By John Shelton

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.

Liberalism

“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

Individualism

“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.

Nationalism

“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.”

Narrative

“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.

Community

“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.

Conclusion

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 Schweiker Shelton is a congressional staffer with a master’s degree from Duke in theological ethics and political theory. He is also a proud Virginian and alumnus of Thomas Jefferson’s university. You can follow him on Twitter @jayshelt for odd musings about theology, philosophy, and fantasy literature.

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  1. Dispatches From the Front, 228 n. 9
  2. As scholars have pointed out, the founding is an amalgam of liberal and conservative elements. On an optimistic view, the two balance out shortcomings in each other. On a pessimistic view, dissonances between the two have created an incoherent American self-understanding. On a very bleak view, liberalism has entirely swallowed up the conservative element and has American identity in a deadly tailspin.
  3. Unleashing the Scripture, 15.
  4. Ibid
  5. The Work of Theology, 22.
  6. The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, 1936, 383.
  7. “Princeton Theological Seminary Address to Youth Ministers.”
  8. Hauerwas points to a similar dynamic at work in the NFL and college basketball: “Suddenly you’re in a stadium with a hundred thousand people and they are jumping up and down. Their bodies are painted red, like the bodies that surround them. They now think their loneliness has been overcome.” https://www.plough.com/en/topics/community/church-community/why-community-is-dangerous
  9. Unleashing the Scripture
  10. Ibid
  11. A Community of Character
  12. Resident Aliens.
  13. After Virtue, 216.
  14. Jenson, Systematic Theology, vol. 1.
  15. The Peaceable Kingdom, 100.
  16. The Gesture of a Truthful Story
  17. Unleashing the Scripture
  18. TPK.
  19. TWoT 26
  20. “What’s Love Got to Do With It? The Politics of the Cross”
  21. “What’s Love Got to Do With It? The Politics of the Cross”
  22. The church is a contrast society, though this does not make it “anti-world, but rather an attempt to show what the world is meant to be as God’s good creation.” (TPK 100).
  23. TWOT 139
  24. See Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan.
  25. TWOT 139.
  26. TPK 106
  27. “What’s Love Got to Do With It? The Politics of the Cross”
  28. Hannah’s Child, 231.

Posted by Guest Writer

  • Scott Pryor

    Is Hauerwas unaware of of folks like Roger Scruton and Yoram Hazony?

  • Ian

    I am enormously pleased with your overview of Hauerwas, J., and I don’t say that as a fanboy already committed to all of Hauerwas’s axioms. There are still certain topologies in his work with which I register either a halting “perhaps,” or a “I don’t buy it,” but it is in all of these things (and not really in spite of them) that I find his work a vastly more compelling critique of where the church is at and what it could be than, well, nearly anyone in the usual, go-to authorities (TGC, ERLC, Desiring God, etc.). Well done!

  • Cal P

    I like Hauerwas, but I have to run to the right of his Puddleglum. The problem is that Hauerwas, a high and well decorated university professor with nominal attachment to any particular body within his loose sphere of Anglican-Methodism, is kind of a fairy, a mythical creature gesturing to a non-existent world. His defenses of church authority aren’t grounded in anything real, nor do they make sense of the one major crisis of his career: the total failure of Mennonites to properly discipline John Howard Yoder. As a post a few months ago touched on (viz. Barth and his mistress), Yoder totally outstripped the local church structures he so praised. It’s like a local court clerk trying to prosecute the president of the United States. Hauerwas can wring his hands about it, but his hard talking appears like a flash of smoke when confronted with the series of ecclesiastical abuse and failure for self-regulation. Without embracing a secular Erastianism, the full scope of Roman Catholic sex-abuse and obfuscation should sober us of how waving the flag of “church” can do little in reality.

    Of course, I agree with Hauerwas’ emphasis on the local church, but his post-liberalism and MacIntyrean virtue ethics makes him a gibbering idiot. The focus on rhetoric, and the stories we tell ourselves, is an exercise in post-modern literary nonsense. Stories, as complex webs of ideas, require flesh, and they are only as real as they are embodied in the world of bodies, social bonds, and material objects. Stories only function as the reasoning of efforts to reform, regulate, or radicalize our network of relations to ourselves, things, and others. St. Paul’s letters are exercises in this mode of thought. It wasn’t ideas and stories that propelled the Bolsheviks to seize control of the Russian Revolution, nor was it what gave Methodists’ the ability to radically transform the Anglo-American world. While the focus on telling stories and art may appeal to fops like Dreher, it’s the gritty reality of local organizing and building networks that realize the truths of the gospel. Of course, it requires us to do more than get a bullsh*t degree in literature from a worthless liberal arts school.

