The scene is despairing: four adventurers have lingered far too long in a subterranean city. Slowly, under the enchantment of an evil witch, they have begun to forget that there is life beyond the cavern she rules imperiously. With the help of a fire billowing thick, intoxicating fumes, the witch has well-nigh convinced the adventurers that the best things they remember from above—a brilliant sun and a talking lion—are mere fabrications of the imagination.
Just when they have all but swallowed the lie that this chthonic empire is all there is, one of them, a marshwiggle named Puddleglum, does “a very brave thing.” He drives his foot straight into the fire. Though not quenching the fire entirely, the sharp stink of burnt flesh punches through the hypnotic aroma, rousing the others. And at the same moment, the pain gives Puddleglum perfect clarity of mind: “there is nothing like a good shock of pain for dissolving certain kinds of magic.” Puddleglum wrests the moment from the witch, launching into a sermon on the land above, a land “which licks [the witch’s] world hollow.” Puddleglum exposes the underworld for the bleak pit that it is, stirring his friends on in search of the good, green earth above.
Much like the underworld of The Silver Chair, every age and civilization labors under some bewitching smoke. Lulled and spell-bound, sin, disorder, and evils that were patent in other eras attain an insidious subtlety. In the parlance of Paul, “the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4).
Every age needs its Puddleglum. For without Puddleglums, we cannot escape the web of lies and see the world as it is truly meant to be. It is the work of the Puddleglums, often with stink and pain, to show us that there is something wrong with the way things are, and that there is a better country to long for. Prophets (which are much the same as Puddleglums) are always met with stones and crosses in their own age, and only in later ages are those stones and crosses used to build them venerable graves. We need, then, only follow the trail of projectiles to learn that our own Puddleglum is an American theologian named Stanley Hauerwas, and he is every bit as odd, exaggerated, and discomforting as the marshwiggle of C. S. Lewis’ novel.
Hauerwas is a bundle of contradictions. A theologian, he is infamous for matching brusque, blue-collar vulgarity with a thoroughgoing call for christocentric pacifism. In a nutshell: “Jesus is Lord, and everything else is bullshit.” Time Magazine has heralded him as “America’s best theologian” but, perhaps more than any other living theologian of his stature, Hauerwas has railed against American identity in all its manifestations. For this, Hauerwas has been accused of peddling “anti-world theology” (James Davison Hunter), “inflam[ing] Christian resentment of secular political culture” (Jeff Stout), and demonstrating remarkable unconcern towards “the tens of thousands of lives being lost to violence,” and ignoring “America’s singular capacity, and thus unique responsibility, to stop the slaughter” (Jean Bethke Elshtain).
Some think Hauerwas’ penchant for profanity discounts him as an ethicist. Others hear “pacifist” and mistake him for a liberal sentimentalist. To dismiss him out of hand, however, would be a mistake. Odd though he may look, especially to the tribe of Christians called “Evangelical,” Hauerwas packs a punch necessary to shake us from our small, settled understanding of the gospel. Like the protagonists in Lewis’ The Silver Chair, we are lost in the sweet smoke of a sinister spell and desperately need a marshwiggle to drive his stinky duck-feet into the fire. We need someone to expunge the witch’s magic with an offensive odor. As should be clear from the litany of invectives against him, Hauerwas, the bricklayer-turned-theologian, is that abominable stench.
Just as Puddleglum cleared the air for the others to think, Hauerwas shocks us awake and offers another way of seeing the world unleashed in scripture. Often, we cannot begin to name the smoke until we have been so jolted. But with Hauerwas we will come to see that Modern Americans (especially modern American Christians) suffer under disordered loves of liberalism, nationalism, and individualism. Hauerwas delivers the antidote to these in the cocktail formula of narrative, community, and the alternative politics of the church.
“Inherent to liberalism is the attempt to create societies and people without memory.”1
In one of his better known essays, Hauerwas shows how a book ostensibly about rabbits, Richard Adams’ Watership Down, is also an insightful work of political theory. The children’s fantasy novel centers on several rabbit warrens, including Cowslip’s warren and the titular Watership Down. Adams’ rabbits live and thrive through the telling of stories, especially about the creation of the rabbits, their enemies, and the rabbit hero, El-ahrairah. El-ahraiah is the manifestation of everything that rabbits must become—cunning, but also collaborative and hospitable—in order to survive their faster, stronger, deadlier predators.
