Stanley Hauerwas, “America’s best theologian,” on Renovatus.
I wanted to share a personal treasure with you.
Stanley Hauerwas, professor at Duke Divinity and an important influence in my life and ministry, released his memoir in May, Hannah’s Child from Eerdman’s. When he was still working on it, he allowed me to read a copy of the rough draft. In that version, he had a lengthy section where he described his experience of coming to Renovatus in 2008. It didn’t make that final draft of the book–but in all honesty, having that in Microsoft Word on my computer is one of my greatest treasures. I had no idea until I read it how much his visit to Renovatus meant to him. And since I have been so marked by his work, his response was unbelievably powerful for me.
I have told friends and family about it, but few have read it. But I’ve been thinking for awhile of putting it here for the benefit of the Renovatians. I thought it would encourage you to read what he felt and experienced in his time here. But this is just between us, okay ? The text is as follows:
The good news, moreover, is even as I grow older the young seem attracted to the work to be done. The work they think needs to be done, moreover, they think has at least been partly indicated by my work. I give as an example Jonathan Martin. Jonathan is a student in the Divinity School who pastors a church in Charlotte, North Carolina with the unlikely name of “Renovatus.” The name is even more unlikely because Renovatus is a church of the denomination in the Pentecostal tradition of the Church of God, Cleveland, Tennessee. Pentecostals are not known for Latinizing the names of their churches. For those who might be curious, the designation Cleveland, Tennessee is necessary because without that geographic locator the church might be confused with the Church of God, Anderson, Indiana. The Church of God, Anderson, Indiana is not a Pentecostal church.
I was not sure what to make of Jonathan on our first encounter. What are you supposed to think about a pastor from the Church of God, Cleveland, Tennessee who thinks it is crucial for his work that he be able to take my course in Catholic Moral Theology? I have the view that the ecclesial convictions that shape the understanding of the church in Pentecostal churches share much with Roman Catholicism, but that is a view peculiar to me. I do not expect members of the Church of God, Cleveland, Tennessee to share that view. But Jonathan was so sure it was a course he needed. I let him in.
Having grown tired of taking students through the debates between the conservatives and liberals in Catholic moral theology, I decided to have students in the course actually read Thomas. So I began with Pinckaers’, Sources of Christian Ethics, to give them a background to read Thomas. I set the course up to climax with McCabe’s work. Jonathan seemed to drink up everything we read and, in particular, McCabe. What a strange world. A Pentecostal studying at a Methodist seminary located in the center of a very secular university writes a paper utilizing the understanding of language, developed by one of the most interesting Catholic moral theologians of our time, to illumine the apocalyptic character of the work of the Holy Spirit. Is God great or what? I could not help but be drawn to such an interesting young man.
Renovatus is a “church plant” that meets in a public school in downtown Charlotte. Jonathan had a number of his people read the commentary I had written on Matthew. He asked if it might be possible for me to come to the church one Sunday during the summer to respond to questions his congregation might have. I am always ready to reinforce the idea that it is a good thing to buy and hopefully even read one of my books, so I was happy to accept Jonathan’s invitation.
I did not know what to expect. The church meets in an auditorium. A band, a quite good band, plays on the stage. The service consists primarily of prayer and singing. The words of the hymns are projected on a screen. The way the people at Renovatus worship is a long way from the Church of the Holy Family. How they worship at Renovatus is not my style. But these people were so genuine I almost forgot my feelings of not knowing how to join them fully as they praised God.
We then came to the point of the service set aside for me to respond to questions. Before I began Jonathan read some remarks he had prepared to introduce me. I was stunned. He got it all just right. It is a moment you think, “I can die and go to heaven.” That this Pentecostal in Charlotte, North Carolina so clearly “gets it” means others now know how to go on. The end seems really to have come giving us a new beginning. This is what he said:
I am a third generation Pentecostal preacher. My grandfather grew up just a couple minutes away in a little house on North Davidson Street and attended Duncan Memorial Methodist as a child. He didn’t become a Christian until well into his 20’s. He had met a pretty girl named Nellie who said she wouldn’t date sinner boys. Next thing you know he was converted in the sweaty fervor of the 15th Street Church of God, and his life was never the same. A Charlotte police officer, he came into the station one day and turned in his badge and gun, saying he had been called to preach—though he hadn’t yet booked a single revival.