    • Ian

      Cal, I myself am pretty over postliberalism but where I’m at now is dependent, in part, on having tussled with it and appropriated certain points (or, to be your level of cynical, “extracted”). I wonder, though, how it imperiously reduces him to gibbering idiot status. It seems to me, furthermore, that he agrees with you that stories require flesh: thus his insistence on the importance of liturgy and episcopacy. What am I missing in your critique?

      • Cal P

        I’ve read plenty of Hauerwas and I had that wake-up moment when I realized I had no idea what any of what he said translated into actual situations with recognition of the actual state of Christian churches, in America or otherwise. The fact that you list liturgy and episcopacy as “flesh” for the ideas is exactly my point. What do those things actually do or mean? What ‘is’ a bishop and what does he do? What do you mean by liturgy?

        It seems almost self-evident that liturgy does little to “shape” Christians. To buy that requires you do sloppy intellectual history and tell a just-so story about the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, Modernity or some other boogeyman. The easiest example is to cross-compare the Scripture rich average Tridentine Roman Catholic service with the current state of the Roman Catholicism in the US.

        The PoMo fixation on the power of language and art does little to explain how things actually work. Sure, it might get you an academic post, but it does little to contribute to understanding, even if it can be an exercise in creativity. Again, I like Hauerwas’ main points, but he does more harm than good. Yes, I’m glad he called Bush II as a warmongerer and blasted Christians for supporting invading the Middle East from a distinctly Christian vantage. But saying that churches have just capitulated to the world does little to actually grasp the shape of things on the ground.

        I recommend Theo Hobson’s decade old critique “Against Hauerwas”, even though I’m not keen on his alternative.

        • Ian

          It is a majestic waving of a magic wand you performed there, but it is a magic trick, or rather, an illusion: the inability of liturgy to shape Christians is not as self-evident as you take it to be, or as much as you want it to be (for whatever reason). I am a little astonished at the historical misdirection taking place in that middle paragraph. Obviously there are just-so stories of disenchantment that are all the Reformation’s fault (cf. Brad Gregory) but do you really think Weber was completely and utterly grasping at straws? Yes, there are specific points where Taylor’s argument in A Secular Age could be strengthened or modified or disproven, but I see no way around his fundamental thesis. I agree with you obviously that there is a fundamentalist apologetic that paints modernity as a bogeyman, one that curiously aligns fairly well with a certain type of Roman Catholic historical apologetic, but there are some sure-footed critiques of that apologetic in books like The Myth of Disenchantment, for instance, that document the various “uses” for stories of disenchantment, but I don’t see how they in any way unveil a nude emperor no one else has been brave enough to point out. Something was made publicly accessible in the post-Reformation and Counter-Reformation era that contributed to the secularism that is nigh ubiquitous in our context.

          Back to liturgy, though: where again do I witness the self-evidence of liturgy’s uselessness in Christian formation? Have you read Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist or Theopolitical Imagination? Are those accounts just simplistic Kuyperian rhetoric being pushed through a worship aperture? Do you think Eliot’s allusions to liturgical action in his mature works evidences only a hipster intertextuality and not evidence of the gravity of participation? Or look at the embedding of the BCP in English-speaking culture, or ask: what pre-existing conditions made Cranmer’s decision to implement an English language daily office and a tripartite temporal sequence into the C of E’s liturgy comprehending the church calendar, the course of human life, and the mundane movements of the individual day? Because people were so obviously unaffected by liturgy?

          And from there, I can’t make sense of your confidence that studying the power of language contributes little— what? Speech-act theory and Marxist accounts of interpellation yield enormous insight into the “what” and the “how” of this thing we are, i.e. the church, and how we do what we do, etc. I know I don’t have to offer an obligatory “obviously there are pointy-headed ivory tower types who deploy this kind of thing to no obvious good use for us” bit, but for crying out loud, man, that isn’t 99% of what’s being done with this type of work.

          I need to chill out for a bit and read some Hubmaier.

          • Cal P

            Yes, as you gestured, Weber’s theory was as more a projection and hope than a careful historical study. And if you read Brad Gregory carefully, his point wasn’t that it was the Reformation’s fault directly; he’s a good scholar. But the first paragraph is just an argument from incredulity. Jacques Ellul is far more astute of how periods of secularization are quite normal, and waves enchantment and disenchantment form auras around different objects and concepts. I’m not convinced the modern sacralization of technique is qualitatively better or worse, or even Christian, than portions of the Middle Ages.

            First, I think Cranmer was right to make something like the prayerbook, because it was good way to soak Scripture into the daily trials and blessings that common people went through. Without getting into my thoughts on language and rationality, I’m resisting the fixation on causality. The power of language is far more modest than Marxist and post-Marxist literary theory gives it.

