Monthly Archives: December 2006

Performing the Faith as reviewed by Tobias Winright

Stanley Hauerwas, Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2004. pp. 252. $19.99 pb. ISBN 1-58743-076-2.
Reviewed by Tobias WINRIGHT, Saint Louis University, St. Louis, MO 63108

Crossposted on  Catholic Book Reviews

Named “America’s Best Theologian” by Time in 2001, Stanley Hauerwas regards himself rather as primarily a theologian of the church. Among his numerous books spanning three decades of theological writing, Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence is no exception in conveying this perspective.

Hauerwas, who is the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School, offers in this volume a stimulating reading of German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and theological politics which serves as a stage for both the refinement of some of Hauerwas’ more recent work (e.g., his Gifford Lectures, With the Grain of the Universe: The Church’s Witness and Natural Theology [Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2001]) and the reprise of some of the major themes (e.g., narrative) from earlier in his career. Included among the cast with whom Hauerwas often dialogues are Thomas Aquinas, Ludwig Wittgenstein, John Howard Yoder, Karl Barth, John Milbank, Archbishop Rowan Williams, Victor Preller, Alasdair MacIntyre, Oliver O’Donovan, and Jeffrey Stout. Center stage, however, is Hauerwas’ contention that what we proclaim and perform as a church is the truth we offer to a world permeated with lies.

While the subtitle and the photo of Bonhoeffer on the book’s cover could possibly mislead readers to expect from its first to last pages a treatment of Bonhoeffer’s life and theology, especially as these pertain to the subject of nonviolence, the title nonetheless indicates the major theme around which the book revolves. Divided into three major sections, the book’s second section, “Truthful Performances,” develops what Hauerwas has in mind by the book title’s opening words, Performing the Faith. The first third of the book, “Bonhoeffer on Politics and Truth,” obviously correlates with the subtitle’s reference to Bonhoeffer, and the final third of the book, “Performing Nonviolence,” thereby corresponds with the remaining part of the subtitle having to do with the practice of nonviolence. Throughout the book Hauerwas attempts “to develop the connections between truthfulness, nonviolence, and the process necessary for the discovery of goods in common rightly called politics” (17). Still, given that Bonhoeffer is not mentioned beyond page 72, Hauerwas perhaps should have connected the dots between these interrelated sections for some readers by devoting some attention in each of the subsequent chapters’ concluding section to the way in which they intersect with what he had to say about Bonhoeffer in the book’s introduction and initial two chapters.

A pivotal chapter (written with James Fodor of Saint Bonaventure University) of the book is “Performing Faith: The Peaceable Rhetoric of God’s Church,” which explores the analogies between theatrical and musical improvisation and embodying the Christ life in the world. Because Jesus Christ is God’s most defining performance, Christians too are called to become “holy performances” (86). While our performances are actually repeat performances of Christ’s singular performance, we nevertheless improvise along the way. Moreover, we rehearse during worship, which not only informs and forms us, but also performs us in a way that we in turn will perform in the world. As such, the church’s witness is not something constituted primarily by written and oral argument; rather, it has to do with a visibly incarnate life of discipleship. For Hauerwas, Bonhoeffer and his participation in the Confessing Church exemplified this sort of faithful performance.

Hauerwas admits he has always respected Bonhoeffer, but in reading and rereading much that Bonhoeffer had written (and some of the secondary literature), he noticed some similarities between Bonhoeffer and Yoder with regard to their concern for the church to manifest faithfully and visibly God’s will in the world. While there is certainly more to Bonhoeffer (and to Yoder), it is undeniable that this is an important point of contact, so Hauerwas’ presentation, in this reviewer’s assessment, “is not as crazy as it sounds” (18).

There are, however, a number of questions that arise and linger. Are Bonhoeffer’s thought and life, especially with regard to his participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler, really congruent with the kind of Christian nonviolence Hauerwas espouses? To be sure, Hauerwas raises doubts about whether we can know “how Bonhoeffer understood how this part of his life fit or did not fit with his theological convictions or his earlier commitment to pacifism” (36). While Hauerwas’ view is plausible, this reviewer remains unconvinced. As Hauerwas himself admits in one of the legion (though usually interesting) footnotes, it is unclear exactly what kind of pacifism Bonhoeffer represented or if his “christological pacifism required the disavowal of violence in every circumstance” (40). As Yoder pointed out, there are varieties of pacifism, and the type with which Yoder identified—a discipleship form of nonviolence that is unintelligible without the confession that Jesus is the Christ and that Jesus Christ is Lord—at times overlapped with and at other times diverged from the other types. Still, unlike Bonhoeffer, it seems, Yoder and Hauerwas draw a line at killing. Even so, the church, according to Hauerwas, cannot presume to know what does and does not count as “violence” (26), which is an odd claim to make by someone who so highly esteems tradition and narrative. The just-war tradition, for example, has a long (though still developing—sort of like improvisation?) history of attempting to distinguish between legitimate use of force and unjustified violence. Nevertheless, Hauerwas posits that pacifism cannot be explained but only witnessed. Why can it not be both?

