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Stanley M. Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, The Truth about God: The Ten Commandments in Christian Life, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999, 144 pp.

This is the first in a series of four books about the Ten Commandments, which I purchased and read simultaneously, week by week, while I was preaching a sermon series on that topic. The sermons can be found here, June 22 through July 27. The rest of the book reviews will be posted sequentially here. 

Truth About GodI posted this on Facebook midway through this book:

I keep reading their (Hauerwas & Willimon’s) books, but I need to stop. For every compelling and enlightening sentence, there are two that make me want to throw it against the wall. There’s some good stuff in there, but it’s all so tangled up with garbage. The chapter on adultery was ridiculously bad and out of touch. Oh, the arrogance! The arrogance of these two!

This remains my assessment of the book as a whole.

First, some of the good stuff. Hauerwas and Willimon’s take on the Ten Commandments is that they are a central showcase for God’s saving work in the world. True to their Methodist roots, they see obedience to the commandments as a path toward sanctification, a response to God’s grace with a willingness to follow.

We live by the commandments as a way of worshiping the true God. When we thus worship the true God, we show forth to the world the sort of people God is able to produce. (17)

This makes the commandments not a generalized set of rules that apply to everyone, but a unique covenant initiated by God in relationship to the people.

God knows that Israel, left to its own devices in the wilderness, is prone to reestablish Pharoah’s rule in different forms. So the commandments are given as a basis for a radically alternative society that is counter to all that the empire demands. (27)

We don’t need God–we worship God. That is the first commandment, to stop attempting to get something out of God and instead to bend our lives toward God. (34)

Unfortunately, this interesting chapter quickly becomes a screed against scholars who question how this exclusionary God can hamper interfaith relationships, against a major denominational leader who questions Jesus’ divinity, and even (somehow) against parents who help their teenagers access birth control. As I said, for every good point, there are two that make me want to throw the book into a wall.

There were two main reasons I kept reading. First, Hauerwas and Willimon did detailed research that saved me a lot of work. Each chapter addresses one commandment, and they quote extensively from Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther and other historical theologians. It is helpful to read those commentaries without having to track them down separately. Second, there remained regular appearances of good and insightful observations, like these:

On “Thou Shall Not Kill”: They (the Religious Right) seize upon the Ten Commandments as a universal, general code of conduct for every thinking American and forget how exceptional the community is rendered by the Decalogue. That our society is so terribly violent is in great part the result of the church’s failure to be a community of nonviolence as a byproduct of our worship of the God of peace. (88-89)

On “Thou Shall Not Bear False Witness”: The church must be a testimony that the truth is known by people who have learned how to trust one another through sharing goods, committing one another to lifelong fidelity, the practice of nonviolence, who do these things because they know they are creatures of a gracious God who would have them worship him in truth. (123)

However, you must also put up with obnoxious, arrogant and clueless conclusions they draw. The chapter on adultery is especially heinous.

The only good Christian reason to get married is the conviction that you can live out your baptismal vocation better within marriage than without. Furthermore, we believe that love is the fruit of marriage, the result of our faithful commitment to one another rather than its cause. (98)

The term “planned parenthood” doesn’t quite fit how Christians ought to have children, for children are not our choice as much as they are God’s choice of us. (100)

You have never had good sex until you have had it with a Christian. (100)

However, it’s not limited to that one. They make gross generalizations about the misery of rich people and call out whole congregations for spoiling their children. Then you get this commentary on government, which somehow emerges from their commentary on lying.

There can be no freedom that does not acknowledge God. The Constitution attempted to construct a government without God… Democracy is an attempt to get around the necessity for a hierarchy of virtue by majority vote. (126-127)

So, there you go. Hauerwas and Willimon being their usual selves. They are full of scholarship and insight into the meaning of the commandments, in their richness and connection to God. They are also full of themselves and their own arrogant and outdated opinions, which they then try to argue emerge from the biblical text. My original Facebook assessment stands.

Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony: A provocative Christian assessment of culture and ministry for people who know that something is wrong, by Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Abingdon Press, 1989, 175 pp.

After borrowing its title for the opening sermon in my latest sermon series (entitled “Living in Tents”), I finally sat down to read this now-classic work of theology and ethics. It was difficult to read it without all the baggage of accumulated years of references to it, the associations with missional theology, the contentions over Christian superiority and more. However, it was rewarding to finally read this influential work for myself.

In this book Hauerwas and Willimon make the case (now familiar to many) that Christendom is dead. They argue that we should rightfully conceive of the church as a colony in alien territory. A colony has a mission—to build and grow its unique culture in the midst of foreign land, and to expand its influence over the people and environment around it. The authors argue that the church in the world is just such an entity—cultivating a countercultural set of values, trying to raise our young people into that culture, and trying to expand our influence over the people around us.

There is much in this book that is interesting and merits attention, and much attention has been paid in the two decades since its publication. The recognition of the church’s diminished influence, the call to see ourselves as countercultural, the attention to passing on unique values are worth repeating. However, the overarching metaphor of colonization remains troubling. In the wake of centuries of violence in the name of colonization, in a world where “colony” most often refers to the displacement and devaluation of local custom and destruction of all who disagree, I most certainly do not want to think of myself as a colonizer. It is also the case that extreme conservative and fundamentalist branches of Christianity have already adopted this self-identity as colonies, withdrawing from collective social institutions and isolating themselves and their children from wider American culture. I do not think this has been very good for democracy, nor good for Christianity.

One of the things that surprised me the most in this book was the strident tone it took throughout. Hauerwas and Willimon rail against both Niebuhr brothers, common mainline Protestant wisdom and general practices of congregations. It is that stridency that is both appealing and disconcerting. I want to passionately agree with many of their insights, but I am distrustful of their disregard and blatant dismissal of so many who came before them.

In the end, I’m glad I finally read it, but it did not make any difference in my preaching, even though I kept the title. (You can find the sermon here.)

About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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