            The last point is a non-starter. I didn’t deny the value of studying what people say, or that using words does something. I am doubtful of the level of efficacy that people ascribe to it, as if repairing our liturgy would help us live more like Christians (I don’t think it would). Maybe if liturgy is thought less aesthetically, and more of just a sheer habit (e.g. going to gather as a church every sunday morning makes it more normal, thus easier, to do), then there may be more of a point. But, that’s not what most mean when they talk about renewing liturgies.

          • Cal P

            After thinking about your responses more, I find it almost absurd that your reply involves a bunch of name dropping appeals to authority. I’m not saying I’ve discovered some secret, or declared the emperor has no clothes, but the whole premise depends upon faulty notions. The whole study of modernity and the turn to the “secular” depends upon a scholarly consensus that has been steadily discredited.

            And the imputation that I’m some sort of anti-elitist, against the pointy heads or whatever, is garbage. The problem is that academic circles have become their own caste, with a sickening insularity and guild mentality. I write this as someone in working in the academy, desiring fresh air and reform instead of the same wheel-spinning nonsense. Theory is like a drug, it can open your mind sometimes, or it can send you off into delusion. I’m not waving the magic wand here, I’m saying there’s a real world above the caverns.

          • Ian

            I pushed your buttons more vigorously than I intended, Cal. I don’t know any other way to appropriate authority than citing where I get something from, so I don’t see what I was doing as name-dropping— I just think those sources have to be negotiated if we’re talking about this (which we are). You are prone, at times, to big declaratives with no footnotes or work shown and I want to see where you carried the 1 sometimes even though much of the time I find it fairly easy to follow your charism of ornery, Schwarmer prophetic outrage.

          • Cal P

            Appeal to authority = “but..but..Taylor, Cavanaugh, Weber?!” You didn’t interact with my claims, you just asked me how they could be wrong. For a good place from a different vantage read Jacques Ellul’s “The New Demons” which is a bit dated, but fairly perceptive (and I think you can find it free on religion-online).

            I offer big sweeping declarative statements because this is a blog comment section, and my comments get trapped in the spam trap when they’re too long. What got me started was a celebration of how Hauerwas is challenging our “liberal” sensibilities and opening us to the church. I’m saying his whole project doesn’t make sense when you interrogate it, because it lacks concrete referents and little engagement with historical data. And that’s the problem with the fixation with language as possessing some determinate power, shaping us for good or bad. I don’t think that pans out, empirically or otherwise. It’s essentially the same flaw, maybe what you could call a Platonic category error, where we ascribe potency to abstracts that do not exist or agency to mental constructs that do not have it outside of human beings (or subjects, more broadly) in social bonds.

            I do not buy the idea that most contemporary American Roman Catholics and Evangelicals are substantially different from each other due to a liturgical mold. What is far more determining is where they live, where they work, their socio-economic status, family connections, and the importance of magnitude certain social bonds possess and to what ends they exist. Jamie Smith was quite right to cite the Godfather baptism scene a potentially paradigm ending counterexample, and I don’t think he adequately responds (at least from what I’ve seen). As far as we know, the first and second century Christians did not have or want most of what we consider liturgical, and they were not the worst off for it. But God forbid we take Acts 2 as sufficient for what aims churches should have in reforms.

            It’s so funny that I’m labeled ornery because I’d prefer not putting back on shackles that our current epoch has accidentally released us from.

          • Cal P

            And I want to make this point clear: though I’m responding and in dialog with Ian, my points are to anyone who is suspicious of Hauerwas, Dreher, Jamie Smith, et al. I don’t mean to take potshots, but I find it funny that praise for Hauerwas comes from a congressional staffer. Hauerwas is almost quintessentially liberal in finding his “church” in theological journals and in his classroom, and, as Theo Hobson pointed out, he is almost self-aware of how he stands as a living refutation of his entire project. But he still gets book deals and cashes his checks, so I guess it doesn’t matter. I still laugh when I read his appeals to the catholic tradition, even as his wife is an ordained priestess.

            I appreciate many at MereO who are self-consciously Erastian Magisterial Protestants. Even though I think that path is terrible for Christians to support, it at least plays out in the kinds of people who support the project (financial managers, journalists, political operatives). If there was ever a golden age of this kind of ecclesiology, it was under Elizabeth, and they do Walsingham proud. But Hauerwas is the equivalent of a limousine liberal, the phony radicalism of a certain Harvard lawyer who was a community organizer in Chicago. And to sing his praises is just silly. If this whole post was a parody, you got me!

          • Ian

            If nothing else, I am monumentally pleased that 90% of the comments section is us bickering with each other at an oblique angle from Hauerwas himself! I’d say “Let’s go get a root beer and holler elsewhere” but he we are in the vast consensual hallucination that is the internet.

