Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir – A Review

Tony Sig

Hannah’s Child: A Theologians Memoir, by Stanley Hauerwas

Published by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6487-1

My thanks to Kelly Hughes for the review copy!

This last Sunday, Pentecost Sunday, was at my parish a joyous celebration. We flew a dove in the procession, we read Acts 2.1-12 in 24 languages simultaneously in honor of the Spirit being poured out on all peoples, we prayed for, blessed and sent a pastor and his family as they prepared to leave us and return to ministry in South Africa having spent two years pouring in their gifts to our congregation, we had a baptism of a new child, pledging to raise the child in the faith and renewing our own baptism, and we even had a first communion.

I can think of nothing that would please Stanley Hauerwas more or that could sum up more appropriately the themes of Hauerwas’ new memoir, Hannah’s Child. Hannah’s Child is not a biography, thank God.  Rather than filled with dates and dry reportage, this book amounts to a theological reflection on his life. In fact originally Hauerwas had wanted the subtitle to be “A Theological Memoir” rather than “A Theologians Memoir” but Eerdmans didn’t think it would sell well! Which is, to be fair, probably true. But the original title itself ought to be an indicator of the theological character of the work.

Hauerwas’ mother and father had wanted to have a child for some time but they had remained childless. Desperate, his mother prayed the prayer of Hannah, promising to dedicate her child to the Lord should she become pregnant. It is then providential that that child should become, according to Time magazine, “Americas Best Theologian.” Whatever else he is, Hauerwas is at least controversial and few people who care about contemporary theology do not have an opinion of him. (Surprisingly, many in academia cannot reconcile themselves to his radical ideas. Hauerwas dryly notes that there seems to be a recent trend in younger academics to prove that they are not “Hauerwasian.” A trend I am more than happy to buck and hold in derision.)

As is to be expected, the book is filled with catchy one liners and quixotic stories:

“I don’t believe in California”

”I am not a pacifist because of a theory, I am a pacifist because John Howard Yoder convinced me that nonviolence and Christianity are inseparable”

”Most people do not have to become a theologian to become a Christian but I probably did.”

There are several themes that end up repeating themselves throughout. Whether this is intentional or not I don’t know; I don’t much care for authorial intent or original meanings of texts anyway.

Much of Hauerwas’ adult life was lived under the dark shadow of life with a mentally ill wife. Anne Hauerwas had bipolar disorder and was verbally abusive to Stanley and even their son Adam throughout much of the 20 years they were married. A large portion of the narrative is dominated by Anne and her behaviour. At times she manifested huge fantasies and delusions; sometimes believing that other men loved her and/or were being hounded by demons, from which only her and her bed could rescue them; or sometimes she would blame Stanley for all of the problems in her life; being an artist and having read feminist literature she thought him oppressive and patriarchichal. She showed very little interest in Adam even when he would win awards or get into great schools. Even after she left Stanley, she attempted drastic moves to pull him back into the swirling chaos, an attempt that ultimately failed. She died young of heart failure but she left an indelible mark on Hauerwas.

Besides Anne, the institutions where Hauerwas has worked have also exerted a lasting influence on him. He started out at a small Midwestern Lutheran school, Augustana. This is where he cut his teeth and was in turn cut by the world of academia of which to that point he knew little. Because of his minor involvement in disagreements over racism he stirred up enough waves to put him in poor relations with some in the school. His contract was not renewed. But he was to be picked up by Notre Dame. This is where he was to become a very Catholic Protestant, more Catholic indeed than most Catholics. This is also where he would come to know the work of John Howard Yoder. This had just as large an effect as anything else and he is to this day irreversibly in Yoder’s debt. He loved it there and would probably have never left but for the fact that Richard McBrien (who he affectionately calls “Dick” McBrien) became dean of the divinity school and enacted too many changes for Hauerwas’ liking.

“If you want to know where liberal Protestant theology has gone to die, one need not look much further than some Catholic theologians”

Hauerwas pulls no punches in his vivid descriptions of conflict with school and church leaders.

From there he ends up in Duke where he has been now for I believe 25 years. Though he has frustrations with Duke, not least of which is the separation of the divinity school from the university, Hauerwas is grateful for his time at Duke.

His account of all these institutions is peppered throughout with names of friends; far too many names for me to recall. More so than Anne or his time in institutions, the theme of Friendship is ingrained deep in the narrative. Hauerwas has many many friends and he is eternally grateful for these friends, without whom he says he could not be the person that he is. Friends got him and his son Adam through his years with Anne, friends made him the intellectual he is, friends are people who keep him accountable. His second wife and total love Paula is his closest friend. I was reminded of the great warmth of C. S. Lewis’ account of “Friend Love” in his stellar little book “The Four Loves.” Of things left for Hauerwas to write on, I hope he dedicates a book to a Christian understanding of friendship.

Similar to yet different than the large role of friends in his life, Hauerwas pays particular attention, appropriately, to the churches where he invested his life. From Lutherans at Augustana, to Catholics and Methodists at Notre Dame and Methodist and Episcopalians at Duke, he sees in these parishes, the incarnation of his own theology. The Church figures large in all he has done, apart from which he couldn’t be a Christian.

Finally, thanksgiving for all of these gifts is the glue that holds his entire memoir together. He cannot go more than a few paragraphs without pausing to give thanks for his parents, his employers, his friends and the Church.

I cannot recommend this book enough. It is easily readable and I hope that many Christians can be enriched and challenged and blessed by the gift that is Stanley Hauerwas by the reading of this book. It is not an abstract nor academic work, most anybody can read it without trouble.  From it they could learn just how this theologian thinks of himself in relation to the Church, how he envisions himself serving, guiding and being guided by it.  I’ve found myself grateful for my own life, my friends and the Church on account of it. I will be digesting it for some time to come.

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14 Comments

  1. You nailed this review. It was all about friendship, becoming a high-church Mennonite, and the perils of living with a family member who suffers mental illness.

    I have no problem being a fan of Stan.

    Reply

  2. Great review, Tony. This definitely beats the absolutely terrible terrible terrible “review” on this book in the most recent First Things.

    Reply

  3. I just thought I’d link to this review on Wunderkammer. I’ve yet to read anything by Hauerwas (don’t flame me I’m sorry!), but both reviews have guaranteed I’ll be checking this out of the library.

    Reply

  4. Tony, they don’t have it posted online. But yes, I guess pissed that he left, or something like that. It definitely had more of a general attack of character feel to it. Although, to be fair, I suppose Hauerwas has said in the past, “Why can’t we all just have an argument?” Maybe this is the kind of thing he was talking about. Maybe it’s an honor to be “reviewed” in such a(n awful) manner.

    Reply

  5. Tony,

    Thanks for this. I’m hoping to read it soon; I’d like to read it w/ several other autobios, to let them spark off one another, if that makes sense. Suggestions?

    Reply

  6. “Of things left for Hauerwas to write on, I hope he dedicates a book to a Christian understanding of friendship.

    Augustine’s Confessions has a strong theme of authentic vs. inauthentic “friendship.”

    Good review =).

    Reply

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