Stanley Hauerwas

Ornery Theologian Picks Bone with American Christianity

on November 28, 2019

An ornery, angry, theologian ethicist has a bone to pick with American Christianity, says David Hunsicker. And that’s why he’s important.

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas is not a fan of American Christianity because he believes the church has abandoned Christ, in ways so subtle it hasn’t realized Jesus isn’t in the church anymore.

Jason Micheli, host of the Crackers & Grape Juice podcast, spoke with theologian David Hunsicker on the influential theologian Stanley Hauerwas, of United Methodist affiliated Duke Divinity School, on November 15, 2019. Hunsicker defended Hauerwas’ loud and angry style, citing author Flannery O’Connor: “For the deaf, you must yell.” The deaf, for Hauerwas, is the American church. Hauerwas takes it upon himself to do the yelling.

Hunsicker, then, compares Hauerwas to Karl Barth. While they may appear dissimilar, both critique Protestant liberalism, and look for a theology that reflects God and who God is. Stanley Hauerwas is, according to Hunsicker, a theologian on par with Søren Kierkegaard: someone who helps people make sense of the world and respond theologically.

After comparing Barth and Hauerwas, Hunsicker defends the theologian against claims that he lacks a doctrine of God. If you read his sermons, Hunsicker says, you’ll find a well-ordered, tripartite doctrine. The first order is praise of God: Hauerwas talks about God in the context of worship, i.e. preaching, praying, etc. The second order is found in Hauerwas’ essays. These lay out grammatical rules for how you speak about God. The third order addresses philosophical underpinnings, such as Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard.

Micheli then moves on to praise Hunsicker’s new book, also titled The Making of Stanley Hauerwas: Bridging Barth and Postliberalism, noting especially his mention of Barth’s own law/Gospel distinction, which helps interpret Hauerwas. Within the Reformed tradition, after salvation and the Gospel, the intention to follow law (and thus, God) comes. This intention, to hear and obey, is sanctification and contrasts Luther’s interpretation, which saw the law as primarily dialectic and an agent to convict. The law, Barth noticed (and Hunsicker wrote), is convicting, and thus sanctifying.

In a move away from Christian culture, Hunsicker argues that salvation is corporate. Individualism of modern America has crept into the church and suggested each person is responsible for themselves in a way dangerous to Christianity, such as interpretation of Scripture and the need for Christian community.

Civil religion, too, is a theme of contention for Hunsicker. His old church had a tradition of singing “America” after the doxology. Slowly, Hunsicker removed that tradition by taking it away at Advent, then Lent, etc. Micheli pointed out, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, the difference between “national time” (regular months of the year) and “holy weeks” (Advent, for example). Hunsicker also condemned “anything next to the cross” as “idolatry,” referring to the American flag.

Speaking on civil religion from the pulpit, Hunsicker questioned the silence of pastors on events like the May shooting of a synagogue by a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church denomination. His pastor, the Rev. Mika Edmondson, wrote a statement acknowledging the church’s failure and the tragedy. Hunsicker, however, wonders about the silence of the church at-large in the wake of events like this: Christianity is not just Sunday morning. There should be no knee-jerk reactions to events, but pulpits are too silent during these tragedies. Without an entire dedicated sermon, there is a way to speak on these problems from the pulpit, to admit the failure of a tradition. Micheli responded with his reaction to a typical Facebook comment on a tragedy, which is usually something like: “If your pastor isn’t preaching on this on Sunday, you’re at the wrong church.” Micheli suggested, “If your pastor isn’t preaching the Gospel, you’re at the wrong church.” A middle ground between speaking on every tragedy, and ignoring external events, must be found.

The final topic of discussion was seminaries, churches, and the trust between the two. Churches trust their clergy have learned enough material, and the right material, at seminary. Seminary, says Hunsicker, is equipping for the moment, without training for the long haul. Relatedly, seminaries graduate pastors who can occasionally be found “firing hot takes all over Twitter without having been formed to see the things they’re trying to say.” To clarify, Hunsicker references Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev. The titular character wants to learn to paint from a master, but the master sends him to a museum to copy the old works – their brushstrokes, their styles, etc. The student becomes frustrated. The master explains, “Art and painting is a religion.” You must learn the tradition before you can add to it, or rebel against it. A fine example of this is Alasdair MacIntyre.

