A Better Hope: Resources for a church confronting capitalism, democracy and postmodernity

Written by Stanley Hauerwas Reviewed By Tim Vickers

This book is a strange blend of Hauerwas at his most brilliant, and also at his most confusing. First, let me explain the confusion. There is something about the style of A Better Hope that reads as if it is a collection of closely related essays yet at the same time, it is obviously intended to be something more than this. The almost-but-not-quite continuity, inspired by Hauerwas’ laterally challenging mind, makes interesting, but hard work. Individual chapters or sections of the book have much of interest to say, but upon arriving at their end one is repeatedly faced with the question, ‘So what?’

To add to the potential stylistic confusion, Hauerwas has written specifically for an audience that is well-versed in US contemporary theological scholarship. This discussion on the distinctive characters of some of the United States’ better known theology faculties, may helpfully demonstrate a range of possible opinion, but is limited in value by its anecdotal references and assumed knowledge that can leave you feeling left out of the joke. This is perhaps ironic as the main purpose laid out in the introductory chapters is to criticise the ‘Americanisation’ of the church—yet to the non-American this book is overtly Americanised itself.

There is, though, some brilliance in the book. Mostly this lies in the subtlety with which he approaches some of the big debates of our time—such as postmodernity or global capitalism; the call for Christianity to realise that it is bigger than either modernity or postmodernity, and to present its own meta-narrative; the need for Christians to present alternatives to the assumed wisdom of capital markets. These are easily woven into a conventional Hauerwas theme: for the distinctiveness of the church as the main concern of Christian teaching, reformation and witness. All the time, he wants Christians to realise that not only does being an American not automatically make them a Christian, but more importantly that being a Christian does not mean that they have to be blindly committed to all that is American.

Of course the centrality of the church in Hauerwas’ thinking is not unproblematic and he writes as someone who is obsessive about denominational distinctives as a means of describing different church attributes. So in arguing for the place of ethics as enjoying equal rank beside evangelism and witness and in describing ethics as theology, Hauerwas plots a somewhat obscure course between Protestant social gospel, Catholic liberal/conservative schism and Mennonite separatism. You can imagine that the end-place is distinctive, though it is certainly not new.

Besides this general plot, there are amusing paradigms in which Hauerwas challenges us to look at commonplace issues through tangential spectacles. One example of this is the brief discussion on capitalism, which takes place within an examination of the Methodist church’s attitude towards homosexuality and promiscuity. Another is his concluding chapter, which discusses the reading of detective stories as a means of exhorting his audience to live boldly for what they believe. I suspect that much of this fun and games derives from his desire to show the importance of ‘ethics of character’ alongside, or intrinsic within, the ethics of social phenomenon.

Overall, the two-sided message of the book is that Christians should be actively involved in the reformation of society, and that this drive for reformation should come from the church speaking its own distinctive Christian language in the public arena. This language always has to be centred on and developed from the Cross of Jesus, which in Hauerwas’ reasoning results in sacramental worship as the cornerstone of the church’s language, and as the primary tool of God’s grace.

This should not be the first book you ever read by Stanley Hauerwas, but it is both interesting and challenging—in style as well as content. It is thought-provoking, often contentious but far from conclusive.

Tim Vickers

London Institute for Contemporary Christianity