681 Hauerwas: Faith as ‘work that shapes the body’

Stereoscopic photo card of bricklayers in Kansas around 1900.TIME magazine calls Stanley Hauerwas “America’s Best Theologian,” but he defies the common stereotypes about religious scholars. He wastes little time gazing up at the heavens—because most of his energies are focused squarely on the ground in front of us. How should we treat our families? How should we build our communities? How can we contribute to our world? How does prayer shape all of these relationships?

Interview, Pt 2, with Stanley Hauerwas on “Hannah’s Child”

          DAVID CRUMM: Your book starts with your parents. Readers will be fascinated by the honesty and the love you express in the opening pages. There are some wise but brutal truths here—and some of that brutal honesty is pointed at you, yourself. You admit, for example, that when you became a hot-shot professor, you fired some painfully arrogant words back at your own parents. You share these scenes with us, I think, to express the depth of your love for your parents. I have to say: I’m reminded of Samir Selmanovic’s memoir about his life in Eastern Europe. Samir says that it’s only when we look back at our lives, from a great distance along the pathway of faith, that we finally can appreciate all the grace-filled people who helped us. Am I reading you correctly about this?

          STANLEY HAUERWAS: This absolutely is part of what I am writing in this narrative of my life and work. In my life, as in many lives, there were wonderful, generous people who formed me. That’s a matter of extraordinary grace.

          My mother? Honestly, she was a pain in the ass. Envision someone who exemplifies all the hidden injuries of class, coming out of hardscrabble Mississippi. She had the feeling that she could only negotiate the world in such a way that—if she did something for you—then you had to do something for her. She could be very manipulative. But, she also was an extraordinary human being and I have nothing but gratitude for her as my mother. Nevertheless, I’m not going to tell lies about how she could make life difficult.

          My father was this extraordinarily generous man who did very hard work. It’s hard to properly describe how hard the work is for a bricklayer. I was brought up in his craft of bricklaying. This has left a defining mark on me. I wanted to celebrate the lives of my parents in this book. I think one of the crucial moments in our relationship came when I was going on to do a PhD. They were very pleased I was doing this, but they also had the sense that the farther I went along this path, the less they would understand my world. They knew this, yet they let me go—they gave me permission to do this. And, I regard that as an extraordinary gift they gave me.

          DAVID: Your book contains eloquent scenes about this hard work of building with bricks. I don’t think I’ll ever forget your description of a professional brick-tosser being able to toss 6 bricks into the air 25 feet and have them all remain together, so a man could catch all 6—like a loaf of sliced bread—and plop them down neatly for the bricklayer on a scaffold. I read that passage to my brother in law who is a dairy farmer, and he was impressed at the skill of a brick-tosser. There’s a great grace in such respect, I think, for people who develop and practice essential skills like that. I’m glad you took time to carefully explain those things in your book.

          STANLEY: I’m sitting here in my office and I have on my office wall my father’s level and trowel and two of his brick hammers. I try to never forget, because the work determines the body. I think this is the way Christianity is best understood. Christianity is an extraordinary work that shapes the body.

          DAVID: Yes! Now we’re talking about why all these great family stories are so important. They shape our lives. They teach us discipline. But the irony is that they can unite us into a community—or they can separate us. There’s another great passage in your book: “I have spent my life in buildings built by people like my father, buildings in which the builders have felt they do not belong.”

          STANLEY: I describe that 1979 movie, “Breaking Away,” where a young man finally enrolls at Indiana University. Until then, he and his father, who worked for years as a stonecutter, have had a good deal of antagonism. Now, they’re walking across the Indiana campus and his father is looking at the stone buildings. Indiana is built from stone cut by these “townies.” The son and the father are looking at one particular big building on campus and the father says, “I cut the stone for that building.”

          The son says: “Really?”

          And the father says, “I’ve always wondered what was in that building.”

          The son tells the father they should go inside—but the father doesn’t want to do that. It’s not that the father feels someone will prevent him from stepping inside. It’s that the father feels he doesn’t belong inside. He doesn’t want to step inside. The inside of that building is not his world. Well, I teach inside such a building. I’ve spent my life inside that building—built by that father. My own father would never feel quite right about being inside these buildings. That’s part of what I mean when I write about the graceful gift they gave me of letting me go on. They let me become part of a culture that was very forbidding to them.