He has been dead for 27 years now, and I am a product of the same tent revival kind of fervor, planting a church with an extraordinary group of folks here in Charlotte 2 and half years ago. I am thankful for my heritage, thankful for all I have been taught. But found myself lacking in many ways to articulate what it is we most deeply believe about the church (pretty important to establish as a young church planter). I have found myself spending countless hours reading the work of a Methodist theologian from Duke University’s Divinity School. And as the product of a renewal movement—I have found myself renewed, like no other time in my adult life, from the remarkable work of this theologian. How does one make sense of this?
After grappling plenty with how to explain the significance of Stanley Hauerwas for myself and this young church, I was almost agitated to see this influence explained so concisely by Samuel Wells in his book on the theological ethics of Hauerwas, Transforming Fate Into Destiny. Where I was born the son of a Pentecostal preacher in Lincolnton, NC, Wells, now the dean of Duke chapel, was born in England and became a fourth generation Anglican preacher. The impact of Hauerwas’ work so mirrored my own it took me aback. Let me read a section from his introduction:
“Since my father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all Anglican clergymen, few expressed surprise when I sensed a call to join the family business. As I began to work out the implications of this vocation, I realized that I had lost confidence in the capacity of the church to follow Christ today.
The loss of confidence was expressed in three ways. First, in an obsession with apologetics: I became one of those whose concern to see all come to faith had, in MacIntyre’s phrase, given the world less and less in which to disbelieve. Second, in an uncritical commitment to social action: since the Church was not bringing the kingdom, I sought to join anyone who looked like they might be. Third, in a quest for personal experience: the habits of the Church seemed to hamper as much as help my soul’s search for a direct experience with the living God.
When I read Stanley Hauerwas’ The Peaceable Kingdom I realized what had happened. Reading Hauerwas made me see that God genuinely intended the Church: and that the resources for its renewal lay in the habits and practices it had neglected. The theology that I hoped would help me change others had succeeded in changing me…I have written this book because I believe that the writings of Stanley Hauerwas offer the Church an invitation to renew its confidence and restore a true sense of identity.”
That is exactly the trajectory I found myself on. First in hoping to become an educated Bible thumper, a fundamentalist who could intellectually wrestle people into the faith. As a good Charlotte boy, where our greatest export is Nature Boy Ric Flair, I think I had something in mind of a spiritual/intellectual figure-four leglock that could force the infidels to submit to belief. Finding these approaches (“Ten ways to prove the Bible is true without ever using a Scripture”) ultimately unsatisfying, I too became restless with the apathy and indifference of the church to transform the world through acts of justice. Uncritically then, let’s just find something good to do and get busy—without any context or framework to make “good works” intelligible. Finally, I came to believe that any shortcomings in my faith were surely do an impoverished experience—so being a disciple became a matter of chasing down the Spirit, running frantically and chaotically from one campmeeting or revival to another trying to hunt down God.
For Stanley Hauerwas, being a Christian is not a matter of believing the right ideas or propositions about God, nor a matter of simply being nice to the neighbors and co-workers, nor chasing down the thunder and lightning of Mt. Sinai (the place where Moses met God). For Hauerwas, to become a Christian is to learn the practices of a faithful community, what he would call a community of character, from a people committed to worship Jesus Christ in all things. This is a truthful community, a disciplined community that has a shared tradition, a faithful story that guides them and ultimately transforms them into people of virtue.
The language of virtue in Hauerwas’ work has captivated me. Growing up in the church tradition that I did, they taught me that God didn’t just want to deliver us from self-destructive behavior, didn’t just want to save us from sin, but that God wanted to change “your want to.” If I remembered that sanctification language at all, I think it was with a bit of condescension. For Hauerwas, that is exactly what this truthful community will teach us how to do—to live lives of virtue and holiness that come from the inside-out. But this is not an abstract or mystical act. It is as real, sweaty, earthy and practical as learning how to lay brick, a craft Hauerwas learned from his own father. Through learning the practices of a faithful community committed to follow Jesus together, disciples become so deeply embedded into the story of the community that it becomes their own story, that their practices become their own practices, its language becomes their own language.
This church so elegantly and yet so plainly described by Stanley Hauerwas is not a conservative fundamentalist church that has taught us to retreat from an evil world into the “soul,” where the primary objective becomes the conversion of the inner self. Nor is this church the activist church, who would blandly reduce the gospel to nothing more than calling the world to social change through acts of kindness, without any context or story to make those acts intelligible.