However, in Cowslip’s warren, the rabbits have stopped telling each other stories. Without the tales of rabbit wile and banding together against their predators, each rabbit cares only for his own self-interest, and that half-heartedly. These rabbits found that, by ignoring the stories of El-ahrairah, death could become a tolerable inevitability. They could grow fat and live comfortable lives by becoming sedentary, sustained by the spectrous figure of a farmer. Never mind the rabbits who disappeared; never mind that a life of ease and comfort was unnatural and unheard of in the tales of El-ahrairah. Without stories, the rabbits of this warren become capable of indifference. Shorn of story-enshrined memory, the rabbits resign themselves to death, either accepting or ignoring the snares that imperiled their neighbors in the warren. So it goes.
This is the world under the spell of liberalism. Human communities, much like rabbit warrens, are constituted by the stories they tell about themselves. When communities are shorn of story, it leaves them morally neutered, despondent, and unable to deal with life’s contingencies. While political theorists like John Rawls would say that non-sectarian, universally-agreeable “public reason” is necessary for a just politics, Hauerwas insists that it is a shared story about the way things are that makes politics possible. A story-less society cannot justify anything more than pale individualism and contractualism: e.g., “it is my body and I can do whatever I want with it” or “consent, and nothing else, is what makes sex good.”
Liberalism is a philosophy which fractures complexly-interrelated human persons into atom-sized parts called “individuals.” If you want to know why an unrelenting individualism grips the American psyche, you need look no farther than the abiding influence of liberalism in the country, ensconced deeply in our DNA at the founding.2
“No task is more important than for the Church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America.”3
Perhaps the only surer way to enrage an American Christian than threatening to take the Bible out of his hands is threatening to take away his gun (no doubt, Hauerwas would bid both farewell gladly). Hauerwas wants to remove bibles from the pews because he is worried that individualism—the conceit of self-sufficiency—has thoroughly corrupted American Christians’ ability to interpret Scripture.
Lost in the smoke, American Christians “feel no need to stand under the authority of a truthful community to be told how to read.”4 This despite centuries, if not millennia, of church teaching that a rule of faith is necessary to preserve orthodox theology. In the end, it was not so much a commitment to Scripture that separated out the world-hating gnostics from those who worshipped God enfleshed, nor raw assent to scriptural authority that separated out the Arians from the Trinitarians. All sides used the Bible to make their arguments. In the end, it was the rule of faith, the pattern handed down across time by the apostles, that enabled Christians to interpret Scripture rightly.
By taking the Bible out of the hands of Christians, Hauerwas hopes to remind them that the Bible can only be read well when it is handed down. Interpretation, where it is faithful, always occurs within a tradition. As G. K. Chesterton would remind us, “Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead” (Orthodoxy). Hauerwas has no patience for individualism, for it denies the necessity of thinking with those who merely happen to be dead. But even more crucially than Chesterton’s point, individualism forgets that we are indebted to the dead, those whom the tradition gives voice, for collecting, preserving and passing the Bible, as well as its proper interpretation, along to us. We inherit a set canon from those who came before. Without the tradition, we would not have a Bible.
“I do not want students to think for themselves[.] I want them to think like me.”5
At the beginning of a course, Hauerwas never fails to tell the classroom, with grinning candor, that his goal is not to make them independent thinkers but instead little Hauerwasians. His point, beyond quite literally desiring to make a peaceable army of minions, is this: we never think for ourselves; we learn to think by submitting ourselves to instruction by others. As John Maynard Keynes warned any would-be freethinkers, “practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”6 Individualism pretends as if humans were actually capable of independence, forgetting that we owe our life and our ability to think to others. Insofar as individualism is a refusal to submit to the authority and critiques of others, individualism is a refusal to think.
