanley Hauerwas. Readers of this work will act as the proverbial “fly on the wall,” listening to two of the most important voices in contemporary theology while they think through pressing questions, reminisce about their long journey together, and disclose some intimate details regarding their lives and struggles. In the end, readers will come away nourished by a conversation that stimulates the Christian imagination, challenges some of our cultural presuppositions, and summons us to a journey of conversion.
Friendship is at the heart of the entire book. Hauerwas and Wells found a long time ago that their reciprocal discernments were authoritative in the other’s life. Because of that, they started trusting one another with the difficult things that needed to be thought through theologically and discovered they held judgments in common that made them walk together. In reading the account of their connection, one is brought to reflect on the blessing that intimate relationships are. We cannot be alone, for we all need to be helped to be Christians in the difficult things that touch our lives.
Above all, the conversations between Hauerwas and Wells are a powerful testimony about the importance of the ordinary. Christianity does not live in the lofty realm of ideas. Instead, it is about making the everyday possible because “if you believe that Christ through the forgiveness of sins has healed the past and through the gift of eternal life has turned the future from a threat to a gift, then you can for the first and only time live in the present.” (27) The full reality of the gospel is enacted in the concrete circumstances of our daily lives, and theology’s main calling is to show and name the difference Christ makes for the ordinary.
Lest we perceive such statements as pious platitudes that leave the status quo unchanged, Hauerwas and Wells insist on the fact that Jesus did not come to underwrite our bourgeois, suburban existences. Instead, he came “to disrupt and to portray an alternative society, and we have to spend all our time imagining, praying for, dwelling in, and working towards that alternative society.” (123) Christianity has a clear, disrupting ethic that focuses on the theological significance of Christ’s life and challenges what Wells calls the “Life Application Bible” approach. (26) Too often, we are tempted to think of the revelation as something that helps us go through the challenging parts of life, leaving the cosmic order more or less intact. When we do that, though, we tend to instrumentalize God and the scriptures to achieve our goals and make life more straightforward. Instead, Christianity is about Jesus’ radical call to follow him to the cross, to become disciples, and to not leave anything untouched by the kingdom he inaugurated.
In Conversation speaks to a broad range of readers. Some will be interested in Hauerwas and Wells’ discussion of the practice of theology. Others will be captured by the many personal stories, both humorous and poignant, about their upbringing, sense of vocation, and life in the family. Others will be fascinated by the pages in which the authors think aloud about the current political moment and the contested issues regarding race, gender, and sexuality. Others will be compelled by the reflections on the genesis and legacy of Hauerwas and Wells’ contributions to the theological field. Among the many engaging topics that the dialogues touch upon, I want to focus on two, namely, the nature and task of preaching and the role of the university.
The heart of preaching is to address the “existential dimensions of people’s ordinary lives and bringing clear points of Christian revelation into those.” (89) Behind good sermons, there is the conviction that through scripture God has something to say to specific people at a particular time. Like the sacraments, the scriptures are something that is happening today, not merely a memorial of something in the past. They speak as urgently today as they did when they were written in the first century, which means that a sermon is “tearing the heavens open that we should be able to better see God.” (88) Preachers should not try to communicate their opinions but instead announce the good news of the gospel. That means having the humility of letting oneself be schooled by scripture and by the church’s interpretive tradition to avoid sentimentalities and glib moralism. Furthermore, it means trusting God and that “how the words [of scripture] run… illumine[s] the world in which we find ourselves.” (87)
As for the university, Hauerwas and Wells argue that the attitudes cultivated in it are essential to today’s society. We desperately need people capable of talking across differences, listening to someone with a different perspective, and engaging with opinions they find offensive. “You are not going to be polluted by someone who says something that is really wrong,” Hauerwas claims. “It is exposed as wrong by the emptiness of its presentation, not by the fact that you refuse to give it a hearing.” (135) The university forms people into the necessary conflicts needed to understand what matters and teaches Christians to take on the intellectual challenges to the faith. Whether the university will manage to remain faithful to its calling in a society that lacks sufficient judgments in common and where students are treated as customers, though, is an open question, but Christians “have a stake in having people who are doing work that is for the critical upbuilding of the church.” (131)
We are moving into a world “in which it’s impossible to be a Christian without… naming commitments that seem quite odd to the wider society.” (66) Soon, to say “I am a Christian” will be an important declaration because there will not be many Christians around, and it will thus beg the question, “why would you want to do that?” Hauerwas and Wells want the church to form people who are not concerned about dominating the culture’s control-points to force people to go along even if they disagree with us Christians. But they also want the church to create a people that does not fear confronting the alternatives to Christianity because it is convinced that Christianity’s answers to fundamental questions stand up favorably against other options. We should be confident that “God has given us everything we need.” (44)
It is easy to be discouraged by all the contemporary challenges and all the failings of the church. Attending to the witness of people like Hauerwas and Wells, though, lets us see the difference Christ makes so that our sense of powerlessness might be “transfigured, transcended, by a sense of how God is working in the world.” (74)
Alessandro Rovati is Department Chair and Assistant Professor of Theology at Belmont Abbey College. He has published extensively in peer-reviewed journals and online publications, and he is a Board Member of New Wine New Wineskins, a national association of young, Catholic moral theologians. You can follow him on twitter @DrRovati