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Becoming 'Stanley Hauerwas'

Saturday, 7 July 2012  | Gordon Preece

Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2010)

For those unfamiliar with Stanley Hauerwas but who have wanted to step into the rapids of his thinking without being drowned, Hannah’s Child is an inviting place to start—with the person. Though be warned: it is ‘a theologian’s memoir’. For Hauerwas—once named Time Magazine’s ‘best theologian in America’—life and theology are inseparable. For those who are familiar with Hauerwas’s writing, this will put flesh on his profoundly provocative thought. What, or rather, who has made him who he is? As his first line says, “I did not intend to be ‘Stanley Hauerwas’”.

I am hesitant to say ‘provocative’ as I recall the fate of the unfortunate MC who used the term when Hauerwas spoke at the 25th anniversary of the Institute of Christian Studies in the early 90s. At such events, it is customary for the guest speaker to say nice things about the institution: but not this rough-hewn, foul-mouthed, Texan bricklayer’s son. Hauerwas opened by saying, “I am an Anabaptist. You Calvinists killed us Anabaptists.” And (from their point of view) it went downhill from there. The Reformed—who can be easy-going with their children, assuming them to be in the covenant and thus Christian—were shocked to hear Hauerwas tell of saying  to his primary school-aged son Adam, when he was asked to pray for Richard Nixon at his school, to say in front of them all, “You mean that liar!” Hauerwas started learning the craft of bricklaying when eight and he was initiating his son to the craft of Christian discipleship… through a baptism of fire! When Hauerwas finished, the relieved MC thanked Stanley for his “provocative address”. Hauerwas grabbed the microphone back and said, “‘Provocative’ is a word you use when you don’t want to take someone seriously! I’m deadly serious.” I thought it was wonderfully entertaining as well as enormously challenging. Who says theology has to be dull? To find out more about what makes this least-dull theologian in America tick, let’s unpack some of this moving memoir.

The title comes from his faithful mother’s battle with infertility and her promise like Hannah to dedicate her child to the Lord—meaning that he would go into ‘the ministry’. Hauerwas never sought ordination, being unnecessary to the role of a university-based theologian, and he refuses to claim the prophetic mantle of Samuel. There are, nonetheless, many who would apply it.

Hauerwas’ spiritual formation was really characterized by two other realities. First, he grew up in Texas, (see his essay “On Being a Texan and a Christian”). In other words, he was an outsider to mainstream liberal America. It’s a bit like having an Australian PM from the Northern Territory. Second, Hauerwas learnt from a young age through bricklaying for his ‘Daddy’ that Christianity is an apprenticeship, a learned craft that demands discipline and sheer hard work. (See his Australian New College lectures which became the book After Christendom for more on this craft.)

Hauerwas goes on to describe how his formal theological studies really began with his PhD at Yale. This gave him a love of Karl Barth, narrative, Iris Murdoch’s novels and philosophy, and the virtues. His doctoral thesis was published as Character and the Christian Life. His first teaching job was at a Lutheran college in Illinois but his activism for blacks—whom he’d always worked alongside as a brickie’s labourer—got him into trouble. He left for Notre Dame where the friendships of several Catholic theologians made a profound impression upon this Methodist, giving him a great love for the Catholic Church, its liturgy, and its eucharist. It was here he apprenticed himself to the relatively unknown John Howard Yoder’s radically Christocentric and Anabaptist pacifism. This unique mix left him a United Methodist, ‘High Church Mennonite’.

The next three chapters really focus on the surviving, enduring and ending of Hauerwas’s fraught 24 years of marriage to Anne. He had unwisely married in the infatuation of youth, only to progressively discover that she was afflicted with manic depression, was not really Christian, and as a perfectionist could never be pleased no matter how hard he tried. He was the primary carer of their son, Adam. Her verbal violence knew no bounds but sometimes Hauerwas would lie awake wondering whether he would be physically attacked.

As one who had family members with manic depression or bipolar disorder, I have the utmost sympathy and admiration for Stanley. I kept reading snippets to my wife who trains carers of those with mental illness. Mania can manifest for some women in a kind of nymphomania. Anne claimed to be in love with some of Stanley’s close, celibate colleagues at Notre Dame. She broke into one man’s apartment sometimes, waiting for him in bed. Finally, when Anne left Stanley after they’d left Notre Dame for Duke, and divorce proceedings had begun, she attempted suicide. When told, Stanley for the first time in his married life didn’t jump and stayed in Kentucky. To go would have caught him up in his 24 year carer’s nightmare again, and he was really no longer married, at her choice.

