Thursday, July 22, 2010

Hannah's Child: A Theologians Memoir

Finished the new Stanley Hauerwas memoir last night called Hannah's Child. Hauerwas was named by Time magazine America's best theologian in 2001 in the September 10th issue. On the next day that honorable mention was all but forgotten. It is an interesting read. Hauerwas's life all by itself, even if he wasn't a controversial theologian, is a compelling story. He grew up in a hardworking, poor family in Texas. His dad was a bricklayer just like his dad and all his 5 brothers. Hauerwas started going to work with his dad before he was a teenager. His early life was defined by hard work, laying brick or peddling vegetables from his garden. This work ethic served him well later in life as people wondered how he managed to read and write so much. It also helped him cope with a difficult first marriage. Hauerwas is probably not known well in evangelical circles unless you have been to seminary or done graduate work in theology or Christian ethics. Only a couple of his books have made it beyond academic and professional circles. He co-authored a couple books with Will Willimon, Methodist preacher and bishop, and those are probably his most popular. He taught scores of students at Notre Dame and Duke Divinity School and was a popular teacher. A good speaker, he was known for colorful speech, and humor and well constructed lectures. He cared deeply about what he was doing. He wanted to think and teach about "what mattered."

His positions were not mainstream. He was criticized by liberals for his Barthian Christology and his high view of the Church. He was criticized by Catholics for being too Protestant and by Protestants for being too Catholic. In many ways, he was a unique blend of Anabaptism and Catholicism who ended up in the Methodist Church. He was influenced by John Howard Yoder, the Mennonite scholar. Yoder was a pacifist and convinced Hauerwas of the truth of that position. That conviction did not set well with most evangelicals and Catholics after 9-11. Hauerwas was not shy about criticizing Bush's response to 9-11 and the war on terror.

Whether you agreed with Hauerwas or not, there was no question where he stood. He said if you tell a Texan what you want he will either give it to you or kill you. Hauerwas pulled no punches. Yet, in his memoir he is gracious to a fault. When conflict or disagreement breaks up a relationship or friendship, he willingly accepts responsibility for his part of the problem. He did not write this story to tell his side so he would look better. It is as honest and transparent as a memoir can be. When a friendship fails, he is contrite and hopeful reconciliation will take place. Sometimes it did. Sometimes not. When he decided someone was dishonest or untrustworthy he told that person the relationship was over.

Even though he often felt like an outsider - not fitting into either the evangelical or liberal camp and not finding a lifelong home in any one denomination - his teaching should be heeded by Christians in all camps. Truth matters, and he thought hard and long about what that meant. It would be good if Christians cared more about what they say they believe. And if you believe it, you had better be ready to go wherever that belief takes you even it causes conflict.

Hauwerwas believed friendships mattered, too. He worked hard at relationships. His first marriage was to a difficult person (although even here he takes more than his share of responsibility), yet he worked at making it as good as it could be.

He valued the Church. Not only what the Church is and stands for ( he said once that it didn't really matter what he thought, what mattered was what the Church taught) but what it means to be a "congregation". One church he belonged to had too many people who did nothing to sustain the life of the congregation - that was a church that liked the idea of church but was not a congregation. Later in life, he and his second wife bought a cabin in the mountains of North Carolina for a getaway place. They discovered they never used it because they were always busy on weekends - at church. How refreshing to find someone - a theologian even - who not only says he believes in the church but is committed to it and actually shows up every week!

Worship is at the heart of Hauwerwas's theology. It is what Christians do. It is important for him to attend a church that takes worship seriously. One that celebrates the eucharist weekly and keeps to the services and vigils of Holy Week. In one church, he was part of, the pastor retired for health reasons and soon died. The new pastor came full of church growth ideas and "what would work" to make the church bigger. She cut back on some of services and the number of times the eucharist was celebrated. Instead of the traditional Holy Week services, she did some drama on Good Friday night. She went to a Willowcreek conference and told the church they were going to have a contemporary service and a traditional service and make some other seeker friendly changes. Hauerwas said "over my dead body", and rather than fight and perhaps split the church, walked away.