To hear the podcast in its entirety, and to hear Hunsicker’s answers to questions like what his favorite (and least favorite) word is, and what sounds he likes and dislikes, visit

  1. Comment by Douglas LeBlanc on November 28, 2019 at 5:47 am

    I look forward to listening to this interview. Thanks for writing about it, Josiah. It sounds as though interviewer Jason Micheli draws from the tradition of Marcel Proust, Bernard Pivot, James Lipton:

  2. Comment by David on November 28, 2019 at 7:46 am

    There was a time when crosses themselves were considered idolatry:

    “To a good protestant of 1830 the least suggestion of symbolism—a cross on a gable or on a prayer book—was rank popery.” Kenneth Clark, “The Gothic Revival”

    However, matters changed around 1920 when the Methodist Church began to be influenced by other denominations. The now ubiquitous brass crosses and candle sticks made their appearance. In the 1940s and ’50s, Methodist clergy began wearing gowns. The basic architecture of Methodist churches also changed in the early 20th century. The plain pulpit-centered meeting house style gave way to the altar-centered church style.

  3. Comment by Randy Mitchell on November 28, 2019 at 11:20 am

    When I read my first Hauerwas book, I thought “who is this lunatic?” Then I shared an umbrella during one of the southern summer downpours on the Duke campus. As I matured in my own theological belief, I have found him to be the breath of air the American UMC needs to recenter our faith upon God.

  4. Comment by David carter on November 28, 2019 at 12:06 pm

    I have read brother Stanley, and I have heard him preach/lecture. He is a curmudgeon but not necessarily wrong. It’s simply too easy to critique the church…it’s easy to critique anything…and he has been a critic for 4 decades. The divine remedy never crosses his lips, he is so in-bed with the left that he can’t see what is Biblical, holy and obvious.

  5. Comment by Matthew Robinson on November 28, 2019 at 1:34 pm

    I couldn’t agree more with your last sentence. Amen.

  6. Comment by Bill on November 29, 2019 at 1:15 pm

    I had Hauerwas as a professor at Duke back in the late 80s. He was always rambling and disorganized in his lectures. He’s also the only professor I ever had who routinely dropped the F-bomb in class. I’m not sure I learned anything of substance in his class.

  7. Comment by Roger on November 29, 2019 at 3:58 pm

    A Princeton University President Francis L. Patton in 1888 – 1903 said ” The only Hope of Christianity is the rehabilitating of the Pauline Theology. It is back, back, back to an Incarnate Christ and the atoning blood, or it is on, on, and on to atheism and despair.” Our Pastors today preach the 4 Gospels of Jesus dying for our sins and stop. The completion of the Gospel is the Resurrection. 1 Cor. 15: 17 says that if we don’t believe in the Resurrection, we are still in our sins. What Gospel makes you think that God will allow you to be in heaven? It is the Gospel that includes the Resurrection.

  8. Comment by Byron on November 30, 2019 at 5:48 pm

    As a graduate from Duke Divinity School, I have no respect for Stanley Hawuerwas. I’ve personally heard him drop the G-D bomb more than once while commenting on the play of the Atlanta Braves. This was done in ear shot of perspective divinity students who upon hearing his rant decided not attend Duke because of his language. I complained to the Dean of the Divinity School. I doubt anything was done to a tenured professor. Dr. Hauerwas also personally attack me without provocation in the student union while I was wearing my military uniform. I commuted to school from out of town so to save two trips to Durham, I wore my chaplain class A uniform to do a hospital visit. I was visiting one of the soldiers in my battalion who I had chaplain care over. This person was in Duke Hospital being treated for cancer. His entire career was with the NC National Guard and it meant a lot to him for his Chaplain to come visit him. Hawuerwas leaned across the table and got in my face and said, “ and you call yourself a Christian for wearing that crap?” Sad!

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