I know I had sometimes wondered about how the seemingly absolute pacifism of Hauerwas and fellow Anabaptist Jim McClendon (one of my teachers at Fuller Seminary) lined up with their being divorced given that the Sermon on the Mount seems equally absolute on that. I knew they’d both had first wives with bipolar. I didn’t judge their desperately difficult situations but wondered. Now I can only say that I think Hauerwas consistently lived out his Christ-centred and Anabaptist pacifism in a violent context at the closest quarters for 24 years. That he was still able to be so theologically productive is a testimony to the disciplines his bricklayer father taught him, enabling him to work 6am to 6pm each day, including dictating letters for an hour.

Some of the most poignant passages are about Hauerwas’ almost brotherly relationship with his son Adam. Others are about his friendships and with his doctoral students, which he regards as his primary work. They are, contrary to rumour of Hauerwas’ school,  far from clones, testimony to his view of friendship as speaking the truth in love even when you disagree. Many of them did, as seen in their recent festschrift for him. One academic suitor at the University of Virginia rightly described them as doing the most interesting work anywhere, even though Hauerwas, as he admits, is not as brilliant a theologian as the Radical Orthodox John Milbank whom they wanted him to replace upon his departure to England.

But most of all, Hauerwas is almost deliriously happy about meeting Paula, the registrar at Duke, PhD in her own right and Methodist minister with her own deep sense of calling. They eventually married and seem to have a wonderful, redemptive relationship after the years of hell he endured with Anne. Their best friends as a couple are well-known Australian Anglicans Bruce and Louise Kaye, though again, Bruce and Stanley would be quite different theologically.

Hauerwas is indeed Hannah’s and his bricklayer father’s son and, unlike many who reach the top, never forgets it. Even his infamously scatological tongue is not affected, but is a way in which he remembers his bricklayer roots in Texas. It taught him that Christianity is a craft that is not learnt through being autonomous, but through apprenticeship to those with authority. It taught him the virtues of hard work: Hauerwas’s heroic efforts in marriage to a wife with severe mania, as father to Adam, friend to many, and profound, provocative author, would have been impossible without it. Yet for all his Wesleyan stress on sanctification and hard work, with a Catholic sacramentalism and Anabaptist pacifism, the note that shines through most is a profound sense of gratitude that God has graced him with all these relationships, diverse and difficult as they often are. It is this and these that have made him Stanley Hauerwas and we thank God for him.

When, some years ago now, Stanley came for dinner in our home at Ridley College with Robert Banks and others, I told my eldest teenage daughter Madeleine that he was a world-famous theologian. She was unimpressed as teens usually are: “World-famous laugh, more like it,” she said. I think Stanley would be happy at being remembered for the gift of joy, despite all the adversity that has crafted his character.

Gordon Preece is Zadok Commissioning editor and Director of Ethos

NB. Simon Smart of the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX) recently interviewed Stanley Hauerwas on the theme of being human. You can see the video interview here.


Paul Tyson
July 9, 2012, 8:33PM
Great post Gordon. Loved Stanley's address in Melbourne a few weeks back too. I've read him and John Milbank closely, and I would hate to say who is the more brilliant. Stan is very very sharp, and very very grounded; fab combo.
Mary Fisher
July 9, 2012, 11:26PM
Gordon thanks so much for this review of Stanley Hauerwas' book " Hannah's Child". In the early '80s I did Master's work on his writings to that time and on returning to China had some most helpful correspondence with him. His books "The Peaceable Kingdom" and "The Community of Character" were so formative. I think his first seventy pages of "The Community of Character" was such a key shaping force for many to move into narrative theology in the early eighties setting a framework whereby biblical scholar's such as NT Wright, Richard Hays, And Craig Bartholomew have established narrative as a central fabric of biblical studies enabling a more literary emphasis both on text and canon.

We have so very much to be thankful for that Stanley Hauerwas became Stanley Hauerwas. Thanks for a great review.
Gordon Preece
July 10, 2012, 2:30PM
Thanks, Paul and Mary, for the encouragement. I enjoyed Stanley in Melbourne too, though I didn't think it was one of his best addresses, particualrly for a mixed audience. Nonetheless, the whole exercise of Rai Gaita gathering top religious scholars for vigorous discussion restored my faith that it is possible in Australia despite the appalling state of much of the blogosphere.

Sorry, Paul - I can't make your talk today as I had my uncle's funeral in Sydney.

Mary, I'm one like you for whom Hauerwas, especially A Community of Character was and is crucial. I think his 12 theses for Christian social ethics and riff on Watership Down is the best intro to him, perhaps along with 'Being a Texan and a Christian'.

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