Together, individualism and liberalism eat away at the conditions and virtues necessary for community, leaving Americans incredibly lonely and without any story by which to make sense of their sad condition. As Jesus warns, when an unclean spirit is driven out of a man, “it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself … And the last state of that person is worse than the first” (Luke 11:24-26). So it is when liberalism drives out religious narratives from our self-understanding. Just as Legion is the name of the myriad demons Jesus drives out in Mark 5, Nationalism is the name of the many demons that have taken residence in American churches.
“How many of you worship in a church with an American flag? I am sorry to tell you your salvation is in doubt. How many worship in a church in which the Fourth of July is celebrated? I am sorry to tell you your salvation is in doubt.”7
Hannah Arendt observed that the emergence of totalitarian states required the evolution of loneliness: from an occasional experience faced by those “in certain marginal social conditions like old age” into an epidemic sweeping the globe, so ubiquitous as to feel mundane. Nationalism operates on similar dynamics. When other forms of identity and solidarity have been lost, what Tocqueville called “mediating institutions,” then we look to the state to give us our primary sense of identity.8
When churches bring the American flag into the sanctuary or celebrate the Fourth of July, they risk forgetting that Christians cannot be Americans first, nor even equal parts Christian and American. Scripture identifies Christians as sojourners and exiles on the Earth, having instead their citizenship in heaven. Christians should never simply assume that being a good Christian is compatible with being a good American. For it is impossible to serve two masters: “either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Mt 6:24).
Hauerwas understands more than most that our identities, even our most cherished ones, make rival claims on our souls. As he likes to quip, “I say I’m a pacifist because I am a violent son of a bitch. I’m a Texan. I can feel it in every bone I’ve got.” For Hauerwas, being a Texan makes living out the Sermon on the Mount a formidable task. Everything he was taught to value and love as a Texan makes Christ’s call to nonresistance seem absurd, even cowardly.
Hauerwas often tells the story about his cousin, Billy Dick, only six but a Texan to the bone. One day at Sunday School, as Billy listened to the story of the crucifixion he grew upset and began to wave his hand impatiently in the air. When the teacher called on him, “he stood up and blurted out, ‘If Roy Rogers had been there, those dirty s.o.b.s would not have been able to do it.’”9 (Roy Rogers was a movie star famous for playing cowboys). Hauerwas is quick to point out the ironic incompatibility between the gun-slinging Roy Rogers and the cross-bearing Christ.
Yet we are creatures of habit; we form associations and learn to make sense of the world through what we do repeatedly. Over time, we can grow accustomed to things that are otherwise quite unnatural. As Americans, we have been overexposed to the idea that national identity and Christian identity are in perfect harmony. We have learned to ignore the dissonance between an American flag and a cross being lifted up in the same space; we have grown too comfortable with the Fourth of July occupying a spot on the church calendar as if the birth of our nation were every bit as significant as the birth of Christ several months later. When we grow numb to this juxtaposition, we may even forget what makes the story of Roy Rogers and Christ absurd, not to mention funny.
The purpose of telling such a story is to reveal our similarity to Billy Dick: “we believe that if we had been at the crucifixion we certainly would not have let it happen. We are not the kind of people that let innocent people be killed.”10 We are like Billy Dick because we are more influenced by our identity as Americans (“Texans” simply being the superlative class) than by our identity as Christians. We cannot help but wish to import our own pantheon of cowboy-like heroes into the crucifixion scene, liberating Christ with a six shooter or a vibranium shield.
The Antidote: A Story-Formed Community
“The church… stands as a political alternative to every nation, witnessing to the kind of social life possible for those that have been formed by the story of Christ.”11
The church of Jesus Christ is the antidote to liberalism, individualism, and nationalism. It is the community in which we learn that we have a story, that we are not alone, and that we are a part of a kingdom that is not of this world. The church does not have an antidote—it is the antidote. That is, the cure for these three –isms is not to be found in three countervailing –isms. The cure is found in the very DNA of the church.
The church is antidote to liberalism because it is made up of “those that have been formed by the story of Christ.” It is antidote to individualism because it witnesses to the possibility of a different “kind of social life.” And lastly, the church is antidote to nationalism because it “stands as a political alternative to every nation.”