Hauerwas adds that “Christians are never pacifists or just warriors, but rather first and foremost we are disciples of Jesus Christ” (26). Probably most Christian proponents of just war, this reviewer included, would agree. Just-war Christians should also be able to describe their stance in the way that Hauerwas reserves for pacifism: as a form of discipleship consisting of determinative practices and habituation that spark our imaginations to discover creative forms of life that are alternatives to violence. Couldn’t the just-war tradition function similarly, as a way of life leading to creative solutions, with the use of lethal force truly a last resort, rather than the standard view of the just-war tradition as basically a checklist of criteria? Moreover, some of society’s everyday practices that Hauerwas refuses to participate in, such as singing the “Star Spangled Banner” or “God Bless America,” are similarly refrained from by some just-war disciples, including this reviewer. Hauerwas also believes that in calling himself a pacifist he creates expectations to which other Christians will hold him accountable, but again the same could be said of a sincere just-war Christian. Finally, there are just-war theorists who would agree with Hauerwas when he expresses his view that he does “not believe that the esse of politics is coercion or violence” (202). In short, much of what Hauerwas writes about nonviolence can hopefully be said about just war, and as such perhaps Bonhoeffer, even though earlier he identified with pacifism, could be regarded as moving into a kind of just-war mode (without written and oral arguments, but by witnessing) when he cast his lot with the plot against Hitler.

In this book Hauerwas attempts to respond to questions readers have asked, and it is certain that another round of questions will ensue from this particular effort as well. For this, Hauerwas’ performance in the writing of this book is to be applauded, even by those who disagree or do not totally agree with him. Performing the Faith is most appropriate for academic libraries and for fellow theologians, but probably not for the uninitiated who has not previously read anything by Hauerwas.

Review of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel by Renate Wind

Dietrich BonhoefferDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel, by Renate Wind
Eerdmans, 2002.
Reviewed by Chris Rice

Renate Wind, a teacher of theology, biblical studies, and church history has written the most approachable biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer available today. Leave it to a woman to make an early twentieth century German scholar fresh, vibrant, and alive for this generation! In this little paperback we are introduced to our hero as if for the first time. We learn of what it was like to grow up in the home of Karl Bonhoeffer, a father “both sensitive and detached,” and what effect this had on Dietrich’s desire to know God.
Diary entries of his visit to Rome in April of 1924 provide a window into his first encounter with the church in a Catholic mass. “The whole thing was so fresh, and made an unprecedented impression of the deepest piety. . . I believe I am beginning to understand the concept of the ‘church.’” (p. 29)

Another of my favorite moments in the book takes place in “The Prophet’s Chamber” at Union Theological Seminary occupied successively by four theologians whose nations were getting ready for war. (Japan, Canada, the US, and Germany) “The German was Dietrich Bonhoeffer: he spent the most difficult and most tormenting weeks of his life in the Prophet’s Chamber. In June 1939 he was admitted and given a teaching post for the coming semester. At the beginning of July he packed his bag again and went back to Germany on the last ship before the outbreak of war. In the Prophet’s Chamber his successor found piles of cigarette butts and illegible notes. A diary has also been preserved from these weeks which indicates how much Dietrich fought with himself and his conflicting ideas and feelings.”(p. 127)</p>
In an earlier letter he had written “We ought to be found only where He is. We can non longer, in fact, be anywhere else than where He is. Whether it is you working over there or I working in America, we are all only where He is. He takes us with him. Or have I, after all avoided the place where He is? The place where He is for me?” (p. 137)

Each of the chapters in this book are short enough to make the story easy to follow. The writing provides a special sense of involvement that transcends the period. It would seem that Renate is taking liberties with her subject with the way his story becomes so personable, but all her references are verifiable with notes. She is bringing us close to Bonhoeffer with her prose and this is a real gift. A book of this type can’t really be compared with Eberhard Bethge’s larger biography except to say that somehow she has successfully brought those of us less willing to wade through the enormity of the available material into closer relation with the man himself.

Book review of Performing the Faith by Stanley Hauerwas

Performing the Faith : Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence

by Stanley Hauerwas
Brazos Press, 2004

Reviewed by Chris L. Rice

(Cross posted on A Desperate Kind of Faithful)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer represents a life of lived theology. His personal commitment to a way of doing theology that involved the whole person in a community of faith as witness to the confrontation of the Gospel can still inspire us today. Stanley Hauerwas leads us through his approach to truth-telling. To set the record straight, only the first two chapters of this book deal specifically with Bonhoeffer’s thought, but in those two chapters we find a blue print for understanding Bonhoeffer’s method of dealing with and speaking the truth, and the importance of the truth for a truly just society. The first chapter aims at understanding Bonhoeffer’s political ethics, which was not fully realized at the time of his execution. This is done by working with Bonhoeffer’s writings in Sanctorum Communio, Act and Being, Ethics, and letters surrounding his first trip to America found in No Rusty Swords.
The second chapter appropriates Bonhoeffer’s writings on truth to our conversations in public life. Again he uses letters but also the monumental work Ethics, which it must be admitted, has not been given its due.

Its clear that a big part of Stanley Hauerwas’ work is in the ebb and flow of language. In the introduction to Performing the Faith he dialogues with critics, tries to clarify his intentions, and even confesses when he uses some words wrongly. (p. 22 “metaphors, maybe, but certainly not symbols”) This book gives me hope that politics, theology, and ethics can be both academic and practical. Hauerwas is hopelessly academic—he is far too well read not to be—but he desires practicality above all and to be of service to the Church and our country. He almost makes pacifism attractive and believable. When he writes,

“pacifism is just too “passive” and nonviolence too dependent on being “not violence.”” We can only begin to understand the violence that grips our lives by being embedded in more determinative practices of peace—practices as common and as extraordinary as prayer and the singing of hymns”

I am ready to sign on, albeit as a self-proclaimed non-aggressionist. Whatever that means.

Stanley Hauerwas is no doubt one of America’s most controversial theologians. I must confess I was skeptical that he would try to make Bonhoeffer into his own image. Instead I found that Hauerwas has introduced some of the more complex aspects of Bonhoeffer’s theology into a very vibrant conversation about today’s political and ecclesial climate. He is one of the founding members of Ekklesia Project, which I’ve personally found to be a very stimulating ecumenical gathering of friends who bear witness to a Christian way of life that critiques and separates from the lust for violence and war within our culture.