Three more quotes from the Al Mohler interview of Stanley Hauerwas. Mohler — the evangelical — asked Hauerwas about the absence of references to conversion in Hauerwas’ works:
I guess I stayed away from that term because it has been so associated with Billy Graham’s football-field evangelism. Billy Graham’s football-field evangelism and conversion is not without value, but to be a Christian means that from baptism forward you are living a life of constant transformation in a manner that you are able to have the sinfulness of our lives located in a manner that through the good graces of others I have some hope of living a life that is more, to use Wesley’s phrase, perfect. And so I think that conversion is the name of an ongoing process from birth to death that we as Christians are invited to live.
Mohler then asked him to summarize the gospel, the good news:
That through Jesus Christ, very God and very man, we Gentiles have been made part of the promise to Israel that we will be witnesses to God’s good care of God’s creation through the creation of a people who once were no people that the world can see there is an alternative to our violence. There is an alternative to our deceptions. There is an alternative to our unfaithfulness to one another though the creation of something called church. That’s salvation.
And finally he asked him about the cross and forgiveness:
Well, I think that what it means to have our sins forgiven is you’ve been made part of a narrative that you do not have to justify the path in a way that means the past continues to haunt you because you’re determined to live righteously. Interestingly enough, forgiveness of sins does say you do not have to be determined by the path because you’ve been given a future that is so compelling you don’t have to constantly try to renegotiate a world in which you are trying to be righteous even though you’re not.
I will confess to not being able to figure out exactly what Hauerwas means in his answer to the question about forgiveness. I think he is saying something like — to use narrative terms — our story starts over again when we are baptized (or start the process of conversion). The story that shaped who we were no longer has any hold on us and — more important — we no longer have to answer to that story our try to defend our role in it. The old has passed away. I think that might be what he is saying, although I would not want to have to pass a test in one of his classes based on that answer.
All three of these answers are striking in the importance they place on the church and the here-and-now over against the future, especially in an interview about a book of “eschatalogical reflections.” I take his answer about the nature of the gospel to be centered entirely on the creation of the church. Salvation itself is the creation of the church as a witness to an alternative way of being in the world.
What I find compelling about that statement is that it highlights my sinful pride. My protest against Hauerwas’ way of framing these topics is, in part, the question “What about me and my salvation?” It is the individualistic question and — as he might put it — the buyers’ market talking. I also feel myself objecting to the long-term project they lay out. I want it now.
And yet, it is difficult for me to see how some of what he says squares with the biblical witness and how much of this can be explained in a way that is meaningful for people who are not professional theologians. He said he wanted to avoid Billy Graham-style evangelism, but what Graham provides that Hauerwas does not is an account of Christianity that ordinary Christians can understand. It does not require a priestly class of academics to explain it to us.
I was thinking of this while reading the lectionary selection from Acts for this Sunday:
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” (Acts 2:37-39, NRSV)
Peter and Paul in Acts strike me as not operating out of Hauerwas’ definitions of terms such forgiveness and gospel. When Peter promised the people that day that their sins would be forgiven, I don’t think the people gathered heard that promise as an appeal to a narrative reconstruction of their lives. Having our sins forgiven does start our story anew — or fold us into a new story — but I’m not sure that is the primary reality of the event or process of being forgiven.
Here is what is likely a bad analogy to explain where the language feels ill-fitting to me. When we had a baby, my wife and I became part of a new story. Our story could never again be told the same way, and our experience of our story changed in a thousand ways. But the fact that having a baby changed the story of our lives was not the most important part about having a baby. The most important thing about having a baby was having a baby.
Having our sins forgiven changes the narrative, but the most important thing about having our sins forgiven is having our sins forgiven.
Having a cancer cut out of our body changes the narrative of who we are, but the most important thing about having cancer removed is being cured of cancer.
As I say, I would not want to hang my grade in Dr. Hauerwas’ class on any of these thoughts. But something about his focus on narrative feels to me like fantasy. It is the suggestion that there is nothing real behind the stories we use to tell our lives.
Given that Hauerwas is so influential among United Methodists — especially that tribe of clergy who cheer for Blue Devil basketball — I wonder how Hauerwas’ responses to these questions influences your thinking, preaching, teaching, and living.