Book Review – Unsettling Arguments

The following is a review submitted to Canadian Mennonite.  It is my attempt at short, concise review coming in just over 500 words.  I would welcome any comments on the book or the review format itself.

Pinches, Charles R., Kelly S. Johnson, and Charles M Collier. (2010) Unsettling Arguments: A Festschrift on the Occasion of Stanley Hauerwas’s 70th Birthday. Cascade Books.

Unsettling Arguments is a collection of essays honouring the life and work Stanley Hauerwas on the occasion of his 70th birthday.  A potential reader might assume that some familiarity with Hauerwas would be in order to appreciate these contributions.  However, I found that working through the book not only served as an overview to Hauerwas’s thinking but read almost like a primer in theological ethics considering the breadth of work spanning his career.  The range of topics sprawled from medical ethics, to political theory, to hermeneutics, and beyond.  Indeed, there is even a chapter on a topic that Hauerwas has not written extensively on (racism) asking whether his silence in fact tells us something.

What held these chapters together is that Hauerwas is a person of practice.  Things cannot be known (particularly in ethics) apart from their embodied practices and the relationship those practices are set within.  The church cannot speak to the dignity of the human body without also walking alongside those cast off as undignified.  Theologians cannot speak for the church unless it is somehow reflected through their practices in the church.  Each chapter explored how Hauerwas has and at times has not pushed the church to reconsider her practices.

As the title suggests this collection is not simply a chorus of praise for Hauerwas.  Well, perhaps it is, in that Hauerwas is known for introducing provocative, controversial and critical elements into any given exchange.  And so in each chapter we find authors reading against the grain of Hauerwas’s contribution to a particular field of study looking for gaps, inconsistencies or counter-arguments.  If there is a failing to this approach it is that the chapters become formulaic so the reader finds that often where there is a perceived gap Hauwerwas actually makes up for it another, unexpected, area.  For instance, Jana Marguerite Bennett agrees that feminists have a legitimate criticism against Hauerwas’s work but only to the extent that they ignore his work on the disabled.

Chapter 4 by J. Alexander Sider on the question of personal happiness in Hauerwas’s social ethics may stand as the best approach to this critical engagement.  Hauerwas, influenced heavily by John Howard Yoder, consistently downplays the role of personal happiness subjecting it to the life and activity of the church in which true love and fulfillment are understood and entered into.  In one of the most personally poignant chapter Sider observes that in this area Hauerwas does not always preach what he practices revealing Hauerwas, the person, who does indeed care deeply about individual health and happiness.  The chapter ends with a standing challenge for Hauerwas to further integrate his practice and theory.

Hauerwas is not only one of the most influential public theologians writing in English but, through his significant relationship with John Howard Yoder, is also a person who has accomplished as much any to put Anabaptist thought and practice on a larger stage.  For better or worse we in the Mennonite Church are associated with Hauerwas and we would do well to continue to learn from him so that we could effectively read for and against him and continue the conversation on what it means to practice being the church faithfully.

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