I have been on a memoir kick this year. I tend to read through a genre or subject areas quite a bit and then set it aside for a while. This year my memoir reading has been consciously seeking out wisdom from elder Christians.
I picked up Hannah’s Child looking for something like Eugene Peterson’s memoir The Pastor or Thomas Oden’s memoir A Change of Heart. I have not previously read much by Hauerwas. The only full book that I think I have read is Resident Aliens, which I read in my first year of college, over 25 years ago. I have some relationship to him because a friend of mine studied with him and I absorbed some of Hauerwas’ positions through him.
Hauerwas is unique. He grew up as a working class boy from Texas. He was clearly brilliant. But also seems to have fallen into his life in a number of ways that he was not consciously choosing. The title, Hannah’s Child, is a reference to his own mother’s desire for a child after infertility and her prayer modeled on the biblical Hannah and her dedication of Samuel to the Lord’s work. Hauerwas clearly sees his mother’s prayer and God guiding him into his life as a theologian.
Hauerwas started his teaching at Augusta College (in Rock Island, IL where I lived from 6th grade to high school graduation.) From there he spent 10 years at Notre Dame and then the rest of his career at Duke. That progression and the different characters of the schools and the people around him really did shape him and that comes out clearly in the book. (After the book came out he retired from Duke in 2013 and was appointed to a Chair of Theological Ethics at the University of Aberdeen.)
The other part of his life that clearly shaped him was his over 20 year marriage to a severely mentally ill wife. Eventually she left him. The marriage was often emotionally abusive and draining and took a significant toll on his life. Hauerwas was primary caregiver to their son and sole breadwinner for much of their marriage. And his role as father to his son was a grace and solace throughout the marriage.
Hannah’s Child speaks candidly about the problems of the marriage and his role in them, but without being lurid. Eventually there was a divorce and Hauerwas’ later romance and marriage also plays a significant role in the second half of his life.
Theologically Hauerwas is unique. He has been significantly shaped by his relationship to John Yoder and his pacifism. I appreciate that he spends some time later in the book discussing Yoder’s sexual abuse of women. I am not sure his discussion is sufficient, but I am glad that he at least talked about it.
The other significant theological part of his life is his relationship to the local church. He was Methodist growing up. He went to a college Lutheran church at Augusta. Then the Catholic Notre Dame chapel and then a Methodist community church while he was at Notre Dame. At Duke he was involved in Episcopal and Methodist churches, mostly small and community oriented. He speaks clearly to how much local churches have influenced him and have been important to him. But also about how frequently he has moved from church to church.
Part of what I find interesting in Hannah’s Child is how he talks about not being really sure he was a Christian until years into his time as a theology and ethics professor. In general people go into theology because they have clear connection with faith. In Hauerwas’ case, he seems to have not really thought that much about individual faith or God until later.
I am not sure this really was the book of wisdom that I was looking for. But I am certainly glad that I read it. Like Oden’s memoir, there is a lot of discussion about his theological development and a lot of name dropping (because people matter to who we become as Christians.) But I do not have a good handle on his theology so some of this was to be endured until I got to another point where I connected.
What I found important here is the clear working out of faith over time. Many memoirs (especially Christian ones) point back to how they really had things together. Hauerwas points back to many of his weaknesses to show how he did not have things together and that can be very helpful as well.