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Revisiting a Modern Classic: Stanley Hauerwas’s “A Community of Character”

In celebration of Notre Dame Press’s 75th anniversary, we want to highlight some of our most impactful authors. Here, we honor theologian Stanley Hauerwas, whose work has changed the landscape in the world of theological ethics!

Anyone familiar with scholarship knows just how few books have a lasting influence on a discipline. In a way, this is a very good thing. After all, not every academic contribution can or should cause a paradigm shift in its field (imagine how dizzying academia would be otherwise!). Usually, scholarly interventions are measured and incremental—they slowly advance a discussion without upending it or refiguring it altogether.

Still, there are a few works that make an indelible mark on their field, serving as perennial touchpoints for future generations of thinkers.

Stanley Hauerwas’s A Community of Character (1981) not only fits this bill—it far transcends it. The book is considered a classic among scholars and general readers alike, having been named one of the top 100 “best religious books” of the 20th century by Christianity Today. By “best,” the article clarifies, it means “those [books] that not only were important when first published, but also have enduring significance for the Christian faith and church.”

Other notable titles selected for this list include popular works like C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain, as well as more surprising titles such as Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, Franz Kafka’s The Trial, Elie Wiesel’s Night, and W.E.B. Dubois’s The Souls of Black Folk. A star-studded cast, no doubt.

What is it about Hauerwas’s work that earned it a spot on this prestigious list?

Those who already know about Hauerwas are likely not surprised by this accolade, but for most people he is not exactly a household name. Raised in the United Methodist Church, Hauerwas writes as a Protestant theologian, drawing primarily from the traditions of Methodism, Anabaptism, and Anglicanism. While he is not currently in the limelight, he was once widely known among American Christians. In fact, in 2001, Time magazine published an article naming him “America’s Best Theologian.” Summarizing his influence, the article’s author calls Hauerwas “contemporary theology’s foremost intellectual provocateur.”

Hauerwas’s work is motivated by the conviction that theologians must enter into the fray of our world’s most pressing political and cultural issues, rather than hiding behind abstruse academic jargon. His contributions mainly speak to the discipline of political theology. His work is regarded for its emphasis on the radical message of Jesus, the ethical merits of pacifism, the limitations of liberal democracy, and—perhaps most centrally—the importance of community in Christian life.

It is this final topic that A Community of Character explores. Here, Hauerwas proposes a bold and indeed controversial thesis: that contemporary Christians have been duped by liberalism, nationalism, and patriotism. “The church,” he writes, “does not exist to provide an ethos for democracy or any other form of social organization, but stands as a political alternative to every nation, witnessing to the kind of social life possible for those that have been formed by the story of Christ.” In other words, the Christian church is called to form its own, counter-cultural community, molded by the story told in the Bible—not the story espoused by contemporary political philosophies.

A radical call, no doubt, but one that has resonated with countless Christians through the last four decades. And indeed, it is precisely this quality that makes A Community of Character such a remarkable book. After all, to produce a groundbreaking yet credible work of scholarship is a fine line to walk: practically anyone with enough gumption can propose an unthinkable idea, but it takes a true genius to make that idea plausible or even attractive.

For many Christians, scholars, and theologians, A Community of Character embodies just this quality.

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