Stanley Hauerwas on Writing

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Time once named him “America’s Best Theologian.”  Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Stanley Hauerwas talks writing with Rachel Toor.  Here is a taste of the interview:

What does it mean to write “interestingly”?

Hauerwas: Well, trying to help us recover what extraordinary and odd things we believe as Christians — things such as God is to be found in a Palestinian Jew. That is a conviction that calls into question the sentimentalities that are confused with Christianity in the world as we know it. When you take seriously what we believe as Christians, it puts a pressure on how you say what needs to be said. I think that is why some of the greatest theologians — people like John Henry Newman — were also some of the greatest writers of their time.

I still have occasion from time to time to have to read something I wrote in the past that is clear evidence that I did not know how to write. I’ve learned that I think by writing. There is just no substitute for writing over and over again.

I am still not happy with everything I write, but every once in a while I write a sentence I take pleasure in. I tell my graduate students that they must learn to write well, and the way that you learn is by doing. I want them to copy me. I often say I do not want students to make up their own minds. I want them to think like me as well as write like me — only differently. By that I mean they should care about what I care about, but what I care about should force them to find their own voice.

How did you develop as a writer?

Hauerwas: I am a reader. Perhaps undisciplined, but reading makes writing possible. Reading will not necessarily make you a good writer, but it cannot hurt. I’ve learn to write through imitation.

Genre also matters. In particular, I have the opportunity to preach occasionally, and sermons allow me to engage in a rhetoric that I like to think is eloquent. I publish sermons along with more-academic essays because I want to show how they are interrelated. Namely, I try to show how, if you believe that out of all the peoples of the world God chose Israel to be the promised people, you cannot help but write with a difference. That difference, I hope, reflects the glory that is God.

You are known for doing “narrative ethics.” Can you talk about that?

Hauerwas: I was in graduate school at Yale, training to be a Christian ethicist. Both philosophical and theological ethics was focused on decisions allegedly determined and justified by deontological or teleological systems. I was reading Aristotle, for whom the virtues were central. I was also influenced by Iris Murdoch’s claim that decisions are what you do when everything else has been lost. So I focused on character, which, as most novelists will tell you, is captured through a narrative. It is only through stories that we can make sense of the seemingly unrelated events that we call our lives.

I also began to think that practical reason is fundamentally about how we can narrate our lives. Such a narration draws on the contingent facts that make us who we are — I am a Texan. I am a Yalie. I am a Christian.

I was playing around with these ideas when Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue was published — and the rest is history. He made the intuitions with which I was working respectable. Alasdair is a great philosopher who claims me as a friend. I have learned much from him.

There is, of course, a theological side to all this. I believe Christianity is one hell of a story about the way things are, not least being that our very existence is a gift. That is the contingency rightly called “creation.” I was fortunate to have Hans Frei as a teacher. It was from Frei I learned to read Karl Barth, whose work can be read as one long story — long because the story has many subplots.

Your publishing output is astronomical. How do you get so much done?

Hauerwas: I was raised a bricklayer. All I have ever known is work. In my memoir, Hannah’s Child, I tried to describe what it means to come from working-class people and end up in the academy. We lack the manners and gestures of the classes — and it is a class matter — that dominate life in the university. I have been a teacher for over 45 years, which means, given my family background, I have never had to work for a living.

I have tried to do what I have been asked to do. I have written books, but most of my books are collections of essays written because someone asked me to write or lecture about this or that. I bring the essays together to give the impression that they constitute a book. I do not want to be too self-deprecating, because I think I do make some interesting and coherent arguments.

Read the entire interview and Toor’s introduction here.

One thought on “Stanley Hauerwas on Writing

  1. Dr. Hauerwas must be not only a good but a great writer if the standard for judgement is mere wordsmithing. His oeuvre shows true ambidexterity. Like the fish who can thrive in both saltwater and freshwater, Dr. Hauerwas’ name surfaces in both liberal and in moderately conservative circles. His teaching position at theologically elastic Duke has provided a perfect position for disseminating not only theological “yeas” and “nays”, but just about every point betwixt the two.

    We are all reminded of the old shell game at the county fair. The showman puts the pea underneath one of the three identical cups after which he deftly and rapidly moves and changes the cups’ positions. “Now you see it——now you don’t. Where is the pea?” Hauerwas is a skilled writer, and the carnival gamester is a skilled entertainer. One role requires scholastic polish while the other requires street smarts and showmanship.

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