|A Theologian's "Gossipy" Memoir|
|Issue: 80 Page No: 24 Updated: 12/27/2010 10:00 AM|
A Theologian’s “Gossipy” Memoir
Stanley Hauerwas doesn’t cuss as much as he once did, but for a world-class theologian he’s still earthy, even as he explains the divine.
Consider his rapid-fire, response to a request that he summarize his many books on Christian faith: “Jesus is Lord, and everything else is bull----.”
Hauerwas, 70, has spent his adult life on such campuses as Yale, Notre Dame and Duke, where he still teaches in the divinity school. But he grew up in Dallas’ blue-collar Pleasant Grove area, son of a bricklayer, in a small house with a privy out back.
His new book, Hannah’s Child, tells his story, including intellectual adventures, interdepartmental battles, a tragic first marriage, and what it was like to be named America’s best theologian by Time magazine, in 200l.
But the early part of the book is about growing up in Pleasant Grove. Throughout the memoir, Hauerwas returns to the values he learned going with his parents to nearby Pleasant Mound Methodist Church and spending his summers helping his father lay brick.
“It never came up whether we were happy or not,” he said. “We worked. We did what we thought we were supposed to do.”
Hauerwas’ book was called “gossipy yet very moving,” by New York Times “Beliefs” columnist Mark Oppenheimer and got a rave review from The Christian Century magazine. That review begins by asking, “Why would anyone want to read a theologian’s memoir?”
Hauerwas isn’t just any theologian. Along with the recognition from Time, he was invited to the University of St. Andrews in Scotland to give one of the Gifford Lectures in Natural Theology. Other Gifford lectures have included William James and Albert Schweitzer.
Prolific and provocative, with a prose style far clearer than that of most academics, Hauerwas is now the subject of dissertations and books. There’s a 752-page The Hauerwas Reader collecting many of his essays. His book Resident Aliens, written with United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon, has sold 100,000 copies.
“He’s one of the two or three major [theological] figures of his generation,” said Robin Lovin, a professor of ethics at Perkins School of Theology. “People will be reading Hauerwas 50 years from now.”
Hauerwas is known as a great character among theologians. Trim, bald and bearded, he still has something of a Texas twang and laughs explosively at his own jokes. His passions include baseball, Mexican food and the novels of Anthony Trollope. He has wryly described himself as a “high church Mennonite” and as “ecclesiastically homeless,” but these days attends an Episcopal church.
One early article about him dwelled on his profanity, causing him to pare back.
“I just got tired of being identified with that,” he said. “I quit using [strong expletive] and [stronger expletive], but I’m a Texan and I’m a bricklayer. I’ve got other words.”
In his theology, Hauerwas takes a strong point of view, trying to jolt complacent Christians into recognizing what he thinks are the true demands of Christianity, including pacifism. Challenging “the accommodated character of the church to the American project” is one of his key themes.
The book includes one simple, declarative sentence after another, in a style Hauerwas describes as “a cross between Mickey Spillane and Ernest Hemingway.”
But he had to be talked into writing a memoir.
“I resisted it for some time, thinking that it was an exercise in narcissism,” he said. “It turned out I was just narcissistic enough to do it.”
Hauerwas was an only child, born to older parents. When he was 6, his mother told him she had prayed to give birth and promised that the child would be God’s servant. She’d been inspired by the Bible story of Hannah, who offered her son, Samuel, for the work of God.
So, Hauerwas called his memoir Hannah’s Child, and he believes that hearing his mother’s story so young really did set his direction. “I might [otherwise] be laying brick around Dallas somewhere,” he said.
But Hauerwas also makes clear that the summers he spent helping his father lay brick were a major influence. He keeps in his Duke office his father’s trowel, level and brick hammers. And he credits his scholarly productivity to the work ethic he learned tossing bricks to his dad.
Hauerwas also writes of being slow to learn to read but catching fire with youth novels about baseball, which led him to history and then books on faith.
At Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, under a professor from Dallas named John Score, Hauerwas began to read philosophy and theology.
“I remember one time I had a book of [H. Richard] Niebuhr’s on the meaning of revelation, and I couldn’t understand a word of it,” said Joe Wilson, a retired United Methodist bishop and Hauerwas’ fraternity brother.
“I thought I might impress ol’ Stanley by giving him that book. He read it overnight and said, “That’s the best book I’ve ever read’. He was a brilliant young man, and he certainly continued on that track.”
Hauerwas would go on to divinity school at Yale University, where he embraced the theology of Karl Barth. After getting his Ph.D., he began his long career of teaching and writing, with stops at Augustana College, Notre Dame (where he was a rare Protestant teaching theology) and Duke.
Both parents having died, Hauerwas doesn’t get to Dallas much. But he was here this spring to speak at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation.
Hauerwas recalls the experience as wonderful, but it didn’t keep him from showing a little Pleasant Grove edge.
He told members of the wealthy, Uptown parish: “This is the section of town I never came to except to lay brick.”
This article was first published in the Dallas Morning News (8/30/10) and is reprinted by permission.
Cite This Page:
Hodges, Sam. "A Theologian`s "Gossipy" Memoir" ChristianEthicsToday.
The Christian Ethics Today Foundation. Fall 2010 (Issue 80 Page 24)