Review – Stanley Hauerwas, Learning to Speak Christian (SPCK, 2011)
The title alone makes this book worthy of attention. For Hauerwas, Christianity is not something that comes naturally to us. To “speak Christian”, to use Christian language about the world needs to be learned, and it is learned above all in worship, in reading Scripture, and in belonging to the church. “To learn to be a Christian …” says Hauerwas, “is learning another language” (p. 87). This makes Christianity difficult, and Hauerwas is quite upfront about this “I do not want to make Christianity easy. I want to make it hard” (p. 116).
For those already familiar with Hauerwas’ work, this is full of familiar joys. There is a marvelous, and beautifully simple, demolition of Jonathan Glover’s Humanity (it lacks an account of human good). And, of course, Hauerwas is the master of the outrageous turn of phrase. “I do not believe a ‘coherent hermeneutical position’ is much help for helping us read the Bible” (p. 95); “nothing is more destructive to the Christian faith than the current identification of Christianity with love” (p. 119); “Christians are required to love one another – even if they are married. That may be a cruel and heartless demand, but it is nonetheless the way things are if you are a Christian” (p. 139). There is an excellent chapter on Christianity and politics (chapter 8), and an interesting set of hints about the role of joy within Hauerwas’ theology.
This collection has one minor theme worthy of note, Hauerwas’ conflation of modern medicine and capitalism. He writes that “ the attempt to create a medicine aimed to get us out of life alive … depends on the creation of wealth as an end in itself” (p. xiii). Since wealth creation can only make us dull and produce people with superficial and sentimental spirituality. Despite our claims to the contrary, we “participate in, as well as support, social institutions that put a dollar value on human life” (p. 158). So Hauerwas urges a return to the monastic origins of the hospital, which is not afraid of death, but sees the value of spending time with the dying. Christians may, in fact, be called to deny ourselves certain extraordinary care that medicine develops, for the sake of others. But this thought is not developed.
But what of the major theme, of learning to speak Christian? It is to learn to use the word ‘God’ correctly; and it is to be formed by the “startlingly parochial story” (p. 46) of Scripture. And above all, it is to participate in the community of the church. Through this we engage in the “lifelong training necessary to be a sinner” (p.32) and become those whose lives only make sense because we are Christians. The problem is that a book with this good a title needs more to develop it. The book suffers from being a collection of essays, sermons and other writings, which vary in their intended audience and in their contribution to exploring the fantastic title of the collection. There’s still much to enjoy, but I felt at the end of the book that I was owed a bit more. There were hints, but little more, on the spiritual disciplines and practices that are involved in speaking Christian. Frankly, even one essay devoted to exploring the title would have satisfied. I enjoyed this book, but wanted (much) more.
In short, I’d love to read a book by Stanley Hauerwas entitled ‘Learning to Speak Christian’. But this wasn’t it.