A (very) Critical Review of Nicholas Healy(‘s book)

Hauerwas: a (very) critical introduction
by: Nicholas M. Healy
Reviewed by Tony Hunt
My thanks to Eerdmans for the review copy

Why write a very critical review of Nicholas Healy’s very critical introduction to Stanley Hauerwas? In my opinion, Healy’s book has not as yet been subjected to the kind of exacting critical analysis that is appropriate for a supposedly systematic review of an entire life’s corpus. There have been a few good summaries of his main points, with several somewhat critical interjections, true, but none have as yet taken as hard a line as I wish to take.

I should clarify, though, that this is not a review of the entirety of Healy’s book. I only want to get a handle on the book as a whole and assess it as such. I will not discuss even those chapters that are rightly judged to be important or especially insightful, such as the chapter advancing the crude analogy between Hauerwas and Schleiermacher. For one thing, I do not have the expertise to be able to say anything of special interest about such matters. For another, although these are central chapters to his main arguments, I do not think they actually contribute all that much to those arguments. Thus the entirety of chapters 3 and 4 have been left out of the scope of this essay.

Now I do hope that this is not seen as criticism of Healy as a person. From what I’ve been able to gather he is an amiable fellow. I have not met him in person and have purposely gone to some length not to contact him, lest talking to him taint my interpretation of his work. That is the last thing I would want. Clarifications of his arguments, or elaborations of his points would only disturb the picture I have of Healy’s book as it stands. I would like here to introduce my first distinction, that between the work and the person. A theologian could be a powerful sociopath but their work is entirely distinct from this. No, who a person is has no bearing on the much clearer and straightforward message of the author’s texts on their own terms.

But before proceeding further I think it is important to understand just what kind of work Healy’s is. To do this I need to elaborate somebody else’s typology at some length, assume its authority, and locate Healy’s work on it.

Rowan Williams, in his book On Christian Theology, claims that theology operates in three registers: The celebratory, the communicative and the critical. Celebratory theology  is “an attempt to draw out and display connections of thought and image so as to exhibit the fullest possible range of significance in the language used. It is typically the language of hymnody and preaching.” (p.xiii)

Communicative theology, on the other hand, “seeks to persuade or commend, to witness to the gospel’s capacity for being at home in more than one cultural environment, and to display enough confidence to believe that this gospel can be rediscovered at the end of a long and exotic detour through strange idioms and structures of thought.” (p.xiv)

Finally, critical theology works in at least two different ways. “The critical impulse may issue in agnosticism, even nihilism;” But it may also dialectically move back toward the celebratory “by hinting at the gratuitous mysteriousness of what theology deals with.” (p.xv)

Why it is necessary to locate Healy on this schema may not be readily apparent but trust me, it’s important enough to dedicate three whole paragraphs and a series of criticisms to it. In fact I’ll probably keep referring back to Williams’ typology for the rest of this review. At any rate Healy can’t be found clearly in any one style and it’s perfectly natural that a work would move between registers anyway. On the other hand, that Healy navigates and sometimes combines the three categories of theology as organized by Rowan Williams probably is a kind of indictment, because problems arise when the three are conflated. The celebratory ceases to function well when it is mixed with the communicative, etc.

In the next section of my review I will elaborate further what kind of book Healy’s is. We have already seen that – in my view problematically – it does not fall distinctly into one of the three varieties of theology that Rowan Williams describes. Now we will attempt to get at the core of Healy’s style. Introductions to authors traditionally work by what I would like to call an “exegeticocentric” method. That is, for ages past when someone wanted to give a systematic presentation of an author’s entire life’s work they discussed at length the arguments of the texts, usually situating them in an historical context and relating them to the author’s influences and conversation partners. Healy takes a different route: His is a “typologicocentric” book, wherein what is important is to elaborate novel and extensive categorical schema within which an author may be placed. So for Healy, Hauerwas’s work is not traditional because it breaks with the “theocentric” strain of theology and instead advances the “ecclesiocentric” model typified by at least one old German dude. This problematizes Healy’s entire project because synthetic descriptions of other’s work are most faithful when they are exegeticocentric rather than typologicocentric.

A few examples may be appropriate. If Healy were using the traditional exegeticocentric method, he would have needed to include a discussion about the sizable influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein on Hauerwas, noting how Wittgenstein’s account of the acquisition of language and its use bears on the relationship between the liturgy, scripture reading, sacraments, and discipleship; a relationship Healy feels Hauerwas gets wrong. Then again, for Healy, Hauerwas may have his unique influences, but we do not need to know them to understand and assess his theological arguments. (Although it may have modified Healy’s argument that MacIntyre informs Hauerwas‘ understanding of tradition)  Or again, when criticizing Hauerwas for the apparent disparity between the church he proclaims and the empirical church, Healy would have needed to bring in the importance of eschatology for Hauerwas’ work. But with Healy’s typologicocentric method, neither Wittgenstein nor eschatology receive a single mention. Indeed Yoder himself is only brought into the book in passing.

In conclusion, if after reading this far you have learned very little about the content of Healy’s book; if you’ve found a disproportionate amount of space in this review dedicated to measuring the book by arbitrary organizational schemes; if you’ve been introduced to novel, vague, and misleading neologisms; if you’ve been surprised by the fact that I left out central chapters for consideration; if you feel that systematically introducing a life’s corpus should include locating the works in the context of primary influences and conversation partners – If all of this is bothersome for you, you will be equally frustrated by Healy. Indeed more than a few sentences in this review have been taken directly from his book.

A person who came to Healy without knowing Hauerwas would learn very little about Hauerwas. This is reason enough to criticize the book. But that it also succumbs to the aforementioned problems, makes it so that I cannot recommend this book at all.


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.