  • Dan Grubbs

    I wonder what Mr. Hauerwas believes the role of the Holy Spirit is with the “individual” redeemed believer regarding the interpretation of scripture. For exegesis, I do call upon sermons and commentaries of people I trust. But, my Guide through a pericope examination — as well as, interpretation and subsequent application — is the Holy Spirit. The Helper is our translator and teacher of the Bible. We can take cues from a human teacher or tradition, but I am indwelt by the Author of the text. Why would I think He cannot communicate through His own word? To believe that Christians should give up their Bibles and be subject to the interpretations of fallen man susceptible to the lust of power and influence is, in Mr. Hauerwas’ words, bullshit.

  • Joshua Morgan

    “If churches want to put bibles backs in the hands of their parishioners, they will also need to reintroduce catechism.”

    It’s interesting to see your push for catechism. Catechism seems to be born out of Liberalism—teaching devoid of life lived out in the community. We are just blank slates that someone crams information into our heads.

  • Bryan Johnson

    To be fair, Cal P, Hauerwas does resemble Puddleglum a bit in appearance, at least as I imagine him.

    • Cal P

      I think that’s right, but that adds another cut to my point. Hauerwas is an actor, who has created his own image of being the hard-talking, hard-working, Yosemite Sam theologian of peace. But there’s not much substance to it besides the rhetoric. It seems that across the board in the US that style is more important to substance, personality more important than issues.

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  • On Watership Down: Adams’s text is actually kind of internally inconsistent, though – the rabbits of Cowslip’s warren express lack of interest in the stories of El-ahrairah, yet they also have an artistic depiction of El-ahrairah on their wall, which Hazel and his companions are unable to comprehend. (“These stones could not possibly be anything to do with El-ahrairah.”)

    Really, it seems that Hazel et al. are Protestants who prefer the Word and Cowslip et al. are Catholics/Orthodox who prefer artistic depictions thereof. (Probably Adams was an old Anglican Tory of the Peter Hitchens type who would not have objected to such an interpretation.)

  • hoosier_bob

    When I have doubts concerning the Gospel, it is writers like Hauerwas that tend to pull me back in. There is, within evangelicalism, a certain craven lust for epistemic certainty that runs largely counter to the Gospel’s call to place our trust in Christ. To be honest, reading the writings of the typical evangelical talking heads from fora like TGC, Desiring God, ERLC, CBMW, etc., generally causes me to doubt more. We need more theologians like Hauerwas!

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  • C.T. Casberg

    I fully confess my guilt in my ignorance of Hauerwas, but much of this is new territory for me. I have to say, this is a startling sharp critique of where we are in our current moment. The line “Inherent to liberalism is the attempt to create societies and people without memory” nearly knocked me out of my chair. Is there a better way to describe the way we mass-manufacture and then mass-discard language, thought, and art in our culture? We are unmoored from everything, including the very idea of mooring. The American church, adrift in feel-good Oprah spirituality on the left and naked will to power on the right, is no shelter here.

    Enlightening essay. Thanks!

  • hoosier_bob

    In thinking a bit more about this piece, I don’t know that you have an option but to have a story-formed community. The question is whether that story-formed community will be shaped by the story of Jesus. In the case of white evangelicalism, the story generally is not shaped by Jesus. Rather, the story that shapes white evangelicalism is a story of the white middle class and its social anxieties in a post-industrial, meritocratic era. That’s why white evangelicals have fallen so hard for the blood-and-soil message of Donald Trump. I left the movement a few years ago. When I left, I felt like I was observing a slow slide towards white nationalism, at least within the PCA. Now that white evangelicalism has become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the alt-right, I feel like I was amazingly prescient to get out when I did.

    • Guest

      which could be construed as a way of saying that their story is not the gospel of Jesus but the gospel of Atlas Shrugged

      • hoosier_bob

        Maybe, but most Trumpvangelicals would not make it in the meritocracy envisaged by Rand. They’re too busy doing meth and fentanyl.

    • Cal P

      That’s only partially true. If you look at many articles on TGC, there is a whole swathe of Evangelicals who have embraced SJWism and identity politics. Maybe not as numerically as important as the many who openly support Trump, but not unimportant either. To call it a wholly-owned subsidiary isn’t true, and to think white nationalism and the alt-right is the problem is just parochial. If anything, Evangelicals are a subsidiary of American global terrorist politics, wanting their brand figure-head (like Bush II) to sign off on the drone strike than the other guy. None of these stories are shaped by Jesus Christ, and re-telling the gospel will do nothing unless people are willing to let go of their stock-portfolios and the middle-class dream of respectability.

      It doesn’t sound like you escaped, you just successfully adapted.

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