Last week I read a very interesting review of a book entitled In Conversation: Samuel Wells and Stanley Hauerwas, edited by Maureen Knudson Langdoc. I have been thinking about this piece, by Alessandro Rovati (department chair and assistant professor of theology at Belmont Abbey College), in the days since; I printed it out and have read through it several times. A good review can provoke that sort of engagement.
Several things drew me to this piece: deep respect for Wells and Hauerwas; the emphasis on friendship (“at the heart of the book,” Rovati says, and dear to my own heart); but also what I hope will prove to be productive disagreement, or at least friction, with this conversation as Rovati summarizes it.
The ongoing exchange between Wells and Hauerwas, Rovati suggests, offers
a powerful testimony about the importance of the ordinary. Christianity does not live in the lofty realm of ideas. Instead, it is about making the everyday possible because “if you believe that Christ through the forgiveness of sins has healed the past and through the gift of eternal life has turned the future from a threat into a gift, then you can for the first and only time live in the present.” The full reality of the gospel is enacted in the concrete circumstances of our daily lives, and theology’s main calling is to show and name the difference Christ makes for the ordinary.
Oh, dear. Where to start? We could observe that “the ordinary” is itself an “idea,” one that has had many guises in many conversations over the centuries in what is sometimes referred to as “the lofty realm of ideas” (where “lofty” is decidedly pejorative). And, by the same token, the “realm of ideas” is ordinary. If you are human, you live and breathe in that realm.
But don’t some people—theologians, for example, and professors of theology, and academics of all sorts, and “intellectuals” (not to be trusted, those characters)—spend more time attending consciously to the “realm of ideas” than many other humans do? Yes, of course; you could say that is their routine, making up a large part of their “ordinary” lives. But then again, as J. I. Packer liked to observe, in another sense we are all “theologians.”
Alas, things become even more vexing:
Lest we perceive such statements [the statements in the passage quoted above] as pious platitudes that leave the status quo unchanged, Hauerwas and Wells insist on the fact that Jesus did not come to underwrite our bourgeois, suburban existences. [The horror!] Instead, he came to disrupt and to portray an alternative society, and we have to spend all our time imagining, praying for, dwelling in, and working towards that alternative society.
I’ve had several visceral reactions as I have read and re-read this passage over the last few days, most of which I will not share with you here. But I will mention one. Maybe in part because, since I learned to read, I have read a lot of fiction (and seen a lot of movies and TV), or maybe due to some quirk in my brain, I often imagine fictional scenarios, premises for stories or novels or movies; they pop in my mind with no conscious effort or intent on my part. What popped up while I was reading that “Jesus did not come to underwrite our bourgeois, suburban existences” was just such a premise, which could work as a novel or as a movie: “Jesus of the Suburbs,” including of course an episode around the grill.
The conversations between Wells and Hauerwas also touch on the university, interesting to me because so much of my work over a lifetime has had to do with the work others have produced in that setting, but also because academe is currently in the midst of convulsions that seem to have a bearing on the perilous fate of our society as a whole, such as it is. “As for the university,” Rovati reports, “Hauerwas and Wells argue that the attitudes cultivated in it are essential to today’s society. We desperately need people capable of talking across differences and listening to someone with a different perspective, and engaging with opinions they find offensive.” Indeed!
Rovati ends on a sobering note: “We are moving into a world ‘in which it’s impossible to be a Christian without . . . naming commitments that seem quite odd to the wider society.’” He adds—I assume he is paraphrasing Wells and Hauerwas, though I may be wrong—“there will not be many Christians around.” This sounds a bit like some reflections of Benedict XVI a few years ago. Perhaps this will indeed come to pass.
Hauerwas and Wells want the church to form people who are not concerned about dominating the culture’s control-points to force people to go along even if they disagree with us Christians. But they also want the church to create a people that does not fear confronting the alternatives to Christianity because it is convinced that Christianity’s answers to fundamental questions stand up favorably against other options. We should be confident that “God has given us everything we need.”
Amen. On that, all Christians should agree.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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