This church is a radical alternative to both the left and to the right, a church “that exists today as resident aliens, an adventurous colony in a society of unbelief.” It is a living, breathing visible community of faith, a particular people with a particular story, the church that is in itself God’s gift of new language to the world. This is the church that has understood that salvation is not static, but life on the road. This church, to quote from one of my favorite essays of Hauerwas’, a moving theological reflection on Richard Adams’ classic Watership Down, is a “story-formed community.” Like the rabbits of Watership Down, Christians depend on a narrative to be guided. As the rabbits learned to rely on the oft-repeated story of their famous prince, this Christian community “depends on the narrative of a prince who was defenseless against those who would rule it with violence. He had a power, however, which the world knew not. For he insisted that we could form our lives together by trusting in truth and love to banish the fears that create enmity and discord. To be sure, we have been unfaithful to this story, but that is not reason to think it is an unrealistic demand. Rather it means we must challenge ourselves to be the kind of community where such a story can be told and manifested by a people formed in accordance with it.”
You know, I think I finally figured out how a Pentecostal preacher’s kid could resonate so much with the theological project of a Methodist bricklayer’s son from Texas. Men and women like my grandfather read the book of Acts in the New Testament, and were seized by this vision of what it meant to be the church, empowered to be Christ-like disciples full of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. They read these ancient words from Acts 2 about the sound of a rushing mighty wind, they read about tongues of fire that descended onto the early believers. They read about the gift of new languages, a gift that both captivated the crowds but also confounded them—they saw these disciples spilling out of the upper room, their speech and behavior so affected that they assumed they were drunk. The gift of God’s new language was at first unintelligible to the world because it came in such a violent, catastrophic, we might say apocalyptic way.
As Peter got up to preach the first sermon of the Spirit-empowered church, he said “These men are not drunk as you suppose, seeing as it is only the third hour of the day. They have been filled with the Holy Ghost.” Peter saw this as a fulfillment of an apocalyptic promise from Joel chapter 2, which envisioned a time when “sons and daughters will prophesy, old men dream dreams and young men see visions, male and female bondslaves speak the word of God.” The same text that promised this lovely vision is couched in violent, apocalyptic language—the text that promised dreams and visions also anticipated “blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke, the sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood, before the great and glorious day of the Lord shall come.” Joel’s prophecy, re-interpreted in and through the Spirit, was nothing less than that the Spirit would bring a new way of existence by disrupting our time. That’s what an apocalypse does, it disrupts time—a phrase Dr. Hauerwas is fond of.
And if there is anybody who knows what it is to have time disrupted by Jesus of Nazareth, a man who has been used both to bear witness to God’s new language to the world called church…and also a man who has provoked crowds and brought controversy and bewilderment, it is Stanley Hauerwas. He is not drunk as you suppose. Like those early disciples and like my grandfather, his time has been disrupted by the Spirit of God. And he continues to call us to put down our badges and our guns to speak the word of God. About as subtle as the apocalyptic imagery of Joel, he has been stirring up the holy imaginations of sons and daughters of the church, young and old, to dream dreams and see visions. I don’t know if this is good news to you or not, Dr. Hauerwas—but it turns out you are quite Pentecostal.
It is my honor to welcome to Renovatus a faithful witness to the peaceable kingdom of Jesus Christ—Stanley Hauerwas.
Hearing Jonathan narrate his life through the story he had learned from me could not help but remind me all that has happened in my life because I am Hannah’s child. It has been more than fifty years since I said to Brother Zimmerman I would do what God wanted me to do. That declaration has brought me to places I did not know existed, or could have even imagined might exist, when I made that fateful commitment at Pleasant Mound Methodist Church. Even more important I have been drawn into the lives of others who have enriched my life beyond my wildest expectations.
I was writing Hannah’s Child when I came to Renovatus. I was flooded with gratitude for the life I have been given as I listened to Jonathan. I am from the working classes. I had a mother and father who loved me and God enough to make it possible for me to leave their world. I went to college to be mentored by a man as if I were his son. I have been sustained by academic institutions without which the narrative of church life Jonathan finds so hopeful would not have been made articulate—at least by me. I have been surrounded by friends who have upheld me through hard and good times. I have been officially and unofficially a member of churches where I have, however hauntingly, learned to pray. I have been given good work to do. I have a son and a wife who love me.
I know quite well that many find stories like mine (and Jonathan’s) bizarre. Even worse, some under the influence of modern accounts of what makes us human may think that our lives can be explained. We come from classes that could not know enough to know being Christian makes no sense. Christianity makes no sense intellectually. What about science? Christianity makes no sense economically. You really are not to want “more?” It makes no sense socially. Christians do seem to come from the “not well connected.” Those shaped by such explanatory modes assume, given the story I have told, they can understand why some of us are Christian. We are Christians because given “where we came from” being a Christian worked out pretty well for us.