          In “Breaking Away,” the father is not saying, “They wouldn’t let me in.” What the father is saying is: “I wouldn’t know how to negotiate that building.” And you’ve got to feel the pain in that—in the way people become separated like this in our world.

          DAVID: But your book isn’t depressing. Your book is inspiring and hopeful. One of the timeless religious resources you point to is the Bible. Later in your book, you write, “At Duke, I paid increasing attention to the importance of Scripture.” Now, when I read that part of your book, I immediately thought of Jacob Needleman’s memoir about his long life as a professor of religion in California. Jacob writes that he began teaching, many years ago, as a skeptic—but he had to prepare his lesson plans by reading the world’s great sacred books. And, he was surprised at how powerfully they worked on his life. It’s as if the scriptures opened up and reshaped him in unexpected ways. Is this a fair comparison?

          STANLEY: Yes, that’s certainly fair. I’ve discovered the older I get that the thing I most like to do is preach. I’m not ordained but I’m asked to preach and I like to preach. Here’s why: This isn’t me. You’re under the authority of the Bible when you preach. Your task is to discern the word of God for the people of God and that’s extraordinary freeing! You’re expositing the text. Karl Barth taught about the rediscovery of the strange new world of the Bible—and Barth was a huge influence on me. I’ve found that this is one of the great gifts God has given us to help us see the world with fresh eyes, which I think Christianity requires.

          I did write a book a number of years ago, “Unleashing the Scriptures,” in which I argued that historical criticism and fundamentalism are just two sides of the same coin. They’re both the product of the mistake of the Reformation idea of “sola scriptura,” which was then given ideological strength through the invention of this concept of the “democratic citizen.” This promotes the idea that each individual person has this right and this ability to just approach everything as individuals and make sense of it.

          Well, for me, you never truly read the Bible alone. You read the Bible within the tradition of the Church, which helps you read it. Understanding the Bible just isn’t clear, in and of itself, if you approach it as an individual. Nonetheless, I have certainly found increasingly as I’ve grown older—and this seems odd for a theologian to say—that scripture is the center of my work. I was asked by the Brazos commentary series, written by theologians, to write commentary on the book of Matthew. While writing that, I discovered again the complete inexhaustibility of the text. There’s just so much you need to say—and you can’t say it all at the same time! There are many passages of scripture that are so powerful—that express moments none of us can even begin to experience fully. It’s so powerful that you almost want to start your reading by putting on the sackcloth and ashes if you’re at all serious about what you’re doing.

          DAVID: That’s an example, I think, of your honesty. We need the help of our communities and our traditions to shape our own faith. We can’t do it alone. So, then, I think this passage will startle readers: “I don’t put much stock in believing in God.” And, “Prayer never comes easy for me.” As I read those words, I’m reminded of the journals of Dorothy Day. I love her journals because they’re so abrasive. They strip away so much of the saintly aura that has sprung up around her life. Dorothy Day spent hours sitting frustrated and angry in church pews trying to pray. Your writing similarly is that honest and down-to-earth about religious life.

          STANLEY: It’s embarrassing to be compared to Dorothy Day because she’s just a completely different reality than I am. I’m an academic theologian. I have nothing but admiration for Dorothy Day, but I do think you’re right that there’s grittiness to my work that is not unlike hers. Hers came from a deep Marxist sensibility that was born in a kind of Midwest realism. Mine comes more from being raised working class—and then always having to live in a world that’s not working class. Therefore, I have an aversion to—if I can use this word—bullshit.

          There is a certain mode of expression that some preachers and writers use to push their hearers or their readers down into a kind of disability. Some preachers and writers want their audience to know that they aren’t quite ready to receive this wise person’s words.

          I want to have the opposite affect, namely that we’re in this together! Therefore, I try as a theologian to avoid abstractions in a way that invites the reader to realize that theological language works because it expresses a kind of non-pious account of human life. Piety so often can just—well, it can just kill us! There are academic pieties, too, and if you combine those pieties with theological pieties—well, that results in a grammar that I find suffocating.

          Come back tomorrow for Hauerwas Part 3.

          You can order “Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir” from Amazon now.

          (Originally published at readthespirit.com)

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