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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Filtering by Tag: book review

Reluctant Faith in Stanley Hauerwas's Memoir, Hannah's Child

Stanley Hauerwas may not be a name you immediately recognize. In 2001, Hauerwas was named “Best Theologian of America,” by Time Magazine and is currently a chaired professor of theological ethics at Duke University. During the course of his career (first at Augustana, then Notre Dame, and finally Duke), Hauerwas has written prolifically and lectured extensively: in theological circles, Hauerwas is a household name. A friend recently suggested I pick up Hauwerwas’s memoir, Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir, where he tells the likely and unlikely story of faith: likely, because it was born from the prayers of his mother, Joanna, who, like Hannah in the Bible, asked for a son and promised him to the Lord’s service; unlikely, because Hauerwas himself testifies to his reluctance about matters of faith and his own clumsiness at its expression. “The Hauerwas with which I have more trouble identifying is the Christian Hauerwas,” he admits early on.

Like other memoirists, Hauerwas is on a mission of self-discovery, but he does not claim to be writing  objectively. Rather, he subscribes to the theory of memoir, which situates the genre somewhere between fact and faction. Indeed, memoir is often inventive, and in the telling of our own stories, there are fictions we create and by which we are sustained. As an ethicist, Hauerwas has spent much of his career making the case for this human tendency toward subterfuge: “What so often makes us liars is not what we do, but the justifications we offer for what we do. Our justifications become the way we try to defeat the contingencies of our lives by telling ourselves consoling stories that suggest we have done as well as was possible. I cannot pretend that I have avoided deceit in this memoir.”

I don’t know that Hauerwas can be accused of deceit in the writing of his memoir so much as detachment. For almost twenty-five years of his adult life, Hauwerwas was married to a woman with mental illness, and although he tells the story of his difficult life with Anne, his accounting is rather emotionless. By his own admission, Hauwerwas is a man who’s been taught to “get on with it.” Raised by a bricklayer and his wife, he spent much of his childhood under the Texas sun learning the trade of his father. There, complaining never did him a hell of a lot of good. (Permit me a little bit of Hauerwas speak: if complaining wasn’t permitted language at the construction site, cursing was. It was a habit that almost prevented his getting hired at Duke.)

“Getting on with it,” or making do with being married to a woman who at any moment might abandon reality, demanded that Hauerwas sustain a life of vigorous work. A good part of the book travels the trajectory of his academic thought: he offers ups a litany of names (authors and professors, courses and books), which he credits for influencing the theological ethics for which he is now famous. Here, in tending to the detail of the development of his scholarly thought, Hauerwas is notably more comfortable. If the work he has done his entire life has provided a means of escape from his life with Anne, it suits the same purposes of distraction in his memoir.

The Hauerwas I came to know in the pages of this book is one not entirely comfortable with his success. When he received word about his award from Time Magazine, Hauerwas was not self-congratulating. “’Best’ is not a theological category.” And throughout his memoir, Hauwerwas, almost as a matter of defense (justification?) needs to prove that he has not sought his success and has not been taken in by it. “Although I am now a chaired professor at a major research university, I still do not feel at home in the academy. I am sure that feeling has everything to do with class, but I also suspect that the sense I have had of never “fitting in” has been a way to resist being taken in by my “success.” I would like to think that I have never been able to develop an arrogance my accomplishments might justify; even so, this is more likely the result of a fear of power, and not a matter of virtue.”

Hauerwas does not make the claim that he is humble; I’m glad. I’m not sure I’d believe him. And his faith story is in every way unlike my own. As a Methodist, growing up, he could not get “saved” no matter how hard he tried. He learned the Bible in the Dallas Public Schools and found theology when he happened upon a Cokesbury bookstore. Hauerwas went to university without faith but reading Niebuhr. He went to seminary with an interest in theology but without Christian commitment. Hauerwas has come to his faith bit by bit, reluctantly one might almost argue.

And while his own vocabulary and expression of faith may not be mine, I can appreciate the Hauerwas who has, so it seemed, worked to challenge the accommodated church of our culture to consider more seriously the counter-cultural claims of Jesus. And I can pray with the Hauerwas who later in his life published a book of prayers and almost sheepishly admits, “I am an academic, but I pray before class and have been published by InterVarsity Press. That is a lot to overcome if you want academic respectability.”

Academic respectability, Hauerwas clearly has.  And influenced as he has been by Kierkegaard, making his faith less about the “what” than the “how” of Christian commitment, there are parts of the Christian Hauerwas I can admire.

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. . . So we pray, give us humility that we may remember that the work we do today, the work we do every day, is false and pretentious if it fails to serve those who day in and day out are your small gestures of beauty and tenderness.

-Stanley Hauerwas