“The Church really does not know what these words [peace and justice] mean apart from the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. After all, Pilate permitted the killing of Jesus in order to secure both peace and justice (Roman style) in Judea. It is Jesus’ story that gives content to our faith.”12
One of Hauerwas’ major influences, Alasdair MacIntyre, once observed that it is only possible to “answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”13 Narrative is what makes the world intelligible. To borrow an example of this from MacIntyre, if someone next to me on the bus suddenly mutters “The name of the common wild duck is Histrionicus histrionicus histrionicus,” his behavior strikes me as absurd until I can contextualize it within a story: e.g., “The man is a spy and the sentence is code meant to identify him to his contact” or “He has mistaken me for a friend from his trivia team and is recounting a missed answer from the previous evening.” Even though the man’s sentence makes complete sense in itself, I can only understand what is going on if I can proffer a story for the man’s behavior. The story is an explanation and, conversely, any explanation is a story.
In the same way, I can only know what seeking ‘peace’ and ‘justice’ mean if I know which story I find myself a part of. The story we learn and become a part of in the church is all about the God who “raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt.”14 It is this God and no other who has revealed Himself in the history of Israel, recorded in the Scripture. This history is a narrative of God’s faithfulness toward the world through Israel. There is no God behind this God discovered in the world of the Bible, which is to say as Hauerwas does that “there is no more fundamental way to speak of God than in a story,” namely, the story of the Bible.
As Hauerwas points out, those words ‘peace’ and ‘justice’ will take on a far different meaning if Pilate is the protagonist instead of Jesus. As the careful student of antiquity Friedrich Nietzsche observed, the world underwent a “transvaluation of values” between Caesar’s Rome and Christ’s Bethlehem. The entire ancient world is confronted with a very different understanding of greatness, justice, and mercy at the Incarnation, an understanding we can only come to by entering into that story. The power and might which was celebrated as the hallmark of Greco-Roman character is cast aside in Christian worship of God in the manger, and later, God on the cross. Aristotle’s vision of excellence as the magnanimous, self-sufficient man is replaced by the character of the meek and mild servant.
Hauerwas writes again and again that “the first task of the church is to be the church” and sometimes, “the first task of the church is to make the world the world.” What Hauerwas means is that the very first thing the church needs to do is realize that it is not the world, that it lives by a different story. This is not to be “anti-world, but rather [it is] an attempt to show what the world is meant to be as God’s good creation.”15 Unless the church remembers its story, it will have no gift of good news to bring to the world. It will be lost in the same smoke that blinds the world to its story and purpose.
“Saints cannot exist without a community, as they require, like all of us, nurturance by a people who, while often unfaithful, preserve the habits necessary to learn the story of God.”16
Without a community of diverse giftings, the small band of Narnians would have never been able to escape the underworld. Even Puddleglum’s selfless deed would have been futile were it not for his friends seizing on the moment of clarity his bravery provided.
“Church” names the community in which we learn to tell the story of the God who raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt. Through its life together, the church not only learns the story of God’s faithfulness through Israel and her Christ, the church embodies that story. This story is enacted in the church’s preaching and sacraments, in its care for the poor and outcast, the reading of Scripture, musical worship, and in its embodiment of the character of Jesus and His saints. The performance of the story is not only a witness to the world but a training ground for the church. In performing the faith together, the church comes to cultivate the habits necessary to understand its own story.
Protestants do not often speak of “the habits necessary to learn the story of God.” “North American Christians,” as Hauerwas reminds us, “are trained to believe that they are capable of reading the Bible without spiritual and moral transformation.”17 But Hauerwas, following the convictions of the earliest Christians, believes that it is by living faithful lives that we come to understand the faith. As 4th century theologian Gregory of Nazianzus argues, true belief requires both contemplation and the transformation that comes through regular Christian practices like confession and the reading of Scripture in the weekly gathering. This is why, if Christians are going to learn how to think orthodoxly and read Scripture like saints, instead of butchering the Bible to affirm their a priori convictions (à la Jefferson), they will need to submit themselves to training. If churches want to put bibles backs in the hands of their parishioners, they will also need to reintroduce catechism.
