This book is brimming with kindness. Stanley Hauerwas has assembled all the people who he believes have made his life possible for the purpose of thanking them. All this kindness may surprise those more familiar with Hauerwas’ sharp contrarian rhetoric and reputation for indiscriminate cussing. This memoir contains neither while describing the reasons for both.
The book’s title points toward Hauerwas’ affection and gratitude toward his mother who, desperate for a child after suffering a miscarriage, recalled the Biblical story of Hannah praying for a son and did likewise. “It was perfectly appropriate for my mother to pray Hannah’s prayer — but did she have to tell me she had done so? I could not have been more than six, but I vividly remember my mother telling me that I was destined to be one of God’s dedicated.” Hauerwas looks to this as the touchstone of his life, with highlights like offering the prestigious Gifford Lectures, holding posts at Notre Dame and Duke University and, in 2001, being named by Time as “America’s theologian.”
While recalling all these events with great detail, Hauerwas never fails to remember his roots in Texas where his “daddy” was a hard-working bricklayer who taught Stanley the trade and introduced him to the people (and the peculiarly rough language) of the bricklayer’s world. Alongside his father he learned the precise skills of that profession — an experience that later informed his own theological notion of the Christian life as learning a set of virtues by practice. “ … I think of theology as a craft requiring years of training. Like stonecutters and bricklayers, theologians must come to terms with the material upon which they work. In particular they must learn to respect the simple complexity of the language of faith, so that they might reflect the radical character of orthodoxy.”
Though a book of kindness, Hannah’s Child is also without varnish. He describes his differences with various schools and their deans with bracing candor. He speaks of the pain of losing friends, particularly the ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain, over his commitment to Christian non-violence and public speaking after September 11, 2001.
Though a memoir of kindness it is also about truthfulness. Hauerwas tells the painful story of his marriage of more than twenty years to a seriously mentally ill spouse. It is rare for a theologian to reveal being reduced to tear-stained anguish attempting to love his mentally-ill wife.
One can’t understand Stanley Hauerwas without knowing the work of John Howard Yoder, and Karl Barth. Commenting on the lack of rigor in liberal Protestant theology he says, “In contrast, Karl Barth’s work represented for me an uncompromising demand to submit to a master bricklayer, with the hope that in the process one might learn some of the ‘tricks of the trade.’” In another instance of kindness and pain, Hauerwas’ details Yoder’s own foibles that led to his moral downfall. The story is told in a way that lifts up the value of enduring friendships that sacrifice neither mercy nor justice.
What did he learn from writing this book? “In fact, what I have learned is quite simple — I am a Christian. How interesting.”
How interesting! Many readers will say that about this remarkable memoir.
ROY W. HOWARD is pastor of Saint Mark Church in Rockville, Md., and Outlook book editor.