STANLEY HAUERWAS and William Willimon are not shy Christians. Nor
is the message of these two Duke University theologians a meek and
mild one: It is a strident warning. Christianity, they say, has been
so busy in recent decades trying to please the world and accommodate
the world's habits and tastes, that churches are in danger of losing
"Being a Christian is not just synonymous with being a good human
being," says Dr. Willimon in a Monitor interview. "It's more serious
Much of what Drs. Hauerwas, a professor of theological ethics,
and Willimon, the Duke University chaplain and professor of
ministry, object to is a vague drift in the mainline American
churches away from what makes them distinctively Christian.
The drift is nothing new, they say. It has taken place through
much of the 20th century. Mainline Protestant theology is often less
concerned with God than with immediate social and personal needs.
Pastors and theologians have sought new languages to speak to reach
the children of a more scientific age.
Yet the two renegade theologians - both of them Southern-born
baby-boomers educated at Yale, both from the Methodist tradition -
say the "secular" church approach has failed.
The heart of the failure, they argue, is that the experiment to
make church and theology more "relevant" and "modern" has actually
made the basic Christian message of God and His healing and saving
Christ less relevant.
In a much-copied Christian Century article titled "Embarrassed by
God's Presence" (September 1984), the pair wrote about a "new mood"
they felt: "Ultimately, it all comes down to the issue of the
centrality of God's presence. The central problem for our church,
its theology, and its ethics is that it is simply atheistic. It
builds its social structures on the presupposition that God doesn't
really matter. We endow pensions for our clergy and devise
strategies for church growth as if God were not here."
Such comments have made the pair both popular and controversial -
and a hot topic in divinity schools. The thesis of the Christian
Century piece has been expanded into a book: "Resident Aliens: A
Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People
who Know That Something Is Wrong" (Nashville: Abingdon Press), has
sold 23,000 copies since August. That's a raging best-seller in a
market of scholarly religious books, where 5,000 copies sold is
The book questions conventional Christian ideas about language,
politics, belief, prayer, theology, ministry, economics, and what
Hauerwas says is the prime mistake of Christianity since Roman
emperor Constantine's mass conversions in 313 AD: the effort to make
the gospel credible to the world's powers-that-be.
Accordingly, "Resident Aliens" is loaded with rhetorical salvos
such as: "The Bible finds uninteresting many of our modern
preoccupations with whether or not it is still possible for modern
people to believe. The Bible's concern is whether or not we shall be
faithful to the gospel, the truth about the way things are now that
God is with us through the life, cross, and resurrection of Jesus of
Or: "We argue that the political task of Christians is to be the
church rather than to transform the world.... The most creative
social strategy we have to offer is the church. Here we show the
world a manner of life the world can never achieve through social
coercion or governmental action."
Some critics say Hauerwas and Willimon come across like
fundamentalists - a tag they reject. They are not theological
liberals or conservatives, they say, but "radical followers of
As Hauerwas says, "If you talk about justice, that's OK. It's
Jesus people don't want you to talk about."
Too many pastors and denominations have given up on theology, on
the church's distinctive place in culture, and even on their
congregations, the two argue. …