These ecclesial practices form the church into the kind of people that can earnestly hear Christ’s commands, not primarily as a set of impossible ideals, but as a blueprint for life in the church. Even with its propensity for failure, the church is still the foretaste of the kingdom of God. To speak of people transformed to hear and respond to the Gospel is to begin to speak of virtue.
Hauerwas writes that it is “never a question whether we will or will not develop habits and virtues, but what kind of habits and virtues we will develop.” Christians are not interested in virtue in the abstract. The virtues Christians are after are those they see in the lives of the saints.
“The lives of the saints are the hermeneutical key to Scripture.”18
The saints (neither limited to those recognized by the Roman Catholic Church nor exclusive of these) are those Christians whom the church has recognized as living out the story of God faithfully, that is, virtuously or excellently. The saints are the hermeneutical key to Scripture because they demonstrate its proper interpretation through the form of their lives. Scripture is only properly interpreted when it is enfleshed in human action.
The Christ of Scripture commands “Repent!” and “Follow me!” He does not command “Parse the syntax of my words in the original language” (though from time to time, obedience to Christ might require such care). This is why the lives of the saints, and not the tomes of biblical scholars, are the key. Christians learn more about Romans 13 and the Christian’s proper relationship to the state from Bonhoeffer’s stand against Nazi Germany than they do from some scholarly text on the passage. Scriptural interpretation is not the cold scientific game of armchair pontificators; scriptural interpretation is the embodied art we discover in the lives of the saints.
If it were not for the saints, Christians might not know that Scripture could be lived out so vividly. As Hauerwas says, “You can only act in the world you can see and you can only see what you have learned to say.”19 The saints show us new possibilities for life, even in this fallen world. They interpret and extend the story of Scripture, demonstrating the manifold shapes faithfulness can take. Without them, Christians might despair entirely of their ability to imitate Christ.
An Alternative Politics
“The Father has sent his Son so that we —that is, the church—might be an alternative politics, a politics of truth, to that of the world.”20
When Puddleglum broke the witch’s enchantment by driving his foot into the fire, the point was not simply to get an honest look at the brutal netherworld the company found themselves in—the purpose was to rediscover Narnia, that green land above. Neither is the purpose of Christ’s incarnation a mere revelation of sin and fallenness (though that was surely part of it!). Christ came to announce that the ways of the world had been upended in him. He proclaimed his presence as the inbreaking of the kingdom of God in the middle of history, even as he pointed toward an eschatological horizon when God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven.
But this inbreaking was real and enduring. Christ, most succinctly in the Sermon on the Mount, gave his followers a new way of living in the world: “He gave them a new way to deal with offenders—by forgiving them. He gave them a new way to deal with violence—by suffering. He gave them a new way to deal with money—by sharing it.”21 Christ did not just come to offer hope for life after death; Christ came to offer life in the very midst of this death-drenched world. He established the church as a city on a hill, a witness to this oasis of life.
The church is not solely a community that has accepted the lordship of Christ and gathered to worship him. Rather, the church is the community that witnesses to who Christ is through its own life together.22
“To live in the light of the resurrection is to refuse to use the powers that crucified Jesus in the name of achieving justice.”23
The principle characteristic of such a community is peace, its refusal to use violence. This puts the church in dramatic contrast with the state, which is founded and secured upon coercive violence. While the state’s authority is based on a monopoly over lethal power24, the Christian community is grounded in Christ’s going to the cross, his forgiveness of his murderers, and the vindication of his obedience in the resurrection.
Hauerwas’ refusal to use violence is not based in sentimentalism or some belief that “trying peace” will end war or make the world safer. Hauerwas’ refusal is based in his understanding of Christ. Pacifism is not about this-worldly consequences; it is not a strategy to restrain sin. Instead, it is much more simple: “as faithful followers of Christ, we cannot imagine being anything else than nonviolent; it is a nonviolence, moreover, that may make the world more violent.”25 The church triumphs by the “blood of the lamb and by the word of their testimony”; not by bombs and armaments. The saints of Revelation are the martyrs, those who “did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death” (Rev 12.11). It is a willingness to endure suffering for the gospel, not the correct application of a utilitarian calculus, that makes the saints the saints.
Christians must reckon with the tragic inevitability of death, even the death of innocents. They must learn to acknowledge that their lives and the lives of those they love are out of their control—they are not God. So often violence is a refusal to recognize that we are radically contingent beings and that “our task as Christians” is not “to make history come out right.”26 Only God can do that, and Christians profess that in the resurrection He has in fact done that. We have seen the end. Wherever the church adopts an “ends-justify-the-means” approach, they demonstrate faithlessness in Christ’s lordship over all creation.
For Hauerwas, the temptation in the wilderness represents an ongoing temptation for the church: “Jesus was offered the means to feed the hungry, the authority to end war between peoples, and even the defeat of death itself. But he refused these goods. He did so because Jesus knows God’s kingdom cannot be forced into existence using the means of the devil.”27
While others may see in the temptation narrative a bare historic fact, Hauerwas sees it as setting a pattern for the life of the church. Christendom—the church bearing the soldier’s sword and the executioner’s axe—is a devil’s deal. Nothing the devil offered Christ was bad, but no good end and can justify means that betray Christ’s life, person, and mission.
Because the church is a community that refuses to use violence for the sake of justice, Christians cannot in good conscience serve in the military or use the lethal arm of the state to achieve their purposes. In a provocatively titled essay, “Why Gays (As A Group) Are Morally Superior To Christians (As A Group),” Hauerwas praises ‘gays’ for appearing suspicious enough to get banned from military service. It is a moral failure, Hauerwas suggests, that Christians do not appear just as suspicious to a state so comfortable with using coercion and violence to maintain its peace. It is a moral failure that the gay community presented more of a threat to the status quo of violent conflict than the church. It is a sign that the church has failed in its calling to live out an alternative politics to the world. In its desire for respectability, the church has let itself become assimilated into the mundaneness of the world—and this to the detriment of the world.
Hauerwas has sometimes been accused of peddling an “anti-world” theology by pointing away from the world and toward something greater, something truer than the world as we experience it. However, the real anti-world theology is not witnessing to an alternative way of life, one that does not establish its peace on the bodies of its enemies. The worst theology is that which accommodates itself to the world and gives the world over to its violent rebellion against God. “Peace,” Hauerwas is sure, “is a deeper reality than violence.”28
When the Narnians struggle to resist the witch’s magic and false story about the world, she accuses them of childish fancy. Though Puddleglum and the children try their best to argue that there is a world beyond the underworld—a world with a bright sun and a talking lion named Aslan—the witch dismisses them curtly:
Look how you can put nothing into your make-believe without copying it from the real world, this world of mine, which is the only world. … Put away these childish tricks. I have work for you all in the real world. There is no Narnia, no Overworld, no sky, no sun, no Aslan.
The witch has to deny the possibility of another world, for any other world would be better than her black pit of a kingdom. She says there is “work” to be done in the “real world,” accusing the Narnians of irresponsibility. For charges of childishness and a summons to “responsibility” are always the desperate last defense of a brutal status quo. Hauerwas, like Puddleglum, knows that such a world is not worth living in.
The saints are those who would rather lose their lives as martyrs then live falsely. They are the ones who know that it is better to die and watch loved ones suffer in faithfulness than to live the pale, brutal life of faithlessness. No less an authority than St. Augustine insists that sin is never justified, not even to save a man’s life. For what worth, he reasons, is it to gain some paltry more years of existence if we lose our soul?
Puddleglum counted the cost of discipleship and he did not find it too great. Though knowing that leaving in defiance of the witch might make his world more violent, Puddleglum, like all the saints, could not imagine living any other way. So he bids the witch’s kingdom adieu:
So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.
John Shelton is the policy advisor for Advancing American Freedom. He received degrees from Duke University (M.Div.) and the University of Virginia (B.A), and lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Katelyn, and their children.